Monday, August 31, 2015

Stolen from the Suburbs (Us Against Them/Lifetime, 2015)

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

I watched another Lifetime “world premiere,” with the rather bland title Stolen from the Suburbs — leaving me wondering just what might have been stolen from the suburbs that a Lifetime filmmaker (in this case Alex Wright, who both wrote and directed the show) would be interested in depicting. It turned out it wasn’t a what, but a who: Emma (Sydney Sweeney), restive 16-year-old daughter of Kate (who oddly isn’t listed on the page for the film even though she’s playing the leading role!), a single mom who moved from Wisconsin to Los Angeles after her husband died and is so neurotically overprotective she freaks out when Emma tells her she wants to do horrible, perverted things like hang out at shopping malls and date boys. Before the main characters are introduced we get a scene showing the modus operandi of the ring of human traffickers who will ultimately “steal” Emma and her Black friend Courtney (Tetona Jackson) from the suburbs, kidnap them and hold them in what amounts to a boot camp for underage prostitutes of both sexes. Recruiter Johnny (the genuinely hot Mark Famiglietti — as usual with a hot guy in a Lifetime movie, the moment you meet him you know he must be up to no good) approaches a couple of homeless teens, one male and one female, who are hanging out under a lifeguard tower at a beach. He lures them out with promises of food, shelter and a place to clean up at the “Los Angeles Teen Shelter,” and claims there will be no police there and no curfew.

The two are suspicious but eventually agree to get into Johnny’s white van — whereupon two heavy-set thug types, Ivan (Rick McCallum) and Mike (Karl Dunster), grab them and tie them up. Johnny (who’s referred to as “Tom” on the film’s page — evidently there were some changes before the film was finished) is then told by Malena (also unidentified on but played by a quite good blonde actress who delivers a chilling portrait of matter-of-fact evil, especially later in the film when she explains to Kate that as far as she’s concerned the kidnapped children are just merchandise and all she cares about is the money) that homeless kids are already such damaged goods that they are of little use to her, and he needs to find her nice suburban teens. Johnny protests that such kids will be more difficult to recruit, but he accepts the marching orders and turns up at the mall to which Emma and Courtney have sneaked. Johnny has already got Courtney to accept him as her boyfriend, and to lure Emma he’s brought along a skinnier, less openly attractive but still cute guy named Adam — but when Emma tells mom she’s been with a boy named Adam, Kate grounds her and says she’s not allowed to see boys unless mom meets and vets them first. Emma escapes from her room and heads for the mall, where Adam — who we’re not sure at first whether he’s a member of the ring or an innocent victim himself — gives her a drugged drink and turns her over to Ivan and Mike in the same sleazy white van we saw in the opening sequence. From then on the film cuts back and forth between the sex slaves’ boot camp Malena and the two thugs are running, and the demoralizing and brutal treatment they put their charges through (in the days of U.S. slavery the process of breaking down the captives’ will and forcing them to accept their fate was called “seasoning”), and Kate’s increasingly desperate attempts to find her daughter and to get the police detectives assigned to the case, Richmond (Neill Barry) and Cordoba (Sabrina Perez), to give a damn. Stolen from the Suburbs suffers from didacticism — a more subtle filmmaker than Alex Wright might have been able to create a story in which mom’s very overprotectiveness lures Emma to the dark side and shown a longer seduction process before she realizes what her “boyfriend” really wanted from her (in real life the pimps who do this sort of recruiting can spend weeks getting their victims to the point where they’re so convinced the pimps “love” them that they’re willing to turn tricks to show their own affection), but instead he seems to be saying, “Girls, when your mother tells you not to date guys she hasn’t met, just follow her orders, or you’ll end up a sex slave!”

It also suffers from some pretty gaping plot holes and the usual loose ends of sloppy thriller writers — including a hint that the sex traffickers have a “mole” inside the police department, presumably someone they’ve bribed, which Wright forgets almost as soon as he’s introduced it — and the outrageous plot contrivance that Kate decides to infiltrate the prostitution ring by posing as a Lesbian customer interested in buying Courtney’s services. (Emma hasn’t been listed on the traffickers’ Web postings — which, we’re told, go on above-ground sites like Craigslist disguised as ads from aspiring actors — because she’s still a virgin and therefore the mysterious “Syndicate” that runs the trafficking ring is saving her for a “special” customer.) There’s even a scene early on in which Kate, who works for a building contractor, tears down a missing-child poster from a tree near the latest project her boss is developing — he’s told her to because advertising that children go missing from the neighborhood would be bad business for the developer — and the volunteer who runs the agency that put up the poster upbraids her and asks, “What if it was your daughter?” Eventually the volunteer and Kate team up to run down the traffickers; they find Adam and Kate nearly kills him by withholding the rescue inhaler he needs, but once they’ve got him to talk a well-aimed shot by Johnny (who, in addition to his other sordid skills, also appears to be a talented sniper) takes him out for good, so Kate and the volunteer child-saver won’t have a live witness they can bring to the police. For all its messiness, Stolen from the Suburbs is actually quite a good thriller; Wright manages to sustain the suspense until the end (an all-out shootout at the traffickers’ compound, which seemed difficult to believe — an ending in which they leave the girls behind but escape themselves would have been both more chilling and more believable, but then movie traffickers, like movie drug lords, engage in more and nastier violence than their real-life counterparts and do an awful lot of shooting that wouldn’t be in their best interests in the real world) and we’re genuinely in doubt as to how it’s going to turn out and whether mom will save her daughter in time. Stolen from the Suburbs is gripping filmmaking and well worth watching, and if Alex Wright can give himself a cleaner and more coherent script next time (or get someone else to write one for him), his future films should also be worthwhile entertainment.

Sunday, August 30, 2015

Fatal Flip (Lifetime, 2015)

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

I watched last night’s Lifetime “world premiere,” a film called Fatal Flip, a pretty routine production from that channel — it was also shot under the working title The Fixer Upper but if Christine Conradt had written it (she didn’t, though it might have been better if she had!) she would have called it The Perfect Handyman. Jeff (Michael Steger) and Alex (Dominique Swain), a young (straight) couple who’ve been living together but have avoided even getting formally engaged, much less married (perhaps they’ve just got “engaged to be engaged,” like that couple in an insane marriage-and-family audio-visual film from Coronet in the 1950’s the Mystery Science Theatre 3000 people famously mocked), decide to take out a loan, buy a dilapidated house somewhere (this is nominally taking place in New England but, being a Lifetime production, it was almost certainly shot in Canada), fix it up themselves and then “flip” it — sell it to someone else for a higher price that will cover the loan and their expenses. Only because of the terms of the loan, if they can’t finish the job and resell the house in 45 days they’re going to be socked with heavy interest penalties and will lose so much on the deal they’ll probably have to declare bankruptcy. They quickly realize they’re in over their heads on the repair job, and one day at the analogue of Home Depot in this fictional world they run into Nick (Mike Faiola), an all-purpose handyman.

Jeff cuts a deal with Nick to hire him to help them with the remodel in exchange for a share of the profits they expect from flipping the house, and since he’s homeless part of the deal is that he can live in the house while they do the job. There seem to be only two other significant characters, both women: the realtor (or is that “RealtorTM”?) who sold them the house (unidentified, at least this early, on’s cast list), and Alex’s friend Roslyn (Tatiana Ali — the only cast member I’ve heard of before), whose plot function is obscure but who at least provides some nice eye candy for any straight guys who might be watching this. Both the women are instantly attracted to Nick and they even make a bet with each other over who can get him first, but Nick is casting lascivious eyes at Alex and challenging her to go to bed with him just to prove she wants something more than the boring life she’s trying to escape (both she and Jeff worked at a law firm and turned in their notices simultaneously to take their flyer into fixer-upper-land). Of course, being a reasonably attractive man in a Lifetime movie, he’s also got other quirks: we see him having phone conversations with a woman with whom he’s presumably in cahoots in some sort of scheme that involves latching on to a young couple attempting to fix up and “flip” a house, joining their project, acing them out of the house and killing them in the process. (In the “teaser” opening we’ve seen Nick sealing up a wall in a previous project and we hear the muffled screams of the woman he’s sealed up inside — so at one point writers Maureen Bharoocha, who also directed, and Ellen Huggins had read Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Cask of Amontillado” and decided it would be fun to do that plot twist in a modern context.)

