Monday, August 28, 2017

The Other Mother (MarVista Entertainment/Lifetime, 2017)

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

At 6 p.m. last night Lifetime re-ran a movie I’d missed on its original go-round, The Other Mother (this was around the same time — last April — they were also showing films called The Wrong Mother and Killer Mom), actually a better-than-average thriller centered around four people: Jackie (Annie Wersching), her teenage daughter Brooke (Kennedy Tucker), Jackie’s ex-husband (and Brooke’s father) Mitch (Tyler Christopher), and Tiffany (Kimberley Crossman), the impossibly perky blonde bimbo Mitch has just married. Mitch met her on a summer trip to France on which he’d taken Brooke, who’s been majoring in French in high school and wanted to spend the summer there to hone her linguistic skills and see the fabled sights of Paris (when she mentioned having been on the Champs-Élysée I couldn’t help but remember Red Buttons’ hilarious fracturing of the name in the film Gay Purr-Ee: “Ah, the Champs Ulysses?”) — only now she wants to drop French and take Spanish instead because she wants to cruise Beau (Lou Wegner), the hot young man she’s got her sights set on, and he’s in that class. This is just one of the flash points that arise between Jackie and Brooke, who’s being pushed by Tiffany to be more independent and stand up to her almost neurotically controlling mother (it’s clear screenwriter Eric Martin wants us to admire Jackie and see her as a responsible parent, but she’s way overdoing it). It turns out the real reason Jackie has become so domineering was that the year before Brooke had been involved in an accident where she got drunk and got behind the wheel of a car even though she didn’t know how to drive — and since then Jackie has run her daughter’s life like a concentration-camp commandant and, among other things, forbidden her from even thinking about learning to drive. So Jackie is infuriated that Tiffany is ready not only to give Brooke driving lessons but to present her with a red sports car as a present once she gets her license. The Other Mother is yet another one of those Lifetime movies that could have been really interesting and moving if its creators, writer Martin and director Sean Olson, had known when to stop; if they’d just kept it a story about a single mom and her teenage daughter and made the central conflict the one between the responsible but over-controlling mother and the stepmom who bops into their lives and seems willing to indulge the daughter’s every rebellious wish, this could have been really good, but no-o-o-o-o

They had to make Tiffany a total psycho — if Christine Conradt had written this she probably would have called it The Perfect Stepmother (a title doesn’t list, so it’s presumably available) — who latches on to middle-aged men with money and teenage kids (the last time she did this she called herself “Mary Smith” and got jealous of her husband Greg, played by John Littlefield, over his continued attachment to his son, and ultimately she burned Greg’s house down, killed his son and disappeared, to turn up again and latch onto Mitch), marries them and then gets upset with them because they still feel more committed to their kids than to her. “It’s always the little brats that get in the way,” she says during the big confrontation between her, Jackie and Brooke at the end in which Tiffany goes up against Brooke with a knife, intending to stab her and eliminate the competition, only Jackie sneaks up behind her with a tire iron and wallops her. Tiffany rallies long enough to club Mitch with a frying pan, and later she stabs him, but fortunately the police arrive in time to call an ambulance for Mitch and save his life (and the coda, “Five Months Later,” indicates that Mitch and Jackie have reconciled and are back together following his ordeal with the bimbo). However, Tiffany escapes, presumably to replay the same scenario with another man and his child — why, one wonders, doesn’t she just seek out a man who doesn’t have a kid already? After The Other Mother I watched about an hour of an even sillier Lifetime movie, a “premiere” called Unwritten Obsession, a reversal of the crazy-stalker-fan trope in which writer Skye Chaste (Haley Webb) has written a best-selling novel about a character called Maya, only her publisher and her agent have rejected her second book; at a book signing she meets Holly (Chelsea Lopez), an intense fan and also an aspiring writer who wants advice from Skye on her own book, only instead of doing the crazed-stalker-fan number director David Martin Porms and writer Marcy Holland do the desperate-writer-rips-off-the-manuscript-of-an-unknown-and-passes-it-off-as-hers number. I turned this off in midstream because there was something on another channel I was more interested in, which turned out to be a wise move.

Endeavour: “Canticle” (British TV/PBS, 2017)

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

The something on another channel I was more interested in was the latest episode of Endeavour, the quite compelling British TV series concocted by Russell Lewis and inspired by the character Colin Dexter created of Inspector Morse, a police official in Oxford who investigates crimes, many of them involving the university. Dexter wrote him in the latter stages of his career, first making him an active alcoholic and then having him recover, but Lewis decided to do a sort of prequel series showing a young detective constable Endeavour Morse (the quite attractive Shaun Evans) “making his bones” on the Oxford police force in the 1960’s, solving crimes many of which involve the tumultuous political, social and cultural forces that shaped that era. This episode was called “Canticle” (I’m not sure why, unless it’s a reference to the rarely used second half of the title of Paul Simon’s song “Scarborough Fair/Canticle,” which blended a traditional English folk song with a countermelody, bearing a considerably more intricate and self-consciously “poetic” set of lyrics, composed by Simon himself) and dealt with the clash between self-styled moral reformer Joy Pettybon (Sylvestra Le Touzel — the actress’s name sounds like a drag alias and Pettybon looks like a drag queen on screen) and the hottest British rock band of the moment, The Wildwood, consisting of brothers Nick (Will Payne) and Kenneth (Michael Fox) Wilding — Nick is the lead vocalist and Ken the lead guitarist — along with bassist (and Nick’s friend since childhood) Christopher Clark (Jonathan Bamwell) and their drummer, Lee “Stix” Noble (Dario Coates). 

