Wednesday, April 29, 2015

The Day The ’60's Died (PBS, 2015)

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

The PBS programs last night were two “theme” shows dealing with the Viet Nam war on the upcoming (today, actually) 40th anniversary of the fall of Saigon and the ignominious end of the first war in its history the United States clearly and unambiguously lost. The first was called The Day the ’60’s Died (note the numerical title — if you search the PBS Web site for “The Day the Sixties Died” you won’t find it), about the May 5,1970 massacre of four unarmed student demonstrators by a detachment of riot-squad equipped National Guardsmen who pulled rifles and deliberately fired into the crowd. It’s important to remember that that’s what happened because the mainstream media carefully avoided portraying the Guard’s actions correctly until a photo surfaced two months after the massacre showing the Guardsmen in formation deliberately and calmly firing into the crowd. Unfortunately, a majority of Americans saw it differently; they agreed with President Richard Nixon’s assessment of the student demonstrators as “bums” and not only supported the Guard’s firing on the crowd, at least some people chillingly told interviewers at the time (in film included here as documentary footage) that they wished the Guardsmen had killed more demonstrators. The filmmakers regard May 5, 1970 as “the day the Sixties died” because the massacres at Kent State and Jackson State University six days later scared enough people out of the protest movement that the Nixon administration really didn’t have to worry much about them even though popular opinion was also turning against the war itself. In at least one sense the Sixties had died a year and a half earlier, when Nixon had won the 1968 Presidential election by using his and Strom Thurmond’s “Southern strategy” to cleave apart the Democrats’ New Deal coalition that had dominated Presidential politics from 1932 to 1964 (in which the Presidency had been won by four Democrats and a moderate Republican who continued and in some cases even expanded the New Deal programs) and construct the Right-wing coalition that has more or less dominated American politics ever since. As I’ve pointed out in these pages before, between them Richard Nixon and George Wallace got 57 percent of the Presidential vote in 1968 to Hubert Humphrey’s 43 percent, and those percentages remained pretty much unchanged until the second Clinton election in 1996, in which Bill Clinton parlayed the advantages of incumbency and a moderate image (signing the bill to end “welfare as we know it,” proclaiming “the era of big government is over,” repealing most of what remained of government regulation of Wall Street after the successive assaults of Carter, Reagan and Bush I; as I’ve argued here before, Bill Clinton was to Ronald Reagan what Dwight Eisenhower was to FDR — the opposing party President who recognized and cemented the finality of the political sea change his predecessor had wrought) and pulled virtually even with the Republicans.

Even in 1992 the combined vote for George H. W. Bush and H. Ross Perot was 57 percent to Clinton’s 43 percent — and the only reason Clinton won whereas Humphrey had lost with a similar percentage of the popular vote was Perot’s support wasn’t regionally based, as Wallace’s had been; Perot got no electoral votes but won enough votes in key swing states to “spoil” the election for Bush and the Republicans by swinging them, and the election, to Clinton. The Day the ’60’s Died is a fascinating program that for me, who was in high school when the college campuses were exploding into dissent and openly and ardently sympathized with the New Left (and felt disappointing that I was graduating from high school just as the New Left was fragmenting and self-destructing, so I wouldn’t and didn’t get to be a direct part of it), had a lot of historical weight attached to it: the extraordinary expressions of Left-wing idealism, both their hopefulness and their naïveté; the bizarre and almost insane insistence from Nixon and his officials that they would not be swayed by anti-war protests; and the way the issues were reframed by the Right so they could do what they’d been doing since the McCarthy era and are still doing: argue that there’s a class war in America, all right, but not between the 1 percent and everyone else economically. Rather, the Right’s version of the class war is between the “producers” — the entrepreneurs who create great companies and the workers who build things through them — and the “takers,” the welfare recipients and overprivileged students and the intellectual academics who rule over them and justify their sucking off the work of people who are really creating wealth. One of the odder clips from this film, especially in terms of current debates, is one of the Right-wing “hard hat” demonstrators giving a speech and sounding uncannily like Elizabeth Warren today in saying, “You didn’t build that” — only he means that he and his fellow white working people built the American infrastructure, including the colleges the students were so energetically trashing, and the class enemies he saw were not the rich people he had worked for but the intellectuals who were teaching those students, training them to hate America, and using the population as guinea pigs in their search for a new social order that sounded suspiciously like the one the Communists were pushing.

The main representative of the Nixon administration on the program was Pat Buchanan, and as offensive as he got in his smarmy self-righteousness, he was absolutely correct when he said that there was a revolution that started in the 1960’s — and the Right clearly, overwhelmingly and unambiguously won. We’re seeing the fruits of that division in the U.S. today — the white working class (especially its male members) definitively part of the Republican voting bloc and the bedrock behind not only the Republican Party but the extreme Right-wing of it (the people who have made Rush Limbaugh and the other Right-wing talk-radio hosts stars because they not only say what these audiences feel, they say it the way they would if they were on the air — one of the great tragedies of the 1970’s and since is how relentlessly academic the Left has become in the U.S., to the point where we have literally forgotten how to talk to working people). The real winners of the 1960’s were the Young Americans for Freedom and the shock troops of Barry Goldwater’s 1964 Presidential campaign — in previous entries I’ve said that Goldwater was to the Right-wing majority what Al Smith and his 1928 Presidential campaign was to the New Deal: the campaign that, though it didn’t win, set the themes for the future campaigns that would win elections for its ideology and its programs. We are still living in the post-Sixties Right-wing America, the one wherein the Republican Party was able to make itself the majority by appealing to white voters with racial and cultural hatreds — and though the Right hasn’t won all the battles since, either electoral or cultural, they’ve won enough of them that they’ve been able to take over the House, the Senate and the Supreme Court, and are just one Presidential election away from full-spectrum dominance of American politics and the end of the Progressive era and the New Deal once and for all.

Monday, April 27, 2015

The Scarecrow (Schenck/Metro, 1920)

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

Charles came home from work just in time to join me for the silent short TCM was showing to fill out their “feature,” The Ace of Hearts (a 1921 Goldwyn Pictures production of a play by future screenwriter Gouverneur — pronounced “governor” — Morris, whose Colonial-era namesake had been one of the drafters of the U.S. Constitution): The Scarecrow, a marvelous 1920 short starring and co-directed by “Buster” Keaton (that’s how he was billed then, with his first name — the nickname bestowed on him by family friend Harry Houdini when he saw the boy take a big pratfall as part of his act with his parents and said, “Wow! What a buster!” — billed in quotes). It was made in the heady early days of his independent filmmaking career under producer Joseph M. Schenck, who had first encountered Keaton as a supporting player in the shorts he was making with Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle. When Arbuckle’s zooming popularity propelled him into feature-length films for a heady two years from 1920 to 1922 until the scandal that cut short his career, Schenck had Keaton take over the shorts series and Keaton made an hilarious debut with One Week (1920), in which Keaton and Sybil Seely play newlyweds. Keaton’s father-in-law has given the couple a prefabricated house and a lot to put it on, but the guy Seely jilted to marry Keaton is still upset and for revenge mixes up the instructions on the house so it ends up looking like no habitable structure in history. Seely turns up again in The Scarecrow, in which Keaton and Joe Roberts play farmhands who both are romantically interested in the daughter (Seely) of the farmer they’re working for, played by Keaton’s father Joe. Joe Keaton and his wife Myra pressed Buster into service in their acrobatic vaudeville act when Buster was three, and at the peak of their fame they were billed as “The Three Keatons, featuring Buster, the Human Mop.” Keaton inherited quite a lot from his father, including a talent for slapstick and, alas, a taste for alcohol; Buster departed his dad’s act when he could no longer trust that his increasingly inebriated dad could maintain the split-second timing required to perform the act without dropping and injuring him, and in the early 1930’s Buster himself resorted to the bottle after both his independent career and his marriage collapsed. (With Buster’s typical laconicism and utter lack of sentimentality, in a later interview he said of this period in his life, “I wasn’t an alcoholic — I was a drunk!”), though in this film and several others in which Buster cast his dad one can see where his style of performing came from.