It’s only at the end that we learn Nick was only having those phone calls in his imagination; he was really a carpenter who lost his own house via foreclosure and responded by freaking out, killing his wife by suffocating her with a piece of plastic sheeting, sealing her in the walls of the house he was being forced to vacate, and setting off in search of other people with whom he can relive this scenario. Alex’s Black friend Roslyn exits about two-thirds of the way through when she lets Nick take her up to his redoubt in the house’s attic and fuck her brains out, only in the morning she wakes up before he does and finds a business card of his with another name on it; she goes on a (fictitious) Internet search engine and digs up the truth about Nick, but when (like a stupid character in a 1930’s movie) she confronts him directly — she’s gone to the house hoping to warn Jeff and Alex, but that’s the night they’ve picked to do a “date night” and so Nick is the only one there — he smothers her in a big piece of plastic sheeting and leaves her body in the basement for later disposal. It creaks to a close when Nick makes an outright pass at Alex, she turns him down, Jeff gives Nick a week’s notice, then Nick spies on Alex through a crack in the walls as she’s taking a bath (using an elaborate plumbing fixture from the house’s original 19th century equipment Nick had successfully restored) and comes in on her while she’s naked in the tub. Naturally she resists, and just then Jeff comes in on them and orders Nick off the property immediately. Nick responds by sneaking into their circuit breakers and breaking them all so the house’s electrical power will cut out and they’ll be unable to turn it back on — and when they go into the basement to fix it, he’s waiting for them with murderous intentions. Only somehow Jeff and Alex are able to overpower him and Alex smothers him in the plastic sheeting, but isn’t able to kill him; while they’re waiting for the cops to arrive he manages to escape, and the final shot is of him in another city (but still dressed in the same plaid flannel shirt and blue jeans he was wearing when he was introduced), approaching another young man in a big hardware store to pull the scam again …  

Fatal Flip is a pretty straightforward Lifetime movie, neither as bad as some of them nor as good as others, and though director Bharoocha gets some nice Gothic effects during the silent scenes in which Nick is sinisterly stalking Jeff and Alex through the crumbling old pile they’re trying to restore into something saleable, she’s hamstrung by the weaknesses of her cast. By far the best sequence is the marvelous soft-core porn scene between Nick and Roslyn — and its interracial aspect just adds a thrilling frisson — staged in such a way that suggests he’s just one of those stick-it-in-and-get-off kinds of guys who is out for his own pleasure no matter how much he roughs up his partner in the process, while she seems happy with him that way, the rougher the better. (It’s interesting that we get this subtle and dramatic insight into her sexual desires when we learn virtually nothing about what she’s like outside the bedroom.) It doesn’t help that Mike Faiola as Nick is a reasonably attractive man but hardly the drop-dead gorgeous babe-magnet the script tells us he is, or that as his rival Jeff Michael Steger looks like the result of a bizarre genetic experiment that attempted to cross-breed Harry Langdon and Tim Allen. (He’s actually got a nice bod — and in the basket-to-basket department he seems better hung than Faiola — but his face is pretty homely and too undefined to sit on top of the rest of him.) I can’t really tell you how good these people are as actors since the script doesn’t require much from them in the way of acting, but I suspect there’s a reason Tatiana Ali is the only cast member here you’re likely to have heard of before!

Saturday, August 29, 2015

Sunday in the Park with George (Brandman Productions, The Shubert Organization, American Playhouse, 1985)

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

The “feature” Charles and I watched last Thursday night was Sunday in the Park with George, a 1985 video presentation of the original Broadway production of the musical I consider Stephen Sondheim’s greatest work. Indeed, if he’d done nothing else for the theatre — no lyrics to Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story and Jule Styne’s Gypsy, no A Little Night Music, Company, Follies, Sweeney Todd or Into the Woods — this one show would establish him as one of the all-time giants of musical theatre. Sunday in the Park with George was Sondheim’s first collaboration with writer James Lapine after years of working with Hugh Wheeler (a partnership that broke up in the wake of the failure of Merrily We Roll Along, their adaptation of a 1934 George S. Kaufman play about a love affair, told backwards — beginning with the couple breaking up and ending with their first meeting — though they had been warned because the 1934 original had been a flop, too), and for the first act they told the story of the real-life French painter Georges Seurat (1859-1891) and the creation of his most famous work, “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte.” A few explanatory titles at the beginning of the video explain that the Grande Jatte was a resort frequented in the 1880’s mostly by working-class Parisians, though occasionally members of the upper class would go out there as unobtrusively as possible on what in the U.S. in the 1920’s became known as “slumming” trips. The show’s acknowledgment says it is “a work of fiction inspired by the art of Seurat and what little is known of his life,” and to that end Lapine invented the female lead of Dot (Bernadette Peters, turning in a far finer performance than she did in the next Sondheim/Lapine show, Into the Woods, because a more realistic character gave her far more to work with), who’s both Seurat’s mistress and his model.

In the opening scene he’s sketching her as one of the figures he intends to have appear in the “Grande Jatte” painting and he’s rudely telling her to keep still while she sings of her discomfort over her “Sunday in the park with George.” The first act is about an hour and a half long and deals both with Seurat’s work and with the “regulars” and semi-“regulars” at the Grande Jatte whom he incorporates into the painting, including a pair of soldiers (one of whom is a live actor, Robert Westenberg, while the other is a cardboard cut-out, life-size and painted in Seurat’s style, one of the sometimes annoying little “arch” touches that afflict Sondheim’s musicals), a prominent artist and critic named Jules (Charles Kimbrough) who praises Seurat’s work to his face and disses it behind his back, an old woman (Barbara Bryne) who turns out to be Seurat’s mother, her nurse (Judith Moore), a couple of women who cruise the soldiers, a boatman (William Parry) who has a proletarian’s attitude of contempt for anyone with more money or status than he, an obnoxious little girl with glasses and others. The act artfully alternates between Seurat (Mandy Patinkin, coming off his star-making role in Barbra Streisand’s Yentl and turning in an otherwise good performance that’s just a bit too Jewish to be credible as a 19th century Parisian artist — though I looked up the Wikipedia page on the real Seurat and the photo there looks strikingly like Patinkin in the show) creating and controlling this world of people who are going to become the characters in his painting, and the real people themselves, with their own ambitions, attitudes and actions. The central conflict is between Seurat, Dot and Louis the baker (Cris Groenendaal), who’s also after her and who seems like a much better match — at least he pays attention to her and doesn’t just ignore her when he’s not telling her to hold still in one uncomfortable position after another — and there’s an ironic Sondheim lyric in which Dot compares the two men in her life and says Louis is also an artist, only his artworks are far more popular and are immediately enjoyed by their consumers.

The conflict ends with a heart-wrenching duet between Seurat and Dot called “We Do Not Belong Together,” and apparently in this performance it was so heart-rending it got to Bernadette Peters personally and she cried through so much of it the producers decided her vocal was unusable and she had to dub her own voice in post-production. Dot leaves Seurat and marries Louis even though she’s pregnant with Seurat’s child, and a typically ugly American couple who are visiting Paris and are singularly unimpressed with everything but its pastries hire Louis to come to the U.S. with them and make those spectacular French baked goods for them in America. Of course, he brings Dot and “their” child, a daughter whom Dot names Marie because she’s been teaching herself to read out of a red-bound primer in which all the women mentioned in the examples are named Marie. (“Why is she always Marie?” Dot complains, though later she gives that name to her daughter.) The hour-long Act Two deals with a modern young artist named George (Mandy Patinkin) who creates works he calls “chromolumes” (after “chromoluminarianism,” one of the terms Georges Seurat coined for his painting style, though the name for it that has entered the art history books is “pointillism”). The chromolume we get to see in action is his Number 7, which looks like a statue of R2-D2 topped with a large glass globe that shows holograms while the rest of the machine puts on a light show — only when it’s exhibited by the museum that commissioned it as an homage to Seurat’s “Grande Jatte” painting (the museum is unnamed but the real “Grande Jatte” is part of the permanent collection of the Art Institute of Chicago) the creation puts such a drain on the museum’s circuits it shorts out and the display comes to an abrupt and unscheduled end. When they fix the technical glitches and it resumes, it turns out to be a sort of holographic biodoc on Seurat and the creation of “La Grande Jatte,” and in what’s become the best-known song from the show (and virtually the only one performed out of context), “Putting It Together,” the modern-day George laments at how many sponsors are required for him to create anything and how he can’t work until the financial package behind him is set.