The two show up in Oxford at the same time and get invited to appear together on a TV talk show, during which Joy Pettybon blasts the Wildwood in general and their newest song, “Jennifer Sometimes,” in particular for being too obsessed with S-E-X (she actually spells out the word on TV instead of just speaking it), and Nick Wilding is put on as a guest to defend himself and his song. The plot kicks off with the finding of the body of Barry Finch, a workman who was working on the large estate the Wildwood were working in during their stay in Oxford (and who isn’t listed in the credits because we only see him as a corpse, though he’s the hottest guy in the film and I couldn’t help but wish we’d got a chance to look at him while his character was still alive!). It thickens when a Gay activist and former newspaper publisher, Dudley Jessop (Matthew Needham), disrupts Pettybon’s TV appearance and is taken out of the studio and roughed up by two of her goons before Morse comes along, rescues him from the vigilantes and takes him into official custody. Then Pettybon’s spiritual advisor, Rev. Mervyn Golightly (Paul Bown), is found dead from eating a box of chocolates laced with poison, and the police assume a) that Joy Pettybon was the real target and b) that Jessop did it. Jessop denies it but explains why he hates Joy Pettybon: he had a magazine called The Extreme Times, only Pettybon lobbied the censors to ban it, not only putting him out of business but exposing him as Gay (at a time when it was still illegal in the U.K.) and thereby keeping him from any other sort of job — he’s surviving on handouts and an allowance his parents give him in return for never darkening their door again. 

Also among the dramatis personae are Joy Pettybon’s daughter Bettina (Pearl Chanda), who can’t stand her mom’s “moral” crusade and who invites Morse to her room for a drink, during which she tells Morse that the real reason Joy Pettybon is in such a snit about Gay people was that her husband, Bettina’s father, was Gay and committed suicide when he was about to face prosecution for it (under the same “gross indecency” laws with which Oscar Wilde was prosecuted and jailed). There are also various female hangers-on in the Wildwood entourage, including Christopher Clark’s wife Anna-Britt (Kaisa Mohammar) — though their all-powerful manager and fixer, Ralph Spender (David Starzaker), insists that they keep their marriage a secret because the teenage girl fans of the Wildwood want to believe they’re all unattached — and Emma Carr (Ella Hunt), who claims to be the inspiration for the song “Jennifer Sometimes” (Jennifer is her character’s middle name) but who gets into a jealous hissy-fit when she realizes both Nick Wilding and Christopher Clark are Bisexual; that they have been lovers ever since their boyhoods, when they used to go hunting for mushrooms together (before they settled on “Wildwood” as their band’s name they considered calling themselves “The Toadstools,” and they reference that fact in their big song); and that Barry Finch was accidentally killed in a three-way with Nick and Anna-Britt at the estate and Spender carted his body off premises so it would be discovered somewhere else. There’s a marvelous hidden-in-plain-sight sequence in which Morse figures out the clues to their real sexuality the Wildwood have hidden in their latest album, including the master number on the disc itself that turns out to be an anagram for the initials in the phrase “Each man kills the thing he loves” and Oscar Wilde’s prisoner number at Reading Gaol. 

There’s also a bizarre final scene in which Emma feeds Morse an LSD-spiked drink and he goes into hallucinations — she plans to kill him while he’s under the influence but the other cops come and rescue him in time — Morse does enough on-duty drinking in this episode (unlike the self-consciously virtuous American cops who insist on never drinking on the job, especially not with a suspect!) — this after we’ve seen Nick do his own acid-fueled meltdown and Dr. Bakshi (Sagar I M Arya) give him an antidote drug — Bakshi is a sort of “Dr. Feelgood” who goes with the band on their tours to minister to them in case they overdose — in a scene one “Trivia” commentator suggested was an oblique reference to the acid-fueled burnout of Syd Barrett, original lead singer and lead guitarist for Pink Floyd. Indeed, Lewis’s script, effectively directed by Michael Lennox (except for the rather clichéd way he renders Morse’s final — and unwitting — acid trip), drew on a lot of real-life characters from the 1960’s: Joy Pettybon is based on a real “moral” crusader of the time, Mary Whitehouse; in the opening scene the Wildwood are shooting a music video also featuring singer Mimi (Sharlette Henry), who’s clearly based on the 1960’s British pop star Lulu (best known for appearing in the film To Sir, With Love as well as singing its famous theme song), and the Wildwood themselves seem like a mashup of the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Kinks (especially since the frontmen are brothers but have an uneasy collaboration) and Pink Floyd, and the script references both Kenneth Grahame’s book The Wind in the Willows (from which the name “Wildwood” comes) and The Piper at the Gates of Dawn, Pink Floyd’s first album (and the only one that featured Syd Barrett), which took its title from a chapter in the Grahame book. This episode of Endeavour is an example of modern British mystery writing at its best: quiet, literate, bloodless (we don’t, praise be, actually see Barry Finch get killed), sophisticated, richly allusive and driven by characters rather than thrills.

