Monday, June 27, 2016

Boys for Beauty (Taiwan Queer Pride Information Center, 2000)

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

The film Charles and I went to see at the Museum of Photographic Arts yesterday was one of a series of four Queer movies made in and about Taiwan: Boys for Beauty, a crudely shot but surprisingly compelling film directed by Mickey Chen, a Gay Taiwanese himself. It was filmed in 1998 but not released until 2000 (by an outfit called “Taiwan Queer Pride Information Center” which no longer seems to exist — Google the name and you get the Web site for Taiwan’s official Pride celebrations — and the Web address in the closing credits also proved to be dead, not surprisingly after 16 years) and is actually a documentary about young Gay men in Taiwan. What amazed me about it is that it’s the sort of coming-out documentary that U.S. filmmakers were making in the late 1970’s as the Queer community in this country was just coming to a collective awareness of itself — I remember reading the book Word Is Out, transcripts of the complete interviews with the various people portrayed in that pioneering film (including portions the filmmakers didn’t have room for in the actual movie), and being struck by how many of the interviewees said, as they were realizing that their romantic and sexual attractions would be to people of their own sex rather than the other, that “I thought I was the only one in the world who felt that way.” And despite the enormous increase in Queer awareness since then, that’s still a phrase that appears in a surprising number of coming-out stories today.

The director is Mickey Chen and most of the subjects appear to be friends of his — there’s an easy familiarity between filmmaker and subjects that strongly suggests they knew each other before he began his project — and the film is exclusively about Gay men in their late teens and early 20’s. There are no Lesbians in the movie (though one of the Gay men mentions having roomed with one briefly) and no older Gays. The two people who set up the screening of Boys for Beauty and the three other Queer Taiwanese films shown this weekend did an announcement at the beginning and noted that they’d tried to get another film, one from 1988 just before the end of the military dictatorship that had governed Taiwan from the time Chiang Kai-Shek and his Kuomintang government fled there in December 1949 after Mao Zhedong’s Communists beat him for control of mainland China until the lifting of martial law 40 years later after the death of Chiang’s son and heir, Chiang Ching-Kuo. The fall of the Chiang regime and its replacement with a multi-party republic seems to have had the same effect on Taiwanese artists as the death of Francisco Franco in 1975 had had on Spanish artists — it was basically their own movida — and it also allowed the Taiwanese Queer community to be more open and even get exposure on mainstream media. One of the film’s most heartbreaking how-far-we’ve-come-and-how-far-we-still-have-to-go moments came when we got to see clips of a drag contest actually being aired on Taiwanese TV — and then an announcement that after that show was broadcast, the government censors had banned it and said future drag shows could only appear on TV after midnight (and director Chen got worried that that ban would apply to his film as well, since it contains many scenes of men dressing as women and performing in drag).

The film uses the Chinese term “Tong-Zhi” to mean “Gay,” though it’s unclear for the movie whether that’s a generic term for the whole Queer community or just for Gay men. There are several people profiled, including one young man who complains that a man he tricked with is telling everyone about their blow job, “just like Lewinsky” (the Bill Clinton/Monica Lewinsky scandal was in the news worldwide when this film was made), but the two that come through most strongly are Yu, the rather scrawny guy being profiled in the early scenes (frankly, his straight older brother did more for me aesthetically), whom Mickey Chen seems to have identified with because he was planning to go to Los Angeles to study film — and who had to write and give his boyfriend a dear-John letter ending their relationship because he was going to study abroad (he asked Chen not to film their actual confrontation, but he was clearly broken up about it even though we never get to see the guy he was breaking up with); and L’il Bin, a drag performer who, unlike most men who do drag, is surprisingly attractive as both a man and a woman. Bin’s father tells a fascinating story of how he was once approached by a Gay man in a karaoke bar — the man was emotionally devastated because his boyfriend had been married to a woman and had just broken up with him to return to his wife — and he sings a traditional Taiwanese ballad about the heartbreaking end of a relationship. (Judging from what the elder Bin says Taiwanese songs are traditionally about — broken relationships, misery and drink — it seems like the Taiwanese independently invented country music.) We don’t get to see much of L’il Bin in performance, but the clips we do get indicate that he’s quite good — and judging from what we see of them, Taiwanese drag shows are professional even if way over-the-top (L’il Bin’s costume is adorned with bamboo stalks that made me wonder if he’d ever seen the 1924 Soviet film Aelita) and offer the cast members’ actual voices instead of the lip-synching to famous singers’ records we usually get in American drag shows today.

There are some remarkable things about Boys for Beauty, including the virtual absence of any reference to AIDS (something that would have been inescapable in a documentary on young Gay men in the U.S. in the late 1990’s!) — just a complaint that the books available to young Taiwanese grappling with issues of sexual identity, to the extent that they mention homosexuality at all, equates Gay=AIDS=plague — and there were virtually no references to Queer-bashing as well. I was surprised at how short the film was — lists a 90-minute running time but the version we saw lasted only an hour, and it was padded out with footage Chen shot for some of his other projects ( lists only three films for him: Not Simply a Wedding Banquet, his “answer movie” to Ang Lee’s The Wedding Banquet; this one; and a 2007 12-minute short called Fragile in Love: Poetry in Motion) and seemed to end rather inconclusively, but it was a fascinating movie nonetheless even if the overall impression I got was not of a unique cultural experience, but quite the opposite: a sense that the coming-out experience is pretty universal — though I suspect a documentary about young Gay men coming out in a country with the death penalty for homosexuality and/or a lot of freelance vigilantes who attack Queer people and put their lives in constant danger would be quite a bit different from this!

The Wistful Widow of Wagon Gap (Universal-International, 1947)

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

I broke out a movie that was pretty dramatically different from Boys for Beauty: the next film in sequence in the Abbott and Costello boxed set from Universal, The Wistful Widow of Wagon Gap. It’s not a film I was that familiar with before — I think I had it confused with their film Comin’ ’Round the Mountain from four years later (which featured one of the most preposterous singers of all time, “Dorothy Shay, the Park Avenue Hillbilly”) — but it turned out to be one of their best, thanks to the presence of Marjorie Main as the title character. (She actually shared billing ahead of the title with Abbott and Costello, and deserved it.) The opening scenes achieve a kind of absurd if unwitting surrealism that carries over through the rest of the film even though the writers were A&C’s “usual suspects” (Robert Lees, Frederic Rinaldo and John Grant, adapting an “original” story by D. D. Beauchamp and William Bowers) and the director, Charles T. Barton, was also an A&C “regular.”

Abbott and Costello play Duke Egan and Chester Wooley (respectively), household-goods salesmen who hope to make a quick few bucks dumping their wares on the housewives of Wagon Gap, Montana (the opening credits proclaim the setting as “MONTANA — In the Days when Men Were Men … with Two Exceptions”), only the stagecoach taking them there stops three miles outside of town (a Universal self-parody of the beginning of Dracula, where Dwight Frye’s stage won’t take him to the doors of Castle Dracula?) because Wagon Gap is a wide-open town where murder seems to be the inhabitants’ principal avocation. The stage driver sells Abbott and Costello guns for their own protection — naturally Abbott’s gun is considerably longer than Costello’s and there’s a nice bit of byplay about who has the bigger gun (what do they think they’re doing — running for President as Republicans?) — and Costello fires his in the air once they get to Wagon Gap. An outlaw falls off the roof of a building, shot dead, and while his real killer is fellow badass and local saloon owner Jake Frame (Gordon Jones), Costello gets blamed for the killing. At first the townspeople couldn’t be gladder that the traveling salesman apparently got rid of the outlaw, but then they change their minds and decide that Abbott and Costello should be lynched immediately — this film was made just four years after The Ox-Bow Incident and it seemed like the writers were deliberately parodying it — only Jim Simpson (William Ching), leader of a group that’s trying to bring law and order to Wagon Gap, insists to Judge Benbow (George Cleveland in a very W. C. Fieldsian performance) that the two out-of-towners be given a fair trial. Eventually Simpson cites a law that says that because he killed the outlaw Hawkins, he’s now responsible for all Hawkins’ debts and also for supporting his widow (Marjorie Main) and seven kids. Accordingly Abbott and Costello end up basically as indentured servants on the Widow Hawkins’ ranch — though Abbott typically manages to evade having to do any work — and among Costello’s tasks is keeping the widow’s daughter Juanita (Audrey Young, later Mrs. Billy Wilder) from fulfilling her desire to sing at Frame’s saloon (a set obviously recycled from the Mae West-W. C. Fields vehicle My Little Chickadee).

Eventually Costello is appointed the town sheriff on the ground that nobody will dare kill him for fear of being stuck with the obligation to take care of Widow Hawkins and her kids, though to keep Costello from having to marry the widow Hawkins Abbott cooks up a scheme to spread the rumor that a railroad is going to buy the widow’s property and make her the richest woman in town — only the rumor turns out to be true, Hawkins ends up with Judge Benbow, and Abbott and Costello end up in a buckboard on their way to California — only Costello fires a gun into the air again and ends up with a band of Indians chasing them. Charles noted the similarities to the Abbott and Costello cycle of horror-film spoofs which came later — particularly the tag scene of Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (made two films later on their résumé and also directed by Charles T. Barton) in which, having vanquished all the other menaces, Abbott and Costello hear the voice of the Invisible Man (Vincent Price) on the soundtrack threatening them anew (though Laurel and Hardy also used the gimmick of having the duo put in some new or new-old peril that forces them to flee just as it seems there’s going to be a happy ending for them, most notably in Pack Up Your Troubles) — and it also features the gimmick which A&C used again and again and again, in which Lou Costello complains of some horrible anomaly — in this case, a frog hiding in the bowl of soup which is supposed to be his dinner at Marjorie Main’s table — only when Abbott responds the scene has reverted to normal. The Wistful Widow of Wagon Gap is a quirky outlier in the Abbott and Costello oeuvre, made at Universal-International at a time when they’d fallen from their peak of popularity but still sold enough tickets that the new management kept them under contract despite the International merger and the attempt of the new studio to cultivate a higher-class image. It’s also a very funny film, though much of the humor is a good deal more subtle than the A&C norm — and Marjorie Main’s performance is a jolt of energy start-to-finish even though she was a real-life widow whose attitude towards her late husband was quite different from her character’s goodbye-and-good-riddance: not only did she never date again, but people who worked with her on films made after her husband died recalled her turning her head nowhere in particular after a take and asking her late husband, “Was that O.K.?”

