Thursday, May 25, 2017

Frontline: “American Patriot” (WGBH/PBS, aired May 16, 2017) and "Bannon’s War” (WGBH/PBS, aired May 18, 2017)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2017 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Recently the long-running PBS Frontline program — actually produced for the national network by station WGBH in Boston — has run a couple of episodes that perhaps unwittingly formed odd bookends, one showing the extreme “alt-Right” in revolutionary mode, mounting — and so far getting away with — armed insurrections against the U.S. government, while the other shows the “alt-Right” actually winning admission to the halls of official government power with which to promote its white-separatist, nationalist “America First” agenda. The first program, aired May 16, was called American Patriot — an oddly singular title for a show with plural protagonists — and dealt with the antics of the Bundy family of Nevada. Their first 15 minutes of nationwide fame came in 2014, when paterfamilias Cliven Bundy, a cattle rancher in the middle of a 20-year battle with the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) over when and where his cattle could graze and how much he’d have to pay the government for what was essentially rent for the public lands on which his cattle fed, decided to make his stand in the appropriately named town of Bunkerville, Nevada. Cliven Bundy was at the receiving end of federal policies aimed not only at getting more money from the cattle ranchers in the area but reducing the total amount of area available for grazing so more of the land could be allowed to return to its natural state — and his case became a cause célèbre for the radical-Right militia movement in general and groups with names like the Oath Keepers and the Three Percenters in particular.

Bundy had declared he wasn’t going to pay his grazing fees, and the BLM responded by mounting an operation to seize his cattle and essentially hold them as collateral for the fees he owned. Suddenly the BLM agents were faced with an armed resistance by militia groups demanding that the federal government not only give Cliven Bundy back his cattle but get out of the business of land management altogether and give control of the West’s lands either to the private sector or to state or local governments which would be easier for the ranchers to influence. It wasn’t a new demand: a similar movement had started up in the central West in the late 1970’s that called itself the “Sagebrush Rebellion,” and when Ronald Reagan campaigned for PDwight resident in those states in 1980 he proudly announced, “I am a Sagebrush Rebel.” It was one of the first signals Reagan sent that as President he was going to abandon the tradition of Republican environmentalism that had begun with Theodore Roosevelt and continued through the administrations of Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford (Nixon had signed into law the big environmental protection bills of 1969-1970 and appointed dedicated environmentalists like William Ruckelshaus and Russell Train to run the newly formed Environmental Protection Agency). In 2014 the Bundys were seen by the Right in general — both the nascent alt-Right and the quasi-“respectable” Right of media outlets like Fox News — as heroes courageously standing up to government overreach. As Oregon militia leader Brandon Rappola told Frontline, he was moved to come to Bunkerville to defend the Bundys when he saw a video on YouTube of the male Bundys getting tased by BLM agents and their elderly aunt knocked to the ground. “To come in as a militarized force against your citizen like this, that’s when we the people, we say no, this is not what the Constitution stands for. And we have to remind our federal government that we are the power.” Eventually the BLM agents realized they were outnumbered and outgunned, and they retreated; the Bundys got all their cattle back and they weren’t arrested.

Cliven Bundy instantly became a huge hero to the American Right as a man who had courageously stood up to government oppression — he appeared on Sean Hannity’s show on Fox News and Hannity basically stared at him with gooping admiration — until his public credibility nosedived when he made a widely quoted comment that African-Americans had been better off under slavery than they’ve been since. “I’ve often wondered, are they better off as slaves, picking cotton and having a family life and doing things, or are they better off under government subsidy?” Cliven Bundy said publicly, and in 2014, with an African-American (albeit not one who was descended from American slaves) in the White House, most of the “respectable” Right still considered such expressions of open racism as beyond the pale. The Bundys emerged again in 2016, when Cliven’s son Ammon — who compares to his dad much the way recently defeated French presidential candidate Marine Le Pen compares to hers (Le Pen père was openly anti-Semitic; Le Pen fille realized that in order to be a serious player in French politics she needed to downplay her party’s traditional anti-Jewish prejudices and recast the racist message in nationalist terms, much as Donald Trump did in his successful campaign for President of the U.S.) — led a seemingly bizarre occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon. The Malheur National Wildlife Refuge had originally been established in 1908, when Theodore Roosevelt was President (remember the Republican environmentalist tradition that T.R. established?) and Ammon Bundy and his brother David were coming to the defense of Dwight Hammond, another rebel rancher who had been accused and convicted of arson by the federal government. The government accused Hammond and his family of deliberately setting fires on federal land that endangered human life; the Hammonds claimed they had merely set the fires so the land would grow back as pasture. They were given a light sentence and were actually released when the government won an appeal and a judge ordered them back to prison on the ground that the sentence didn’t meet federal mandatory minimums — and, as Ammon Bundy told Frontline, “This urge just filled my whole body. I felt a divine drive, an urge that said you have to get involved.” The Bundys staged an occupation of Malheur under the organizational name “Citizens for Constitutional Freedom” and, as at the Nevada confrontation, attracted plenty of militia activists and other people who not only had guns but had had military or paramilitary training and therefore knew how to use them.

Not all the militia members went along with the Malheur occupation — they saw themselves as self-defense units and this looked too much like taking the offensive — but among the people who did come was a rancher from Arizona named LeRoy Finicum, who directly confronted law enforcement officials and challenged them to shoot him. They did. Eventually the Malheur occupation ended and the government arrested Aaron and David Bundy and charged them with conspiracy — but an Oregon jury acquitted them on all counts. What was most striking about the Bundy stories was that the government used the same scorched-earth tactics against them they had previously deployed against Left-wing activists from the 1960’s and 1970’s until more recent cases, including the Occupy movement (which some of the Malheur occupiers actually compared themselves to publicly even though the Left-wing Occupiers targeted urban areas and had a very different set of demands and issue positions). They infiltrated agents, including one who posed as a filmmaker interviewing the Bundys for a documentary but who was really an FBI agents assigned to get the Bundys to make incriminating statements on camera. What’s more, some of the infiltrators deliberately acted as agents provocateurs, encouraging the militias to do something violent that the government could then use either to indict them or just go out and shoot them. And the government used the conspiracy statutes against the Bundys because one of the marvelous things about conspiracy law, if you’re a government prosecutor trying to suppress a popular political movement of either the Left or the Right, is that in order to prove there was a conspiracy and your defendants were part of it, you do not have to prove that they actually did anything illegal. All you have to establish is they came together for an illegal purpose and they did one or more “overt acts” in furtherance of that purpose — and the “overt acts” do not necessarily have to be illegal in and of themselves. As the legendary Clarence Darrow explained conspiracy law, “If one boy steals candy, that’s a misdemeanor. If two boys talk about stealing candy but don’t do it, that’s a felony.” I left the Frontline “American Patriot” documentary with oddly mixed feelings, hating the Bundys and loathing their cause but also oddly glad that the government’s underhanded tactics against them ultimately failed.

If the “American Patriot” documentary showcased the alt-Right in the years when it was out of power, the May 23, 2017 Frontline episode, “Bannon’s War,” showed what it looks like when it has a President in office who, if not a committed alt-Rightist (Donald Trump doesn’t appear genuinely committed to much of anything beyond what will make Donald Trump richer and more popular), was certainly comfortable with their philosophy. Like so many of the members of the American ruling class these days, Steve Bannon served his apprenticeship at Goldman Sachs, which is so powerful in its own right on Wall Street and so influential in Washington, D.C. (Trump is the fourth President in a row who has appointed a Secretary of the Treasury who used to work there) it sometimes seems as if the federal government has simply outsourced its entire economic policy to Goldman Sachs. But instead of going from Goldman either into government service or the hedge-fund business, Bannon took his career on a different track, heading for Hollywood with the intent of mobilizing conservatives both in finance and in the entertainment industry to make movies that would reflect the Right-wing world view and counter what Bannon and his fellow Right-wing ideologues saw as the propaganda being put out by “liberal Hollywood.” Bannon didn’t get his name on any major dramatic feature films — he claimed to have helped develop the show Seinfeld and to have had a profit participation in it, but other people involved with Seinfeld have disputed that — so he started producing documentaries admittedly influenced, at least stylistically, by Leni Riefenstahl’s famous 1934 Nazi propaganda film Triumph of the Will. His first production was called In the Face of Evil: Reagan’s War in Word and Deed, and it was originally intended as a celebration of the 40th President’s single-handedly winning the Cold War — but the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on September 11, 2001 led Bannon to add a coda to the Reagan film before he released it in 2004, saying that the Evil Empire still lived, only now the world-threatening enemy was not Communism but Islam. Bannon hooked up with David Bossie, whose group Citizens United produced documentaries trashing Democratic Presidential candidates John Kerry and Hillary Clinton (the Citizens United U.S. Supreme Court decision that opened the floodgates for corporations and rich individuals to buy U.S. elections was centered around a small corporate contribution to Bossie’s film attacking Clinton just before the 2008 election) and also discovered a book called The Fourth Turning by authors William Strauss and Neil Howe. 