Sunday, August 27, 2017

Quicksand (Samuel H. Stiefel Productions/United Artists, 1951)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2017 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved
I reached out for a “Film Noir” DVD I had got from a library sale that contained three public-domain movies, Fritz Lang’s masterpiece Scarlet Street, the 1954 film Suddenly (with Frank Sinatra as a would-be Presidential assassin eight years before he made The Manchurian Candidate and nine years before the real-life assassination of Sinatra’s friend-turned-enemy, John F. Kennedy) and the one I ran, Quicksand, directed by Irving Pichel, written by Robert Smith and starring Mickey Rooney. In 1948 Rooney asked to be released from his MGM contract, which he was following the making of Words and Music (the biopic of Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart, with Tom Drake as Rodgers and Rooney as Hart; alas, though they could show Hart’s psychological disintegration, under the Production Code they couldn’t explain why it happened or acknowledge that Hart was Gay), and though later he would say that was the worst career decision he made in his life, for a while it did seem to open up more and different roles for him. The page for Quicksand (which identified the year of its production as 1950 even though the date given on the DVD box was 1951) identified it as a Samuel H. Stiefel production for United Artists and listed Stiefel as “executive producer” and Mort Briskin as “producer.” Various “Trivia” comments on the film contradict each other: one says that Rooney and Peter Lorre (who’s seen in an important, though brief, supporting role) put up the money to make the film, while another said that Rooney hated making the movie so much he wanted to get out of it, only producer Stiefel held him to his contract.  

Quicksand is actually a reasonably effective noir in which Rooney plays auto mechanic Dan Brady, who works at a garage owned by the fanatically cheap Mackey (Art Smith) and has a sort-of girlfriend, Helen (Barbara Bates, best known for one of her briefest credits — as the woman who clutches Eve Harrington’s acting award and poses in front of a three-way mirror, dreaming of stardom and practicing her curtain calls, at the end of All About Eve), only she’s more interested in him than he in her. Instead he cruises Vera Novak (Jeanne Cagney, James Cagney’s sister, whose most famous credit was playing his sister in Yankee Doodle Dandy), the new cashier at the cheap lunch place near Mackey’s garage where Dan and Mackey’s other employees regularly eat. Since Vera is a blonde while Helen is dark-haired, and since composer Louis Gruenberg (best known for his 1935 one-act opera based on Eugene O’Neill’s play The Emperor Jones) introduces her with a “sleazy” saxophone solo, we know immediately that Vera is a “bad girl.” In order to take her out to a local night spot where Red Nichols’ band is playing, he needs $20. He tries to borrow it from a co-worker, Harvey (Taylor Holmes), but his co-worker is also broke, and he has another friend whom he already lent $20 to and calls him to ask for it back — but the friend can’t repay him until the next day. Frustrated, Dan steals $20 from the garage’s cash register, figuring he can get his friend to pay him before the company’s bookkeeper shows up and notices the register is short — only the bookkeeper shows up two days early. Needing $20 in a hurry and with his friend in San Diego about to leave on a fishing trip, Dan buys a $100 watch for $1 down, only he immediately (and illegally) hocks it, gets $30 (one wonders why the pawnbroker, seeing Dan try to hock a new watch, doesn’t get suspicious that it was stolen) — only a credit agent for the jeweler, with the oddly appropriate name “Moriarty” (John Gallaudet), shows up and demands that Dan either produce the watch or $100 immediately, or else Moriarty will swear out a warrant for his arrest. A dejected Dan ends up in a bar, where he runs into Chuck (Wally Cassell), the man who runs the bingo concession at the local amusement park (“played” by the Santa Monica Pier), who’s throwing $50 bills around like they’re small change and is worried about getting home in time so his wife won’t miss him. 

Where I thought this was going was that Dan would offer him a ride and pick his pocket on the way, but instead he lets the man get away, then later on puts a towel in front of his face to use as a mask and sticks up the bingo-parlor owner in the amusement park’s parking lot. Unfortunately he’s seen by a woman who works one of the concessions, and in an attempt to get away he waylays “good girl” Helen and her friend and offers to take them to a movie — but Helen begs off because she’s already seen the film. Dan finds himself blackmailed by Nick (Peter Lorre), who runs the arcade in the park (at a time when “arcade games” basically meant pinball and various variants of it) and who saw Dan commit the robbery and recovered the towel he used as a mask, which got blood on it. His price for his silence is that Dan steal him a new car Mackey’s is about to take delivery of — only Dan, continuing his successful audition for America’s Stupidest Criminals, is instantly suspected by Mackey, who demands that Dan either cough up the car or the $3,000 Mackey was expecting to get for it, or else he will  have Dan arrested. On a date with Vera, during which they finally get to see Red Nichols and his band perform (alas, they do only one number and most of it is talked over, though we get to see Nichols and his remarkable bass saxophonist, Joe Rushton), she tells him that in addition to running an arcade, Nick also runs a clandestine check-cashing service and keeps his profits from that in a simple lock-box instead of a safe, and if Dan will only break into Nick’s office after hours he can easily steal that money and use it to pay off Mackey. Dan does this but he’s spotted by a night watchman who tries to shoot him, and when he delivers the $3,600 proceeds to Vera — they take it up to her room with the idea of counting it and splitting the money — Vera’s hatchet-faced landlady (Minerva Urecal) catches him and throws him out of her room. By the time they get back together, Vera has already blown half the robbery proceeds on a $2,000 mink coat she’s been wanting all movie (she’d even purred seductively to Dan early on, as they window-shopped on their first date, that she would do “anything” for that garment), leaving Dan short $1,200 of the money he owes Mackey — and when Mackey refuses to accept the $1,800 Dan does have, Dan strangles him. 