Sunday, June 26, 2016

Center Stage: On Pointe (Lifetime, 2016)

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

Last night I watched two “world premiere” movies on Lifetime that were not thrillers about psycho husbands/wives/lovers/maids/nannies/children/Uber drivers/whatever but were instead “inspirational” stories about young heroines trying to achieve their big dreams despite the opposition of those around them. The first was called Center Stage: On Pointe (“pointe,” so spelled, is the ballet term meaning to dance while standing on your toes), which made it seem like a PBS documentary about dance but was in fact a fictional film and, according to an “trivia” poster, it’s actually the third in a series of dramatic TV-movies made in Canada about young dancers competing with each other for a slot in a ballet company. The plot centers around Bella Parker (Nicole Muñoz, who looks as Latina as her name makes her sound and who doesn’t look all that credible as the sister of the actress playing her sister in the film), who’s working as a waitress and studying modern dance. She’s the sister of star ballerina Kate Parker (Rachele Brooke Smith), internationally famous ballerina, and she has a big-time crisis of confidence because she knows she can’t do ballet anywhere nearly as well as her sister. She’s also surprisingly stocky for a dancer — or an actress playing one — in 2016; she’s a nice-looking woman but “full-figured,” as the euphemism goes, and though she moves well she doesn’t seem all that agile. She decides nonetheless to try out for the American Ballet Company just when its artistic director, Jonathan Reeves (Peter Gallagher), has been told by his principal funder that classical ballet is no longer popular enough to sell tickets and he must therefore add modern, jazz and hip-hop dancing to his programs, which means finding new dancers who can do those styles. So Bella, using the last name “Miller” (I found it amusing that she starts the movie as Charlie Parker’s namesake and ends it as Glenn Miller’s!), signs up just when the company is looking for people with her sort of talent, though the company’s repertoire demands that its dancers know both ballet and modern.

Bella makes the first cut of auditions despite the opposition of the dragon-lady ballet instructor who doesn’t think she’ll ever be a ballet dancer, especially since she didn’t start training at age three (I remember reading Agnes DeMille’s memoir of her first days in ballet school and her recollection that she was looked on as a late bloomer because she started at the advanced age of seven). This qualifies her to attend the company’s “Training School,” a sort of ballet boot camp (the phrase is actually used in the script) in the country, isolated not only from social distractions but wi-fi and cell-phone signals as well, during which the dancers will be paired off in male-female teams and eventually judged as a unit — either both team members will make the company or neither will. What ensues is basically Lord of the Flies meets The Hunger Games — the aspiring dancers may not literally be killing each other but they do pull tricks like trying to trip or drop each other during practices, and the unscrupulousness and nastiness of the rivalries between them, as well as the budding romances between male and female students, sometimes with their partners and sometimes not (though this is the world of ballet the script defies the stereotype by making none of the males openly, or even clandestinely, Gay), and the nastiest dancer, an arrogant little prick named Tommy (Kenny Wormakl, who assuming he’s doing his own on-screen dancing instead of using a double would actually be a good choice to play Gene Kelly in a biopic if anyone makes one), takes himself out of the running by doing a leap his teacher warns him he isn’t ready for, landing badly and breaking his leg. Bella (one wonders if the writer, unidentified on, deliberately cribbed that name from the heroine of the Twilight cycle) lets slip to another of the students, Allegra (Maude Green) — who already washed out of a similar training program in Dallas and whose last chance to make a ballet company this is — that she’s Kate Parker’s younger sister. Allegra tells Tommy, and Tommy immediately starts a rumor that Bella has been guaranteed a slot in the program in exchange for superstar Kate Parker making a guest appearance with the company. It’s not true, but the Black girl who helped spread the rumor is thrown out of the program.

At the last minute, Allegra’s partner quits the trials to go off to Paris and join a dance company there with his girlfriend (whom we hear talked about but never actually see), leaving Allegra bereft. Bella nobly agrees to sacrifice her own ambitions and lend her partner Damon (Barton Cowperthwaite) to Allegra so she can have her shot — but Damon, who’s in love with Bella (as she is with him), refuses to let her get away with that. Instead the three dance as a group and the imperious ballet mistress announces that if they’re going to dance as a threesome, they’ll be admitted or not as a threesome. Of course they are, and the finale shows the company with its new members giving its first fusion performance of ballet and hip-hop, Bella on her way to stardom and her sister showing up backstage after the performance to congratulate her. It’s a reasonably well-done movie, decently acted and with a lot of hot shots of nice-looking young men, twinkie-ish but at least muscular (which turns me on a lot more than the boyish concentration-camp victim look common to most Gay male porn these days), though alas only in the opening scene, with the American Ballet Company giving one of its pure-ballet performances to an audience that hasn’t filled the hall, do we actually get to see one of these hot guys shirtless. Center Stage: On Pointe is an O.K. movie whose best aspect is its skill in dramatizing the clash between ballet and more current forms of dance, and in particular how Bella is torn between them and how she’s a skilled modern dancer but has to learn the ballet vocabulary from the ground up. She’s also put on the spot when she’s asked to help teach the ballet specialists in the class about modern dance, and we get some quirky lines from the script about how ballet turns movements into feelings and modern dance turns feelings into movements (I’m not sure exactly what that means but it sounds convincing enough, and it ties in with the film’s depiction of modern dance as freer, looser and more improvisatory than ballet).

One aspect of the film that amused me was that its direction was credited to “Director X.” At first I thought this was a latter-day version of Alan Smithee (the made-up name used between 1968 and 2000 by Screen Directors’ Guild members who were so embarrassed by the low quality of a film that they didn’t want it credited under their real name — though one critic actually did an auteur analysis of the films of Alan Smithee as if he were a real person, and not surprisingly concluded that the main characteristic of Smithee was the wide variety of styles and genres with which he’d worked — and not many directors used the “Smithee” pseudonym because it would mean giving up residual royalties for the film), but it turns out “Director X.” — with the period at the end — is the birth name of Black director Julien Christian Lutz (he’s mixed Trinidadian and Swiss), who specialized in making rap music videos for such major names in the rap field as Drake, Jay-Z, Kanye West, Wiz Khalifa, Usher, John Mayer, Korn, and Iggy Azalea. (I’ve heard of some of these people but I’ll have to take’s word for it that “Wiz Khalifa” is a star.) His first film outside the music-video world was Undone, also known as Across the Line, filmed in 2015, which from its synopsis seems to be much like Center Stage: On Pointe except it’s about an aspiring male hockey player instead of an aspiring female dancer: “A young Black NHL hopeful living in a racially divided Nova Scotian community finds his career prospects in jeopardy when tensions in his community come to a head. On the strength of this film Director X. looks like a potentially good filmmaker and it’ll be interesting to see if he can broaden his range of subjects.

Full Out (Lifetime, 2015)

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

I think Lifetime made a mistake by showing the next film, Full Out (2015, though also billed as a “world premiere” last night), right after Center Stage: On Pointe, because the juxtaposition highlighted the plot similarities between them. I actually found Full Out a stronger movie even though it has many plot points in common: a young woman struggling to get ahead in a fiercely competitive career involving body movement, an imperious older woman who’s convinced she isn’t going to make it, a rivalry between two forms of her art she’s interested in pursuing, and some of the sexual politics as well. The central character here is Ariana Berlin (Ana Golja), daughter of a single mother in San Diego (though the film was mostly shot in Canada there were two establishing shots by a second unit in which the back of the North Park Theatre and the corner of 30th and University, featuring the late and very lamented Off the Record, were clearly recognizable), who’s an aspiring Olympic gymnast. She competes in a local meet against Isla (Sarah Fisher), who’s already been to the Olympics and won a silver medal (it wasn’t gold, we’re told, because she did a great routine on the uneven bars but didn’t land cleanly on her dismount), and beats her 9.95 to 9.85. Then Ariana’s mother Susan (Ramona Milano) is driving them home at night and she’s distracted just at the wrong time: a semi-truck (“not even a full truck!” joked Charles) is coming the other way at them on a narrow mountain road, and while everyone in both vehicles survives Ariana is in a coma for several days. When she comes to her doctors have put a metal rod in her upper left leg that’s going to be there the rest of her life, and they’re basically telling her she’ll be lucky if she’s ever able to walk again, much less do gymnastics.

But Ariana, goaded into it by physical-therapy resident Michelle (Ashanti Bromfield — from that first name you can guess she’s Black, which she is, and in some ways she’s the most authoritative actor of either gender in the film), makes a full recovery (the scene in which Michelle gets Ariana out of her wheelchair by taunting her is especially effective) and is determined to audition at UCLA for the school’s legendarily formidable women’s gymnastics coach, Valorie Kondos Field (played by Jennifer Beals, who became an instant star 33 years ago for acting — but not dancing — the role of the heroine in Flashdance), universally referred to as “Coach Val.” Meanwhile Michelle takes Ariana to a basement rehearsal space where she’s leading a rap dance company consisting of a bunch of young people of different ethnicities and genders with hip-hop names like Twist (Lamar Johnson), Cashmere (Genny Sermonia), and Pierce (Jake Epstein), a muscular young white dancer who’s the sexiest guy in the movie and a far better potential mate for Ariana than her wimpy white gymnast boyfriend Nate (Trevor Tordjman), who dumped her for Isla after Ariana’s accident. Michelle asks Ariana to show her rap dancers some gymnastics moves so they can spice up their routines and have a better chance at being signed by the CI agency, which is holding an open audition at the North Park Theatre and holds open the possibility of getting major jobs working in videos by rap artists. Only Ariana, as she recovers both physically and mentally, also wants to become a gymnast again and be accepted by the UCLA program. She auditions before Coach Val, whose assistant (played by the real Ariana Beals — this movie is based on a true story, though as Charles said about the movie Shine it’s a true story the filmmakers picked because it fits so neatly into movie clichés) dismisses her as unfit for competition. Coach Val agrees but figures that even an injured Ariana can help her other students by teaching them some new moves. (The film’s title comes from a rarely performed gymnastics move that involves performing two flips backwards and doing a full body twist during the second flip.) Ariana does more than that; not only does she boost the confidence level of her fellow students and give them some rap attitude, she also starts practicing herself and soon is once again strong enough to compete, even though that rod in her leg has a tendency to put pressure on her and screw up her dismounts.

