Wednesday, September 28, 2016

The Choice 2016: Clinton vs. Trump (WGBH/PBS-TV, 2016)

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

I watched two politically themed programs on PBS last night, the episode of The Contenders about Mitt Romney’s and Michael Dukakis’ hapless Presidential campaigns (see below) and The Choice 2016, the special episode of Frontline PBS shows every Presidential election year dealing with the major-party nominees for President and their backgrounds and histories. This one proved more interesting than usual, especially one day after the debate during which Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump had at each other, looking less like aspirants for power in a representative republic than like medieval knights jousting for possession of a kingdom. Clinton and Trump emerged from Frontline’s treatment as fascinating figures, though it got off to a bad start when it attempted to locate Donald Trump’s “Rosebud” moment — the time he actually decided to run for President and be the person who assumes power when Barack Obama relinquishes it as per the Constitution on January 20, 2017 — as the White House Press Correspondents’ Dinner in April 2011. This occurred right after Obama, following years of urging from Trump and other Right-wing conspiratologists, finally released his “long-form” birth certificate indicating that, as no one outside of the circle of Right-wing nut-cases Trump had been palling with seriously doubted, he had been born when and where he always said he was: August 4, 1961 in Honolulu, Hawai’i. With Trump in the audience, Obama said, “No one is happier, no one is prouder to put this birth certificate matter to rest than the Donald. [laughter] And that’s because he can finally get back to focusing on the issues that matter — like, did we fake the moon landing? [laughter] What really happened in Roswell? [laughter] And where are Biggie and Tupac? [laughter] All kidding aside, obviously, we all know about your credentials and breadth of experience. [laughter] For example— no, seriously, just recently in an episode of Celebrity Apprentice [laughter] at the steakhouse, the men’s cooking team did not impress the judges from Omaha Steaks. And there was a lot of blame to go around. But you, Mr. Trump, recognized that the real problem was a lack of leadership. And so, ultimately, you didn’t blame Lil’ Jon or Meatloaf. [laughter] You fired Gary Busey. [laughter] And these are the kind of decisions that would keep me up at night. [laughter and applause] Well handled, sir! [laughter] Well handled. Say what you will about Mr. Trump, he certainly would bring some change to the White House. Let’s see what we’ve got up there,” showing a slide of the White House with an upper extension built on top and a sign hanging from it reading “Trump Resort Hotel and Casino.”

While the opening of this show seemed really to be reaching — the fact is that Trump was flirting with a Presidential run as early as 1980 and had booked a rally in New Hampshire in 2000 to announce either that he was running or he wasn’t (and of course he didn’t) — the allegation is certainly believable as an example of Trump’s bizarre pettiness, his unwillingness to roll with any punch or take any insult, no matter what or from whom. And coupled with that is his equally bizarre insistence on never apologizing, never admitting he’s wrong about anything, never even acknowledging that he’s ever made a mistake, much less that he’s learned from one. I’m currently working on an article on last Monday’s Presidential debate between Clinton and Trump for my Zenger’s Newsmagazine blog,, and one of my arguments is that much of Trump’s rhetorical strategy comes from George Orwell’s 1984, particularly the concepts of doublethink and “the mutability of the past.” In plain English (instead of Newspeak, the language the rulers of Orwell’s dystopia invented to make dissent literally impossible because the words to speak or think heretical thoughts would not exist), doublethink is the ability to hold two contradictory thoughts in your head and believe in both of them at once. “The process has to be conscious, or it would not be carried out with sufficient precision,” Orwell wrote, “but it also has to be unconscious, or it would bring with it a sense of falsity, and hence of guilt. … Even in using the word doublethink it is necessary to exercise doublethink. For by using the word one admits that one is tampering with reality; by a fresh act of doublethink one erases this knowledge: and so on indefinitely, with the lie always one step ahead of the truth.” The related concept of “the mutability of the past” holds that the past has no objective existence; we know what happened in the past only via public records and our own memories, and if the records are altered and our memories lost or changed, the past itself has changed — and yet the past has never changed, because only one version of the past can be “true” at any moment.

Orwell worked out these concepts observing the totalitarian governments of the 1930’s — Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy and especially Soviet Russia under Stalin — and in particular their ability to throw out entire histories once they became politically inconvenient, as Stalin did in 1939 when he decided it was politically convenient to ally the Soviet Union with Nazi Germany, and again in 1941 when the Nazis invaded anyway and forced him to shift sides, whereupon he proclaimed that he’d always been anti-Fascist and got the two other major powers in the anti-Nazi coalition, the U.S. and Britain, to accept him as an ally. Trump’s portrayal of his own history is full of doublethink and the mutability of the past; he’s been able to “sell” his business record to the American people as an example of one sparkling success after another, when in fact virtually his entire empire came crumbling down in the early 1990’s after his mega-casino in Atlantic City, the Taj Mahal, bombed financially. Trump’s first reaction was to use his clout on Wall Street to get Marvin Roffman, the analyst who first published evidence of the weaknesses in Trump’s operations, fired. Then he had to deal with the banks who’d loaned him the money to build the Taj Mahal and other casinos, to buy the Trump Shuttle airline,  the Trump Princess yacht, and other investments that now seemed big-time money-losers. “As quickly as the banks loved him, that’s as quick as they saw him as a pariah,” recalled Abraham Wallach, a vice-president in the Trump Organization from 1991 to 2003. “He was, like, ‘Oh, it’s Donald Trump!’ They didn’t want to have anything to do with him. They wanted their money, and they wanted to be rid of Donald Trump.” The only thing that saved him was that the banks suddenly realized that if they did the obvious thing and foreclosed on Trump, they’d be stuck with a lot of white-elephant casinos no one would go to and they’d ultimately have to close them down themselves and get stuck with the losses.

So they cut a deal with Trump by which he got to keep his name on the various buildings because the bankers figured they’d be more attractive to customers with Trump’s name on them than without it — and this led Trump to change the whole modus operandi of his business from actually building housing developments, hotels and casinos to selling the rights to his name, so he could have the thrill of seeing people drawn by his name and receive hefty royalties without actually having the bothersome business of building or running the buildings. (This may help explain the argument he had with editors of a magazine that estimated Trump’s wealth as $4 billion, and he contacted them to say it should be $10 billion. When they asked the obvious question — where did the extra $6 billion come from? — he said, “That’s the value of the Trump name.”) Then he got the offer to host the NBC-TV “reality” series The Apprentice, a political Godsend in being able to merchandise himself as a businessman of infinite sagacity and skill, and therefore just what this country would need as it came out of the Obama years with a deeply troubled sense of itself: a person with tested leadership skills — albeit in a totally different field from politics — offering himself not only as a person uniquely qualified to sweep the cobwebbed institutions and their sclerotic officials from power and to take over, but the only one who can do so. ““We defend Japan, we defend Germany, we defend South Korea, we defend Saudi Arabia, we defend countries,” Trump said during last Monday’s debate. “They do not pay us, but they should be paying us, because we are providing tremendous service and we're losing a fortune.” “There’s certainly an argument that U.S. allies should spend more money on defense, including higher subsidies for U.S. bases in their countries,” Los Angeles Times columnist Doyle McManus wrote in the paper’s September 28 edition. “But do we really want to convert mutual defense treaties into contract-for-service agreements? There’s no sign that Trump has spent even a minute weighing the consequences of such a shift.” That’s an example of Trump’s inability or unwillingness to understand the difference between running a business and running a country — between being in it to maximize returns for your investors and being in it to serve the people of your nation and your world.

Not surprisingly, the Frontline segments on Hillary Clinton — in previous years they actually did one candidate’s profile and then the other’s, but more recently they’ve followed a more chronological approach and intercut between both — aren’t quite as interesting because we’re simply more familiar with her story than his: as the wife of a President (and a state governor before that) and later as a U.S. Senator from New York (where her tenure and her husband’s in the White House overlapped by 17 days, a product of the quirk in the U.S. Constitution that the new Congress takes office January 3 and the new President not until January 20) and as Secretary of State during President Obama’s first term. The most interesting thing this documentary had to say about Clinton is an attempt to explain her obsession with secrecy, saying there were a lot of arguments in her family home when she was a child. “There was a lot of fighting in the Rodham household, and I don’t think she invited many friends home,” author and Clinton friend Gail Sheehy said in the program. “That’s when her whole penchant for secrecy and privacy began.” The show tracks Clinton through to her first public appearance that got noticed nationwide — her controversial speech at Wellesley University’s commencement ceremony in 1969, where she followed Massachusetts Senator Edward Brooke (an African-American, a Republican and only the second Black U.S. Senator — Hiram Revels of Mississippi, elected in 1870 during Reconstruction and also a Republican, was the first; an African-American Democrat would not serve in the Senate until Carol Moseley Braun was elected in Illinois in 1992, and she would be defeated for re-election six years later), took notes throughout Brooke’s speech and then got up and blasted him for telling the young people graduating there that politics was “the art of the possible.”