The Scarecrow opens with a blatantly phony (almost certainly on purpose) effects shot of a sunrise and a title indicating that all the rooms in the house we’re about to see are one room — and then we see Buster Keaton and Joe Roberts having breakfast together in a room with an elaborate series of pull-strings and multipurpose appliances, including a phonograph that converts into an oven and a table that, when the meal is finished, rises to the top of the wall and becomes a large sampler reading, “What is home without Mother?” In the meantime Keaton and Roberts serve themselves rolls from a miniature railroad car, pull strings for the salt and pepper (the condiments go flying through the air on their strings as the two men pass them to each other), and even have a napkin on a flying string with which they can each wipe their mouths during the meal. When they have to throw out the garbage, a lever directly delivers it to the slop pan for the farm’s pigs; and when they drain the dishwater it becomes a duck pond (which Keaton, of course, falls into during a later slapstick scene). Keaton did these gags even better in a later short, The Electric House, and it’s possible that (as Charles suggested) they have their roots in vaudeville and in particular the illusions created by stage magicians like the Keatons’ family friend, Houdini — but no vaudeville act would have possibly carted around a giant and incredibly elaborate set like the one here. The Scarecrow earns its title from a later scene in which Keaton — having first been chased by a local dog (including a hair-raising sequence in which the two of them run around the top walls of a building which has lost its ceiling) and then made friends with it — is disguised as a scarecrow to spy on Roberts as he woos Seely, the farmer’s daughter; when Roberts gets too close for Keaton’s liking, the “scarecrow” suddenly comes to life and kicks him. When Keaton drops to one knee to tie his shoe, the girl thinks he’s proposing and actually accepts him — and there’s a final chase scene in which Keaton commandeers a motorcycle and sidecar, then literally runs into a minister and has him pronounce the marriage ceremony as the cycle rides off and, out of control, ultimately drives into a lake just as the preacher emerges to pronounce him and Seely man and wife: a marriage and a baptism in one package deal! The Scarecrow isn’t one of Keaton’s most memorable films but it’s still screamingly funny, and watching it I couldn’t help but wish it had been Keaton instead of Larry Semon who made the 1925 silent version of The Wizard of Oz (a messed-up movie with only incidental resemblances to the classic story).

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Til Death Do Us Part (Odyssey Media/Til Productions, 2014)

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

Last night’s feature film on Lifetime was Til Death Do Us Part — a somewhat awkward title because the first word should be spelled either “Till” or “’Til,” with the apostrophe at the beginning indicating it’s supposed be a contraction of “Until” — which was carefully not advertised as a “world premiere” (the commercial breaks included a trailer for next week’s Lifetime feature, which is a “world premiere” — Cleveland Abduction, an adaptation of the true story about how a depressingly ordinary bus driver in Cleveland without access to the resources of the real-life Marquis de Sade or the male lead in Fifty Shades of Grey nonetheless kept three women as hostages in his basement and used them as sex slaves for over a decade — and as sleazy as the subject matter is, that one should be worth seeing) and is dated 2014 instead of 2015 on Til Death Do Us Part begins with the wedding of Sarah Marks (Haylie Duff) to Dr. Kevin Richardson (Ty Olsson, tall but stocky instead of lanky and bearded instead of clean-shaven like the bulk of Lifetime leading men), and it continues through a series of odd red herrings that leave us in some degree of some suspense as to where the dreadful menace that’s going to afflict Our Heroine will come from. Is it the sinister figure of the gardener, Alec Lowry (Lindsay Bourne — a boy named Lindsay?), who when the Richardsons move to a large house in a remote part of Washington state declares that he’s been the gardener in the neighborhood for 30 years and essentially appoints himself to the job? Is it the house itself, which some nice shots from director Farhad Mann and appropriately doomy music by Michael Neilson suggest may be haunted? Or is Lifetime merely giving us a domestic drama about the adjustment problems facing a newlywed couple in a strange area?

No, that can’t be — instead what they are giving us is a mind-control drama in which the danger the woman is facing comes from her overly controlling husband — sort of like Gaslight — with a few interesting wrinkles, like the drugs her doctor husband is having her take that are supposedly designed to control a heart condition but are actually hallucinogenics designed to make her hallucinate and feel like she’s going crazy (a gimmick used in a previous Lifetime movie, Not My Life, which forced viewers to suspend disbelief even more than this one does but was also considerably more exciting as a thriller) and the doctor’s sister Jolene (Magda Apanowicz), who dresses like a Lifetime “loose woman” and has such a powerful attachment to him that, as one of the characters says, it verges on the incestuous. (This part of the plot reminded me of the remarkable 1995 film Angels and Insects, in which a mild-mannered naturalist was allowed to marry into an aristocratic family but not to have sex with his new bride — because she was already in the throes of a long-term incestuous relationship with her brother and she needed cover in case the brother knocked her up.) One part of the plot is that the doctor has just been appointed head of the cardiovascular unit at the nearby hospital and is therefore earning enough money that his wife doesn’t have to work, but she loves her career — teaching — and doesn’t want to give it up. She takes a job as a substitute teacher at the local school and is befriended by colleague Ethan Walker (Zak Santiago), only Kevin immediately gets jealous when he sees Ethan give Sarah a ride home from work and decides to eliminate him, first by calling in a false tip that he’s molesting kids at the school and then, when he’s exonerated (relatively quickly and painlessly compared to how things like this go in real life), killing him by overpowering him and dispatching him with a lethal injection.

He does the same thing later to that pesky gardener, who accuses Kevin of knocking off his dog and then threatens to go to the police — it turns out Kevin’s real name is Cunningham and he was married once before to a woman who looked strikingly like Sarah, only she died (it’s unclear from Gayl Descoursey’s script whether he killed her, drove her to suicide or she died accidentally), and there are dark words between Kevin and Jolene over the need to do it perfectly “this time.” Til Death Do Us Part is a workmanlike Lifetime thriller, not anywhere near as bad as some of the breed but not anywhere near as good as some of them, either; despite a few nice touches in Mann’s direction (like the way the sinister black SUV Kevin drives virtually becomes a character itself) it just sort of rolls on and on, decently filling out its two-hour (less commercials) running time but also not being especially exciting or moving; Lifetime has done these tropes considerably better in other films, though at least Descoursey’s script is credible and doesn’t end in a shoot-out involving half the U.S. military bringing the bad guy to book — instead Our Heroine is subjected to a murderous attack by both her husband and sister-in-law until the skeptical female police detective (Rekha Sharma) who’d told her earlier she didn’t have enough evidence against her husband to make a case (earlier she’d tried to copy a compromising file from his computer onto a flash drive to take to the police, but he’d got home unexpectedly early before she could complete the copy) finally shows up and drops the husband, then arrests Jolene, just in the nick of time to save Our Heroine’s life.

Saturday, April 25, 2015

The Girl of the Golden West (MGM, 1938)

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

Charles and I watched the third film I’d recorded off Turner Classic Movies from their recent birthday tribute to Buddy Ebsen, along with the Broadway Melodies of 1936 and 1938: The Girl of the Golden West, fourth of the eight films Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy made together and the immediate follow-up to their joint masterpiece, Maytime (1937). The Girl of the Golden West began as a play by famous writer-producer David Belasco, premiered in 1905 with Blanche Bates as Minnie Robbins, the title character and unlikely proprietor of “The Polka” saloon in the Cloudy Mountain mining camp during the California Gold Rush; and Robert Hilliard as Ramerrez, a half-Anglo, half-Mexican bandit who disguises himself as Lieutenant Richard Johnson of the U.S. Army to woo Minnie on a trip she’s taken to Monterey to deposit the miners’ gold, which they regularly leave with Minnie for safekeeping. In bandit drag he comes to Cloudy to rob the Polka of the gold the miners have accumulated there — only when he realizes Minnie runs the place he decides not to steal from her, aborts the robbery but nonetheless gets ambushed and captured by the local sheriff, Jack Rance, who also is in love with Minnie. Minnie wins a poker game for Johnson’s life by cheating on the last hand, then reluctantly agrees to marry Rance if he’ll let Johnson go. Only, of course, at the end Minnie and Johnson pair up and leave the California gold country for a life of togetherness and honest work. In 1910 Italian composer Giacomo Puccini and librettists Guelfo Civinini and Carlo Zangarini turned Belasco’s play into an opera called La Fanciulla del West — Puccini had been commissioned by the Metropolitan Opera to write them a new piece and he thought it would be a good idea to use an American story, and he’d already had success adapting Belasco’s play Madame Butterfly (also a vehicle on stage for Blanche Bates) — which premiered with Arturo Toscanini conducting and an all-star cast including Emmy Destinn as Minnie, Enrico Caruso as Johnson/Ramerrez and Pasquale Amato as Rance. The Girl of the Golden West had already been filmed three times — as a silent in 1915 and 1923 and an early talkie from First National in 1930 with Ann Harding and James Rennie (Michael Rennie’s father and the first actor to play Jay Gatsby, in Owen Davis’s stage adaptation from 1926) in the leads — before MGM grabbed the rights and used it as the basis for the fourth MacDonald/Eddy movie. (There hasn’t been a direct film adaptation of Belasco’s play since; all subsequent listings for The Girl of the Golden West on are performance films or telecasts of Puccini’s opera.)