Ariana is torn between her friends in the rap dance troupe and her obligations to UCLA, especially when Coach Val chews her out about trying to do both, saying that the double duty is exhausting her and she needs to dump the rap company and stick to gymnastics, where she started out and clearly where she belongs as a perfomer. She quits the rap dance company, leading to a lot of bitterness from them since they think she’s letting them down, but suddenly bolts from UCLA on the day of their big audition when she gets a call from Michelle. Michelle is asthmatic and uses an inhaler, and the day of the audition she has a major attack and can’t perform. So Ariana bolts a gymnastics practice, races down the highway from L.A. to San Diego and makes it to the audition in time to help the troupe perform the big move she taught them and get the agency contract they were auditioning for, following which she returns to gymnastics and successfully helps UCLA win six, count ’em, six national championships. In synopsis it may sound like yet another “inspirational” movie about someone overcoming physical or mental handicaps to achieve their dreams, but in practice it’s quite well done, considerably better than Center Stage: On Pointe, thanks largely to a more incisive script (by Willem Wennekers, with Beth Iley credited as “story editor”), also better direction (by Sean Cisterna), and also a far more multidimensional performance by Ana Golja than Nicole Muñoz gave in the analogous role in Center Stage: On Pointe. From start to finish Golja really convinces us she’s a person torn not only between two worlds (and two sets of friends) but between her own inclination to keep trying and the obvious temptations to make things easier on herself. Golja has the makings of a major star career, and if she gets it it’ll be nice to be able to sit back and say, “I saw her when … .”

Saturday, June 25, 2016

Ray Bradbury Theatre: The Martian Episodes (Alberta Filmworks, Atlantis Films, Ellipse Animation, 1990-1992)

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

For days now I’ve been wanting to comment on the quite remarkable Mars movie screening in Golden Hill Charles and I went to Friday, June 17, a program of seven episodes from the Ray Bradbury Theatre TV series which ran from 1988 to 1993 set on and/or dealing with Mars. Of course Ray Bradbury is one of the legendary authors and one of the first science-fiction writers to break out of the genre ghetto and be accepted as a literary heavyweight, and his strengths are an almost poetic prose style and an imagination that cut across the technological triumphalism of much sci-fi of the 1940’s and 1950’s and questioned whether the scientific and technological advances of his time were such a good thing. He also was one of those writers who lived so long he virtually became an institution, and this show, produced in Canada and originally aired (at least in this country) on the USA Network), drew on a lot of his old stories for which he did fresh adaptations. It also featured the usual mix of on-their-way-up and on-their-way-down actors usually cast in relatively cheap TV shows; I can’t recall anyone from the lower reaches of these casts who subsequently made it to stardom (though Paul Clemens, cast as the long-lost son Tom in “The Martian,” certainly deserved to; he was not only quite sexy in an unassuming way but managed to achieve a genuinely complex performance in a not-that-well filled-out role) but among the on-their-way-downs were David Carradine, Hal Linden, David Birney and Robert Culp.

What came through most strongly in these seven shows — “The Concrete Mixer” (1992), “Mars Is Heaven” (1990), “The Earthmen” (1992), “And the Moon Be Still As Bright” (1990), “The Martian” (1992), “The Silent Towns” (1992) and “The Long Years” (1990) — is how much of Bradbury’s fiction deals with human loss; at times he seemed to be out to prove single-handedly that the usual “rap” against science fiction, that it presented imaginative technologies but cardboard people, was wrong. It’s difficult to tell who came first since neither the credits of the shows themselves nor gave publication dates for Bradbury’s original stories, but it seems as if Bradbury anticipated Kurt Vonnegut in his fusion of an idealized small-town America (which, of course, proves considerably less ideal than advertised) and Solaris author Stanislaw Lem in the idea that humans could visit an alien planet whose intelligences would probe their minds and reconstruct their lives on Earth, not only the environments in which they had lived but people they had known who had died but now were resurrected based on the aliens’ reading the people’s memories of them. At the same time the influence of O. Henry and his famous surprise endings is clear in a lot of these stories (including such other “serious” science-fiction tales as Rod Serling’s and others’ scripts for The Twilight Zone — no one with more than a passing familiarity with The Twilight Zone would have been especially surprised by the famous “surprise” ending Serling stuck onto his script for the original Planet of the Apes), notably “The Earthmen,” which is about a group of astronauts who land on Mars as part of the third Earth expedition to the Red Planet and spend a lot of time making frustrating attempts to contact the Martians — all the ones they meet have names like “Mr. X” (Gordon Pinsent), “Mrs. Th” (Patricia Phillips), “Mr. Aaa” (pronounced “Ah”) (Jim Shepard) and “Mr. Iii” (Raul Tome), and when the mission’s captain, Williams (David Birney), tries to present himself he’s given what appears to be a simple bureaucratic runaround until … at the very end they’re ushered into a room which it turns out is an old-fashioned Bedlam- or Snake Pit-style insane asylum, to which he, his crew and the crews of the two previous expeditions have been committed for having the delusion that they’re visitors from Earth.

Actually the first episode shown, “The Concrete Mixer,” was in some ways the best — certainly after it everything else seemed just a bit anticlimactic — in which a small group of Martians attempt to stage an invasion of Earth. Their leader, Ettil Vyre (Ben Cross, who looks like he won the part in a Michael Rennie lookalike contest), is initially unwilling to go, alluding to some dire fate he thinks will befall the Martian army and making it clear he’d rather stay with his wife and kids on Mars, but he’s talked into going. The Martians’ small numbers, preposterous uniforms and weird-looking armaments are reminiscent of the invading force from the Duchy of Grand Fenwick in Leonard Wibberley’s The Mouse That Roared — only the whole point of Grand Fenwick’s invasion of the U.S. was to lose the war and then be showered with the huge amount of foreign aid Germany, Italy and Japan got from us after we beat them in World War II. (After the woeful non-reconstruction of Iraq following the 2003 war, that joke is a good deal less funny now than it was when Wibberley thought it up.) What actually happens is that the Martians are greeted by an unctuous Rotarian type who gives them the key to whatever Earth city they’ve landed in, they’re impressed into marching in a parade in their honor with a properly awful marching band supplying the music, and they end up in the raunchier part of town drinking and carousing with no-good women — Ettil tries to instill some discipline into his fellow Martian soldiers and get them away from the 24/7 party and back to the serious business of conquering Earth, but to no avail.

It’s a spoof not only of science-fiction conventions of outer-space invaders but of the whole hail-fellow-well-met spirit of small-town America in the 1950’s and the presentation of that decade as some sort of ideal in much of America’s political propaganda (though one of the odd things about the modern-day American right is that mythical past they want to take us back to — you know, the one when America was “great” and Donald Trump wants to make us “great again” — seems to be receding; for a while it was the 1950’s because back then women were still in the kitchen, Blacks at the back of the bus and Queers in the closet, until they realized that the 1950’s were also the decade of the highest income-tax rates in U.S. history and the highest percentage of the American workforce in unions; then it was the 1880’s, the age of the “robber barons” when corporations freely and openly bought elections and did whatever they wanted, U.S. Senators were still elected by state legislatures instead of directly by the people, and there was no income tax at all; and some of the corporate leaders and Tea Partiers seem to want to go back even further, to the 1820’s, when only white male landowners could vote) when so many writers in so many genres, including Evan Hunter and John D. MacDonald, presented the 1950’s as a living hell when they were still going on. (It’s also worth noting that “The Concrete Mixer” was directed by Eleanore Lindo; quite a few of the Ray Bradbury Theatre episodes were directed by women, including Anne Wheeler on “The Martian.”) “The Concrete Mixer” is also arguably an illustration of the so-called “Double-Cross System” by which the British secret service was able to “turn” virtually every German agent sent to the U.K. to spy on them during World War II — and the first step in doing this was to treat the German prisoners humanely, respectfully and with dignity. Like the Martians in this movie, this sent the Germans into cognitive dissonance big-time; they were in the hands of enemies they’d been trained to regard as inhuman monsters, and instead the “enemies” were being nice to them, treating them as fellow human beings and winning their trust and confidence preparatory to getting them to switch sides.

Quite a few stories in this cycle explore the issue of grief and the lengths to which people (or Martians) will go to keep their dead loved ones’ memories alive in some form. In “The Martian” Earth couple LaFarge (John Vernon) and his wife Anna (Sheila Moore) are confronted with the return of their long-dead son Tom (Paul Clemens), or at least a Martian using their memories of Tom to pose as him — but for what purpose? Anna uncritically accepts the reappeared Tom as the real deal but her husband is more skeptical. He worries that “Tom” is actually a Martian seeking to get into their house so he can kill them all, and the last shot of the show is of a long, lanky, scrawny arm — apparently Tom’s equipment in his original form — reaching from behind LaFarge over his shoulder, possibly to murder him. Another emotional wrencher is “The Long Years,” in which Robert Culp plays the head of a family that has been living on Mars for two decades, ever since the rest of the human colony on Mars evacuated (at least one other story on this program dealt with human colonists on Mars missing a planet-wide order to evacuate) — only when another ship arrives from Earth to take them home, John Hathaway (Robert Culp) has aged visibly the way you would expect him to … but his wife, son and daughter are all the same apparent age they were when they got to Mars. Eventually it turns out that his family were all killed by a Martian infectious disease, he buried them but then made perfect (or as perfect as possible) android replicas — who are fully conscious of everything he could recall and program into them about their real-life originals but who don’t know that they’re androids. In a scene of ineffable grief, sadness and loss, John has to take leave of his (simulated) family in a way that will keep them hopeful of his return someday but not break their hearts too much if he doesn’t. The gimmick of the disease that wiped out an entire population from another planet because their immune systems had never seen anything like it before and thus they had no biological defense (something that happened quite frequently during the so-called “Age of Exploration,” in which whites brought their diseases to Third World populations that had experienced nothing like them) had of course been most famously exploited in Mars fiction in H. G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds, in which the Earth militaries have no defense against the Martians’ technologically ultra-sophisticated attack machines but the Martians’ bodies had no defense against Earth’s commonest infectious microbes. (Wells was a Fabian socialist and an animal-rights activist — if you actually read The Island of Dr. Moreau sometime instead of just judging it from whichever of the three film versions you’ve seen, you’ll be struck at how blatant its animal-rights propaganda is.)

