Thursday, March 31, 2016

American Masters: “Loretta Lynn: Still a Mountain Girl” (Yap Films, PBS, 2016)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2016 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Two nights ago I watched a couple of quite interesting programs on KPBS, including an American Masters documentary on Loretta Lynn — subtitled “Still a Mountain Girl” to emphasize the pride in her heritage that led her to call her 1976 autobiography Coal Miner’s Daughter (later filmed in 1980 by British director Michael Apted, which is probably still the best movie ever made about country music — only Robert Altman’s Nashville, which featured Ronee Blakely as a character called “Barbara Jean” obviously based on Loretta Lynn, comes close, and there was a certain patronization in the treatment of the Nashville scene in Altman’s and writer Joan Tewkesbury’s film that was refreshingly absent from Coal Miner’s Daughter). It remains a fascinating story, not only in the parts that had already happened when Lynn and George Vecsey collaborated on the book and Apted filmed it four years later but how she’s lived since, including facing the death of her husband Oliver Lynn — variously nicknamed “Doo” (after his middle name, Doolittle) and “Mooney” — whom she loved and remained with even though his frequent extra-relational activities inspired some of Lynn’s greatest songs — and making two late-in-life albums, Van Lear Rose (produced by and featuring alternative-rock musician Jack White) and her most recent one, Full Circle, on which she returned to the bluegrass roots of her music, recorded in the still-preserved backyard studio built by her friend Johnny Cash and was at least partially produced by Cash’s son and heir, John Carter Cash.

The mega-success of the film Coal Miner’s Daughter (in which Sissy Spacek played Lynn — and did her own singing, matching the real Lynn with almost eerie perfection — and Tommy Lee Jones played Mooney) has made Loretta Lynn’s story almost too familiar, but just in case, here goes: she was born in Butcher Holler, Kentucky (“holler” is just Appalachian mountain-people speak for “canyon”), she really was a coal miner’s daughter, she was inspired by the mountain music she heard as a kid — she said that when she was growing up it was just taken for granted that everyone picked up a musical instrument and learned to play it, and the few people in her community who don’t play are looked down on — and then by the commercial country that came to her on the Grand Ole Opry and the show hosted by country legend Ernest Tubb that came on the radio right after it. (The show credits Tubb for boosting the careers of quite a few of the major country stars of the 1950’s and 1960’s, though it also claims that Elvis Presley “broke” to a major audience on the Tubb show — actually Elvis flamed out when he tried to crack the Nashville scene and his boost to stardom came from the rival Louisiana Hayride show in Shreveport, Louisiana, where performers just a bit too “edgy” for the Opry, Tubb’s show and the country establishment in general got their starts — Hank Williams had also got his first break on the Louisiana Hayride, though unlike Elvis he later “graduated” to the Opry.) What’s most amazing about Loretta Lynn is not only the sheer soul of her voice — through a lot of the clips of her performing in her glory days there’s a bizarre disconnect between the over-the-topness of her outfits (in some sequences she looks less like a woman than a drag queen) and the straightforward sincerity of her singing — but the fact, curiously unmentioned in this show (directed by Vikram Jayanti and written by Robin Bicknell), that Loretta Lynn was the first major female country singer who relied for material mostly on songs she wrote herself.

Though her roots are in Kentucky and Tennessee (where she lives today on the Loretta Lynn Dude Ranch she and her husband opened as a public attraction for her fans, whom she would frequently go out of her way to meet when she wasn’t on tour), her career oddly got started in Washington state, where Mooney had moved her and their five kids (there’d eventually be another one) so he could work in a factory. She began singing largely as an avocation and a stress reliever from the task of staying at home and raising the children, and when Mooney told her she sounded better than the singers who were playing on the Opry and making records, she decided to give it a go. She wrote and recorded a song called “Honky Tonk Girl” — an answer record to Kitty Wells’ legendary hit “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels” — put it out on a tiny label called Zero and she and Mooney, along with the kids, criss-crossed the country, stopping at every town where there was a radio tower and hanging out at the station until they agreed to listen to her record and add it to their playlists. All this attracted the attention of the business people in Nashville, though at first she was told she sounded too much like Kitty Wells to make it; she finally was signed by the great producer Owen Bradley to the Decca label — and one of her albums was titled, with the fierce bravado with which she frequently pursued her career, Loretta Lynn Writes ’Em and Sings ’Em as a spit-in-your-face response to all the sexists in Nashville who acknowledged that a male artist could sustain a career on original songs (like Jimmie Rodgers, Hank Williams and Johnny Cash) but didn’t think a woman could do it. There’s an interesting comment from Jack White to the effect that Loretta Lynn often wrote her songs backwards — instead of working out the verse first and then the chorus, she’d frequently write a two-part chorus, coming up with the second part first, then the first part of the chorus and only then adding the verse. White said that when Lynn played him the songs for Van Lear Rose (which, he said, were the first 10 they pulled from a backlog of unused songs she was literally keeping under her bed!) he often couldn’t tell whether a particular strain was intended as a verse or a chorus.

The show suffered from some of the usual problems of music documentaries — the refusal to show a complete performance of a song, start to finish, and the plethora of talking heads, some of them with legitimate connections to Loretta Lynn (including Michael Apted and Willie Nelson, who didn’t work directly with Lynn but sold Patsy Cline the song “Crazy” when Lynn was touring as Cline’s opening act and got to know her then) and some of them there simply because they work in the same field — Garth Brooks and his wife, Trisha Yearwood, along with Miranda Lambert and even Sheryl Crow, who isn’t known as a country singer at all (though she can do country material credibly and demonstrates it with a snatch of a Lynn song on this show) — but it’s also an affectionate tribute to a force in the musical business who’s let nothing stop her: not the difficulties of touring with a huge family at home, not the frequent “straying” of her husband (is it really that big a surprise that her song “You Ain’t Woman Enough to Take My Man” was autobiographical?), not the loss of him (indeed the memorial song she wrote for him, “I Can’t Hear the Music Anymore,” may be the best thing she’s ever done; I remember a special on which Lynn was being introduced by Joan Lunden, who babbled ridiculously and insensitively throughout the whole show until Lynn played “I Can’t Hear the Music Anymore,” and the power of what she’d just heard finally got to Lunden and she shut up) and not age and the changing tastes of the music market. As I’ve pointed out in these pages before, despite the reputation of country music as a genre of emotional excess (when I told Charles the old joke, “What do you get when you play a country song backwards? You get your house back, your car back, your wife back, your job back, and you sober up,” he added, “Yeah, and your mother and your dog come back to life”), the greatest singers in it — from Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family to Hank Williams, Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, Patsy Cline and Loretta Lynn — have been surprisingly understated, creating intense and emotional music without pushing the melodrama.

Frontline: “Uncovering Saudi Arabia” (Hardcash Films, WGBH, PBS, March 29, 2016)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2016 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

After the Loretta Lynn show KPBS ran a Frontline episode that proved unexpectedly interesting; “Uncovering Saudi Arabia,” about the attempts of Saudi dissidents to expose the kingdom’s poverty and corruption and the horribly repressive policies of the regime in repressing them, including executing dissidents (especially Shi’a clerics — Saudi Arabia has a Sunni Muslim majority and the royal family are hard-core Sunnis who run the country by the Wahhabi version of Sharia law, but the oil-rich areas in the East are largely Shi’a) like Sheikh Nimr Al-Nimr, a Shi’a religious leader who was one of the victims of a mass execution of 47 people in January 2016. His nephew Ali Nimr was one of the key sources for this show until he himself was arrested and sentenced to death, though according to the final credit roll he remains alive and the Saudi government has said they don’t intend to kill him. Apparently this is one of the quirks of the Saudi legal system: they can arrest you, try you in secret, sentence you to death and then keep you alive but still in custody — or even alive and out of custody — but leave the death sentence hanging over you so they can kill you any time they want. Another Saudi dissident, Raif Badawi, became an international cause celebre when the government arrested him and gave him a 10-year sentence as well as 1,000 lashes (the Saudi government not only whips its enemies but does so in public and films it to intimidate the people into shutting up and not resisting) for running a blog that frequently posted secretly filmed footage (some of which appears in this film) of conditions in Saudi Arabia, including the poverty in which many of the kingdom’s residents live (despite Saudi Arabia’s famous status as the world’s number one oil producer) and the way women are hassled in shopping malls by the religious police (formally called the Society for the Preservation of Virtue and the Suppression of Vice), leading to absurd images like the religious police stopping women in front of a Victoria’s Secret outlet in a mall in Riyadh and hassling them and threatening them with arrest for not being veiled.

