Sunday, January 31, 2016

History of the Eagles (Jigsaw Productions, 2012)

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

The film was History of the Eagles, which was rather arbitrarily presented as a “TV mini-series” and divided into “part one” and “part two,” even though “part one” ran 2 ½ hours (including the commercial breaks, among which were quite a few pitches from the fossil fuel industry with supposedly ordinary people proclaiming, “I’m Rich, and I’m an Energy Voter” — it seems an “energy voter” is one who supports expanded fossil-fuel production in the U.S., which made me respond to the TV, “I’m Mark, and I’m a Survival of the Human Species Voter”) and “part two” ran a comparatively short 1 ½ hours. (The complete running time for both parts listed on is 189 minutes.) I wasn’t expecting this to turn into a four-hour commitment during which I couldn’t watch anything else (including a somewhat interesting-sounding Lifetime movie as well as a Doctor Blake episode on KPBS that, ironically, was about the murder of a rock star), but in the end I was glad I made it through the end. The film, of course, is about the Eagles, the legendary rock band (“Oh, no, they weren’t legendary. They really existed,” Charles would say about now) founded in Los Angeles in 1971 out of people who had come to California from other places — and it was nice to know that the film was a 2012 production that interviewed virtually all the Eagles, including co-leaders Glenn Frey and Don Henley, rather than (as I’d feared) a quickie assemblage of film clips thrown together to take advantage of the publicity surrounding Frey’s recent death.

The two had dramatically different backgrounds: Frey was born in Detroit and grew up at a time when the Black Motown acts dominated the city’s musical scene — it wasn’t clear from the film just what place a white guy who wanted to rock would have there (later Jack White would grow up in Detroit at a time when rock was definitely no longer “cool” and he’d actually be looked down on for learning guitar and wanting to be a musician instead of a rapper or D.J.) — and the film shows that Frey sang backup on one of the few white rock hits that came out of Detroit in the 1960’s, Bob Seger’s “Rambling Gambling Man.” (Later Seger would turn up on an Eagles album as co-writer of the great song “Heartache Tonight” from The Long Run.) Henley was a Texan who had come to L.A. with a band called Shiloh whose first (and, it turned out, only) album was produced by Kenny Rogers for a tiny label called Amos Records. By coincidence, Frey was with a band called Longbranch Pennywhistle (his retrospective comments hinted that he and his original bandmates picked a name deliberately obscure and meaningless so people would notice it) that was also signed to Amos, and the two of them were hired by John Boylan, Linda Ronstadt’s original producer, manager and boyfriend, to play in her backup band. (The film mentioned that he was her manager and producer, but not her boyfriend — and Boylan took a lot of heat in the music business because, after making a few O.K. albums for Ronstadt that sold decently but not spectacularly, they broke up both professionally and personally. Ronstadt got Peter Asher, one-half of Peter and Gordon turned ace record producer, to work on her next album, Heart Like a Wheel, which sold millions, catapulted her from minor stardom to superstardom, and provoked a lot of reviews to the effect of, “Of course it’s better than all her previous albums! Now she’s got a real producer instead of a boyfriend!”)

According to the Wikipedia page on the Eagles, the original lineup — Frey on guitars and vocals, Bernie Leadon on guitars and banjo, Randy Meisner on bass and Henley on drums and vocals — only played publicly for Ronstadt once, at Disneyland (of all places) in July 1971, but they worked heavily on her first album. Then Frey and Henley decided they wanted to go it alone and Ronstadt graciously let them go. It’s not clear where they got the band name from — or even what the name is; comedian Steve Martin (then getting his start in the same L.A. club circuit in which the Eagles were trying to break through as musicians) claimed he suggested it to them and it’s The Eagles, but Glenn Frey has said it was inspired by the Hopi spiritual tradition and its regard for eagles as avatars of God, and it has no article — just “Eagles.” They approached hot-shot producer Glyn Johns to record their first album for David Geffen’s Asylum Records (which quickly became the center of L.A.’s soft-rock scene — Geffen had the Eagles and their occasional songwriting partners Jackson Browne and J. D. Souther[1] under contract, and grabbed Ronstadt after Heart Like a Wheel completed her previous contract with Capitol). Only Johns, who had cut his teeth as George Martin’s engineer on the Beatles’ recordings and had gone on to work with the Rolling Stones, The Who and Led Zeppelin, wasn’t really interested in the country-pop-rock fusion the Eagles were going for and turned them down — until he heard them singing an old country ballad and doing three-part harmonies on it. Then he decided to work with them after all, though he insisted on taking them to London and recording them in the British studios he was used to — at a time when only one of the band members had ever been out of the U.S. The first album, Eagles — whose cover was shot on a camping trip at Joshua Tree where the band members got high on peyote and Frey had a vision of a giant eagle crossing the sky, which became the theme of the album cover — broke three hit singles, “Take It Easy,” “Peaceful Easy Feeling” (written by San Diego-based Jack Tempchin at Der Wienerschnitzel in Mission Hills — until recently the Wienerschnitzel had a commemorative plaque saying that the song had been written there, but they removed it about six months ago) and “Witchy Woman” (the first song of the Eagles’ I can remember hearing, though I couldn’t get the title right — at first I thought it was “Winchy Woman” and then “Windshield Woman,” just as when I first heard Wayne Newton’s “Danke Schoen” I asked my mom, “What are donkey chains and why would someone write a song about them?”).

To me the Eagles were the sort of band who became background in my personal soundtrack; in 1972 my favorite rock musicians (aside from my old 1960’s favorites like the Beatles, Stones, Dylan and Doors) were people like Captain Beefheart and David Bowie. The Eagles played catchy little ditties that were bright spots on AM radio but didn’t really “grab” me, and I didn’t buy any Eagles’ LP’s until they came out with The Long Run in 1979 — and that one only because I was re-entering the rock scene after having been bored out of my wits with most of what was coming out in the mid-to-late 1970’s (that was when I started assembling my first collection of opera LP’s and reinforcing my interest in classical music generally) until the punks came out and, though I didn’t like the Sex Pistols and wasn’t that fond of the Ramones, I loved Elvis Costello, Graham Parker, Nick Lowe and The Clash. The Eagles went through the 1970’s gradually shedding their country-music influences and becoming more of a rock band — their second album, Desperado, was a concept album based on the idea that 20th century rock bands were the modern-day equivalent of 19th-century Western outlaws, and the LP was a flop even though the title song became one of the Eagles’ trademark numbers (largely because Linda Ronstadt covered it) even though I think it’s one of the silliest, most pretentious songs ever written. (Diana Krall covered it on her most recent CD and I didn’t like it any better now than I did then. The song I did like on that theme was “Desperadoes Under the Eaves” by the Eagles’ Asylum label-mate, Warren Zevon, which deftly and expertly skewered the whole ridiculous pretension behind the Eagles’ original.) They made a comeback with their third album, On the Border, and their fourth, One of These Nights, whose title song was their first #1 U.S. hit. Along the way the Eagles’ sound got less country-ish and more rock (which was fine by me even though it didn’t make them a favorite band of mine!), to the point where they fired Glyn Johns as their producer after two songs for On the Border because they wanted to be produced as a rock band and he was still handling them as a pop band, with heavy echo on their vocals (“That’s my echo!” he insisted). At one point, when they said they wanted to do harder rock, Johns came back with, “The Who are a rock band. You’re not.”

The Eagles replaced Johns with Bill Szymczyk, whose last name is so unpronounceable I heard at least two versions on the History of the Eagles soundtrack (“Sizz-mick” and “Sickz-mick”), and for two songs on On the Border they added a new guitarist, Don Felder, who added technical proficiency and a rock “edge” to their sound. (I was surprised since I’d always thought of the Eagles as a five-piece band and hadn’t realized they’d started out and recorded two albums with just four — the opposite of the Beatles, who were a five-piece in their early days in Liverpool and Hamburg until their original bassist, Stu Sutcliffe, left and Paul McCartney took over at bass instead of playing third guitar.) Felder became a permanent member of the band and, when Leadon quit after One of These Nights because his first love was country music and he didn’t want to rock the way Frey and Henley did, they hired someone who already had a reputation as a solo artist: Joe Walsh, who’d been in a short-lived 1960’s band called James Gang (another connection to Old Western outlawry!) and then made a well-received solo LP called The Smoker You Drink, The Player You Get. (The title should have been a warning to the other Eagles what they were getting into when they brought in Walsh: though all of them were doing drugs, Walsh had a bigger and nastier habit than anyone else and he was also, as he himself as well as the other Eagles referred to him in retrospect, “the king of the room trashers” — he once did $23,000 worth of damage to a hotel they’d stayed in and he was the main reason why, even at the height of their popularity, they had a hard time finding hotels which would put them up.) These five went into the studio and recorded Hotel California in 1976, which would become the Eagles’ best-selling LP, break three hit singles and spark decades of controversy over the “true” meaning of the title song. (At least 17 separate buildings have been offered as the real-life prototype for the Hotel California, which I found amusing because I’d always thought “Hotel California” was just a metaphor for the state.) I did get upset about a blatant piece of what I call “first-itis” — the tendency of biographers in all media to credit whoever they’re biographing with being the first person to do something — when one of the interviewees said, “Who else before ‘Hotel California’ had a number one hit single that was over seven minutes long?” It was intended to be a rhetorical question but I had the answer to it in about a nanosecond: the Beatles, in 1968, with “Hey Jude.”