Another show in this cycle used it in reverse — in “And the Moon Be Still as Bright” (a title Bradbury lifted from Lord Byron’s poem “So We’ll Go No More a Roving,” which is quoted in the dialogue) the entire Martian race has been wiped out by the chickenpox virus, which a member of an Earth expedition to Mars unwittingly carried to the Red Planet. All that’s left of the Martians are the black leaf-like objects their bodies degenerated into when they died. The key character in this one is Spender (David Carradine, over a decade after his hit TV series Kung Fu but playing an oddly similar role as a person who becomes attached to a culture not his own but which he considers superior, and acting well enough his tragic death becomes all the sadder), who ends up so totally identifying with the lost Martian civilization that, when a fellow Earth astronaut breaks a glass cylinder containing a large chunk of Martian knowledge, Spender goes berserk and starts killing his crew to protect the Martian legacy against Earthlings who are just going to destroy everything on Mars the way they did with the indigenous cultures white people “discovered” on Earth. I’m not sure how Lord Byron’s poem (“So, we’ll go no more a roving/So late into the night,/Though the heart be still as loving,/And the moon be still as bright”) fits the tale, but Spender is fond of quoting it (that first stanza, anyway; there are two others) and the story itself is a typically Bradburyan bit of romantic cynicism (in his writing the two are decidedly not oxymoronic!) that, like so much of his work, achieves a sense of genuine tragedy that marked him as a “special” writer when he started to emerge from the world of sci-fi pulps and get “noticed” by literary critics and non-genre readers.

About the only episode that rubbed me the wrong way was “The Silent Towns,” yet another one about Earthlings stranded on Mars when the entire planet was evacuated; Walter Grip (John Glover) is driving around Mars in a truck (how does he fuel it?) when he hears repeated examples of telephones ringing in abandoned houses. He keeps trying to answer them and the calls keep cutting off before they can do so, but finally he reaches one person, Genevieve (Monica Parker), who’s eager to make a date with him. Only when they finally meet she turns out to be middle-aged and heavy-set — too heavy for Walter to find her attractive, though given that she’s the last human female on Mars one could imagine a remix of this story in which he has sex with her anyway because he’s horny and it’s not like there are a lot of other choices! An reviewer called “Hitchcoc” (presumably no relation), who posted about a lot of the Ray Bradbury Theatre episodes and oddly disliked some of the ones I liked best (like “The Concrete Mixer,” which I saw as brilliant satire and he saw as “terrible”), was right this time when he called it “an interesting and somewhat sexist presentation.” But would it have seemed more or less sexist if he’d overcome his initial revulsion towards her looks and fucked her anyway? About the only way to have remixed this story to make it non-sexist is if he’d got to like her as a person regardless of her appearance and genuinely fallen in love with her …

The Guilty (Hartswood Films, Independent Television Service, BBC-TV, 2013)

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

Despite my overall exhaustion level, I somehow managed to stay awake long enough to watch a program on KPBS: The Guilty, a three-part miniseries from 2013 that was a welcome partnership between the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) and Independent Television Service (ITS). It’s a policier set in the British countryside and dealing with a five-year-old cold case, the mysterious disappearance of four-year-old Callum Reid (Daniel Runacres-Grundstrom) after an outdoor barbecue party. The case is suddenly and dramatically reopened when the body of Callum Reid is found buried in the garden of the estate owned by his parents, Daniel (Darren Boyd, who’s actually the hottest guy in the movie) and Claire (Katherine Kelly) Reid. Until then they hadn’t given up hope that Callum would be found and returned to them alive, and had even maintained a Web site in hopes people would use it to log on in case they’d seen anyone who looked like Callum or had any leads that would help finding him. The Reids are also raising another son, Luke (played in the flashbacks to Callum’s life by Teddy Fitzpatrick and in the 2013 present by Jude Foley), who’s older than Callum and is Daniel’s son by his late first wife — and though we’re never told how Luke’s mom died, we are told repeatedly that Luke feels guilty and the apparent loss of his younger half-brother has only made his survivor’s guilt worse.

The central character is police detective Maggie Brand (Tamsin Greig), a quite butch-looking woman whose own marriage to Jeb Colman (Jamie Sives) is strained due to the pressures of her job as well as the crisis facing their own son Sam (Tommy Potten). Sam is now four, the age Collum Reid was when he disappeared, and Maggie was originally assigned to the Collum Reid investigation under a detective named Anderton, an old-schooler whose idea of police work was to arrest the most obvious suspect and browbeat them into confessing. Only Maggie got taken off the investigation because she was pregnant with Sam and her morning sickness was getting in the way of her performance, and Anderton proceeded to fasten onto the Reids’ nanny, Ruth Hyde (Pooky Quesnel — is there really an actress in Britain named “Pooky”?) and her scapegrace boyfriend Jason Byrne (Theo Barklem-Biggs). Jason is indeed a bad guy; when he isn’t sneaking around and trying to have sex with Ruth (and making it a point to inquire what sort of underwear she’s wearing — “tomorrow, nothing,” she promises at one point) in various parts of the Reid property, he’s getting her to steal the Reids’ ATM and their PIN so he can steal from their bank account, since given how they’re living and what they do in their careers (he’s an architect and she’s a schoolteacher), they can afford to lose a little money. (We don’t know for sure what he’s spending it on but we suspect it’s drugs.) The cops arrest Jason and he commits suicide by hanging himself in his cell, but he never reveals what he did with little Callum Reid — and Maggie is convinced he never did anything with Callum Reid since he’s not that sort of criminal. She traces the ex-nanny to a mental hospital in Germany — in this British-produced show it’s startling to see Maggie get into a car with the steering wheel on the left side until we realize that she’s in Germany and the Germans drive on the right side of the road, like we do and the British don’t — and gets crucial information that makes her even more convinced that Jason didn’t do it. Also, since the garden was searched five years before and the body wasn’t where it was found five years later, the criminal had to be someone who was still alive to move the body.

At the end of the second of the three 50-minute episodes (though the BBC has a co-production credit this was obviously originally aired on Britain’s commercial station) Maggie is accosted in a parking garage by a man named Tom Rose (Christopher Fulford), who meets her in the shadows and tells her to follow the mon- — oops, wrong story. He actually attempts to break into her car while she’s trying to drive away, she slams the door and breaks one of his hands, and when she finally stops and asks him what he wants, he demands to be arrested for Callum Reid’s murder. It seems he’s a Gay pedophile who so far had been able to control his urges, but he found Callum such an irresistible little morsel of potential delight he picked the kid up, held him with one arm around the boy’s waist, put the other arm in front of Callum’s mouth to stifle his screams, and inadvertently put too much pressure on the kid’s windpipe, killing him. Tom is taken into custody and then conveniently murdered by a fellow prisoner, thereby leaving the cops with yet another dead guy they can pin the crime on — but Maggie remains convinced that Tom was not Callum’s killer and that Callum’s own dad Daniel had something to do with the crime. Daniel himself is suspicious because while he said he went out for a drive alone the night his son was killed, he left his car keys in his home (where his wife spotted them) and it turns out he was really having an affair with a neighbor, Teresa Morgan (Ruta Gedmintas), who thought he was going to leave his wife for her. Eventually director Edward Bazalgette and writer Debbie O’Malley give the ending away in one of the interminable flashback scenes that mar this movie and keep it stopping dead in its tracks all too often — we see Luke Reid and a mysterious older kid drowning Callum in the Reid family’s bathtub and father Daniel burying the body to cover up the crime instead of risking having one of his sons be prosecuted for the murder of the other. The Guilty was actually reasonably well done but it suffered from an ill-conceived script with all those bizarre and jarring flashbacks getting in the way — though Bazalgette and his cinematographer, Gavin Finney, tried to separate the present from the past by bathing the flashbacks in a rancid orange glow — and also from an ending that tried to be shocking and just seemed dull. Still, it was well acted, particularly by Tamsin Greig as the lead detective (less obstreperously attractive than Mariska Hargitay on Law and Order: Special Victims Unit but also much less annoyingly schoolmarmish) and Ruta Gedmintas, who actually makes the stereotypical “other woman” a figure of real pathos.

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

The Mikado (General Film Distributors, 1939)

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

The film was The Mikado, an odd 1939 British production of the Gilbert and Sullivan operetta (the ninth of their 13 collaborations and one of the Big Three along with H.M.S. Pinafore and The Pirates of Penzance) that was shot in full-out three-strip Technicolor (when Charles saw Natalie Kalmus’s credit as Technicolor consultant he wondered if this were one of the movies made while the Hollywood studios had clubbed together and sent her to the U.K. to get her out of their hair!) and imported an American star (of sorts), Kenny Baker, to play the juvenile lead, Nanki-Poo. (The silliness of his name indicates how risible W. S. Gilbert’s libretto is as any even remotely believable depiction of Japan, but of course that wasn’t the point.) Nanki-Poo is the son, and heir to the throne, of the Mikado (John Barclay), who decreed that Nanki-Poo must marry Katisha (Constance Willis, who though her face isn’t painted green is otherwise made up to look surprisingly like Margaret Hamilton as the Wicked Witch of the West in another classic 1939 color fantasy, The Wizard of Oz), a great lady of the Japanese court who’s three times Nanki-Poo’s age and is played, as Anna Russell would have put it, by “the great big contralto with a voice like a foghorn.” Rather than submit to his dad’s imperial edict that he marry this “excessively unattractive” (Anna Russell again!) person, Nanki-Poo runs away and takes a job as second trombonist in a marching band, though he also doubles on some sort of Japanese stringed instrument (which we’re never allowed to hear him actually play) and declare himself “a wandering minstrel, I.” While he’s doing this he comes to the town of Titipu and falls in love with a local girl, Yum-Yum (Jean Colin) — only Yum-Yum is the ward of Ko-Ko (Martyn Green), who’s had a checkered recent career; he started out as a tailor and was arrested and condemned to death for flirting, but a series of reversals of fortune (which Gilbert never explains, at least in this version of the operetta as cut down by Geoffrey Toye, who was also the screenwriter and musical director) resulted in his being appointed Lord High Executioner of Titipu. The only problem is his one-year appointment in that job is about to run out, and his own head will be forfeit if he hasn’t executed anybody in that time. Of course Ko-Ko is in love with Yum-Yum himself, and when Nanki-Poo learns this he’s beside himself and determines to commit suicide. Ko-Ko and Pooh-Bah (Sydney Granville, who according to an reviewer had been doing this long enough to have performed the role under the direction of W. S. Gilbert himself), who seems to hold all the other offices in Titipu, hatch a plot: if Nanki-Poo is so determined to die, why can’t he just let them execute him? What’s more, they throw in a sweetener: he’ll be allowed to marry Yum-Yum and live with her for a month, after which he will be executed, Yum-Yum will be widowed and Ko-Ko will be free to marry her. Only Pooh-Bah discovers another crazy law decreed by the Mikado — that if a husband dies his widow will be buried alive — this has never been put into effect before but Ko-Ko, Pooh-Bah and Yum-Yum are scared it will be this time.