Indeed, the reception for him after his display is more a networking opportunity than anything else, and the actors who played the characters in Seurat’s painting and his life in Act One reappear as typically pretentious would-be patrons, critics and assistants, one of whom tells George that after this project he’s leaving the art world and returning to his calmer, less stressful former job with NASA. The featured guest at George’s opening was his grandmother Marie (Bernadette Peters), who keeps insisting that he is the great-grandson of Georges Seurat — which he refuses to believe for reasons Lapine’s script keeps hauntingly ambiguous, though we get the impression that’s a family burden he doesn’t want the challenge of living up to and which would just add to the already large number of stressors in his life. George (the modern one) gets an invitation to present his chromoluminarian homage to Seurat on the actual site of the Grande Jatte, which turns out to have been heavily developed and full of aggressively ugly apartment buildings, and though his grandmother Marie has died by then, he meets up with the spirit of his great-grandmother Dot (she’s still played by Bernadette Peters, whose performance here is much stronger than the one she gave in the next Sondheim-Lapine show, Into the Woods: apparently playing a realistic character with human emotions and motivations turned her on a lot more than playing a fairy-tale witch) and she re-energizes him to do something new with his art — it’s never explained exactly what, but the big duet between them, “Move On,” is essentially a continuation of “We Do Not Belong Together” only with the opposite message: they do belong together, even as inspirations spanning the generations rather than real people living at the same time. What’s more, Dot’s appearance enables George finally to come to grips with his legacy as Seurat’s great-grandson and to understand that the mysterious words scrawled by Dot in the back pages of that red-backed grammar primer — “Order. Design. Tension. Balance. Harmony” — were her transcription of Seurat’s artistic credo.

I’ve seen this presentation of Sunday in the Park with George several times and every time I’ve found it utterly magical. The first time was with my late roommate, who watched it on HBO when he was still getting premium channels and much to my irritation turned it off after half an hour after I had got totally engrossed in it. The second time was when it was rebroadcast on PBS and I recorded it on Betamax, a tape I later showed to my late partner John Gabrish. I had worried it might be too recherché a story for him, but it turned out John had a personal connection to the painting: he was from Sheboygan, Wisconsin but had lived much of his life in Milwaukee. The distance between Milwaukee and Chicago is about the same as that between San Diego and Los Angeles, so people in Milwaukee wanting a culture fix from a first-class city go to Chicago the way San Diegans go to L.A. — so John had seen the original painting at the Art Institute many times and the story came alive for him because he knew the work so well. For me, I had a quite different reaction; when I’d seen slides of the “Grande Jatte” in art history class in junior college I had reacted much the way the artist and critic Jules does in Lapine’s script: I had found it dull and emotionless. Seurat’s painting technique was to use a restricted number of colors and apply his paint in the form of little dots over the canvas so the eye would blend them together and see more and different colors than were there in the actual paint. (Ironically, a color TV image is essentially created the same way: what we were watching when we ran this DVD was a series of dots — “pixels” — of colored light, either red, yellow, blue or black, which the eye blends into a whole palette of really existing colors. In a sense, the entire technique of halftoning that allowed photographs to be reproduced in print and then allowed TV first to exist at all and then to exist in color is an homage to Seurat, who in real life had read works on color theory, including the one by French author and chemist Michel Eugène Chevreul, who invented the color wheel.) That’s one reason why he created so few works — he spent two years on “La Grande Jatte” and the credits to this show claim only seven Seurat paintings exist (though his Wikipedia page shows at least 12) — before his death at 31. Other artists, from Van Gogh to Basquiat, may have died equally young but they produced a lot more works in the time they had! So for me Sunday in the Park with George gave me a greater appreciation of Seurat’s work than I’d had before. Later I ran the tape for Charles, who didn’t like it — this time around he enjoyed it more than he had before, though he still isn’t as impressed by the show as I am.

I think it’s a work of utter magic, and though it won the Pulitzer Prize for drama it was snubbed by the Tony Awards, who gave Best Musical that year to La Cage aux Folles (obviously influenced by the social daring of doing a musical in which the central characters are a middle-aged Gay couple, though in all other aspects La Cage aux Folles is a depressingly ordinary musical farce with almost none of the depth, richness, artistic quality and insight of Sunday in the Park with George) — and this production enables us to watch this magnificent piece with the actors for whom Sondheim and Lapine created it. Patinkin and Peters are marvelous; yes, there are times (especially during the big duets) during which I found myself wishing to hear what weightier, more operatic voices might do with Sondheim’s songs (which isn’t always how Sondheim himself wants them performed: I remember reading how many singers, including Sarah Vaughan, work their asses off to take the long lines of his best-known song, “Send In the Clowns” from A Little Night Music, without pausing for breath in the middle — only Sondheim said in an interview that since the song is performed in the show by an actress playing an older woman, he expected the singers to pause for breath and didn’t necessarily want the song sung with the superb breath control Sarah Vaughan brought to it even when she was no longer young), but I also love this show and appreciate the honest, natural performing style Patinkin and Peters brought to the leads. Indeed, though the music-to-talk ratio in Sunday in the Park with George is far more skewed to talk over music than the one for Into the Woods, Sunday in the Park with George is considerably better constructed musically, with strains from the various songs used effectively as leitmotifs and the always awkward transitions from speaking to singing handled smoothly (far more so than in Violet, the recent musical I just saw “live,” where the plot was strong and the songs were good but the junctures between them were so crude as to be wince-inducing). One minor quibble: the arrangements of the songs played on stage used only eight musicians, and the orchestrations by Michael Starobin sound a bit thin — especially by comparison with the original-cast album, for which Starobin beefed up his arrangements for more musicians and a bigger “sound” that would work better on records. Sunday in the Park with George — despite that silly title (maybe it would have been taken more seriously if it had had a name like Art Isn’t Easy, a phrase repeated many times in Lapine’s script) — is a masterpiece, an absolutely magical work, and this performance is a document of the original production and is fully worthy of it.

Vera: “The Deer Hunters” (Independent Television Service/American Public Television, 2014)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2015 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved
I got back just in time to watch Vera, the latest episode (at least for U.S. distribution) of this quite interesting British policier featuring veteran actress Brenda Blethyn as Vera Stanhope, head of the local police in Northumberland in the moor country towards the north of England. The episode was called “The Deer Hunters” and had one of those typically convoluted British mystery plots in which the murder victim — shown in the opening scenes already dead but appearing “live” in flashbacks — is Shane Thurgood, who recently moved back to his native village after a checkered career in which he published a well-received first novel, Queen Mab’s Jest, which was evidently autobiographical (it contained a dedication, “For Whom It Did Concern”), but typically got blocked on his second one and left behind only a file on his laptop and two notebooks full of virtually incomprehensible handwriting apparently containing the material for his sequel. All this is happening on the Thurgood family’s ancestral property and the adjacent holdings of the Peyton family, headed by Will (Richard Dillane) and his wife Clara (Lisa Kay), who are keeping up the place by hosting “stalking” tours in which hunters are allowed to chase after the deer on their lands but not kill them — though, not surprisingly, the large number of deer around have attracted poachers who do want to kill them. The Peytons’ prize attraction is a mystery stag whom they refer to in their advertising posters as “The Emperor Hadrian” (for those of you less up on Roman imperial history, the real Emperor Hadrian was the one who in the first century C.E. finally conquered the British Isles for Rome after previous attempts, including Julius Caesar’s, had failed) though the Peytons, recognizing how pretentious a name that is for a deer, refer to him as “Brian.”