In the MacDonald/Eddy chapter in his book Hollywood’s Great Love Teams, James Robert Parish called it an “unfortunately cumbersome vehicle” and called the score, mostly by Sigmund Romberg, “rather unmemorable.” He expressed the wish that the two leads had been singing Puccini’s music instead, but that didn’t happen not only because Puccini’s publisher, Ricordi, would have demanded the proverbial king’s ransom for the rights (it’s Ricordi’s extortionate financial demands that led Victor Records not to record any of the music from Fanciulla with the original leads, even though they had them all under contract, so we have no “creator recordings” from this opera) but also because Puccini was writing experimentally and didn’t supply the big hit arias for Fanciulla that had studded his previous scores: Manon Lescaut, La Bohème, Tosca and Madama Butterfly. The 1938 Girl of the Golden West is the sort of frustrating movie that has some good stuff in it but really doesn’t come off as a whole, though it’s hard to figure out what’s wrong with it; the film begins with a long sequence set on the pioneer trails which is supposed to establish how Mary Robbins (played as a girl by Jeanne Ellis and an adult by Jeanette MacDonald — and yes, screenwriters Isabel Dawn and Boyce DeGaw changed her name to the all-purpose Virgin-inspired one symbolizing female innocence!) and Ramerez (played by a tow-headed boy, uncredited on, who grows up to be Nelson Eddy) got to the Wild West in the first place; Ramerez was captured by a bandit leader (Noah Beery, looking and sounding so much like his more famous brother Wallace Beery that at one point I thought it was Wallace Beery in a cameo) who raised him as his own son and who inherited the band of robbers after Beery’s character was killed in a shootout with the federales. Mary was the daughter of pioneers who headed West in a covered wagon with her uncle (Charley Grapewin, in a way anticipating his best-known role as Uncle Henry in The Wizard of Oz, where he also played someone who was raising a young girl after her parents died) and ends up in the Cloudy Mountain camp, but not before she and Ramerez-to-be encountered each other at a campfire and shared a song that, you guessed it, will enable them to recognize each other later on.

Mary inherits the Polka Saloon from her uncle and keeps running it, becoming a sort of mascot for the miners, who entrust her with their gold. She meets Ramerez (the writers dropped one of the middle “r”’s from his name but otherwise kept Belasco’s unusual spelling instead of the more familiar “Ramirez”) when he holds up her stagecoach on the way to Monterey, taking the gold but sparing the suitcase containing her fancy clothes. She’s scheduled to appear and sing at a gala mariachi ball at the governor’s mansion, but along the way Ramerez kidnaps Lt. Dick Johnson (Walter Bonn), steals his uniform and assumes his identity as a way to get close to Mary and take her out on a moonlight carriage ride that’s the closest this film gets to one of those typical romantic outdoor love duets that were a large part of the appeal of the MacDonald/Eddy films. She finally does make it to the governor’s ball, uncertain as to how to greet the governor (Monty Woolley) and awkward when she tries to curtsey — she ends up in the lap of another guest — but the big “Mariachi” number at the ball is by far the best piece of music in the film, and gets a great, stunning production number with choreography by Albertina Rasch (one of a number of people in the early-talkie days who were doing overhead shots of chorus lines a year before Busby Berkeley made his first film). One problem with The Girl of the Golden West is the movie is almost half over before MacDonald and Eddy meet — their characters had previously encountered each other as children but we don’t get to see them together as adults — and another problem is that the Big Song that’s supposed to symbolize their attraction, “Who Are We to Say?,” simply isn’t good enough to carry that much emotional weight. (That was also true of “Will You Remember?” in Maytime — the only song from Romberg’s original operetta that was retained in that film — but the rest of the music MacDonald and Eddy sing in Maytime is so good that doesn’t really matter.)

Another problem is the ghastly accents both MacDonald and Eddy have to affect in this film — Mexican in his case (all the Mexicans in the film, real or fake, speak in the tones of the Frito Bandito) and Southern in hers; through much of the movie she sounds like she’s auditioning for Scarlett O’Hara instead of playing a Western-bred girl in a musical of Belasco’s play. Oddly, Walter Pidgeon, cast as Jack Rance and billed third, plays his part with more dramatic credibility than either of the leads even though he’s clearly miscast as a villain and it’s a bit disappointing that he, who actually had a voice (he’d starred in operettas on stage before he went to Hollywood and his first film, Melody of Love, made at Universal in 1929, was a musical), didn’t get to sing — though Buddy Ebsen, cast in a comic-relief role as one of the miners, did. It also doesn’t help that Dawn and DeGaw simply didn’t do as good a job adapting the story as Puccini’s librettists, Civinini and Zangarini, did; indeed, the portion told in the opera doesn’t start until the movie is halfway over, and what comes before that is mostly tiresome backstory enlivened here and there by glorious song (well, glorious voices singing mostly mediocre songs). It also doesn’t help that Romberg wrote “Soldiers of Fortune,” a “Stout-Hearted Men” knockoff for Nelson Eddy to sing at the head of his bandit band, but the writers and director Robert Z. Leonard (who’d risen above his usual hack status for Maytime but here sank back to it again) don’t use it that way. What’s good about The Girl of the Golden West is the spectacular red-filtered photography by Oliver T. Marsh, the spectacular voices and winning personalities of the leads (and Charles felt Eddy’s acting was at least a bit better in this film than usual), the sumptuous MGM production (a little too sumptuous in the outdoor scenes in Cloudy — one gets the impression this is more of a resort than a mining camp) and the overall insouciance, even though this is hardly the film it could have been and through much of it I found myself wishing they’d done a non-musical version with Katharine Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart instead.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Broadway Melody of 1938 (MGM, 1937)

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

The other movie we watched was Broadway Melody of 1938, third of four in the MGM series (equivalent to the Big Broadcasts at Paramount and the Gold Diggers at Warners) and in the history books as Judy Garland’s first appearance in an MGM feature. The stars were Robert Taylor (in a musical? Well, at least they didn’t have him attempt to sing, as they did to James Stewart in Born to Dance) and Eleanor Powell, with George Murphy and Buddy Ebsen in supporting roles and a delicious performance by Billy Gilbert as a Greek barber-shop owner who is trying to collect $800 Murphy and Ebsen owe him. The plot is a convoluted fusion of 42nd Street and A Day at the Races, with a surprising number of borrowings from the MGM Marx Brothers film the year before — including the ingenue being a race-horse owner (though desperately poor and relying for horse feed on Ebsen, who’s stealing it from the stable he works for) and some of the gags in the final scene in which the heroine’s horse can only win the race if he hears the sound of a particular voice (in this case Gilbert’s son, Igor Gorin, doing “Largo al factotum” from Rossini’s The Barber of Seville over the racetrack’s P.A.) and he does a totally impossible come-from-behind finish to win the big race that will bail out Our Heroine and her boyfriend financially. (These gags worked beautifully in A Day at the Races, from which many of them were cribbed, but in this context we would have wanted to see Eleanor Powell’s horse win the big race in a physically and dramatically credible way.) The plot of this film (script by Jack McGowan from a story by McGowan and Sid Silvers) involves Taylor as a young theatrical producer and songwriter (“Taylor was wasted in it, as by this time he was a major star, obviously more suited to drama or comedy or straight-plot situations than to musicals,” wrote Lawrence J. Quirk in The Films of Robert Taylor. “Since he could neither sing nor dance, his presence was quite superfluous, but MGM doubtless felt it would bolster the box office, as none of the other personalities matched his drawing power”) who has persuaded Raymond Walburn and his ex-showgirl wife Binnie Barnes to back his show — and insists on casting Powell, an unknown who came from a rich family that lost all its money and had to sell its race horses (the one she buys later in the movie came from her family’s stable), in the show’s lead. She does a quite charming dance number with Murphy and Ebsen when they catch her stowing away in a train — and it’s while she’s doing this routine that Taylor discovers her — only to find at the end that he loses his backers over his unwillingness to cast a major star in the part. (Well, really he loses his backers because he won’t go to bed with Binnie Barnes — though that’s only obliquely hinted at in this Production Code-era movie.)

