Saturday, October 31, 2015

Danny Elfman’s Music for the Films of Tim Burton (PBS, 2015)

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

Charles and I watched an intriguing but also somewhat numbing program on PBS: Danny Elfman’s Music for the Films of Tim Burton, which was engaging for about the first hour or so. The gimmick was that the New York Philharmonic played the music from films including Beetlejuice (which I can remember watching with my late partner John Gabrish; we enjoyed it but we both realized early on it was simply Ghostbusters in reverse — instead of people trying to exorcise ghosts, it was ghosts trying to exorcise people), Batman, Batman Returns (I still think these films, Burton’s only two in the Batman mythos, are the best Batman movies ever made — all the others have been either too campy or too dark —though I’d also throw in the marvelous 1943 Columbia serial, the Caped Crusader’s first appearance on screen, directed by Lambert Hillyer, who’d also done The Invisible Ray and Dracula’s Daughter), Edward Scissorhands (a film I’m somewhat ashamed to admit I’ve never seen even though it’s already 25 years old and it launched the long-term collaboration between Burton and Johnny Depp, a director-star pairing I’ve compared to John Ford/John Wayne, John Huston/Humphrey Bogart and Douglas Sirk/Rock Hudson), Mars Attacks! (which Charles and I watched recently — which helped us appreciate the fusion of music and image more than we did for some of the films we hadn’t seen either in ages or at all), Big Fish (a movie I don’t recall even having heard of before, let alone seen, though quite frankly it looks like it would be quite interesting, a circus-set movie that seems from the clips they showed like a modern reworking of Freaks) and The Nightmare Before Christmas, which is considered part of the Burton oeuvre even though he merely produced it (someone named Henry Selick directed), along with Burton’s early short Frankenweenie, one of the most horrible titles ever concocted for what turned out to be a clever and savagely brilliant spoof of the James Whale Frankenstein movies (a kid’s dog gets killed and he determines to bring the pooch back to life with Dr. Frankenstein’s technology). The New York Philharmonic brought in a guest “pops” conductor, John Mauceri, instead of entrusting it to their normal one, Alan Gilbert, but quite frankly there’s not much a conductor can do with this music except make sure the orchestra (and particularly the percussionists) get the rhythms right.

Elfman began his career with a rock band called the Mystic Knights of the Oingo Boingo — though the name got abbreviated simply to “Oingo Boingo” when they got a record contract — and wasn’t sure at first he had the technical skills to compose orchestral music for films, but he’s quite good at it. He’s developed an off-kilter “take” on the classic-era scores of the 1930’s and 1940’s (in an interview in the show he mentioned his particular admiration for Bernard Herrmann, who was represented via a film clip from Ray Harryhausen’s The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad — obviously closer to Burton’s type of movie than the dramas and thrillers Herrmann scored for Orson Welles and Alfred Hitchcock!) that works beautifully for Burton’s films. The problem is that the music all started to sound pretty much the same after a while; perhaps if they had interspersed some of Elfman’s work for other directors the show wouldn’t have started to pale, but as it stood it just communicated how Tim Burton gravitates to the same sorts of subjects again and again, and Elfman comes up with the same sort of music again and again to match Burton’s choice of stories and overall approach. The music for Edward Scissorhands stood out if only because for once in his career (at least judging from the clips and the content of Elfman’s music) Burton went for pathos, and as a result Elfman was able to write lyrically — something he isn’t generally able to do for Burton. Also standing out was The Nightmare Before Christmas, though more because Elfman and a woman singer actually performed with the orchestra — and Elfman joked that even after 25 years in the public eye he still gets stage fright before he has to go on, but “maybe when I’ve been doing it 50 years I’ll be over it” (a sort of joke that underscores the compatibility of his and Burton’s senses of humor) — and the vocals added a new dimension to a long stretch of music that, though composed over at least two decades, all was starting to sound pretty much the same.

All those off-beat percussion rhythms, all those low-voiced instruments (at one point one of the pieces started to sound like a cross between the cello part Brian Wilson was so obsessively rehearsing in Love and Mercy and the famous tuba theme from Jaws), all those theremin effects (the theremin player got an interview in which he said you have to tune the thing to make sure the electronic field it’s generating is going to give you the correct pitches, even though it remains the only instrument that is played without the player physically touching it), mostly meaning the same thing the theremin usually means in a film (to indicate that the flying saucer is coming in for a landing — Franz Waxman was the first film composer to use the theremin, and he pioneered it to underscore Ray Milland’s alcoholic ravings in The Lost Weekend and Gregory Peck’s struggle to regain his memory in Spellbound, but such “serious” uses of the theremin have long receded into movie history) and all those twitchy little semi-melodies started to get wearing after a while even though the concert presenters, as has become standard in concerts of film music, had a projection screen over the orchestra showing not only clips from the films themselves but a few of Burton’s original storyboard drawings and paintings — which showed that some of his characters were considerably wilder in appearance in his imagination than they were when they finally hit the screen. The show was engaging, and about 40 minutes of the Elfman music interspersed with other works could have made a compelling concert, but ultimately the sheer sameness of the material (as well as its references to classic-era film scoring — not surprising, given that Burton is the sort of director who fills his movies with references to classic films) got more wearing than entertaining.

Tannhäuser (Thanhouser Film Corporation, 1913)

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

Afterwards Charles and I watched a pretty quirky film: the 1913 Tannhäuser made by the Thanhouser company. I suppose it was virtually inevitable that Edwin Thanhouser would make a movie more or less based on the opera by Richard Wagner about his legendary namesake, the Minnesänger (referred to in the credits as a “Minstrel,” which predictably led Charles to joke that he hadn’t known medieval Germans performed in blackface) Heinrich Tannhäuser (though given his German heritage it’s a bit surprising Edwin Thanhouser misplaced the umlaut in the title character’s name; he’s referred in all the titles as “Tannhaüser”), who ended up entrapped in a carnal relationship with the goddess Venus and tried to fight his way back to the good graces of both the Roman Catholic Church and his nice girlfriend Elisabeth. The film runs 40 minutes and therefore at least arguably qualifies as one of the first American-made features (though that honor is usually given in film histories to D. W. Griffith’s Judith of Bethulia, also made in 1913, a 50-minute film Griffith made in secret; when his employers, Biograph, learned he’d made a film that long with their money they fired him, then futilely tried to hire him back when the film was released and it was a major hit), and like most Thanhouser films it’s handsomely produced. Unfortunately, also like most Thanhouser films, it’s awfully static: the characters, settings and props (except for the horribly fake-looking lyres the characters playing singers carry around to accompany themselves) are quite impressive, and the special effects (notably Tannhäuser and Venus dissolving in and out of the action) are great for 1913, but the film is a series of static tableaux in which the actors move but the cameras don’t. The basic grammar of film as Griffith was inventing it at Biograph — the close-ups, the cutting between angles in a single scene, the use of moving cameras to follow the action and bring it closer to the audience — was totally foreign to Lucius J. Henderson, who directed this one (no writer is credited but the script was probably by Lloyd Lonergan, third partner in Thanhouser with Edwin Thanhouser and his wife Gertrude, based on Wagner’s opera).

The movie basically tells the same story as the opera, but with the addition of a backstory showing the Markgrave basically putting up his niece Elisabeth (Marguerite Snow) as prize for the winner of a song contest, a plot device cribbed from a later Wagner opera, Die Meistersinger. Wolfram von Eschenbach (William Russell) wins the prize and the Markgrave announces his engagement to Elisabeth, but then Tannhäuser (played, like many leading men in Thanhouser movies, by future director James Cruze) shows up — the title says he’s in time to compete but the action makes it seem like he’s too late, he’s missed the deadline. He and Elisabeth meet and instantly fall in love with each other, but she still feels she has to honor her uncle’s arrangement of her marriage to Wolfram, so she sends him away and it’s at that point that he runs into Venus (Florence La Badie, the closest Thanhouser came to establishing a major star and by far the most charismatic on-screen performer in this film) and her entourage. Though she and Tannhäuser conduct their romance (and their magical appearances and disappearances) in the open air instead of inside a mountain as in Wagner’s opera (let’s face it, in 1913 lights were expensive and sunlight was free), the plot pretty much continues as in Wagner: Tannhäuser has fun with Venus (and as the only male in her entourage, possibly with some of the other girls as well!) but starts longing for a normal life and a normal partner. When a group of pilgrims on their way to Rome passes by, Tannhäuser joins them and walks with them as far as the Markgrave’s palace, whereupon he scandalizes the Markgrave’s entourage by singing a hymn to Venus. Wolfram challenges him to a duel, Elisabeth intercedes, and Tannhäuser decides to seek absolution by joining the pilgrims (ya remember the pilgrims?) and visiting the Pope. Only once he gets there the Pope tells him that his sins with Venus are so scandalous that he won’t be forgiven until the Pope’s staff sprouts leaves.