Hillary said that politics should be the art of “making the impossible possible” — which clearly echoed Robert F. Kennedy’s famous remark that “some people see the world as it is; I see the world as it could be and wonder, ‘Why not?’” — and, needless to say, the makers of this documentary couldn’t help but notice the irony that in 2016 Clinton was basically taking Brooke’s side in this debate and marketing herself to Democratic primary voters as “the progressive who can get things done.” (Then again, it’s not uncommon for young firebrands who get elected to office or thrust in the political public eye to move towards the center and appear to contradict the beliefs they started with; just compare John Kerry’s plaint in 1971 about how could the President ask the last man to die for a mistake in Viet Nam with his vote for George W. Bush’s war in Iraq 30 years later.) No doubt Clinton’s penchant for secrecy got a major push when she became part of the staff of the Senate Watergate Committee in 1973 and, as part of her job, she was obliged to keep mum and not tell anyone about its inner deliberations — and her career got thrown a curveball when, after Nixon’s resignation and with the legal world of D.C. seemingly open to her for the asking, she failed the D.C. bar exam and took that as an omen that she should accept the marriage proposal of her on-again, off-again boyfriend, William Jefferson Clinton, even though that meant moving with him to the backwater state of Arkansas. She was viscerally hated once she got there for not being Southern (she even affected a bit of a twang in her voice for a while, shaking it only when she got back to D.C. as First Lady), for dressing like a hippie and wearing big glasses, for not having a child and for insisting on using her family name, Rodham, instead of Clinton. Bill Clinton got elected attorney general of Arkansas and then won the state’s governorship in 1978 — only to lose it again two years later; under the tutelage of sometimes-Democrat, sometimes-Republican political consultant Dick Morris, both Clintons revamped their images. The next time Bill Clinton ran for governor in 1982, Hillary had a baby, Chelsea; she dressed more demurely and lost the big glasses; and she solemnly gave a press conference at which she announced that from then on her name was Hillary Rodham Clinton. Bill won back the governorship and held it until he ran for President in 1992.

 The rest of the story we pretty much know: the “bimbo eruptions” and the scandal over Bill’s affair with Gennifer Flowers that threatened to sink Bill’s Presidential candidacy even before it really started; the big election victory in 1992; Hillary’s appointment as head of the administration’s task force on reforming health insurance (and the total secrecy she insisted on, to the point where nobody knew what was in the plan until it was unveiled — and promptly sank in Congress thanks to a Republican disinformation campaign that used some of the same tricks with which they tried to derail Obamacare 16 years later, notably one appearance in which a Republican Congressmember held up Franklin Roosevelt’s original Social Security Act and noted it was only 38 pages long versus the 1,342 pages of Hillary Clinton’s health care proposal); the crushing defeat of the Democrats in the 1994 midterms that (like their equally crushing defeat 16 years later after Obamacare passed with no Republican Senators or Congressmembers voting for it) served notice that health reform was a majority-killer for the Democratic Party; Bill Clinton’s Morris-inspired retreat to “small ball” initiatives and the alienation of many progressives (including Robert Reich, UC Berkeley professor and longtime friend of Bill Clinton, who was Secretary of Labor in the first Bill Clinton Cabinet but eventually quit in disgust and returned to academe; he’s interviewed extensively here about the Clintons’ history but not, surprisingly, about his eventual break with them and his endorsement of Bernie Sanders over Hillary in this year’s Democratic primary campaign); the renewed allegations about Bill Clinton’s sex life that led to his impeachment and near-removal from office (like the only other President to be impeached, Andrew Johnson, he was saved only by the Constitution’s insistence that a two-thirds majority of the U.S. Senate be required to convict a President and remove him or her for office — and I say “or her” because I think there’s an excellent chance that if Hillary wins the election this year, the Republicans in Congress will immediately file articles of impeachment against her over the e-mail scandal and its alleged threat to U.S. national security, and Hillary could very well become the third President in U.S. history, and the second one named Clinton, to face an impeachment trial); her immediate plotting of a U.S. Senate race from New York as soon as Bill Clinton was acquitted in the impeachment trial and her subsequent adventures and misadventures as Secretary of State in President Obama’s first term.

The end of the story feels rushed — there’s no mention of Bernie Sanders and he’s visible only in a brief still — and it’s an indication that even in the relatively objective precincts of PBS, the filmmakers, director Michael Kirk and his co-writer Mike Riser, are far more interested in Trump than Clinton (he’s a novelty, she’s old hat), beginning their discussion of Trump with the lesson he learned from his father that some people are winners, some people are losers, and it’s the job of the losers to do what the winners tell  them to and otherwise stay out of their way, and ending it with this comment from Tony Schwartz, co-author of Trump’s best-selling 1987 autobiography The Art of the Deal, suggesting that, like Alexander the Great, Trump had run out of worlds to conquer. “His deepest hunger has always been for attention, and he had exhausted the ways in which to get attention,” Schwartz said. “He’d gone so far beyond what most human beings can even imagine that he was at the end of that road, still hungry. He wanted the attention of the nation. He wanted the attention of the world. And he’s gotten it.”

The Contenders: Mitt Romney & Michael Dukakis (OZY Media/PBS, 2016)

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

First of PBS’s two political shows last night was the third episode of The Contenders, “The Technocrats,” which profiled (in that order) Mitt Romney and Michael Dukakis, both candidates who ran for the Presidency after having been relatively successful governors of Massachusetts and who — at least in this program’s analysis — lost largely because they let their opponents’ campaigns define them for the voters without hitting back. Dukakis (to restore the chronology of real life instead of the sequence of this show) comes off even today (they interviewed him extensively and he’s got grey hair but still has that little-boy look that made him seem ludicrous in that infamous image showing him driving a tank — he was actually trying to make a good, and prophetic, point, that the next wars the U.S. was going to fight would be on land in desert environments and therefore a buildup of our tank and helicopter forces would be necessary, but he looked all too much like Alfred E. Neuman to pull it off) as almost terminally naïve, saying that he had wanted to run a campaign on policy and talk about the issues. Well, as soon as a Presidential candidate says that he (or she) wants to “talk about the issues” you might as well start measuring their political grave: Americans really don’t vote for President on the basis of “issues,” though they like to say they do. They vote for President on the basis of how the various candidates make them feel about themselves, their country and their future, and while sometimes a candidate can pick out an issue and use it to define him- or herself the way Donald Trump has done so successfully this year with immigration (his fierce anti-immigrant stance has worked for him by sending white voters the signal, “This country has been taken away from you, and I will bring it back for you”), Presidential campaigns (all American campaigns, actually, but Presidential campaigns essentially) are based on the images the candidates project and the feelings those images evoke in would-be voters. That’s the difference between a political system like ours which is based on the personalities of individual candidates and one like those in most European countries that are based on ideologically coherent political parties (and more than two of them!); most Europeans vote on the basis of parties and their ideologies rather than individual candidates, and most European countries have some sort of proportional representation so that minor parties can achieve real representation and real power and voters aren’t faced over and over and over again with the damnable choice between just two significant parties the way we are. (Great Britain is the great outlier on this one: they have a parliamentary system, in which the majority party in the legislature is automatically the governing executive party and therefore the split governments that bedevil the U.S. are impossible under their system, but they’ve copied us — we copied them, actually — in electing the legislature in single-member winner-take-all districts and therefore they have a system in which only two parties at a time are really significant.)

The 1988 Presidential election was an odd one in that both major-party nominees were really colorless people — I remember a Los Angeles Times cartoon of Dukakis and George H. W. Bush in which the punch line was, “You said you wanted a Presidential election that wasn’t about personalities? You just got one” — and this profile of Dukakis focused on the horrendous negative attack ads run against him by Lee Atwater and the Republican “dark arts” operatives (I remember saying when Karl Rove was running similar black magic for George W. Bush against John Kerry that “Karl Rove isn’t doing anything Lee Atwater didn’t do before him, who didn’t do anything H. R. Haldeman hadn’t done before him, who didn’t do anything Murray Chotiner hadn’t done before him”), including dredging up Willie Horton — though the show didn’t mention that Horton’s case was first discovered by Al Gore’s opposition research team while he was running against Dukakis in the Democratic Presidential primaries. Certainly the Horton ad hurt — one commentator on this show notes that there were white criminals who also took advantage of Dukakis’ work-furlough program and committed additional crimes, but Atwater picked the Black one to touch on voters’ primal fears of Black men raping white women — as did Dukakis’ own missteps (like the tank photo op), but the main thing George H. W. Bush had going for him during that campaign was the incredible popularity of Ronald Reagan and the fact that, barred by the 22nd Amendment (that short-sighted bit of political legerdemain pulled by the Republicans in 1947 to ensure there’d never be another Franklin Roosevelt — the irony being that the two Presidents since then who could have won third terms if they’d been constitutionally eligible to run for them were both Republicans, Eisenhower and Reagan) from running for re-election himself, Reagan was pushing hard for Bush as his successor. Reagan even answered the question about what Bush had done during his administration quite differently from Eisenhower’s infamous quip about Nixon — “Give me a week and I might think of something” — instead he anointed Bush his successor and Reagan, unlike Obama, had enough political coattails to get his voter base (or enough of it) to vote for Bush and elect him. (Four years later, when Bush had to run on his own record — and after he’d pissed off the easily offended Republican Right by breaking his “read my lips” promise not to raise taxes — Bush lost.)