Needless to say, this plot is really just a line on which to hang Gilbert’s wickedly satirical comments on bureaucracy, silly laws and the death penalty (The Mikado is actually, among other things, a quite effective propaganda piece against capital punishment), and it ends with the decision of Ko-Ko to let Nanki-Poo and Yum-Yum get married and run off together if he can report to the Mikado that Nanki-Poo was executed, even though he wasn’t. One of the most delicious parts of the score, in fact, is Ko-Ko’s “The Criminal Cried,” his description of Nanki-Poo’s (fictitious) execution. The Mikado is pleased until he realizes that the “victim” of Ko-Ko’s execution is his son, whereupon he’s very displeased and Ko-Ko has to produce the still-alive Nanki-Poo to save his own neck. He also has to get Katisha (ya remember Katisha?) off Nanki-Poo’s back by courting her himself in what Gilbert seems to have intended as a deliberate parody of the famous scene in Shakespeare’s Richard III in which Richard gets Anne to marry him even though he had her previous husband — Edward, Prince of Lancaster, Henry VI’s son — killed. It ends happily, of course, with Nanki-Poo and Yum-Yum paired off, as are Ko-Ko and Katisha, and Titipu keeping its status as a city (it would have been downgraded to a village had no one been executed in the year Ko-Ko has served as Lord High Executioner). It’s not clear from which British company produced this film, but the credits indicate that the distributor was J. Arthur Rank’s General Film, while in the U.S. the rights went to Universal, which had only previously released one all-color film (the 1930 musical King of Jazz with Paul Whiteman, shot in two-strip Technicolor). Universal released The Mikado in the U.S. three years before the first three-strip film they produced themselves, Arabian Nights. The film is quite charming — a bit too charming, in fact — expertly re-creating the D’Oyly Carte Opera Company’s performance tradition of The Mikado that no doubt dated back to the 1885 premiere, with the stylized ways the actors moved (one Fanfare reviewer said one of the joys of old Gilbert & Sullivan films was watching how the women manipulated their prop fans), with actors who had either worked in the original productions or been trained by people who did. One major disappointment is that Ko-Ko’s song “I’ve Got a Little List” is missing — apparently it was filmed and a print with it included survived in the D’Oyly Carte archives, but the commonly circulating copies leave it out — but all the other highlights of the score are here even though Sir Arthur Sullivan’s music, as fun as it is, really doesn’t delineate the characters effectively. (This weakness was probably the reason why, despite several attempts — including a version of Ivanhoe — Sullivan was never able to break out of the operetta ghetto and write a serious full-fledged opera that was a success.)

The 1939 film of The Mikado is a quite charming period piece — the director, Victor Schertzinger (who was a songwriter and composer himself), stages the action effectively, though I suspect he could have been more creative if he hadn’t had Geoffrey Toye looking over his shoulder as producer, musical director and screenwriter — and much of the singing is surprisingly good. I’d grown to loathe Kenny Baker for the whiny tenor with which he’d afflicted movies like The Goldwyn Follies (for which he got to sing George Gershwin’s last songs — not one of the mega-talents for whom Gershwin had written, including Jolson, Astaire, Rogers, Lawrence, O.K. Merman et al.) and the Marx Brothers’ At the Circus (for which Harold Arlen’s songs “Two Blind Loves” and “Step Up and Take a Bow” reached a level of awfulness quite matching Baker’s renditions of them — Arlen and lyricist Yip Harburg had had to sign a two-film contract with MGM to get to do The Wizard of Oz, and this was the other film). But here he’s quite entertaining; apparently the sprightly late-19th century music of Sir Arthur Sullivan suited him better than the scraps of the Great American Songbook he got hold of in the U.S., and instead of whining he’s winning — if he seems a bit too much the pathetic nerd to be believable as a heart-felt lover, blame W. S. Gilbert for writing the character that way. He’s matched by his Yum-Yum, Jean Colin, whose excellent diction is a real pleasure and quite a contrast with the mush-mouths like Joan Sutherland who were to come later — Sutherland was an excellent singer except for her rotten diction that made it difficult for people (for me, anyway) to understand her even when she was singing in English, both her native language and my own. (I’ll never forget my experience of hearing a 1959 Sadler’s Wells broadcast of Handel’s Rodelinda, sung in English, with Sutherland and Janet Baker — and the difference in vocal clarity between Sutherland’s noisemaking and Baker’s crisp, pure, easily understandable enunciation is obvious and makes a mockery of the people who say, “Well, it’s coloratura music — it can’t be sung intelligibly!”) Also, while none of the (admittedly meager) documentation I’ve seen on this film has hinted at this, I suspect given the way later Gilbert and Sullivan video projects were done — with at least all the most popular of their works being filmed and sometimes attempts at the whole oeuvre — I suspect that there would have been additional Gilbert and Sullivan operetta films from Britain after this one, only that didn’t happen because World War II did.

Sunday, June 19, 2016

Destination Moon (George Pal Productions/Eagle-Lion, 1950)

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

Today the 1950 science-fiction movie Destination: Moon is of no more than historical importance — the moon trip was actually made 19 years later, and the special effects on this are charmingly primitive (though weightlessness is actually well — albeit inconsistently — dramatized) — Irving Pichel’s direction is of the traffic-cop variety and a no-name cast of actors perform efficiently but unmovingly (though, given the well-trained taciturnity of real-life astronauts, this actually lends the film a patina of authenticity). The story is pretty undramatic — nothing much happens except they fly a rocket to the moon (stopping in mid-space for some extra-vehicular activity and a reasonably suspenseful rescue of an astronaut who starts drifting away into space), then make such an inept landing they have to jettison practically everything in order to lighten the rocket enough to get back (and we never even see them land back on earth; the film ends with them still in mid-space on the return trip).

Ironically, neither my roommate John P. nor I had ever seen the film in color before; John missed it on its original theatrical release and he, like I, had seen it before only on black-and-white TV. Not that we were missing much; aside from the brightly-colored spacesuits (so the astronauts could recognize each other over long distances on the surface of the moon), there wasn’t much in the way of creative use of color in this movie (Lionel Lindon from King Kong was the cinematographer). The most interesting aspect of this film was that it was based on a novel by Robert Heinlein, and Heinlein is also listed in the middle position of a three-person screenwriting credit (with Rip Van Ronkel — what a great name! — above him and James O’Hanlon below), and Heinlein’s Right-wing ideology makes its appearance in subtle but unmistakable ways throughout the film. One of the astronauts is a Billy Mitchell-style general who attempts to get federal funding for rocket projects on the grounds that we can’t let the unspecified “enemy” (in 1950, that could only have meant the Soviet Union) develop a lunar rocket before we do; when the first test rocket crashes spectacularly, the general and the corporate leader whose company built it suspect sabotage (with absolutely no evidence at all); when the federal government pulls the rocket allocation after the failure, the corporado gets all his friends from private enterprise together and they do it all without government assistance (there’s even a promo film, starring Woody Woodpecker and actually made by Woody’s creator, Walter Lantz, which he uses to “sell” the project to the investors — and it’s the best promo insert into a conventional dramatic film I can think of, aside from the superbly done “Mr. DNA” sequence in Jurassic Park); the residents of the area where the rocket launch site exists protest against it because it’s nuclear-powered and even obtain a court order to stop the flight, which our heroically libertarian astronauts simply defy. Ironically, after the recent election results (and more recent phenomena, like Newt Gingrich’s McCarthyite charge that one-fourth of Clinton’s White House staff people have taken drugs), this film’s reactionary politics are the most au courant thing about it! — 12/8/94


I went to see Charles at his place, bringing the tape I made last year of the movie Destination Moon. It holds up pretty well, actually, though author Robert Heinlein’s Right-wing ideology really drags the film down (especially his insistence that the private sector build the moon rocket because government wouldn’t fund it, and the scenes in which protestors attacking the idea of a nuclear-powered rocket are revealed to be dupes of a sinister foreign power, carefully unnamed in the film but obviously referring to the Soviet Union). The final scenes, in which the rocket needs to be lightened so it can travel back to Earth (which it never actually reaches — the film ends rather abruptly with the ship in mid-space), are the ones that Apollo 13 reminded me of, and while the scenes are nowhere near as suspenseful as the ones in the recent film, they do have a somewhat similar air of improvisation, as if the astronauts are forced to be more “heroic” than they might otherwise have been because their original plans have broken down in some way. I like this movie for several reasons, not the least of which because it’s a portrait of where America was “at” in 1950, hyper-concerned about Cold War competition and at the same time in love with the idea that American industry, especially freed from the shackles of government regulation, could do anything. (I also have a feeling that most of the people who went to see this film in 1950 regarded it as wildly science-fictional and had no idea that in just 19 years — within the lifetimes of many of them — people actually would get to the moon.) — 1/4/96