Suspicion falls first on the Peytons’ gamekeeper Allen Barnes (Clive Russell) and his two daughters, one of whom is Clara Peyton and the other is a single woman named Sass (short for “Saskia) (Charlotte Hope). Suspicion also falls on the Colleys, husband Donald (Robert Morgan) and wife Bella (Anna Francolini), who published Shane Thurgood’s first novel and paid his rent in hopes of leaving him alone to write a second one — though they’re also under suspicion themselves for tax irregularities writer Steve Coombes (whose script is based on characters created by Ann Cleves — it’s often a bad sign when shows like this are based not on the original author’s stories but on ones cooked up by the TV producer’s own writers) doesn’t stop his thriller plot long enough to explain. In fact, suspicion falls on a lot of people — like most British mystery writers, Coombes tends to err in the direction of creating too many suspects rather than (the American weakness) too few — and it’s hard to keep track of them all, though at the end the killer is revealed to be Allen Barnes’ third child, son Louis (Aiden Nord), a queeny little twink who was ridiculed by his dad and the Peytons for not being good at the “stalking” game. He claimed to have seen the Emperor Hadrian but no one else believed him, and when Shane challenged him while Louis was holding a gun, they struggled, the gun went off and Shane bit the big one. I’ve seen better episodes of Vera but the central character is still a treat — as is Brenda Blethyn’s portrayal of her — and the show’s producers had the smarts to surround her with good-looking guys, including her assistant Joe Ashworth (David Leon, who alas left the show after this 2014 season) and a tall, striking-looking blond who works in Vera’s office and is the only one who can successfully decipher Shane Thurgood’s manuscripts.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

For Heaven’s Sake (Harold Lloyd Productions/Paramount, 1926)

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

Two nights ago the Spreckels Organ Society presented the annual silent movie night at the Organ Pavilion in Balboa Park, featuring a live organist (Donald MacKenzie, whose main gig is as the theatre organist on the Compton organ at the Odeon Theatre in Leicester Square, London — an organ Fats Waller recorded on!) accompanying a silent film and thereby bringing us as close as we’re going to get to what a silent film showing was like “in the day.” The film was For Heaven’s Sake, a marvelous 1926 comedy starring (and produced by) Harold Lloyd, and while the “official” director, Sam Taylor, had something of an independent reputation (he’d also worked for Mary Pickford and directed the 1929 film she and her then-husband, Douglas Fairbanks, did of The Taming of the Shrew — with the oft-ridiculed writing credit, “By William Shakespeare. Additional dialogue by Sam Taylor”), for the most part it didn’t matter who was credited with directing a Harold Lloyd film since Lloyd himself was the auteur. I’ve noted in these pages before that most of the great silent comedians worked within a specific part of the class system — Charlie Chaplin was lower-class (once he worked out the “Tramp” character in his early days at Keynote and Essanay he played nothing else for two decades, until Modern Times in 1936), Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle was working-class, Harold Lloyd was middle-class (usually he cast himself as a white-collar striver) and Buster Keaton was upper-class. But there were occasions when Keaton dropped down a notch and poached on Lloyd’s middle-class territory (including doing a 1927 film called College that was an out-and-out ripoff of Lloyd’s The Freshman), and in For Heaven’s Sake Lloyd poached on Keaton’s territory and cast himself as J. Harold Manners (I wondered if the name was a deliberate parody on the then-popular playwright J. Hartley Manners).

J. Harold Manners is a rich playboy who literally has more money than he knows what to do with. The character is introduced with a note that he’s bought a white car just so it will match his outfit, and when he wrecks that car he calmly walks into an auto showroom, sits down in the most expensive car on display, whips out a checkbook, writes a check for the full price and drives off in it. While he’s out in his new car it’s commandeered by the police and involved in a shootout with gangsters, only the cops abandon it and grab someone else’s car after Lloyd’s runs out of gas (typically cars in showrooms have very little gas in them so even if someone steals one, they can’t get very far in it), and it ends up stalled across a set of train tracks and, of course, is smashed into smithereens by a train. (Oddly Lloyd didn’t steal Keaton’s famous gag of having a train pass the car on an adjoining track without hurting it — and then another train coming the other way wrecking it. That would have made an already funny scene even funnier!) A newspaper runs a rather snippy column noting that J. Harold Manners bought — and totaled — two cars in one day, and invites readers to write him to suggest other ways he can spend his money. The item is noticed by Hope (Jobyna Ralston, the quite fine actress who replaced Lloyd’s previous leading lady, Mildred Davis, when she quit to become Mrs. Harold Lloyd for real), daughter of Brother Paul (Paul Weigel), who runs a pushcart dispensing free coffee to homeless people and wishes someone would give him enough money to start a mission. Manners comes to the “downtown” location (the titles say that in every city there’s an “uptown” where the rich people live and a “downtown” where the not-so-rich live), immediately falls in love with Hope at first sight, accidentally burns up Brother Paul’s pushcart and writes a check for $1,000 to pay for it and give him the money to start his mission.

Later he reads a newspaper headline that some rich guy has given some poor preacher $1,000 to fund a mission downtown — and Manners is dismissive of the whole thing, saying the guy probably gave the money just to get himself favorable publicity. Then he opens the whole paper and finds out he is the benefactor — what he intended as an anonymous donation has become anything but; there’s even a sign outside the building announcing it as the “J. Harold Manners Mission.” (Given the penchant for rich people today to slap their names on everything they fund, Manners’ reticence about the whole idea is refreshing.) Manners goes to the mission, starts tearing down the sign, and is confronted by Hope, who has no idea who he is and thinks he’s just a vandal. Then he meets Brother Paul, who does know who he is, thanks him and introduces him to his daughter, not knowing they’ve already met and she’s insulted him. Nonetheless, to get close to Hope, Manners becomes a volunteer at the mission. There are a few amusing scenes in which Manners accidentally eats his own powder puff (men were starting to use powder puffs in the 1920’s — a phenomenon credited to, or blamed on, Rudolph Valentino, leading to the infamous “Pink Powder Puffs” editorial that so incensed Valentino he literally challenged its author to a duel) and a cleaning sponge thinking they’re the pastries Hope has baked for the mission clients. Hope tells him that the real challenge would be to get the neighborhood’s criminal element, which mostly hangs out at Bob’s Pool Hall (which it’s hinted is also dispensing illegal alcoholic beverages — this was Prohibition, after all), into the mission — which he does, in a brilliantly conceived gag sequence, by insulting him all and having them chase him until he leads them into the mission. The film’s debt to Chaplin’s Easy Street is rather obvious, but it’s still very funny.

Eventually Manners proposes to Hope, she accepts, and they arrange to get married at the mission, with her dad performing the ceremony and the crooks they’ve redeemed — including their leader, “Bull” (played by Noah Young, though he looked so much like Nat Pendleton Charles and I thought it was he and even imagined hearing the lines in the dialogue title in Pendleton’s voice, with its weird mixture of toughness and whininess) serving as the witnesses and reception committee. Only three of Manners’ rich friends decide to kidnap him and thus “spare” him from the fate of marrying so far beneath him — and this sets up the final gag sequence, the funniest and most spectacular scene of the film, in which Manners and his ex-gangster friends commandeer various vehicles, including a bus, to get him to the mission before Hope assumes he’s abandoned her and calls off the wedding. Lloyd once complained that he’d made only six “thrill comedies” but those were the movies everyone remembered (and even people who’ve never seen a complete Harold Lloyd movie no doubt recall that iconic image of him dangling from the hands of the giant clock in Safety Last), and certainly this is one of his best and most exciting thrill sequences — indeed, Charles and I watched the tail end of this movie a few weeks earlier on TCM and we’d both said, “Gee, I’d really like to see the whole thing sometime.” For Heaven’s Sake isn’t one of Lloyd’s most strongly plotted movies, and it doesn’t have the surprising darkness of 1927’s The Kid Brother (especially its scenes on board a derelict ship, which reminded me so much of Murnau’s Nosferatu I wondered if Lloyd had seen it and was deliberately parodying it), but it’s screamingly funny. Maybe Lloyd didn’t have quite the depth as an actor or storyteller of Chaplin or Keaton, but so what? He was an efficient laugh machine and his films are generally delightful.