Well, you don’t need two guesses to figure out what happens next: Tannhäuser returns to Elisabeth, Wolfram agrees to give her up and let her marry Tannhäuser (Charles joked that James Cruze looked so nellie, and William Russell so butch, it was a wonder Tannhäuser didn’t marry Wolfram instead), but Elisabeth is dying of a broken heart and even the news from Rome that the Pope’s staff sprouted leaves after all (you were expecting that, weren’t you?) doesn’t arrive in time to save the lovebirds: Elisabeth dies and Tannhäuser dies as well. Tannhäuser the movie is an obvious example of Thanhouser the studio’s attempt to raise the level of motion-picture entertainment by drawing on classic sources from literature and high culture (they were among the first people to film Charles Dickens — though I suspect Edison’s 1910 A Christmas Carol is the first Dickens movie, and there might be British-made shorts even earlier — and the first company to make a movie of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, with James Cruze in the title role[s]), and if they had had a director of Griffith’s creativity their movies would probably be considered classics instead of curiosities today. As it is, Tannhäuser is electrifying in the Venus sequences but the rest of the film is pretty dull, though at least respectably acted — the playing is surprisingly naturalistic for a film this early and only Tannhäuser’s hand-to-the-back-of-the-head swoon when he learns Elisabeth isn’t going to be allowed to marry him shows silent acting at its worst — and handsomely produced. It probably wowed audiences in 1913, and for our viewing (off the computer in VLC since the download from had a glitch four minutes in when we tried to run it in any other program) I assembled a soundtrack CD of music from the opera that worked pretty well — especially when the music Wagner wrote for the scenes in the Venusberg accompanied similar action involving Venus and her entourage in the movie.

Friday, October 30, 2015

Invasion of the Bee Girls (Sequoia Pictures, 1973)

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

The first film on our program last night was Invasion of the Bee Girls, a 1973 movie with some genuinely formidable talent — the director was Denis Sanders, already known for the music documentaries Elvis: That’s the Way It Is (1970, about Elvis’s Vegas comeback in 1969) and Soul to Soul (1971, about a troupe of African-American soul-music stars giving a concert in Africa). The writer was Nicholas Meyer, who went on to write The Seven Per Cent Solution (one of the better book-length Sherlock Holmes pastiches) and write and direct Time After Time. The cinematographer was Gary Graver, who had already shot most of the unfinished film The Other Side of the Wind with Orson Welles as director. All that talent got wasted on a movie that took a potentially compelling presence — Dr. Susan Harris (Anitra Ford), a woman scientist at Brandt Institute in Peckham, California, develops a jelly extract from bees and uses it to turn women into sexually voracious creatures who literally fuck their husbands, boyfriends or tricks to death (they end up dead from heart attacks due to sexual overexertion) — and wasted it on a lot of silliness. Sanders clearly had an eye for composition, and the film is shot in excellent and well-used color (the vibrancy and brightness of the hues is a stunning contrast to the murky greens and dark browns that dominate most “color” films today). The hero is Neil Agar (William Smith, who usually played villains in biker movies but is surprisingly credible as a James Bond-ish character here), a State Department agent who learns of the bee-girls’ actions in Peckham and gets sent to investigate, presumably to find out if this is some secret weapon being unleashed by a foreign power for sinister purposes.

The heroine is Julie Zorn (Victoria Vetri), who at least for most of the movie appears to be the one woman Dr. Harris has allowed to remain normal instead of being “bee-ified,” though there’s a tiresome final sequence in which she and Neil finally end up in bed together, only just as it looks like they’re enjoying a perfectly normal and non-life-threatening sexual encounter, we hear the buzzing of bees on the soundtrack and there’s a glint in her eyes that in previous bee-sexual experiences in the film was signaling that her bee-energies were coming into play and she was ready to attack and wear out her partner. Of course, the film takes its own sweet time telling us all this, but when we see Dr. Harris and her basement installation in which she turns ordinary human females into “bee-girls” the film shades over from the mildly risible to the totally silly. The highlight of the process is that, after a ray gun is aimed at the poor woman’s crotch to irradiate it, her naked body is covered with a weird sort of goop that looks like a cross between cake frosting and Silly Putty and she’s then baked in a radioactive oven, from which once she emerges and the putty covering is removed she’s a sexually voracious monster even though she still looks the same as she did when she went in. It’s the sort of movie that has an eminently reasonable running time (85 minutes) but seems considerably longer than that, and it’s also a nudie in that we get to see a lot of women going topless as well as at least one sequence of a nude (straight) couple in the wilderness, though the male is only shown from behind (darnit). This sort of sexual exploitation of the female body was actually rather common in underground films of the early 1960’s — a few big-city theatres would book “nudies” and show them after midnight following a night of more mainstream fare — but it seems excessively dated for 1973. The film’s music doesn’t help much, either: the credited composer is Charles Bernstein, who must have been affected by having to carry out his career under the long shadows of his namesakes Leonard and Elmer, but the music is a weird assemblage of “vapor voices” and Ligeti-esque mumblings that seem to have been his homage to the use of the real Ligeti’s music in 2001: A Space Odyssey — and the 2001 references become even clearer when the final extreme close-ups of real bees are accompanied by the opening of Richard Strauss’s Thus Spake Zarathustra — which, as I’ve commented before when that music has been used in such silly contexts, is the praise imbecility pays to genius.

Invaders from Space (Shintoho Film Distribution Committee, Walter Manley Enterprises, 1965)

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

After Invasion of the Bee Girls Charles and I watched another from the download backlog, Invaders from Space, a Japanese movie from 1965 released in an English-language version by something called Walter Manley Enterprises, which — praise be — at least had Japanese actors doing the English dubbing, so we don’t have clearly Asian-looking people playing Japanese characters but speaking American-accented English like we got in the Godzilla films. Invaders from Space is marked on as a TV-movie and references are made to the original Japanese serial version, in which the monsters are kappas, figures from Japanese mythology. For the U.S. version the baddies were changed to “salamander men” from the planet Kulimon in the Moffit Galaxy (which sounded to me like they were saying “Moptop Galaxy” and made me wonder if anyone had actually named a galaxy after the Beatles this early). The good guy is Starman, a pretty obvious Superman knock-off (down to the silly hat and tacky suit he wears in his non-hero “Clark Kent” identity) even though he’s supposed to be a robot, sent from the Emerald Planet (do you get there by following a yellow brick time-warp?), sent from two billion miles away traveling at the speed of light (which, as Charles pointed out, would mean it would take him four years to get to Earth) to keep the Salamander People from conquering Earth and releasing dangerous radiation that would endanger life on their own planet, which remember is two billion miles away. This is also assuming there is any biological life there, since all we see are robots that look like bobble-headed dolls from the Tokyo Woolworth’s conferring in solemn conference about what to do about the Salamander People. Invaders from Space is obviously a film aimed at a child audience, especially since among the key people in the dramatis personae are some typically obnoxiously cute kids, one of whom stumbles on the key weapon — copper sulfate — that when sprayed on a Salamander Person will cause them to melt away and become a puddle on the floor like the Wicked Witch of the West in The Wizard of Oz. 

But despite its childish (literally and figuratively) aspects, Invaders from Space has a lot going for it, including some surprisingly atmospheric shots from cinematographer Takashi Watanabe, a suitable (and sometimes better than that) score from composer Michiaki Watanabe (any relation? Could be, even though I’ve heard of so many people named “Watanabe” I get the impression it’s the Japanese equivalent of “Smith”), and, above all, some of the most remarkable fight scenes ever staged. Apparently the producers decided to hire acrobatic dancers to play the Salamander People, outfitting them in cool skin-tight striped costumes and having them do backflips and other gymnastic maneuvers, and actor Ken Utsui, who plays Starman (or his stunt double) matches them and creates some surprisingly balletic action sequences that are the real highlight of the film. It’s true that there’s a plot hole in all this maneuvering — early on we’re told that the claw-like fingernails of the Salamander People are so sharp they can easily puncture even the solid steel (or whatever the material is) Starman is made of (he’s a robot, remember?), but in all those exciting martial-arts dances the Salamander People often get close enough to Starman to claw his skin to shreds but never think of doing so — but even so, the fight scenes are genuinely entertaining and set this movie well above the common run of films in its genre and audience appeal. There are also such intriguing villain characters as the man who shows up as representative of the Salamander People to demand Earth’s surrender — he’s somehow able to stuff his big salamander-person’s head into a disguise to make himself look like a normal Earthling, but he can’t do anything about the scarring on his face, so he ends up looking like the Joker in the Batman comics, complete with painted mouth to look like a clown; and a character referred to on as “Alien Hag” (Akiko Ono — any relation?), who stalks around the latter part of the film carrying a staff that makes her look vaguely like the figure of the Grim Reaper in Carl Theodor Dreyer’s Vampyr. If they’d only put a few songs into it (there actually is one production number, put on by the Salamander People in their headquarters), the producers of Invaders of Space could have had some kind of ultimate genre-bender: the first science-fiction action-adventure martial-arts musical!