The central argument was that U.S. political and social history moves in “saecula,” periods of about 70 to 80 years, and that the American Revolution, the Civil War and the combination of the Great Depression and World War Two were turning points in the succession of “saecula.” Nation author Micah L. Sifry, in a February 8, 2017 article on Bannon (, summed up the theory as follows: “According to Strauss and Howe, roughly every 80 years—a saeculum, or the average life-span of a person—America goes through a cataclysmic crisis. Marked by savagery and genocide, and lasting a decade or more, this crisis ends with a reset of the social order and its survivors all vowing never to let such a catastrophe happen again. Each of these crises, Strauss and Howe posit, have been formative moments in our nation’s history. The Revolution of 1776–83, followed roughly 80 years later by the Civil War, followed 80 years after that by the Great Depression and World War II.” In 2009 Bannon released a film called Generation Zero that was basically a depiction of the U.S. economic crisis of 2008 in terms of the saeculum theory, though he took it considerably farther than Strauss and Howe had: in a profile of Bannon published in the February 2, 2017 Time (, and also in the Frontline program, historian David Kaiser recalled that he had been asked for an interview for Generation Zero, and when it was filmed Bannon wanted a very specific comment out of him. “He wanted to get me to say on camera that I thought it (the so-called “Fourth Turning,” the fourth saeculum in American history) would occur,” Kaiser recalled. “He wasn’t impolite about it, but the thing I remember him saying, ‘Well, look, you know, we have the American revolution. Then we have the Civil War. That’s bigger. Then we have the Second World War, That’s even bigger. So what’s the next one going to be like?’” As part of his belief that the fourth turning was about to happen in the U.S. — and his determination to use his influence as a filmmaker and activist to bring it about — Bannon looked for a politician who could stage a Presidential campaign on his mix of far-Right nationalism, veiled racism and anti-Islam “clash of civilizations” rhetoric. At first he thought he’d found his ideal candidate in Sarah Palin — he even made a film about her, The Undefeated, that was an attempt to launch her candidacy and propel her to the White House — but Palin quickly lost credibility with the Republican Right after she abruptly resigned as governor of Alaska to become a commentator on Fox News, and instead of “undefeated” the general consensus of the Republican Party about Palin became “quitter.” 

However, when Donald Trump made his ferocious entry into Presidential politics in June 2015 by denouncing virtually all Mexican immigrants as “rapists and criminals,” which soared him to the top of the Republican field overnight and ultimately propelled him to the White House, Bannon — as the proprietor of Breitbart News, a far-Right news Web site Bannon took over from its founder, the late Andrew Breitbart, and turned into so aggressively pro-Trump a propaganda site quite a few contributors left in protest (quite a few of Frontline’s sources about Bannon were people who worked for him at Breitbart and quit in disgust over his making it a site to promote all things Trump at the expense of other Right-wing leaders and causes) — went along for the ride and got appointed chief White House strategist when Trump won. Bannon and Stephen Miller, whom he’d met when Miller was an aide to Jeff Sessions, then U.S. Senator and now Attorney General, and recruited to the Trump campaign, drafted the controversial first version of the immigration/refugee/travel ban against individuals from seven majority-Muslim countries and deliberately made sure that no one outside Trump’s inner circle got a look at it before Trump issued it. Indeed, it was largely Bannon’s idea to have Trump start his presidency with a flurry of executive orders to make it clear, as Bannon put it, that there was a “new sheriff in town” (a phrase quite a lot of Trump advisers have been using to defend his policies and establish him as a transformational leader who seeks a profound and lasting change in American politics and how American individuals relate to their government), which made the Trump administration in its early days look less like a newly elected government of a democratic republic and more like a cabal of generals in a Third World country who had just grabbed power in a coup d’état and whose leader was ruling by decree. Bannon also not only anticipated but actually welcomed the protests that followed the anti-Muslim ban, figuring that most of America would be repelled by them (as they were by similar street actions in the late 1960’s, paving the way for the election of Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan as “law and order” Presidents) and thus anti-Trump protests — the bigger, more unruly and more violent, the better — would only bolster the administration and make Trump and his policies more popular. 

It hasn’t quite worked out that way — Trump’s approval rating in opinion polls has hovered between 38 and 42 percent, showing he’s kept the loyalty of most of the 46 percent of the people who voted for him but he hasn’t really expanded his base — but so far the Democrats have proven unable to mount an electoral resistance to him: Trump got all his Cabinet appointees through the U.S. Senate despite a razor-thin Republican majority, he got his American Health Care Act through the House of Representatives and so far the Republicans are 2-for-2 in the special House elections in Kansas and Montana despite much-ballyhooed Democratic challenges — and as the Frontline documentary points out, reports of Bannon’s demise as a Trump adviser have been greatly exaggerated. It’s true that Bannon took such an outsized role in the early days of the Trump presidency he ran the risk of getting himself fired by challenging Trump’s notorious ego — Trump has made it clear over and over again that there’s no room for anyone in his administration (or his business empire before that) with an independent power base: there’s room for only one prima donna in the Trump world, and that’s Trump — and it’s also true that Trump’s other key adviser, his son-in-law Jared Kushner, has made at least some attempts to move the Trump administration closer to mainstream hard-Right Republicanism and away from Bannon’s messianic vision — but Trump took Bannon and White House chief of staff Reince Priebus on his trip to Saudi Arabia, though he sent them home before the White House entourage reached their next stop, Israel. (Stephen Colbert showed a photo of Bannon with some of the Saudi royal family’s entourage and bitterly joked on his late-night talk show, “These aren’t the people in white robes Bannon usually hangs out with.”) 

In some ways Bannon seems at times to be a reincarnation of one of the least acknowledged but most important people in Trump’s history, the New York super-attorney Roy Cohn, who began his career as chief of staff for the notorious Red-baiting U.S. Senator Joe McCarthy (R-Wisconsin) and later masterminded Trump’s rise from small-time real-estate developer in the outer boroughs of New York to major player in the sacred precincts of Manhattan. Just as the cadences of McCarthy’s rhetoric live on in Trump (as well as in Rush Limbaugh, Bill O’Reilly, Sean Hannity, Mark Levin, Roger Hedgecock and the other superstars of the Right-wing media), so does Cohn’s take-no-prisoners style and view of the world in apocalyptic terms lives on in Bannon. The Frontline documentary on Bannon ends with Washington Post political editor Robert Costa summing up, “Bannon sees an amazing and probably last in his lifetime opportunity to really have his worldview come to the fore in American politics. He wants to see this out as much as he can, to see what can actually be accomplished with a populist president.” While Donald Trump is in no way, shape or form a “populist” — he’s actually the sort of 1880’s politician the original Populists of the 1890’s were railing against, the super-rich man who bought his way into political office and blatantly and unashamedly used it to make himself and his rich friends even richer, and though he threw out a lot of populist-sounding rhetoric out during the campaign that was as meaningless as the lies he told people to get them to buy his condos, spend money at his casinos or attend Trump University: as President, Trump has governed as an extreme Right-wing Libertarian whose budget and health care proposals show a determination to end the whole concept of a government safety net and tell individuals that when it comes to retirement or health care, they’re on their own — Costa is right that Bannon has an apocalyptic world view and that his promise to make Trump a transformative President feeds Trump’s insatiable ego and his view of himself as a super-person who alone can fix America’s problems.

Law and Order: Special Victims Unit: “Sanctuary” and “American Dream” (NBC-Universal, 2017)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2017 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night’s season finale of Law and Order: Special Victims Unit — closing out its 18th year and sixth without original series co-lead Christopher Meloni — was a two-part show called “Sanctuary” (two episodes, both written by Rick Eid and, I believe, Judith Leight, but only the first directed by Law and Order hand Jean de Segonzac) which was quite effective even though the writers and directors seemed to be going out of their way to cram in as many topical references as possible so they could achieve both a “ripped from the headlines” feel and some fashionable (in West and East Coast circles, anyway) digs against the anti-immigrant fervor and racism unleashed by the Trump Administration (though the Orangeman’s name isn’t mentioned once in the actual script). The show begins with a break-in at Samra’s middle-Eastern restaurant, in which the principals are a legally resident émigré family from Syria but much of their staff is undocumented and therefore in mortal fear of being caught up in an Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) raid. The Samra family that owns the restaurant consists of a husband, Kumar; his wife, Maya; and their two daughters, one of whom is Lela (Melanie Chandra). Kumar and one of his daughters are killed in the attack; Lela is raped but survives and Maya also survives. 

It turns out there was another Middle Easterner there, Maya’s brother Yusef Massad (Nik Sadhnani), who sneaked in the back door and witnessed the crime but did nothing to stop it. Yusef is worried not only because he’s undocumented but also he’s Gay, and his fear is not only will he be deported either to the family’s native Syria or to a refugee camp in Turkey, but once there he will be found out and be murdered by some twit who thinks that by knocking off a Queer he’s doing the holy work of Allah. Yusef lasts long enough to testify before a grand jury and allow assistant district attorney Rafael Barba (Raúl Esparza) to get an indictment against the one person of the three assailants the cops have been able to find, Hector Ramirez, who used to work as a busboy at Samra’s until the Samra family had to let him go because he is an undocumented immigrant from El Salvador. Alas, Yusef gets tired of being holed up in his apartment with Detective Dominick Carisi, Jr. (Peter Scanavino) essentially baby-sitting him to keep him safe for the actual trial. He insists on going out for cigarettes to the local bodega — and while there he runs into a group of protesters (throughout the episode there are protesters from both sides of the immigration debate — hard-core Trumpists with signs like “Lock Him Up!” and pro-immigrant groups with rainbow-colored signs with legends like “Immigrants Are People Too” — and at one point the police have to come between the rival groups before they assault each other) and a batch of ICE agents who take him into custody. The ICE personnel have the same contemptuous attitude towards the New York Police Department as most federal agents have towards local law enforcement in Dick Wolf’s crime shows, and by the time the SVU cops find out where Yusef was being held the plane deporting him to the Middle East has already taken off. 