Not much of this is surprising but it is an interesting account of how a major U.S. ally in the Middle East treats its citizens — and how determined the Saudi government in general and the recently crowned king, Salman (he replaced his brother Abdullah at age 79 — the nation’s founder, Ibn Saud, for some reason willed that his sons would succeed him in succession, so the kingdom has been ruled by seven of Saud’s sons in succession instead of allowing power to pass to the next generation — not even the next generation of the Saud family!), are to make sure no Arab Spring-style revolution happens in Saudi Arabia. Apparently there were hopes among young Saudis that Salman would be more liberal than his predecessor, and they were dashed just as thoroughly as the hopes of Syrians that Bashir al-Assad would be more liberal than his father Hafez when Hafez died and Bashir took over. Another activist profiled in Saudi Arabia Uncovered is Loujain Hathloul, who decided to commit civil disobedience by driving her car into Saudi Arabia from the more socially liberal United Arab Emirates — the Saudi ban on women driving has probably become more famous and attracted more media coverage than the ban on them voting (of course in an absolute monarchy like Saudi Arabia’s elections are pretty meaningless anyway). She was arrested almost immediately — and her car was destroyed — but later the government decided to liberalize slightly and allow a few women to run for local offices. Hathloul accordingly became a candidate — only to be ruled off the ballot by the religious authorities (somehow U.S. propaganda portrays the power of the clergy in Iran to rule on who can and can’t run for office as a horrible oppression but ignores the similar rule in our ally, Saudi Arabia!), though she intends to try again. The fact that the Arab Spring has been pretty much an historical disaster — it’s either produced failed states like Tunisia or Libya, or provoked counter-revolutions like the one that re-established the military dictatorship in Egypt — doesn’t help the odds for peaceful reform in Saudi Arabia. Nor does the awareness among U.S. policymakers of what Senator Ted Cruz (R-Texas) said in one of the Republican Presidential debates that, whatever they do to their own people, the specific interests of the United States in the Middle East (mainly oil and Israel) are better off with its countries ruled by people like Saddam Hussein, Muammar Quadafi, Hosni Mubarak (and his current military successor, Sisi), Bashir al-Assad and the Saudi family.

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Sorority House (RKO, 1939)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2016 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was Sorority House, which I recorded from Turner Classic Movies last September as part of a program they were doing to commemorate the beginning of the academic year through a series of movies about college. It was made by RKO in 1939 and featured a quite formidable list of behind-the-camera talents for a 64-minute “B” youth movie: the director was John Farrow (Mia’s dad, a sporadically interesting filmmaker who did a lot of hack work but in 1948 turned out two back-to-back film noir masterpieces, The Big Clock and The Night Has a Thousand Eyes); the screenwriter was Dalton Trumbo (adapting a play called Chi House by Mary Chase); and the cinematographer was Nicholas Musuraca, who’d been with RKO since its early days but was clearly warming up for his fine work in many of the great RKO noirs of the late 1940’s. The physical “look” of this film, especially in its nighttime scenes, is rich, dappled, making the campus of the fictional “Talbot University” come alive as a rich, pastoral environment against which the intrigues of the human characters are beautifully and vividly contrasted. Not that the intrigues of the human characters are that much to write home about: Sorority House is a pretty familiar tale about the young woman from a working-class background — her name is Alice Fisher (Anne Shirley, a specialist in these good-young-woman types back then) and her dad, Lew Fisher (J. M. Kerrigan, a marvelous character actor featured better here than in most of his parts), owns a small grocery store that looks so much like the one featured in W. C. Fields’ marvelous 1934 comedy It’s a Gift you’re going to wonder why you don’t see Fields himself as the proprietor as well as blind Mr. Muckle and the kumquat man. He takes out a bank loan to fund his daughter’s college education and tells her he’s already enrolled her at Talbot — which I couldn’t help but joke must have been endowed by the father of the Wolf Man — it’s not clear from Trumbo’s script (with Gladys Atwater and Aleen Leslie credited as “contributors to treatment”) whether Talbot is an all-girls’ school or has male students as well (there are male college students featured in the dramatis personae, but they could be from a neighboring all-male university looking for dates among Talbot students the way Harvard students got their dates from a women’s college named Vincent nearby until Harvard itself went co-ed).

In fact we never see an actual class at Talbot — ignoring the “education” part of higher education was pretty common among filmmakers making college films in the 1920’s and 1930’s, though the script for this film justifies it by telling us that Alice Fisher has arrived at Talbot one week before classes start and while the school is in the middle of its most important extracurricular ritual: the annual sorority rush. It seems that everyone who wants to be “anybody” at this campus has to be in a sorority, and of course the sororities are picky about whom they admit — often for the most arbitrary reasons. Alice’s roommates at the boarding house where the campus administration has arranged for her to stay, Dotty Spencer (Barbara Read) and Merle Scott (Adele Pearce, later known as Pamela Blake), explain to her how the sorority system works. Dotty is a mousy little sophomore girl with glasses who can’t stand the sororities but Merle has her heart set on getting into the most prestigious of them, the Gammas. When Alice hears how the sororities pick their members and thereby determine who will and who won’t succeed in the campus’s social life, she says, “That doesn’t sound democratic,” marking the first of several points at which Trumbo stuck his Leftist politics into the script (something he delighted in doing even though it’s hard to imagine how anyone, especially someone of Trumbo’s intelligence, thought that inserting a few mildly critical lines attacking the class system into a schlocky youth-movie script was going to hasten the Communist revolution in the U.S.). Alice’s social success at Talbot is assured when she has a meet-cute with Bill Loomis (James Ellison, as dull and callow here as he’d be four years later in the hapless role of Alice Faye’s leading man in The Gang’s All Here, in which Faye, Carmen Miranda and director Busby Berkeley’s production numbers totally overshadowed him — though at least in this film dull and callow fits his character), big-man-on-campus at either Talbot or the neighboring all-male school from which Talbot students grab their dates.

Bill sends all the sororities letters stating that Alice Fisher’s dad isn’t the owner of just one grocery store but owns an entire chain of them, which convinces all the sorority leaders (including one woman who isn’t identified in the cast list but bears a striking resemblance to the young Katharine Hepburn — according to the American Film Institute Catalog, she might actually be the young Veronica Lake, acting under the name Constance Keene and wearing her hair in the Hepburn style instead of the falling-over-the-eye look Lake cultivated during her brief period as a Paramount star in the 1940’s) that Alice is rich and therefore would be an asset to any of their houses. Meanwhile, back home Alice’s dad decides to take the offer of a real grocery chain to buy him out so he can get the money to finance Alice’s sorority dues — his idea is to find a location near the campus and open what would now be called a convenience store to cater to the student population so they can be near each other — and the story builds to the climax: the end of rush week, at which there’s a series of big parties at which the sorority girls and the sorority wanna-bes bring their parents so the “sisters” can check them out. Alice makes a series of excuses as to why her dad can’t be there, but of course he turns up after all, driving a rattle-trap old car and telling off the sorority girls as well as interrupting and foiling the suicide attempt of Merle, who once she learns that Alice has been invited to join the Gammas and she hasn’t decides that she no longer has anything to live for. Alice, Dotty and Merle decide to turn the boarding house where they’ve been staying into a sort of anti-sorority for all the students who’ve been rejected — only Alice’s dad tells them off, saying that in their own way they’re being as snobbish as the sorority girls they’re rebelling against. And the final shot is of Alice and Bill Loomis in a clinch.

Sorority House is an odd movie because Trumbo’s bits of social comment and Musuraca’s lovely images seem to deserve a better story — though as Charles pointed out, its comments about youth snobbishness seem to ring true now even though the overall portrait of life at a college seems to have been anachronistic even when the film was made. When Bill Loomis and the frat boys from wherever drive by the boarding house and court the women students en masse, they’re in what’s either a wagon or a flatbed truck and they’re singing a song called “I Must See Annie Tonight” which, though it appears to have been written for the film (Benny Goodman recorded it around the time the movie was made), sounds like something from the late 1920’s. There’s also a boy trying to learn the ukulele — another college reference that seems to belong more to the 1920’s than the 1930’s. Overall, Sorority House is an hour and 4 minutes of pretty painless entertainment, brought to life by the photographic beauty, Farrow’s O.K. staging and Anne Shirley’s sincerity in the lead (it seems inexplicable that Shirley quit the movie business forever following her greatest film, the 1944 film noir classic Murder, My Sweet), which brings strength and dignity to what in other hands might have been a hopelessly flat and saccharine part.

Sunday, March 27, 2016

The Perfect Daughter (Artificial Person Productions, Marvista Entertainment, Lifetime, 2016)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2016 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The “world premiere” Lifetime movie last night was The Perfect Daughter, a title which led me to assume Christine Conradt wrote it and it was another in her series of “The Perfect _____” movies (as opposed to her “_____ at 17” movies and her “The _____ S/he Met Online” movies). Wrong on both counts: it was directed by Brian Herzlinger from a script by Brian McAuley, and was originally shot as The Carpenter’s Daughter until someone at Marvista Entertainment or Lifetime itself decided to give it a moniker that would include the word “Perfect” to fit it into their long-running occasional series. The first 40 minutes or so were pretty disappointing, as we get to meet good little high-school senior Natalie Parish (Sadie Calvano) and her dad Martin Parish (Brady Smith, a better-looking man than usually plays a teenager’s parent in a Lifetime movie). Martin has a two-person building contractor business with his former brother-in-law, Nick Barnes (Johann Urb, who despite some formidable competition struck me as the sexiest man in the film), and he’s also been raising his daughter as a single parent since the death of his wife Sarah years earlier — long enough ago that Natalie has no living memory of her mom and the only evidence we see of her is a framed photo of the three of them taken while Natalie was still an infant. At the start of the film Natalie is running for student body treasurer against the ultra-popular Kalie (Lorynn York) and she fully expects to lose — only she wins (oddly, Herzlinger and McAuley depict Kalie’s class speech but not Natalie’s, keeping us in suspense for an act or two as to how the election turned out), and as a result Sam Cahill, Kalie’s boyfriend, dumps her and invites Natalie to the school hockey game that night (he’s the school’s star hockey player and is counting on his skill in that sport to get him a scholarship to college) and to a party at his place right after. Complicating things is that Sam’s father, attorney Brian Cahill (Parker Stevenson, who 40 years ago was Shaun Cassidy’s sidekick on the Hardy Boys show), just arranged for Martin and Nick to get a major remodeling job at a home in Deer Hills (we see a sign identifying the community as Deer Hills several times but it’s unclear whether that’s the name of the whole town or just the most affluent section of it) which involves building a pergola — and one of the few comic-relief moments in McAuley’s script shows the two agreeing with their prospective client that they can build him a pergola when they clearly have no idea what a pergola is. (Fortunately, it’s the 21st century and they can always look it up online: according to Wikipedia, “A pergola, arbor, or arbour is a garden feature forming a shaded walkway, passageway, or sitting area of vertical posts or pillars that usually support cross-beams and a sturdy open lattice, often upon which woody vines are trained. The origin of the word is the Late Latin pergula, referring to a projecting eave. As a type of gazebo, it may also be an extension of a building or serve as protection for an open terrace or a link between pavilions. They are different from green tunnels.”)