Just after the year-long tour to promote Hotel California bassist Randy Meisner left — apparently because Frey and Henley had been ragging him about his reluctance to sing his feature, “Take It to the Limit,” because he’d either developed stage fright (the explanation in the movie) or his illnesses had impacted his voice (the one on the Eagles Wikipedia page) and therefore wasn’t sure he could hit the big high note at the end. Since the Eagles had hired him away from the band Poco (one of the two splinter bands that had formed after the breakup of the late-1960’s L.A. band Buffalo Springfield, and far less well known than the other post-Springfield splinter band, Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young), they logically went to Poco again and hired Meisner’s replacement, Timothy B. Schmit. There’s a curious comment in this film about Meisner not fitting in because he was not an “alpha” the way Frey, Henley and Walsh were — but then the only two rock bass players I could think of who were “alphas” in this context were Paul McCartney and Sting, and they were so much more than just bass players (like singers, principal songwriters for their bands, and ultimately highly successful solo artists) they don’t really count. Alas, drugs, drink, musical and personal differences and sheer exhaustion with the gig led the Eagles to spend nearly three years on the follow-up, The Long Run — though I still love that album (if Hotel California is the Eagles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, The Long Run is their White Album). It’s become a truism of rock history that in the early 1960’s the reigning band from L.A. was the Beach Boys and in the 1970’s it was the Eagles — though that ignores the hugely important band that emerged from L.A. between the Beach Boys’ tumble from their commercial peak in 1966 and the Eagles’ rise in 1972: the Doors. Indeed, I would argue that what made Hotel California and The Long Run better than the Eagles’ previous recordings is that they managed to marry the Beach Boys’ vocal harmonies and projection of the “sunny California” image with at least something of the Doors’ embrace of the state’s darker side. The Long Run was originally announced as a two-LP set but the band members wrote so few songs they ended up releasing just a single LP, and they spent most of late 1979 and early 1980 touring in support of it.

Things came to a head on July 31, 1980 at a benefit the Eagles were playing for California Senator Alan Cranston, a liberal icon later tarnished by his involvement with Charles Keating and his crooked savings-and-loan company, when either Mr. Cranston (the movie) or his wife (Wikipedia) personally thanked every member of the band for performing for his campaign. Don Felder, who’d previously told the other band members he regarded political benefits as a waste of time they could be spending making money, replied, “You’re welcome … I guess.” Glenn Frey not only threatened Felder with bodily harm after the show, he made the threats on stage, in full view (and hearing) of the audience. While neither the movie nor the Wikipedia page said whether or not Frey actually followed through on his threat to beat Felder up, it spelled the end of the Eagles — though they still owed their record company one more Eagles album, a live recording from the Long Run tour which is listed on the Wikipedia page as simply called Live Eagles but which other sources I’ve seen referred to as Seven Bridges Road (after a Steve Young song, previously recorded by Rita Coolidge with Ry Cooder, which the Eagles had incorporated into the concerts and picked as the single from the live album). Apparently some of the vocals were electronically “tweaked” in post-production — and that meant the Eagles had to dub new parts onto their recordings, which was difficult for producer Szymczyk to coordinate since Frey refused even to speak to his fellow band members and they ended up dubbing the vocals at different times in different studios in different cities. It was apparently Frey who made the famous remark, when asked whether the Eagles would ever get back together, that it would happen “when hell freezes over,” which meant that when the Eagles finally did get together again in 1994 the album released in support of the reunion (apparently mostly old songs from live performances with a handful of new studio tracks), and the reunion tour itself, were both called Hell Freezes Over. 

The time since hasn’t been free of the angst that broke them up in the first place, some of which began when Frey and Henley decided they were the principal leaders of the band and wanted the Eagles’ partnership agreement rewritten to give them a bigger share of the income. Walsh and Schmit agreed but Don Felder went ballistic, refusing to sign the new agreement and ultimately quitting the Eagles altogether — unlike Otis Blackwell, who had let Elvis Presley take a one-half cut-in songwriting credit on the records Blackwell wrote for Elvis (including some of his biggest hits, like “Don’t Be Cruel” and “All Shook Up”), and when asked why he put up with it said, “Because 50 percent of something is a whole lot better than 100 percent of nothing,” Felder left a highly lucrative gig because it wasn’t quite as lucrative as he’d wanted or hoped for. The Eagles hired Steuart Smith to replace Felder but kept him on salary, never making him an actual band member — with Frey’s death, the Eagles’ official Web site lists Henley, Walsh and Schmit as the only true Eagles. The Eagles were in and out of various tours since then, including one they’d done in China just before the movie came out (there are the inevitable shots of them outside the Great Wall), though their only studio album since The Long Run was a 2007 collection called Long Road Out of Eden, a two-CD set which instead of marketing through a record company, the Eagles chose to release themselves. Unfortunately, they also chose to cut a deal with Walmart that the album would be available nowhere else — which meant that I would never buy it because, despite Don Henley’s pathetic rationalization that Walmart “is getting greener,” I regard Walmart as the Evil Empire, the Darth Vader of retailing, and between their jihad against any hint of unionization in their stores, their merchandising cheap products from China (when Sam Walton, Walmart’s founder, was alive he insisted that everything sold at Walmart be made in the U.S., but when he died and his kids took it over they got rid of that policy in a hurry), their underpaying their employees and actually inserting documents in their new-hire orientation packets on how to apply for food stamps and Medicaid because Walmart isn’t paying them enough to buy food or have health insurance, and their deadly effect on locally owned businesses everywhere they locate, I have never set foot inside a Walmart and I never will.

History of the Eagles was a compelling, though overly long (it went into some of their business dealings, including their quarrels with David Geffen — they sued him over publishing royalties and Don Henley, ever naïve about people’s intentions, signed a record contract with him as a solo artist in the 1980’s and then had to sue him again and pay an expensive buyout fee to be free to record with the Eagles again), documentary, directed by Alison Ellwood but produced by Alex Gibney, who usually makes Left-leaning political documentaries — and though the Eagles’ story only briefly touches on politics (ironically they chose the Right-wing Walmart to release their most openly Left-wing political album — the title track of Long Road Out of Eden was a denunciation of the war in Iraq and some of the other songs were also more openly political than the Eagles had been before), the Gibney touch is readily apparent in the sheer exhaustiveness of the detail and the commitment to land interviews with as many people as possible (including folks like David Geffen whom he’s casting as the villains of the piece) to tell all conceivable sides of a story that in some respects is pretty typical of a major rock band’s career (formation, success, alcohol and/or drug problems, breakup, lucrative reunions, singular or plural) but has a few interesting wrinkles that make it worth watching even if you’re not (like me) that much of an Eagles fan.

[1] — Whose name — and I hadn’t realized this until I saw the film — is pronounced like “South,” not “Southern.”

Thursday, January 28, 2016

Goin’ to Town (Paramount, 1935)

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

The film was Goin’ to Town, a 1935 Mae West vehicle for Paramount (oddly, the page on it credits it to “Emmanuel Cohen Productions,” an in-house unit set up for former Paramount studio head Emmanuel Cohen, supposedly the model for Sammy Glick in What Makes Sammy Run?, after Paramount fired him from that position, though the on-screen producer credit goes to former RKO studio head William LeBaron, whom Paramount hired as an in-house “independent” producer when RKO fired him in 1932) and the first film she made after the Legion of Decency, a committee set up by the American branch of the Roman Catholic Church, started their successful campaign to “clean up” American movies by getting the studios to enforce the 1930 Production Code seriously. Though plenty of other movies made during the so-called “pre-Code” period of relatively loose enforcement of the Code between 1930 and 1934 featured similarly salty dialogue and relatively honest treatment of sex, Mae West became Public Enemy Number One for the censors and would-be moralists who wanted to tame the American screen. Indeed, her reputation as censor-bait lasted so long that in 1949, when Paramount asked the Production Code Administration (PCA) for permission to re-release West’s 1933 masterpiece I’m No Angel, they got a letter back from PCA head Joseph Breen saying that, while it would be possible to edit the movie and get it in “technical compliance” with the Code, the re-release of a Mae West movie would undermine everything Breen and the PCA had tried to accomplish. The censors had struck while West’s immediately previous movie, filmed first as St. Louis Woman and then It Ain’t No Sin (Paramount had trained hundreds of parrots to say “It ain’t no sin!” so they could put them in theatre lobbies as a promotion for the forthcoming film; I read that years ago in a 1934 movie magazine and have no idea what happened to the parrots once Paramount was forced to abandon that title) before finally being released under the anodyne title Belle of the Nineties, was awaiting release — and the extant prints of Belle of the Nineties suffer from some quite obvious cuts, including the all-too-jarring deletion one whole verse of West’s song “When a St. Louis Woman Comes Down to New Orleans.”