The segment on Mitt Romney featured interviews with him and with people who knew him who said he was one of the most charitable people they’d ever known, and resented the way he was caricatured by the Obama campaign as an insensitive rich guy who gloried in putting people out of work to boost his own bottom line. That was somewhat unfair to Romney — whose record as a hedge-fund entrepreneur revealed not so much a glory in putting people out of work (it’s hard to imagine Romney hosting The Apprentice and getting such sick joy out of telling someone every week, “You’re … FIRED!”) as a total indifference to it. The mission of Romney as head of Bain Capital was to maximize shareholder value in the enterprises he took over, and if that meant boosting them with new capital and hiring more people, he would do that. If it meant drastically cutting them back and firing people, he would do that. If it meant dismantling the company completely and selling off its assets, thereby leaving everyone who’d worked for it out of a job, he would do that. As Matt Taibbi wrote in Rolling Stone during the 2012 campaign, “Mitt Romney, it turns out, is the perfect frontman for Wall Street’s greed revolution. He’s not a two-bit, shifty-eyed huckster like Lloyd Blankfein. He’s not a sighing, eye-rolling, arrogant jerkwad like Jamie Dimon. But Mitt believes the same things those guys believe: He’s been right with them on the front lines of the financialization revolution, a decades-long campaign in which the old, simple, let’s-make-stuff-and-sell-it manufacturing economy was replaced with a new, highly complex, let’s-take-stuff-and-trash-it financial economy. Instead of cars and airplanes, we built swaps, CDO’s and other toxic financial products. Instead of building new companies from the ground up, we took out massive bank loans and used them to acquire existing firms, liquidating every asset in sight and leaving the target companies holding the note. The new borrow-and-conquer economy was morally sanctified by an almost religious faith in the grossly euphemistic concept of ‘creative destruction,’ and amounted to a total abdication of collective responsibility by America’s rich, whose new thing was making assloads of money in ever-shorter campaigns of economic conquest, sending the proceeds offshore, and shrugging as the great towns and factories their parents and grandparents built were shuttered and boarded up, crushed by a true prairie fire of debt.”

And, like Donald Trump, Romney was a true practitioner of Orwellian doublethink, being able to square his take-no-prisoners tactics in the business world with his faith, and in particular his sense of obligation under his Mormon religion to reach out to individual poor people and volunteer for charities to help people in need. In fact, a lot of people who called Romney a hypocrite for practicing individual charities while proposing to decimate the social safety net and lambasting the “47% of the people who will vote for the president no matter what … who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you name it,” missed the point. The Libertarian ethos to which both Romney and his 2012 running mate, now-Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, subscribe holds that it is morally wrong to tax successful people in order to fund government programs aimed at helping not-so-successful people, and instead the not-so-successful people should be helped by churches and other organizations funded by voluntary contributions. So Romney saw no contradiction between helping people through his church and calling for radical cutbacks in government social programs because, as a good Libertarian and a good Mormon, he believes the job of helping the less fortunate should be entirely private. One other fascinating thing about Mitt Romney in this program was the comment of one of the talking heads that he was a rich person who looked like the public image of a rich person, and that turned a lot of non-rich people off of voting for him. It’s an interesting comment precisely because it shows why Donald Trump has been able to run a far more competitive race that Mitt Romney and has a real shot at winning: Trump is a rich person who doesn’t look like a rich person and certainly doesn’t talk like one. Romney’s public persona was a gentleman; Trump’s is a thug, and to his core supporters — all those white working-class men who, ironically, have been undone economically by the kinds of business tactics Romney and his generation of rich people have been pulling and who see Trump not as another rich person who’s screwing them over, but as one of them, with his truculent manner, his unashamed racism and sexism, and his bravado and braggadocio. Indeed, as I’ve written in these pages before, the appalling glitzy tastelessness of Trump’s buildings is itself a key source of his appeal; people — the kinds of people who would vote for him, anyway — look at them and say, “That’s what I would do if I had his kind of money.”

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Abbott and Costello Meet the Killer, Boris Karloff (Universal-International, 1949)

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

Two nights ago Charles and I watched the next Abbott and Costello film in sequence in the boxed set of all 28 of their feature films for Universal (which is all but eight of their total), a 1949 production rather awkwardly titled Abbott and Costello Meet the Killer, Boris Karloff. Though they had made two other films between their big comeback, Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, and this — Mexican Hayride and Africa Screams (the latter not for Universal but for a short-lived company called Nassour Films) — this was the obvious follow-up, dragging the comedy team into contact with another icon of horror. It was also largely an accidental teaming; according to various “trivia” posters on, the script (by Hugh Wedlock, Jr. — the last time I saw his name on the writing credits of a film I inevitably joked that its script was “out of Wedlock” — and Howard Snyder, with additional dialogue by John Grant, A&C’s go-to guy for “Who’s on First”-style wordplay) was originally called Easy Does It and written as a vehicle for Bob Hope. (This makes us wonder whether Easy Does It was originally owned by Paramount, Hope’s home studio, and then sold to Universal when Hope turned it down; or whether it was written at Universal in hopes they could get Hope on a loan-out and then given to A&C when they couldn’t. Sometimes movie-industry politics got as Byzantine as real-world politics.) The original version contained a female character, a phony mystic named “Madame Switzer,” and the character was retained when the script was rewritten for Abbott and Costello — until five days before shooting, when Universal-International signed Karloff for the film and changed “Madame Switzer” to “Swami Talpur.” What they didn’t do is give Karloff much to do: he gets two scenes with Lou Costello — a brief one at the beginning in which Costello’s character sees him through a window and Karloff hypnotizes him and tells him, “You never saw me. I’m not here” (whereupon Costello says to Abbott, “I never saw him.” “Who?” “The guy that wasn’t there”) and a longer one in which he’s trying, as part of a murder plot, to hypnotize Costello into committing suicide. It’s a genuinely funny scene, particularly when an exasperated Karloff tells Costello, “You’re going to kill yourself if it’s the last thing you ever do!,” but as rangy as Karloff was as an actor he doesn’t really pull off “master hypnotist” as well as his rival as Hollywood’s top horror actor of the time, Bela Lugosi. Universal also included Lenore Aubert, whose great bad-woman performance had done so much to liven up Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, and once again cast her as a woman trying to seduce Costello to exploit him for a sinister plot, but they didn’t give her much screen time, either!

What remains of Abbott and Costello Meet the Killer, Boris Karloff (the ultimate red-herring gimmick because, as just about everyone who’s written about this film never fails to reveal, Karloff’s character is not the mystery killer), is an O.K. comedy-mystery centered around an isolated resort hotel — not in Florida, as in Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, but in California, the Lost Caverns Hotel, in an area where the key tourist attraction is a set of caves full of stalactites and stalagmites as well as a big pit of boiling sulfur well below the rest of it. (Caves like that are more associated with Arizona, New Mexico and Nevada than California, and it’s highly unusual for one to contain a pit of burning sulfur, but Universal was obviously recycling the set from the end of Son of Frankenstein, made a decade earlier.) Casey Edwards (Bud Abbott) is the hotel’s house detective and Freddie Phillips (Lou Costello) is the bellboy, and in the opening scene Freddie gets into trouble when, assigned to carry the bags of attorney Amos Strickland (Nicholas Joy) — including heavy bags as well as a set of golf clubs Freddie spills all over the hotel lobby floor — and screws it up, Strickland demands that the hotel manager fire him. The manager does so, and for the rest of the movie Freddie hangs around the hotel and gets himself into more and more trouble, exasperating Casey, who naturally thinks that his job will be the next to go. Needless to say, the next thing that happens is Strickland gets murdered, and Freddie is the one who discovers the body — and makes himself the prime suspect by handling the gun with which Strickland was shot. The gun’s owner, Mike Relia (Vincent Renno, who’s at the bottom of the on-screen credits list even though we get to see quite a lot of him, mostly after he’s supposed to be dead), is also quickly murdered, as is Strickland’s private secretary, Gregory Milford (Morgan Farley). Figuring they’ll be suspected of these two new murders as well as Strickland’s, Casey and Freddie hide Relia’s body in a laundry cart and Freddie dresses in drag to pose as a hotel maid so it will look normal that (s)he should be pushing a laundry cart. While in maid-drag Freddie is accosted by a queeny middle-aged man named Abernathy (Percy Helton), and Freddie’s growing horror as he realizes that Abernathy is interested in him (her) makes this one of the most screamingly funny scenes in a film that, while it’s generally amusing throughout, really doesn’t have that many laugh-out-loud sequences.