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Paramount on Parade (Paramount, 1930)

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

Two nights ago Charles and I watched an uneven but quite entertaining movie, Paramount on Parade, a 1930 all-star musical revue from Paramount studios (as the title suggests) that was meant to compete with the brief spate of all-star revues from other studios: MGM’s Hollywood Revue of 1929, Warner Bros.’ The Show of Shows and Universal’s The King of Jazz (in which Universal’s rather meager talent list was bolstered by the enormous — literally and figuratively — figure of Paul Whiteman leading what with one exception was his finest band: Bix Beiderbecke, the exception, had drunk his way out of Whiteman’s ranks by then but Frank Trumbauer, Joe Venuti, Eddie Lang and the other stars of the Whiteman-Bix bands were still there). A “revue,” so spelled, was Broadway-speak for a musical with no plot, not even the threadbare semblance of one that drove most shows in the 1920’s; it was just a succession of songs, comedy sketches, spectacular dance numbers and more songs, comedy sketches and spectacular dance numbers, repeating until the big, splashy finale that was supposed to send audiences out of the theatre laughing, humming the big tune at the end and telling their friends how wonderful the show was so they would see it, too. Paramount on Parade came late in the cycle, when audiences were just beginning to get bored with the endless procession of musicals, most of them rather crudely filmed renditions of famous stage shows or movie “originals” that might as well have been stage shows, and it’s usually considered to be the wittiest and most sophisticated of the bunch —not surprisingly given that, though no fewer than 11 directors are listed on the page for the film, only one writer is credited: Joseph L. Mankiewicz, writer-director of All About Eve and many quite good films whose brittle dialogue is the best thing about them. Paramount on Parade reflects the breadth of Paramount’s contract list — only MGM could rival it and Paramount’s filmmakers made far better use of their players here than MGM did in Hollywood Revue of 1929 — even though the film we have is only about two-thirds of what audiences got to see in 1930. The reason is that, unlike MGM and Warners, Paramount sold off their entire output up to 1949 to MCA’s TV division — and when MCA acquired Universal Studios in 1962 the rights to all the films ended up at Universal, leading to weird releases like the recent Universal Rarities boxed set sold by TCM, containing four films all of which were originally Paramount productions. (I forlornly wished for a Universal Rarities, Volume 2 that would contain similarly unjustly neglected 1930’s films made by Universal itself.)

Originally about one-third of Paramount on Parade was filmed in two-strip Technicolor, but since TV in the 1950’s was still black-and-white exclusively, when preparing it for TV MCA simply stripped out the color sequences and released the black-and-white portions. Only recently have some of the original color scenes been rediscovered, and apparently a partially restored version of the film with the surviving color sequences rests in the vaults at UCLA, whose Fafners have added it to the mouth-watering items in their collection (like the full-color version of the 1930 musical The Vagabond King) they say they’re preserving but aren’t letting us see. As a result of the crude hackery (even worse than the butchery RKO’s successor, General Tire and Rubber — which owned some TV stations and wanted movies for them — wreaked on the 1930 film Dixiana; since its first seven reels were in black-and-white and its last three in two-strip Technicolor, they simply lopped off the color reels, slapped a 1950’s RKO “End” title on the black-and-white portions, and thus ended the film with the villain challenging the hero to a duel; fortunately the color footage survived and the film as currently circulating includes it, and that’s the stuff you want to see because for the most part Dixiana is a dull, lumbering musical but it contains the only extant footage of Bill “Bojangles” Robinson in color, doing a solo version of the famous staircase routine he later did with Shirley Temple in The Littlest Rebel, and while the great Bojangles is on screen the film takes off and flies). MCA-TV seems to have printed at least one color sequence from Paramount on Parade in black-and-white — the spectacular finale featuring Maurice Chevalier as a chimney sweep doing an elaborate production number (including a couple of Busby Berkeley-style overhead shots with the chorus dancers in kaleidoscope formation; these shots occur in a number of early musicals, including Hollywood Revue of 1929 and the 1929 version of Rio Rita, before Berkeley ever got to Hollywood to make the great two-strip Technicolor musical Whoopee with Eddie Cantor) to the song “Sweeping the Clouds Away” by Sam Coslow — whose lyrics, with their references to rainbows, seem designed for color.

Because most of the color sequences were simply lopped out of the extant film, we get at least two introductions of numbers — one a gondola sequence with tenor Nino Martini (later the star of Rouben Mamoulian’s great Mexico-set gangster spoof The Gay Desperado) and one a hunting sequence with Gary Cooper (in a musical?) and Fay Wray — where we get to see the intro but not the number itself. Instead, right after we see Cooper, Wray and director Edmund Goulding (the only one of the 11 credited directors actually attributed to a specific sequence — the others are Dorothy Arzner, Otto Brower, Victor Heerman, Edwin S. Knopf, Rowland V. Lee, Ernst Lubitsch, Lothar Mendes, Victor Schertzinger, A. Edward Sutherland and Frank Tuttle — though Clive Hirschhorn’s book The Hollywood Musical says Lubitsch directed all the scenes with Chevalier, and that seems likely to me) introduce the hunting number, the next item is Clara Bow (alas, not getting a chance to flash that magnificent head of red hair in color!) doing a song called “I’m True to the Navy Now.” Bow is actually quite good — much better than Ruth Chatterton, who gets drafted into service with a song called “My Marine,” an obvious knockoff on the famous French song “My Man” that Fanny Brice sang unforgettably in Ziegfeld Follies of 1921 and nowhere near as good as the original. (Fredric March is equally wasted as one of her Marine boyfriends.) Bow gets so far into the spirit that one wonders why Paramount, whose “suits” were at their wit’s end in terms of figuring out how to keep this great silent star going in the talkies, didn’t put her into a full-fledged musical. (Marlene Dietrich, who was supposed to host a German-language version of Paramount on Parade and reportedly shot a scene for this one with Sternberg directing, would do a much similar song called “That Man’s in the Navy” for her 1940 Universal film Seven Sinners; and Carmen Miranda would film her own version of “I’m True to the Navy Now” for her film Doll Face, only Paramount owned the publishing rights and wouldn’t let 20th Century-Fox use the song in a film — indeed, I suspect the ukase from Paramount came down before the number was even finished, because the version we have as a bonus item on the Doll Face DVD is simply a master shot with no close-ups.)

The film opens — after a batch of top-hatted males doing the title song (which was inexplicably revived in the mid-1940’s by the combined orchestras of Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey for a V-Disc session) with Charles “Buddy” Rogers (Mary Pickford’s third husband) and Lillian Roth doing a nice comic duet in front of an elaborate painted backdrop of an old-fashioned clock; the song is almost inevitably called “Anytime’s the Time to Fall in Love” and the duet is clever and engaging. The next routine is “Murder Will Out,” a spoof of detective mysteries that, as Charles noted, anticipated Neil Simon’s film Murder by Death by over four decades: Sherlock Holmes (Clive Brook in his second of three appearances as the great detective, which whets one’s appetite to see his two films as a serious Holmes) and Philo Vance (William Powell) try to talk Sgt. Heath (Eugene Pallette) out of arresting Dr. Fu Manchu (Warner Oland) for murder — and Fu Manchu, desperate to get someone to believe that he’s a killer, shoots Holmes and Vance to death, then escapes from Heath’s handcuffs to disappear into the night. There’s also a number in which two dress shoes and a box miraculously contain Nancy Carroll (a silent star who got some plum roles in early musicals, including The Dance of Life — in a role Barbara Stanwyck had originated on stage under her real name, Ruby Stephens, in the play Burlesque — because of her strong dancing skills) and Abe Lyman’s orchestra in a song called “Dancing to Save Your Soul.” Jack Oakie and Zelma O’Neal get to do a number in a girls’ gym called “I’m in Training for You” — as in his own film Sea Legs, Oakie turns out to be a quite good comic singer — and Helen Kane, the original “Boop-Boop-a-Doop” girl and (inevitably) the first person to voice Betty Boop in the cartoons, does a sequence as a history teacher telling her students that boop-boop-a-doop is the secret of all human events.