Alas, the next time Martin sees his daughter she’s in the middle of the road, clearly pretty much out of it, and she admits she drank too much at the party. Dad gets her into his truck and takes her to the emergency room, where she’s admitted, diagnosed with alcohol poisoning and also discovered to have had sex. She insists that she consented and that Sam Cahill was her partner — the party ended abruptly when the other guests caught them at it and left — but Dad is convinced she was raped and demands that police detective Schaffer (Drew Rausch) investigate the case as a rape. Schaffer accordingly calls in Sam Cahill for an interrogation, which naturally makes his father angry. Meanwhile Natalie is sitting at home alone and moping a lot, rejecting her dad’s attempts to get close to her, and this makes dad more and more convinced she was raped since the signs of her mental state seem to match those in a pamphlet Schaffer gave him called Symptoms of Sexual Assault. The melodrama ramps up even more when Natalie gets something that looks an awful lot like morning sickness and she gives herself a home pregnancy test, with her school friend Tess (Blaine Saunders) for moral support — and she finds she is indeed pregnant with Sam’s baby. (“Oh, no,” you go, “not another infallible pregnancy at a single contact.”) When they find out — Natalie breaks the news to Sam at the Cahill home, where she’s fled because daddy has become so angry and judgmental she can’t live with him anymore, and Sam’s mother Julie (Meredith Salenger) overhears them and tells Sam’s dad — Bruce Cahill offers to arrange an abortion at a clinic where they do the procedure simply by prescribing pills. Natalie goes to the clinic with Sam and they get the pills (they’re in a state with a parental notification law but Bruce Cahill, as an attorney, is able to get a judge to sign a bypass order) but Daddy confronts them there and Natalie flees the scene by stealing Sam’s car. Martin and Sam try to track her down, first at a lake where Martin had taken his daughter fishing and she’d been bored (which reminded me of the day my dad tried to take me fishing, and I was equally bored) until she actually caught something, and then at the Pink Motel. It seems that Natalie’s mom Sarah had been seeing another man and meeting him for trysts at the Pink Motel (which really exists; they shot at a monumentally tacky-looking one in Santa Monica) and had planned to leave her husband for him until she got sick, her boyfriend dumped her and she returned to her husband so he could take care of her while she was dying. It also seems that Julie Cahill was an ex-girlfriend of Martin’s — they dated until they broke up, she married Bruce and Martin married Sarah — one good thing about McAuley’s script is it shows just how closed-in a small-town environment can be and how it’s as much of a bad thing as it is a good one that everyone seems to know everyone else.

For the first hour or so The Perfect Daughter is the sort of movie that makes you wonder why you’re bothering to watch it — if you stick with it you’ll get angrier and angrier at Martin and think he, not his daughter, is the irresponsible one — but about midway through this film clicks into high gear. It becomes obvious that Herzlinger and McAuley want you to think of Martin as the villain — indeed, aside from Julie Cahill, virtually all the adults in the movie act irresponsibly and crazily and it’s Sam and Natalie who, having made their one big mistake (getting plastered at that party and having sex without “protection”), are far more responsible than the grownups in dealing with the aftermath and making competent, sensible decisions instead of letting their emotions run away with them — down to Natalie’s cold-blooded calculation that she and Sam (who have to work together anyway since she’s the student body treasurer and he’s the president) should indulge in as many public displays of affection as possible so her classmates will realize she wanted to have sex with him and he was not a rapist. A movie that seemed unbearably larded-on in the first half suddenly acquires real emotional heft and power, as McAuley’s writing improves and his characters take on multiple dimensions and become believable as human beings instead of stick figures in a Lifetime melodrama. He even dares an inconclusive ending: it ends with Natalie clutching the bottle of abortion pills (incidentally the “A”-word is never used on the soundtrack — this is still American television, after all) but unsure as to whether she wants to take them or carry the pregnancy to term and have the baby. (Given that I got my girlfriend pregnant when I was 24 and she was 18, and she had an abortion — thereby costing me the only child I will ever conceive because eventually I came out as Gay and haven’t had sex with a woman in over 33 years — Natalie’s and Sam’s dilemma strongly resonated emotionally with me.) For the first half of this film you might be tempted to turn it off or change the channel in mid-stream, but stay with The Perfect Daughter and it will provide you a wrenching emotional experience, hammered home not only by the subtlety of McAuley’s writing (for once a Lifetime movie does not come to a pat, easy conclusion; also, for once in a Lifetime movie, the characters grow, change and learn something about themselves over the film’s running time, especially when daddy Martin realizes that the reason he’s been so relentlessly overprotective of his daughter is fear that without a tight leash, she’d grow up like her mom and become sexually adventurous with multiple partners) but the quiet strength of Herzlinger’s direction and fine acting by a well-assembled cast — notably Smith as Martin, Stevenson as Bruce Cahill and Reiley McClendon, a stocky young man with a facial resemblance to the young Elvis, as Sam — he’s nice-looking but not so overwhelmingly attractive you’d wonder why half the girls in school aren’t carrying his kids!

Saturday, March 26, 2016

Joe Bonamassa: Muddy Wolf at Red Rocks (PBS, 2014)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2016 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night, as part of one of PBS’s interminable “pledge” periods (in which the commercial-to-content ratio on America’s “public” television network approaches 1 to 1 — when Newt Gingrich, in his attempt to defund PBS altogether, said that these pledge-break periods were more offensive than the out-and-out commercials on the for-profit networks he had a point), KPBS showed a couple of music specials that I thought would be interesting. One was a 2014 concert by blues musician Joe Bonamassa given at the natural Red Rocks amphitheatre in Colorado (which became famous as a music venue when U2 did a concert there that was released as a live album and video called Under a Blood-Red Sky) which was called Muddy Wolf at Red Rocks. The title was supposed to suggest the content of his show: three sets, the first a tribute to Muddy Waters (t/n McKinley Morganfield), the second a tribute to Howlin’ Wolf (t/n Chester Alan Arthur Burnett — so both these archetypal Black blues singers were named after late-19th century Republican presidents!), and the third a set of Bonamassa’s own originals. Bonamassa is apparently attempting to fill the “white blues guitar virtuoso” niche left vacant a quarter-century ago by the death of Stevie Ray Vaughan, and he’s an incredible musician even though there’s a sense of dutifulness regarding his whole “Muddy Wolf” act. He’s got a pleasant if rather thin blues voice — somewhat to my surprise, while he doesn’t come close to Wolf’s magisterial intensity (the adjective I first thought of was “demonic” but I decided the last thing I wanted to do here is contribute to the ridiculous myth that blues musicians like Wolf and Robert Johnson literally sold their souls to the devil at the crossroads to attain their extraordinary talents) he seemed more comfortable being able to let his voice out more in the Wolf’s material rather than trying to emulate Waters’ gritty smoothness (not an oxymoron, as anyone who’s heard the records of the real Waters will know).

One thing that makes these PBS specials hard to evaluate critically is that what we see on TV is simply a loss leader for the bonus CD’s, DVD’s and tchotchkes that are advertised as premia for hefty contributions to the stations. In the 15-minute commercial breaks for PBS in between the 20 minutes of program, the announcers tell us endlessly that what we’re seeing is merely a portion of the full show, which you can only get if you contribute X amount monthly or 12X in one go — the hucksterism here is galling but what’s significant here is that you don’t know whether any deficiencies in the performance, particularly in terms of what songs by Muddy and the Wolf to represent them by, are Bonamassa’s fault or those of the editors who picked and chose from what he performed to assemble the version that got on TV. His song choices for Muddy, at least based on what actually aired, were considerably better than those for the Wolf: he started the Waters set with “Tiger in Your Tank” (at least partly because he had a film clip of the real Waters performing it which segued into his own version — he did the same thing latger with Wolf’s “How Many More Years”), then did “I Can’t Be Satisfied,” “You Shook Me” and the train blues “All Aboard” (which Bonamassa credited to the 1970 album Fathers and Sons even though Waters first recorded it in 1954 and he ripped off the opening verse from Arthur Crudup’s 1942 record “Mean Old Frisco Blues”). While there are plenty of Waters songs I would have rather heard than those (like “Rolling Stone,” from which a certain British rock group you may have heard of took their name, and trademarks like “Hoochie Koochie Man” and “I Just Want to Make Love to You”), at least the four songs on the TV version were solid hits and representative of Waters’ style. (“I Can’t Be Satisfied” was Waters’ first commercially released record — though he’d previously recorded an acoustic session on a plantation for Alan Lomax in 1940 and three sides for Columbia in Chicago in 1946 that the company didn’t release until the early 1980’s! — and he cut it in 1948 for Leonard and Phil Chess’s Aristocrat label before they changed the name to Chess in 1951, and it was such a hit Waters had a hard time persuading the Chess brothers to let him record his full band instead of just Waters’ vocal and acoustic guitar and Big Crawford’s bass, the combination on “I Can’t Be Satisfied.”)