It seems that Strickland’s visit to the Lost Cavern Hotel attracted the attention of a lot of people with various grievances against him, including Swami Talpur and Angela Carter (who are in cahoots on a scheme to frame Freddie for Strickland’s murder), including some of his former clients, like Relia and T. Hanley Brooks (Roland Winters, the last Charlie Chan in the long-running series that continued at two studios from 1930 to 1949), who fear that Strickland is going to expose them in his forthcoming memoirs. (Apparently none of the writers had heard of attorney-client privilege; in the real world it would be illegal for an attorney to write the sort of book his ex-clients are afraid of.) The film’s gimmick is that both Relia and Milford move around a lot more once they’re dead than they seemed to when they were alive — in that regard this film anticipates Alfred Hitchcock’s oddball movie The Trouble with Harry from 1955, six years later, though an otherwise useless and awful World War II espionage movie called Spy Train, made by Monogram in 1943, did the mobile-corpse bit even six years before Universal pulled it with Abbott and Costello in this film! Casey and Phillips go to all the trouble of pushing the laundry cart around with Relia’s body in it to Relia’s room, where they intend to put it on a shelf in Relia’s closet, only it rolls off the shelf and back into the cart, unbeknownst to Our Heroes (though one would think they’d notice that the cart had suddenly got a lot heavier than it would be if it just had dirty sheets and towels in it), and by the end of their travels the cart has both Relia’s and Milford’s bodies in it. Casey and Phillips get the idea of hiding them out in the card room, setting Relia and Milford up as if they were two members of a bridge foursome, and when someone invades the card room and starts kibitzing they explain their total lack of movement by saying, “They’re in dummy.” (This would make sense, I suppose, if you were a bridge player.) According to one of the “trivia” posters, this scene got the film banned in Denmark for a time.

I remember when I was first watching the Abbott and Costello movies on Channel 7, the local ABC affiliate in San Francisco that ran a comedy series every Sunday morning that alternated between A&C, the Marx Brothers (mostly their later films, alas) and Laurel and Hardy — and originally ran them relatively complete in a 90-minute time slot but later shredded them to keep them down to a one-hour slot — this one threw me because it had pretensions to being a horror-comedy but was really just a pretty uninteresting murder mystery with Abbott, Costello and Karloff grafted onto it. This time it seemed a lot better, and as odd as that final scene’s setting is, at least it’s genuinely exciting, with Strickland’s business manager, Melton (Alan Mowbray — well, that should have made it obvious!), turning out to be the killer, though he spends most of the sequence covered by one of those white hoods that would seem to be effective only in cutting down his field of vision. While hardly at the level of Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein or the early-1940’s films that made Abbott and Costello’s reputation in the first place, Abbott and Costello Meet the Killer, Boris Karloff is an engaging little movie and a pleasant time-filler for its 94-minute running time (two minutes longer than Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein and quite a bit longer than most of their films, which were kept to the standard 75-minute length for a feature comedy from a relatively cheap studio like Universal, even in its post-1947 “-International” incarnation: it had absorbed Bill Goetz’s International Pictures to get beyond its “B” image and crack Hollywood’s first tier of movie companies, though it didn’t actually make it to the studio “A” list until Lew Wasserman’s MCA took it over in the early 1960’s and started shelling out to attract “A”-list stars like Gregory Peck and serious prestige projects like To Kill a Mockingbird).

Royal Wives at War (British TV/PBS, 2016)

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

At 10 p.m. last night I watched an odd show on KPBS, Royal Wives at War, obviously shown as a “filler” because their usual programming schedule was screwed up by the Presidential debate. It was an oddball take on the British royal crisis of 1936, when David, a.k.a. King Edward VIII (an unwittingly funny bit in the show depicts his investiture as King and features an announcer reading off his entire list of given names, Edward Albert Christian George Andrew Patrick David), decided to abdicate the throne because “I could not faithfully discharge my duties as King without the help and support of the woman I love,” and his younger and considerably less charismatic brother, Bertie a.k.a. King George VI, took over. As the title suggests, the show was about the confrontation between the two women involved, American divorcée Wallis Warfield Simpson, Edward’s inamorata, with whom he started an affair in 1933 while she was still married to husband number two; and Elizabeth Angela Marguerite Bowes-Lyon, George VI’s wife, who since she lived to be 101 (she died in 2002, 50 years after her husband) and her daughter, also named Elizabeth, assumed the throne, became known as the Queen Mother to distinguish her from the other Queen Elizabeth who’s the current reigning monarch. This was one of those peculiar modern semi-documentaries which alternated talking-heads footage of three biographers who’ve written about various members of the Royal Family — including Andrew Morton, Lady Colin Campbell (her birth name was Georgia Arianna Ziadie) and Anne Sebba (whose over-permed blonde hair gives her an odd look, sort of a combination Dolly Parton and one of the Trump bimbos) — with dramatic re-enactments of the key incidents in the story, with Nick Waring as Edward VIII, John Sackville as George VI, Gina McKee as Wallis Simpson (she does a considerably more convincing American accent than most British actors who attempt one) and Emma Davies, formidable as all get-out, as Elizabeth the Queen Mother. Davies even looks much like the current Queen, enough that she’s quite credible as her mother. The modern biographers analyze the abdication and the political pressure that forced Edward VIII to choose between his fiancée and the throne almost exclusively at face value and ignore the more recent scholarship that suggests the crisis was largely stage-managed behind the scenes by Winston Churchill, who was less afraid of Edward VIII’s infatuation with Wallis Simpson than of his infatuation with Adolf Hitler.

The show includes footage of Edward and Wallis, created Duke and Duchess of Windsor but without the right to use “H.R.H.” in front of their names (a bit of protocol that was insanely important to the Queen Mother; according to the Wikipedia page on Edward VIII, George VI was originally inclined to let Edward and Wallis call themselves “H.R.H.” but his wife was fiercely opposed to it and spent decades making sure they didn’t), visiting Germany in 1937 (after their wedding in France had been attended by only seven people because the Queen Mother had decreed that anyone who went to it would never be received by the Royal Family again) and getting himself photographed with Adolf Hitler. It’s also well known that in 1940 Hitler sent emissaries to Edward, then uncomfortably ensconced in his appointment as governor-general of Bermuda, which he hated, to see if Edward would be interested in returning to England as nominal monarch if and when Hitler conquered it; Edward was noncommittal, though this show suggests he sounded out friends to ask them if the British, who had turned him down as king, would accept him as ruler, but of course the Nazis never invaded, much less conquered, Britain, so the whole thing remained academic. What the show didn’t acknowledge was that as part of his “forward-looking” approach to governance and his lifestyle, which embraced American women (whom he found generally freer, more assertive and generally more fun than the comparatively strait-laced women of his homeland), American clothes and American jazz music, Edward was also interested in fascism and was one of the many conservative Brits of his day who looked upon regimes like Mussolini’s and Hitler’s as the coming thing. For his part, Hitler never wanted a war with Britain — he regarded the Brits as the other half of the Aryan “master race” along with the Germans, and he wanted them on his side against the “inferior” Slavs in general and Russians in particular — though he got stuck with one, and he seemed to think that it was the abdication and the political machinations of Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin (and of Churchill, who in the 1930’s was nominally just another back-bench M.P. but who had formidable aristocratic and government connections as well as a secret line to U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt — because Churchill had been First Lord of the Admiralty and Roosevelt Assistant Secretary of the Navy during World War I, their letters to each other were addressed “Former Naval Person” — because Churchill knew Hitler would have to be stopped and an alliance between Britain and the U.S. would be necessary to stop him) that made Britain one of his enemies instead of one of his allies in World War II. Hitler saw Edward VIII as a potential friend and ally, and because of the abdication he was replaced by the anti-Nazi George VI instead.

In fairness’ sake I’ll quote the last part of the Wikipedia page on Edward VIII, which seeks to challenge the idea that the abdication was brought about by political pressures and Wallis Simpson’s status as a divorcée was simply an excuse by Baldwin and Churchill to bring down the fascist-sympathizing Edward: “In the view of historians such as Philip Williamson, the popular perception today that the abdication was driven by politics rather than religious morality is false, and arises because divorce has become much more common and socially acceptable. To modern sensibilities, the religious restrictions that prevented Edward from continuing as king while married to Simpson ‘seem, wrongly, to provide insufficient explanation’ for his abdication.” Since then we’ve seen this same prissy Royal morality (remember that the monarch of England is also essentially the “pope” of the Anglican church) in the current Queen Elizabeth refusing to let her son Prince Charles marry Camilla Parker-Bowles because she had been divorced, and insisting he marry Diana Spencer instead — a choice she no doubt later regretted big-time! (Both Andrew Morton and Lady Colin Campbell have written biographies of “Princess Di.”) And even when Charles was free to marry Camilla after all following Diana’s divorce and death, Elizabeth insisted — as her mom had with Wallis Simpson — that she could not use the “H.R.H.” title if and when Charles became King. (Given how much longer-lived the Windsor women have been than the Windsor men, I’m convinced that Charles will predecease his mom and his older son with Diana, Prince William, will be Britain’s next monarch.) Still, given that America stands a good chance of electing a twice-divorced man as its next President (after having had only one once-divorced previous President, Ronald Reagan), and also given that the narrators described both Edward and George as relatively weak men married to relatively strong women (a charge that was often made about Bill Clinton when he was President), it was ironic indeed to be watching this just two hours after the conclusion of the first Presidential debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump!