Then things turn around for Dan when Helen, the “good girl” he abandoned for Vera and his walk on the wild side, decides she wants to help him even if that means risking getting herself implicated in his crimes. She’s present while Dan car-jacks a middle-aged man who turns out to be an attorney who offers to defend Helen if she’s charged, and though ultimately there’s a shoot-out on the Santa Monica pier between Dan and two cops who are looking for him because on this surprisingly wild night another criminal was on the loose and killed two police officers, in the end Dan loses his gun in the water, is captured alive and told that Mackey survived the assault and so instead of facing either death or life imprisonment for murder, he’s only looking at a 1-to-10-year sentence for robbery and assault — and, the lawyer promises, he’ll do his best to argue that it should be closer to 1 than 10. Though I don’t have a record of this movie in my computer files, Charles insisted that we’d seen it together and remembered some details (like the scene of Rooney trying to pawn the watch) I hadn’t recalled — only we’d seen it before in a considerably better print (the one we were watching was from a public-domain DVD that was so low-contrast that instead of black-and-white this film was in grey-and-white, hardly the way you want to watch a noir!). Quicksand is an appropriately titled movie, given the speed with which Rooney’s character descends from poor but honest proletarian to desperate criminal, and it’s a good film noir but with two weaknesses that keep it from the pantheon. One is that by 1951 film noir had “hardened” enough as a genre it had developed its own cliché bank, and one can mentally envision Robert Smith running a checklist in his head as he typed out the script to make sure he was getting all the established noir clichés into it. The other is Rooney’s performance: he’s too guileless to be convincing either in his desperation, his sexuality (when Nick catches him and Vera — whose name, meaning “truth,” is the one element of subtlety and irony in Smith’s script — necking in his photo booth, one’s reaction is, “Will that big woman get off that poor little boy and leave him alone?”), his criminality or his ultimate regeneration; at times one gets the impression they could have called this film Andy Hardy Goes Bad

The following year Rooney would make a considerably better film noir at his old stamping ground, MGM, The Strip, with the advantages of a major-studio infrastructure, a more compelling plot, better direction (by the little-known Leslie Kardos) and even a more formidable guest jazz musician than Red Nichols, Louis Armstrong — though there again his performance is more than a bit too Andy Hardy-ish to be credible as a noir protagonist — and I couldn’t help but wish Quicksand could have been made with James Dean in the lead. In 1951 Dean and Jeanne Cagney (whose superb “bad-girl” performance, along with Lorre’s reliable villainy, really makes this film — brother James wasn’t the only one in that family with major acting chops!) worked together in that bizarre religious TV-movie Hill Number One (Dean’s debut film), Dean as the Apostle John and Cagney, appropriately given her casting here, as Mary Magdalene — and maybe if Hill Number One had been made before Quicksand and Rooney had started chafing over his own unsuitability for the lead, Jeanne Cagney might have told Sam Stiefel, “Hey, there’s this young actor I just did a religious TV show with who might be right for it … ” As it stands, Quicksand is reliable entertainment and an interesting story, but not as good as some of Rooney’s other attempts around the time to break free of his boy-next-door image, including his quite compelling performance as a racing driver in The Big Wheel (1949) as well as his next noir attempt, The Strip. And one quirk of Quicksand is we get rehashes, in a “serious” dramatic context, of some gags that had earlier appeared in classic comedies: the business of the young man “borrowing” money he’s responsible for and a bookkeeper or bank examiner arriving to check the books ahead of schedule is one of the key plot points in W. C. Fields’ The Bank Dick (1940), and the gag in which Dan, at Nick’s place, sets off an orchestrion or whatever that thing is called that starts playing a raucous “carnival” version of Johann Strauss, Jr.’s “Blue Danube Waltz” while Dan is trying to keep as quiet as possible so he can rob the place was used delightfully by the Marx Brothers in their 1933 classic Duck Soup (where it was a radio and the tune it was inappropriately blasting was Sousa’s “Stars and Stripes Forever”).

Thursday, August 24, 2017

NOVA: “Eclipse Over America” (WGBH/PBS, 2017)

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

I put on PBS for a couple of space-themed shows, including a NOVA episode (it always rankles me that among the listed sponsors of NOVA are “The David Koch Fund for the Advancement of Science,” when David Koch and his brother Charles are among the major contributors to Republican politicians who trash science in general and human-caused climate change in particular — the influence of the Kochs and Exxon Mobil on PBS was reason enough why Greg Palast called it the “Petroleum Broadcasting System”) that offered instant coverage of last Monday’s total solar eclipse. It was fun once again to see the eclipse footage from Salem, Oregon and Casper, Wyoming — Charles and I had watched some of it “live” on MS-NBC, whose ubiquitous talking heads stopped talking about Donald Trump long enough to let us enjoy one of the wonders of nature — and it was remarkable that NOVA’s filmmaker, Martin Gorst, was able to throw together a reasonably credible and interesting documentary on the eclipse in just two days. Obviously a lot of the interviews with solar experts were conducted “before the fact” — one of the interviewees even gave the game away by identifying the eclipse as something that was going to happen in the near future — but the show was still a good example of “instant television.” The episode, called “Eclipse Over America” — a reference to the fact that this was the first total solar eclipse whose line of totality went all the way across the U.S. since the 19th century — made the point that the real importance of eclipses for scientists studying the sun is it gives us the only chance we have to see the corona, the sun’s atmosphere, because at all other times the intense light from the sun itself renders the corona invisible.