As for Garland, she’s billed seventh, given disappointingly little to do — only a big song called “Everybody Sing” in the show’s casting office at the beginning and her famous version of “You Made Me Love You,” altered (by Roger Edens) to be a birthday greeting to Clark Gable, which she was actually given to sing at the real Gable’s birthday party on the MGM lot and which so impressed Louis B. Mayer that he insisted that Judy have a chance to do the routine in this film. Good for Louis B. Mayer; it’s the film’s best sequence! After that all she gets to do is a short dance number with Ebsen in the film’s big finale (she does not get another chance to sing, and Judy was never that great a dancer though she had the actress’s knack of making herself look like a much better dancer than she really was) — and the only other time we hear her is in a brief snippet of the song “Yours and Mine” over the opening credits. (Billie Holiday recorded “Yours and Mine” along with another song intended for Garland to sing in this film, “Sun Showers,” which alas hit the cutting-room floor — though I think the pre-recording was dredged up for a later Garland film, Thoroughbreds Don’t Cry.[1]) The big production number at the end was staged by Dave Gould — dully — and earlier there was a scene in the park with Murphy and Powell dancing together that’s almost a direct copy from Top Hat, down to the rainstorm that descends on them from the heavens in mid-number and their seeking shelter (and continuing the dance) under a gazebo. — 10/12/98


Charles and I watched Broadway Melody of 1938, an MGM musical production that, despite its title, was actually released on August 20, 1937 (obviously MGM didn’t want it to seem dated in the few theatres that would still be showing it after the new year, but they also made the advance dating a selling point: the tag line on the original posters read, “So New It’s a Year Ahead!”). It was enough of an explicit follow-up to the previous series entry, Broadway Melody of 1936 (which was actually filmed in 1935), that it carried over the same two leads, Robert Taylor and Eleanor Powell, and cast them similarly: he as a Broadway producer trying to create a new show, Broadway Melody, and she as the unknown girl from the sticks whom he picks and grooms to play the lead. It also has some of the same triangular bedroom (or as close to the bedroom as the Production Code would allow) shenanigans. Steve Raleigh (Robert Taylor) has taken his production money from the Whipples, ice-cream sucker king Herman Whipple (Raymond Walburn) and his ex-chorus girl wife Caroline (Binnie Barnes). Herman Whipple himself has risen from humble origins — “I remember when he was a barker at Coney Island!” say Raleigh’s two assistants, dancers and horse trainers Sonny Ledford (George Murphy) and Peter Trot (Buddy Ebsen) — and they’ve bought enough horses to equip a racing stable. The star of their stable is Stargazer, who formerly belonged to the family of Sally Lee (Eleanor Powell) until they lost all their money. Sally is convinced Stargazer is a potentially winning horse but is being mistreated by the Whipples and forced to run too often, and when the horse pulls up lame in a race at Pimlico the Whipples decide to auction her off. Sally wins the horse for $1,250, which of course she doesn’t have, so Steve Raleigh — who has met her on a train, seen her do a dance with Sonny and Peter, immediately discerned her as the true talent of the trio and fallen for her both professionally and personally — borrows the money from Herman Whipple, putting up his half of the show as collateral.

Of course it turns out that Caroline Whipple has the hots for Steve herself and that’s the only reason she got her husband to put money into Steve’s show — she sees Steve and Sally rehearsing a love scene from the show’s script, puts two and two together and forces Herman to withdraw his backing unless Raleigh agrees to fire Sally and replace her with an established star. Raleigh refuses, and there’s a quite fascinating Slavko Vorkapich montage sequence showing Raleigh being turned down by all the other potential co-producers. Raleigh is willing to put the show on with Sally anyway, but she slinks off and disappears, and when he finally tracks her down she’s training Stargazer to run in a steeplechase with the assistance of Sonny (who, at Raleigh’s insistence, lied to Sally and told her he, not Raleigh, put up the money to buy the horse), Pete (who’s still working at the Whipples’ stable and is stealing feed from them to give to Stargazer, until he’s caught in one of the funniest sequences of the film, with Buddy Ebsen plumped up to gigantic proportions because he’s full of dried corn and looking something like a role he was supposed to play, the Scarecrow in The Wizard of Oz; later he and Ray Bolger switched parts and Ebsen was cast as the Tin Man, only he inhaled some of the aluminum dust used for the Tin Man’s makeup, got too ill to continue in the film and was replaced by Jack Haley) and Nicki Papaloopas (Charles Igor Gorin), an aspiring opera singer and son of George Papaloopas (Billy Graham), who’s looking for Sonny and Pete to extract $800 they owe him on a bet they never made that Fast Asleep, a 40-to-1 longshot, would beat Stargazer at the handicap at Pimlico (ya remember the handicap at Pimlico?). Eventually Sally realizes that she can make enough money for Steve to produce his show if Stargazer can win the big steeplechase at Saratoga, and though Stargazer can only jump if Nicki Papaloopas is singing opera in his general direction, she arranges for him to sing over the racetrack’s P.A. as the race is going on, Stargazer stages a spectacular come-from-behind finish to win and Steve’s show is a hit.

As if this uneasy mix of horse-racing and Broadway-backstage clichés isn’t enough plot for one movie, writers Jack McGowan and Sid Silvers also sneak in Sophie Tucker (as Alice Clayton, now-retired Broadway star who runs a boardinghouse for aspiring theatrical performers) and Judy Garland (billed seventh, as her daughter Betty). This was Judy’s first feature at MGM — before this all she’d done were the musical short Every Sunday with Deanna Durbin at MGM (before MGM let Durbin get away to Universal) and a loan-out to 20th Century-Fox for the college football film Pigskin Parade — and she gets to sing two songs. One is “Everybody Sing,” a rehash of the “Sing Before Breakfast” number from Broadway Melody of 1936 but sung not on the rooftop (though the same rooftop set occurs elsewhere in the film) but at a radio studio where Alice Clayton sets up her daughter Betty to belt it out hoping Steve Raleigh will hear (which he doesn’t — the studio is soundproofed so nothing of Judy’s number leaks to his ears) but benefiting from the incredible energy (even that early!) of Judy’s performance. The other is “Dear Mr. Gable,” Roger Edens’ rewrite of the old James V. Monaco-Joseph McCarthy (not the same one!) song “You Made Me Love You,” a mega-hit for Al Jolson in 1923, with special lyrics added to pay tribute to Clark Gable at a time when he was MGM’s biggest star and number two at the box office for the entire industry (number one was, you guessed it, Shirley Temple!).

Edens wrote it for Judy to sing at one of the big ceremonial events for Gable’s birthday — a sort of “official” birthday party the down-to-earth Gable glumly sat through because he knew it was part of the dues he had to pay for his MGM star gig. Louis B. Mayer was so stunned when he heard it he insisted it be shoehorned into Broadway Melody of 1938, so McGowan supplied a scene in which Alice Clayton catches her daughter mooning over a photo of Gable and tears it up. “I paid a quarter for that!” Betty protests, and when Alice withdraws and leaves Betty alone in her bedroom she gets out her scrap book (spelled as two words on its cover instead of the customary one) and sings the song to another photo of Gable she’s pasted therein, breaking off in the middle to deliver a long spoken section turning the song into an explicit tribute and then coming back in to sing an altered (again by Edens) version of the final eight bars of the original. (The words “Gimmie, gimmie, gimmie, gimmie what I cry for/You know you’ve got the kind of kisses I would die for” were changed to “I don’t care what happens, let the whole world stop/As far as I’m concerned you’ll always be the top.”) As things turned out, the number was such a sensation it advanced Judy’s career big-time — and Mayer loved it so much she had to sing it at every one of Gable’s birthday celebrations after that until Judy Garland left MGM in 1950. Then Gable went up to her and told her how glad he was she was leaving, and when she rather tearfully asked why, he said, “Because now I won’t have to hear that goddamned song anymore! I hate that goddamned song!” Judy’s only subsequent appearance is as part of the big final number, in which Eleanor Powell does a spectacular tap dance, Sophie Tucker delivers a stentorian tribute to Broadway legends of the past (various names of legendary performers are shown on the set, and midway through the number they all change to “Sophie Tucker” before changing back again at the end), and Judy is driven onto the stage in a small streamlined car, gets out, does a surprisingly good tap dance with Buddy Ebsen, and the final gag is the car is so small for him Ebsen can fit his body into it but his top hat has to go on the car’s roof.

Broadway Melody of 1938 isn’t much of a movie — it doesn’t have quite the wicked wit of Broadway Melody of 1936, and though actor Robert Wildhack, who did a virtuoso display of snoring in the earlier film, reappears here as a sneezer, the act simply isn’t as funny the second time around. Also, Billy Gilbert’s so-called “comic relief” really gets tired — in his films with Laurel and Hardy and his brief but marvelous appearance in His Girl Friday he’s genuinely funny, but in this movie he’s just oppressive — and one thing that’s odd is how many other movies this one evokes. At one point George Murphy and Eleanor Powell do a dance number in the rain which starts out as a stone ripoff of “Isn’t This a Lovely Day?” from the Astaire-Rogers musical Top Hat (and a later dance routine between them, with Powell clad in a chiffon gown and doing ballroom instead of tap, also evokes Fred and Ginger big-time), complete with a gazebo for them to dive under so they can dance without being drenched, but later it becomes a traveling number through the streets of the MGM backlot and anticipates Gene Kelly’s famous solo dance in Singin’ in the Rain, complete with artfully arranged puddles for them to step into as they move. And of course the horse-racing semi-finale is straight out of the Marx Brothers’ A Day at the Races, with the impecunious ingénue and the horse that needs a co-factor to win (in A Day at the Races it was the sight of the principal villain’s photo or the sound of his voice). It’s an O.K. movie, not as much fun as Broadway Melody of 1936 and suffering from too much of the portmanteau spirit of the age — back when the movie industry’s recipe for success was to cram as many disparate elements into a film as possible in hopes there’d be something in it for every audience segment, instead of today’s practice of “narrowcasting” films to draw out a specific audience even if no one else is particularly interested — but it’s still got some good songs, some great dances and an overall they-don’t-make-’em-like-that-anymore spirit. — 4/22/15

[1]  The history of “Sun Showers” is a bit more convoluted than that: here’s how it was explained in an “Trivia” entry for Thoroughbreds Don’t Cry:

In Judy Garland’s previous picture, Broadway Melody of 1938 (1937), Charles Igor Gorin’s rendition of “Sun Showers” (music by Nacio Herb Brown, lyrics by Arthur Freed) had been deleted. Then assigned to Judy in this horse-racing story, the tune failed again to be included in a movie. Miss Garland’s pre-recording is featured on the Rhino CD, “Judy Garland: Collectors’ Gems from the M-G-M Films.”