Paramount was in a quandary about what to do with Mae West after that — her films She Done Him Wrong and I’m No Angel had been huge hits and helped save the studio from Depression-driven bankruptcy (though the less censor-problematic hits of Bing Crosby had also helped) but all of a sudden she was a liability with a particularly influential part of the movie audience even though there were still a lot of people out there who found her entertaining. So they concocted this film, based on a story by other authors (Marion Morgan and George B. Dowell) even though West insisted on her contractual right to write her own screenplay (she’s credited with “adaptation and dialogue”) and have her writing credit 75 percent the size of her billing as star. Goin’ to Town is a movie that changes tone so often it seems at times to be anticipating the Preston Sturges genre-benders Paramount would make a few years later (the pairing of Preston Sturges and Mae West is yet another fascinating cinematic might-have-been!). It starts as a Western, with West as Cleo Borden, holding forth in a saloon rather pretentiously named “Le Danse Pavillion” — though we don’t get to see her sing a song from the stage, just mutter one under her breath as she dances on the club’s floor — and fending off various suitors who, like every male in a Mae West movie, are utterly gaga over her. One suitor she doesn’t quite fend off is Buck Gonzalez (Fred Kohler), who owns a large ranch and an oil field but is also considered an outlaw because he’s suspected of increasing his herds by rustling cattle from other ranchers. Buck proposes to marry her, and Cleo challenges him to a dice game; if he wins he’ll marry her and get all his properties, while if he loses she won’t marry him but will get all his properties anyway. She rolls snake-eyes and he rolls a 9 (there’s a hint that Cleo, being a Mae West character, fixed the game so she would lose), only just before they’re supposed to get married Buck is surrounded by an armed gang — law enforcement? A posse? Freelance vigilantes? West doesn’t tell us, and we don’t really care — and killed. Nonetheless, the transfer of his properties to Cleo is ruled legal, so she’s suddenly a multi-millionaire — and she drives onto her newly inherited land in a fancy 1935 car, the first intimation we’ve had that this movie is taking place in the 1930’s present instead of the 1890’s (when West set most of her films because that was the time when her zaftig proportions were considered the epitome of female sexiness).

She also has the hots for the foreman of her oil wells, Edward Carrington (Paul Cavanagh), but he’s not interested in her — at least until the fade-out. Cleo discovers that among her new holdings is a stable of race horses, one of whom (trained by a couple of Native American stablehands, one of whom also is the horse’s jockey — and Charles gave West points for her non-stereotyped treatment of the Native characters) shows enough promise that in order to establish her credentials as a society woman instead of a saloon girl who just lucked her way into money, she decides to enter him in a big race in Buenos Aires. The next few reels turn into a surprisingly close anticipation of the 1940 20th Century-Fox film Down Argentine Way (the one which made a star of Betty Grable in essentially the role West plays in these scenes), as she and her attorney/advisor Winslow (Gilbert Emery) take up residence in Buenos Aires, and Cleo attracts the attentions of gigolo Ivan Valadov (Ivan Lebedeff). Cleo’s horse wins the race but she still isn’t accepted by society, so she encounters a young man named Fletcher Colton (Monroe Owsley) when he’s lost all his money at the Buenos Aires casino and is about to commit suicide. Cleo makes him a proposition; she’ll marry him and thereby gain a Social Register last name and family connection, while he’ll have access to her money. The film then moves to the Colton family home in upstate New York, where Cleo plans a huge party (she sets the date for August 17, Mae West’s real-life birthday — she would be a Leo!) during which she’ll not only present a full-dress opera company performing Saint-Saëns’ Samson et Dalila, she’ll sing Delilah herself. Only Colton is still gambling his way through much of her money, and she’s decided to cut him off and not pay his debts. The film then hints at the real-life story of tobacco heir Zachary Smith Reynolds and his marriage to torch singer Libby Holman in 1931 — the marriage only lasted six months before Reynolds was found dead of a gunshot wound, an apparent suicide, though Holman was suspected of murdering him for his money (the D.A. in charge of the case declined to prosecute for lack of evidence, but didn’t officially clear her, either) — which had already been the thinly veiled “fictional” subject of two previous movies, Sing, Sinner, Sing (1932) and Brief Moment (1933) — only when Mae West is about to make her debut as an opera singer at her own party it suddenly becomes a premonition of the Susan Alexander sequences in Citizen Kane: the not-bad singer in way over her depth, the vocal coach and costumer both incessantly screaming at her, and the singer finally going on before an audience reluctant at best and apprehensive at worst.

She makes it through the big aria “My Heart at Thy Sweet Voice” in a pinched voice that’s obviously Mae West’s own — no one would mistake her for a professional opera singer but she does well enough to get by — only to find the body of her husband after she finishes the act, and she notices that the scene has been faked to look like suicide but the killer made the mistake of putting the gun in Colton’s right hand: he was left-handed. Cleo guesses that Ivan Valadov, whom she found standing over the body, was the real killer, but after the cops decide she didn’t do it they rule the killing suicide and Cleo is free to go back to South America, this time to Brazil to supervise her latest oil discovery, with Edward Carrington finally ensnared in the Mae West web and along for the ride as, at the fadeout, she sings the Sammy Fain-Irving Kahal song “Now I’m a Lady,” whose lyric incorporates the famous catch-phrase “Come up and see me sometime,” introduced by Mae West in her play Diamond Lil and its film adaptation, She Done Him Wrong (though in She Done Him Wrong the line is considerably racier: “Why don’t you come up sometime, and see me? I’m home every ev’nin’!”) and bows to the audience just before the film fades out. (Bows had been a regular feature of the early Vitaphone shorts — people were actually applauding in the theatre and the bows were inserted as a pre-programmed response. Then the audiences stopped applauding and the bows just looked ridiculous, so it’s a bit surprising to see one at the end of a 1935 feature film.) Goin’ to Town is an odd movie that starts out promisingly with one of the great Mae West dialogue exchanges that’s as audacious as anything from She Done Him Wrong or I’m No Angel — Cleo confesses, “Yeah, for a long time I was ashamed of the way I lived.” “You mean you reformed?” asks the man she’s talking to. “No,” she replies. “I got over being ashamed.” (Take that, Legion of Decency!) Through much of the rest of the film, though, it’s apparent she’s pulling her punches, getting her risqué message across less through the actual words and more the way she inflects them. She Done Him Wrong and I’m No Angel are Mae West’s masterpieces not only because they were “pre-Code” and she had virtually total control over their content but because her leading man was Cary Grant, and his comic exasperation over her outrageousness was just the right counterpoint; aside from W. C. Fields in My Little Chickadee (a very special case), she never had a major co-star again, and her attempts to make leading men out of character actors like Roger Pryor (in Belle of the Nineties) and Paul Cavanagh here just fall flat and don’t give her characters someone powerful enough to be worthy to go up against her in the battle of the sexes.

The director of Goin’ to Town is Alexander Hall — a good comedy director who made what’s probably Bob Hope’s best movie, The Great Lover (1949), in which he plumbed depths and levels of darkness that were implicit in Hope’s movie persona but more complaisant directors like George Marshall and Hal Walker had basically ignored — but with West so totally the auteur of her films, just about anybody (including the Paramount office boy) could have directed and had the same effect. (The one time she worked with a truly major director — Leo McCarey in Belle of the Nineties — she didn’t get much more out of him than the hacks like Lowell Sherman and Wesley Ruggles she’d worked with before, though maybe if McCarey’s pre-censorship cut of Belle existed it would show more of his personality.) Goin’ to Town is a perfectly O.K. movie, at its funniest and most entertaining when West breaks free of the censors (and their on-set “minder,” John Hammell, listed as “censor adviser” on the film’s page), a neat comedy with a nice worm-turning ending. It’s just not what Mae West fans either expected or wanted in 1935, and it was too “moral” to give Mae’s fans the sexual frisson they wanted and still way too dirty to attract the moralists. Within two years West had lost her berth at Paramount after the financial failure of Goin’ to Town and her subsequent films — Klondike Annie, Go West Young Man, Every Day’s a Holiday (though the last is worth watching not only for her but also Louis Armstrong’s appearance in the final parade sequence singing and playing Hoagy Carmichael’s “Jubilee” and a plot line by songwriter Sam Coslow that (along with one of the songs) was recycled nine years later for the 1947 film Copacabaña) and she’d make only two more films, My Little Chickadee at Universal in 1940 and The Heat’s on at Columbia in 1943 (featuring a plot obviously ripped off from the Warner Bros. Busby Berkeley musical Dames in 1934, though given how much Mae West’s career had suffered from censorship it’s a delight to see her in a story about censorship, and one in which the censors are the villains!), before her ill-advised comeback attempt in the 1970’s in Myra Breckinridge and Sextette (based on an original story Mae West had written for herself to play — decades earlier!). In short, Goin’ to Town is fun and worth watching, but it’s nowhere close to what its star had proven she could do in her earlier films!