Sherlock Holmes: “A Study in Scarlet” (Lenfilm, 1979)

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

After Charles and I got back from the Organ Pavilion I was tired enough I’d wanted to go to sleep, but he was eager to grab the chance to see something else and so he brought out Krovavaya nadpis, a.k.a. “A Study in Scarlet,” the second of that 11-episode series of Sherlock Holmes stories made by Lenfilm Studios in the Soviet Union (remember the Soviet Union?) in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s. A Study in Scarlet is one of the Holmes stories with real potential as a movie, largely because (like the later Holmes novel The Valley of Fear and Earl Derr Biggers’ third Charlie Chan novel, Behind That Curtain) Sir Arthur Conan Doyle structured it so the first half featured a mysterious crime which the sleuth solves, the second half is a flashback involving the murderer and his victims and depicting why the murders happened, and then there’s a brief tag scene in which the detective explains things at the end. In 1914, a pioneering British filmmaker named G. W. Saintsbury made a big-budget (for the time) feature adaptation of A Study in Scarlet that reproduced the structure of Conan Doyle’s original story and featured an elaborate re-creation of the Mormon trek — the murder victims, Emil Drebber and Joseph Stangerson, were Mormons who decided they wanted the fiancée of Jefferson Hope (the quite attractive Nikolai Karachentsov) as Drebber’s fourth wife; they kidnapped her and forced her to marry Drebber, but she only survived one month as his Wife No. 4 before she caught sick and died, and Hope (whose last name is hilariously given as “Hop” in the subtitles, which also refer to a “gait” when they clearly mean “gate”) tracked the two men to London and killed them for revenge — that has led to the 1914 A Study in Scarlet being listed as the first British-produced Western. Alas, though the 1916 Essanay Sherlock Holmes has actually been miraculously rediscovered via a negative in France, the 1914 A Study in Scarlet remains lost — though enough production stills survive to indicate how prestigious a movie it was and how well-budgeted the production was.

This version is comparatively dull, with nothing of the Mormon flashback and a plodding pace; one of the traps filmmakers doing Holmes stories can easily fall into is making them too talky and static, and director Igor Maslennikov and writers Yuli Dunsky and Valeri Frid (the same team who did this series’ much better first episode, “Acquaintance,” which combined the meeting of Holmes and Watson from A Study in Scarlet with the Conan Doyle story “The Speckled Band” — or, as those rather demented subtitlers had it, “The Motley Ribbon”) fall into that trap big-time. Also, for some reason they had Hope write the word “Revenge” in blood on his crime scenes in English instead of the German “Rache” which Conan Doyle used, though they did include Holmes’ (Vasily Livanov) testy relationships with Scotland Yard inspectors Gregson (Igor Dimitriev) and Lestrade (Borislav Brondukov) — he has a grudging respect for Gregson but finds Lestrade almost totally incompetent — and the writers include Holmes’ marvelous speech upbraiding the police for having let the crime scene of the Drebber murder (an isolated abode shrouded in the legendary London fog, thank goodness) become so degraded “a herd of buffalo might have tramped through it.” I’ve read one book on Holmes that said real police officers respect the Holmes stories because Conan Doyle was well ahead of the real police of the time in many of the basic tools with which modern-day cops investigate, including forensics. Apparently Conan Doyle was aware of the importance of securing a crime scene well before actual police were!

Monday, August 24, 2015

His Secret Family (Feifer Worldwide/Lifetime, 2015)

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

Last night’s “feature” was a movie Lifetime showed a couple of weeks ago, His Secret Family, written and directed by Michael Feifer for his modestly named Feifer Worldwide production company. It’s the sort of movie where the very title gives the entire plot away, so it’s virtually impossible to write a “spoiler” on this one: it opens in the bucolic country of Big Bear, where heroine Sarah Goodman (Hillary Duff) is living with her husband Jason (David O’Donnell) and their son Brandon (Judah Nelson). There are a few wrinkles in their happiness; for one thing, Jason is almost never home — he’s a sales representative for a pharmaceutical company, working the Southern California territory, and he’s constantly either going to business meetings or on the road. Also, the Goodmans have fallen behind on their bills and Sarah is being inundated with calls from collection agents and is worried that their home is going to be foreclosed on, and as if that weren’t enough to stir the Lifetime stewpot, Brandon has come down with a genetic immune disorder and his only hope for survival is a bone-marrow transplant from his dad. Only his dad picks the morning of Brandon’s scheduled doctor’s appointment to disappear completely, and several days go by with Sarah having no idea where her husband is. She calls the police, and the call is taken by Detective Sharpson (Parker Stevenson, Shaun Cassidy’s old sidekick on The Hardy Boys, who has not weathered the years well) and his partner, Detective Miller (Nicholas Guilak). Unlike his partner, Miller is very hot, with one of those crotches that looks like he sandpapered the inside of his jeans; he’s dark-haired and has a thin, well-trimmed beard, and he was about the only male in the movie who was liable to inspire any fantasies in me! There’s a hint in Feifer’s script that Detective Sharpton briefly dated Sarah before she married Jason, but through most of the movie Sarah is convinced that the police either don’t care about Jason’s disappearance or believe she did her husband in.

She finds a clue in her husband’s old receipts — one from a private mailbox in Santa Monica — and when she calls the drug company Jason supposedly works for, she’s told they’ve never heard of “Jason Goodman” and the man in charge of sales for Southern California is named “David Marcus.” Sarah drives out to Santa Monica, leaving Brandon in the care of her sister Lauren (Mekenna Melvin) — much to the kid’s disgust, who’s already used to being abandoned by his dad and now is worried that his mom is going to start doing the same thing. She stakes out the P. O. box after talking to the clerk and finding that they’ve never heard of Jason Goodman either, but David Marcus is a client there. Eventually David shows up and picks up his mail, and Sarah follows him home and meets his other wife, Emily (Jennifer Aspen), and finds out that David a.k.a. Jason was married to Emily well before he met Sarah — they have three children, two of whom are grown while the third is in high school, while his son with Sarah, Brandon, is still grade-school age. Sarah crashes David’s and Emily’s home by posing as a real-estate broker interested in listing the house if it’s for sale, but David comes home unexpectedly, he and Sarah confront each other and David palms a broach from Emily’s grandmother and accuses Sarah of stealing it. This not only ensures Emily’s continuing loyalty to her bigamous husband but also makes it even harder for Sarah to enlist the aid of the police, though eventually the cops realize that David a.k.a. Jason needs to be arrested because he’s the prime suspect in the murder of yet another woman he was dating, Alison Woodburn (whom we never see but on whose body was found a bracelet David, in his “Jason” identity, had given Sarah).

In the film’s most chilling scene, David confesses to Emily and then to Sarah that he just wanted another family, and now that it’s become too expensive for him to support two wives and two households, he’s simply going to “erase” his now-inconvenient second family. The matter-of-fact affect-less way David O’Donnell delivers those lines is the most chilling part of his performance and is downright scarier than most actors achieve cast as psychopaths, even though by making his bigamist an out-and-out villain Feifer misses out on the odd quasi-sympathy director Ida Lupino and her writers (Collier Young, Larry Marcus and Lou Shorr) created for Edmond O’Brien’s character in the 1953 film The Bigamist, to which His Secret Family owes a lot plot-wise. It ends with the characters in two dilemmas — David is determined to off Sarah but can’t do it until he can get her to tell him where Brandon is so he can kill his son as well, while the police want to capture David alive because if they kill him he can’t donate bone marrow to the transplant that’s the only hope of saving Brandon’s life. Of course it ends with David taken alive after an exciting boat chase across Big Bear Lake — apparently the Goodmans’ budget, even drained by David’s/Jason’s other household, was still big enough they could afford his-and-hers speedboats — and Sarah gets away when David’s boat runs out of gas and ends up stuck going around in circles, and a police boat crew comes upon him and duly takes him into custody. His Secret Family is about mid-range in quality for a Lifetime movie, neither as good nor as bad as some of them, well acted by Hillary Duff and David O’Donnell and acceptably performed by the rest of the cast, and with a script by Feifer that avoids some of the melodramatic excesses of Lifetime at its worst even though it doesn’t really delve into the characters, either — and for me the most sorrowful person in the dramatis personae was the first wife, Emily, who’s going to be left alone with a big house she can’t even begin to afford and a sense that the man she was married to for two decades not only betrayed her but at the end turned out to be a cold-blooded psycho who calmly talked about “erasing” his other family.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

The Unauthorized “Full House” Story (Side Street Post/Lifetime, 2015)