Monday, April 20, 2015

50th Anniversary American Country Music Awards (Dick Clark Productions/CBS, April 19, 2015)

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

Last night’s CBS telecast of the 50th anniversary American Country Music Awards was the typically lumbering sort of show so-called “awards” programs have turned into. Aside from the Oscars, virtually all “awards” shows these days are far more about featured performers than actual awardees — and what seemed strangest about the ACM’s (as they were referred to for short throughout the program) is how the awards seem to go to the same people over and over again, to the point where the winners of the so-called “Milestone Awards” (the ACM’s equivalent of the Academy’s “Lifetime Achievement Awards”) seem to have chosen for the honor because they’d won so many previous ACM’s. The other main message I got from the ACM’s is just a reaffirmation of how what’s called “country music” today is really the sort of sound associated with what in the 1970’s was called “Southern rock” — the music of the Allman Brothers and Lynyrd Skynyrd. During all of last night’s program, only two artists, George Strait and Garth Brooks, used steel guitars and solo violins — these once-paradigmatic country instruments have been relegated to history and most of the songs last night were powered by heavily fuzz-toned electric guitars played by people who’ve learned shredding and most of the other rock tricks. There was also a tight incestuousness about the awards; the Entertainer of the Year (voted by fans via call-ins — at least if you live on the East Coast; as usual they were showing us the program on time-delay three hours later, after all the call-in votes had been received and tallied) was Luke Bryan, who was co-hosting the show; and the biggest winner all night was Miranda Lambert, whose husband Blake Shelton was the other host.

I like Miranda Lambert but her determined perkiness is getting to be too much to take; with her halter tops, heavy lipstick and pursuit of a car-hop’s version of female sexiness, and with songs like “Little Red Wagon” (a nice novelty but hardly a patch on the old blues song of the same title) she seems to be going after the title of “the country Madonna” at a time when even Madonna herself has grown beyond this act. The show began with Eric Clark and Keith Urban doing a tribute to Merle Haggard featuring a medley of Haggard songs I didn’t recognize (no “Working Man’s Blues,” no “Tonight the Bottle Let Me Down,” not even “Okie from Muskogee,” which is not only Haggard’s biggest hit of all time but, despite its rancid politics, the greatest song he ever wrote) because Haggard had won Best New Artist the very first year the ACM’s were given, 1967 (with Glen Campbell, not surprisingly, getting voted the Entertainer of the Year). Next up was George Strait, one of the few people out there who looked like an old-style country singer, with his basic black outfit embroidered with traditional Nudie Cohen adornments, singing a medley of “All My Exes Live in Texas” (our friend Garry remembered the original record better than I did and said Strait actually sang it faster than he did when he made the original) and “Let It Go” (a considerably better, though less well-known, song), and as I noted above his embrace of the pedal steel guitar and the fiddle-style solo violin gave his song an authentic “country” feel missing from most of the material last night — however good it sounded as Southern rock.

The next song was “Sipped on Fire” by the group Florida Georgia Line (and Garry, a Southerner by birth, said there really is a very evocative difference in the scenery and the overall “feel” of the landscape when you cross the border between Georgia and Florida, after which this band named itself), a decent enough song for which they ramped up the pyrotechnics: they literally sang the song in the middle of a ring of fire on stage, and goodness knows how they coped with the heat and the lack of oxygen. (The concert took place in Dallas, Texas, in the giant football stadium where the Cowboys, “America’s Team,” plays.) After that Lee Brice warbled a bit of the 1985 hit “Forever and Ever” to launch a tribute to its composer, Randy Travis, and then one of the Best New Artist nominees, Sam Hunt, took the stage for “Take Your Time” — it wasn’t much of a song but Hunt, rail-thin, slightly built and drop-dead gorgeous in tightly fitted red jeans, was the hottest guy on all night (formerly moisture-inducing jeans-clad guys like Brad Paisley and Kenny Chesney are getting a bit, shall we say, long in the tooth to elicit that reaction), and just to make sure we got the message he walked around the runway at the circumference of the theatre-in-the-round stage and shook the hands of all the … women, darnit. Hunt only got to do about half of his song — that was the procedure for all the Best New Artist nominees: they got truncated versions of their hits and were immediately ushered offstage so the stage could be taken over by an established artist, in Hunt’s case Dierks Bentley for “Riser,” the title track of his latest release and an O.K. song. After that came one of the high points of the evening: an awesomely soulful performance by Martina McBride on her song “Independence Day” during which I pointed out to Garry that it was fun to look at the men but the greatest music on the show by far was being made by female artists — including Kim Perry of The Band Perry, who weren’t on the program but a snippet of whose incredibly soulful and powerful voice was heard during a sample of a song announcing their nomination for Best Vocal Group (which they lost to Little Big Town, though I can’t get too upset over that if only because they performed a song called “I’ve Got a Girl Crush,” and there was their female lead singer glorying over her romantic, sexual or “questioning” feelings towards another woman — no, this certainly isn’t your mother’s country music anymore!!!).

After that things came back down to earth, more or less, with co-host Luke Bryan’s “I See You,” and then came Miranda Lambert doing her country-pixie act with a medley of “Mama’s Broken Heart” and “Little Red Wagon.” Then came Jason Aldean with another medley (it seemed like the Milestone winners were not going to be allowed to be content with performing just one song!) of “Tonight Let’s Go,” “My Kind of Lonely in a Big Town” and “She’s Country” — I’m guessing at these titles because, though some of the names of the songs were announced in front, most weren’t — and after that came the biggest surprise of the night: Reba McIntire, long since descended from the empyrean heights of her career but singing with a surprising degree of passion and soul. The songs were oldies from her career peak — “The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia,” “Fancy” and “Goin’ Out Like That” — but she sang with such incredible commitment and power she obviously still cared about the material and wasn’t thinking, like some other artists of her vintage do when confronted with their old songs, “Oh, shit — I have to sing that again?” After that the “Little Girl Crush” song by Little Big Town seemed woefully anticlimactic, and after the “Girl Crush” song Cole Swindell’s (the Best New Artist winner) “You Ain’t Worth the Whiskey” — a breakup song in which the person he’s breaking up with isn’t even worth getting drunk over! — seemed even more offensively sexist than it might have in a different context. Next came another Best New Artist nominee, Thomas Recht (I’m guessing at the name, too), with a song called “Make Me Wanna,” and after that Blake Shelton sang a song called “Your Lips Taste Like Sangria” which was as silly as you’d expect from the title. (No wonder he lost in his category and Mr. and Mrs. Shelton did not get to take home his ’n’ hers ACM’s. I couldn’t help recall how Kenneth Branagh and Emma Thompson broke up over his jealousy that she won an Academy Award before he did — though somehow it didn’t faze Paul Newman that Joanne Woodward won an Oscar 28 years before he did, though Newman’s debut Academy win was for one of the worst films he ever made, The Color of Money, even more disappointing because it was a sequel to one of the best films Newman ever made, The Hustler.)