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

American Experience: “Mine Wars” (Film Posse/PBS, 2016)

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

Last night’s PBS documentary was an American Experience episode called “Mine Wars,” about the 20-year struggle by the United Mine Workers to organize the coal miners in southern West Virginia and how it was systematically thwarted by the mine operators, the government officials who (with two intriguing exceptions, both noted in the program) went along with whatever the bosses wanted them to do, and the private army the bosses hired (in the guise of a private-investigation firm called “Baldwin-Felts,” though whoever Baldwin might have been it was three brothers named Felts who actually ran the company) to smash any union campaigns before they started. It’s a vivid portrayal of just how much control the mine owners exerted — they put up their workers in company-owned towns (where they could be evicted if they quit or were fired, and just being a union member was grounds for being fired), they paid them in company currency (“scrip”) which they could only spend at company stores (where the prices were far higher than they were elsewhere in the area) and, like the sharecroppers in the Deep South, they often ended up not only with no money but actually in debt to the company for their rent and groceries — remember the song “Sixteen Tons,” with its chilling lines, “Tell St. Peter I can’t go/I owe my soul to the company store.” The companies also controlled the towns so utterly that they had no local governments of their own, and installed their agents as postmasters at the towns’ post offices so they could ensure that workers couldn’t receive pro-union leaflets or letters in the mail.

The combination of low pay and virtually feudal living conditions, as well as the mine owners’ callous disregard of worker health and safety — coal mining is an inherently dangerous business, since you’re not only tunneling through mountains and the tunnels might cave in at any moment, you’re also releasing huge amounts of dust and gas in the air, and many of the gases are themselves highly flammable and potentially explosive (while the miners were working by the open flames of the lamps attached to their hats — electric lights for miners were well in the future), or else they’re damp and suffocating — and the owners basically regarded the workers as dispensable resources. If they got sick, had accidents, got injured or even killed on the job, tough; there were always more where they came from, and in addition to pressuring politicians to enforce laws against union organizing, the mine owners also lobbied to make sure no health-and-safety regulations were passed. The first attempt to organize West Virginia’s mines (or at least the first one covered here) took place in 1902 and was led by the legendary Mother Jones (she’s been so surrounded by legend it’s hard to realize she was an actual person!) and a local she recruited named Frank Keeney, and that strike was inspired by the United Mine Workers’ (UMW) success in winning union recognition and at least some economic gains in the mines in Pennsylvania. (In 1903 President Theodore Roosevelt had personally intervened to settle a miners’ strike in Pennsylvania and invited both the owners’ representatives and the United Mine Workers’ head to the White House — and the spectacle of a U.S. President involving himself in a labor dispute and not doing so 100 percent on the side of the owners was itself galvanizing to what existed of a labor movement in the U.S.) Alas, the owners and their Baldwin-Felts thugs managed to smash the union after an eight-month strike that left many of the workers literally living in tents pitched on the few patches of land in the area the mine companies didn’t own. Even by the cruel standards of U.S. labor relations in that era, this situation was especially mean; several times during the “war,” as the film depicted it, there were attempts by outsiders (including federal officials, less concerned about workers’ rights than maintaining coal production) to mediate, the UMW officials were willing to negotiate and the owners weren’t.

One issue was that many of the mine owners had themselves worked their way up from poverty — or at least that’s how they liked to portray themselves, and the nastiest and most viciously anti-union of the bosses was Justus Collins from Alabama, who’d worked his way up from the Pennsylvania coal fields and was a true believer that anyone could do what he had done — and if they didn’t, that just proved they were inferior beings, not worthy of serious consideration and certainly not worthy of being regarded as individuals with human rights. It’s the sort of ideology that was popularly propounded in the late 19th century by Herbert Spencer and in the 20th by Ayn Rand: that being wealthy indicates your genetic superiority to the common run of humanity and therefore it’s not only bad policy but morally wrong for the government to use its taxing and regulatory powers to take “your” money and give it to those with less than you. (It’s what Mitt Romney was saying when he complained to his fellow 1-percenters that the Democrats went into every Presidential election with 47 percent of the voters because they were convinced the Democrats would “give them stuff.”) The battles between the miners on one side and the mine owners, government officials and private thugs on the others all followed a depressingly similar pattern: miners walked off the job, owners evicted them and did everything they could to starve them into submission, the UMW leadership (more concerned with preserving their gains in Pennsylvania than expanding into more hostile territory) gave them lukewarm support at best, and ultimately the strikers lost and conditions in the mines stayed as they were. The one exception was in Matewan (pronounced “MATE-wan,” by the way), where in 1920 — after the miners had followed the U.S. government’s and their own union’s pledge not to strike for the duration of the U.S. involvement in World War I, and naïvely hoped to be rewarded for it after the war was over with higher wages, better working condition, an end to exploitative practices like short-weighting the miners’ output and disbanding of the owners’ private armies through Baldwin-Felts — Keeney and his fellow long-time unionists decided to use the town as a base for organizing. They picked Matewan because the town was on the West Virginia-Kentucky border and was one of the few communities in the area that was incorporated as its own city and was not on land owned by a coal company. They also had a sympathetic mayor, Cabell Testerman, and sheriff, Sid Hatfield — who was apparently only a distant relation of the Hatfields who had famously feuded with the McCoys, but liked to encourage that reputation so people would think of him as a man not to be trifled with if you valued your life.

The owners’ response was to demand that miners sign so-called “yellow dog contracts” promising not only that they wouldn’t join subversive organizations like the UMW or the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) but they affirmed their belief that unions per se were wrong and they supported the “American Plan” of workers negotiating with their employers only as individuals. The show notes that while most of the tactics used by the mine owners were familiar, after World War I and the Russian Revolution they had a new weapon in their arsenal: anti-radical propaganda to convince people not directly involved on either side of the mine struggles that the owners’ cause was “pro-American” and the unionists were plotting to introduce subversive ideas into the mines as the start of a plot to take over the U.S. and bring Bolshevism and chaos. On May 19, 1920 — a day the UMW District 17 local, headed by the militant Frank Keeney, had chosen to deliver money and food to striking miners — a dozen armed Baldwin-Felts staffers came to Matewan with a huge stack of eviction owners against the striking miners and demanded that Testerman and Hatfield carry out the evictions instead of delaying them. The result was a shoot-out in which Testerman and some of the Baldwin-Felts agents, including Albert and Lee Felts, were killed during a gun battle after Hatfield sent his deputies to arrest the Baldwin-Felts people for carrying out illegal evictions at gunpoint. (This part of the story was more or less dramatized by John Sayles in his 1987 feature Matewan; his main characters were fictional but Testerman and Hatfield appeared among his dramatis personae under their own names.) The story ended as most of the previous ones had; the West Virginia governor declared martial law, giving the sheriff’s deputies who weren’t union-friendly the right to throw people in jail and hold them indefinitely without charging them with anything. Sid Hatfield and 22 others were put on trial for murdering not only the Felts brothers but Mayor Testerman (Hatfield had married Testerman’s widow two months after the incident and that gave the owners and their stooges in law enforcement the ability to claim that Hatfield had personally killed Testerman because he wanted Testerman’s wife), and while they were acquitted, that didn’t help the miners’ cause any — unable to get rid of him legally, the remaining Baldwin-Felts people simply ambushed Hatfield and shot him.

The administration of President Warren G. Harding sent in federal troops, and once again the miners naïvely thought the feds would either be on their side or would at least be impartial — instead the feds openly took the side of the mine owners and Army general Billy Mitchell, famed as the father of U.S. military aviation, not only brought in three planes but threatened to use them to bomb the miners’ camps, first with tear gas and then with explosives, if they didn’t surrender — though when the miners were bombed from the air it turned out Mitchell hadn’t had anything to do with it: Baldwin-Felts had rented two planes and done it themselves. Nonetheless, the strike, like all the others before it, was decisively broken and the UMW didn’t succeed in organizing West Virginia until the Depression, the election of Franklin Roosevelt as President and the passage of the Wagner Act in 1935, which outlawed many of the anti-union practices the owners had used, finally made it possible. The film presents this as at least something of a happy ending and ignores the sequel — the systematic dismantling of protections for American workers’ right to organize, the resulting decimation of the U.S. labor movement (it currently represents less than 7 percent of America’s private-sector work force and is likely to shrink even further as the U.S. Supreme Court and Republican-controlled state governments strip public workers of their labor rights as well), the export overseas of most of the blue-collar jobs on which the American labor movement was built, the shift in coal mining from expensive and labor-intensive tunneling to simply blowing up the mountains to get at the coal within (which is both far more environmentally destructive and much cheaper in terms of the number of workers needed), and the ideological shift in West Virginia, which has moved from a swing state to a solidly Republican one, largely because Republicans have been able to use the strong environmental presence within the Democratic Party to persuade West Virginia’s remaining coal miners that the Democrats, if they get in power, will abolish coal production altogether. It’s a deeply sad story — like most of America’s labor history — but also a profoundly moving one showing how the most unlikely rebels can sometimes arise once they are pushed too far down for too long.