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

Last night I watched the so-called “world premiere” on Lifetime of the film The Unauthorized “Full House” Story, a TV-movie about the production and run of a TV sitcom called Full House that I never watched when it was on (from 1987 to 1995) and haven’t seen an episode of since, either. Of course I’d heard of some of the people who appeared on it, including John Stamos, Bob Saget (though I knew him only as the host of an even more putrid show, America’s Funniest Home Videos) and the twins Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen, who following my usual “rule” about child stars managed to achieve adult success and psychological stability only by getting as far out of show business as they could and embarking on another career once they grew up. In their case, they managed to become hot-shot fashion designers, and though I’ve never heard of anything they’ve designed (let’s face it, along with sports, fashion is one of the few aspects of popular culture I’m even less interested in than I am in TV sitcoms!), I can respect them for finding a career path that allows them to interface with celebrities without having to be part of the red-carpet scene themselves. Since I’d never seen an episode of Full House when it was new, nor was I particularly interested in catching up on it now (I had vague memories of the title but that was all), I probably shouldn’t have been watching this movie except that Lifetime’s previews made it seem quite salacious, both sexually (at one point John Stamos is dating Paula Abdul and he’s asked about it by an MTV reporter, who then humiliates him by saying, “You’re still on that kids’ show, aren’t you?”) and capitalistically (with the Olsen twins — who were double-cast as the same character on Full House; it’s a common dodge for producers to get around California’s laws limiting the hours children can work by casting a pair of identical twins as a single character — emerging as the stars of the show, their agent demands that their salary be doubled — “each,” he quickly adds, meaning that the producers will have to pay four times as much to them via their parents, who are having their own argument since their dad wants to grab every quick buck he can from their new-found fame while their mom wants them to have something of a childhood). Alas, The Unauthorized “Full House” Story, despite some momentary points of interest, was as dull and stupid as the show itself — as I’ve said several times here already, I’ve never actually seen an episode of Full House but judging from the samples included here, the show was actually dull, stupid and excruciatingly unfunny. (Then again, I find that true of virtually all alleged TV “comedies” — the nicest thing I could say about them was what Dwight Macdonald said about the movies of the late 1950’s and early 1960’s that “in form and intent can be called comedies” — and all too often I’ve watched a TV sitcom in which the laugh track howls with laughter and I want to take it aside and say, “What the hell do you think is so funny?”) 

Though the film credits a director, Brian K. Roberts, and a writer, Ron McGee, arguably its real auteurs are the casting directors, Fern Champion and Jackie Lind, who not only had to come up with actors who were reasonable simulacra of the three adult stars of Full House — John Stamos (Justin Gaston, who if anything I thought was even hotter than the original!), Bob Saget (Garrett Brawith), and Dave Coulier (Justin Mader) — but had to come up with two actors apiece to play the two older kid stars as they had aged during the show’s eight-year run (Shelby Armstrong as the younger Candace Cameron and Brittney Wilson as the older one; Dakota Guppy as the younger Jodie Sweetin and Jordyn Ashley Olson as the older one), and three pairs of identical twins to play the Olsens: Blaise and Kinsley Todd as the toddler Olsens; Calla and Tyla Jones as the twins at age 6; and Kylie and Jordan Armstrong at age 9. There was another Full House cast member, Andrea Barber, who also had to be played by two people: Aislyn Watson as the younger one and Jaime (that’s a girl) Schneider as the older. The series opens with Bob Saget congratulating his friend Dave Coulier for having just landed a gig on the cast of Saturday Night Live — only the producers of SNL withdraw the offer as quickly as they made it and Coulier responds by leaving his cordless phone in the microwave and looking like he’s about to take out his frustration by roasting it. Saget gets an offer to be comic relief on CBS’s morning program, but he’s fired almost as soon as he starts. Full House is the brainchild of writer-producer Jeff Franklin (Matthew Kevin Anderson), whose original idea is called House of Comics and is about the racy, raunchy adventures of three young straight male stand-up comics sharing a house and each trying to break into the big-time entertainment business — only when he pitches it to ABC, they tell him that due to the success of The Cosby Show (a name that plays very differently now than it did in 1987, when Bill Cosby was considered the wholesome avatar of family values on TV — little did we know then that in his dealings with women he was essentially Dr. Huxtable and Mr. Hyde!), so on the spot Franklin tells them that one of the comics will be a single dad (his wife having died three years earlier) raising three daughters.

With Bob Saget still busy on his CBS show they cast the pilot with John Posey in the lead — only after it’s completed and ABC buys the show, once Saget is fired by CBS and is therefore available again, Franklin fires Posey and reshoots the pilot episode with Saget. The Behind the Headlines documentary on the real Full House cast, crew and staff shown immediately after the movie includes interviews with both Franklin and Posey on this typical example of Hollywood heartlessness, with Posey having long since reconciled himself to losing out on a potentially career-making gig (he looks down and mumbles a lot the way Pete Best used to when he was interviewed about how it felt being fired by the Beatles just before they broke through to superstardom) and Franklin justifying it by saying he’d always intended the role for Saget, that he’d conceived the part around Saget’s approach and way of delivering lines, and therefore once he was available it was a no-brainer to go with the actor for whom he’d crafted the part in the first place. The rest of the Full House TV-movie cycles through a surprisingly dull set of occurrences centered mainly around the fear of the parents of the child actors on the show that Saget’s notoriously dirty mouth (when the story starts his ambition is to become a stand-up star and Richard Pryor and George Carlin are his stated role models) will unleash expletives they aren’t ready for their kids to hear. In order to bond and become the best friends the show’s scripts say they are, Stamos and Coulier suggest a trip to Las Vegas, and Saget reluctantly goes along, leaving his wife behind — only when the other guys come up with three women (no doubt hookers, though like its prototype this is still enough of a “family” show that isn’t spelled out) to be their “dates,” Saget begs off — it’s implied that he’s never had sex with a woman other than his wife, which makes it all the more tragic when at the end of the run of Full House they divorce, mainly because taking on America’s Funniest Home Videos on top of Full House has made him so busy he hardly ever has any time with their kids, and in one of the best lines of McGee’s script he wryly comments that he’s spent eight years playing the single dad of three daughters, and now that the show is over he suddenly is one.

Aside from that genuine moment of domestic tragedy, and Coulier’s short-lived (two years) marriage while Stamos seems to be nailing every young, attractive, available woman in Hollywood while carrying a torch for Lori Laughlin (Stephanie Bennett), the actress brought into the cast of Full House in mid-run to play his on-screen girlfriend. Rumors persist that Lori was the great love of Stamos’s life and the main reason they never got together was they were never both single at the same time; though they’d dated briefly before she joined the show, she was married when she was cast, and by the time she and her husband broke up Stamos was already in love with model Rebecca Romijin (Ashley Diana Morris) — the other cast members pronounce her last name “Romaine” and made me briefly wonder why John Stamos had fallen head over heels for a head of lettuce. The show offers little about the post-Full House lives of the cast members, and you’d have to keep watching during the Behind the Headlines documentary to find out that not only did Candace Cameron marry a Russian hockey player, Victor Bure (pronounced “burry”), she met at a celebrity hockey match organized by Dave Coulier, but as a hard-core Christian (as is her brother, Growing Pains star Kirk Cameron), she wrote a book boasting of being “submissive” to her husband and essentially letting him run their lives, which of course drew the predictable hackles from all those hopelessly retro feminists out there. What’s more, the film didn’t depict Jodie Sweetin’s descent into alcohol and drugs even though one would have thought that, out of all the aspects of the story, would have been the strongest and most familiar territory for Lifetime’s filmmakers to work — according to the doc, she eventually got into rehab, it actually worked, and like a lot of other ex-addicts she took up addiction counseling as a career. There might have been some interesting Lifetime movies locked up in the Full House story, but for the most part this is a pretty bland and boring story, offering little of the titillation promised by the “unauthorized” in the title — this is such a whitewash, quite frankly, Jeff Franklin could have written it himself!

Friday, August 21, 2015

The Wrong Man (Warner Bros., 1957)

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

Last night Charles and I watched a great movie, The Wrong Man, one of Alfred Hitchcock’s least known and most underrated movies, made in 1957 at Warner Bros. Hitchcock had had a rather troubled tenure at Warners from 1948 to 1953; at first he was an independent producer, working with British producer Sidney Bernstein for a company they formed called Transatlantic Pictures which would distribute through Warners. They made two films under this arrangement, Rope (1948), which was a modest success; and Under Capricorn (1949), which was a bomb financially even though it’s an uneven but often compelling film (and the last and weakest of Hitchcock’s three collaborations with Ingrid Bergman). Then Hitchcock signed to work for Warners directly and made four films there: Stage Fright (1950), Strangers on a Train (1951), I Confess (1953) and Dial “M” for Murder (1953). Of these, Strangers on a Train and Dial “M” for Murder did well at the box office, and Dial “M” pointed to the direction of his later career because Grace Kelly was in it (it was their first of three films together) and Hitchcock went over to Paramount on a more favorable deal — though, at least according to his biographer John Russell Taylor, he went back to Warner Bros. to make The Wrong Man “because he felt he owed them something” to pay them back for the flops he’d made there earlier. Well, The Wrong Man also flopped, and it’s easy to see why — it wasn’t the sort of romantic thriller, laced with sexual innuendo and comic relief, audiences were expecting from Alfred Hitchcock in the 1950’s.