Ramirez is being represented by a hard-core immigration attorney, Naomi Ziegler (a powerful heavy-set actress named Meredith Holzman with a striking resemblance to the singer Adele), who totally buys his alibi that he was with his wife and their two daughters the night of the murders, and refuses even to consider the cops’ offer of lenience if he’ll name the two other people who participated in the crime. Then Ramirez is held hostage by two Middle Easterners who try to force the information out of him at gunpoint — the police pick off one of them and arrest the other — and Ramirez only “turns” when detective Amanda Rollins (Kelli Giddish) threatens to have child protective services called in to take the kids away and Lt. Olivia Benson (series star Mariska Hargitay, displaying the annoying schoolmarmishness that has crept into her performances here since she aged and Meloni left) threatens to call ICE and have her deported if she doesn’t admit that, no, her husband wasn’t with her all night — he didn’t come home until 2 a.m. and there was blood on his clothes. The other two crooks turn out to be Trump-influenced white supremacist types, one of whom is named Cole (ironically also the villain’s name in the rerun episode they presented just before this one) and one of whom is Mitch Jenkins (Tyler Elliot Burke), who like Hector is relying on his wife to alibi him. (The page on this show so far is woefully incomplete and inaccurate; it lists Christopher Meloni in the cast, playing his old character of Detective Elliot Stabler, and while it’s not inconceivable that Dick Wolf and his staff could bring Meloni back for a guest appearance on a season-ending episode, it didn’t actually happen, alas.) Ramirez finally turns and agrees to testify against his associates at trial, but is himself murdered by a Middle Easterner before he can do so — thereby ironically raising the chances that the white racists who did the crime could be acquitted. 

Maya tries to bolster the case against the defendants by telling the jury in the trial she actually saw their faces briefly (mostly they were wearing ski masks throughout the whole crime) when they threatened to come back and kill her if she told the police about the crime and their guilt, but when she adds that she told Lt. Benson this weeks before Hector was killed (a lie) the defense calls Benson. Benson tells the truth about the conversation she had with Maya where Maya changed her story — it happened the day after Hector was shot — and it appears the bad guys are going to get away with it after all when Mitch’s wife Carleen (Emma Myles, a good actress in a thankless role), leaned on once again by detective Rollins with the threat of the loss of her child (son Tyler, played by Henry Gagliardi), agrees to testify against her husband. The two men are found guilty and sentenced to life imprisonment, but there’s a coda in which — again without using the T-word — the cops, including the chief of detectives annoyingly played by Peter Gallagher, and Barba lament that people. who used to keep their racist ideas to themselves now freely and proudly acknowledge them in public because “political changes” make them feel like they now have permission to do so. This was a good SVU, way overwrought in its attempt to do all sides of the immigration issue (including the rivalries between Latin-American and Middle Eastern immigrants) and with a few too many melodramatic plot twists to be sustainable even over a two-hour (actually 84 minutes when the commercials are deducted) running time, and one gets frustrated over whether there will ever be any evidence against the bad guys with the witnesses against them either getting deported, getting killed, or discrediting their stories by perjuring themselves. It’s also yet one more indication of how Dick Wolf, who began Law and Order with the mission of appealing to Right-wing America by blasting the Constitutional protections of due process and saying they were just being used by criminals to get away with things on technicalities, has long since joined the liberal establishment and is constructing stories like this in which the immigrants are (generally) the good guys, and the bad guys are racists, white supremacists and the sorts of people who in real life voted for Trump.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

American Epic, part 2: “Blood and Soil” (Lo-Max Films/PBS, 2015-2017)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2017 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I watched the show I was really looking forward to last night: the second of three episodes of American Epic, the mini-series about the classic “roots” records made by Black and white artists (and, in the third show, people of other ethnicities as well) in the late 1920’s and 1930’s, when the recording industry, decimated first by radio and then by the Depression, lost much of its market for mainstream white pop music and in order to stay in business had to look for new markets in rural areas. Some of the places they sold phonographs and records to in those days were so far off the grid — literally — they didn’t even have electricity, which meant no radio (though some of the “roots” acts record companies signed, notably the Carter Family, eventually became radio stars as well as rural electrification and the licensing of new stations expanded radio to reach these previously unserved communities). The Los Angeles Times published a couple of articles about this series by Robert Lloyd, in one of which he quotes producer T Bone Burnett (he spells the name with no hyphen between “T” and “Bone,”  unlike the blues great Aaron “T-Bone” Walker, who did use the hyphen) as saying record sales dropped 80 percent from 1925 to 1926 because of the competition from radio — I’d earlier known there was a decline but I hadn’t realized it was that severe, and in 1929 the Victor record company, on the principle of if you can’t beat ’em join ’em, merged with the Radio Corporation of America. (In 1934, with the economy in enough of a recovery that people started having disposable income again, RCA Victor helped save its record business by marketing the Duo Junior, a turntable that could be plugged into a radio set — the forerunner of the stereo components market that reached its apex in the 1970’s.) 

The second episode was called “Blood and Soil” and focused on three groups of artists. The first focus was on Black gospel singers in general (the show opened with an incredible clip of Sister Rosetta Tharpe in full cry belting out “Up Above My Head” — it was late enough in her career her hair was white by then, but she was still in great form, playing that huge electric guitar of hers and showing, as do just about all the films of her, that rock ’n’ roll has its roots in Black gospel music in general and artists like Tharpe in particular) and one obscure one in particular, Elder John E. Burch. Never heard of him? I hadn’t either, though he recorded 10 titles for Victor in 1929 that were in that odd sub-genre that attempted to reproduce an entire Black church service, or as much of it as could be fit on one side of a three-minute 20-second 78 rpm record, in which the star of the record was a minister who alternated between straightforward preaching, preaching to musical and rhythmic cadences (essentially rapping) and full-out singing. Burch was pastor of the Triumph Church in Cheraw, South Carolina, a town I’d heard of otherwise only as the birthplace of jazz great Dizzy Gillespie (he lived there from his birth in 1917 until 1935, when his family joined the great northern exodus and moved to Philadelphia). One of the people interviewed for this show was Dizzy’s cousin Ernest Gillespie, who read a passage from Dizzy’s autobiography To Be or Not to Bop in which he recalled listening to the services at Elder Burch’s home-built church and getting his first feel for music there. 

Burch was a quite remarkable man who managed to build a restaurant, a boarding house and other businesses in a time and place where most African-Americans were mired in poorly paid farm work. The extant photo of him shows a tall, striking man who, except for the shape of his nose, didn’t look particularly Black (the picture was in color but it’s not clear whether it was photographed that way or, in line with a common practice of the time, it was a black-and-white photo hand-painted with watercolors to create a color effect), and from that and his electrifying records (he was one of those Black singers who had such an effective falsetto it wouldn’t be clear just from listening to them whether the singer was a man or a woman) one can get an impression of what a service in the Triumph Church might have been like. (The filmmakers had the cooperation of the current pastor of the Triumph Church in Cheraw — which is still housed in Elder Burch’s old building — who let them film a sequence showing a modern-day service there, complete with a gospel choir singing in the old tradition, starting out with a slow hymn and then speeding the tempo up until it sounds like rock ’n’ roll.) The commentators argued that Aretha Franklin and James Brown were the stylistic heirs of Elder Burch, and backed that up with a film clip of Brown performing “Please, Please, Please” and looking like a Black minister of a Pentecostal church getting “into the spirit” from the pulpit. (Aretha was literally the heir of a Black church tradition; her father, Reverend C. L. Franklin, was pastor of the largest African-American church in Detroit and the best-selling artist on Chess Records even though he neither sang nor played an instrument — his albums were simply recordings of his sermons.) 

The second segment of the show dealt with some obscure white folk artists from the West Virginia coal fields — Ernest Williamson, Dick Justice, Frank Hutchison — who would probably be totally forgotten today if their handful of late-1920’s recordings for Okeh and Brunswick hadn’t been discovered in the early 1950’s by Harry Smith, who included them in the six-LP boxed set Anthology of American Folk Music released in 1952 by Folkways Records. Smith’s set was ground-breaking; a lot of the musicians from the “folk revival” of the late 1950’s and early 1960’s covered the songs on Smith’s set and were led by it to uncover other songs from the same traditions. Smith’s criteria for inclusion were that the records all had to be commercial products rather than Lomax-style “field recordings” — he wanted music that had been sufficiently popular that someone had thought they could make money selling records of it, whether they actually had or not — and he also chose exclusively recordings made between 1927, two years after the introduction of electrical recording (a dramatic improvement in the quality of recorded sound and one for which, ironically, the record industry adopted the technology of radio, including microphones and electronic amplification, to try to beat back radio’s commercial challenge to their business model), and 1932, when the Depression was at its worst and commercial recording in the U.S. virtually ceased to exist. (About the only people still making records were mega-stars like Bing Crosby, whose supercharged popularity on radio meant there was still a market for his records even though almost nothing else was selling.) 