Not surprisingly, Chevalier’s three sequences are the high points of the film: one is a supposed illustration of the origins of the apache dance, with him and Evelyn Brent as a feuding couple who shed more and more clothes as they argue and beat each other, to the point where the director cuts away to the piles of clothes as they get higher and higher (this must be Lubitsch directing!); one is a park scene in which Chevalier plays a Paris gendarme supervising the necking couples on the park benches; and one is the big finale. It’s interesting that in at least two of the three scenes he’s in, Chevalier is playing a proletarian; though in his 1950’s comeback he was merchandised as an upper-class French boulevardier his real-life origins were decidedly working-class, and in his Paramount films in the early 1930’s (when he was briefly the number one male movie star in the U.S.!) he alternated between playing aristocratic and proletarian roles — in his best film (indeed, in my not-so-humble opinion the greatest musical ever made, period), Rouben Mamoulian’s Love Me Tonight (1932), he’s playing a tailor forced to pose as an aristocrat to win the heart of genuine aristocrat Jeanette MacDonald — and he’s great in both. Paramount on Parade is certainly an uneven movie, but at its best it’s considerably more interesting than The Show of Shows or The Hollywood Revue of 1929; ah, if only we could still see all of it!

Sunday, October 25, 2015

16&Missing (Feifer Worldwide/Lifetime, 2015)

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

Last night I watched the latest Lifetime “world premiere” movie, 16&Missing (the page for it lists it more typographically conventionally as 16 and Missing, but the actual title credit is as above, with an ampersand and no spaces, as if it were a Twitter “handle” — and Lifetime’s current penchant for putting hashtags in front of the titles of their movies when they flash them on the screen in mid-film to let people who’ve been channel-surfing know what they’re now watching makes the title look even more “Twitteresque”: #16andMissing). It was one of Michael Feifer’s auteur productions: he produced, wrote and directed, and his company is called “Feifer Worldwide,” and was a not-good, not-bad typical Lifetime story about an overprotective mom, Julia (Ashley Scott), who’s worried about her 16-year-old daughter Abbey (Lizze Broadway) — that’s how her first name is spelled both on and when we see her referred to by name in texts flashed upon the screen. At the start of the movie Julia and Abbey’s stepfather Daniel (David Starzyk) have just given her her own car for her 16th birthday, but of course it comes with a warning that she’s to use it carefully and safely. Of course, Abbey has no intention of following orders: for the past two years she’s been carrying on an online correspondence with Gavin Brown (Mark Hapka), who’s told her he’s a police officer in Prescott, Arizona, and Abbey is determined to use her new car to drive out there and see her online beloved for the first time. Of course, being a male lead in a Lifetime movie — and a highly attractive man, at that (Feifer gives us some good crotch shots of Hapka’s black jeans-clad midsection: he isn’t throwing that big a basket but it’s nice enough to be impressive aesthetically) — we can guess that “Gavin” is up to no good, but it won’t be until two-thirds of the way through the movie that we’ll find out what he’s really doing and why he wants Abbey. One conceit of the film’s plot is that as an active FBI agent Julia can tap into the expertises of just about anyone else who is now or has ever been part of the FBI. “Now” includes an African-American information technology specialist she regularly works with, who shows her how to hack Abbey’s e-mail and smartphone so she can find out where her daughter is and what he and “Gavin” have been saying to each other. He also runs down Gavin’s record; he learns that “Gavin” is really an ex-convict but at first he thinks Gavin is merely “trolling,” sending out hundreds of texts and e-mail messages to social media sites aimed at women and hoping one “bites” and corresponds with him, which will give him someone he can date (and fuck) once he gets out.

It turns out “Gavin” has a far more sinister agenda than that, one hinted at by a barely motivated (though we find out its importance later) flashback in which Abbey as a child watches her dad, a fellow FBI agent, get kidnapped and killed by his former partner, who’s “gone rogue” and hooked up with a major drug kingpin who has a huge warehouse filled with neatly stacked stashes of illegal narcotics. Abbey’s dad, of course, remains honest, but for his pains he and his daughter are kidnapped by the rogue FBI agent, Walter Sanford, who is later killed in the line of duty by Julia. Abbey saves her own life only by following dad’s order to her to run into the surrounding forest and hide. Two years later Julia married Daniel, something for which Abbey never forgave her, especially since Daniel brought his own two bratty kids into the relationship (it’s not clear whether either or both of them are Daniel’s and Julia’s children or Daniel’s by a previous marriage, though the snotty young boy who heard Abbey leave but didn’t say anything about it because “I’m glad she’s gone” certainly looks too old to have been the offspring of Daniel and Julia). When Abbey drives out into the desert to meet Gavin, he’s so young and personable — Abbey says he looks older than he did in his profile picture online but he’s told her he’s 23, and frankly that’s how old he looked to me (though Mark Hapka’s biography on gives his birthdate as May 29, 1982, which would make him 33) — I was wondering if the schtick was that he was trolling for potential victims for a human-trafficking ring and the risk Abbey was in was that she’d be sold into sexual slavery as a prostitute. Certainly such criminal enterprises, both in other movies and in real life, rely largely on “hooking” their female (and male) victims with young, personable, genuinely attractive partners who then turn them over to their pimps for the brutal process they call “breaking” (in the old days of actual chattel slavery in the U.S. the newly captured Blacks from Africa — the ones who survived the Middle Passage — were subjected to a similar will-breaking routine the people who did it called “seasoning”). But that wasn’t where Michael Feifer was taking us; nor, as I also briefly thought, was he going the route Robert Bloch, Joseph Stefano and Alfred Hitchcock did in Psycho, creating a genuinely attractive but seemingly milquetoast character who turns out to have some bit of psychological glare-ice in his makeup that turns him into a crazy killer. Instead nice, young, personable “Gavin” turns out to be Walter Sanford, Jr., son of the rogue FBI agent who killed Abbey’s father in the flashback sequence and then was killed by Abbey’s mother — and Sanford fils’ motivation is bitterness over having lost his dad and grown up in foster homes, so he’s determined to make both Julia and Abbey suffer the way he and his dad did, though he’s undecided which of his victims he wants to kill first.

Thanks to another FBI agent, a retired one Julia used to work with before he quit the Bureau and settled in Prescott, Julia is armed both with a pistol and a high-powered rifle, and after she tries to explain to Sanford how his dad’s death really went down (provoking another flashback, an ill-timed one when we want the show to smash towards the end without the excitement, such as it is, letting up), he tries to kill Abbey and Julia blows him away before he can do that and before the local cops, which she and her retired-FBI friend have called, can arrive at the scene. The End — except for the everything’s-back-to-normal tag scene in which Julia and Abbey joke about how long she’s going to be grounded for this (the rest of her life, Julia says) and how long it’s going to be before Julia allows Abbey to date men (never, Julia says, which of course led me to joke about Abbey becoming a Lesbian). I’ve no doubt seen several of the Lifetime movies Michael Feifer has produced, directed and written, but the one that sticks in my mind is His Secret Family, about a woman who discovers that her husband is a bigamist and she was actually wife number two. His Secret Family struck me as considerably better than 16&Missing, mainly because it had a much more interesting villain and also its considerably quirkier (and kinkier) plot line seemed to turn Feifer on more than the standard “watch your children” moral tale of 16&Missing, which was decently acted (though Feifer’s casting director slipped up badly by casting Abbey’s best friend Janelle with a young actress, Stella Hudgins, who looked so much like Lizze Broadway that for a while I was confused as to which of these lovely young teenage girls would be put in mortal peril) and acceptably directed but offered nothing outside the common run of Lifetime movies, either for good or ill.

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Billy Elliot (Universal Stage Productions, Working Title Films, Old Vic Productions, 2014)

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

Last night’s PBS Fall Arts Festival offering was Billy Elliot: The Musical, a story which began life as a 2000 film dealing with a 12-year-old lad named Billy Elliot who’s growing up in the (fictional) coal-mining town of Everington in County Durham in northern England, who discovers that what he really wants to do with his life is be a ballet dancer. It’s set against the backdrop of the U.K. coal miners’ strike in 1984-85, which lasted a year and was a total defeat for the workers, who were essentially starved into submission and came crawling back to the pits on British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s terms, thereby breaking the U.K.’s tradition of labor solidarity and permanently weakening the power of organized labor in Britain. The tale has more than a family resemblance to Emlyn Williams’ play The Corn is Green, done on the U.S. stage with Ethel Barrymore and filmed in 1945 with Bette Davis and again in 1979 with Katharine Hepburn, which also takes place in a coal-mining town in Britain (though that one is in Wales instead of northern England), the young boy is a young man, and what he wants to leave the village to do isn’t become a dancer but go to college and become a scholar. In The Corn Is Green what’s holding the ambitious young man back isn’t a huge labor battle and the disapproval of his family (what’s left of it) and peers, but the fact that he got a young girl “with child” and her family is demanding he marry her and work in the mines (like virtually every other male in town) to support her and the baby — and the schoolteacher who coached him agrees to adopt the baby and raise the kid herself so he can go on and fulfill his dreams. Of course, Billy Elliot also has a relationship to virtually every other novel, play and movie ever written about someone from a provincial (in both senses of the term) background who must rise above both financial constraints and local disapproval to get the hell out of there and fulfill his or her dreams in a more urban environment — if there are, as some critics have said, only six basic plots in all movies, that certainly is one of them! The film cost £3 million to make and became a surprise hit, making a worldwide gross of £72,853,509, so its producers decided to see how else they could make money off Lee Hall’s gritty story of following your dreams no matter what the consequences. So in 2005 Universal, which produced the movie, had its stage division recruit partners to commission a musical for London’s West End, with Lee Hall adapting his script for the movie and writing lyrics and Elton John doing the music.