He was inspired to make it by reading a magazine article about Christopher Emmanuel “Manny” Balestrero (Henry Fonda), a bass player at the posh Stork Club in New York City who’s married to Rose (Vera Miles) and has two sons, 8-year-old Bob (Kippy Campbell) and 5-year-old Gregory (Robert Essen), who in a rare moment of domestic not-quite-harmony he’s offering to teach music. When the movie open the Balestreros’ main problem is financial: they’re continually going into debt and then getting sucked back into it just when they think they’re ready to start pulling their finances together and getting ahead (sounds all too familiar!), and the latest crisis that threatens to plunge them back into penury is an unexpected $300 dentist’s fee for removing Rose’s impacted wisdom teeth. To raise the money, Manny takes her life-insurance policy to the company that issued it so he can find out if he can borrow enough on it to pay for Rose’s dental work. Only when he arrives the three women who staff the office start acting squirrelly and one of them ducks into the private office of the company’s boss — they suspect that Manny is the man who held them up twice in a five-month period the previous year — and Manny is ultimately picked up by the police and told to go into several stores that were similarly held up to see if the people working there can identify him as their robber. The police essentially try to browbeat him into a confession — this was before the U. S. Supreme Court mandated the Miranda warnings, so they not only don’t give him the warning that anything he might say can be used in evidence against him (though that was already the law in Hitchcock’s native Britain — in the Sherlock Holmes story “The Adventure of the Dancing Men” the American criminal who’s just been arrested for a murder he committed in the U. K. is given the warning with what Sir Arthur Conan Doyle calls “the magnificent fair play of the British criminal law”), they don’t offer him the chance to call an attorney, and — what’s most irritating to Manny — they don’t even give him the chance to call home and explain to his wife, his kids and his mom (Esther Minciotti) why he hasn’t come home at 5:30 p.m. as he had promised. (One odd aspect of the early part of the movie is it shows Manny playing at the Stork Club all night and then running errands all day. When does he sleep? And when did he and Rose find the time to have sex and produce the kids?)

What makes The Wrong Man such an unusual movie in the Hitchcock canon is that, because it was based on a true story, he decided to shoot it in a semi-documentary manner, shooting as much as possible on the real locations — the actual office building where the holdups took place and the actual police station where Manny was held and the courtroom where he was tried — though apparently, according to an “Trivia” poster, he drew the line at shooting in the freezing cold at the resort in Cornwall in upstate New York where Manny and Rose, at the insistence of his attorney (when he finally gets one!) Frank O’Connor (a former prosecutor turned defense lawyer whom Hitchcock hired as one of his technical advisors), have gone because they were staying there when one of the robberies occurred and they’re hoping to find some of the other guests there at the same time so they can serve as alibi witnesses. According to the post, Hitchcock refused to go into the cold weather of a New York winter; he sat in the car while the scene was shot and moved the rest of the production to the familiar environs of Hollywood. Nonetheless, The Wrong Man gains greatly from its documentary aspects — even though someone actually incarcerated in the New York City jail when the film was shot apparently recognized Fonda, thought he’d really been arrested and asked, “What are you in for, Henry?” — and from Hitchcock’s utter refusal to romanticize the story or go for his usual high-tension suspense editing.

In a way, The Wrong Man is a better film of Franz Kafka’s The Trial than the one Orson Welles actually made from Kafka’s work; the frustrations pile on for Manny, as the two alibi witnesses he thought he’d successfully traced turn out to be dead, his long-awaited trial finally occurs — and is interrupted by a juror who stands up during O’Connor’s cross-examination of one of the women at the insurance company who identified him and says, “Why must we listen to all this?” Without consulting Manny, O’Connor immediately moves for a mistrial, the prosecutor makes no objection, and the judge grants the motion — only Manny has no idea what just happened. When O’Connor tells him, Manny groans, “You mean I’ll have to go through all this again?” The biggest cross Manny has had to bear is the total mental breakdown of his wife Rose, who starts to detach as they’re running around New York state looking for anybody who can testify they were somewhere else when the robberies occurred, and who ends up in a mental institution after the psychiatrist who’d seen her says that’s the only way to restore her to sanity. About the only “plant” in Maxwell Anderson’s and Angus MacPhail’s script is that Manny is a devout Roman Catholic — when he’s arrested and all his other possessions (including the $6 and change he was carrying as well as his wife’s insurance policy, which he was trying to borrow money on when all this started) are confiscated, he’s allowed to keep his rosary beads. He’s shown fingering them at key moments in his ordeal, including during the trial, and when he’s back home on bail his mom — who’s living there because someone needs to help take care of the kids with his wife hors de combat in a mental hospital — tells him to pray, he does so, Hitchcock dollies his camera over to a sacred-heart painting on the wall … and just then Manny’s prayers are answered as the real hold-up man (Richard Robbins) attempts another robbery, the husband and wife who run the deli he’s trying to stick up overpower him and call the police, and he’s finally exonerated — though the woman who originally fingered Manny as her robber identifies the new arrestee as the criminal, and one wonders what his attorney is going to make of this if the case ever comes to trial: “But you were equally sure in the previous trial that it was someone else!”

Through much of this movie Hitchcock plays against his usual strengths as a director: instead of moving the action at a fast pace he slows himself down so we in the audience feel Manny’s torment as bad break upon bad break piles up on the poor man. (This is what I meant when I said this was a more “Kafka-esque” film than The Trial; Manny is burdened not only by the false accusation against him but by a legal system he doesn’t even begin to comprehend.) Though there are a few consciously “artistically” framed shots, most of the movie is pretty plainly photographed (by Hitchcock’s favorite cinematographer, Robert Burks, a Warners contract man he’d started using while he was under contract there and had taken with him to Paramount and Universal), and though he shot one of his usual cameo appearances Hitchcock decided not to use it and instead appeared as himself, a shadowy image, introducing the story and telling the audience, “This is Alfred Hitchcock speaking. In the past, I have given you many kinds of suspense pictures. But this time, I would like you to see a different one. The difference lies in the fact that this is a true story, every word of it. And yet it contains elements that are stranger than all the fiction that has gone into many of the thrillers that I’ve made before.” (According to, this is the only time Hitchcock spoke in a feature film, though by this time the Alfred Hitchcock Presents TV show had been on the air for two years and audiences were familiar with his voice — and in later years he’d appear and speak in the trailers to Psycho and The Birds.)

The Wrong Man also has two of the finest leading performances ever in a Hitchcock movie: Henry Fonda (an actor Hitchcock had long wanted to work with, though they made only this one film together) projects just the right combination of sincerity and ineffectuality — one doesn’t believe this man could possibly be a street criminal but one also doesn’t believe in him as the usual Hitchcockian man of action, anxious to prove himself innocent of the charge against him by tearing off across the country looking for the real culprit. Manny Balestrero, as Fonda brings him to life, has a guileless faith all will work out for him even as his marriage, his reputation and his life as he’s known it are crumbling to bits around him, and as Charles pointed out, in his faith in God and his religion as the one force in his life that really is on his side, his story becomes an even more powerful portrayal of Hitchcock’s own religiosity than his outright “Catholic” film, I Confess (though I regard that movie as another of Hitchcock’s most underrated films and mentioned it in connection with The Da Vinci Code and my wish Hitchcock could have still been around to direct that). Charles also noted that The Wrong Man is one of the most openly proletarian of Hitchcock’s movies; one would expect an Alfred Hitchcock film whose opening scene takes place at the notoriously pricey Stork Club to be about a customer who gets into trouble with the law, not an employee (and one could readily imagine Cary Grant’s character from North by Northwest taking his latest girlfriend de jour there before the events of that innocent-man-on-the-run story overtake him). Instead of lashing himself on a cross-country journey after the real culprit the way Robert Cummings’ character in Hitchcock’s Saboteur did, Manny doesn’t think until the very end of the film that if he didn’t commit the robberies, someone out there did, and either he’s still at large or he’s dead or he’s in jail for a crime he pulled in another state and will never be linked to the ones Manny is accused of in New York.