The corona is important because it’s actually hotter than most of the sun’s interior and because it sends out solar flares, which contain magnetic pulses that, if they land on earth (which, fortunately, they usually don’t) and make it through the protection of the earth’s own magnetic field, they can short out entire power grids and screw up radio and TV reception. The last is a big deal not only because it might get in the way of the entertainment industry but it could screw up the power by which satellites run. If nothing else, the eclipse program made the point that, as one of the interviewees said, nature is still boss: an eclipse is one of the many ways in which nature likes to tap arrogant humanity on its collective shoulders and say, “See? There’s stuff I can do that you can’t do anything about!” There were some interesting bits of scientific trivia on this show, including that the pattern by which solar eclipses could be predicted was worked out as early as 2,500 years ago in ancient Babylon and this was a major issue for them because Babylonians believed that a solar eclipse heralded the impending death of a king — so when an eclipse was coming, they’d appoint someone else to be “king for a day” to take the place of the reigning monarch, have him rule during the day of the eclipse … and then kill him. The pattern was re-worked out by the British astronomer Edmond Halley (best known today as the man for whom the comet was named because he worked out the length and trajectory of its orbit and therefore was able to predict how often it would occur in the sky) who was a good friend of Isaac Newton and therefore had access to Newton’s calculations of the orbit of the moon (in order to figure out the orbits of the planets around the sun Newton worked out an entirely new sort of mathematics, which he called the “Theory of Fluxions”; unfortunately Newton thought it was important only as a tool to make his astronomical calculations, so Johann Gottfried Leibnitz got the credit for inventing this mathematical tool and it was Leibnitz’s name for it, calculus, which stuck), which Halley used to figure out when the sun, moon and earth would be in the right conjunction for an eclipse to occur.

The Farthest: “Voyager” in Space (Crossing the Line Productions, HHMI Tangled Bank Studios, PBS, 2017)

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

The Voyager spacecraft

The golden record

The golden record’s cover, with ideographs explaining what it is and how to play it

NOVA’s “instant” eclipse documentary was fairly interesting, but the show that was on after it was incredibly intense and moving: The Farthest: Voyager in Space. It was a documentary on the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) project, initiated in 1972, to send two probes into the outer reaches of the solar system, Voyager 1 and Voyager 2, to explore the planets Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus (which just about everybody on the program pronounced “YOUR-uh-nus” to avoid accidental invocation of a part of the human body generally considered too gross to talk about in polite company) and Neptune. It’s indicative of how far in advance a project like this has to be planned — the people in charge of Voyager, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, had to launch it in 1977 to take advantage of a rare conjunction of the four planets they wanted to study, without which it would have been impossible for one spacecraft to hit them all — that the President who green-lighted the project was Richard Nixon, the President who recorded the official greeting to anyone who might find the Voyager once it crossed out of the solar system and reached interstellar space was Jimmy Carter (whose greeting was, “This is a present from a small, distant world, a token of our sounds, our science, our images, our music, our thoughts and our feelings. We are attempting to survive our time so we may live into yours”) and it reached Jupiter and Saturn during Carter’s Presidency but didn’t make it to Uranus until Ronald Reagan’s and to Neptune until George H. W. Bush’s. It’s the sort of long-term project that America’s current political convulsions make almost impossible even to imagine — especially now that we have a President who seems to go out of his way to trash and undo everything that was done by his immediate predecessor, and who glories in letting it be known that there’s a “new sheriff in town” and everything done by previous administrations is up for grabs. 

As an almost incidental addition to the project, the Voyager team decided to include a phonograph record, pressed in gold, that would include a representative sampling of Earth’s music and culture, as well as encoded scientific data and images explaining who we are and how our bodies function, as a modern-day equivalent of the fabled messages in bottles left by sailors (director Emer Reynolds, who made this show for Irish TV — and the fact that the documentary on one of America’s crowning scientific achievements was made in Ireland speaks volumes for this country’s loss of any sense of a collective vision! — included a shot of a bottle with a message in it being thrown out to sea just to underscore the metaphor), and the scientists behind Voyager were miffed big-time when the reporters asking them about the project in press conferences had more questions about the record than about the research that was, for the scientists, the main point of the effort. The most controversial inclusion on the record was the song “Johnny B. Goode” by Chuck Berry, which Carl Sagan, one of the key members of the Voyager team (and, because of his own TV show, was one of the few scientists of the 1970’s who became a genuine celebrity), defended against charges that rock music was “adolescent” by saying, “There are a lot of adolescents on the planet.” 