One of the ironies from this segment was that it was the white West Virginia musicians who first recorded the songs “John Henry” and “Staggerlee” — songs I’d always assumed were Black in origin — and another was that once they’d had their brief brush with recorded immortality, the musicians who made them went back to the West Virginia coal country. The filmmakers interviewed Dick Justice’s son Ernest, who told them that his dad never mentioned to him that he’d made records as a folksinger and he was totally ignorant of his dad’s records until he discovered them somewhere else. (He didn’t say where, but it was probably from a previous interviewer seeking him out for info about his father.) The third, last and longest segment was about a musician considerably better known than the ones in the other two, pioneering Mississippi Delta bluesman Charley Patton. (There’s some confusion about the spelling of his first name: it’s “Charley” on the labels of his original records for Paramount but some of Paramount’s ads for them listed him as the more familiar “Charlie.”) Just about all the other pioneers of Delta blues, including Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf, either studied with Patton or at least saw him live, and according to one elder the filmmakers talked to it was Patton who first did all the sorts of trick playing — picking the guitar with his teeth, playing with it behind  his back and miming having sex with it — later adopted by T-Bone Walker and still later by Jimi Hendrix (who’d learned them from watching Walker while on chit’lin’ circuit tours with bands that were opening for him). By coincidence I didn’t have to go online for Patton’s music the way I’d had to for the Carter Family and the Memphis Jug Band after watching episode one: I have a three-CD compilation on the Catfish Records label called The Definitive Charley Patton. It’s not as “definitive” as the label indicates — there are competing “complete” editions of the Patton legacy that stretch out to four or up to seven CD’s (the seven-CD version added covers of Patton’s songs by artists he influenced) — and it contains only one “take” of each song. 

Patton made most of his records between 1927 and 1933 for the cheap Paramount label — which had nothing to do with the Paramount movie studio but was an enterprise of the Wisconsin Chair Company. They got into the record business in a weird way: in 1919 the Thomas A. Edison company ordered a large quantity of phonograph cabinets from Wisconsin Chair, then — after the cabinets had already been made — reneged on the deal and refused to pay for them. Fine, said the people running Wisconsin Chair: we’ll just make our own phonographs and put them in the cabinets. One problem was that the standard recording technology, involving a flat disc with a lateral-cut groove (the groove moved the stylus sideways to play the record), was under patents co-owned by Victor and Columbia, so other record players could only play so-called “hill-and-dale” discs (the stylus moved up and down), so Wisconsin Chair had to make their own hill-and-dale records so buyers of their hill-and-dale phonographs would have something to play on them. In 1921 the Gennett company successfully sued Victor and Columbia and broke their patent monopoly on lateral-cut records, and with far more lateral than hill-and-dale phonographs in existence (though some third-party vendors sold adapters you could put at the end of your tone arm and thereby play either sort of disc on the same equipment), Paramount, like Brunswick, Gennett, Sonora and the other independents, shifted to the standard lateral-cut format. Wisconsin Chair originally aimed their records exclusively at the urban white middle class, but they also agreed to press records for the Black Swan label, a Black-owned indie founded in 1920 by W. C. Handy and his business partner, Harry Pace, whose leading artist was Ethel Waters. In 1925 Black Swan went bankrupt after Waters left for Columbia, and since they owed Wisconsin Chair a lot of money for pressing their records, Wisconsin Chair took over Black Swan’s catalog and their contracts with their remaining Black artists, and all of a sudden they were in the “race” records business. They had one of the top blues singers of the decade, Gertrude “Ma” Rainey, and they also pioneered the recording of country blues (male singers backed solely by their own acoustic and slide guitars) by signing Patton and Texas blues singer Blind Lemon Jefferson.

Jefferson was actually a bigger star at the time than Patton — so much so that when he died young Paramount not only issued every remaining master by him but even hired other singers to impersonate him on records and passed the records off as “new” Blind Lemon Jefferson sides — but Patton was big enough Paramount advertised him heavily and used quite a lot of gimmicks to sell his releases, including putting out some as “The Masked Marvel” (illustrated with a drawing of Patton wearing a Lone Ranger-style domino mask) and running a contest to see if people could guess the singer’s identity. The main problem with Paramount records is their sound quality is uniformly poor, muffled and lacking the “air” one hears on the major labels of the time (Victor, Columbia, Brunswick and Okeh); when the rest of the industry switched to electrical recording in the late 1920’s Paramount advertised their records as “Electrically Recorded” but they still sounded so bad one joke in the industry went that all Paramount was doing to make their records “electrical” was turning on a lightbulb in the studio. Charley Patton was discovered in 1926 by a talent scout named H. C. Speir, the first person in the Deep South who set up a recording studio where aspiring record artists could make demonstration records (“demos”) so they could offer them to record companies and get signed professionally. Patton made a demo in Speir’s studio and attracted the attention of the talent scouts for Paramount, where he made a wide variety of songs including gospel and preaching records as well as blues. 

He played slide guitar on most of his recordings, and interestingly the complete Patton compilation is quite a bit more listenable than a lot of single-artist blues albums from the time because though he played almost everything in the medium-slow “walking” tempo that was standard for country blues, he wrote a wide variety of songs. The great trap in assembling a blues album of 1920’s and 1930’s records by one artist is monotony — since the records were issued two songs at a time as 78 rpm singles, the original buyers generally didn’t listen to more than two songs in a row by the same artist and thereby didn’t notice if their songs sounded pretty much the same. (Even the complete Bessie Smith collection suffers from this: records that would sound powerful heard one or two at a time become monotonous when you hear them over the length of an LP side or a CD and notice she’s singing basically similar songs in similar tempi with similar accompaniments. For me Bessie Smith was at her best when she sang songs that weren’t blues but she sang them with blues feeling and “bent” the notes of a standard pop song in blues style.) The show focuses on Patton as a sort of ur-blues artist that shaped the standard blues styles that followed after World War II — the so-called “Chicago blues” that was basically the Mississippi Delta style (and created largely by people from the Delta like Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf), but played on electric guitars and with full-band backing (harmonica, piano, bass, drums and often saxophone). The show features archival interviews with Howlin’ Wolf (true name: Chester Alan Arthur Burnett) in which he acknowledges Patton’s influence on his music — he followed Patton around his home at Dockery’s Plantation (which still exists) when Patton came to play there and learned all Patton’s special chords — though Wolf was an incredibly creative musician on his own and transformed Patton’s material so extensively the songs qualified as “original.” (Compare Charley Patton’s “Spoonful Blues” to Wolf’s “Spoonful” and the songs are almost totally different even though Wolf’s has its roots in Patton’s.) 

Like most of the Delta blues artists, Patton wrote topical songs about issues like the boll weevil (which decimated the South’s cotton crops and ruined the already precarious existence of many Southern tenant farmers) and the Mississippi River floods of 1926 — though the commentators on this show don’t mention that one reason there are so many blues songs about the Mississippi River floods was the Melrose Brothers music-publishing company actually ran a contest for the best one. (The contest was won, as she deserved, by Bessie Smith for her masterpiece, “Backwater Blues.”) Like other Paramount artists, Patton frequently recorded the same songs more than once, the executives at Wisconsin Chair having calculated that once their stampers (the negative molds from which records were pressed) wore out, it would be cheaper just to call the artist back to re-record the song rather than preserve the master to make new stampers. That’s one reason why some “complete” Charley Patton collections are longer than others: some compilers just tried to pick out the best version extant (musically or technically) of each song, while others have tried to trace and include all the extant “takes” of each song. Despite the technical limitations of Paramount’s recording (one feels with Patton as compared to Robert Johnson the same frustration one feels with Ma Rainey as compared to Bessie Smith: why, why, why couldn’t Patton have recorded for a major label with state-of-the-art equipment for the time so we could really hear him?), Patton’s power and drive come through strongly. On his religious songs he sounds uncannily like Blind Willie Johnson (who did record for a major, Columbia), particularly in the “vocal” sounds he gets from the slide guitar that second his actual voice, and on his secular blues he not only sounds like the model for virtually all blues that came after him, he comes up with lines of lyric that have been recycled for plenty of blues song since (though some of these traditional lyrics may predate Patton and their origins may be lost in the mists of time of people who didn’t get to record).

Monday, May 22, 2017

American Epic, part 1: “The Big Bang” (Lo-Max Films/PBS, 2015-2017)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2017 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last Tuesday, May 16, PBS nationally broadcast “The Big Bang,” the first part of a three-part miniseries (each episode lasting only an hour, unfortunately — they could have been considerably longer!) called American Epic, about the movement among American recording companies begun in the mid-1920’s to broaden the market for records and record players by going out into the country and recording both Black and white “roots” artists, the people who would eventually form the bedrock of the genres we now know as blues and country music, respectively. The version of the story told here is that record sales were beginning to fall in the mid-1920’s because of the growing competition of radio, which offered music for free once you invested in a receiving set, and so record companies sent talent scouts to parts of the country — mainly the Deep South — where there was very little broadcasting and therefore radio hadn’t penetrated yet. The truth is a bit more complicated; both Black and white “roots” artists had been mainstays of the record business since its earliest days, and two of the most enormous record hits of the early 1920’s were Mamie Smith’s “Crazy Blues” — produced by Ralph Peer for Okeh Records (Peer is a very important part of American Epic) — and Vernon Dalhart’s “The Wreck of the Old 97.” Both of those records sold over a million copies and showed the commercial viability of recording blues and country music, respectively. 