The Wolf set was less successful; Bonamassa began it with “How Many More Years” (the flip side of Wolf’s first record, “Moanin’ at Midnight,” and originally recorded in 1951 in Memphis, Tennessee with Sam Phillips, later famous as the founder of Sun Records and discoverer of Elvis Presley et al., producing and Ike Turner playing piano!) and then did “Shake for Me,” “Evil (Is Going On)” and another early side, “All Night Boogie.” For a musician who learned the blues via Eric Clapton and Cream (Bonamassa said in an interview that Cream’s Goodbye LP was the first blues, or at least blues-ish, record he ever owned and it was passed to him by his father) I’m surprised that he didn’t do either of the Wolf songs Cream covered, “Spoonful” and “Sitting on Top of the World” (and he didn’t do Cream’s one Muddy Waters cover, “Rollin’ and Tumblin’,” either!), nor did he do Wolf’s biggest hit, “Smokestack Lightnin’,” nor the awesome “Little Red Rooster” (covered, less effectively, by the Rolling Stones) or “Back Door Man” (covered, again less effectively, by the Doors). But then again, maybe the full version of this show available if you make a substantial contribution to KPBS contains some of the songs I’m complaining I didn’t hear last night. Bonamassa is a magnificent guitar player — and fortunately the show’s director got close enough to him to demonstrate the string-bending technique that gives blues guitar playing much of its power (I couldn’t help but think of how frustrating it is to watch the surviving films of Jimi Hendrix and see the director cut away from what we most want to see: Hendrix’ fingers on the guitar, showing us how he got those amazing sounds!), but there’s a sense of duty about his performance. In his “The State of Dixieland” article in the late-1950’s/early-1960’s magazine Jazz Review, Richard Hadlock noted that in attempts to recreate a previous style “the tune and the arrangement, as symbols of other men in other times, are all-important and the performance an almost mechanical means of preserving them. … Like a professor who escapes the perplexities of today’s world by living in history, the musician who emulates past performances is on relatively save and predictable ground. His musical goals are laid out before him, requiring only hard work and enthusiasm to reach them. The large burden of individual creative responsibility … is gone, for music that may have been difficult when it was conceived can be reconstructed with comparative ease years later. And the results can be lots of fun” — as well as allowing great music to live on in live performance even after its creators have died.

The results certainly are fun in Bonamassa’s performances, even though the third set containing two Bonamassa originals wasn’t especially more creative than the cover sets that preceded it: I’m guessing at the titles of the two songs he played (the first was “Oh, Beautiful” and the second could have been called “Happiness,” “Crown of Thorns” or “Larky Love Song”) but they were in the style less of 1950’s blues pioneers like Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf and more like the 1960’s “psychedelic” musicians that drew from the blues but added volume, distortion and above all, length. “Oh, Beautiful” opens with a Hendrix-style fretboard rub (I’m still amazed that Stanley Jordan was hailed as a guitar innovator in the 1980’s for being able to make sounds by just rubbing the strings on the fretboard without actually plucking them, when Hendrix had been doing that during his short-lived prime; but then Hendrix had done so many guitar innovations that one apparently just got lost in the shuffle, just as Glenn Miller in 1939 was able to claim credit for a “new” big-band voicing in which a clarinet doubled the sax line an octave higher, when Duke Ellington had been using that device as early as the 1933 record “Rude Interlude”) but for the most part Bonamassa’s “originals” sound like someone whose model when he was starting out was Eric Clapton. His improvisations were actually tighter-knit than Clapton’s sometimes disorganized rambles (Clapton was — and is — the sort of musician who can deliver a great solo in a confined space but can get dull if given enough musical time to hang himself) but it was still an antique style, just one from the 1960’s instead of the 1950’s. Still, Bonamassa’s playing is a lot of fun, and the people who give enough to KPBS to get tickets for his concert in December at the Balboa Theatre downtown will almost certainly enjoy themselves.

My Music: This Land Is Your Land (WQED/PBS, 2002)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2016 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The other KPBS “pledge break” special was This Land Is Your Land from the “My Music” series, which I had assumed based on what I’d previously heard from “My Music” would be a series of film clips showing 1960’s folksingers “in the day.” Instead it’s a 2002 concert from Carnegie-Mellon University in Pittsburgh (the Pittsburgh PBS affiliate, WQED, was listed as the show’s production company) in which various survivors from the 1960’s folk era were dredged up and put before an audience, with varying but generally entertaining results. The program opened with Judy Collins, who shared hosting duties with the Smothers Brothers, doing “Both Sides Now” — and doing a considerably jazzier version, with a surprising amount of improvisation on the melody, than the one she gave us back in the late 1960’s when she (not its composer, Joni Mitchell) had the original hit on the song. Then the Smothers Brothers came on but only to do a long introduction to the Kingston Trio, who were billed as featuring original member Bob Shane — though I suspect, given the relative ages of the participants, that Shane was the only original member represented — doing “Tom Dooley” (actually a rewrite of an old Black song called “Tom Dula,” itself based on a real-life case, though whereas the fictional Tom Dooley is awaiting a legal, above-board execution, the real Tom Dula was lynched) and “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” (a setting by Pete Seeger of an anti-war poem from the novel And Quiet Flows the Don by Russian author Boris Shtokolov, which was later translated into German at the behest of Marlene Dietrich, and still later Joan Baez recorded the German version!). I joked to Charles, “Which one became a woman?” — a reference to the film A Mighty Wind by Christopher Guest, who did to folk music in that movie what he’d done to heavy metal in This Is Spinal Tap, in which “The Folksmen” (his twisted version of The Kingston Trio) have to revamp the act because their bass player has gone through gender-confirmation surgery, though s/he still sings the bass vocal parts on their songs.

Then the Highwaymen were brought in for their big hit, “Michael, Row the Boat Ashore” (introduced as a Black folk song when it was actually originally a spiritual — one would think the references to the Jordan River would give it away). That was set one; after the usual interminable “pledge break” the show came back with Glenn Yarborough singing his big solo hit “Baby, the Rain Must Fall” (he did better records as a solo artist, including a cover of Simon and Garfunkel’s “For Emily, Wherever I May Find Her” and Rod McKuen’s “The Lonely Things” and “Love’s Been Good to Me,” but this was probably his biggest hit) and then rejoining his original group, The Limeliters, for “There’s a Meeting Here Tonight” and an hilarious send-up of generic folk songs called “Our Generic Uptempo Folk Song.” Then the Brothers Four — whom I’d always thought of as one of the “plaid” easy-listening vocal groups rather than a folk group (they did a ghastly cover of the Beatles’ “Help!” on the LP The Sounds of ’66, Volume 1), competitors with the Ames Brothers and the Four Aces — came out for “Greenfields” (I’d assumed the title was two words but the credit crawls announcing the contents of the CD’s being offered as premia for KPBS members and contributors gave it as one) and an O.K. version of another song I would hardly think qualifies as a folk song (though Harry Belafonte covered it on his album The Many Moods of Belafonte and gave it what I think is the best rendition it’s ever had, phrased with an eloquence that puts to shame the Brothers Four and almost everyone else who’s tried it): “Try to Remember,” the big opening number from the off-Broadway musical The Fantasticks. That was set two; the third set opened with a great comedy routine by the Smothers Brothers that skewered the madrigal tradition in general and the song “While the Nightingale Sings” in particular — odd that by far the two most entertaining bits on the show, this and the Limeliters’ “Our Generic Uptempo Folk Song,” were out-and-out parodies of the genre, but there they/we were!

Then there was a version of the New Christy Minstrels’ biggest hit, “Green, Green” (fortunately they did not call it “Greengreen”!) by Randy Sparks and the Minstrels. Randy Sparks was actually the founder of the New Christy Minstrels — who took their name from the original Christy’s Minstrels in the 19th century, whose leader E. P. Christy introduced many of the most famous songs by Stephen Foster (something I didn’t know until the 1970’s, when I first saw the 1939 biopic of Stephen Foster, Swanee River, with Don Ameche playing Foster and Al Jolson — who else? — as Christy). After the New Christy Minstrels became hit-makers, he formed another group to serve as a sort of farm team for them; he called this group the Back Porch Majority and kept ownership of them even after he sold the New Christy Minstrels name and franchise — so, no longer owning the name, Sparks had to perform New Christy Minstrels material and arrangements as “Randy Sparks and the Minstrels.” Then an incredibly aged-looking Barry McGuire did P. F. Sloan’s notorious faux-protest song “Eve of Destruction” (containing one of the worst songwriting lines of all time, in which the singer protests that world events anger him so much “my blood feels like coagulatin’”) — this was McGuire’s one hit and inspired a Right-wing response called “Dawn of Correction,” though later McGuire himself became a born-again Christian and denounced both “Eve of Destruction” and the politics behind it. Some of “Eve of Destruction” holds up pretty well (particularly the opening line, “The Eastern world/It is exploding,” and “You say you’re for peace/But what’s that gun you’re toting?”), some of it just sounds silly, but there were certainly better protest songs being written in the 1960’s (and not just by Bob Dylan, either!) and one has to wonder about a show paying tribute to 1960’s folk music that would include “Eve of Destruction” and not “Blowin’ in the Wind.” Then a surprisingly young-looking Roger McGuinn came out and did “Mr. Tambourine Man” in the original Byrds’ arrangement — I mentioned to Charles that I remembered liking the Byrds’ records except for their Dylan covers, which were never anywhere near as good as Dylan’s originals (but then one of the rules for membership in the Bob Dylan Cult in the 1960’s was you were never allowed to like a cover version of a Bob Dylan song —you could make exceptions for Joan Baez and Peter, Paul and Mary because they were friends of his, but otherwise Dylan covers were beyond the pale, and I went on believing that until I heard Jimi Hendrix’ magisterial cover of “All Along the Watchtower” and had to admit that Hendrix had come up with a version equally valid and quite different, legitimately extending the original in the way a cover version should do). After “Mr. Tambourine Man” McGuinn and his band did the Byrds’ other big hit, “Turn! Turn! Turn!,” which he announced as a song by Pete Seeger based on verses from the Book of Ecclesiastes in the Bible. “Why was King Solomon given second billing?” Charles joked, to which I responded, “Because he was just the lyric writer.”