Monday, January 25, 2016

It’s a Gift (Paramount, 1934)

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

The film was It’s a Gift, the next one in the W. C. Fields boxed-set sequence (the two W. C. Fields Collection sets were not programmed in chronological order, but being me that’s the way I want to see them), a marvelous little vest-pocket comedy from 1934. Fields’ movies generally fall into one of two types: ones which cast him as a henpecked husband being driven crazy by his wife and various children, both his own and other people’s; and the ones that made him a carnie-type character, going from town to town (often with various county sheriffs at his heels over his unpaid debts) and keeping himself alive by hook, crook or usually something in between. It’s a Gift was Fields the henpecked husband rather than Fields the carnie rogue; he plays Harold Bissonette, a name he’s perfectly content to pronounce the way it’s spelled in English but which his status-conscious wife Amelia (Kathleen Howard) insists he should say in the French manner, “BEE-son-NAY.” It’s set in a small town in New Jersey where he runs the local grocery store and has to contend with obstreperous customers like the infamous fellow who barges in and asks for 10 pounds of kumquats; Mr. Muckle (Charles Sellon), who’s both blind and largely deaf (he has an ear trumpet into which you have to speak if you wish to tell him anything and give him a fighting chance of hearing you) and who smashes several boxes full of glassware and quite a lot of Harold’s other stock; and Baby Dunk (Baby LeRoy, whose obstreperous behavior towards W. C. Fields’ character in The Old-Fashioned Way, including dunking his watch in a bowl of molasses, earned him not only a part in this film but co-billing with Fields on the opening credit — the title card says “W. C. Fields in It’s a Gift with Baby LeRoy,” even though LeRoy’s billing on the later cast list is sixth), who gets Our Hero in trouble with molasses again, walking over to a barrel full of the sticky stuff and opening the tap so it spills out all over the floor of the store — whereupon his mom (Josephine Whittell) chews Harold out for having allowed her child’s shoes to become contaminated with molasses. Though LeRoy might have got the publicity, Fields actually has a harder time in this film from Sonny Bupp, who’s playing his own son Norman — in one scene the kid leaves an odd roller skate on the floor of the Bissonette residence and Harold, of course, trips over it and does a pratfall — as well as his daughter Mildred (Jean Rouverol, daughter of playwright Aurania Rouverol, whose 1920’s courtroom drama Skidding was the basis of the long-running Hardy Family series at MGM) and her boyfriend John Durston (Julian Madison).

You see, it’s been Harold’s long-time dream to retire to California and buy an orange ranch which will support him in his remaining years, and with Harold’s uncle at death’s door he buys such a ranch, sight unseen, from Durston’s company — only Durston discovers that the “ranch” is no good (nothing, especially oranges, will grow there and the ranch house is a dilapidated shack) and tries to talk Harold out of the deal. Nothing doing, Harold says; he bought the property in good faith and he’s going to keep it. Even more than most Fields films, It’s a Gift is a collection of great comic moments rather than a well thought-out story with a through-line that makes sense, but the moments are priceless: the opening scenes at home, in which Mildred’s primping makes it virtually impossible for Harold to shave and he’s about to beat up his son for grabbing the last slice of bacon from the breakfast table. “He’s not going to tell me I don’t love him!” Fields thunders, his hand raised to hit his son — which he ultimately doesn’t, of course; the famous scene on Fields’ deck, where he’s gone to get some sleep and is successively awakened by a milkman, a coconut (it rolls down the stairs and just when you — and Harold — think it’s lost momentum and will stop, it keeps going), and an annuity salesman (T. Roy Barnes) who asks Harold if he knows Karl LaFong, capital-L, small-A, capital F, small-O, small-N, small-G. “No, I don’t know Karl LaFong, capital-L, small-A, capital F, small-O, small-N, small-G,” says Harold — “and if I did know Karl LaFong, I wouldn’t admit it!” As if they weren’t bad enough, he also has to contend with Baby LeRoy’s older sister (Diana Lewis, who like this film’s director, Norman Z. McLeod, worked with both Fields and the Marx Brothers; she was the female lead in Go West and shortly after that she retired to become the last, and longest-lasting by far, Mrs. William Powell) and a vegetable man who calls out his wares and attracts Harold’s attention — and his shotgun.

Halfway through the film the Bissonettes finally set out for California in a rattle-trap car, their belongings crudely strapped to its sides in what McLeod and the writing committee — Charles Bogle (a.k.a. W. C. Fields), J. P. McEvoy (who published something called The Sunday Supplement that was apparently drawn on for the plot of this film), Jack Cunningham (who blended Fields’ and McEvoy’s contributions into a through line) and eight other uncredited writers listed on — may well have intended as a parody of the Okies’ migration to California. They even pass through a government camp (in which they get to hear the Avalon Four, including Chill Wills making his screen debut, singing “On the Banks of the Wabash” in a style that makes it sound like they were trying to be the white Mills Brothers) and then a private home, on whose lawn they set up and have a picnic until they’re rousted by the security people — when they arrived the gates were open and they didn’t see the private-property sign. In the end Harold gets to his orange ranch, realizes it’s an infertile mess, but is told by real orange-grove owner Abernathy (Del Henderson) that a crew is putting up a racetrack nearby and they will need Harold’s property for a grandstand. At first they’re only willing to offer $5,000 — and Mrs. Bissonette of course is after her husband to take it — but when Harold bids them up he’s finally able to get $44,000 (the extra $4,000 is Abernathy’s commission) and a genuine, orange-producing grove in the neighborhood. The final shot is of Fields kicking back in the warm summer air of his ranch, slicing an orange in half, giving half to his son Norman and squeezing the other half into the drink he was making himself at the time. It’s a Gift isn’t much of a unified movie, and it was criticized back then for sub-par production values (the New York Times critic, I believe, said it looked like the film cost $100 to make), but it doesn’t matter because it delivers the goods: W. C. Fields is screamingly funny while managing that delicate balancing act of his: how far he can push the negative act without becoming too unlovable and/or pissing off the parents who took their kids to something advertised as family entertainment.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Toni Braxton: Un-Break My Heart (LINK Entertainment, Lighthouse Pictures, Lifetime, 2016)

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

Lifetime’s much-ballyhooed “world premiere” last night was Toni Braxton: Un-Break My Heart, a biopic of the R&B/soul singer who came from a hard-core Black church background (like Aretha Franklin, she was the daughter of a minister) in a suburb near Baltimore (coincidentally — or maybe not — Billie Holiday was from Baltimore) and had a super-strict upbringing during which she had to sneak into her bedroom and listen clandestinely to the local Black (secular) music station, though her mother’s maiden name had been Jackson and apparently as she was growing up she at least fantasized being a relative of those Jacksons. She heard enough R&B that she developed some favorite artists, including Anita Baker and En Vogue, and she was the first of her parents’ six kids, brother Michael (named after their father) and sisters Traci, Towanda, Trina and Tamar. (The alliterative names really got to me; when you consider that Braxton named her own sons Durham and Diezel, the Braxtons seem to have a fetish for oddball names rivaling the Palins.) Fortunately Lifetime showed a Beyond the Headlines episode about Toni Braxton after the show, satisfying our curiosity (at least those of us who hadn’t been particular fans of Toni Braxton during her glory years — I no doubt saw and heard her on the Grammy Awards and elsewhere but I couldn’t for the life of me have identified her voice or linked it to any of her trademark songs) as to whether it was accurate. The film, directed by Vonda Curtis-Hall (from the name I’m assuming she’s a Black woman) from a script by Susan McMartin, mostly traces Braxton’s real-life story, though there are some engaging complications in the real story that didn’t make it into the movie.

In reality Braxton was discovered by a gas-station attendant, William E. Pettaway, who was also a part-time record producer and got the five Braxton sisters a recording contract with a label called Steeltown, distributed by Clive Davis’s Arista imprint. Alas, their contract wasn’t for a whole album, just a single, and they were dropped from Arista when their single, “Good Life,” wasn’t a hit. Then the legendary producers L.A. Reid and Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds, who’d been key to launching the career of Whitney Houston (also an Arista artist), auditioned the Braxtons but decided to sign only Toni as a solo artist to their new Arista-distributed imprint, LaFace Records. Toni had to weigh her own ambitions against her commitment to her family — the movie didn’t mention this but the Beyond the Headlines doc said her mom was furious that she’d even consider abandoning the family act — and in the film Edmonds (Gavin Houston, who’s hot-looking and as legendarily “baby-faced” as the man he’s playing) tells Toni (played quite eloquently by Lex Scott Davis, no doubt with Toni Braxton dubbing the vocals à la The Jolson Story) that Michael Jackson didn’t let his loyalty to his brothers stand in the way of his solo career (though in fact the Jackson Five were a hit-making group for Motown well before Michael emerged as a solo star). Toni eventually lets them talk her into signing with LaFace Records as a solo artist, and gets a lucky break early on when Anita Baker turns down a song called “Love Shoulda Brought You Home” for the soundtrack of the Eddie Murphy movie Boomerang. Baker suggests instead that Braxton, who had recorded the demo of the song, should sing it on the record. As things turned out, the Boomerang soundtrack included Braxton’s “Love Shoulda Brought You Home” as well as a duet between her and Babyface, “Give U My Heart” (title presumably influenced by Prince, who was fond of giving his songs names like “I Would Die 4 U” and “4 the Tears in Your Eyes” that anticipated the abbreviations people use while texting), and its success paved the way for Braxton’s 1993 debut album, Toni Braxton, which was “primarily produced by Reid, Babyface and Daryl Simmons,” and which sold 10 million copies, hit #1 on the Billboard album charts and won three Grammy Awards, including Best New Artist.