The record business was aggressively challenged by radio, and was so decimated by the 1929 Depression that there were quite a few people who thought it would never recover (it did, starting in 1934, as the overall economy recovered as well). The show mentions Ralph Peer and also his great rival at Columbia, Frank Walker, who in 1923 discovered and signed Bessie Smith (and in 1945, driven out of Columbia by parent company CBS’s mandatory retirement policy, he joined MGM Records and there signed Hank Williams), and includes archive audio interviews with both of them as well as film footage of their sons. The real story was that in 1925 Peer quit Okeh Records in a dispute over salary and set his sights on the biggest record company of all (at the time), Victor. The only problem was that Victor didn’t want to pay him. Fine, said Peer: he’d sign with Victor and produce records for them for free as long as he and his newly formed music publishing company, Peer Music (now Peer-Southern and still run by the Peer family) got ownership of the copyright of any original songs Peer’s artists recorded. Peer had seen that the real long-term income possibilities in the music business weren’t in recording artists, who came and went (Peer told one of his most important artists, pioneering blues-country singer Jimmie Rodgers, that he shouldn’t expect to be a big record seller for longer than three years), but in ownership of the songs themselves, which meant he would get royalties not only from the original recordings but from anyone else who covered them. (“You may forget the singer, but don’t forget this song,” goes a line in one of the Carter Family records Peer produced.) One quirk of this arrangement was that Peer’s artists weren’t allowed to cover other people’s songs because then Peer wouldn’t make any money from them — Rodgers broke the rule when he recorded “Frankie and Johnny” in 1929 and a furious Peer blocked release of the record until 1938, when Rodgers had been dead for five years and Victor was putting out just about everything they had on him. They could only record their own compositions, old folk songs they’d tweaked enough to claim them as “originals” for copyright purposes, or other songs owned by Peer’s company.

In August 1927 Peer took portable recording equipment (which wasn’t all that portable; at the time professional-quality recording equipment was heavy and massive, and because the engineers couldn’t count on a steady enough electrical current to keep the cutting turntable running at a constant speed, the turntable ran on power generated by falling weights controlled by a pendulum like an old grandfather clock) to Bristol, Tennessee and advertised for anyone who wanted to sing and play for his microphones to give this recording business a trial. The biggest artists he landed were Rodgers and the Carter Family, who were more or less extensively profiled on this program (I say “more or less” because while they were the principal focus of the first half of “The Big Bang,” PBS did an earlier documentary on them that was longer and did a much better job of telling their interesting story) even though when they showed up in Bristol the Carters had never performed professionally. Like a lot of the other artists who showed up before Peer’s microphones, the Carters — A. P. (Alvin Pleasant) and Sara Carter, who were both first or second cousins (accounts differ, but it’s known that “Carter” was both Sara’s birth name and her married name) and husband and wife; and Maybelle Carter, who was A.P.’s sister and Sara’s cousin — had previously thought of music as something you did for fun, picking and singing on your porch for your own amusement or for your relatives and friends. The idea that you could actually make money off it was totally foreign to them. A. P. persuaded his reluctant womenfolk to make the journey from their home in Maces Spring, Virginia to Bristol, Tennessee — one reason for their reluctance was Sara had just given birth and Maybelle was reaching the end of a pregnancy — to try out in Bristol, and Peer heard an electrifying quality in Sara Carter’s voice and signed them instantly. Under his arrangement with Peer, A. P. Carter realized he’d have to keep him supplied with a steady stream of “new” songs, and when the Carters had established themselves as recording and radio stars (sometimes accompanied by Lesley “Esley” Riddle, a Black guitar player from Kingsport, Tennessee) A. P. would tour the South looking for folk songs he could take, tweak and offer to Peer’s company as copyrightable “originals.” Nolan Porterfield,  Jimmie Rodgers’ biographer, noted in his book that grabbing folk songs, changing them a bit and copyrighting them as your own work might seem exploitative, but it did mean that a lot of songs that might otherwise have been lost forever were preserved. 

The Carter Family finally broke up in 1944 after A. P. and Sara separated over Sara’s affair with yet another member of their extended family — A. P.’s cousin, Coy Bayes (Sara wrote a song for the group, “I’m Thinking Tonight of My Blue Eyes,” as a love song for Bayes, and every time the group sang it on the radio it was a signal to him that she wanted them to get together after the show), and A. P. ended up leaving show business and running a two-bit grocery store in the middle of nowhere. The previous PBS documentary on the Carters showed a photo of this rather sad-looking store with a sign out front reading “A. P. Carter, Prop.”, and I couldn’t help but wonder if anyone who shopped there associated that A. P. Carter with the male member of the original Carter Family that had sold millions of records and largely established country music as a viable genre. Maybelle Carter became a major solo artist on the Grand Ole Opry and her offspring continued the tradition: Maybelle’s daughter June Carter married Johnny Cash and June’s daughter Carlene (not from Cash but from her previous husband) also became a country star in her own right, while up until the 1980’s various combinations of Carter generations toured either as “The Carter Family” or “The Carter Sisters.” This show also doesn’t mention (though the previous documentary did) that Maybelle Carter invented a way of playing lead and rhythm guitar simultaneously that became known as the “Carter Scratch” (it means picking lead parts on the lower strings and chords on the upper ones) and is still one of the basic techniques used by country guitarists. Ralph Peer, Frank Walker and the other great record talent scouts of their generation (including probably the greatest record producer of all time in terms of discovering and incubating new talent, John Hammond) said that what they listened for in a potential new signing was an electrifying quality that moved them on an intense emotional level and they felt would move other people as well — and as crude as they are (by comparison not only with the recording artists since but even with contemporaries like Jimmie Rodgers who had performed professionally before they recorded), the Carter Family’s records hold up beautifully because of their simplicity and direct, heartfelt emotion. (The Carter Family seem to me to be strongest in their religious songs, including what’s probably their most covered piece, “Can the Circle Be Unbroken?”[1]; virtually all African-American music is rooted in the Black church tradition, and quite a few white artists from the South also had their roots in the church, including the Carters, Hank Williams, Elvis Presley and Dolly Parton.)

The second half of American Epic’s first episode, “The Big Bang,” focused on a Black group considerably more obscure than the Carter Family (and also, quite frankly, sounding considerably more dated even though a surprising number of their songs were covered by folk and rock bands in the 1960’s): the Memphis Jug Band, described on their Wikipedia page as “an American musical group active from the mid-1920’s to the late 1950’s.[1] The band featured harmonica, kazoo, fiddle and mandolin or banjolin, backed by guitar, piano, washboard, washtub bass and jug. They played slow blues, pop songs, humorous songs and upbeat dance numbers with jazz and string band flavors. The band made the first commercial recordings in Memphis, Tennessee, and recorded more sides than any other prewar jug band.” The musical legacy of Memphis is one of the most famous and yet most bizarrely misunderstood of that of any major American city, largely because the current Memphis city government has turned their city into a virtual theme park for Elvis Presley and in the process crowded out just about any other commemoration of their town’s rich musical history. (The converted movie theatre in which the Stax company recorded some of the greatest soul records of the 1960’s and 1970’s was torn down and is now a vacant lot.) I would go so far as to say that Memphis was to rock ’n’ roll what New Orleans was to jazz: the place where the various styles came together and fused into something new and appealing to millions of people around the world. (One of my favorite photos from Memphis shows Elvis and B. B. King hanging out together behind a Memphis movie theatre at a time when virtually no one outside of Memphis had ever heard of either of them.) Various players came and went in the Memphis Jug Band — its records were made in the late 1920’s and early 1930’s but the band remained a live attraction until the late 1950’s — but the key figures were singer-guitarist-songwriter-harmonica player Will Shade (who according to the Wikipedia page on the group also was known as Son Brimmer, sometimes spelled Sun Brimmer) and guitarist and second vocalist Charlie Burse (pronounced “Bursey”). Like a lot of Black groups of the period (including Duke Ellington’s band, who also recorded as “Connie’s Hot Chocolates” and “The Harlem Footwarmers”), they honored the “exclusive” part of their record contract more in the breach than in the observance, recording under such alternate names as the Picaninny Jug Band, the Memphis Sanctified Singers, the Carolina Peanut Boys, the Dallas Jug Band, the Memphis Sheiks and the Jolly Jug Band. (The “Memphis Sanctified Singers” name probably came about so they could record religious material and sell records to a market that was not only disinterested but morally repulsed by blues.)

What holds up about the Memphis Jug Band’s records today is not so much their music as their lyrics, particularly their dispassionate descriptions of dissolute lifestyles: “Cocaine Habit Blues,” “A Black Woman Is Like a Black Snake” (the title is a reflection of the internal racism within America’s Black community at the time, in which lighter-skinned Blacks were considered higher-class and more moral while darker-skinned Blacks were considered lower-class and dangerous: one can see this division in a lot of the “race” movies of the time, made with Black casts for Black audiences; usually “race” movie producers, both Black and white, cast lighter-skinned actors as the heroes and darker ones either as villains or as comic relief) and “Stealin’, Stealin’.” The American Epic show depicts rapper Nas covering “A Black Woman Is Like a Black Snake,” rapping the lyric instead of singing it the way Shade did, and using it as a defense of rap (or “hip-hop,” the euphemism for rap generally used by people who like it) by saying that he’s working in the same tradition that Shade was when he wrote the song. I think there’s a difference — and I’m well aware much of my distaste for rap may be a simple generation gap: I’ve now become the representative of the older generation muttering about the awful music the kids are listening to — and I think the difference was that the older musicians who wrote songs about the darker sides of life were simply describing them, whereas the rappers actively take pride in doing all those dirty, disgusting things like raping women, beating Queers, committing armed robbery and murder and collecting aggressively ugly and tasteless jewelry (“bling”). Rap really doesn’t have its roots in older forms of African-American music (though the cadences of most rap do derive, in a weird and twisted way, from the cadences of Black ministers in the ways they preached) as much as it does in “The Dozens,” an old street-corner word game played by Black men in which the idea was to boast as much as possible about your own physical, financial and sexual prowess and come up with as many put-downs of the person you were “dozening” with as you could think of.