The Vintage Sci-Fi film screening last night combined the obscure Russian film Cosmic Journey, a.k.a. Cosmic Voyage (I presume the original Russian title, “Kosmicheskiy Reys,” can be translated either way) with a pretty familiar U.S. movie from 1950, Destination Moon. The genealogy of Destination Moon is a bit unusual but it’s pretty clear that this is a Schreiber movie and the Schreiber is Robert A. Heinlein. His screenwriting credit is second among three — Alford “Rip” Van Ronkel precedes him and James O’Hanlon follows him — but the credits also proclaim the film is based on a Heinlein novel, though there seems to be some uncertainty as to which one. Heinlein actually published two moon-travel novels in 1950, Rocketship Galileo and The Man Who Sold the Moon, and after the film was finished he placed a short-story adaptation of the film’s plot under the “Destination Moon” title in a sci-fi pulp, Short Stories Magazine, and also wrote a radio script for NBC’s Dimension X program called “Destination Moon” that was apparently his own adaptation of the movie. I’ve seen Destination Moon twice before, first on an old TV in black-and-white and then with my late roommate/home-care client John P. on TV — an experience I remember because we were both startled that the film was in color: like me, he’d seen it previously but only on a black-and-white TV! Destination Moon is a good, workmanlike science-fiction movie hampered by Heinlein’s Right-wing Libertarian politics — this is the sort of story Ayn Rand would have come up with if she’d done a piece about space travel (as it is, the one science-fiction story in Rand’s oeuvre, Anthem, is a dystopia from 1937 in which socialist collectivism has so totally taken over the world that the words “I” and “ego” have been eliminated from the language; the narrator, who of course is a Randian superhero who rebels in the name of individualism, refers to himself as “we” throughout until he finally rediscovers those magic words and the I-don’t-need-anyone social attitude that goes with them). The film begins with an attempt to launch a satellite into space; the U.S. military has funded the effort and the rocket has been designed by scientist Dr. Charles Cargraves (Warner Anderson), but despite extensive tests prior to the launch the rocket explodes in mid-air before it ever leaves earth’s gravity. Cargraves and his military sponsor, General Thayer (Tom Powers), are convinced the rocket didn’t just fail; agents of a sinister foreign power (and you don’t need two guesses to figure out who Heinlein and his co-writers meant, and wanted the audience to understand, who that would be in 1950!) sabotaged it because they wanted to be the first country to conquer space. So Thayer retires from the Army and he and Cargraves seek out the backing of aircraft manufacturer Jim Barnes (John Archer) to put together a consortium of private industrialists to back the project financially, since the failure of Cargraves’ previous rocket has killed their chances of getting any more government money.

There’s a big scene in which Archer calls together his would-be investors for a pitch meeting and introduces the project with a promotional film explaining the physics of space travel; the film is by Walter Lantz, creator of Woody Woodpecker, and Woody is indeed the star of it. (According to an “Trivia” poster, the film-within-the-film was later taken over by NASA and suitably updated to indicate how people were really going to fly to the moon.) This sequence is the clearest statement of Heinlein’s politics in the film; asked why the government isn’t funding the project, Barnes says, “The vast amount of brains, talents, special skills, and research facilities necessary for this project are not in the government, nor can they be mobilized by the government in peacetime without fatal delay. Only American industry can do this job. And American industry must get to work, now, just as we did in the last war!” Then General Thayer adds, “We are not the only ones who know that the Moon can be reached. We’re not the only ones who are planning to go there. The race is on — and we’d better win it, because there is absolutely no way to stop an attack from outer space. The first country that can use the Moon for the launching of missiles... will control the Earth. That, gentlemen, is the most important military fact of this century.” (It sounds a lot like the arguments Admiral Thayer Mahan was making in his late-19th-century book The Effect of Sea Power on History, a book which profoundly influenced Theodore Roosevelt and led him to support both the Spanish-American War and the Panama Canal; Heinlein is arguing that control of space will be as important in the new era as control of the sea was in Mahan’s and Teddy Roosevelt’s time.) The pot of Right-wing melodrama boils even hotter as the moon rocket gets built, only because it uses a nuclear reactor as its fuel source there’s a supposedly “spontaneous” — but actually, Barnes insists, sponsored and funded by That Sinister Secret Power That Dare Not Speak Its Name — anti-nuclear demonstration aimed at preventing the rocket from being tested. Fine, says Barnes; we won’t test it. We’ll just launch it, he decides, even though that means being ready to lift off in just 17 hours to catch the moon at its closest to Earth.

This means that he’s able to lift off his rocket while some obnoxious mooching busybody is outside of it waving a court order forbidding Barnes and his crew from launching. It also means his original fourth crew member, who’s just come down with appendicitis, is unable to go and Barnes has to draft Joe Sweeney (Dick Wesson), a typically obnoxious comic-relief character with a Brooklyn accent (the sort of role Frank McHugh would have played at Warners in the mid-1930’s if they’d decided to do a film about a moon trip) who agrees to go aboard the rocket only because he’s convinced it’ll never work. The reluctant fourth astronaut joins Barnes, Cargraves and Thayer and they actually get to the moon — along the way there’s some entertaining wire-work simulating weightlessness and at least some scenes done the way Buster Keaton had done at the end of The Navigator, Fred Astaire did his dance on the walls of his room in Royal Wedding and the flight attendant served Dr. Heywood Floyd his meal upside-down in 2001: A Space Odyssey: a revolving room set and a camera bolted to it so the actors could look like they were walking up walls when they were really in normal gravity the whole time. (There’s a mistake in the film in that once the astronauts are through with the horrifying acceleration process and are in space, Barnes equips them with magnetic boots so they can walk around the spaceship normally — but when they go outside the ship to do repairs the boots allow them to cling to the side of the ship even though we’ve previously been told it’s made of titanium, which is non-magnetic.) Instead of the usually obligatory meteor shower in space, Barnes has to order his crew (all but Thayer) out because they’ve lost radio contact with Earth. This turns out to be Sweeney’s fault; he thoroughly greased the moving parts of their retractable antenna, not realizing the grease would just freeze in space. They get the thing fixed but almost lose one of the astronauts and Barnes has to grab one of their spare oxygen containers and use it as a makeshift rocket to propel himself to Cargraves so he can grab him and steer him back to the ship.

When they finally reach the moon Barnes blows the landing and uses more fuel in his retro-rockets than he was counting on, which leads to the famous final scenes in which the astronauts are told by their mission control people back on Earth that they have to lighten the ship by 1,200 pounds to have enough fuel left to return home — and when they’ve thrown away everything they can think of and made the ship look like an old building in a rundown neighborhood that’s been stripped by scavengers, they’re told they’re still 120 pounds over the limit and it looks like one of the astronauts is going to have to sacrifice his life and stay behind on the moon so the other three can get back safely. Thayer offers to be the sacrifice on the ground that he’s the oldest of them; Sweeney also offers to be the sacrifice, presumably because the world can get along well enough without the obnoxious and unfunny “comic relief” character; but Barnes says they’re all going home and by throwing out the ship’s radio and its last spacesuit, and cutting their oxygen supply to the bare minimum they need for the trip, they can lighten the ship enough to accommodate all four astronauts. Oddly, the film ends before the returning astronauts actually make it back to Earth — there aren’t the usual welcome-home crowds we generally got in space-travel films of this vintage — and a title which reads “The End” and then another line of type comes on under it and says, “of the Beginning.” This seems especially ironic now that the U.S. sent six crews to the moon between 1969 and 1973 and then stopped doing so; no one since has attempted a manned (personned?) moon flight, let alone one that went any farther (like Mars), and quite a few science-fiction fans are convinced that if there’s going to be any more human exploration of space, it’s going to be funded, as it is in Destination Moon, by the private sector because modern-day governments and the politicians who run them lack the vision to see that it’s the human race’s destiny to explore space.

Destination Moon is a good movie, and though there were certainly other moon-flight films before it (from the pioneering one by Méliès in 1902 to Fritz Lang’s and Thea von Harbou’s Woman in the Moon — which made the assumption that there would be pockets of atmosphere on the moon that would allow humans to live there normally without having to wear space suits and bring their own oxygen — and the Russian Cosmic Voyage/Cosmic Journey shown as a double-bill companion with Destination Moon), this is the one that got seen the most by U.S. audiences and U.S. filmmakers and set the cliché templates for how space exploration would be depicted on screen for decades to come. There were some odd stories about the production of Destination Moon; it was made by Hungarian-American producer George Pal, who wanted to make a feature after doing a series of model-animation “Puppetoon” shorts for Paramount. Naturally Paramount was the studio he shopped this project to first, but when they turned it down he went to the Eagle-Lion company, which had been formed by J. Arthur Rank in 1948 when he bought the infamous sub-“B” studio PRC (the initials officially stood for “Producers’ Releasing Corporation” but, despite a few islands of quality, most of their movies were so bad Hollywood jokesters said it really meant “Pretty Rotten Crap”) to have an assured U.S. outlet for his British productions. The first year of Eagle-Lion’s operations he had a blockbuster U.S. hit with one of his British movies, The Red Shoes, and Destination Moon turned out to be another huge hit for him. Indeed, George Pal had his revenge against Paramount because the theatre showing Destination Moon in New York happened to be in the same neighborhood as Paramount’s business headquarters, and the executives who ran Paramount then, Adolph Zukor and Barney Balaban, got to look down from their offices and see the people lined up to get into the theatre showing the film they’d turned down. So quite naturally Paramount rushed to re-sign Pal and give him, for the plot of his next science-fiction blockbuster, a 1932 novel by Philip Wylie called When Worlds Collide they had bought when it was published at the behest of Cecil B. DeMille, only to decide that DeMille’s version would be too expensive to make money.