The biopic starts out as a pretty standard rechanneling of The Jazz Singer as Toni Braxton shocks her family not only by recording secular music as a solo artist but going after a sex-diva image, including a virtually naked cover photo on Vibe magazine as well as an ultra-revealing dress she wore to the Grammy Awards, as well as having her breasts artificially enlarged. “You let them cut your body open?” her mom tells her with all the warmth and understanding of God reading off the title characters of the film of The Ten Commandments. It works for Braxton as her second album, Secrets, outsells her first — 15 million copies — and contains what becomes her signature song, “Un-Break My Heart,” a power ballad by power-ballad specialist Diane Warren which Toni turned down at first but became a huge hit. She embarks on an extended tour with her sisters as backup singers and a band behind her whose leader and keyboard player, Keri Lewis (André Hall), she falls in love with and eventually marries — but not before either miscarrying or aborting their first child (the McMartin script is ambiguous on this point) because she was fearful an anti-acne cream she’d been using could lead to the baby being born with a birth defect. (At least that’s the official story McMartin went with; the Beyond the Headlines doc hints that the abortion happened well before Toni and Lewis got together and that another man was the baby’s father.) Where it leaves the template of The Jazz Singer and starts seeming like a cross between a soap opera and a Pearl White serial is what happens after that; Toni had been merrily spending money from what her bosses told her was an “artist’s fund,” not realizing that the money was merely an advance against her royalties and she would have to pay it back. She used this money occasionally for personal luxuries (including a $2,000 silverware set from Gucci) but mostly to put on a really elaborate show, including her sisters, a dance troupe and elaborate staging and lighting effects. Though playing to sold-out crowds, the tour lost money because of its huge overhead and, unwilling to cut back on her production, Toni is forced to cancel it midway through because she isn’t being supported either by the record company or an outside sponsor. The movie doesn’t mention this, but the doc indicates that what woke Toni up to all the money she was losing was when she got her latest record royalty check — for only $2,000 since the overhead and deductions had eaten up the rest — and she’s forced to sue the record companies, both Arista and LaFace (including her beloved mentors), to get her contract settled and renegotiated. Babyface, though technically on the other side in the lawsuit, helps her out by testifying that if he’d been presented such a contract as an artist, he wouldn’t have signed it. Eventually Toni is forced to declare bankruptcy, and marshals from the bankruptcy court come in to seize just about everything she owns — including her awards — before the record companies offer her a $20 million settlement and a new contract, but only on condition that she keep it secret for 10 years.

The miseries of Toni continue as she finds herself unexpectedly collapsing at moments of high stress; she turns out to have lupus (though she doesn’t go public with it until 2010) and her son Diezel has autism; in order to have a relatively stable home life and be able to spend time with her kids instead of dealing with the stress of touring, she accepts a long-term job doing a show called Toni Braxton Revealed at the Flamingo in Las Vegas — only to have to give it up after nearly two years when her lupus gives her a sudden heart attack, forcing her to close the show and declare bankruptcy again after it turns out her insurance policy was mis-drafted and did not cover her in case she wasn’t able to perform due to her disease. The program closes with Braxton’s brief “retirement” from music in 2013 (after she left LaFace Records and had a series of flops on other labels, then told reporters she’d lost interest in music and planned to devote herself to acting in the future — though her ambitions as an actress are oddly not mentioned in McMartin’s script; it also doesn’t mention her Broadway run as Belle in the stage version of the Disney musical Beauty and the Beast, though given what a nightmare it would have been to license the rights from the notoriously greedy and litigious Disney company, it’s not surprising they didn’t document this part of her career in the fiction film!) and the outpouring of support from artists like Barbra Streisand, Madonna, Prince and Anita Baker telling her to hang in there and keep singing, recording and doing concerts. Toni Braxton: Un-Break My Heart (named not only after her signature song but a memoir she wrote using the title) is a quite capable movie, rather unoriginal but at least genuinely moving even though I was never that big a Braxton fan — I must have heard her and I certainly remembered the name, but it didn’t really register with me and I would have a hard time telling one Toni Braxton song from another or her records from those of her soul-dance diva consoeurs. It was certainly a better movie than the Whitney Houston exploitation pic Lifetime premiered a few months ago, not only because Toni Braxton was considerably more grounded than Whitney as a person (despite Whitney’s similar background as the daughter of church singer Cissy Houston, who later sang backups for Aretha and Elvis) but because it presented her story relatively matter-of-factly and didn’t cherry-pick it for emotional tirades the director could start at 11.

Saturday, January 23, 2016

Vera: “Muddy Waters” (ITV/American Public Television, made 2014, released 2015)

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

The Vera episode KPBS ran last night, “Muddy Waters” — a title that would make it sound like a biopic of the great African-American (and, like so many other great Black musicians, part-Native American) blues singer, but no such luck — was actually quite a good mystery show whose biggest problem was the sheer welter of suspects and plots and subplots to a point where it was hard to keep track of the players without a scorecard. The show begins with the huge slurry tank at the Pryor dairy farm in Northumberland (in the far north of England just below the Scottish border) getting clogged, and it turning out that the clog is due to a dead body being found therein. The body comes to light when one of the farm’s workers — all undocumented immigrants smuggled in from Kosovo (Britain may not have a land border with a poor country but that doesn’t mean their employers can’t bring in undocumented workers from elsewhere in Europe and exploit the hell out of them the way U.S. employers do with Mexicans!) — stirs the slurry tank to unclog it, and the body comes floating out — and some of the foul black liquid in the tank splashes on Detective Chief Inspector Vera Claythorne’s overcoat (which she calls a “mac” — I guess the banker never wears one in the pouring rain; very strange) and she spends a good chunk of her “down” time in the rest of the show trying to get the stain (and the smell!) out. What follows is an hour and a half of mind-numbing confusion in which the police have as much trouble finding out who the victim was as who killed him and why — apparently the murderer was hoping that the slurry chemicals would dissolve the body over time and it wouldn’t be discovered until that happened — and it turns out the victim was a young man named Jack Reeves, who had been engaged to marry a 16-year-old girl (both sets of parents had approved) until he called off the wedding just a day before it was to take place.

A person turns up who claims to have been Jack Reeves’ male lover and who says the reason Jack called off the wedding was that he suddenly realized he was Gay (yeah, right) — though I suppose even in 2014 (the copyright date on this episode, though it didn’t air in Britain on their Independent Television commercial channel until April 2015; the Vera stories are set in contemporary times, not in the past) it wouldn’t be especially easy to come out in such a rural area as Northumberland. It turns out that Jack has another deep, dark secret in his closet: Toby Pryor (Jack Fitzpatrick), deaf son of Danny Pryor (Mark Reeves) and his wife Karen (Alex Reid), is not really Danny’s son at all but Jack’s, courtesy of an affair he and Karen had when Karen was a local schoolteacher and Jack was a 16-year-old in her class. (This part of the story is told matter-of-factly and without the hideous breast-beating and guilt-mongering a U.S. version of this tale would have brought to it.) What gives it away is that both Jack and his father Billy (Mark Womack) were hard of hearing, and apparently their form of deafness is hereditary and Toby simply got it worse than his biological dad and granddad did. It turns out that Jack was killed by Goran Vlasic (of the pickle Vlasics?), played by Greg Kolpakchi, one of the workers on the Pryor farm, when they got into an argument — and Goran was filmed committing the crime by fellow worker Zamir Ilic (George Lasha), who attempted to blackmail him and was himself Goran’s next victim, though Goran faked the killing to look like suicide. It’s not much of a mystery, and though I wouldn’t quite say we reach the point where instead of a whodunit it becomes a whocareswhodunit, it comes awfully close. A lot of U.S. TV mysteries make the mistake of being too obvious by severely restricting the number of suspects; this one, like a number of British shows, errs in the opposite direction by setting up so many suspects and so many potential motives for them it gets confusing. Still, Vera Claythorne herself is a compelling character — a middle-aged woman of old-fashioned mien but also a bulldog when it comes to her investigations (as I wrote when I first saw a Vera episode, she’s what Miss Marple would have been if Agatha Christie had made her an official policewoman instead of a well-meaning amateur) — and the actor playing her assistant, Kenny Doughty, is tall, dark and very sexy.