The run of good but not great songs continued with one of those Grammy-style matchups (or mashups), Christina Aguilera (yeah, one of the all-time greats of country music) teaming up with the group Rascal Flatts for yet another medley, this one joining two songs that appeared to be called “Hard Road Ahead” and “Riot,” and after that there was one of the most ballyhooed parts of the show, a new appearance by one of country music’s most famous recluses, Garth Brooks — who’s about to embark on a new concert tour with Trisha Yearwood as his opening act. (Since she’s Mrs. Garth Brooks, that’s not exactly the world’s biggest surprise.) Brooks’ selection was “All-American Boy” and it was turned into a huge celebration of our military and the way they’re fighting in far-flung corners of the earth for our “freedom” — the song is about an All-American high-school football player who turns down offers from big colleges, “signs with Uncle Sam,” comes back alive and relatively whole (a surprise since the payoff in this genre is usually that he comes back either missing some parts or in a box), and then Brooks goes into a final chorus lamenting the boys who go to war and don’t come back alive. Had they just presented the song simply, they might have made the point, but instead they way overdid it, from having Brooks play the song on a red-white-and-blue guitar to having actual servicemembers march through the audience in uniform for the final chorus and using the video screen to show more or less appropriate images just in case we didn’t get the point. After that Kenny Chesney came on for a couple of songs that appeared to be called “Mostly Young” and “Wild Child” (I quite liked “Wild Child” even though it’s hardly the best thing ever written in its genre) and then Lady Antebellum did a song called “Long Stretch of Love.” I still don’t like their name — “antebellum” literally means “before the war” and is a word usually used by Southern sympathizers to describe the wonderful aristocratic slavery-driven plantation system they had before the Civil War — when I first heard there was a group called Lady Antebellum I grimly joked, “What are they going to call their album — Slavery Was Cool?” — but I like their music, especially when their female member, Hillary Scott, is front and center; alas, “Long Stretch of Love” was a duet between her and Charles Kelley, the male singer (the third member is Dave Heywood but he doesn’t sing leads), and every time he came in instead of (or over) her the energy level dropped considerably.

After that the show did another mashup, this time with Nick Jonas of the Jonas Brothers, who had their 15 milliseconds of fame in 2008 or thereabouts (it’s hard to keep track of boy bands because, like people in Oz, they come and go so quickly; I couldn’t help but think when I saw a poster for an upcoming concert by New Kids on the Block that by now they’re pretty old kids on the block, and one wonders how much longer One Direction can continue before their career direction is down) with the country duo Dan & Shea for a couple of songs called (I think) “I Still Get Jealous” (actually according to my online search it’s just called “Jealous”) and “Chains” — both titles that were previously used for considerably better songs, “Jealous” and “I Still Get Jealous” for songs in the classic era and “Chains” for an old R&B song the Beatles covered on their first album. Nick Jonas seemed overpowered by Dan & Shea even on his own song, “Jealous,” and I thought his brother Kevin was the cute one anyway. Then came what was by far the most moving portion of the show, a sort of back-handed tribute to the victims of the Oklahoma City bombing (it took place on April 19, 1995 and was the most serious terrorist incident on U.S. soil until the 9/11 attacks six years later, and as I recall it was originally blamed on “Arab terrorists” before the culprits turned out to be closer to home: two disaffected veterans, Tim McVeigh and Terry Nichols, who’d read William Pierce’s Right-wing screed The Turner Diaries and wanted to make its fantasy of a race war and the ultimate imposition of a white supremacist government to replace the so-called “Zionist-Occupied Government,” or ZOG, that supposedly rules this country now) that presented Alan Jackson doing his famous song about 9/11, “Where Were You When the World Stopped Turning?” It was everything Garth Brooks’ song should have been and wasn’t: a simple, eloquent, surprisingly non-judgmental piece of material, presented with no frippery, just a few video images and Jackson singing and playing acoustic guitar, and doing his song in an understated way that was far more effective than the patriotic breast-beating from Lee Greenwood, Lynyrd Skynyrd (though I thought their Right-wing anti-Obama song “God and Guns” was the best conservative political song since “Okie from Muskogee” — and how do you do a tribute to Merle Haggard without including “Okie from Muskogee”? It’s like doing a tribute to the Rolling Stones and not doing “Satisfaction”!), Toby Keith et al. 

The show should really have ended there but there were still a few awards to be presented and a few celebrities to be trotted out in non-singing roles, including Taylor Swift (who actually sort-of apologized to the country crowd for making a pop album — which just underscores how silly and arbitrary the whole salami-slicing of the music world into genres is; it has far, far more to do with marketing than artistry) and Steve Tyler (who claimed Buddy Holly as an early influence, which may have explained why he was wearing similarly ugly glasses) and three more songs: Brad Paisley’s hit “Crushin’ It” (which appears to be what you do with a beer can after you finish drinking its contents), a much-ballyhooed reunion of Brooks and Dunn on a song apparently called “My Maria,” and an ensemble finale in which all the performers who could crowd on the stage of the Dallas arena at once did the Louis Jordan “Let the Good Times Roll” —not especially a country song and a weird way to end this lumbering and bizarre spectacle in which, as usual, the artists who did not trick up their performances with pyrotechnics, elaborate dance spectacles or light shows on the stage floor came off better than those who did (though thank goodness for one thing: the plague of Cirque du Soleil-style gymnasts and acrobats that afflict all too many pop acts’ stage shows these days hasn’t yet hit the country world) and the show dragged on way too long (3 ½ hours) for its slender content — though at least it did come in on schedule and didn’t suffer from the impromptu bloat (as opposed to the planned bloat) of most awards telecasts. And I was certainly amused to see the final credit to Dick Clark Productions — the king is dead but (like Walt Disney) his production company lives on!

A Trip to Mars (Edison, 1910)

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

Last Friday Charles and I went to Gerry Williams’ photographic studio in Golden Hill for his monthly “Mars Movie Night,” featuring various films made over the years dealing with the Red Planet and humans either going there or fending off Martians coming here. This program was one of his most fascinating, showing three films from the 1910’s — a five-minute Edison short from 1910 called A Trip to Mars, a one-hour British feature from 1913 called A Message from Mars and an 80-minute Danish feature from 1918 originally called Himmelskibet and literally translated for English-speaking audiences as, you guessed it, A Trip to Mars. Gerry had shown the 1910 Edison A Trip to Mars on one of his previous programs and it’s an engaging film for what it is but shows just what a sorry record Edison’s company had for creativity, especially by comparison to the best work of the independent studios that were breaking Edison’s patent monopoly but would eventually become the bulwarks of the industry. The 1910 A Trip to Mars is an obvious knockoff of Georges Méliès’ marvelous A Trip to the Moon from 1902, though instead of launching himself to his outer-space destination via a cannon, the principal character of A Trip to Mars is a scientist who invents a powder that can reverse the effects of gravity, whereupon the magic stuff propels him through space directly to Mars (with none of that bothersome nonsense about space being a vacuum and therefore it being impossible for him to breathe along the way). He meets giant-sized beings, including one who responds to his attempt to climb the giant’s nose by blowing cold air over him and turning him into a giant snowball. Eventually he gets de-iced and falls back to earth with the same anti-gravity powder with which he went to Mars. It’s an O.K. movie but a singularly pointless one, and director Ashley Miller (the only person connected with this project credited on is hardly in Méliès’ league as a fantasy filmmaker, but its historical importance is undoubted — it appears to be the first science-fiction film ever made about a trip to Mars and is almost certainly the earliest one that survives, even though it survives in pretty beaten-up form, probably from a paper print. Until 1912 the U.S. copyright laws did not cover film, so it was impossible to copyright a movie — however, still photos were copyrightable, so enterprising studios made contact prints of their movies and copyrighted all the frames in them as photographs. It’s a lucky thing they did, too, because quite a few films from the very early days from which no cinematic prints survive nonetheless still exist as paper prints — though the task of rephotographing every frame and aligning them properly so they can be re-converted into a watchable movie is arduous, time-consuming and very expensive.

A Message from Mars (United Kingdom Photoplays, 1913)

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

The 1913 British film A Message from Mars is based on a play by Richard Ganthoney (who, despite his very British-sounding name, was actually an American, at least according to a notoriously unreliable contributor to that was first produced in 1899, a year after H. G. Wells published his novel The War of the Worlds about Earth being subjected to an invasion by relentless Martians intent on conquering us, who are vanquished only by Earth germs to which the Martians’ immune systems offered no resistance. Ganthoney’s Martians, however, couldn’t be more different from Wells’; instead of being out to conquer Earth they — or at least one of them, Ramiel (E. Holman Clark) — are morally superior and when they come to Earth it’s to show us the error of our ways. In the opening scene, the Martians — shown as looking exactly like Earth people except for being dressed in robes and wearing giant pendants of the Egyptian ankh symbol — are meeting in solemn counsel. Ramiel has committed some (unspecified) transgression against Martian law, and so the “God of Mars” (R. Crompton) — that’s what the Martians call their ruler — exiles him to Earth and tells him not to come back until he’s made an Earthling do a good deed. (I joked that Ramiel would be going, “Earth? Not Earth! Their air has way too much oxygen and their gravity is so heavy you can barely walk!”) The Earthling that Ramiel has to redeem in order to go home is vicious capitalist Horace Parker (Charles Hawtrey), and it doesn’t take long for the viewer to realize that Ganthoney’s play (adapted for the screen by him and director Wallett Waller) is essentially a rehash of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol with a Martian instead of three spirits of Christmas. At that, Parker isn’t quite as much a total recluse as Scrooge — indeed, he even has a sort-of girlfriend, Minnie (Crissie Bell), though she returns his engagement ring when it dawns on her what a creep he is.