The musical premiered in Australia (talk about your out-of-town tryouts! They did an out-of-continent tryout!) in 2007 and became an international hit even though it’s difficult to cast, not only because the male lead is supposed to be a 12-year-old boy with an incredible talent and skill as a dancer, but because of restrictions in both the U.K. and the U.S. on how many hours a child performer can work, each production has to cast three actors as Billy Elliot and rotate them through the run so they can meet the usual theatrical schedule of eight shows a week. The performance PBS filmed took place in 2014 and captured Elliott Hanna’s remarkable (that’s putting it mildly!) singing, dancing and acting in the title role a year before he aged out of it and left the cast, and in honor of both the casting and the length of the run, the musical included several encores, including a huge dance done by a bunch of boys and young men (since there’s one scene in which Billy does a largely airborne dance with his future self, which required yet a fourth, older male to play Billy as his later dancer self), all wearing white T-shirts emblazoned with the name “BILLY,” as well as a number for Billy Elliot to show off his dance skills that frankly looks more like Michael Jackson than either Rudolf Nureyev or Fred Astaire. Indeed, the question we’re asking throughout the show is why Billy wants to bother learning ballet when he’s already so good at tap! I suspect the movie, which I’ve never seen, is grittier and more class-conscious, though the musical has a surprising degree of the original’s social comment. It begins with a film clip of Labour Party official Herbert Morrison in 1945, in the wake of Labour’s sweeping electoral victory and the resulting nationalization of the British coal mines, that at last the mines belong to “the people” and therefore there will be no more labor disputes, just a smooth transition throughout the economy to a democratic socialism in which people will look out for each other instead of competing. Well, we all know how dismally that turned out, and the ironies come fast as the show segues into an opening protest song, “Solidarity,” expressing the miners’ hopes for the future — as the setting dissolves from the 1940’s to the 1980’s, into the era of Thatcher, Conservative political dominance, re-privatization of the mines and everything else the postwar Labour government had nationalized, and the dominance of The Market that has become the triumphant ideology pretty much worldwide.

Lee Hall’s script does a good, if not always smooth, job contrasting the dashed hopes of the miners, who as Billy’s father Jackie (Deka Walmsley) realizes towards the end (when he’s willing to scab to raise the money Billy needs to attend the Royal School of Ballet in London) are already obsolete and pathetic, with Billy’s dreams of literally soaring in mid-air as a professional dancer. Billy stumbles into ballet class when its teacher, Mrs. Wilkinson (Ruthie Henshall), is using the basement room just after a boxing class he’s been sent to by his dad, in which he’s been obliged to take punches at his best friend Michael (Zach Atkinson) despite the acute disinterest of both boys in fisticuffs. Billy takes to ballet but worries about the reactions not only of his dad and his brother Tony (Chris Grahamson, who I thought was the hottest man in the cast — though perhaps the fact that he’s introduced in a home scene wearing a T-shirt, bikini briefs and nothing else helped me form that impression), who’s the most militant of the union people we see (at one point he goes out to confront the riot squad in a Che Guevara T-shirt!) but of the townspeople who will automatically assume that because he wants to be a ballet dancer, he must be a “poof” — i.e., Gay. About the only support he gets from his family is from his grandmother (his mom died of cancer three years before the main action, so grandma is the only woman in the Elliot family), who’s played brilliantly by Ann Emery and is so cool about Billy and who he really is he reminded me of all the marvelous stories my client Peter has told me about his grandmother, who taught him to dance, let him wear her clothes and was the only person in his family who figured out on her own that he was Gay. Billy’s determination not to be stereotyped in his sexual orientation becomes even more complicated when, in a clever and quite inspiring scene between Billy and his age-peer friend Michael (his only age-peer friend, judging from the look of things), Michael dresses in women’s clothes and sings a song in praise of ladies’ fashions — and Billy joins him in donning drag and singing the song as a duet. This is supposed to be the big giveaway that Michael is Gay and, what’s more, he has a pre-adolescent crush on Billy. (Mrs. Wilkinson’s assistant, Mr. Braithwaite, played by David Muscat, is also a quite obvious screaming-queen Gay stereotype.)

Lee Hall is reasonably competent at throwing complications in the way of Billy’s dream, including the first one — that the regional audition for the Royal Ballet School in Newcastle just happens to occur on the day of the biggest riot between the police and the miners in the history of the strike, and a frustrated Billy does his most emotionally powerful dance of the night, expressing himself in silent but highly mobile anguish on the set of his bedroom, which for some reason lifts itself from under the stage and does a corkscrew motion on a turntable so he can ascend the stairs supplied on the construction and use it. (The men’s and women’s bathrooms in the basement used for the ballet schools also take on crucial importance in the action.) So Billy has to do his audition later at the Royal Ballet School’s home theatre in London — and not only is he intimidated by the sheer size of the theatre and the prissy attitude of the upper-class boy who’s his principal competitor, instead of bringing sheet music for the piano accompanist to play, he’s brought a cassette, and the cassette first loses its tape and then, when he manually rewinds it with a pencil (something I remember doing!), it wows, flutters and screws up when he plays it for his audition. (Fortunately, the piece is the opening of the second act of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake — when I heard the music I savored the irony of one Gay composer, Elton John, making way for another, Tchaikovsky! — so anyone working as a rehearsal pianist for a ballet company would know it.) Billy Elliot has its weaknesses — as I already pointed out, the gap between the on-stage Billy’s (or Elliott Hanna’s) already formidable talent as a dancer and his desperation to get trained so he can do ballet clash with each other, but then again if Billy weren’t already a great dancer we wouldn’t have a show, and the sheer amount of dancing, especially in the after-show sequence when we get three, count ’em, three mega-production numbers in rapid succession and about midway through the third one I found all that dancing more oppressive than entertaining — but for the most part it’s a quite engaging show, even though the politics are more an elegy for Leftist hopes lost than a genuine spirit of hope for the future.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Atom Age Vampire (Leone Film, 1960)

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

First on last night’s movie menu was Atom Age Vampire, a 1960 horror/sci-fi thriller which turned out to be surprisingly good despite some problems with the overall cheapness of the production and the relative familiarity (to put it politely) of the plot. The print we were watching was a U.S. edition with English dubbing, and when Charles saw the separate credits for the American version — the original director was Anton Giulio Majano but Richard McNamara got credit for directing the English-language version — he groaned, thinking that McNamara had shot additional footage the way Terry Morse did to turn the 1954 Japanese masterpiece Gojira into the piece-of-schlock Godzilla we got two years later — but in this case all McNamara seems to have done was supervise the dubbing. The running time of this film roams all over the map — lists the original as 107 minutes, with a 72-minute VHS version and DVD’s at 69 and 96 minutes, while the version we watched, from an download, timed out at 84 minutes — but the story seemed coherent enough and without any obvious lacunae.

The plot centers around beautiful blonde bimbo Jeanette Moreneau (Susanne Loret), who hangs around at a local bar and whose boyfriend is sailor Pierre Mornet (Sergio Fantoni). The synopsis says she’s a stripper but that’s nowhere apparent in the film itself — at least in the cut we saw — though later on at the bar there’s a hot dance by a scantily clad woman, and when Jeanette disappears Pierre at least transitorily transfers his affections to two of the other girls who work there on the love-the-one-you’re-with principle. Anyway, Jeanette’s life unravels when she’s in a terrible car accident; she survives with no internal injuries but one of her cheeks ends up looking like someone pressed a waffle iron against it. She’s taken to a regular clinic but the doctors there say there’s nothing they can do for her; the scars are too deep for normal plastic surgery and she’s going to look like that for the rest of her life. (There are some problems with the continuity here — no continuity person is credited and maybe director Majano was on his own in that department — Jeanette’s horrible disfigurement looks different between takes and sometimes it’s on her left cheek, sometimes on her right.) Then she gets a visit from a rather chilly woman named Monique Riviere (Franca Parisi), who tells Jeanette that her boss, Professor Alberto Levin (Alberto Lupo), has a remarkable new treatment that will heal her scars completely. So Monique takes her to Professor Levin’s house, where he’s got a lab set up in his basement where he gives her a treatment called “Derma-28” that he based on atomic energy, using discoveries he made when he was working for the Japanese government as a consultant on the injuries to the original atomic-bomb victims at Hiroshima. Alas, a previous version of this serum, “Derma-25,” had the unfortunate side effect of turning people into monsters. (One can readily imagine the direct-to-consumer TV ad for that drug!)