One odd thing about the periodic rediscovery of “roots” music is that it’s not always the most interesting artists that get rediscovered and hailed as the masters. I thought of that when the American Epic producer-director-writer, British filmmaker Bernard MacMahon (who whimsically named his production company “Lo-Max Films,” after Alan and Louis Lomax, the pioneering Black folklorists who traveled the South with portable recording equipment in the late 1930’s and 1940’s, recorded “folk” artists and gave them $20 each as a token payment — earning the gratitude of amateurs like Dockery’s Plantation sharecropper McKinley Morganfield, who later moved to Chicago and became a blues star as Muddy Waters; and the ire of Blind Willie McTell, who responded to the Lomaxes’ payment with, “What is this $20 shit? When I was on Victor I used to get $100 a side!” It was an ironic choice because MacMahon consciously avoided noncommercial field recordings and concentrated on artists who were signed, however tenuously, to established record companies whose executives hoped to make money from them) included a bit of “Old Jim Canan’s” by Robert Wilkins, a classic-era blues artist whom I regard as one of the most unjustly neglected blues musicians of all time. (I think he was better than the more highly hyped Robert Johnson, but maybe that’s just because I find Wilkins so much more admirable as a human being. Johnson begged his record producer for a nickel because the cheap prostitute he wanted charged 50¢ and he was a nickel short; Wilkins quit the music business altogether in 1936 when a crowd in a juke joint he was playing rioted, became a born-again Christian minister and faith healer, and when he returned to music in the early 1960’s it was as a gospel singer.) Ironically, the illegal nightclub Wilkins recorded the song about is the only one of the old Memphis blues clubs that hasn’t been torn down, but the place where Wilkins boasted you could get “beer and cocaine” is now — get this — a police station. (Wilkins’ masterpiece, “That’s No Way to Get Along,” was covered by the Rolling Stones using his more Biblically-themed rewrite of the lyric, “Prodigal Son,” but he’s never achieved the cachet with the rock audience Johnson has.)  

American Epic has come with the PBS hype machine (such as it is) working hard; they got Robert Redford to narrate it (though his voice is not distinctive enough to be recognizable if you can’t see him as well) and in addition to selling the show itself on DVD and Blu-Ray they’re also selling a five-CD compilation of the artists represented and a two-CD album of modern artists, including Jack White, Elton John, Taj Mahal, Alabama Shakes, rapper Nas, East L.A.’s Los Lobos and more, not only recording the old songs but recording them on reconstructed 1930’s equipment, direct-to-disc on fragile wax masters that had to go through an elaborate set of electroplating process so they could be turned into molds from which records could be pressed. (Methinks it occurred to whoever was in their marketing department to ask themselves, “What can we possibly do to attract people like Mark Conlan to our project?” If that’s what they were thinking, they were right!)

[1] — For some reason most of the covers of this — including the one by Willie Nelson depicted on American Epic — change the first word of the lyric to “Will the Circle Be Unbroken?”

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Secrets of My Stepdaughter (Cover Productions, Reel One Entertainment, Lifetime, 2017)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2017 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

As has become their practice, Lifetime last night (Saturday, May 20) scheduled two movies back-to-back in prime time that were too similar in plot and theme — both are about stepmothers threatened, intimidated and put in mortal peril by their stepchildren — this practice tends to make each film seem weaker than it is simply because the comparisons can’t help but expose how the writers are going to the same plot devices and gimmicks and the actors are playing similar characters in similar ways. Last night’s pairing was a bit different than the norm in that the first one they showed, the “premiere” of something called Secrets of My Stepdaughter, was considerably better than the second one, a year-old opus called The Bad Twin. Secrets of My Stepdaughter was originally shot under the title A Murderer Upstairs, which sounds more chilling but was probably rejected because it gave too much of the plot away. The central characters are mom Cindy Kent (Josie Davis), her husband Greg (Cameron Bancroft) — a trial attorney whose job takes him out of town a lot — and their kids Rachel (Tierra Skovbye) and Addy (Ali Skovbye). The identical last names of the actresses playing the sisters at least shows why they look so credible as blood relatives — they really are! — though in Conor Allyn’s screenplay (effectively and unobtrusively directed by Jem Garrard) they’re only half-sisters. Addy, the younger of the two girls, is the biological offspring of Greg and Cindy, but Rachel is Greg’s daughter by a previous wife named Martha whom we don’t meet until towards the end of the film. Martha suddenly abandoned Rachel just three months before the film begins, and Greg and Cindy took her in and tried to break through to her. Rachel got a job at a fashion store alongside her best friend Leslie (Madelyn Grace), only in the opening scene Rachel is discovered tied to a chair in the store and Leslie is next to her, bludgeoned to death with the store’s cash register. Rachel’s story is that two robbers, both wearing ski masks and gloves, burst into the store, attacked both her and Leslie, killed Leslie and left Rachel for dead — and she’s got strangulation marks on her neck to support the story. The cops uncover a young (cute, blond) man named Aaron Barker (Jared Ager-Foster) who several months earlier was stalking Leslie to the point where Leslie and her mom got out a restraining order against him, and he was in the store that night, but Aaron insists that when the murder occurred he was at home with his mother. That’s not much of an alibi, as police lieutenant Brian Smith (a big middle-aged white guy played by Garry Chalk) says; he becomes convinced early on that Aaron killed Leslie and utterly refuses to listen to any other possibilities. (Stop me if you’ve heard this before.)

His associate, detective Pam Cherfils (Lucia Walters) —oddly her last name means “dear son” and, though younger than these characters usually are in Lifetime movies, she’s the all-wise African-American who’s going to come into the story and save the white characters from their stupidity and naïveté —isn’t so sure. She sees too much of a disjunct between the meticulous planning that went into the crime as Rachel described it — robbers wearing masks and gloves to avoid being recognized and leaving fingerprints — and the seeming impulsiveness of whacking someone over the head with a cash register as a murder weapon. She also notices the bruise patterns on Rachel’s neck, which seem to her more consistent with self-inflicted bruises than a serious attempt by someone else to strangle her. Meanwhile, Rachel becomes a mini-superstar at school and gets a lot of media attention as the woman who heroically survived a terrible attack. Gradually, however, her cover-up unravels and Cindy realizes that Rachel is a psychopathic monster — especially when she murders the dog Cindy and Greg got for Addy — and Rachel does everything she can to drive wedges between her dad and her stepmom, including logging on to the Web site of a law firm specializing in divorces so her dad can look at it and think Cindy is going to break up with him. Cindy also goes to see Leslie’s mother, and though Cindy is about the last person Leslie’s mom wants to talk to, nonetheless they converse long enough for Leslie’s mom to tell Cindy that the two women were stealing expensive clothes and accessories from the store they worked for. Cindy invades Rachel’s room and discovers a large chest under her bed containing the stolen items, and as things happen she makes this find just when Pam shows up with a search warrant and the cops end up arresting Rachel for shoplifting — though Pam is hoping that charge will merely be what they hold her on while Pam continues her investigation and uncovers evidence that Rachel murdered Leslie. 

Cindy is in a Kafka-esque predicament in which she becomes more and more convinced that Rachel is a stone-cold crazy killer — she even warns Addy not to let Rachel pick her up from school, advice Addy of course ignore — while just about everyone else but Pam, including Greg, Addy and Lt. Smith, is convinced that Aaron killed Leslie and Cindy is just being paranoid. We’ve also been told that Maggie, Rachel’s biological mother, had a long-standing drug problem and gave Rachel away because she’d rather do drugs than raise her kid — and for a few acts we get the impression that Rachel got damaged as a person from growing up with a drug-addicted mom who was probably in quite a lot of trouble with the law and had to make many sudden escapes — but when Cindy finally traces Maggie, who’s calling herself “Norwood” and working as a hotel maid (a white woman working as a hotel maid?), Maggie shows the scars on her arms and tells her they came from Rachel attacking her with scissors. It comes to a head in a confrontation in which Rachel manages to drug Addy and overpower Pam when Pam comes to the house, and when Cindy returns Rachel holds a gun on her and gives Cindy a knife, telling her to stab Pam to death, whereupon Rachel will shoot Cindy with the gun and claim she did so in self-defense after Cindy totally lost it. Greg comes home and originally seems prepared to believe his daughter over his wife, but eventually he realizes how crazy Rachel is and helps Lt. Smith subdue her and take her into custody. Secrets of My Stepdaughter may not sound like much in synopsis, but it’s actually a quite effective suspense thriller, powered by Jem Garrard’s effective direction and a nicely honed performance by Tiera Skovbye as Rachel, who in the best tradition of Lifetime’s psychos is quite matter-of-fact about her actions and convinces us that she simply doesn’t see anything wrong with them.

The Bad Twin (Maple Island Films, Daro Film Distribution, Litetime, 2016)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2017 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Alas, the quality of Secrets of My Stepdaughter cast something of a pall over the next film up on Lifetime’s schedule, The Bad Twin (neither nor Lifetime’s own publicity had the definite article in the title, but it’s there in the opening title credit). This time the protagonist is played by Haylie Duff, one of the rare actresses in a Lifetime lead who actually has a reputation in the bigger world of entertainment (though judging from her credits list, her reputation seems to be more from being Hilary Duff’s sister than her own résumé). Duff plays Dr. Kim Burgess, a psychiatrist who hosts a local radio show in which she gives advice to various callers with “issues.” One day during her broadcast she gets a call from a woman who claims she’s just a fake and doesn’t know anything at all about how people really tick, and screams about how Dr. Burgess can represent herself as an expert on “families” when her own is wildly dysfunctional. Kim gives her call screener a nod and the screener hangs up on the woman in mid-call, but the woman later confronts her outside the studio where she’s signing a few copies of her books for fans and turns out to be her sister Cassandra “Cassie” Murphy (Jacy King). Cassie is the mother of 15-year-old twin daughters Olivia and Quinn, both played quite effectively by Grace Van Dien, who turns in an accomplished performance in which she’s able to communicate by slight differences in intonation and posture which girl is which. (The effects work that allows both Van Diens to appear on the screen together is also quite good, though there are a number of shots in which one twin has her back to the camera and it’s obviously a stand-in or a double.) 