The people behind Destination Moon themselves went into paranoid overdrive when producer Robert Lippert announced that he’d be making his own moon-travel movie, Rocketship X-M, based on a story writer-director Kurt Neumann had sold him about a crew of astronauts who travel to Mars and discover living dinosaurs there. Lippert told Neumann that living dinosaurs were right out of his price range budget-wise but he’d be interested in a space-travel movie, only he asked Neumann if he could send his astronauts to the moon instead of Mars and shoot his film so quickly he could get it into theatres before the still in post-production Destination Moon — only Eagle-Lion got wind of what was going on and threatened to sue Lippert if he released a movie about a moon flight before or while Destination Moon was in theatres. Lippert briefed Neumann about this, and Neumann’s response was O.K., I’ll have my astronauts intend to go to the moon but get sidetracked in space and end up where I wanted them to go in the first place, Mars. Also either Lippert or Neumann hired blacklisted Leftist screenwriter Dalton Trumbo to do an uncredited rewrite of the film, which meant that Rocketship X-M became less a knockoff of Destination Moon and more a seemingly deliberate progressive response to it: in this version the astronauts who end up on Mars find the remnants of a Martian civilization, the Martians having rendered themselves extinct due to nuclear war. (See the moviemagg blog post on Rocketship X-M at Rocketship X-M got into theatres before Destination Moon and did respectable business even though Eagle-Lion’s legal department forced Lippert and the theatres who booked their movie to post signs outside their locations reading, “This Is Not Destination Moon.” (In the 1970’s I remember a similar sign outside a revival theatre showing the 1931 version of The Maltese Falcon and its 1936 remake, Satan Met a Lady, warning would-be patrons that this was not the classic 1941 The Maltese Falcon with Humphrey Bogart.) — 6/19/16

Thursday, June 16, 2016

Killing Mommy, a.k.a. Deadly Daughters (NB Thrilling Films 7/Lifetime, 2016)

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

The Lifetime “world premiere” on Saturday, June 11 was Killing Mommy, a.k.a. Deadly Daughters, a surprisingly engaging thriller with a big twist about two-thirds of the way through (which was, alas, “spoiled” by the Lifetime trailer for the film — more on that later), “presented” by Pierre David and Tom Berry (names that have previously been associated with a lot of Lifetime thrillers that have run the gamut from suspenseful to silly) and directed by Curtis James Crawford and Anthony Dufresne from a script by Trent Haaga. It’s slow going at first mainly because there isn’t anyone in it we actually like: it’s about a mother and her two grown (25-year-old) twin daughters, though the twins don’t look that much alike, at least partly because they’re deliberately costumed differently to reflect their lifestyles. Mom is Eve Hanson (Claire Rankin), who’s about to marry Winston Berlin (Rob Stewart), the guy she’s been dating for four years since her previous husband Harlan (Jeff Teravainen) died in a bizarre accident: he was restoring a 1965 Mustang as a birthday present for one of his daughters when the jack that was holding the car up gave way and the car fell on him and crushed him. The daughters are Juliana (Yvonne Zima), who wears her hair long and colors it auburn (mom is blonde) and is a wanna-be fashionista who’s tearing through the family fortune left behind by her self-made father while ostensibly studying to be a fashion designer; and Deborah — usually called “Deb” and also played by Yvonne Zima — who has black hair that makes her look like she’s auditioning to play Patti Smith in a biopic and generally wears a black leather jacket, a black T-shirt hailing the joys of LSD, and black jeans. She’s also got a ring piercing on her lower lip. (Cinthia Burke and her associates in the makeup department deserve kudos for making the two Zimas look similar when they’re supposed to and dramatically different when they’re supposed to.) None of these women come off as sympathetic characters — mom seems like a controlling bitch, Juliana a spoiled one and Deb someone who’s going out of her way to rebel by drinking, picking up sleazy guys at a dive bar, and giving herself points for being “clean” because at least she isn’t doing “hard drugs” anymore.

Mom’s boyfriend Winston doesn’t come off any better; he’s obviously a gold-digger who’s just after Eve for her money, which he’s already lost $100,000 of in a bad stock deal, which hasn’t stopped him from pestering her for control over the rest of the fortune. Given the title, the main suspense early on is over which sister is going to kill mom, or try to, for her money — Juliana, Deb or both of them in combination — and it seems to be Deb when we see her actually try to run her mom down in a parking lot. Only about two-thirds of the way through writer Haaga pulls the big switcheroo — the woman who tried to run Eve down with Deb’s car is not Deb but Juliana, who’s disguised herself as Deb and not only committed attempted murder against mom (the idea is so mom would see her and blame all the bad stuff that’s happening on Deb) but also dressed as Deb to seduce Deb’s raunchy boyfriend Deke (Garrett Hnatiuk), do drugs with him and get him to buy her a gun. The idea is that Juliana will kill both mom and Deb — whom she’s kidnapped and has tied to a chair in the garage at Winston’s cabin in the mountains, a location Deb didn’t know existed — and try to pass it off as a murder-suicide in which Deb killed her mom and then herself. Only during those long stretches in which Juliana left her tied up in the garage while she disguised herself as Deb and left a trail a mile long (including taking sexually explicit photos of herself with Deke and texting them to mom), Deb has knocked the chair to the floor and slowly managed to extricate herself from her sister’s bondage.

Meanwhile Juliana has knocked off Deke after he recognized that she wasn’t Deb — the real Deb had a tattoo on her ass that Juliana didn’t know about — she ties him to Deb’s bed as if they’re going to do an S/M bondage scene and then strangles him for real, leaving the body to be discovered by mom and Juliana in her own identity and thereby adding murder to the list of crimes of which Deb is supposedly guilty. It all comes down to a final confrontation at the cabin, in which Juliana is surprised that Deb has freed herself. They both reach for the gun (Maurine Watkins, your plagiarism attorney thanks you for no fewer than 12 lakeside cabins his legal work for you has paid for) and in the end mom grabs a gun of her own (one her late husband kept around the house for protection and which she brought with her thinking she was going to have to defend herself against Deb), holds it on Deb and seems ready to see the situation the way Juliana wants her to until Juliana makes a slip. She refers to the spray-painted vandalism on Winston’s car just before he had to go to the airport for a business trip — the word “Dad” with an “X” through it to indicate Deb would never regard Winston as her father — and mom realizes that though she told Juliana that Winston’s car had been vandalized, she’d never told Juliana what was spray-painted on the car. Mom suddenly realizes that Deb is telling the truth and it’s Juliana who means to kill her, and mom fires her gun … and the screen goes black. When it resumes a genuinely cleaned-up Deb is attending her mom’s wedding to Winston and has a boyfriend of her own (the sort of tall, lanky guy Lifetime likes to cast as their “good” or innocent-victim husbands, differing from their usual type only in being younger and having a well-trimmed beard), and the scene cuts to the prison were Juliana is serving time — obviously mom was a good enough shot she was able merely to incapacitate Juliana instead of kill her. Juliana is wearing a hair net and working in the prison kitchen, and when she filches a roll from one of the trays she’s confronted by a butch Lesbian (Donna St. Jean) who makes her give her the roll and is obviously intending to make Juliana her prison “bitch.”

Though hamstrung by a plot that’s all too predictable — especially since what writer Haaga obviously intended as a big surprise was given away in the trailer, which includes Juliana’s big speech to the captive Deb explaining that she regards mom’s fortune as rightfully hers and she’s not going to let mom deprive her of it by marrying a gold-digger who’s just going to piss it away (one gets the impression that the well-meaning but financially naïve Winston is the sort of person who would enroll in Trump University and pay the full $35,000 or more) — Killing Mommy is great sleazy fun, not only because the actor playing Deke is the most genuinely handsome male in the film despite the stringy blond hair and scraggly beard he’s outfitted with to make him look skuzzier (and the actor playing Winston is genuinely handsome and was also fun for this old queen to look at!) but because the characterizations are well drawn and genuinely complex even though our suspicion, based on hearing him talked about through the movie, that the late husband would be the only sympathetic character in the dramatis personae is borne out the one time we see him, in a flashback that reveals that — as we suspected all along — he was actually murdered by Juliana. He’d made the mistake of lecturing her about her spending while he was working on the car for her sister (he’d bought Juliana a new car but Deb wanted something with more “character” and something that reflected her dad’s labor of love instead of just his checkbook) and then making himself vulnerable by immediately disappearing under the car to work on it, which gave Juliana the opportunity to release the jack, thereby crushing him, and call it in to 911 and report it as an “accident.” The ending is supposed to be happy but one wonders just how quickly the surviving members of the family are going to be broke from Winston’s clueless speculations in the financial markets — and it’s interesting to ponder the sorts of possibilities that would raise for a sequel, especially if Juliana gets out of prison or escapes and returns to avenge herself!

Never Give a Sucker an Even Break (Universal, 1941)

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

Charles and I didn’t get to run a movie until late in the evening, but it was a great one: Never Give a Sucker an Even Break, made by Universal in 1941 and the last film in which W. C. Fields played a starring role. After it, age and alcoholism caught up with him and he only played bit parts and short scenes in films like Tales of Manhattan (1942 — his scene wasn’t in the original release but it survived and has been dredged up as a DVD bonus item), Follow the Boys (1944), Song of the Open Road (1944) and Sensations (1945). Never Give a Sucker an Even Break was written by John T. Neville and Prescott Chaplin from an original story by “Otis Criblecoblis” (do I have to say who that really was?) and is essentially W. C. Fields’ 8 ½. He plays himself — well, sort of himself; his character is listed in the script merely as “The Great Man” but he’s addressed as “Bill Fields” on screen — and he’s just finished making The Bank Dick at “Esoteric Studios.” A couple of obnoxious kids who work at the Esoteric lot (billed only as “Butch and Buddy,” though gives their real names: “Butch” was Billy Lenhart and “Buddy” was Kenneth Brown) look at the billboard and offer their critical comment on the film: “What a bupkie!” (The word comes from Bupkis, Yiddish for “nothing.”) Fields is about to present to Esoteric studio head Franklin Pangborn (playing what’s possibly the best role of his career; though he doesn’t act that differently than he did in all his other parts, somehow it seems funnier when he’s supposed to be in a position of authority over an entire movie studio rather than just playing a hotel desk clerk or a bank examiner) the script for his follow-up movie. He’s also trying to get his niece, Gloria Jean (whose name throughout is pronounced in a portentous manner indicating her real-life status as the latest cute girl in her early teens with a spectacular coloratura voice Universal was trying to build up as a replacement for Deanna Durbin now that la Durbin had aged out of these sorts of roles; alas, after casting her in this Universal gave her a vehicle whose horrible title, The Underpup, drove movie fans away en masse and killed her career stone-dead), an Esoteric studio contract.