Horace shows his true colors by refusing the entreaties of a down-on-his-luck tramp (Hubert Willis) who brought along a letter from a relative of Parker’s asking him to give the tramp a job. At one point, in sheer desperation, Ramiel takes away Parker’s money and forces him to live hand-to-mouth in a plot twist that anticipates Preston Sturges’ Sullivan’s Travels and Mel Brooks’ quasi-remake, Life Stinks — especially when he’s forced to rely for advice on how to survive on the street from the tramp he rejected a couple of reels earlier. There’s also a dance to which Parker was supposed to bring Minnie, so instead she goes with rival suitor Arthur Dicey (Frank Hector), who ends up with Bella (Evelyn Beaumont), while Parker and Minnie reconcile once the lesson of the Messenger from Mars “takes” and Parker takes in the tramp and helps him out. The film was impeccably restored by the British Film Archive in 2006 but was given a rather dire and not especially evocative soundtrack — instead of a piano, theatre organ or small ensemble, they used an entirely electronically generated musical palette that added a rather dark, dreary note to a film that could use all the help it could get from its soundtrack. A Message from Mars isn’t a bad movie for the period, but there is virtually no cinematic technique — the scenes are staged in mid-distance tableaux and the actors, some of whom were also in stage productions of Ganthoney’s plays, act pretty much as they would on stage — though that’s faulting it for not having had someone with D. W. Griffith’s imagination as director. Still, it’s an interesting story, and on his return to Mars Ramiel gets his ankh back the way Clarence the angel finally got his wings at the end of It’s a Wonderful Life (just as the removal of it from around his neck in the first place couldn’t help but remind me of the sequence of Chuck Connors getting his medals ripped off at the start of his short-lived TV show Branded, a Western in which he played a U.S. army officer who was unjustly convicted of cowardice and drummed out of the service).

A Trip to Mars (Nordisk, 1918)

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

The last film on Gerry’s program was also by far the most impressive: Himmelskibet (A Trip to Mars), a 1918 production by the Scandinavian studio Nordisk and made by Danish director F. Holger-Madsen (who had also acted in some earlier films, including a series of one-reelers in which he played Sherlock Holmes!) under producer Ole Olsen (almost certainly not the later American vaudeville and Broadway comedian of that name!) in what was openly promoted as a spectacle film. The original ads read, “See the wonder play of the age with ALL STAR CAST, 5000 Actors, 50 Gorgeous Settings, $100,000 worth of mechanical devices” — and though the “all-star cast” may have been an exaggeration (though I have no way of knowing just how well known these actors were in Denmark in 1918), the elaborate sets and mechanical devices are there to be seen on screen. What’s most interesting about the Danish A Trip to Mars is that, like A Message to Mars, the script (by Ole Olsen and Sophus Michaëlis based on a best-selling novel, Himmelskibet, by Michaëlis) present the Martians as beneficent, peace-loving creatures who have important lessons to teach the war-mongering, violent Earthlings they come in contact with. The plot strikingly anticipates several later science-fiction and/or fantasy films from the silent era, including the 1925 film The Lost World and Fritz Lang’s remarkable 1928 Woman in the Moon — indeed the plot of Himmelskibet, especially in the first half, tracks so closely to Woman in the Moon I suspect Lang and/or his wife and writing partner, Thea von Harbou, had seen it. It begins with a sequence establishing that the young Professor Planetaros (Nicolai Neiidenham) has become convinced that space travel is possible despite the scoffing of his colleague, Professor Dubius (Frederik Jacobsen). I found myself amused at how much Professor Planetaros was made up to look like Albert Einstein — and how much Dubius resembled Leon Trotsky; the idea of those two having an argument about space travel boggles the mind!

The film then flashes forward a couple of decades; Planetaros is now the proud father of Avanti Planetaros (Gunnar Tolnaes), who’s become the world’s number one record-breaking aviator and who is convinced he can build on his already formidable reputation and prove his dad’s theories right by building a spacecraft (which looks like a giant torpedo with a biplane wing stuck on top) and flying it to Mars. He takes a crew of eight on the voyage, including his friend Dr. Krafft (Alf Blütecher) — who’s in love with Avanti’s sister Corona (Zanny Petersen), though she’s stuck on earth and Prof. Planetaros’ displays of physical affection for her border on the incestuous — and an American stowaway named David Dane (Svend Kornbeck), who bears a striking resemblance to Jackie Gleason and who sneaks alcohol onto the spaceship (a plot device reused in Forbidden Planet, while the whole idea of a stowaway on a spaceship who screws things up turned up on the TV series Lost in Space) and at one point fosters a mutiny. Earlier Avanti has compared himself to Christopher Columbus, so it’s not that surprising that he lives out the Columbus legend on board his spaceship, the Excelsior (from a name like that one expects it to be made of packing material): the crew is about to mutiny when they finally arrive on Mars, courtesy of a Martian tractor beam that actually pulls them to the Red Planet about 10 times faster than their craft’s own engines could do it. When they get to Mars they find that Mars is a totally peaceful planet whose inhabitants don’t kill any animal life — needless to say, they’re vegetarians — and when the Earthlings offer the Martians some canned meat in exchange for the Martian foodstuffs they’ve been fed, the Martians ask just how the Earthlings can get dead meat in a can. Avanti demonstrates by pulling out a gun, aiming it at the sky and bringing down a large bird — only he also wounds a Martian (played, according to, by an uncredited Scandinavian actor who did achieve at least a certain level of stardom outside the region: Nils Asther), and the Martians think he’s killed him and are not at all happy.

Eventually the Martians let the Earthlings go — it helps that the wounded Martian recover — on the ground that they can’t be convicted of violating Martian law because they didn’t understand a planet and a culture that holds all life sacred. Avanti and crew are allowed to go home as long as they promise to bring the Martian message of peace, love and vegetarianism to their home planet, and Avanti is even allowed to take his Martian girlfriend Marya (Lilly Jacobson) to earth as the first interplanetary immigrant. The 1918 A Trip to Mars — I suppose I should call it Himmelskibet to distinguish it from the far less interesting 1910 Edison half-reeler with which Gerry opened his showing — is quite a good movie, though still not done with the creative angling and cutting that by then had become standard film grammar in the U.S. and Germany, and there are some shots that are quite astonishing from a technical point of view. There’s quite a lot of use of airborne cameras to show a spacecraft’s-eye view of the terrain as the astronauts leave Earth, come to Mars and return — and at least one sequence showing the astronauts moving about in the ship as scenery passes them was almost certainly done with an early version of the process screen, nearly a decade before Fritz Lang’s cameraman and effects genius Eugen Schufftan supposedly invented the process screen for Lang’s Die Nibelungen and Metropolis. While the other two movies on Gerry’s program were interesting mostly for their historical value, Himmelskibet is a film that’s genuinely entertaining on its own merits as well as fascinating for its influence on subsequent filmmakers. The Danish restoration job is excellent (only a few fleeting scenes show tell-tale evidence of the nitrate burns that generally were the first stage in the disintegration of a film print), and the piano accompaniment is nothing special but at least works far better than the dire electronics the British preservationists stuck onto A Message from Mars — though one wishes the TCM silent-film-scoring contest people would get hold of Himmelskibet and get someone to create an adventurous, imaginative score that would be truly worthy of this remarkable film.

Monday, April 13, 2015

Tea for Two (Warner Bros., 1950)

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

Tea for Two was the last in a pair of movies TCM showed last night as a tribute to Doris Day — the other was Love Me or Leave Me, a far superior film and one that really challenged Doris Day to act (it was a biopic of 1920’s singer Ruth Etting and her struggle to get out from under the control of her gangster manager, Moe “The Gimp” Snyder, memorably played by James Cagney) — it was made in 1950, was Day’s fifth film and her first with Gordon MacRae, with whom she made five musicals that are considerably more charming than MacRae’s later roles in the big-budget productions of Rodgers’ and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! and Carousel (roles that required far more acting chops than MacRae had, and also a more powerful singing style than MacRae’s pleasant but carefully cultivated blandness). Tea for Two, like a lot of Day’s other early films, had its roots in Warner Bros.’ acquisition of the Chappell music-publishing company in 1931; this gave them the rights to virtually all the major musical songs from the 1920’s, including the entire Gershwin catalog, and when added to Warners’ own songs from the 1930’s (particularly all the great Harry Warren songs from the Busby Berkeley musicals) this gave them a formidable list of selections to hand Day, MacRae, the spectacular dancer Gene Nelson and the other “regulars” in these movies to perform instead of having to commission new (and considerably weaker) songs.