That’s how the main part of the show ended, but afterwards there was another interminable pledge break and then snippets of some of the promised “bonus material” available if you give KPBS a ton of money and request it as your premium: “Just Americans,” a Randy Sparks and the Minstrels performance of a song Sparks wrote right after 9/11, saying that the tragedies in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania had brought all Americans together and made us one country, erasing racial and religious divides (a judgment Sparks might want to revise now — assuming he’s still alive, which, according to Wikipedia, he is — given the success of politicians like Donald Trump and Ted Cruz in demonizing Muslims over 9/11 and the more recent terror attacks in Paris, San Bernardino and Brussels) — and the Woody Guthrie song that gave the show its title, “This Land Is Your Land” (the “safe” verses only) performed as an ensemble piece by various members of the groups featured in the concert. This Land Is Your Land was a fun program but not much more than that; the 1960’s folk scene embraced a lot more than the pop-folk sounds virtually all the groups represented here were going for (I recently ordered the first Broadside Records album in its CD reissue from the Smithsonian, and though Bob Dylan’s three songs, issued under the pseudonym “Blind Boy Grunt” since Dylan was already under contract to Columbia, outshine everyone else’s the disc does show off some of the edgier sounds of the folk movement, including Native American Peter La Farge’s “As Long as the Grass Shall Grow” and “Faubus’ Foibles” and Mark Spoelstra’s “The Civil Defense Sign”) and some of the protest songs, notably “Blowin’ in the Wind” in Peter, Paul and Mary’s performance, actually became hits. Still, it was fun for me to hear some of this music again even though you’d have to be my age or older to have a direct memory of it — this is one of those cases when the nine-year age difference between Charles and I matters: he was born in 1962 and therefore when these songs were hits he either didn’t exist yet or was way too young to notice them — and these styles are so different from modern music (even modern music made by people singing and accompanying themselves on acoustic guitars) I wonder what people even younger than Charles would make of it.

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Enemy at the Gates (Paramount/Mandalay-Lions' Gate, 2000)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2016 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

A few nights ago Charles and I watched a movie called Enemy at the Gates, which identified as a British movie even though it’s about the World War II Battle of Stalingrad, fought in the title town on the Volga River in Russia that turned the tide on the Eastern Front; its cast is mostly British (except for Ed Harris as the leading German character) but its director, Jean-Jacques Annaud, is French and so was the writer with whom he co-wrote the script, Alain Godard (no information on whether he’s a relation of the legendary — and still living — French director Jean-Luc Godard). Charles picked out this movie hoping it would be a psychological study of war, but when we started watching it there was so much war-porn gore both of us were put off from it, Charles a bit more than I. The biggest problem with Enemy at the Gates is that though it’s billed as a movie about the battle of Stalingrad, we actually get to see almost nothing of the battle — certainly nowhere near enough to tell how well the battle is going for each side. Indeed, if you watch the early scenes — in which Russians are being sent into battle with rifles against a German enemy that has machine guns, and not all the Russian soldiers are even given rifles (they’re told that the man without a rifle will stand behind the man with one and pick it up if the front man gets killed) — it’s going to be totally unbelievable, unless you already know something about the history of World War II, that the Russians eventually won. Instead of showing us the entire battle Enemy at the Gates personalizes it and focuses on just four people: Russian sniper Vassili Zaitsev (Jude Law, looking surprisingly pretty for someone who’s supposedly been fighting in a hell-hole of a wrecked city for months); Commissar Danilov (Joseph Fiennes), a “political officer” with the Soviet army who seizes on Vassili and builds him up as a hero to inspire the other Russian soldiers to keep fighting; and the woman they both love (there had to be a romantic triangle!), Tania (Rachel Weisz), as well as German sniper Major König (Ed Harris), who engages in a cat-and-mouse duel with Vassili which seems to be designed to represent the entire battle.

It’s an interesting movie in some respects but a surprisingly mediocre film in another — it’s well acted and well staged (though, ironically, they built the reproduction of Stalingrad in the “enemy” country, Germany, where the film was shot) but it’s really a pretty generic war movie. Sam Fuller’s The Steel Helmet remains my favorite among this sub-genre of war film — the kind that focuses on just one or a handful of soldiers and their struggle to survive themselves and knock off some of the enemy if they can — and though you don’t have to have had actual combat experience to make a great war film, Fuller’s knowledge of what happens in combat from having been there and done it informs his war movies even though he admitted to making one compromise. He said that in his war films, when people are shot, they just keel over, fall down and register being dead — in reality he’d seen soldiers get shot by the enemy and they often literally blew up, but neither he nor most other war-film directors ever dare show that. (In Enemy at the Gates the soldiers who are supposed to be killed in battle register that by simply falling over and not moving.) I also noticed that, at least in the early scenes, the actors playing Germans were speaking German but the actors playing Russians were speaking in their normal British-accented English — though later Ed Harris showed up, and while I liked his intensity (in this role he reminded me a great deal of Richard Widmark) he never really convinced me that he was German — I guess I’m still spoiled by The Longest Day, in which the actors playing Germans spoke German, the actors playing French people spoke French, and only the actors playing British or American characters spoke English. (Alas, this led to another problem: the subtitles that were supposed to tell us what the non-English speaking actors were actually saying were frequently white-on-white, and almost totally illegible.)

Enemy at the Gates also intriguingly featured Nikita Khrushchev as an on-screen character — played by Bob Hoskins, whose return to a major role after the disaster of Super Mario Brothers (where he played a part that compromised his reputation in a flop film that didn’t give him the mass-audience career boost he was hoping for) was especially welcome — and gave him a speech in which he attempts to rally the Russian troops by invoking the name of the city where they’re fighting and the head of state it’s named after: “This city... is not Kursk, nor is it Kiev, nor Minsk. This city... is Stalingrad. Stalingrad! This city bears the name of the Boss. It’s more than a city, it’s a symbol. If the Germans... capture this city... the entire country will collapse.” The irony is that in 1961, five years after Khrushchev became leader of the Soviet Union and stunned the Communist Party Congress with a speech denouncing Joseph Stalin as the bloodthirsty, paranoiac tyrant he was, Khrushchev ordered the city renamed “Volgograd” (a reference to its position on the bank of the Volga River) as part of his attempt to rid the Soviet Union of Stalin’s poisonous legacy. Also, lists the date of Enemy at the Gates as 2001 when the copyright notice on the closing credits says “MM” — i.e., 2000 — and according to their contributors the whole business of the Russian army sending men into battle without arms and shooting anyone who tried to desert (leading to some early scenes in which the Russians who are fighting find themselves caught in a cross-fire between the Germans shooting in front of them and the Russians shooting behind them) was more appropriate to the First World War, when some Russian companies were sent into battle with wooden rifles (and of course were sitting ducks for the German solders who had real rifles), while the business of shooting would-be deserters in mid-battle had been tried by the French in 1916 and hadn’t worked for them any better than it does for the Russians here.

Monday, March 21, 2016

The Passion (Anders Media, Dick Clark Productions, Eye2eye Media, Fox TV, 2016)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2016 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night’s “feature” was a preposterous program on the Fox network called The Passion, which was billed as a dramatization of the life of Jesus — or at least the last week or so of it — but turned into a show I can only call “God-awful.” The show opened in a big outdoor stadium in New Orleans, where the entire thing took place, and the big ballyhoo was that it was being performed live — though of course we, being on the West Coast and therefore sucking hind tit as far as the New York media moguls are concerned, were watching it on a three-hour tape delay. The gimmick — well, there were several gimmicks, but one of them was that the main stadium (they identified it but did it so quickly I didn’t catch the name of the venue) would be the setting for the orchestra, the chorus and Trisha Yearwood, who played Mary. Jesus and his disciples would be seen in various urban locales making their way to the main venue; they arrived in town for Palm Sunday on a New Orleans trolley and Judas announced his intention to betray Jesus on a weird construction of various pipes — I wondered if they had picked this site because it would be a picturesque venue for him to hang himself from later, but they didn’t go that far. While the cast was moving around the city, in other news a giant white cross was being carried to the main site by a group of volunteers — they were holding it like a coffin instead of dragging it the way the traditional (and wrong) depictions of the Crucifixion have depicted it (the real way a crucifixion was done was the victim carried the top bar of the cross and then it was attached to a permanent stake in the ground — Franco Zeffirelli, in his 1970’s TV-movie Jesus of Nazareth, is the only director I can recall who got it right) — and newscasters were following the procession and asking various parties in it how they felt about being there. What’s more, the writer/director, Peter Barsocchini, came up with a script that only gave five of the principals — Jesus (Jencarlos Canela), Peter (Prince Royce), Judas (Chris Daughtry), Pilate (Seal) and Mary (Trisha Yearwood) — featured roles. Christ’s other 10 apostles became what Anna Russell would have called “a homogenous chorus — as in milk,” basically reduced to following him around and so undifferentiated in Barsocchini’s script they’re not even listed by name on the show’s page — just as “Disciple.” Even worse was the lame-brained decision to follow Baz Luhrmann’s example in the 2001 film Moulin Rouge! and, instead of commissioning a new score (or using an existing pop-rock setting of the Passion Play like Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Jesus Christ Superstar or Stephen Schwartz’s Godspell), to shoehorn in existing pop-rock songs that didn’t even begin to fit in to the story.