Levin keeps injecting Jeanette with Derma-28 and he manages to get the scars on her face to disappear — but only temporarily — and he soon runs out of supplies of his serum. What to do? A hardened horror-film watcher might assume that at this point he would use Derma-25 and turn Jeanette into a monster, but no-o-o-o-o, instead of that old cliché writers Piero Monviso, Giulio De Santis, Alberto Bevilacqua and Anton Giulio Mojano decide to use the old cliché that the doctor injects himself with Derma-25 and becomes a Mr. Hyde-style creature, using his monstrous super-power to kill “ladies of the night” and extract their glands or something to transplant into Jeanette so he can make her cure permanent. His first victim is Monique, who was in love with Levin and was getting jealous of his growing attachment to, or at least lust for, Jeanette, so she made the mistake of complaining to Levin about this — and instead of winning him back, she got herself killed by him. While all this is going on — and while Jeanette finds her attempts to escape from the doctor’s home and get word to Pierre systematically frustrated by Pierre’s mute assistant, Sacha (Roberto Bertea) — I guess it was obligatory in the horror-film contracts of the time that a mad scientist had to have a mute assistant — Pierre is working with the local police (considerably more competent than they usually are in films of this genre) to find Jeanette and learn what has happened to her. Ultimately they figure it out and there’s a climactic scene in which Pierre rescues Jeanette — whose treatments have finally taken and restored her face to its natural beauty — while Sacha has a hissy-fit and ultimately strangles Levin in the professor’s greenhouse.

The most interesting credit on Atom Age Vampire is that of the producer, “Mario Fava,” which the people who uploaded this film to concluded was a misprint for Mario Bava, master Italian horror director whose 1959 film Black Sunday, starring Barbara Steele as a reincarnated witch, was one of the most successful films in Universal’s old Gothic horror style since Universal itself stopped making them in the early 1950’s. Though Bava/“Fava” is credited only as producer, not director, there are certainly quite a few scenes, especially the ones taking place outdoors at night, that show his visual flair and make it believable he was connected with this film. Atom Age Vampire — the title is a bit of a misnomer since Levin’s procedures don’t involve actually consuming blood — is a quite good movie within the limits of the genre and the era; it’s hardly a deathless classic but it avoids most of the unwittingly risible elements of most horror (or would-be horror) films of the time. It’s not clear what country produced this film originally; the English version contains a fragment of the original soundtrack — a street singer briefly singing in French — though identifies the original language as Italian and the credits are a mash-up of Italian-, Spanish- and French-sounding names, suggesting it was filmed at a studio on the Riviera (maybe Rex Ingram’s old digs at Vittorine in Nice?) near where southern France, Spain and northern Italy meet up on the map.

The Shadow Laughs (Trojan Pictures, 1933)

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

After that unusually interesting film it was back to the salt mines again for The Shadow Laughs, a 1933 indie made in New York by something called “Trojan Pictures” and written and directed by Reefer Madness screenwriter Arthur Hoerl, which we watched from one of those annoying downloads whose uploader decided to shrink the file size slightly by lopping off the opening credits. The film was described by as, “The police investigate a bank robbery, and when they don’t seem to be making much headway, a newspaper reporter decides to investigate it on his own.” That’s sort of what seems to be going on; in the opening scene two armed robbers do indeed invade a bank, but when they leave it again they have a hostage with them: a middle-aged bank executive who had been embezzling to get money to feed his gambling addiction. The robbers steal five $1,000 bills from the bank vault (in addition to money in smaller and thereby easier to spend or fence denominations) and murder their hostage. The cops in charge of the case are the relatively competent Captain Morgan (Harry T. Morey) and Sgt. Owens (John F. Morrissey), and Morgan’s idiot “comic-relief” assistant Clymer (Harry Short). The hero is reporter Robin Dale (Hal Skelly, male lead in the 1929 Paramount musical The Dance of Life, a.k.a. Burlesque — the title of the stage show it was based on — but considerably less oppressive here even though Hoerl was obviously having him channel Lee Tracy), who joins the police investigation after bluffing his way onto the scene at the bank; originally irascible Captain Morgan doesn’t want any part of a reporter at his crime scene, but he ultimately yields.

Eventually other people, including the embezzler’s killers, are themselves found dead with $1,000 bills in their hands, and the police, Robin, his girlfriend Ruth Hackett (Rose Hobart, the “nice” girl in the 1932 Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, here giving one of the most authoritative and least stuck-up performances I’ve ever seen from her) and the audience are all mystified about what’s going on and why. It all seems to center around Ruth’s brother George (Robert Keith), gangster Jack Bradshaw (Bram Nossen) with whom George naïvely got involved, Bradshaw’s henchman Tony Rico (Cesar Romero, in his first film, appearing in only one scene but readily recognizable even though he’s at one end of the frame and the brilliant camera positioning by Hoerl and cinematographers Don Malkames, who as late as the late 1940’s was still the go-to guy for producers shooting movies in New York, and Nick Rogalli keeps cutting off the back half of his body in his side shots). Though there are no shadows, there’s no laughter and this film has nothing to do with the famous pulp and radio crimefighter The Shadow, The Shadow Laughs has some occasionally interesting shots in which Hoerl takes his camera up and shoots down at some of the action from oblique angles — unfortunately, those shots end up being strictly for display in an otherwise awfully plainly directed film, one of those movies in which the director seemed to give up on the actors and let them play scenes in whatever way they wanted. After that dynamic opening robbery sequence, which seemed to promise a much better movie than the one we got, The Shadow Laughs settles into a comfortably ponderous groove of slackly paced so-called “thrills” and ends up as one of those movies I call “less a whodunit than a whocareswhodunit.” In the end, if you cared, the culprit turns out to be Tennant (Walter Fenner), a bank official who worked directly under the original embezzler and saw the opportunity to steal from the bank himself and set up the embezzler for what Tennant stole as well as his own ill-gotten gains — though how hiring gangsters to knock off the embezzler, and then hiring other gangsters to knock off the first gangsters, was going to do any good was a mystery locked in Arthur Hoerl’s head. Or was he already doing his, um, first-hand research for Reefer Madness and writing this one largely “under the influence”?

Monday, October 19, 2015

The Life and Times of Rosie the Riveter (Clarity Films, 1980)

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

Last Thursday night Charles and I watched part of the “Trail-Blazing Women” series on Turner Classic Movies and saw a fascinating 1980 documentary by Connie Field called The Life and Times of Rosie the Riveter. “Rosie the Riveter” became a slang term during World War II for all the women who were taking jobs in U.S. defense plants to replace the men who had volunteered or been drafted actually to fight the war. The film was a marvelous look at five such women, two white and three Black; the white ones were Lola Weixel from Brooklyn, New York and Gladys Belcher from Richmond, California, and the Black ones were Margaret Wright (heavy-set and with close-cropped hair, she had clearly weathered the years best of the five) from Los Angeles, Lyn Childs from San Francisco and Wanita Allen from Detroit. All came from proletarian backgrounds and leaped at the chance to do defense work, which was not only challenging than the jobs they’d been doing (mostly restaurant work for the white women and domestic service — what else? — for the Black ones) but considerably better paid. Field made the excellent directorial decision to tell her story exclusively with the voices of her five rank-and-file women, interspersed with films of the period (mostly documentaries produced by the U.S. War Department) that showed dramatically how the “line” changed both when the war started and when it ended. The films made in the early years of the war heralded the coming of women into the industrial workforce and hailed them as a necessary part of the war effort. Midway through the war a film came out lamenting that a lot of women were quitting their defense jobs and returning home to their families after buying fur coats and other luxury items that their earnings in the defense plants had enabled them to get for the first time. As the war was drawing to a close and the U.S. government was worried that there’d be a recession, similar to that which happened in the early 1920’s in the aftermath of World War I, and returning (male) veterans wouldn’t be able to find work and become a potentially politically and/or socially restive underclass, so they mounted a full-bore press to get women to accept their “need” to withdraw from lucrative industrial jobs and go back to being housewives and mothers, or if they hadn’t found husbands yet to return to the low-paying work as waitresses and domestics that had sustained them pre-war. Field even dredged up a clip from Dr. Marynia Farnham, co-author of a slimy 1947 book called Modern Woman: The Lost Sex (though Field’s reference incorrectly “pluralizes” the title’s first noun as “Women” instead of “Woman”), who even before her book came out was appearing in government-sponsored documentaries spouting bilge like this: “Catastrophic social forces have propelled American women away from femininity and into careers, at terrific costs to themselves and society. Abandoning their feminine role has made women unhappy because it has made them frustrated. It has made children unhappy because they do not have maternal love. And it has made their husbands unhappy because they do not have real women as partners. Instead, they have become their rivals.”