Sunday, September 25, 2016

House of Darkness (Painless Productions/Lifetime, 2016)

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

I’ve generally avoided Lifetime’s forays into ghost stories and haunted-house tales, but last night they were offering a “world premiere” of a film called House of Darkness and I thought I’d give it a chance. It was directed by Patrick DeLuca from a script by … well, I don’t know, because I missed the opening credits and’s page on it doesn’t yet list a writer, so I don’t know either who to credit for the occasional felicitous touches in the script or blame for the sillinesses and outrageous devices, including an open-ended ending of a kind that about 20 or 30 years ago would have seemed innovative but now is annoyingly clichéd. It opens with a scene on Hallowe’en in 1957, in which two trick-or-treaters approach a house in a remote rural area of northern California, get invited in, the door closes — and suddenly we hear them scream. Then the time moves up to July 2015, and the house is occupied by a young (straight) couple from San Francisco, Brian (Gunner Wright) and Kelly (Sara Fletcher). They already have a daughter, Sarah (Mykayla Sohn), but Kelly wants another child — only Brian, a carpenter and cabinetmaker, is such a workaholic he’s never home long enough for the two to have sex. Brian sells her on the idea of moving to the country by telling her they’ll be more alone, there will be fewer urban-related distractions and therefore more time for the “adult nights” they need to complete the sex act and conceive already.

Their marriage is already on the rocks — they’ve been seeing a marriage therapist in San Francisco (a heavy-set avuncular African-American woman, reflecting Lifetime’s tendency to cast Blacks in the roles of all-wise authority figures trying to deter the white characters from doing the stupid things they have to do for Lifetime movies to have plots at all) but they won’t be able to keep seeing her once they move hundreds of miles away, so she tells them to keep video journals by talking to their computers at night and gives Brian a yellow squeeze-ball with a smiley-face on it to squeeze whenever he gets stressed. One of the big issues in their marriage is that Kelly works as a massage therapist, and Brian is ferociously jealous that she’ll get hot-looking male customers, lose control completely and thereby have sex with them (and I can imagine the defense I would have written for her if I’d been writing this: “If you’d have sex with me once in a while, I wouldn’t need another guy to father my next child!”). At one point the couple are visited by Kelly’s sister Jamie (Brittany Falardeau), who brings along her son Mason (Thomas Rand), who’s about Kelly’s age — Jamie lives back in San Francisco with her husband Mark, whom we never see — and already things have started to happen to establish the house’s “hauntedicity.” Kelly has been scared to death by an apparition that turns out to be her daughter Sarah putting a sheet over her head and pretending to be a ghost — only she sees the apparition later when it’s not her daughter — and when they’re playing together Mason goes into the basement and then the door closes behind him; Sarah is accused of locking her in but she didn’t — some sort of sinister force did. Brian starts getting more jealous and more violent; he accuses Kelly’s sister Jamie of having a sexual quickie with Clark (Raphael Thompson), the hot Black stud who’s their next-door neighbor and is also the community’s chief law enforcement officer (and when we see Clark leaving Brian’s and Kelly’s home dressed in nothing above the waist and only a pair of skin-tight long johns below it, it’s hard not to think there’s some justice behind Brian’s suspicions). “You cheated on your husband, and you did it in our home!” Brian thunders at Jamie, who responds by packing up Mason and leaving.

Meanwhile Brian has an affair of his own with Clark’s wife Ellen (Nikki Alexis Howard) — or at least a quickie on the floor of the garage he’s converted into his wood shop and where he’s spending his nights making cabinets and tables for the locals; Ellen had been flirting with him from the moment he and Kelly got there and she left them a freshly baked pie. Though Gunner Wright is considerably hotter-looking than the usual tall, lanky, sandy-haired actor Lifetime usually picks as their male leads (he’s shorter than their norm but also considerably more muscular), one still gets the impression Ellen is trading down by cheating on Clark with him — and it’s not terribly surprising that Brian’s actions get progressively crazier as the film goes on, to the point where he’s alternately shown wielding sharp objects like axes, knives and chisels, and locking them in a locker in his workshop and literally throwing away the key so he can’t get to them if he’s tempted to use them. That’s a hot man in a Lifetime movie for you: they almost always turn out to be the villains. At the same time director DeLuca is giving us plenty of shots of Sarah with her eyes glaring at the camera and the other cast members, making us wonder if the unnamed writer(s) planned to pull the gimmick of having the whatsit that’s haunting the house take possession of her and have her start knocking off the rest of the cast — the scenes with Sarah and her cousin Mason had elements of The Turn of the Screw and the later scenes with Sarah alone, casting all those burning glares, call to mind The Bad Seed — but at the end the gimmick turns out to be a pretty prosaic one: the action we saw in the first scene (which I missed on the first go-round but caught up with at Lifetime’s midnight rerun of the film) is that the high-school principal lived in that house and was a decent, normal, fully respected member of that community until he went berserk that Hallowe’en night in 1957 and molested, tortured and murdered those two trick-or-treaters — who remained on the grounds as ghosts, determined to get the people who lived in the house subsequently to murder each other so the ghosts, who feed on other people’s pain and death, could be happy by making everyone else miserable. It ends with the house catching fire and burning down — Kelly and Sarah get out safely but Brian, trapped in his workshop, burns up and dies — and it looks like we’re going to have a happy ending with Kelly and Sarah returning to San Francisco and the urban life they were both more comfortable with, only a Latino-looking police officer (who seems to be the only law enforcement person besides Clark in the whole town!) interrogates her and comes to the conclusion that Kelly actually set the fire and murdered her husband for the $3 million in life insurance they had on each other.

We don’t get to find out what happens to her — whether she is exonerated or locked up in prison like the last woman who lived in that house, who under the influence of the evil spirits haunting it killed her entire family by feeding them rat poison (Kelly actually interviewed her in prison and she said her phone rang and snapped her away from doing that, but somehow the ghosts got to her family anyway and they ate the poisoned meal, which she’d already thrown away, and died) — but instead there’s a final scene with yet another husband, wife and daughter moving into the house (which, though totally consumed by the fire, must have been rebuilt to the same design because it looks identical only now it’s painted brown instead of white), and the daughter, who’s something of a punk because she has long black hair, wears black lipstick and is dressed in a black leather suit like the ones Patti Smith used to wear on her album covers, is glaring at the camera the same way Sarah used to, indicating that the ghosts from the basement are still haunting the place and are going to get this family, too. Oh, and did I mention that at one point Kelly calls in a psychic who tells them that the basement is actually the one place in the house where Sarah is safe from the ghosts (this is after a scene in which Sarah disappears and they find her inside the house’s walls, with no rational explanation of how she got there), only when she gets in her car to leave, it fills with quite nasty stinging insects and she’s lucky to get out of there alive? Through much of this movie I was counterpointing it with the old film I’d seen recently, Victor Halperin’s Supernatural (1933), and thinking that Supernatural was an example of how to do a credible ghost story with a contemporary (for the time it was made) setting and House of Darkness was an example of how not to — that’s being a little harsher on House of Darkness than it deserves, since at least it’s well acted (especially by the leads) and much of it well staged by director DeLuca — though I could have done without the long time-lapse montages to get us from night to day where a classic-era director would have just cut from one to the other. I didn’t actively dislike this movie but I didn’t like it that much either!

The Ugly Truth (Columbia, 2009)

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

After House of Darkness Lifetime changed tone dramatically (something they usually don’t do on their Saturday night prime-time movie double bills!) and showed The Ugly Truth, which turned out not to be a Lifetime TV-movie but a feature film from 2009, made at Sony’s Columbia studio (and with a title strikingly reminiscent of The Awful Truth, Columbia’s screwball comedy classic from 1937) and a genuine, if not altogether successful, attempt to revive the screwball comedy in the modern era. Directed by Robert Luketic (whose last name sounds more like an electroplating process than a person) from a script by Nicole Eastman, Karen McCullah and Kirsten Smith, The Ugly Truth stars Katherine Heigl as Abby Richter, producer of a low-rated news/talk show on a local TV station in Sacramento. Her show is bombing in the ratings, and the station manager — who worked there when it was family-owned and, like Abby, is having to adjust to the new management of the big media corporation that just bought it — is badgering her for ideas on how to boost ratings. One night Abby is at home when her cat steps on the TV remote, accidentally turning it on to “The Ugly Truth,” a public-access cable show hosted by a male-chauvinist pig named Mike Chadway (Gerard Butler, before he started making the … Has Fallen movies and saving the life of the President of the United States from terrorists in every one).