The host — what in Johann Sebastian Bach’s time would have been called “The Evangelist” — was Tyler “Madea” Perry, whose continued popularity with the so-called “faith” audience is pretty inexplicable (though give them points for making a Black drag queen into a superstar!), and he was personable but had, like everyone else who actually got a line or more, to recite Barsocchini’s awful faith-based dialogue, which occasionally contained an actual line from the Bible that just stuck out compared to the horrible sludge of Barsocchini’s own writing. The one redeeming (to use a word with religious connotations!) grace (another one!) of this production was Trisha Yearwood, who isn’t exactly one of the most intensely emotional singers of all time but whose cool professionalism soared above the rest of the cast even despite the risible choices of songs for her to sing (she was supposed to be mourning the impending crucifixion of her son and the song they gave her to do that with was the old Rodgers and Hammerstein masterpiece of bathos, “You’ll Never Walk Alone” — Ray Charles turned that into an intense and legitimately soulful piece on his 1963 album Ingredients in a Recipe for Soul, which also contains by far the best non-Judy Garland version of “Over the Rainbow,” but no one else has managed to pull it off) and the horrible dress she was wearing, a blue thing with a slash across the top of it to reveal the tops of her breasts: an odd costume indeed for someone who was supposed to be playing the Virgin Mother of God. The show’s silliest moments were the duet for Jesus and Judas when Jesus learns Judas has just betrayed him (and before he’s arrested by helmeted riot police and makes his next appearance in an orange prison jumpsuit — I guess on this show orange was the new Jewish) and the later one for Jesus and Pilate (to quote another Anna Russell line, “I’m not making this up, you know!”) to Tina Turner’s big song from Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome, “We Don’t Need Another Hero.” (As long as they were using that song, couldn’t they have got Tina out of retirement and had her play Mary Magdalene?)

Otherwise The Passion was an excessively silly show with a score of such stupefying banality it made Andrew Lloyd Webber sound like Bach by comparison, and limp performances of these bad songs by everyone in the cast aside from Yearwood (I used to really like Seal, but here he sank to the level of his duet partner). I remember the hissy-fit my mom had when she and I watched the trailer for the film of Jesus Christ Superstar and she said, “Oh, no, they didn’t make Judas Black” — this time, at least, Judas was white and it was Pilate who was Black! It also didn’t help that Jencarlos Canela (supposedly a star of telenovelas in Mexico) as Jesus and Prince Royce as Peter looked quite a lot alike — the only visible difference is Peter had more facial hair — or that they were both such mediocre performers they became oppressive screen presences even though they’re quite attractive young men who should have been fun at least to look at, if not to hear! Supposedly this sort of setting of The Passion has become a regular feature on Dutch TV, where it’s been aired regularly since its debut in 2011 — but as far as I’m concerned the Dutch can keep it. And as for Peter Barsocchini: forgive him, Lord, for he knows not what he does!

Sunday, March 20, 2016

Mommy’s Little Girl (NB Thrilling Films, Reel One Films, Lifetime, 2016)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2016 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night Lifetime presented two recent TV-movie productions back to back, first the March 19 “world premiere” of Mommy’s Little Girl and then a repeat of last Saturday’s “world premiere,” The Stepchild. I had high hopes for Mommy’s Little Girl as soon as I saw Christine Conradt’s name among the writing credits — she came up with the “original” story and co-wrote the actual script with Mark Sanderson, while her frequent collaborator Curtis James Crawford directed — and I wasn’t disappointed: though both the overall premise and several specific incidents are heavily, shall we say, “borrowed” from Maxwell Anderson’s play The Bad Seed (and the marvelous film Mervyn LeRoy made from it in 1956 — at least it’s a marvelous film if you stop watching it at the point where the play ends and avoid the tacked-on ending the Production Code Administration insisted on), Mommy’s Little Girl is a great suspense thriller. Maybe it’s not an all-time classic but it holds the attention, it entertains and gives us the nice clean dirty frissons of fun for which we (at least I) go to Lifetime in the first place. It begins at the home of Elana Connell (Deborah Grover), an insanely (literally) moralistic woman who for the last 10 years has raised her grandchild Sadie (Emma Hentschel) after Sadie’s mom Theresa (Fiona Gubelmann, top-billed) flamed out on alcohol (and possibly drugs as well, though the Conradt-Sanderson script isn’t specific about exactly what her addictions were) and the authorities were going to put Sadie in the foster-care system (the word “care” there should really be in quotes!) if grandma didn’t take her. Grandma is a flinty type who lives in a clapboard house — one could readily imagine both the house and Deborah Grover being models for Grant Wood — and she’s devastated when Theresa shows up at her door, announces she’s clean, sober and engaged to a well-to-do toy company executive named Aaron Myers (James Gallanders, one of the few genuinely attractive men in a Lifetime movie who isn’t stuck playing a villain!) who’s already got a son, Josh (Mikael Conde), from an earlier wife. For the first act or so it’s not altogether apparent just where the Conradt-style intrigue is going to come from, but it soon develops that Sadie has become a spoiled-brat psycho who’ll do just about anything to get her way, from ratting on Josh when she catches him drinking in the backyard to responding to two class bullies at school — she’s never been to school before because her grandma home-schooled her — Dylan (Sam Ashe Arnold, a cute tow-headed kid who’ll probably grow up to be a heartbreaker) and Alliree (Mia Kechichian) — by stealing a box of Dylan’s action-figure toys, using a cigarette lighter she inherited from her grandfather (John Koensgen)[1] to melt the face off one of them, and taping the mutilated toy to the inside of Dylan’s locker door (how did she open it?). She also gets homicidally mad at her seemingly nice and caring teacher, Miss Goldin (Alix Sideris), when she does a show-and-tell about the lighter in class and Miss Goldin confiscates it.

She happens to be going through Miss Goldin’s purse and notices an IV pen with a drug whose label carefully states it’s “for nut allergies,” and of course Christine Conradt is too good a script constructionist to drop a big hint like that in her cliché bank without using it. Sadie agrees to meet Miss Goldin at her house (she finds her via Google Earth, and it’s from the scene in which she logs on and pulls up the relevant map that we finally learn this story is taking place in Philadelphia, though of course this being a Lifetime production it’s “played” by an unnamed city in Canada) to return Dylan’s action figures (at least the rest of them that she hasn’t mutilated), and she brings along a package of marzipan cake she had her mom and stepdad-to-be buy her once she realized that the stuff’s key ingredient is almonds. Sadie filches the IV pen from Miss Goldin’s purse, hides it in her couch, then feeds her the almond cake and watches her go into convulsions and expire (though just in case she might survive the attack Sadie smothers her on her way out of the house), then gets on the little pink bicycle in her matching little pink outfit and rides away. The scene is obviously ripped off from Lillian Hellman’s The Little Foxes, in which the villainess (played by Tallulah Bankhead in the original stage production and Bette Davis —who else? —in the 1941 movie) offs her decent husband by letting him collapse on their stairs of a heart attack and withholding the medication that could have saved his life — and not only is the overall plot strongly reminiscent of The Bad Seed but director Crawford probably screened it for Emma Hentschel, since her portrayal of Sadie is clearly patterned on the superb little-bitch performance of Patty McCormick in The Bad Seed, all gooey sweet smiles on the surface and psychopathic rage underneath. Alas, not only were there two witnesses to her flight from Miss Goldin’s — a guidance counselor at school who takes over Miss Goldin’s class after she’s dead and a local athlete who discovered Miss Goldin’s body when he accidentally threw a ball into her yard and leaped her fence to fetch it — but Aaron, Sadie’s mother’s fiancé, catches on when he finds out the school friend named “Samantha” Sadie claimed to be visiting when she was really miles away killing Miss Goldin doesn’t really exist.

It builds to a surprisingly credible (for Christine Conradt, anyway) finale in which Sadie, who previously had looked forward to the wedding of her mom Theresa to Aaron and had even been given a bridesmaid’s dress identical, except for its size, to the one her mom was going to wear as the bride, now decides that Aaron is trying to come between her and her mom and assaults him with a baseball bat. Theresa comes in and saves him, then Sadie grabs a knife and it’s touch and go whether Theresa will be able to get it away from her before she stabs either Aaron, her own mother, or herself (there’s one ambiguous shot in the sequence that hints Sadie may have briefly contemplated suicide). Ultimately, she does, and Sadie is subdued and eventually turned over to a mental institution for crazy kids — the fate she’s been fearing all movie, though once she’s there she actually rather likes it: certainly her fellow inmates are less standoffish than the kids at the outside school (though we’re simply told that instead of being shown it), and she’s allowed to keep wearing the bridesmaid’s dress because it has great symbolic value for her. The last scene shows Theresa and Aaron, now officially married, visiting Sadie in the institution, and Sadie glowing with joy and looking forward to the soon-to-come day when she’ll be let out and can live with her mom and mom’s husband again — and then Theresa sadly tells Aaron on their way out that she will never be leaving that place. Though I might have preferred a dark ending along the lines of Anderson’s original for The Bad Seed (in which “bad girl” Rhoda Penmark and her father are left together after the death of her mom, the last person who knew the secret that innocent-looking Rhoda was really a “bad seed” psycho killer), and there are a few of the plot holes typical of Conradt’s work (including one even the weird woman, whose name I think is Eileen Foley, who does interstital comments on the Lifetime films between commercials and whose snarky points get awfully Mystery Science Theatre 3000-ish at times, pointed out: why, when Miss Goldin has a deathly allergy to any food containing nuts, does she eat the cake Sadie proffers her without even asking her what’s in it?), for the most part Mommy’s Little Girl is a solidly entertaining thriller that’s helped by the fact that we know exactly who the culprit is and therefore the suspense isn’t over whodunit but how the characters are going to find out who we know is doin’ it.