Berry’s inclusion became one of the central legends surrounding the project; in 1978 Saturday Night Live did a Voyager segment on their “Weekend Update” parody newscast in which the reporters announced that they’d seen the first signs of intelligent life elsewhere in the universe: a message was beamed back saying, “Send more Chuck Berry.” And in 1990, when the Voyager team held a party to celebrate the successful fly-by of Neptune and therefore the completion of the craft’s mission, Berry himself performed “Johnny B. Goode” at their celebration. The main part of the program details not only the suspense around Voyager — Voyager 2 was the first of the two probes to be launched (which, the scientists recalled, drove reporters nuts even when they explained that Voyager 1, though launched later, would be faster and therefore would hit the target planets sooner) and the vibrations of the rocket that launched it threw its computer circuits into a sort of electronic nervous breakdown until the scientists on the ground sent it enough software patches to get it going properly again. (One quirk of the Voyager projects was they had to “freeze” the technology as it stood in 1972 and couldn’t upgrade to take advantage of later advances in computing since there’d be no way to upgrade the computer hardware aboard Voyager in space.) Voyager 1 had its own problem: a leak in the rocket propellant made it unclear whether the craft would actually get into the trajectory it needed for interplanetary exploration and it was touch-and-go for a while as to whether the craft would be a success or a dud. (I couldn’t help but think of the Mike Nichols-Elaine May routine in which a rocket scientist is arguing with his mother and she says, “I read in the papers how you keep losing them.”) 

If nothing else, the show demonstrates that there can be enough suspense and even danger in an unmanned space mission than in a manned one; every time Voyager flew by a planet, it was touch-and-go whether all systems would work and whether the spacecraft would actually be able to communicate its information to Earth, whether Earth’s computers would receive it, and whether the scientists would actually be able to make sense of the images. Among the interesting things we learned from the Voyager probes are that Jupiter and Neptune both have rings (though nowhere nearly as extensive as Saturn’s); that Jupiter has lightning storms under its huge, mostly methane atmosphere; that Jupiter’s moon Io actually has liquid water under its frozen methane crust; that Uranus is boring but Neptune is one of the most topographically fascinating objects in the solar system — as is its moon, Callisto. The Farthest is a magnificent program, beautiful and moving, not only in the sheer aesthetic appeal of the actual Voyager photographs of the various planets but inspiring in the way it was the sort of big, visionary project almost no one on Earth today seems interested in pursuing: we stopped sending people past Earth orbit in 1972 and, though we still make movies that assume we’ve gone to the moon (again) and past it to Mars, there’s no serious effort being mounted by any nation — or anyone in the private sector, for that matter, despite the forlorn hopes of Libertarian science-fiction fans that heroic Ayn Randian entrepreneurs will step in where governments fear to tread and start sending people into space again — to get us back or even to do the kind of unmanned exploration of Voyager.

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Frontline: “Terror in Little Saigon” (ProPublica, WGBH, PBS, first aired November 3, 2015)

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

Last night PBS re-ran a Frontline episode from November 3, 2015 called “Terror in Little Saigon,” which made it seem like gangs are roaming through the Viet Namese-American communities at will. The story was actually an investigative report, written and directed by Richard Rowley and narrated on screen by A. C. Thompson, about Dam Phong Ngyuen, a Viet Namese immigrant journalist who ran a Viet Namese-language newspaper called Tu Do in Houston, Texas in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s and was murdered by a man who came to the door of his house on August 24, 1982, just seven years after the Viet Namese War finally ended. The Houston Police Department was never able to solve the case. Naturally Rowley and Thompson worked from the conclusion that Dam Phong was murdered over something he had published in Tu Do — which meant they had to do something the Houston police hadn’t bothered to do “in the day,” namely get a translator to render Tu Do’s articles into English so they could read them. Phong was big on exposing corruption within the Viet Namese-American community and had made some powerful enemies, but in the last issues of Tu Do he had come down particularly hard on a mysterious group called “The Front,” composed of Viet Namese-American immigrants, including many who’d served in the Army of the Republic of Viet Nam (ARVN), the South Viet Namese army that were our supposed “allies” in the war. At first I thought where this was going was that “The Front” was a scam, collecting money from Viet Namese immigrants and promising them it would be used to stage a counter-revolution that would wrest control of Viet Nam from the Communists who’d won the war, and the people running it were raking in the bucks and didn’t want their meal ticket torn up by a meddling journalist who would expose their group as a con. Later, as the program wound on, it emerged that “The Front” was led by people who thought they could really stage a counter-revolution in Viet Nam, notably its leader, Hoang Co Minh, a Viet Namese refugee and former ARVN commander whose application for U.S. citizenship (which he submitted posing as a Japanese under the name “William Nakamura”) was sponsored by no less a personage than Richard Armitage, later Colin Powell’s assistant at the State Department during his unhappy tenure as Secretary of State during George W. Bush’s first term and leaker of Valerie Plame’s identity as an undercover CIA agent (you remember). Dam Phong reportedly traveled to Thailand, where Hoang Co Minh and a group of Front fighters had assembled to do guerrilla raids across the Viet Namese/Thai border. 