Friday, January 22, 2016

The Old-Fashioned Way (Paramount, 1934)

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

The film was The Old-Fashioned Way, which I’m sure Charles and I had seen together before and which had previously struck me as a perfectly passable W. C. Fields vehicle with some great moments (notably Fields’ famous confrontations with Baby LeRoy — particularly the one in which LeRoy’s mother says, “He’s such a good boy. You really ought to see him some time when he’s by himself,” and Fields replies under his breath, “I’d like to catch him some time when he’s by himself” — and the great scene in which, for almost 10 minutes, Fields does quite a bit of juggling, including the cigar-box trick which he invented and many other jugglers copied, a scene which was excerpted and released in the 1960’s as a stand-alone short called The Great McGonigle). This time around it seemed stronger than that: it was Fields’ valentine to his own early days in show business, traveling with theatrical troupes that performed such standard plays as The Drunkard (excerpted here) and East Lynne, and lived a hand-to-mouth existence as they took themselves from one small town to another, often one step ahead (or not even that!) of various town sheriffs chasing them to collect on unpaid bills from their last town (or two, or three). Though the time period in which The Old-Fashioned Way takes place is pretty ambiguous, it’s obviously not the 1934 present in which it was made; in one scene the characters come to the window of the boarding house where the theatre people are staying to look at “one of those new horseless carriages” driving by, though Paramount wasn’t about to blow the budget of a 71-minute program comedy actually to rent a car of the proper vintage. Whenever it takes place, The Old-Fashioned Way is one of W. C. Fields’ lovable-rogue characterizations as he does whatever he has to do to keep his troupe together, including comforting actors restive because they haven’t been paid or outwitting the various sheriffs — one of whom, in an early scene, tries to serve Fields with a summons, only to find that Fields’ assistant has set it on fire, and Fields uses the flame to light his cigar. Fields plays The Great McGonigle (that’s his entire name; if he has a more normal first name, the script — by Garnett Weston and Jack Cunningham based on a story by “Charles Bogle,” i.e. Fields himself, and with no fewer than 10 other writers listed on the film’s page — doesn’t give it to us), whose poverty-stricken little troupe descends on the small town of Bellefountaine (presumably in California because it’s described as being near Cucamonga) and encounter boarding-house owner Mrs. Wendelschaffer (Nora Cecil), who’s worried because she got stiffed by McGonigle’s troupe the year before and this time is determined to get payment for her room and board up front, or she’s going to lock up the actors’ trunks and not let them leave.

She’s also got an obnoxious kid, Albert Pepperday (Baby LeRoy), who dumps McGonigle’s watch in a bowl of molasses. Fields apparently hated Baby LeRoy as much off-screen as his character does on-screen, and according to one biographer he actually spiked LeRoy’s milk with his usual mix of vodka martinis and then kept a straight face as LeRoy’s mother panicked and wondered just what was wrong with her kid. The obligatory young couple are McGonigle’s daughter Betty (Judith Allen, who frankly looks a bit too matronly for the role) and a rich man’s kid, Wally Livingston (Joe Morrison, a quite good Irish tenor who had the misfortune to come upon the scene just when the market for Irish tenors was drying up). Livingston’s dad (Oscar Apfel) shows up to try to talk Wally out of his theatrical ambitions and into returning to college, where he’s presumably going to prepare for a business career. Remember this was a time period when the public repute of actors was so low Fields made a point of repeating a joke he’d heard then, in which a young man makes a prodigal son-like return to the family he abandoned years before. When his parents ask what he’s been doing while he’s away, he hems, haws and finally, shame-facedly admits to them, “I’ve been … an actor.” “An actor?” his parents thunder at him. “And to think we thought all this time you’d become a nice, respectable burglar!” Livingston, Sr. confronts Betty McGonigle and tells her he doesn’t think his son belongs on the stage — and to his astonishment, Betty agrees with him, saying that she thinks he should return to school but he refuses to do so unless she agrees to marry him and come with him — which she doesn’t want to do because as leading lady of the McGonigle troupe, she has a loyalty to her dad. That’s about all the plot this movie has, but that’s really all it needs; it incorporates a good chunk of the script for The Drunkard into its running time, played in a really stilted, phony fashion that may have been in vogue when the script was first premiered (1843) but no doubt seemed as ridiculous in 1934 as it does today. Indeed, the opening credits promise us “The Cast of the Original ‘Drunkard’ Company,” though an “Trivia” poster said that by 1934 anyone who could have acted in the original production of The Drunkard would have been dead and what was probably meant was the revival company that had opened a production of The Drunkard in L.A. in 1933, which inexplicably ran for several years — though the poster was unable to obtain a cast list for the 1933 L.A. stage production to compare it with the film’s credits and see just how many members of the stage cast were also in the movie.

After using various stratagems to evade the sheriffs who are after him, including setting one of their summonses on fire (and stealing himself a Pullman ticket on the train while his troupe members have to sleep as best as they can in their seats), McGonigle more or less seduces Cleopatra Pepperday (the marvelous Jan Duggan), Bellefountaine’s richest widow and the fiancée of the town sheriff, into threatening to jilt him if he serves the troupe and paying off the Cucamonga sheriff (the equally marvelous character villain Clarence Wilson, uncredited) in exchange for a small part in McGonigle’s play — which never materializes, though she sings an excruciatingly bad song as her audition piece and endlessly practices her one line, “Here comes the prince,” with absolutely no clue how to stress it. (The gag had already been done on film five years earlier in Gold Diggers on Broadway, in which Winnie Lightner has one line in a big Broadway show — “I am the spirit of Liberty and the progress of Civilization!” — endlessly practices it and finally blows it on her big night.) By advertising Cleopatra’s stage debut McGonigle gets a full house for his performance — “I’m here just to see her make a fool of herself,” says one of the townspeople in the audience — but, whether out of devotion to his Art or because he simply can’t be bothered, McGonigle doesn’t let Cleopatra go on. (“She’ll probably go on right after the epilogue,” he tells her sheriff boyfriend.) After The Drunkard is over, Fields as McGonigle does his juggling act (thankfully preserving much of the routine that made him a star — he originally went into show business as a juggler but then put jokes into his act because he found comedians got paid more, just as the Marx Brothers had originally been a musical act who went into comedy because it paid better) and then there’s a tearful farewell that reveals just how fine an actor W. C. Fields was. He gets a telegram from his bookers that because of the bad reception of his company, the rest of his tour has been canceled. Putting a brave face on it, he says he’s received a big offer in New York, but it’s only for him, not her, so she should feel free to marry her boyfriend and settle down. Then there’s a cut to what he’s really doing now that the McGonigle Theatre Company is no more: he’s on a streetcorner selling a patent medicine called Yack Wee, ostensibly developed from cacti by Native Americans, and he’s pushing it as a cure for hoarseness. In the middle of his pitch he suddenly drops his voice, lowering its volume and making it gravelly as if he really had hoarseness, then he drinks a swallow of the stuff and booms out fortissimo over his crowd, “IT CURES HOARSENESS!”

The Old-Fashioned Way is a lovely movie, setting off Fields’ comedy in the context of a plot that makes sense and makes us feel for the characters. It was directed by William Beaudine — one of the most infamous figures in Hollywood history; in the silent era he rose from shorts to direct “A”-lister Mary Pickford in the 1925 version of Little Annie Rooney, only the Depression left him deep in debt and, like his partial namesake William Nigh, he was determined to pay off all his creditors even if that meant toiling in the salt-mines of third-rate studios like Monogram and making crappy movies on a schedule so tight that on one occasion one of the Monogram executives told him to hurry up so they could meet a release deadline, and Beaudine replied incredulously, “You mean someone out there is actually waiting to see this?” Beaudine hadn’t totally lost his chops as a filmmaker in the early 1930’s — two years before The Old-Fashoned Way he had made Three Wise Girls, a marvelous “pre-Code” movie from Columbia starring Jean Harlow (in her last film for anyone other than MGM) and written by Frank Capra’s collaborator, Robert Riskin — and while I’ve sometimes lampooned Beaudine’s work on The Old-Fashioned Way by saying anyone could direct a Fields movie as long as they kept the cameras on him and in focus, and made sure the sound people were recording his dialogue intelligibly, the fact is Beaudine brings a lot more to this film than that. Aided by his cinematographer, Ben Reynolds, and art director John B. Goodman, Beaudine flawlessly recreates the atmosphere of the turn of the last century and stages the action beautifully, and gets excellent performances from the cast. The Old-Fashioned Way was no doubt a personal film for W. C. Fields — it reproduced the showbiz milieu in which he had got his start — and it’s also a beautiful movie, screamingly funny but also with warmth and heart. It helps that Fields generally knew just how far to push his lovable-rogue characterization so the rogue stayed lovable (at least until the 1939 Universal film You Can’t Cheat an Honest Man, which had a similar plot to The Old-Fashioned Way and the 1936 film Poppy — based on Fields’ star-making 1924 Broadway musical — but whose writers screwed up Fields’ original story by making his character too dishonest and repulsive), and despite Fields’ oft-reported hatred of Chaplin in general and Chaplin’s celebrated pathos in particular, Fields was capable of a quirky sort of pathos of his own that softened his characterizations so he could retain the love of an audience even while treading on the thin edge of despicability. And, as his friend Leo Rosten once said about Fields (though the line is frequently misattributed to Fields himself), anyone who hates small children and dogs can’t be all bad …

[For a previous moviemagg post on The Old-Fashioned Way, please see]

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

The Cocoanuts (Paramount, 1929)

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

The film was The Cocoanuts, produced at Paramount’s Astoria studio in Queens, New York in 1929 and starring the Four Marx Brothers (as they were originally billed until Zeppo Marx dropped out of the act) in a film version of their hit 1925 stage musical, produced by Sam H. Harris (George M. Cohan’s former partner and, according to Marx Brothers biographer Joe Adamson, so terminally kind that the nastiest thing anyone could remember him saying about anybody was when he responded to the change of government in Germany in early 1933 with, “Hitler is not a nice fellow”) and written by George S. Kaufman and Morrie Ryskind. Apparently it was so extensively rewritten by the Marx Brothers, who according to some accounts were so fond of improvising and keeping their funniest improvisations in the script that when Kaufman and Ryskind went to see The Cocoanuts midway through its original run, Kaufman turned to Ryskind during the second act and said, “Hey, I think I just heard one of our original lines.” (According to other accounts, the Marx Brothers hated improvising and wanted their scripts in set form before they ever let the material near a paying audience or a movie camera. That was one reason that before A Night at the Opera and A Day at the Races were filmed, they toured the shows so they could perform the key comedy scenes before live audiences and find out literally from the horses’ mouths what people would — and wouldn’t — think was funny.)