What’s especially fascinating about Modern Woman: The Lost Sex is not only that its female co-author was an M.D. (which means she presumably had to fight sexism to make it through medical school and get her license to practice) and she gives off the odd stench of hypocrisy Phyllis Schlafly did later (the woman who made her own career — and a lot of money — telling other women they should forsake all that and be good little wives and mothers), but its male co-author was Ferdinand Lundberg, who had a progressive reputation and had written a series of books, starting during the Franklin Roosevelt administration and continuing into the 1990’s (his last book was published in 1994, just a year before he died), exposing the sources of wealth and income inequality in the U.S. His book titles say it all: Imperial Hearst (a “black” biography of William Randolph Hearst from 1936, five years before the release of Citizen Kane; he sued Orson Welles for plagiarism but lost), America’s Sixty Families (1938) — a title which became a byword for privilege among late-1930’s, 1940’s and 1950’s Leftists the way “the 1 percent” is today — Who Controls Industry?, The Treason of the People, The Coming World Transformation, The Rich and the Super-Rich, The Rockefeller Syndrome, Cracks in the Constitution, The Myth of Democracy, Politicians and Other Scoundrels, and that final book from 1994, The Natural Depravity of Mankind. Given how, in today’s political and social context, we expect people with progressive economic politics also to be anti-racist, anti-sexist and anti-homophobic, it seems inconceivable that someone with Lundberg’s scathingly cynical attitude towards wealth and power should be so anti-feminist — yet Modern Woman: The Lost Sex had enough influence when it was published and for two decades later that some of the early authors in the second-wave feminist movement of the late 1960’s cited it as a particularly loathsome piece of anti-woman propaganda and a compendium of the ideas with which women, including the intelligent women (many of them college-educated in their own right and married to professors or other men in intellectually challenging jobs) beset by the “problem with no name” Betty Friedan wrote about in The Feminine Mystique, had been persuaded to accept the inevitability of second-class status. To me, one of the greatest bits of social progress we’ve made in the past few decades is the extent to which we’ve transcended this idiotic notion that the brains, skills, talents and insights of over half the human race should be ignored or actively rejected just because of their reproductive plumbing. I’m not a “difference feminist” in the sense of believing that women are somehow morally superior to men, but I’m emphatically an “equality feminist” and a believer that the human race can ill afford to waste the potential contributions of the (slightly over) half of it which is female. The women in The Life and Times of Rosie the Riveter inevitably had to deal not only with sexism but racism as well; one of the Black interviewees recalled that the white workers at her plant filed a grievance with their union over having to work alongside Blacks — and the union sent a Black (male) representative to hear their grievance. When they objected to his color, he told them that it was going to be him or no one at all that would hear their grievance — and they unhappily accepted the inevitable, worked alongside the Black women, and eventually grudgingly acknowledged that these Black women knew how to do their jobs and were just as good at it as they were.

One particularly poignant part of the movie was how it ended; the women rejoiced at the end of the war and naïvely thought they would be able to keep the relatively high-paying industrial jobs they loved, had proved themselves able to do and were damned good at — and one remembered a traumatic job interview in which she did some sample welding to prove she had the skills and did it so well that the hiring boss said, “If you were a man, I’d hire you. But I can’t, because you’re a woman.” This came at a time when there were no national civil-rights laws protecting people from that sort of open, out-front discrimination, and where the social expectation for centuries had been that if you were a woman, you worked only as long as you had to until you got a man to marry you, whereupon you became his wife, the mother of his children, his faithful servant and his on-demand sex partner. (I remember being shocked when I looked up a California law book in 1975 and found that rape was defined as forcing a woman other than your wife to have sex with you — California didn’t make it illegal to rape your wife until 1977. Look at that year number and let it sink in that even in a progressive “blue” state it took that long for the legislature to declare that the marriage license wasn’t a blanket permission slip for a husband to force himself sexually on his wife no matter what she wanted.) I’ve watched enough old movies to note how many companies had employment policies flatly prohibiting married women from working (and often the plots of these films turned around the need for both the man and the woman to hold jobs but to keep their marriage a secret because then she would be fired and they’d take a financial hit they could not afford — either that or the couple had separated but not divorced, and the woman had to conceal that she’d ever had a husband to get the job she needed to survive). The whole mindset that women were the chattels of men — and the corollary during the war years that the government, the private companies that did the war production, and society as a whole were grudgingly accepting the need for women to work during the national emergency but expecting them meekly to return to their families or to menial jobs after the war — seems spooky and almost bizarre now (even though it’s still the norm for women in all too much of the Third World), and while we bemoan the slow pace of political and social progress and worry about a period of high-energy reaction, women have at least reached a beachhead in the struggle for economic inequality and today it doesn’t seem as odd as it would have in the late 1940’s that women would want jobs as welders or as corporate executives.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Are You My Daughter? (Odyssey Media, Reel One Entertainment, Lifetime, 2015)

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

Last night’s Lifetime film was one of their “world premieres,” something called Are You My Daughter?, which turned out not only to be very much to the Lifetime formula but a near-exact remake of A Wife’s Nightmare, a 2014 production Lifetime recently re-ran and which was a good deal better than Are You My Daughter? Are You My Daughter? begins with a scene on the Seattle wharf, where up-and-coming attorney Laura Paddington (Brooke Langton), wife of doctor Richard Paddington (Mike Dopud), has taken her three-year-old daughter Zoë (Bailey Skodje) to play. Only while she’s taking an all-important call from work — this is yet another one of those stories in which a woman professional is torn virtually in two between her obligations to her career and to her family — Laura momentarily loses sight of her daughter, and the girl disappears. Flash-forward 16 years to the present: Laura now has her own law office (which apparently handles private investigations on the side) and is representing a young man with a British — or at least British Commonwealth — accent who’s turning state’s evidence against a particularly vicious motorcycle gang. She’s also dating Jacob Nyholm (Peter Benson), whom she met in a support group for people whose close relatives mysteriously disappeared; she’s only known him for six months but he’s already insisting that they get married. As for Laura’s dad, he became a physician for a Doctors Without Borders-style group and he’s currently on assignment for them in Bangladesh; they’ve stayed in touch but the strain over Zoë’s disappearance predictably (at least by the standards of Lifetime screenwriters — this movie was written by Gemma Holdway and directed quite effectively, given what she gave him to work with, by Jason Bourque) broke up their marriage and she hasn’t been “serious” about anybody since until the advent of Jacob.

After about 20 minutes of exposition giving us all this, the plot kicks into high gear when Laura reports to a homeless shelter for something to do with one of her cases, and there meets Rebecca (Stephanie Bennett), a 19-year-old who according to her own account escaped an abusive “aunt” and her molesting boyfriend, who lived well outside the law and used her as cover for their crimes. Rebecca looks enough like Laura that she’s strongly convinced she is her long-lost Zoë, and when she looks at the back of her neck and sees Zoë’s trademark birthmark — a grey blotch that looks like two crossed hearts — she’s certain of it. The case involves both the local police and the FBI, and the FBI agent, Michelle Canning (Catherine Lough Haggquist), is convinced Rebecca is Zoë. “It’s very rare we have a happy ending in this work!” she exults as she congratulates Laura on regaining Zoë. But the local detective, Garwin (Jerry Wasserman), who’s been on the case since he was assigned to investigate it 16 years earlier when Zoë first disappeared, is convinced that hard-edged Rebecca couldn’t be the missing girl — to him, she just doesn’t seem like the sort of person Richard and Laura would sire. Even when a DNA test from a reputable private lab comes back with a result indicating that Rebecca is Laura’s daughter, Garwin is not convinced. After about two-thirds of the movie we’re starting to get more convinced, especially when we see Jacob giving Rebecca some displays of affection that don’t seem at all (step)fatherly, and Laura catches them — not actually kissing (or worse), but with Jacob’s hand stroking Rebecca’s back in what seems like a gesture between two people who are sexually involved with each other. About half an hour before the end Laura finally does what she probably should have way back in the backstory when Jacob first started coming on to her: she does an Internet search for his supposedly missing sister and finds no hits, indicating that either she never disappeared or maybe never even existed at all. It turns out that Jacob and Rebecca hatched this plot together — which isn’t that big a surprise because Peter Benson is a genuinely attractive actor and in a Lifetime movie virtually any time you see a hot man — especially a hot man who’s older than his teens (nice-looking teenage males on Lifetime are genuinely victims of sex-crazed older women psychopaths, or else the consoling end-of-movie boyfriends of the female teen victims of sex-crazed older men psychopaths) — he’s going to turn out to be a dastardly, black-hearted villain.