Cassie has just been declared an unfit mother by the child protective services department and has been put in a mental hospital, and rather than let her nieces go into foster care Kim agrees to take them in even though she doesn’t know the first thing about parenting. Kim has a boyfriend, Kevin (Scott Bailey), who’s cute and so young-looking he seems more like her son than her partner, but he’s a pretty milquetoast character. At first the twins carry on a war of intimidation against their aunt, including stealing valuables from her home and burying them in her backyard, but then in a video call with their mom in the institution mom gives them written instructions so the hospital staff can’t see what she’s communicating with her daughters. She instructs them to find Kim’s will — which, when they do, it turns out leaves her entire fortune to a charity instead of the sisters or their mom — and then, when they get a face-to-face visit, she plays Scrabble with them and spells out the words “ADOPTION” and “BE NEEDY.” This gives the girls the message that they’re supposed to go all out to get Kim to adopt them legally — and Olivia, who’s clearly the “alpha” of the two, seeks out not only to get Kim to adopt them but to knock off anyone who might stand in the way of that plan. The first to go is Kim’s producer and close friend Gail (Charlotte Graham), whom Olivia knocks off by taking her to the beach, burying her in the sand (all except her head) and letting the tide come in and drown her. An poster noted two plot holes in this sequence: “[F]irst, the damp sand over her was not deep enough to prevent her from freeing her arms and digging herself out. Second, the rising tide would have taken hours to reach the point it did instead of the minutes shown. Due to this time delay, Gail would have been discovered and rescued.” Still, as powerfully directed by John Murlowski (working from a script by Alix Reeves), it’s one of the best and most frightening scenes in the movie even though it might have worked even better if Olivia had been shown piling rocks on top of the buried Gail so she really could not have got out on her own. Later Olivia overhears mom’s boyfriend Kevin questioning whether she should adopt the girls, and Olivia responds by picking poisonous mushrooms and substituting them for safe ones in the dinner she and Quinn are making for Kim and Kevin that night — only Quinn, who though she’s heavily under Olivia’s spell does have a conscience, takes out the poison mushrooms and puts in the ones originally intended for the meal. 

It ends with Kim and Cassie going for a drive in the country, only Olivia has brought along a wooden box containing bees from a hive on Kim’s property — Kim is deathly allergic to bees (which makes one wonder why she allows a hive to remain on her property instead of having it removed) and she goes into shock when Olivia releases the bees in the confined space inside the car and they get in her hair and repeatedly sting her. Kim loses control of the car and drives it off the road, and the other three throw her out of the car — only Quinn, once again having an attack of conscience, throws out Kim’s antidote pen and so Kim is able to bring herself to and watch as crazy Cassie drives the car into a tree. Cassie is killed — a scene heralded by a title saying “Eight Months Later” and a shot of her tombstone — and Quinn is, or at least seems to be, ready to adjust to life with Kim and Kevin, while Olivia is in a mental hospital, though the final shot shows the two girls together and, even though they’re separated by a wall, Olivia’s hold over her still seems strong. The Bad Twin is a good movie but it didn’t seem as interesting as it would have if it hadn’t been preceded by the superior Secrets of My Stepdaughter, and I think the main problem with it is there’s no real suspense. Unlike in Secrets of My Stepdaughter — or the obvious model for this sort of story, The Bad Seed, which writer Reeves was so blatantly ripping off she might have well have called it The Bad Seeds — we know from the beginning the twins, Olivia in particular, are up to no good. And as well as Grace Van Dien acquits herself as the twins, it’s all too obvious she’s modeling her performance on Patty McCormick’s in The Bad Seed — which pretty much has set the template for how to play a child psycho. The Bad Twin is decently done and offers a few of the frissons Murkowski and Reeves were clearly after, but it’s not that good and it doesn’t offer the sinister progression of its models in which we first took the psycho girl(s) at face value and only later realized they were psycho.

Austin City Limits: Tedeschi Trucks Band (KLRU, LickonaVision, PBS, 2016)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2017 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

After those shows I watched Austin City Limits in its “ghetto” time slot on KPBS, midnight to 1 a.m., featuring the Tedeschi Trucks Band (no hyphen in the name even though it represents the band’s co-leaders, guitarist Derek Trucks (whose uncle, Butch Trucks, was the drummer for the original Allman Brothers Band — Derek himself also played for a later edition of the Allman Brothers Band) and vocalist and guitarist Susan Tedeschi, who are also husband and wife. (There’s an ironic interview at the end of this show in which Trucks noted that they found it easier to get married, have children and raise their family than it was to co-lead a band together!) I’d heard of this group before as one of the many, almost innumerable Allman Brothers spinoffs, but I’d never heard them before. They turned out to be quite good, mainly due to Susan Tedeschi, who reminded me a good deal of Bonnie Raitt — they’re both white women singers and blues guitarists, they have similar vocal timbres and they manage to sing soulfully without resorting to the ornamentation and “worrying” of their Black models — and who proved herself as capable a lead guitarist as her husband. Interestingly, they played only seven songs during this 50-minute appearance (Austin City Limits runs in an hour-long time slot but there are so many promos, interviews and “enhanced underwriting opportunities,” PBS’s Newspeak for “commercials,” the bands actually get to play for only 50 minutes and most Austin City Limits episode split the time between two music acts), indicating a penchant for 1960’s-style long rock jams — the final song they played, which I think was called “Midnght Down in Harley” (or was that supposed to be “Harlem”?), began with a long, atmospheric guitar solo by Trucks that had little to do with blues or with the song once it emerged from the textures and Tedeschi began to sing. If this show had a flaw it’s that the Tedeschi Trucks Band’s songs sound too similar to each other; aside from covers of the Box Tops’ “The Letter” and Tim Hardin’s “Bird on a Wire,” they were all mid-tempo pop-blues that showed off Tedeschi’s voice effectively but pretty much plowed the same musical territory.

Saturday, May 20, 2017

Assignment — Outer Space (Ultra Film, Titanus, 1960)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2017 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night’s Mars movie screening in Golden Hill ( consisted of two Italian-made cheapies, Assignment — Outer Space from 1960 (released in the U.S. in 1961) and Battle of the Worlds from 1961 (released in the U.S. in 1963). Both films were directed by “Anthony Dawson” and written by “Vassiliji Petrov” — the reason for the quotes is that those were both pseudonyms for the Italians who actually did the work, director Antonio Margheriti and writer Ennio de Concini — and featured the usual crazy quilt of actors from various European countries, some of them given Anglo pseudonyms and some allowed to be billed in all their Continental glory. Assignment: Outer Space deals with Ray Peterson (Rik Van Nutter), a reporter for the Interplanetary Times in 2168 (this film’s prediction that there will still be newspapers 150 years from now is looking increasingly like something de Concini a.k.a. “Petrov” got wrong) who on an assignment to cover outer space ends up on a spaceship where everyone has an alphanumeric nickname — though, unlike the people in Just Imagine, they still have normal names like the ones we know — and where everyone else on board, particularly commander George (David Montresor), resents his presence. 

The one crew member of the first ship — there are at least three of them and it’s hard to keep track of which dime-store prop model is which — who actually gets along with Our Hero even though he calls him a “parasite” because he performs no useful function to facilitate the flight is named Al, nicknamed X-15 (which by coincidence, or maybe not, also happened to be the name of a quite famous high-tech experimental aircraft being tested by the U.S. Army when this film was made). Al is an unusual character for a science-fiction movie in the early 1960’s because he’s played by African-American actor Archie Savage, and until this film and 12 to the Moon (which featured an international space flight including a Nigerian played by Muzaffer Tema, billed as “Tema Bey”), both made in 1960, there had not, to my knowledge, been any Black people depicted in science-fiction films. (In the 1951 movie When Worlds Collide, the 40 people selected to keep the human race going after Earth is destroyed in a collision with a runaway planet from another solar system are all white, which probably escaped 1951 audiences but seemed quite infuriating to me the last time I saw that film.) There’s one other crew member who can’t stand Peterson at first but ultimately comes to like — or at least get the hots for — him, and that’s the token female in the cast, Lucy Y-13 (Gabriella Farinon), who’s there as a navigator and also as a botanist who keeps the crew supplied with air by cultivating flowers that change hydrogen into oxygen. (That drew a lot of laughs from our audience, who if not outright geniuses are certainly more scientifically literate than most Americans these days. There are plenty of scientific howlers in Assignment — Outer Space, but that’s the biggest and most egregious one — though if writer de Concini a.k.a. “Petrov” had said the plants were converting carbon dioxide into oxygen the scene would have been believable.)