Tea for Two is a sort-of adaptation of the 1925 stage musical No, No, Nanette, though the current prints feature a giant red splotch across the screen where the creators of No, No, Nanette (Frank Mandel, Otto Harbach, Vincent Youmans and Emil Nyltray) were originally credited so it looks like the screenwriter, Harry Clork, made up the whole story afresh. The film starts in 1950 with a framing scene in which the adolescent children of Nanette Carter (Doris Day) and Jimmy Smith (Gordon MacRae) discover a trunk full of preposterous-looking clothes. Their great-uncle, J. Maxwell Bloomhaus (S. Z. Sakall), criticizes them for making fun of the 1920’s and, deciding to tell the kids what the era was really like, starts telling them the story of how Nanette and Jimmy got together in the first place. (Ironically, during the bulk of the film, set in the 1920’s no one is shown wearing the flapper dresses or raccoon coats that so amused the teenagers in 1950. They wear fully contemporary hair styles and clothes, including the far more revealing 1950-era swim suits in the scenes set around a swimming pool.) The film flashes back to 1929, in the wake of the stock market crash; Nanette is an heiress who gave her money to Maxwell to manage — only he put it all in the market at the high point of the boom and lost it, while his business partner William “Moe” Early (Bill Goodwin) kept his and his clients’ money in government bonds and thereby rode out the Crash. (The idea that the government is a safer investment than the private sector itself dates this movie.) Nanette is being courted by scapegrace Broadway producer Larry Blair (Billy De Wolfe), who wants to marry her for her money and also wants her to put up $25,000 for his production. She’s also being courted by two of the show’s participants, Jimmy Smith (Gordon MacRae),who’s written the songs for it (actually mostly by Vincent Youmans with a few interjections from the Gershwins), and star dancer Tommy Trainor (Gene Nelson).

The gimmick is that in order to weasel out of giving her the money without actually telling her he’s lost his entire fortune, Maxwell hits on the idea of making Nanette a bet; if she can answer all yes-or-no questions “no” for the next 48 hours, she can have the money for Larry’s show. (The idea of Doris Day as someone who literally has to be bribed to say “no” can’t help but recall Oscar Levant’s famous bon mot, “I knew Doris Day before she became a virgin.”) Maxwell recruits Pauline Hastings (a deliciously astringent Eve Arden) to be Nanette’s “minder” and make sure she doesn’t cheat. There’s also an intrigue between Larry and Bea Darcy (Patrice Wymore), whom he hired to play the lead role in the show and was also courting, though now he wants to replace her with Nanette in both departments, and a Summer Stock-esque plot twist by which the entire cast of the show comes to Nanette’s upstate New York mansion to rehearse it. The plot is rather silly but it’s basically an excuse to hear Doris Day and company warble some of the greatest musical songs ever written, including “Tea for Two,” “I Know That You Know,” “I Want to Be Happy” and “Do-Do-Do,” and at the time she made this movie Doris Day’s chops as a jazz singer were still blessedly intact — her backings are pop-swing and she sings off the beat and phrases, habits she abandoned later when she realized she’d sell more records if she strait-jacketed herself in the pop mold. Tea for Two was the kind of polished, pleasant “entertainment” movie I wanted last night, perked along by the pleasant personality of Doris Day — who became the number one female musical star almost overnight with her first film, Romance on the High Seas, and was at the peak of Hollywood popularity throughout the 1950’s even though her acting skills weren’t really challenged until the 1953 film Calamity Jane (Day’s favorite of her own films and a remarkable gender-bending musical Western that was modeled on Annie Get Your Gun but to me turned out better than its model).

The Young Rajah (Paramount, 1922)

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

After that TCM showed a pair of films featuring Rudolph Valentino and we watched the first of them, The Young Rajah, a 1922 Paramount production and Valentino’s last film before he was off the screen for a year in a contract dispute with Paramount. The version of The Young Rajah that exists was produced in 2006 by a company called Flicker Alley in association with TCM, and is billed as “not a restoration, but a digital compilation.” After the film had long been thought completely lost, a researcher discovered about 30 minutes of it on 16 mm in a private collection and Flicker Alley’s compilers put together a 54-minute reconstruction with the existing footage, production stills and titles (based on Paramount’s original cutting continuity) to fill in gaps. As someone who suffered through the 47-minute attempt to reconstruct London After Midnight exclusively from production stills (through much of it I would have had no idea of what was going on if I hadn’t seen the film’s remake, Mark of the Vampire), The Young Rajah was pleasantly surprising; the print they had to work with was almost certainly a cut-down version Paramount had sold for home viewing, and while little of the opening two-thirds of the film was left, the last third was pretty much all there (even though I suspect the original ending was considerably longer than the one we have) and was quite engaging. Valentino plays Amos Judd, whose foster father is Joshua Judd (Charles Ogle, over a decade after he starred in Edison one-reelers as the screen’s first Frankenstein Monster and Ebenezer Scrooge) but whose real father is an Indian prince who was overthrown by a wicked usurpe

Fortunately Joshua’s brother was in India at the time and was able to rescue Amos (the scene in which he’s spirited out of the court — in which he’s played by Pat Moore, a child actor who doesn’t look like he’s going to grow up to be Rudolph Valentino — is unconvincing and makes him look like a giant rag doll) and ship him to Joshua, who dies as the film begins, leaving Amos a fortune in rubies sent by Joshua’s brother from his actual family’s rightful treasure in India. All Amos knows about his authentic heritage (an Indian father and an Italian mother — ironically, the real Valentino had an Italian father and a French mother, and according to biographer Emily Leider his mom taught him to speak French and the two of them drove his dad crazy by having long conversations in French his dad couldn’t understand) is that he has a mysterious ability to foresee the future, though not to alter it in any way. This comes in handy when, right after Joshua’s death, Amos goes to Harvard and makes the rowing team, beating out legacy student Austin Slade (Jack Giddings). Austin accuses Amos of having bribed his way onto the team after Amos leads it to victory in the annual boat race between Harvard and Yale, and at the celebratory party afterwards Austin attempts to assault Amos and throw him out of a window, only Amos gets a premonition this is going to happen and moves out of the way — so Austin takes the header out the window and dies instead. Amos also has an affair with Molly Cabot (Wanda Hawley, not an especially talented or charismatic actress — but except for Gloria Swanson, who starred with Valentino in another long-thought-lost but eventually rediscovered film, Beyond the Rocks, none of the women in Valentino’s movies were all that interesting) despite the consternation of her previous boyfriend, Horace Bennett (Robert Ober). At a costume party Bennett dresses as a Crusader and Valentino shows up in full Indian-rajah drag — once again, his psychic powers told him to dress that way — producing the famous still of Valentino presiding over an Indian court that for years was all virtually anyone could see from this film.

Amos learns of his true heritage and Molly is at first reluctant to keep dating him, but she looks at a verse in a book that tells her to follow her heart regardless of her beloved’s skin color (an anti-racist plot point decades before anti-racism was cool!), only in the end it’s he who leaves her to go save his family’s kingdom from the evil usurper — which he does in a series of scenes that makes it look surprisingly easy. I suspect the original version of the film contained a longer, more coherent and more action-filled ending; earlier in the movie there’s a scene in which Valentino’s character has a vision of himself being attacked with a dagger, but the scene cuts before we discover whether the attack was successful and it doesn’t correspond to anything that happens once Valentino actually returns to India, takes over the throne with seemingly no bloodshed at all (like the Sunnis in the recent Iraqi Army, who quit en masse and switched sides to join ISIS, the army in this movie automatically hails Valentino’s character as their rightful ruler and deserts the usurper). Based on two story sources — a novel by John Ames Mitchell and a stage play by Alethea Luce — The Young Rajah was directed by Phil Rosen (so, like his Monogram contemporaries William Beaudine and William Nigh, Rosen had once got to make movies with the “A”-list before exiled by his Depression debts to the “B” salt mines) and written by June Mathis (her hand is quite obvious in some of the more florid romantic titles). It’s a frustrating movie because there isn’t more of it, although the version we have is quite coherent in the last half-hour and surprisingly good even though through most of it we see Valentino in an American setting and in ordinary clothes, and it really took a period and/or exotic costume to showcase him at his best (like a later screen lover, Errol Flynn). It’s an obvious rehash of The Sheik, though with enough variations it can’t be considered a complete ripoff, and it anticipates those odd movies like Song of Freedom and the 1937 King Solomon’s Mines Paul Robeson did in Britain in which he was cast as a seemingly assimilated African-Britisher who turns out to be the rightful king of a tribe he’s obliged to rescue from an evil usurper (and, along the way, improve their lives by teaching them Western ways). While we can still hope for the discovery of a more complete version, The Young Rajah as “digitally compiled” by Flicker Alley (with a long list of credits that makes it look like it took more people to create this incarnation than it did to make the film originally) is a fascinating addition to Rudolph Valentino’s slender filmography even though it doesn’t really stretch him the way The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, The Conquering Power or the forgotten and monumentally underrated Moran of the “Lady Letty” do.