Chadway’s schtick is attacking women on the air; he takes calls from them and when they call him out, or try to, on his view of women as manipulative bitches who will lead men around their little fingers just for the hint of an offer of sex, he uses sound-effects machines to ridicule them and ultimately hangs up on them. (Rush Limbaugh’s show began in Sacramento and he pulled similar stunts on women callers, announcing he was about to perform a “caller abortion” and then playing a sound effect of a flushing toilet as he hung up on them.) Unfortunately, the station manager also discovers Chadway and immediately hires him, whereupon his antics boost the ratings of Abby’s show while making her physically ill because she wanted to do a serious news program and instead she’s airing footage of Chadway wrestling half-naked women in Jell-O and making salacious comments on how good they taste. From the moment we see the hate-at-first-sight between Chadway and Abby we just know — at least if we’ve seen more than about 12 movies in our lives — that they’re going to end up together as a couple at the fade-out, but the writers and director Luketic take their sweet time getting us there as they offer us another suitor for Abby, Dr. Colin Anderson (Eric Winter, who isn’t as self-consciously butch as Gerard Butler but frankly did more for me), who’s not only handsome but nice, intellectual, well-to-do (they meet when Abby injures herself climbing a tree after her cat and Colin just happens to come upon her — they’re next-door neighbors — and bandages her ankle) and meets all the 10 points on her checklist of what she wants in a man — something for which Michael ridicules her, saying that the only men who would meet all 10 points are Gay. (I remember articles in the San Francisco Chronicle and other local papers in the late 1970’s that young straight women in the city had two sets of boyfriends: the upper-middle-class Gay men who would take them to concerts, musea and other refined intellectual events, and the proletarians they would need if they actually wanted their ashes hauled.)

Michael makes a deal with Abby: if she’ll follow his instructions exactly on how to court Colin, he will quit the station if she can’t get Colin to have sex with her. Accordingly Abby lets Michael wire her ear so he can follow her and Colin on their dates and give his smirking advice in real time — at one point he tells her, when she and Colin are at a baseball game, to eat her hot dog slowly and sensually (obviously to suggest that this is how she would go down on Colin if he gave her the chance), and while she attempts to do that the hot dog flies out of its bun and creates a crisis where she spills a drink on Colin’s lap, then tries to clean it up — and a hidden camera at the ballpark broadcasts the incident on the Jumbotron (Sacramento’s minor-league team must have been playing a particularly boring game that night) and it does look like she’s going down on him then and there. There’s also a sequence in which Michael buys Abby a pair of panties with a remote-controlled vibrator attached — he’s told her that she needs to start masturbating so her body will once again know what sex feels like and therefore she’ll be able to respond to the real deal — only she’s summoned to a meeting with executives of the corporation who bought her station, and in the middle of their dinner meeting Michael’s obnoxious nephew (his sister’s son, whom he baby-sits for frequently and who seems to be the only person he actually loves in any sense) steals the remote, starts playing with it and sends Abby, in the middle of a work-related dinner, into her first orgasm in years. It all comes to a head (so to speak) at a conference in Los Angeles — this is on the weekend when Abby and Colin were supposed to go to Lake Tahoe and actually get it on after all the dating — instead Michael suggests that Abby bring him along on the conference and they can be alone in their hotel room after it’s over but before they go back — only Abby loses all her self-control and slobbers all over Michael in the hotel elevator, thereby confirming our movie-conditioned expectations that she’s going to end up not with the nice-guy doc but the male-chauvinist boor she’s been resisting, personally and professionally, all movie.

The climax occurs during a big balloon race Abby’s station is covering (Michael has left for a competing station and Abby has hired a replacement who’s even worse, and she pulls him off the air when he makes a remark that seems to be approving of rape), only Abby and Michael end up in the same balloon and can’t get away from each other. Needless to say, it wasn’t hard for me to figure out how this would have been cast in the classic era — my putative 1930’s version would have had Carole Lombard as Abby, Clark Gable as Michael and Ralph Bellamy (who else?) as Colin — and it would have been considerably subtler (thanks to the Production Code) and also considerably funnier; Katherine Heigl and Gerard Butler aren’t bad casting for these old-movie characters now (though Butler looked considerably more at home as an action hero in the … Has Fallen movies), and though there are some nice touches (like Michael being interviewed by Craig Ferguson — playing himself — and being momentarily nonplussed when Ferguson plays his game on him, asking him point-blank who was the woman who hurt him so much it left him with such a low opinion of women in general) in the script, for the most part it’s a pale copy of the screamingly funny originals for this sort of movie from the 1930’s. And yet, as annoying as it got sometimes (particularly in the characterization of Michael — one contributor thought the writers should have made the boy Michael’s son instead of his nephew and had him raising the boy as a single father after the mother had left him, which would have added humanity and pathos to Butler’s characterization), The Ugly Truth was also reasonably amusing and a breath of fresh air, both figuratively and literally (given how much of it takes place either outdoors or in well-lit interiors), after the oppressive gloom of House of Darkness!

Saturday, September 24, 2016

Live at the Belly Up: Stripes and Lines, Earl Thomas and the RhumBoogies (PBS, 2014)

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

Last night I watched the latest rerun of Live at the Belly Up, the local KPBS music program paying tribute to the legendary live music venue in Solana Beach (where I’ve never been because attending late-night events in such a far out-of-the-way location would be utterly impossible for me transportation-wise) which opened in 1974 and where these shows were filmed in 2014. I was interested in this episode because one of the featured acts was Earl Thomas and the RhumBoogies, a reunion of a band that played a lot at the Belly Up in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, and I was interested not only because I generally like the kind of music Earl Thomas plays and sings (he was featured here only as a vocalist, though I believe he plays guitar as well) — classic rhythm-and-blues (though the RhumBoogies’ promotional slogan, as painted on their drummer’s bass-drum head, is “All kinds of blues … All night long”), which in a brief interview segment Thomas said he and his bandmates study and take as seriously as classical musicians take the music they play — but because I knew him briefly when he came to a few meetings of a group I was hosting in the early 2000’s. I also know he’s Gay — he was once featured in a San Diego Reader article about Black Gay men (along with Jonathan Thomas, whom I also knew and who was in a wheelchair, though he was still very cute) — which made it odd, to say the least, to hear him singing lyrics about loving (or being attracted to, or having sex with) women. I’m not sure whether Thomas’s songs were originals or covers of relatively obscure R&B songs — two of his songs, “Stand by Me” and “That’s the Stuff You Gotta Watch,” have the same titles as major hits but were not the same songs. One song he did definitely was a cover — Earl King’s 1960 “Come On (Let the Good Times Roll),” which added to the confusion because there are at least three songs with that title (the others are the one by Louis Jordan which he had a hit on in 1946 and Ray Charles covered beautifully in 1959 for his The Genius of Ray Charles album, and the one by Sam Theard which was introduced by Shirley and Lee in 1956 and done to a turn by Phoebe Snow on her first album in 1975), and which didn’t make the R&B charts when King first recorded it for Imperial in 1960 but made it into the standard blues-soul-rock repertory when Jimi Hendrix covered it for the 1968 double album Electric Ladyland. (Later King re-recorded the song in 1977 and apparently incorporated some of Hendrix’ licks.)

The other songs Earl Thomas performed on his Belly Up TV appearance were “Taking Care of Business” (another oft-used title better known for a different song than the one Thomas did), “Everything’s Gonna Be All Right” (the slowest song Thomas did and the one that showed off the most soul in his voice), and “Keep On Loving Me, Baby.” The show’s closing credits designated one of his two guitar players as “lead” and one as “rhythm,” but in fact they traded off those functions and both of them played quite beautiful solos throughout the evening. The entire band, except for Thomas himself, was white — though one of the guitarists might have been Black (he had dark skin and curly hair but his facial features looked white) — and they featured a sax player who played baritone on the opener, “Stand by Me,” but tenor on the rest of the songs. This music was a lot of fun and helped make up for the opening act, a rock band called Stripes and Lines which was good but not especially “special” — their drummer is also their lead singer and they kept reminding me of U2 (especially early U2, before they started their heavy use of techno and industrial effects and The Edge started running his guitar through an effects box to make it sound like a synthesizer), probably more because of the uncanny resemblance of their singer’s voice to Bono’s than that much similarity instrumentally. The Belly Up announcer who introduced them compared them to 1970’s punk groups like Club Fugazi, but I don’t hear them that way (just as I don’t hear the resemblance between Earl Thomas and Al Green he claimed); I liked them but they didn’t move me the way Earl Thomas and the RhumBoogies did, partly because they’re a good band but they didn’t really have much to say about the music — there are hundreds of other bands out there that sound just like them — and partly because all six songs they played on this show were in similar tempi and sounded a lot like each other. The one that stood out for me was “Slave to a New Drug,” though I couldn’t make out enough of the words to be clear on whether it was intended as an anti-drug song or was just using drugs as a metaphor for an obsessive romance. Frankly, enough rock songs have glamorized and encouraged drug use that I’m always glad to stumble on one that goes the other way!