Gloria Jean’s mother, Madame Gorgeous (Anne Nagel), makes a brief appearance early on as she and Gloria’s “Uncle Bill” (i.e., her brother) meet on the Esoteric lot and Uncle Bill warns her to be careful when she doubles for a major Esoteric star doing a high-wire act for a circus picture. If this plot line sounds familiar, it should; in his previous Universal film You Can’t Cheat an Honest Man Fields had wanted to use the “Madame Gorgeous” character as his wife, a star high-wire performer until she’s killed in an accident doing her act. The death was supposed to bring more pathos to Fields’ characterization and also be the reason while Fields’ formerly prospering circus was now desperately in debt — but Universal’s executives didn’t think a death was the right way to begin a comedy, so they made Fields take it out. Fields tried to get the Madame Gorgeous plot line into this film, too — though this time she was going to be his sister, not his wife — and the warning was supposed to set up a scene in which there’d be an accident while she shot the high-wire sequence and she would die, leaving Fields to raise Gloria Jean himself as a single parent. Once again, though, Universal’s “suits” ordered Madame Gorgeous’s death cut from the script, so we see the cue for it without the scene itself — and Gloria Jean’s slavish devotion to her uncle (according to an trivia poster, Fields had always wanted to make a movie in which a young woman would love him unconditionally) becomes harder to understand dramatically. But what’s left of Never Give a Sucker an Even Break is so utterly brilliant the missing scene really doesn’t matter: it’s the sort of film that would now be called “post-modern,” a brilliant story that simultaneously exploits and sends up Hollywood clichés. The film cuts back and forth between Fields’ and Gloria Jean’s “real” story and the script of the film Fields is trying to peddle to Pangborn, which features an airplane with an open-air observation platform at the rear; Fields and Gloria Jean are flying to an unnamed destination, sharing a series of Pullman-style berths with a huge Turk (Jack “Tiny” Lipson) who doesn’t get any sleep because he’s spent the entire night trying to unwind the huge sash around his midriff, and an Englishman (Claud Allister) who recounts being bitten by a dog. (This was a holdover from a time in which a lot of people thought that airliners would be laid out like trains, complete with sleeping compartments — though an open-air observation deck in an otherwise state-of-the-art streamlined plane was ridiculous even in 1941.)

Then Fields knocks over his whiskey bottle and dives after it — without a parachute or anything to break his fall — only he’s safe because he lands on a giant outdoor bed in the home of Mrs. Hemogloben (Margaret Dumont, in what’s probably the best film she ever made without the Marx Brothers — though she’s playing essentially the same part: a rich single woman, raising a teenage daughter as a single parent and with a male comedy suitor who alternately wants to run away from the sight of her and embrace her for her money) and her daughter, Ouilotta Delight Hemogloben (Susan Miller) — though I don’t recall hearing her addressed by her first name during the film itself. In a plot twist anticipating Forbidden Planet 15 years later — though in Forbidden Planet the girl had a single father, not a single mother, and the gimmick was supposed to be taken seriously — Mrs. Hemogloben took her daughter to an isolated villa on top of a 2,000-foot-high mesa when she was just three months old. Determined not to allow her daughter’s life to be ruined the way hers was when Ouilotta’s father abandoned her when she was just three months old, Mrs. Hemogloben has made it her mission in life to make sure her daughter not only grows up away from all males but never even hears the word “man” (a separatist-feminist’s wet dream!) — until Fields drops from the plane and teaches her a kissing game called “squiggelums,” whereupon Mrs. Hemogloben comes upon them (leading a vicious watchdog outfitted by Universal’s makeup department with larger-than-realistic fangs) and wants to play too. This leads Fields to jump into the windlass-controlled basket that’s the only connection between the Hemogloben villa and the rest of the world, descending 1,000 feet (the script isn’t consistent as to whether the mesa is 1,000 or 2,000 feet up, but Never Give a Sucker an Even Break isn’t the sort of movie you go to for plot consistency) as fast as gravity can take him, whereupon he lands in the middle of a Russian village at the foot of the mesa (“played” by all those mittel-Europan sets Universal built for their horror movies) and tells the story of the Hemoglobens and their redoubt. This attracts the attention of a couple of gold-diggers, a hunky young guy for Ouilotta (who in the middle of all this turns on a radio and sings a swing version of “Comin’ Through the Rye”!) and British comedian Leon Errol (the owner of the real bar in Los Angeles called “The Black Pussy Café” that Fields had wanted to put into The Bank Dick, though the Production Code Administration insisted on calling it “Black Pussy Cat Café” instead) who ends up with Mrs. Hemogloben after Gloria Jean insists that she doesn’t want her uncle marrying just for money. Producer Pangborn rejects Fields’ script as “an insult to a man’s intelligence — even mine,” and Gloria Jean virtuously insists that if Fields doesn’t work for Esoteric anymore, neither will she.

They end up in the middle of a viscerally exciting and brilliantly funny car chase that kicks off when an elderly woman (the cast of this movie includes quite a lot of heavy-set females to pester Our Hero) asks Fields for a ride to the maternity hospital. She’s actually the head of a charity bringing baby clothes to new mothers who can’t afford them themselves, but Fields and just about everyone else misinterprets and thinks she’s about to have a baby, so Fields guns his car through the streets of L.A. in a vividly staged and impeccably driven sequence showing director Eddie Cline’s slapstick chops (he began his career as a Keystone Kop and a stunt driver for Mack Sennett, then took Buster Keaton’s graduate course in film comedy and co-directed the marvelous Sherlock, Jr.). I was familiar with this sequence long before I saw Never Give a Sucker an Even Break “complete” through a three-minute silent digest of it released by Castle Films in the 1950’s and called Hurry, Hurry!, and never forgot the scene’s highlight — the hooks on the ladder of a passing fire truck dig into the roof of Fields’ car and lift it up high above the city, taking it with them as its crew turn around in circles because they’re confused as to just where the fire they’re supposed to be on their way to fight is. Eventually the car crashes just outside the maternity hospital — we don’t see the impact but we hear it on the soundtrack as Cline cuts to a giant sign that reads, “Maternity Hospital — Quiet” — and orderlies snatch the woman out of the back seat of Fields’ car and drag her kicking and screaming onto a gurney. This piece of inspired lunacy, wisely unaccompanied by the usual bright, bouncy music we’d expect — instead Cline “scored” it only with realistic sounds of cars being pushed past their limits, ramped up to levels that suggest Josef von Sternberg had decided to do a slapstick film — was recycled almost frame-for-frame in the 1944 Abbott and Costello movie In Society (and no doubt some people who saw In Society in 1944 thought something along the lines of, “Hey, this looks familiar! Didn’t Bill Fields do this three years ago?”), and I was tempted to get out the DVD of In Society and run the two sequences back-to-back to see how artfully the makers of Abbott and Costello’s film (including director Erle C. Kenton) edited the footage to fit their plot line.

Never Give a Sucker an Even Break was a title Fields hated even though it came from his first starring musical, Poppy (1924), which he filmed twice. He wanted to call the film The Great Man (the “official” script designation of his character) and, when the Universal “suits” insisted on the eventual title, Fields snarled, “What does it matter, they’ll never get that on a marquee. It’ll probably boil down to ‘W. C. Fields — Sucker.’” Most of Fields’ movies had been disjointed; The Bank Dick had approached making disjointedness an art form in itself, and in Sucker (to copy Fields’ own abbreviation of the title) he achieved a sort of unwitting pre-postmodernism as well as the sort of genre-bending Preston Sturges would have given Fields if they’d ever had the great fortune to work together. James Agee gave the film a mixed review in Time magazine, wishing (as many other critics of Fields’ time did) that he’d confine his comic genius within the bounds of a plot that made sense. He called Sucker “strong drink for cinemaddicts who believe that the Great Man can do no wrong, small beer for those who think that even a Fields picture should have a modicum of direction.” Oddly, the sheer disconnected zaniness of Sucker is what makes it seem up-to-date today; the lack of any connection between its various plot elements, its references to other celebrities of the time (in an early scene, when an aggressively ugly woman — the cast of Sucker is full of aggressively ugly women and one wonders where Fields dug them up, and why — waves a huge broom with black bristles in front of Fields’ face, he snarls, “Get that Groucho Marx away from me,” and later he tells Gloria Jean, “Do you want to grow up and be dumb like ZaSu Pitts?,” whereupon she explains that Pitts isn’t really dumb but just plays dumb in her movies) and above all Fields’ and Cline’s willingness to do anything for a laugh seem quite au courant even though most modern comedians, freed from the untender mercies of the Production Code, take that freedom into tastelessness.

The “Groucho Marx” reference occurs in an early sequence in which Fields is having breakfast — or attempting to — in a café near the studio, and the woman who runs the place is so unremittingly hostile to him she crosses off every item on the menu he might want and essentially gives him the order. Thirty years later Jack Nicholson pulled the same gag in the “chicken salad sandwich” sequence in Five Easy Pieces — and people thought he and director Bob Rafelson were being so-o-o-o-o original. Also noteworthy is the sequence in which Fields repairs to a soda fountain for refreshment, and just when we’re wondering what the hell a legendary boozer like W. C. Fields is doing in a soda fountain, he turns to the camera and says, “This scene’s supposed to be in a saloon but the censor cut it out. It’ll play just as well this way.” It doesn’t, and according to an trivia poster Fields and his collaborators did write the scene to take place in a bar and the real-life censors indeed made them change it. One of the quirkier parts of Production Code enforcement was that mention of the very existence of movie censorship was itself censorable — though Groucho Marx had got away with it in At the Circus two years earlier when he saw the villainess (Eve Arden) slip something down her bosom and turned to the camera and said, “There must be some way of getting that without getting in trouble with the Hays Office” (the enforcement arm of the Code, named for Will H. Hays, former Harding administration Cabinet member, whom the major studios hired in 1922 to ward off government censorship of movies by censoring them themselves). Never Give a Sucker an Even Break is arguably Fields’ greatest film (though for sheer demented pathos I’d give that honor to Man on the Flying Trapeze — directed by another former Keaton collaborator, Clyde Bruckman) and was certainly a great way for Fields to finish his career in starring roles; it’s the sort of movie almost no one else could have made and yet it’s also a film filmmakers have been consciously or unconsciously drawing on for inspiration ever since.