Their objective was not so much mutual lust as mutual greed; Laura had a fortune of $6.5 million saved in her bank, and they were after it as well as inheriting their estate. The idea was that Jacob would marry Laura, she’d die a mysterious “accidental” death, and Jacob would have both Laura’s money and Rebecca — though how he could live with her as a lover when he’d carefully established her as his stepdaughter, complete with having the birthmark (or a credible simulation thereof) tattooed on her, is a mystery locked inside Gemma Holdway’s head — unless he was planning either to pay Rebecca off with her share of Laura’s money or kill her, too. Jacob does kill Garwin by feeding him whiskey laced with poison — Garwin was suffering from heart disease and so Jacob picked a poison that would make it look like Garwin had simply had a heart attack — and at the end he and Rebecca kidnap Laura and take her to a cabin at Fox Lake, though they forget to take Laura’s cell phone away from her and Laura is able to call 911 and broadcast their intentions to the police. The final scene is a battle of wills that makes it look like Gemma Holdway is a faithful worshiper at the shrine of St. Christine Conradt — Jacob orders Rebecca to kill Laura once he’s tortured her into revealing the password to drain her bank account and transfer the $6.5 million to his (“Technology — isn’t it wonderful?” he muses as he completes his on-line larceny), but Laura convinces her to switch sides by telling her it’s more likely Jacob will kill both of them than that he’ll share the money with her. Rebecca gets the gun after Jacob drops it in a struggle with Laura, then Jacob overpowers Rebecca, but in the meantime Laura has grabbed the gun and used it to blow away Jacob, while the police have arrived just in time to watch Laura shoot Jacob and see she did so in self-defense. A rather odd tag scene hints that Laura and her husband Richard (ya remember her husband Richard?) will get back together, which seems odd.

The 2014 Lifetime movie A Wife’s Nightmare, written by Blake Corbet and Dan Trotta and directed by Vic Sarin, did essentially the same plot line but with considerably more style and stronger dramatic credibility: in that one the parents of the missing kid were still together and the wife was the breadwinner while the husband, who’d got together with her on the downside of brief sort-of fame as a rock star, is living off her as he records aimlessly in a home studio and dreams of a comeback album financed by his missus’ money. He meets his Lolita at a record store specializing in vinyl and the two of them are motivated simply by lust, not greed — which doesn’t make them more sympathetic but at least makes them less hateful — and at the end the wife symbolically castrates him by smashing his prized guitar, which she had bought for him while they were still just dating and when she could ill afford it. Lifetime has done quite a few of these missing-kid dramas with the whole schtick being is s/he or isn’t s/he, and quite the best of the recent ones is Lost Boy, written by Jennifer Maisel and formidably directed by Tara Miele (who said there aren’t enough talented women directors in Hollywood to direct more than just 1.6 percent of all feature films released?), in which the allegedly returned offspring is a teenage son instead of a teenage daughter and it’s kept powerfully ambiguous exactly what his motives are. Are You My Daughter? is a middle-of-the-pack Lifetime movie, not as good as some of them, not as silly as some of them, a decent two-hour time-filler but not the genuinely moving drama the basic story could have been (and Lost Boy was).

The Joyless Street (L.C.J. Editions & Productions, Sofar-Film, 1925)

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

Later last night I ran Charles an download of the 1925 German silent film The Joyless Street, directed by G. W. Pabst and written by Willy Haas and F. H. Lyon from a novel by Hugo Bettauer. It was one of a number of similarly gloomy melodramas made by German filmmakers in the mid-1920’s, largely as a response to the economic privation imposed on Germany by the Treaty of Versailles and the disastrous hyperinflation of 1923 caused by the German central bank’s attempt to get out of the economic emergency by just printing more money. Though The Joyless Street is ostensibly set in Vienna, Austria just after the aftermath of World War I, the whole ambience is very much that of Germany (or the German-speaking world, since Austria had also been among the losers in World War I) in the mid-1920’s. What has kept The Joyless Street in circulation is that the second female lead is played by Greta Garbo in the only film she made between her departure from Sweden in 1924 — in the wake of her triumph in The Saga of Gösta Berling, the one film her mentor and discoverer, director Mauritz Stiller, actually got to complete with him — and her arrival in Hollywood in 1926, actually as an add-on since MGM wanted Stiller under contract and took her at his insistence that he wasn’t going to sign unless they signed her as well. (As things worked out, Stiller suffered the same fate genuinely creative and innovative directors usually did at MGM — the tumbrels rolled for him as they had for Stroheim, Sternberg, Rex Ingram, Frank Borzage, John M. Stahl, Rupert Hughes, Mickey Neilan and Buster Keaton — but Garbo stayed and for the next 15 years she never worked anywhere else until, with World War II having cut off the European market for American films, Garbo and Louis B. Mayer mutually agreed to cancel her contract.)

The print we were watching was an hour-long British reissue of a film that was originally twice that long, and though the credits (obviously prepared in the 1930’s) promised a synchronized musical score, the print unrolled in stark silence — I presume because the movie is in the public domain but the music was still under copyright. This is decidedly not the best way to watch a silent film, but even truncated and unaccompanied — and also pretty obviously censored, since descriptions I’d read of the uncut film said that Garbo’s character descended into prostitution at the end in order to help her family make ends meet, but no such scenes appeared in this version — it’s a powerful story of class conflict and dire poverty. The top-billed star in the original German version was Asta Nielsen, playing Mary, a young woman who’s trying to keep her and her family’s heads above water, but the editing of this version emphasized Garbo’s role as Greta Rumfort, daughter of retired civil servant Hofrat Rumfort (Jaro Fürth). The family, which also includes Greta’s younger sister (who turns up his nose at the family dinner and sneers, “Vegetable stew — again?”), are barely surviving on the pension from Rumfort’s retirement and Greta’s income as an office clerk-typist. Then Rumfort is persuaded to cash out his pension and invest the money in the Petrowitz coal mines — just as a group of financial speculators led by Egon Stirner (Henry Stuart) is determined to stage a hostile takeover of the Petrowitz mines by starting a rumor that the miners are about to strike, which will drive down the share price and thereby pick up Petrowitz for almost nothing. The film clearly owes a major debt to D. W. Griffith; not only is the basic plot line about the Petrowitz speculation straight from Griffith’s still-chilling one-reeler A Corner in Wheat (which appears to be the first film that intercut between wealthy people plotting a huge financial speculation and not-so-wealthy people driven into hunger and want by the success of the 1-percenters), and the scene in which Mary gets in an all-night line at a butcher shop that is promising the brief availability of frozen meat the next day and collapses before reaching the front of the line and learning all the precious meat has already been sold comes straight from Griffith’s German-made film Isn’t Life Wonderful, made the year before The Joyless Street.

What’s most surprising about The Joyless Street is how restrained Garbo’s acting is; generally she was a lot more active in her silents than in her talkies (in Gösta Berling and her early MGM film Flesh and the Devil she’s almost hyperactive), in this film she’s already mastered the legendary underacting that became her trademark. Through most of her suffering she keeps her face impassive and lets the audience read the character’s emotions into her (as Keaton did in his best comedies, and the Russian editors did when they spliced a closeup of an impassive actor next to shots of a bowl of soup, a young girl and a funeral, and audiences praised the actor’s expression of hunger when he saw the soup, attraction at the girl and grief at the funeral), and though the truncated version we were watching keeps it unclear exactly what Greta is expected to do in her job at the cabaret and whorehouse run by Madame Ball[1] — which appears to be a pretty raffish place, though not anywhere nearly as “low” as the one in Sternberg’s The Blue Angel five years later — it’s clear that she disapproves and is very nervous about it. Pabst seemed to delight in making films about people, especially women, caught in really dire situations — the other movies of his I’ve seen include his two with Louise Brooks, Pandora’s Box and Diary of a Lost Girl, as well as the 1930 version of The Threepenny Opera (Bertolt Brecht disowned it but it’s still a great movie) and most of Siren of Atlantis, his last film before fleeing Germany to escape the Nazi takeover (though he later came back and worked on some of the Nazis’ documentaries as well as making a 1944 biopic called Paracelsus that used the great chemist’s life story to preach some pro-Nazi lessons about how all historical progress has been made by especially powerful individuals — still later he came to terms with his experience as both Nazi refugee and Nazi employee by settling in Vienna and making a movie in 1955 about the Third Reich’s end called The Last 10 Days) — and The Joyless Street is a tough, uncompromising film which is clearly Left in its politics but manages to present the class struggle in terms of human drama and avoid the preachiness that often afflicts Left-wing cinema (as bombast often afflicts Right-wing cinema; The Birth of a Nation and Triumph of the Will are great films but watching them one sometimes wants to stop and say, “Enough already!).

[1] — The titles describe her as a “dancer” but in the classic era of film “dance-hall girl” was a frequent euphemism for “prostitute.”