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

The Contenders: Howard Dean and Pat Buchanan (PBS, 2016)

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

Charles and I watched the second episode in PBS’s compelling The Contenders: 16 for ’16 eight-part mini-series, each of which profiles two people who ran for President in recent years (though “recent,” at least so far, has extended as far back as Shirley Chisholm’s run in 1972). This time the candidates were Howard Dean (the brief Democratic front-runner in 2004) and Patrick Buchanan (who ran three times — as a Republican in 1992 and 1996 and as the Reform Party nominee in 2000), linked as allegedly being “The Flamethrowers,” using particularly incendiary rhetoric that appealed to their parties’ bases and sought to arouse indignation against the Establishment that would propel them to victory. Much of the Dean portion of the episode stressed the pioneering work he and his campaign manager, Joe Trippi, did in discovering and using the political potential of the Internet — at a time when social-media sites like Facebook and Twitter didn’t exist and virtually everyone who used a computer viewed the screen on a cathode-ray tube monitor, a visual detail which vividly dates this footage. They were able to raise large amounts of money — in one spit-in-your-eye response to the Bush administration, they did a major Internet fundraising drive the night Dick Cheney was headlining a fundraiser for large donors, and they made twice what his event did — though it also shows the bizarre “scream” Dean gave after coming third in the Iowa caucuses and the way it got not only replayed endlessly on the mainstream media but became the stuff of parody on late-night TV talk shows. The way the Dean story got blown out of proportion and sank his candidacy after another third-place finish in New Hampshire is yet more indication of how the media rig the process of elections in general and Presidential elections in particular; there’s an interesting column in today’s Los Angeles Times op-ed section claiming that if Hillary Clinton loses this year’s election, the media will be largely to blame. (And we can all remember the way the media rigged the election against Al Gore in 2000 largely on the same grounds they’re rigging it against Hillary Clinton now: by constructing a “scenario” that filtered just about all their coverage through the meme that s/he “couldn’t be trusted.”) What came off most interestingly about the Contenders episode on Dean and Buchanan is how much Dean came off as a prototype of Bernie Sanders — both Vermonters, both with a strenuous and aggressive speaking style, both taking positions well to the Left of the American mainstream (in particular, both calling for universal health coverage), and both attracting most of their early support among disaffected youth struggling not only under the weight of their student loan debts but looking at a future in which they would have a lower standard of living and less access to high-paying jobs than their parents’ generation, and wanting a President who would do something about that.

Sanders lasted considerably longer in the race than Dean did — though he succumbed to a problem Dean would have had, too, if he hadn’t flamed out so early: he never reached large numbers of voters of color. Whatever attempts were made by the Democratic National Committee and others in the party establishment in this year’s contest to rig it for Clinton, the decisive factor that made Hillary Clinton and not Bernie Sanders the Democratic nominee was the fierce loyalty shown her by the communities of color, especially older people of color — African-Americans in particular had deserted Hillary in 2008 when her principal opponent was one of their own, but they came back this year, and it was Sanders’ inability to find a way to reach beyond the overwhelmingly white hue of his support base that, more than any other single factor, doomed his candidacy. Frankly, the Buchanan segment was a lot more interesting than the Dean segment, because right now Donald Trump is taking over the momentum in this year’s general election and seems all but certain to win — he’s dead-even in the current polls (which I suspect understate his support because I think he’s got a reverse version of the “Bradley factor” working for him — about five percent of the electorate is racist enough to vote for him but too embarrassed about it to admit it to a pollster) and he’s definitely gaining, to the point where the Democrats have stopped talking about a popular-vote victory and their last-ditch hope is that Clinton will be able to eke out enough statewide wins to get an Electoral College majority even as she loses the popular vote. The politics of the Electoral College kept Al Gore from becoming President in 2000 (though as I’ve argued in these pages what really kept Gore from becoming President is the National Rifle Association, whose “independent” campaigns for George W. Bush in Tennessee and West Virginia swung those states to Bush — in an otherwise razor-close race Gore became the first major-party nominee since George McGovern to lose his home state, and that mattered because if Gore had won Tennessee he would have been President and Florida wouldn’t have mattered) and Democrats kvetched about it for years — and now the Democrats’ final hope of denying Trump the Presidency is to do him out of a win in the Electoral College even as he carries the popular vote.

The reason a segment on Pat Buchanan is relevant today is that, even more than Howard Dean being the beta version of Bernie Sanders, Pat Buchanan is the beta version of Donald Trump, basing his campaign specifically on opposition to immigration and so-called “trade” deals, actually using the phrase “America First” to describe his foreign policy (a phrase with a long and dishonorable history since it was originally the late-1930’s rallying cry of America’s Fascist sympathizers and the isolationists who were largely their dupes) and questioning the interlocking alliances like NATO and its successors with which the U.S. had essentially assumed the role of policeman of the “Free World” as the Cold War developed out of World War II. Indeed, one of the things that I had forgotten (or maybe simply not noticed at the time) about Buchanan’s speeches on the campaign trail was he did as much railing against the so-called “free trade” agreements and the North American Free-Trade Agreement (NAFTA), negotiated by the first President Bush and pushed through a reluctant Congress by Bill Clinton (thereby making both major parties complicit in the wanton destruction of American jobs globalization in general andthese “trade” agreements in particular would precipitate), as he did on the religious/cultural issues and anti-immigration tirades everyone who remembers Buchanan at all associates with him. Buchanan’s rallies also anticipated the Tea Party and the Trump rallies in being overwhelmingly male, white and middle-aged or older, and when one of the talking heads on this show talked about Buchanan as “running against demographics,” that too is a line that’s been used this year to minimize the Trump threat and suggest that future Presidential politics will trend Democratic as the country becomes less white and there are more voters of color in the mix. That’s an analysis that’s been hailed as conventional wisdom for so long it’s motivated the Republican Party to a counter-strategy that involves deliberately making voting as difficult as possible so the new demographic groups that would be less likely to vote Republican won’t be able to vote at all. It’s also been questioned; a recent article in The American Prospect suggested that people who are part-Latino and part-Asian tend to identify themselves as white, and vote the way whites of their socioeconomic class position do, while those who are part-African-American tend to identify as Black and vote the way Blacks do.

I also found it amusing that one of the talking heads (it may have been the same one) proclaimed that Buchanan was running for President to restore an America dominated by white Anglo-Saxon Protestants — when Buchanan himself was an Irish Catholic, which just goes to show how far the various prejudices English and Nordic whites in the U.S. once had against Irish, Italians, Slavs and others they deemed “racially inferior” even if they were, by modern standards, “white” have been subsumed into an overall generic “white” category seen as threatened by rising numbers of people of color in the U.S. as well as the American corporate leaders’ mass exports of jobs abroad and the hiring of immigrants of color to do the jobs (like agricultural work, construction and health care) they can’t ship abroad. It also shows how doctrinal differences among Right-wing Christians have been subsumed to the point where to identify yourself as a “Christian” in a political context almost always means you’re a Right-wing Christian, an opponent of women’s right to reproductive choice, Queer rights in general, the theory of evolution and the notion that humans have anything to do with climate change. (Liberal Christians who get politically involved — or even ones who don’t — tend, when asked what religion they are, to specify which denomination they affiliate with instead of just calling themselves “Christian.”) Nonetheless, watching a show about Pat Buchanan today raised the alarums about Trump and suggested that Trump is to Buchanan what Ronald Reagan was to Barry Goldwater — the candidate who was able to take the same basic issue positions and package them into a more palatable form that, in an election with a lot of alienated voters desperate for “change” and seeing the Democratic nominee as the very personification of the Establishment they want “change” from, will succeed where Buchanan failed and win not only the major-party nomination (which Trump has already done) but the election itself (which he’s well on his way to doing).

Supernatural (Paramount, 1933)

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

Yesterday I got two DVD’s on order from the Turner Classic Movies Web site, including  one I’ve wanted an official video of for quite some time: Supernatural (1933), a Paramount production (though, like most of Paramount’s 1929-1949 output, now owned by Universal) produced by Edward Halperin and directed by his brother Victor, the people who had made White Zombie with Bela Lugosi and Madge Bellamy the year before. White Zombie had originally been just another horror indie destined for the 1932 equivalent of grind houses, but United Artists was short of a film for their distribution schedule and picked it up. The result was a lot more people noticed it than would have if it hadn’t had the boost of at least a semi-major studio, the film was a success and Paramount decided to sign the Halperins to see if they could work the same magic at a major studio. The result is usually considered a disappointment, but when I first saw Supernatural (at the Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley in 1975 on a triple bill with the 1927 Paul Leni The Cat and the Canary and White Zombie) I thought it was fully the equal of White Zombie and a fascinating film in its own right. I’d seen it at least two more times, one (I think) at the Cento Cedar Cinema in San Francisco and once when the Sci-Fi Channel (back when it still had a name that meant something instead of the ridiculous concoction “Syfy”) broadcast it and, despite the commercial breaks, I recorded it onto VHS tape and shared it with at least one friend who generally didn’t like old movies but found this one compelling.   