[1] Whom, a flashback scene reveals, Sadie had previously killed when he tried to take her down to the basement for “punishment” once too often — and we also see Sadie kill her grandmother when she comes to Sadie’s mom and demands to be paid back for all her expenses taking care of Sadie.

The Stepchild (Lifetime, 2016)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2016 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Alas, after the relative quality of Mommy’s Little Girl, the next film Lifetime showed, The Stepchild, was a major step down, closer to the level of Lifetime’s usual sleazy trash. It begins with a weird sequence that shows director Roma Roth, who also co-wrote the script with Gemma Holdway, has a flair for the Gothic: it involves a dream in which the titular stepchild, Ashley Bennett (Sara Fisher), is clutching a snowball globe which breaks and gets all bloody when she spies the dead body of her father on the living-room floor of their home. Dad is named Bill Bennett and his first wife — Ashley’s mom — was schizophrenic and ultimately committed suicide by drowning herself in the bathtub (by coincidence also the way Althea Flynt offed herself in The People vs. Larry Flynt, which Charles and I had just watched). Then he remarried; his new wife is Beth (Lauren Holly), though he’s often not home because he’s busy building a major real-estate development company (we know it’s a major firm because its office walls are festooned with photos of the skyscrapers they’ve built all over the world) with his business partner John Blackwell (Paul Johansson). Then Bill Bennett is himself murdered in what appears to have been a home-invasion robbery gone awry — only after the killing John Blackwell moves into the Bennetts’ home, ostensibly to sort out the business affairs of the company so it can continue, and probate Bennett’s will, and Ashley becomes convinced her stepmom (whom she never calls “mom,” only “Beth”) and Blackwell are having an affair and Blackwell actually killed her dad and merely faked it to look like a robbery gone bad. For most of the running time that’s what we’re led to believe, too — especially after Ashley finds a letter in the home office her dad used to use and Blackwell has taken over saying that as a 49 percent owner Blackwell couldn’t sell the company without her dad’s permission — though Roth and Holdway also throw us an alternate suspect: Ashley’s boyfriend Michael (the boyishly cute Keenan Tracey), an aspiring rock musician who wants to relocate to L.A. and take Ashley with him. Michael had a motive to kill Ashley’s dad because Bill Bennett, like one of the feuding families in Romeo and Juliet, didn’t approve of Michael and didn’t want her daughter to be involved with him.

Ashley visits her dad’s old office one day and Blackwell interrupts her conversation with her dad’s former secretary Josie (not identified on but played by a lithesome young African-American actress I found appealing). Josie offers to meet Ashley at a coffeehouse the next morning but doesn’t show because a carefully unshown assailant kills her in the meantime. Ashley finds her address (she actually tricks one of the other secretaries at the firm into giving it to her), finds Josie’s house unlocked, lets herself in and finds Josie on the floor, dead — only instead of calling the police immediately she flees down the block, and by the time she does call the police and they come out there, the body has been removed and no one knows for sure if Josie is even dead. This gives Blackwell and Beth the excuse they need to put Ashley into the psych ward of the local hospital (the building is carefully emblazoned with a big letter “H” on the side so we know what it is), where she was treated for post-traumatic stress disorder and is under the care of a psychiatrist who writes her a prescription for psych meds — only the night she starts them Blackwell offers her champagne and, under the polypharmaceutical influence of both the alcohol and drugs, she goes out for a manic late-night drive and runs her car off the road. Now the therapist is convinced she’s schizophrenic and needs to be institutionalized, only before that can happen she escapes. It helps that the police detective on the case believes her story — or at least believes that Bill Bennett was killed with a convex object (like a snow globe), not a tool home-invasion robbers would be likely to use as a murder weapon. But when the detective comes to visit Ashley and explain his suspicions, she hasn’t escaped yet; she’s in Big H Hospital under the care of that sinister woman psychiatrist who gave her the prescription in the first place (and who I thought might turn into someone hired by the principal villain to make Ashley think she’s crazy and justify placing her into a mental institution far away from her own community — one recent Lifetime movie actually did include a psychiatrist in the pay of the villain to declare the heroine crazy, but perhaps fortunately Roth and Hollway didn’t go there) and she regards the detective as yet another authority figure determined to prove she’s crazy so they can lock her away.

When she escapes she goes to her home intending to confront Blackwell — only before she can do that someone else clubs Blackwell with something or other and he ends up bleeding on the Bennetts’ floor, and just then there’s a commercial break (the last one) and when we return — after having sat through some of the most repulsive promos ever concocted, including one for a Lifetime series called Little Women, about little people (whom we formerly called “midgets”) and their emotional and child-rearing problems that seemed to me like the 21st century’s equivalent of dwarf-tossing — Roth and Holdway pull their Big Switcheroo on us: not only was cute young Michael the real killer of Bill Bennett and Josie, but his motive was that he was actually having a sexual affair with Beth — yes, Ashley’s stepmother (which at least explains why Michael hadn’t had sex with Ashley and, unlike most young boyfriends in Lifetime movies, didn’t seem to be in any hurry to get her to, either). They were having away at each other in the Bennetts’ marital bed when Bill came home unexpectedly and caught them (which at least gave us a nice shot of Keenan Tracey nearly nude as he hurriedly put his pants on), and on the spot Bill said he would not only divorce Beth but cut her off without a cent. So Michael grabbed the snow globe and clubbed Bill with it, then staged the scene to look like a home invasion, and together Michael and Beth decided to get her 100 percent control of the real-estate company by framing Blackwell for the crime — even though that meant they had to silence Josie, whose big revelation to Ashley was supposed to be that her stepmom and Michael were having an affair (how did she know?).

After the tight-knit, fast-moving, well-acted Mommy’s Little Girl, The Stepchild (a title so overused that even though 2016 is less than one-quarter over there have already been two movies called that with listings on sank back to the Lifetime norm; though Roma Roth’s direction shows a real flair for the Gothic, especially in scenes without dialogue, the film as a whole is pretty slowly paced and we’ve got a lot more time to think about the holes in the plot than we did in Mommy’s Little Girl. Besides, as Alfred Hitchcock realized, a whodunit is actually less interesting as a plot device than a story in which we know from the outset who the criminal is and the suspense is in how long it will take for the other characters to figure it out and what danger they will be in when they do — and ironically, though Ashley Bennett is supposed to be one of the good guys, Rachel Pellinen, the child actress who plays Ashley in the flashbacks to her own childhood (particularly the sequence where she found her mom dead in the bathtub), has the same sinister pigtails of Patty McCormick in The Bad Seed and looks more like her than Emma Hentschel did in Mommy’s Little Girl!

Saturday, March 19, 2016

Hill Number One (Jerry Fairbanks Productions, St. Paul Productions, Family Rosary Crusade, 1951)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2016 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Charles and I repaired to his place to watch the two-videotape set I’d just picked up at the Wherehouse, a tribute to James Dean consisting of the documentary The James Dean Story (the 1957 Warner Brothers production, co-directed by George W. George and Robert Altman — “Yes, that Robert Altman,” I hastened to assure Charles) and an ultra-obscure (and deservedly so) 1951 telefilm called Hill #1, produced for “The Family Network” by a Catholic organization, which turned out at the end (I kid you not!) to be a one-hour infomercial for rosary beads. This truly bizarre production was directed by Arthur Pierson (a name which sounds vaguely familiar, though at this time I can’t think of any of his other credits — probably that’s just as well) and begins in a war scene (either World War II or Korea, I couldn’t tell which, since it was obviously shot in the Hollywood hills anyway, though the dialogue did identify the battle as taking place somewhere near or around the Pacific Ocean), then suddenly flashes back to Jerusalem, A.D. 29, after the Crucifixion and before the Resurrection. The leap is explained by the fact that the soldiers in the opening scene are bitching that now that they’ve taken Hill 46 (just after they took Hill 39) they’re just going to be sent into battle to take Hill 51, and their chaplain (who is dressed in an identical uniform, except his helmet has a cross painted on it) is going to tell them the story of Hill Number One and how it was taken by one man. The scene then cuts to the palace of Pontius Pilate, well played by Leif Erickson in what is far and away the best acting job in this bizarrely inept film. The Jewish merchant Joseph of Arimathea is begging for the body of the recently crucified Christ, and a reluctant Pilate gives it to him. At this point I leaned over to Charles and said, “This film is on the edge of high camp, but at least it hasn’t gone over the line.”