In his 1971 book about the Marx Brothers, Paul Zimmerman said that aside from the Marxes’ participation, The Cocoanuts was historically important as one of the few filmed records of a 1920’s Broadway show, complete with stilted song-and-dance numbers and awkward alternations between songs, dances, comic scenes and plot exposition. Later Richard Barrios said in his book on early musicals that that was so much nonsense: he argued that audiences in 1929 who went to see The Cocoanuts went for the same reasons anyone would want to see it today: to laugh at the Marx Brothers. The Cocoanuts certainly has some of the stage-bound flavor of early musicals; it begins with a big production number with a chorus singing the praises of “Florida by the Sea,” as Irving Berlin’s lyric has it — the show was a satire of the mid-1920’s Florida land boom, a classic “bubble” in which Northern promoters bought huge tracts of Florida real estate, promising buyers year-round sunshine and stable climates — and then a big hurricane hit, bursting the bubble and leaving hundreds of investors broke. The film casts Groucho as Mr. Hammer (no first name), owner of the Cocoanut Beach hotel and a lot of the land around it, which he’s trying to sell so Cocoanut Beach can become the next great Florida development and make him and his investors lots of money. Only no investors materialize — just Chico and Harpo (billed under their own names because the character names they had in the stage production, particular Chico’s billing as “Willy the Wop,” were too racially insensitive even for 1929), who arrive at the Cocoanut Beach Hotel penniless and with an empty suitcase. “Oh, that’s all right,” Chico says when Groucho points out his suitcase is empty. “We fill it up before we leave.” By the time they made this movie the Marx Brothers were already in their 30’s and had had at least two decades of success behind them, first on the vaudeville circuit (where they had started out as a musical act but drifted into comedy because comedians were paid more) and then on Broadway in the 1924 revue I’ll Say She Is (most of which is lost, but the famous sequence with Groucho as Napoleon bidding goodbye to Josephine as he heads off into battle was recorded years later and filmed as an animated cartoon with Groucho voicing his original role), The Cocoanuts and the follow-up, Animal Crackers, also by Kaufman and Ryskind and also filmed by Paramount in New York.

The Marxes were appearing in Animal Crackers by night and filming The Cocoanuts by day, and they make a few audible slips in their dialogue — the kinds that often creep into the performances of stage actors who have been playing the same damned script way too often — which the film’s two directors, Robert Florey and Joseph Santley, let slip and didn’t bother to retake. There are some O.K. songs by Irving Berlin — The Cocoanuts became famous as the only show Berlin ever worked on that didn’t generate at least one hit song for him; for the movie he added a big ballad, “When My Dreams Come True,” for romantic leads Mary Eaton (a protégée of Florenz Ziegfeld — he was grooming her to replace Marilyn Miller and that’s shown in her big number, “Monkey-Doodle-Doo,” a song Berlin wrote in the mold of his earlier “Shaking the Blues Away” and inserted a topical reference to monkey-gland treatments, which were supposed to rejuvenate people, doing a dance with the Gamby-Hale Ballet Girls and Allan K. Foster Girls very much in the Miller manner) and Oscar Shaw, but it didn’t become a hit either. The Cocoanuts suffers from its stage-bound production — even the opening shots of the Florida beaches are clearly studio interiors with painted backdrops representing sea and sky — and from musical interludes that are filmed rather dully, though at least co-director Santley (who seems to have been detailed to handle the musical numbers while Florey directed the plot and comedy scenes) uses some three-quarter views of the chorus line, rides a crane camera and in one scene even shoots down at the Gamby-Hale Ballet Girls from overhead and allows them to form a kaleidoscope formation. (This is usually associated with Busby Berkeley but there are at least three movies made before 1930, when Berkeley made his first film, Whoopee, that feature overhead kaleidoscope shots of choristers: this one, Wheeler and Woolsey’s Rio Rita and Albertina Rasch’s two-strip Technicolor ballets in the 1929 MGM flop Lord Byron of Broadway.)

What does hold up about The Cocoanuts are, you guessed it, the Marx Brothers comedy sequences, which to some extent set the template for the entire rest of their career: the comic monologues by Groucho (who kicks off the auction of Cocoanut Beach lots by saying, “Florida, folks, land of perpetual sunshine. Let’s get the auction started before we have a tornado”), the confrontations between Groucho and Chico (including the famous “Why a duck?” sequence in which Groucho hires Chico to be a shill at his auction and bid the prices up, only when Groucho makes the mistake of telling Chico that a viaduct will be built across the property, Chico says, “All right, why-a-duck?,” and they riff on that hilariously for what seems like 15 minutes) and the demonic savagery of Harpo. It’s also somewhat ironic that Charles and I were watching The Cocoanuts just after I’d been commenting on this blog about the risks of hiring a relatively new director with a hot independent film just out and entrusting them with a big-budget studio blockbuster — like Gareth Edwards with the 2014 Godzilla remake and Josh Trank with the latest reboot of Fantastic Four — when something like that happened here. Robert Florey was an assistant director from France who had just jolted Hollywood with an indie short called The Life and Death of 9413 — A Hollywood Extra, and for the unexpected success of that film he was rewarded with the co-director assignment on The Cocoanuts. Only he didn’t find the Marx Brothers, except for Harpo, all that funny; he pretty much left Groucho and Chico to their own devices but worked on new silent gags for Harpo, including the marvelous scene in the lobby of the Cocoanut Manor Hotel in which Harpo drinks the ink out of the inkwells and then eats the desk telephone. (The ink was really Coca-Cola and the phone was made of chocolate.)

The Cocoanuts has been faulted not only for the staginess when the Marxes aren’t on the screen and the oddly belligerent characterizations they assume when they are (both Groucho and Harpo are considerably nastier here than they were in their later movies), but the Marxes’ scenes are hilarious and not only hold up beautifully but set the basic tropes they’d refine and make even funnier in their later films. Also present at the creation, as it were — The Cocoanuts was the Marxes’ first feature, unless you count a 1918 silent called Humorisk which they produced independently with their own money and then pulled from release when their one public showing took place at the epicenter of the 1918-19 flu epidemic in New York — was Margaret Dumont as Mrs. Potter, the only hotel guest who actually has money, whom of course Groucho is romancing in his always twisted way (which reaches its high point when Groucho invites her to make love to him outdoors under a full moon: “I can see it now: you and the moon. You wear a necktie so I’ll know you”) and whose daughter Polly (Mary Eaton) is caught between two suitors. One is Bob Adams (Oscar Shaw), the poor but honest guy — a hotel clerk with ambitions to be an architect and participate in a major Florda remodeling project; he’s the one Polly likes best but the one her mom wants her to marry is scapegrace Harvey Yates (Cyril Ring) because he’s “one of the Boston Yates,” even though he’s a slimeball, he has another girlfriend on the side — Penelope, played by Kay Francis in her film debut and showing herself ready for biggers and betters — and since he’s broke and doesn’t want to wait around to marry Polly Potter and inherit the Potter millions, he conceives the idea of stealing Mrs. Potter’s diamond necklace and framing Adams for the crime. Of course, it all turns out right in the end — Groucho attracts an out-of-town buyer who’s interested in taking over all of Cocoanut Beach and developing it; Bob Adams gets not only Polly Potter but the job of designing the new development; and Harvey Yates and Penelope get waltzed off into jail — but it’s certainly a lot of fun getting there.

The Cocoanuts is an uneven movie (though, aside from the great comedy sequences, the “Monkey-Doodle-Doo” number is fun and entertaining) that’s become even more uneven from the shabby condition in which it’s been preserved: though the version we were watching (from the MCA Universal boxed set of all five Marx Brothers’ movies for Paramount, which I want to run in alternation with the W. C. Fields and Mae West boxes to recreate the marvelous comedy lineup I remember from my teen days watching Channel 36, a San José station that for some reason came in excellently in Marin County when I was growing up and where I saw a lot of classic films) is quite the best-looking one I’ve ever seen, there are still startling gaps in the photographic quality from scene to scene. The reason is that, though The Cocoanuts was a major hit on its initial release, no one print survived complete. The version we have was pieced together in the 1950’s (either just before or just after MCA’s TV subsidiary, Revue Productions, bought the rights to virtually all Paramount’s output from 1929 to 1949 for TV showings, and later assigned the films to Universal when MCA absorbed Universal in 1962) from three partial prints, and the image quality takes some rather startling changes, particularly the sudden drop in clarity and definition just before “Monkey-Doodle-Doo.” Still, The Cocoanuts is nicely done and quite entertaining — the “Why a duck?” sequence alone would make the film worth watching — even though just about everything in it was refined and honed, and made sharper and funnier, in their later films.