And Fonda’s excellence is fully matched by Vera Miles, who is utterly haunting in her transformation from normal put-upon urban housewife to withdrawn mental case. Aided by the Anderson-MacPhail script, which avoids putting her through any obvious, stereotypical scenes of mad raving, hair-pulling or the other silly ways most movies then depicted crazy women, Miles nails every step of her gradual withdrawal from normal humanity and the twisted view she acquires of her husband, her children and their relationships. Especially chilling is the scene in which she has her moment of doubt and asks Manny point-blank if he is indeed guilty. Hitchcock intended The Wrong Man as the opening gun in his campaign to make Vera Miles his next superstar (his replacement for Grace Kelly after she quit acting to become the Princess of Monaco); he developed Vertigo as the film that would nail down the reputation he expected her to get from The Wrong Man — only in the meantime Vera Miles married Gordon Scott, Hollywood’s latest Tarzan, and got pregnant by him. Kim Novak replaced her in Vertigo and Hitchcock never forgave her (though he put her in Psycho as Janet Leigh’s sister because she was under contract to him and he figured he might get some work out of her for the money he was paying her); years later he’d say things like, “She could have been the biggest star in Hollywood — only she married that monkey!”

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Hollywood Cavalcade (20th Century-Fox, 1939)

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

Last night’s “feature” was Hollywood Cavalcade, an entry in the second 20th Century-Fox boxed set of The Films of Alice Faye, and while I could hope for a third box in the series devoted to her pre-20th Century Fox films (including the quite fascinating 1935 musical Music Is Magic, which I watched while the Woody Allen-Mia Farrow-Soon-Yi Previn scandal was in full swing and seemed like an eerie anticipation of it in its tale of a young man infatuated with an old-time musical star, played by Bebe Daniels, and steers her to a comeback but also falls for her daughter, played by Alice Faye), this one is quite compelling and has a number of her most important movies. Hollywood Cavalcade was one of the first attempts by a major movie studio to deal at least somewhat honestly with the medium’s history, and in particular the era of silent films and the contentious period in which they were suddenly (within two years) replaced by talkies. The story opens in New York in 1913, in which aspiring actress Molly Adair (Alice Faye) suddenly gets her big break when the star of a (real) play called The Man Who Came Back takes sick in the middle of a performance and Molly, her understudy, goes on in her place. She’s scouted by Michael Linnett Connors (Don Ameche sans his trademark moustache, though he grows it later in the film and looks more like himself), who when he isn’t covering theatre for the New York Evening Record works as a prop boy and general factotum for the Globe movie studio in Edendale, California. (Edendale was the original location for Mack Sennett’s Keystone studio; this is one of the many references to Sennett’s career in which the script — written by the usual committee: Lou Breslow, “original idea”; Hillary Lynn and Brown Holmes, “story”; Ernest Pascal, “screenplay”; and uncredited contributions by James Edward Grant and silent-film director Malcolm St. Clair, who’s also listed on as uncredited director for the silent-movie sequences — abounds.)

Connors signs Molly to a personal contract and gets Globe to pay her the then-handsome sum of $100 per week — double what she was getting on stage — and plans to star her in a big dramatic feature. Only her screen test (with Buster Keaton, of all people, as her leading man — and he’s also listed on as an uncredited co-director of the sequences reproducing silent comedy) is being shot on the same stage as a comedy scene by one of Globe’s other units, and unable to react convincingly as a dramatic actor when a stock roué villain puts the make on his girlfriend, Keaton instead goes into a comedy routine that ends up with him throwing a pie at the bad guy, missing and hitting Molly instead. Connors realizes he’s onto something and sends one of his staffers to buy 500 custard pies a day from a local baker (the real pies in Sennett’s films were usually fakes made with shaving cream, but in this film the pies are actually edible). Molly becomes an instant star and Connors walks out of Globe and sets up his own company to make first comedies, then dramatic features, with her. He also hires an actor named Nicky Hayden (Alan Curtis) to be her romantic leading man, only their relationship gets too romantic for Connors’ taste; the three of them are scheduled to take a vacation, only Connors remains behind working out ideas for new pictures, and while they’re alone together, proximity works its magic and Molly and Nicky fall in love and get married for real. They’re willing to continue working for Connors, but he’s so pissed off at Molly for hooking up with Nicky instead of him that he fires them both, making the famous-last-words speech of just about every fictional movie producer in a movie that if he can make one pair of stars, he can make another. Only, while Nicky and Molly rise up the Hollywood food chain to a contract with Metro and then a berth at United Artists, Connors loses all his money on a big-budget epic called Queen of the Nile (two decades before 20th-Century Fox would take a real-life financial bath on the Liz Taylor Cleopatra), he walks out on two major-studio contracts over “creative interference,” and his house is foreclosed on and he’s written off by the business until Molly Adair tries to salvage the career of the man who discovered her by insisting on him as director of her new film, Common Clay.

They’re in the middle of producing this when Molly and Nicky are involved in a car accident while racing to get to the location on time; Nicky is killed (well, the writers had to do something to eliminate the extraneous character!) and Molly is laid up in the hospital for two to three months. While all this has been happening Warner Bros. has released The Jazz Singer, it’s been an enormous hit and Molly’s producer, worried that if they wait for her to recover and complete the movie it will seem hopelessly out of date as a silent, wants to shoot a quick final scene with a double for Molly and rush it out while there’s still a market for silent films. Only Connors steals the negative and refuses to give it back unless he’s allowed to come back and finish the movie his way, with Molly finishing her role and with the script rewritten to include sequences with sound so it won’t be written off as obsolete. This duly happens, and at the end, with a hit on their hands and Molly Adair having navigated the transition from silent to sound quite ably, she and Connors seem headed for a reunion off screen as well. Hollywood Cavalcade is often referred to as a film à clef about the real-life professional and personal relationship of Mack Sennett and Mabel Normand, and Sennett himself was involved in this production; he not only consulted on the silent comedy scenes (which don’t have quite the panache of the original but are still screamingly funny and among the best parts of the film) but actually appears as himself, speaking at a testimonial dinner to Molly Adair which a decidedly inebriated Connors crashes in a scene pretty obviously ripped off from the Academy Awards sequence of the 1937 A Star Is Born. It is and it isn’t; obviously the writers and director Irving Cummings (an efficient traffic cop, as usual) didn’t dare depict the real reason Sennett’s and Normand’s off-screen romance broke up (she caught him in flagrante delicto with another one of his actresses, Mae Busch), but the film is full of Sennettesque anecdotes and even the plot twist of a director stealing the negative of an uncompleted film and essentially using it to hold the studio hostage really happened to Sennett, though at the other end. In 1918 Sennett’s production Mickey, Mabel Normand’s first feature, had gone through four directors and the last one, F. Richard Jones, was having a major argument with Sennett over his salary. Unable to get the increase he wanted, Jones stole the negative of Mickey and refused to give it up until Sennett paid him the extra money; Sennett paid up, Mickey got finished, and upon release it was the third biggest hit of the entire silent era (topped only by The Birth of a Nation and The Big Parade). But Connors’ descent into dramatic spectacle, his financial failure, his troubled dealings with the major studios and his descent into alcoholism sound like the writers were tapping D. W. Griffith for their second act.  

Hollywood Cavalcade is quite an entertaining movie, a rare Alice Faye vehicle in which she doesn’t sing — and though they shot her performing a song, “Whispering,” which wasn’t used in the final cut, the film isn’t hurt much by her vocal silence even though she’s not much of an actress and gets by in the role on an appealing personality and a hauntingly beautiful face (including the blue eyes which look spectacular in three-strip Technicolor — it was Faye’s first color film — even though they would have bedeviled cameramen in the silent era since the films were too slow to reproduce blue — cinematographer James Wong Howe “made his bones” by figuring out how to photograph blue-eyed actress Mary Miles Minter without having her eyes go white: he hid himself and his camera behind a black curtain, “bounced” light off of it and thereby got a shadow on Minter’s eyes so they looked normal on screen). It’s nice for once to see a film made in 1939 that doesn’t regard the silent era as so hopelessly old-fashioned no one should bother watching its movies — though it’s revealing that the film reproduced silent comedy but didn’t try to do a scene from one of Molly’s dramatic films because silent drama, especially romantic drama, would have been considered risible to a 1939 audience — and though it’s hardly at the level of the first two A Star Is Borns or Singin’ in the Rain it is a quite estimable take from Hollywood on its own history