A moment later it did, as Joseph and his friend Nicodemus did a secret visit to the spice lady (I’m not kidding) to get the anointing oils and spices to prepare Christ’s body for entombment. Joseph and Nicodemus showed us they were on a secret errand by pulling the flaps of their turbans across their heads (one would think that would only make them look more conspicuous, but that’s “B” filmmaking for you), and the actress who played the spice lady managed to underact so baldly she created no impression at all (except for a warning that worse was to come). Worse came when Mary, the Mother of God, came onto the screen; Pierson had undoubtedly instructed this poor actress to enact sorrow by hanging her head down in every scene and speaking all her lines in a drugged-out monotone, and she followed orders all too faithfully. As the film rolled on I got the impression that, apparently, Pierson had allowed the actors playing Romans to act with some amount of emotion (in fact, too much emotion — the writing of Pilate’s part in particular almost seemed to demand relentless overacting, and Erickson complied), but the actors playing Christ’s disciples were instructed to speak their lines in a “reverential” monotone and pose with all the animation of the wooden figures of the Christmas Nativity scenes in Balboa Park. Not only that, but Pierson had his camerapeople light and stage these scenes to resemble those horrible religious paintings that are found on church calendars and postcards, and while this look isn’t quite so bad in black-and-white as it is in color, it’s still pretty dreadful. Although the producers of this film were Catholic rather than Baptist, Charles concluded that what we were watching looked very much like what Edward D. Wood, Jr.’s religious movies would have looked like had his producers been able to finance them on the strength of the “profits” from Plan Nine from Outer Space. So where does James Dean fit into all of this? He plays the Apostle John (not John the Baptist, as the “Quality Video” box maintained) and gets all of about four lines of dialogue, hardly enough to judge his acting — though even when he’s silent he does get some of those long, burning close-ups that did become a trademark of his later acting style. — 6/21/96


Charles and I broke out the James Dean: The Television Legacy boxed set I ordered not long ago containing the bulk of Dean’s surviving work on 1950’s TV. We started at the beginning, with two one-minute commercials for Pepsi-Cola — which so emphasized the “bounce” you would supposedly get from drinking it I wondered if they were still sneaking in cocaine even after Coca-Cola had drawn back from it (and substituted caffeine, which is not a natural component of the coca plant, because it was the closest they could come to cocaine and still have something legal) — which featured Nick Adams and showed Dean lurking in the back. I couldn’t help but think of the exchange in the film Citizen Kane in which Bernstein (Everett Sloane) recalls of Kane (Orson Welles) that I was with him “before the beginning — and now it’s after the end.” Nick Adams was in Dean’s film career both in these “before the beginning” Pepsi commercials and “after the end,” when director George Stevens realized while he was editing Dean’s last film, Giant, that Dean’s recording of the final speech was unusable and, with Dean dead, called in Adams to dub it. Then we ran the peculiar 1951 filmed TV show (most of Dean’s TV work was live, but this one was shot on film and had at least somewhat better production values than usual) Hill Number One, produced by Jerry Fairbanks Productions along with a couple of outfits called “St. Paul Productions” and “Family Rosary Crusade” — reinforcing the impression Charles had of it when we first watched it together from a Madacy video two-pack in the 1990’s that it was “an infomercial for rosary beads.” The time we saw it before Charles and I thought it was pretty useless — Charles joked that though the inspiration for it was Catholic instead of Baptist, it was like what Ed Wood’s religious movies would have looked like if he’d got enough money from Plan Nine from Outer Space for him and his Baptist backers to finance them — but it came off a bit better this time. It begins with a modern-day sequence set during the Korean War that’s actually pretty good even though it’s War Movie 101: an artillery crew is shown (first via stock footage but then in new film showing the actors hired for it) shelling Hill Number 46 to try to support the infantry in taking it. The soldiers — including Roddy McDowall as “The Professor,” the intellectual in the company — are wondering what the point of all this is. They’re also waiting nearly an hour for a pot of coffee they’ve been promised, and when the coffee arrives it’s brought by a chaplain (Gordon Oliver) who’s readily distinguishable because his helmet has a small white cross painted on in front. The chaplain explains that it’s Easter Sunday and therefore it’s a good time for him to explain that the point of all this fighting was made by the man who 2,000 years earlier took Hill Number One — Calvary — and took it alone.

The film then flashes back to one of the less often dramatized parts of the Christ story, the three days between Christ’s crucifixion and his resurrection (indeed, one reason I was showing this now was that Holy Week is coming up and it seemed like an appropriate time), and the uncertainty among Christ’s apostles and supporters in the Jewish community — including his mother Mary (Ruth Hussey), Joseph of Arimathea (Nelson Leigh), Mary Magdalene (Jeanne Cagney, James Cagney’s sister, wearing one of the tackiest blonde wigs of all time), and Nicodemus (Regis Toomey) — over what they’re going to do now that the “Master,” as they call him, is dead. Joseph of Arimathea goes to Pontius Pilate (Leif Erickson, who impressed me the first time I saw this but now seems to turn in one of the most horrendous overacting jobs of all time — still, he has star charisma of a sort which the rest of the ragbag of actors cast in this production don’t show) and begs permission to claim the body of Jesus and bury it in the tomb he’d already set aside for himself. Pilate agrees as long as the entry to the tomb is sealed with both a rope and a stone to make sure nobody steals Christ’s body and then claims that it was resurrected. For two days nothing much happens except that Pilate misses his wife Claudia (Joan Leslie — so this tacky TV production reunites two cast members from the great 1942 musical Yankee Doodle Dandy, Joan Leslie and Jeanne Cagney); Cassius Longinus (Henry Brandon) says that he stuck Christ with a spear while he was hanging on the cross (I thought the Gospels had this happen while Christ was actually walking through the streets of Jerusalem before he was put up on the cross) and the mixture of blood and water that came out of the wound splashed into his eyes and cured them of the twitch and partial blindness that had afflicted them all his life (though if he was partially blind how did he get into the Roman army in the first place?); and both he and the Centurion (Frank Wilcox, playing a role John Wayne would later play in The Greatest Story Ever Told) thus became convinced Jesus was indeed the Son of God, as he claimed. (I believe the actual Biblical texts are a bit more ambiguous as to whether Jesus himself ever said he was the son of God.)

Then the news comes that Christ has indeed exited the tomb — the rope is untied and the stone rolled away — of course on the production budget available to Jerry Fairbanks and his director, Arthur Pierson (who has three feature-film credits on and quite a lot of TV work) all they could do is show us the tomb with the rope untied and the stone rolled away, and I found myself wishing they could have licensed the footage of the actual Resurrection from Cecil B. DeMille’s 1927 silent The King of Kings — unless the cost to use it would have been through the roof, it would have been a good idea to go after it rather than this lame cop-out that simply showing us the tomb after Christ’s exit without depicting that actually happening. Arthur Pierson directed two films with Marilyn Monroe — Dangerous Years (1947), in which she had a bit part (it wasn’t the first movie she made but it was the first in which her footage survived to the final cut), and Home Town Story (1951), a peculiar political movie which begins as Frank Capra and ends as Ayn Rand (the story looks at first like it’s going to be about a corrupt businessman who’s polluting the local environment and is responsible for an industrial accident in which a child is trapped; later the film takes a hard Right turn and the businessman turns out to be the good guy) — and also helmed the odd 1949 TV version of A Christmas Carol (retitled The Christmas Carol) narrated by Vincent Price (though he made a bad mistake in having Price merely tell the story instead of playing Scrooge, at which he would have been better than the actual actor in the role, Taylor Holmes). But this is the first Pierson production I’ve seen in which he directed but didn’t write — the writer is uncredited but lists James D. Roche — and the writing sometimes comes close to the reverent power Pierson, Roche and their producers were obviously hoping for, but most of it is the usual religious treacle. Also, virtually everyone in the cast overacts — though Ruth Hussey, perhaps overcome by the obvious challenge of playing the Mother of God, underacts so extremely she comes off as a zombie (the White Zombie/I Walked with a Zombie type of drugged-out living corpse rather than the Night of the Living Dead type of mindless brain-eater), and James Dean, virtually alone of the cast members in the Biblical part of the story, tries to deliver a performance that’s actually credible as a normal human being.

He’s playing the Apostle John (not John the Baptist, as the Madacy video box had it — of course, as Charles pointed out when we first saw this, John the Baptist had been dead quite a while before the events in Hill Number One happen!) and he’s only in two scenes, one in which both the Jews and the Romans are lurking around the tomb and a later one in which the surviving apostles and Jesus’s backers meet to discuss what they’re going to do next. (Perhaps the most convincing thing about Hill Number One is how well Pierson and Roche dramatized the confusion any tight-knit group of activists goes through when their founder and most charismatic figure gets killed — no doubt this is also what the Mormons went through after Joseph Smith was lynched and what al-Qaeda went through when Osama bin Laden was shot down by U.S. SEAL’s.) Dean only has about four or five lines in the show, but he speaks them in a crisp, clear tone of voice — the Brandoesque mumbling was to come later — while he already had the sullen stare down pat. He’s also the only actor playing a Jewish male who doesn’t have to wear a full and outrageously false-looking beard. During the show I joked at one point, “Cue the dumb stock music,” but in fact Hill Number One had an original score — albeit by Charles Koff, not exactly one of the major names in film scoring then or now — and, at least partly because it was shot on film (albeit on some pretty familiar locations — the site of the tomb had previously featured in so many Republic Westerns one expected to see cowboys and/or Indians ride by), it had far superior production values than most early-1950’s TV, but it’s still a pretty silly religious program and it’s weighted down by the risible closing sequence in which Father Patrick Peyton, who may have been a real priest but was also the “type” Central Casting would have sent if the producers had called and said, “Send up an Irish-American priest,” delivers the rosary-bead pitch and defines “meditation” as the act of praying while fingering the beads. That definition sits rather ill these days when even the least-informed Americans generally associate the term “meditation” with a quite different spiritual tradition from Catholicism or, indeed, any form of Christianity or Western religion generally. — 3/19/16