Rowley and Thompson learn that The Front not only had powerful friends in the U.S. government but also maintained a hit squad of “K9,” composed largely of soldiers from the ARVN’s SEAL team (trained, of course, by U.S. SEAL’s), whose job it was to eliminate any enemies that might threaten the Front’s operations, including U.S.-based journalists of Viet Namese heritage like Phong and Duong Trong Lam, who like Phong was a Viet Namese-American journalist who’d started his own Viet Namese-language newspaper and was getting too close to revealing the Front’s activities — though a communiqué sent out after Lam’s murder by a group calling itself VOECRN, “Viet Namese Organization to Exterminate Communists and Restore the Nation,” claimed responsibility. The documentary included a photo of a VOECRN rally, held under the backdrop of a big banner reading, “COMMUNISM MUST GO.” According to Thompson’s commentary on the show, however, “The local police had Lam’s murder pegged as a personal dispute. They wrapped up their investigation in a few weeks, charging his friend with the murder. But the whole thing fell apart, and the judge threw it out of court before the trial even began.” The show doesn’t come to the sort of satisfying conclusion audiences expect from a mystery, real or fictional — Rowley and Thompson are clearly convinced The Front ordered hits on Lam and Phong and sent their K-9 death squad to do it, but they’re unable either to prove it themselves or to present convincing enough evidence to get a police department with jurisdiction to reopen the case. Thompson’s closing commentary states, “After all the new information I’ve uncovered, I want to talk to the FBI, but they won’t do an interview or answer my questions. Instead, they send a statement saying the cases were led by experienced FBI professionals who collected evidence and conducted numerous interviews. But they said despite those efforts, after 15 years of investigation, Department of Justice and FBI officials concluded that thus far, there is insufficient evidence to pursue prosecution.” 

It’s a weird footnote to the overall story of the Viet Nam War, especially for its suggestion that nearly a decade after the U.S. withdrew in 1973 there were still people in the U.S. government who were hoping for a way to get back in the game in Viet Nam and at least clandestinely supporting a fringe group of would-be guerrillas whom for some reason they thought could accomplish what 500,000 U.S. troops (at the high point of our commitment in 1968) hadn’t, mainly to keep South Viet Nam a nominally independent country (actually a U.S. dependency) and keep the North Viet Namese army and their allies, the Viet Cong guerrilla group, from uniting the whole country under Communist control. The fact that, just as the North won the U.S. Civil War on the battleground but the South “won the peace,” re-establishing African-Americans as a permanent servant class and taking away their political and social rights (as President Trump and the Republicans in Congress are seeking to do again, undoing the work of the Second Reconstruction in the 1960’s the way segregationist Democrats in the South and corporate Republicans in the North combined to undo the First Reconstruction after 1876), the U.S. lost the Viet Nam war on the battlefield but “won the peace” by turning Viet Nam into a giant sweatshop, a place to offshore manufacturing once Chinese workers got better pay, just adds a level of irony to this grim tale of politically well-connected revolutionary wanna-bes knocking off immigrant journalists and entrepreneurs in the good ol’ U.S.A.!

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Seven Chances (Schenck-Keaton, Metro-Goldwyn, 1925)

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

Last night’s Silent Movie Night at the Organ Pavilion in Balboa Park featured Steven Ball, who both in his Sunday appearance the day before at the usual 2 p.m. organ concert and last night made a big to-do about how he regularly plays the world’s largest indoor organ — the one built in Boardwalk Hall in Atlantic City between 1929 and 1933, which I knew about because PBS recently showed a documentary about the in-progress restoration of it (and which, with spectacular ill timing, was built just when theatre organs and the people who played them were reeling from the double whammy of talking pictures and the Depression). Ball is an excellent theatre organist and silent-film accompanist, and for his half-hour mini-recital in advance of the movie (since the people in charge at the Pavilion wait until darkness falls to run the film) he played William Stocking’s march to celebrate the opening of Boardwalk Hall (the place was built to be huge enough that a football game could be played on its floor, and the reason its organ had to be so big was so the sound could carry throughout the hall), a “Total Eclipse Quickstep” by 19th century composer E. Mack written to celebrate an 1869 total eclipse in Philadelphia (the day before he’d played three other eclipse-themed pieces, including the “Eclipse” section from the end of Pink Floyd’s album The Dark Side of the Moon, the “Eclipse Waltz” from G. Kunz’ Flowers of the Ball Room, and Charles W. Nathan’s “Eclipse Galop”), and a medley of songs from The Sound of Music which I liked better than the Wizard of Oz medley he’d performed the day before even though I generally like the score for The Wizard of Oz better than that for The Sound of Music