The gimmick that gives this seemingly interminable movie (it’s only 73 minutes long but seems to last almost twice that) whatever semblance of a plot it has is that one of its virtually indistinguishable spaceships (the one that looks like a giant hypodermic needle with a bulb attached to one end) loses its guidance capability and is about first to enter orbit around Earth and then to crash into it, and the atomic fuel the rocket carries will incinerate and/or poison Earth and everyone and everything on it unless the rocket is somehow stopped. And guess who volunteers to stop it? That’s right, our reporter hero, who’s desperate to prove that he can contribute something to the mission besides being obnoxious and hauling the heroine’s ashes. He takes a two-person space vehicle (a sort of shuttlecraft but flown by people sitting in an open-space cockpit in full spacesuits) and flies it into the null region between the rogue ship’s two hourglass-shaped force fields so he can crash it into the rogue and destroy it — only just before impact he bails out (that’s right — this film is full of people “bailing out” in the middle of outer space and somehow managing to get back to their home craft), they catch him in time just before his spacesuit runs out of oxygen, and they revive him so he and the heroine can get together. Assignment — Outer Space is one of those frustrating movies that had potential, maybe not for greatness but at least for solid entertainment, but it goes wrong at virtually every turn: the props are horribly cheap (the main rocket ship’s nozzle looks like a shower head, and probably was one!), the model work unconvincing, there are a few lame attempts to explain why there’s no depiction of weightlessness (though it’s obvious that’s because the producers’ budget didn’t extend to the wire work that would have been necessary to show the real effects of zero gravity) and the actors — except for Montresor, who at least gets to portray attitude as the commander who wants no part of Our Hero — pretty nondescript. Charles applauded when “The End” credit came on (I miss “The End” credits), explaining later that seeing those words on screen were by far the best thing about watching this movie!

Battle of the Worlds (Ultra Film, Sicilia Cinematografica, 1961)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2017 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

This morning I watched another video cheapie, a much newer — and tackier — movie called Battle of the Worlds, credited to 1963 on the box but actually looking like it might be a few years older than that (its star, an aging Claude Rains, died in 1967). The film was clearly an Italian production, though its director was credited as “Anthony Dawson” — given that all the below-the-line people on the credits (including a very interesting composer, who wrote a quirky theme song for the film that sounds like late-1960’s “psychedelic” rock) are Italian names, I suspect “Dawson” is simply an Anglo pseudonym for an Italian director. The film was tacky enough to be a camp classic — especially the “special effects” of cigar-shaped rockets fighting alien flying saucers in space, which by the standards set by 2001 and Star Wars are virtually laughable — and it was terribly dubbed (a separate dialogue writer/director, George Higgins, gets screen credit), though it also had some intriguing plot elements and a strong, moving performance by Rains as an eccentric scientist whose offbeat ideas about the mysterious “Outsider” invading Earth turn out to be right (now there’s a character more like Peter Duesberg than the murdering scientific thug of The Vampire Bat, who actually more closely resembles Robert Gallo!), and who — like the non-“mad” but stupid scientist of The Thing — gives his life, in the end, to be true to his quest for knowledge. Basically, the plot of Battle of the Worlds concerns a mysterious mini-planet which invades our solar system and sends out robot flying saucers to seek and destroy any enemy spaceships threatening it. It also seems to have the power to alter gravitational fields in its proximity, either to attract objects to it or drive them away. What makes this movie a bit more interesting than the many, similarly plotted films that were made in the 1950’s and 1960’s is that the inhabitants of the “Outsider” (the name Rains’ scientist character gives this object) are all dead, killed by the radioactivity of the nuclear reactor that provided power for their spacecraft, but their attack-and-defense mechanisms work automatically, and therefore the machinery of the spacecraft is fighting a war on behalf of the now-dead “masters” who programmed it in the first place.

Also — though this element is not stressed — Battle takes place in a near-future Earth (a permanent base on Mars has been established, and features prominently in the plot) governed by a benevolent dictatorship ruled by a committee. In fact, the level of social control is so great that the spaceship pilot who goes up to combat the Outsider’s defense system has no control over his ship; it’s directed from Earth, and when he breaks the control link on his own authority, his co-pilot feels it’s an act of insubordination and worries about what sort of trouble they’ll have from it. I’m not tempted to describe Battle as a bad movie that could have been good — given the circumstances under which it was (probably) produced, and the technical glitches (not only the bad “special effects” — I’m deliberately keeping that term in quotes — but also the rotten, cheap color, which in this admittedly well-worn print leads the characters to change color quite dramatically as they move around the sets, and also gives the impression that this near-future Earth is inhabited almost exclusively by redheads), it’s probably as good as it could have been. The sets themselves are also delightfully tacky; when Rains and company finally penetrate the interior of the “Outsider,” what they find is a series of long, curving corridors filled with what looks like giant red strands of spaghetti hanging from the walls and ceilings. “They’ve landed in a pasta factory!” I thought — appropriate enough, I suppose, given that this was an Italian movie … — 8/31/94


Battle of the Worlds was made by virtually the same production team as Assignment — Outer Space but turned out considerably better, not because it was that good a film but it did have points of appeal the earlier movie from this production group did not. The main one was an honest-to-goodness star in the lead, Claude Rains, playing a scientist named Dr. Benson who’s insanely reclusive and arrogantly dismissive of all his colleagues in general and one Dr. Cornfield (John Stacy) in particular. It also helps that there are at least three women with major roles in the cast, including Eve Barnett (Maya Brent), who in the opening scene is shown making out on the beach, From Here to Eternity-style (and it looks like director “Dawson” really tried to find an Italian beach that looked as much as possible like the stretch of Malibu where the Eternity scene between Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr was filmed), with hunky male scientist Dr. Fred Steele (Umberto Orsini). The moment they mentioned her name I couldn’t help but joke, “Ah, Eve left that boring old Adam and hooked up with … Fred.” And the straight guys in the audience oohed and ahhed over the filmy white dress Eve was wearing when she and Fred jumped in the water, and wished it would get filmier and more revealing, while I of course was looking at Fred’s bare chest, his hot nipples and the well-defined basket under his tan swim trunks! Anyway, the scientists in the movie are noticing increasing levels of weather disturbance on the earth — represented by stock newsreel clips of fires, floods, hurricanes (some of the famous shots of palm trees blowing in the winds of the famous 1926 Florida storms make it into this movie) vaguely tinted to make it look like they belong in an (otherwise) color films — and Dr. Benson and his colleagues deduce that they herald the coming of a giant vessel from outer space, which Benson calls “The Outsider” (which would have actually been a good title for this film except it’s not especially science-fictiony and it had already been used for several other films, including the 1961 movie in which Tony Curtis played Ira Hayes, the Native American who was in the famous flag-raising photo on Iwo Jima and then, once he returned home, descended into alcoholism and an early death) and which appears to be intent on staging a War of the Worlds-style invasion of Earth with the object being to conquer us and take over our planet. 

The Outsider sends out fleets of flying discs (they actually look like cymbals, and may well have been) to attack the Earth spaceships trying to defend us against it, and when one of the discs is actually downed and Fred and his married commander, Bob Cole (Bill Carter), explore inside the wreckage, they see a lot of red tendrils inside but no sign of actual life. Dr. Benson deduces that the discs are essentially drones controlled by a hive-mind computer inside the Outsider itself, and eventually he, Bob and Eve end up as part of an expedition to land a spacecraft on the Outsider and try to get inside it. When they get in they find more red tendrils — in fact the wiring is so neon-colored and so stringy it looks like a giant vat of spaghetti, which I guess makes sense given that this is an Italian film — and still no sign of life, from which Dr. Benson concludes that the Outsider was a planet-killing machine built by an expansionist civilization that sent these things out willy-nilly throughout the galaxy, looking for new worlds to conquer — only the people (or creatures, or whatever) who made it long since died out. But the ships themselves continued to move through the galaxy on autopilot, and this was just Earth’s unlucky day. The film concludes with a surprisingly exciting suspense sequence in which the commanders back home on Earth send an order that the Outsider be destroyed — but Benson doesn’t want to leave the Outsider before the attack begins because he’s too committed to downloading all its central computer’s information about the creating civilization’s technology so it can be used to benefit Earth — a stone ripoff of the premise of Forbidden Planet and evidence that writer de Concini a.k.a. “Petrov” had seen that flawed but fascinating 1956 MGM film. In the end Benson dies when the Outsider blows up, Eve makes it back to her boyfriend Fred, Bob gets back to his wife Cathy (Jacqueline Derval) and the Earth is safe at least from this film’s interplanetary menace.  

Battle of the Worlds is hardly a great movie but it’s a damned sight better than Assignment — Outer Space, partly because it had a bigger effects budget (not only did it have more effects shots than Assignment — Outer Space, the effects it had were quite a bit more convincing), partly because there were at least three women in the dramatis personae even though one of them was Eve’s rival for Fred’s affections and the third, Cathy Cole, it was hinted had previously dated Fred before marrying Bob, but mainly because of Claude Rains. Yes, it’s the sort of highly stylized, schticky performances actors frequently give in their later years, when the mannerisms that originally gave their performances lift and pep have hardened into dull clichés. Rains doesn’t help his cause by bellowing almost all his lines in the raspy intonations and exasperated tones he used at the most traumatic moments of The Invisible Man and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (and when we first discovered him as a recluse I joked, “Well, he had to go somewhere after he was forced out of the U.S. Senate in disgrace”), but it’s still a star performance and the unforgettable voice (his own in this stew of voice doubles — George Higgins III was credited as dialogue director but it’s clear he didn’t have anything to do with making this film originally and his involvement was supervising the dubbing sessions) carries weight and authority even though he seems to be bellowing out the entire script the way he did his final lines — “Expel me, not him!” — in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. And Rains wasn’t just a big name the producers slipped a few bucks to for one or two days’ work: his part runs through the entire film and adds a surprising degree of power even though as a movie this is hardly in the same league as The Invisible Man or Casablanca — from which one of the people at the screening couldn’t help but joke, “I’m shocked — SHOCKED! — to find that Claude Rains is in this movie!” —5/20/17