Supernatural begins with the credits seen over lightning flashes while a rather overwrought woo-woo-woo chorus sings on the soundtrack, and then we get quotes about the supernatural from Confucius (“Treat all supernatural beings with respect … but keep aloof from them!”), Mohammed (“We will bring forth the dead from their graves”), and St. Matthew (“ … and He gave his twelve disciples power against unclean spirits to cast them out”). The last makes sense because Jesus Christ is actually in this movie … well, at least H. B. Warner is, and he’d played Jesus in Cecil B. DeMille’s 1927 King of Kings. Then we get to a New York skyline and a newspaper clipping announcing the upcoming execution of Ruth Rogen (Vivienne Osborne), who “yesterday confessed she killed each of her three lovers after a riotous orgy in her sensuous Greenwich Village apartment” — prose that if nothing else marks Supernatural as a product of the so-called “pre-Code” era. Rogen (whose name is pronounced with a soft “g,” by the way) wants as her last request to see her previous lover, spiritualist Dr. Paul Bavian (Alan Dinehart, a superb character villain whose two best roles were this one and as the notorious blackmailer Thaddeus Merridew in the Sherlock Holmes film A Study in Scarlet, made immediately afterwards), who apparently had an affair with Rogen, only it ended badly and soured her on all men, leading to the killings for which she’s about to be put to death. The film is clearly set in the 1933 present, but when Victor Halperin takes us to Dr. Bavian’s abode we seem to have suddenly jumped back in time to the 1890’s — the streets are cobblestone, the only vehicles are horse-drawn, and Bavian himself is living in a ratty little boarding house run by the slatternly, drunken Madame Gourjian (Beryl Mercer in a much less gimmicky performance than she usually gave), who in one scene refers to the cockroaches inhabiting her rooms (if there’s another 1933 movie that gives you extreme close-ups of cockroaches, I don’t know what it is) as “my pets” and tries to swat one with her gin bottle, breaking it and forcing her frantically to look for another container in which she can pour what’s left of its contents.

Then we cut to the funeral home where John Courtney (who’s dead at the outset of the story but is shown physically enough — through a still photo and a recording of his voice — the Halperins needed an actor, Lyman Williams, to play him) is lying in state after having died mysteriously at age 24. (At first I thought he might have been one of Ruth Rogen’s victims, but he wasn’t, though the screenwriters — Garnett Weston, Harvey Thew and Brian Marlow — never quite explain how he did die.) Dr. Bavian sneaks into the deserted viewing room with plaster to take a death mask of him as part of a plot to swindle his twin sister Roma Courtney (Carole Lombard, top-billed and delivering a superb performance that indicates the screen lost a potentially great dramatic actress when the blockbuster success of the 1934 film Twentieth Century led her to concentrate on screwball comedy), though just what he intends to do with her and how he hopes to gain by it remain powerfully ambiguous. We see Roma playing a homemade record she and John made, and we see their dog fetch John’s slipper — the dog is obviously still scenting John’s aroma and doesn’t realize he’s dead — though Roma herself is clearly so overcome by the loss of her brother (and her twin, at that!) that she’s doing little but wearing black and moping around the house. It’s established through yet another newspaper clipping that the Courtneys were multimillionaires and Roma is now the sole heir to the family fortune (presumably their parents were already dead), though the money is being managed by the family attorney, Hammond (former silent-screen star William Farnum). Also on the scene at the Courtney mansion is Dr. Carl Houston (H. B. Warner), who — fittingly given that in his most famous previous role he was crucified and then resurrected — is convinced that not only do the dead remain alive in some other plane of existence, they can return to influence the living, and in particular dead criminals can return to influence living persons to commit copycat crimes. To prevent Ruth Rogen from doing this, he requests that he be given her body after her execution — for which he has to get her approval, which she gives after a nice peroration in which she repeats that she hates all men and also asks, “What’s in it for me? This isn’t going to do me any good!” (She has a point.)

Alas, after allowing Dr. Bavian to hold two séances and supposedly contact her dead brother — which explains why Bavian sneaked into the funeral home; he needed an accurate reproduction of John Courtney’s face — in which Bavian’s manufactured “ghost” of John Courtney says that the attorney Hammond murdered him (actually Bavian murders both Hammond and his landlady with a trick ring on his finger that emits a poison-tipped needle) — Roma and her boyfriend Grant Wilson (the young Randolph Scott, still a utility player at Paramount who hadn’t yet found his niche in Westerns) go to Dr. Houston’s to ask him if it’s really possible for the dead to communicate with the living. Unfortunately, they arrive at Dr. Houston’s impressive Art Deco digs on the wrong night — he’s doing his experiment on Ruth Rogen, trying to isolate her soul so it can’t get out amongst the living and do more harm. Instead the opposite happens and Rogen’s soul ends up in the body of Roma Courtney, thereby causing her entire nature to change immediately (and making Carole Lombard arguably the first actress to play a multiple personality on screen, a worthy predecessor to Joanne Woodward in The Three Faces of Eve and Sally Field in Sybil). Ruth’s soul is determined to kill Bavian for revenge, then leave Roma Courtney’s body and let Roma take the fall — and the two first go to Ruth’s former apartment (where we see plenty of the artworks Ruth made — she was an artist by profession — including a life-sized self-portrait in which Ruth is holding an apple, thereby tying herself in with Eve and the original “bad girl”) and then to the Courtneys’ yacht (which has two smokestacks and looks big enough to cross the Atlantic), where Ruth is on the point of strangling Bavian when Randolph Scott comes to the rescue, climbing the ship’s ropes (and explaining why Victor Halperin felt he needed an action star for the male lead!) and pulling the Rogen-possessed Roma off Bavian in time to save the bad guy’s life — though Bavian meets his end anyway by accidentally hanging himself off the ship’s ropes as he’s trying to flee. One quirk about Supernatural (a movie that seems to be defined by its quirks!) is that in addition to an evil ghost there’s also a good one, the shade of John Courtney, who causes a model ship in the storefront of Rogen’s landlord (George Burr Macannan) to fall over and break, thereby giving Grant and Dr. Houston the clue they need that Roma is on the yacht; and at the end John’s ghost blows through the pages of a magazine until it lights on an cruise ad, signaling to Roma and Grant that they should not only go on the trip to Bermuda Dr. Houston suggested earlier to lighten up her spirits, they should make it their honeymoon.  

Supernatural has its flaws — notably an overly complicated plot the writers have to race through to keep to a 65-minute running time while still taking quite a while to show us how the three plot threads link up — but it’s a stunning movie, brilliantly directed by the uneven but frequently great Victor Halperin. Though most of the technical people (as well as the cast) were Paramount contractees, Halperin brought along Arthur Martinelli, his great cinematographer from White Zombie, and working at a major studio Halperin and Martinelli pushed the camera moves even farther than they had on the earlier (and cheaper) film. Halperin seems to have been the sort of director who never wanted to cut when he could discover characters with his swooping camera instead, and he gets a surprising number of oblique angles into his film. The acting is generally quite good: Lombard superbly delineates the two faces of Roma — moping widow and Rogen-possessed avenging sex kitten — and Dinehart is appropriately slimy, though through part of the film I must confess I was wondering how it might have been different if Halperin had cast Bela Lugosi in the role. Not only had Lugosi been excellent as the fake medium in the 1931 Charlie Chan film The Black Camel, he also had a surprisingly romantic streak (showcased mainly in a film from the next year, The Return of Chandu) and he might have been more able to make Ruth Rogen’s twisted attraction to Bavian believable than Dinehart was. Nonetheless, the film is well acted throughout — Beryl Mercer’s character seems to have stepped in from a James Whale film (though she also anticipates the drunken landlady Raymond Chandler created in Farewell, My Lovely seven years later and Esther Howard brought vividly to life in the second and best film of it, Murder, My Sweet) and Randolph Scott is O.K. in a pretty thankless role (but then that could be said of just about all his non-Westerns; when he climbs the ropes on the yacht to get to Carole Lombard before she can kill Alan Dinehart you think, “Now I know why they wanted an action star to play her boyfriend!”). Carlos Clarens, whose book An Illustrated History of the Horror Film was key to the rediscovery of White Zombie and its attaining classic status, wrote off Supernatural as “only moderately effective,” but on its own terms — it’s as much a psychological thriller as a supernatural horror film — it’s fascinating and welcome as the only time in the sound era the Halperins got to work at a major studio.