Ball ignored “Sixteen Going on Seventeen” and the songs Richard Rodgers added to the original Sound of Music score for the film version, “Confidence in Me” and “Something Good” (the original librettist, Oscar Hammerstein II, had died before the film was made — indeed, The Sound of Music was the last project he ever worked on — so Rodgers wrote both words and music for the new songs). But the pieces he did play — “The Sound of Music,” “How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria?,” “My Favorite Things,” “Do-Re-Mi,” “The Lonely Goatherd,” “So Long, Farewell, Auf Wiedersehen, Goodbye,” “Edelweiss,” “Climb Ev’ry Mountain” and a reprise of “The Sound of Music” to close — at least provided a representative picture of the score. The featured movie was Seven Chances, a 1925 production by Joseph M. Schenck directed by and starring Buster Keaton, who according to an “Trivia” poster was unhappy with the project because Schenck had bought the rights to a hit play by Roi Cooper Megrue about a young broker named Jimmie Shannon (Buster Keaton) who’s the junior partner in a financial firm that’s about to go under because they took on a corrupt client. (This is an interesting premise for a movie made four years before the Depression and suggests that a lot of people — including the authors of the song “Buckle Up Your Overcoat,” in which among the dangers the singer warns his lover against is “stocks and bonds” because “you’ll get a pain and ruin your bankroll” — were skeptical of the late-1920’s stock bubble, enough so that their doubts filtered into popular culture.) An outside attorney (Snitz Edwards) shows up with a will from Jimmie’s uncle, who’s just died and left him $7 million (in 1925 dollars!) provided he’s married by his 27th birthday. Of course, Jimmie’s 27th birthday is that very day. I’m not sure how Megrue’s play, originally produced by David Belasco (who had such a major reputation then his name is in bigger letters on the credits than Megrue’s!) “played” on stage, and the early parts of the movie may be quite close to it, but for the second half of this film Keaton turned its story into a framework for his typical slapstick antics, including elaborate “trajectory” gags and … well, we’re getting ahead of ourselves.  

Seven Chances begins with a short prologue in two-strip Technicolor (though, alas, the footage is badly faded and no attempt has been made to restore it) in which Jimmie Shannon visits the home of his lady love, Mary Jones (Ruth Dwyer, who doesn’t have enough screen time to make the surprisingly spunky screen presence of Keaton’s best silent-era leading ladies, Kathryn McGuire, Marion Mack and Marceline Day), but can’t muster up the nerve to tell her he loves her. In the opening scene he has a puppy on a leash and with each new season (the sequences are spread at three-month intervals and reflect the changes of season) the dog is larger. So when Jimmie gets the word that he has to marry that day to collect his inheritance, Mary is the first person he proposes to — only he blows it by saying he has to marry someone that day to get his inheritance, and the more he tries to explain, the more she thinks she’s being used and turns him down. (Keaton’s acting is a finely honed fiesta of comic embarrassment and one could well imagine the young Cary Grant playing this scene if Seven Chances had been remade in the early 1930’s.) Jimmie’s friend and business partner, Billy Meekin (T. Roy Barnes), has a list of seven potential brides for him — hence the title — only Keaton strikes out with all of them as well as his own receptionist (played by the young Jean Arthur in the Louise Brooks helmet-like bob) and a similarly bobbed hat-check girl. Then the film, which up until now has been a quite amusing romantic comedy, really becomes special: Billy and the Snitz Edwards character hit on the idea of getting the evening newspaper to run a story about Jimmie’s plight, announcing that he’s in line for $7 million and “all he needs is a bride.” After an exhausting search for someone — anyone — to marry him (including a famous sequence in which Jimmie sees a poster of a beautiful woman outside a theatre, then a crate blocking part of the poster is removed and we see the “woman” is really the well-known female impersonator Julian Eltinge, who was famous enough in 1925 the original audiences got the joke immediately: it would have been like doing the same gag in the 1990’s with RuPaul), Jimmie makes it to the church where he’s been told that if he shows up by 5 p.m. there will be a bride waiting for him — and promptly falls asleep in the front pew. When he wakes up the church is filled with a small army of women in bridal dress, all carrying bouquets and all grimly determined to be the lucky one. The minister shows up and tells the women they’ve been the victims of a nasty practical joke, and rather than simply slink away in disappointment they form a sort of unofficial posse, determined to catch Jimmie and have their nasty revenge on him. 

The film originally ended with a grimly funny chase scene through the streets of 1925 Los Angeles (like a lot of other comedy filmmakers, Keaton shot on real locations) with Keaton chased by that army of hatchet-faced women much the way he was by the small army of police officers who were after him in his 1922 short masterpiece Cops while he tries to make it back to the church so he can marry Mary, who in the meantime has thought it over, decides she really loves Jimmie after all and isn’t going to let her peeve over his unorthodox proposal put her off. For some reason, though, this sequence laid an egg when Keaton previewed it; his audience sat stone-faced during the entire chase and laughed only when he accidentally tripped over three rocks. (Our source for this story is Keaton himself, in an interview he gave to biographer Rudi Blesh in the last year of his life.) With a potential bomb on his hands, Keaton realized that his movie needed radical surgery to be releasable, so he figured, “If they laughed at me tripping over three rocks, they’ll laugh harder if I do a chase scene with hundreds of rocks.” Accordingly he had a set of prop boulders made in giant size — he tried making them out of papier-maché but that was too light to look convincing on screen, so he settled on plaster; they still look lighter than real rocks but not so light they aren’t believable — and though some members of our audience were wondering why the town in which the movie takes place is surrounded by hilly desert country, the final chase is a brilliantly inventive sequence in which Jimmie seems to be in as much mortal danger from the disappointed brides as he is from the avalanche, and it’s only in the nick of time that he finally gets to Mary’s house where Mary, the minister and Billy are waiting. Only according to Jimmie’s watch, the time is 7:02 p.m. — two minutes over the deadline — and though Mary is still willing to marry him, he doesn’t want to subject her to a life of penury and disgrace. (Keaton is sometimes criticized in comparison to Charlie Chaplin for not doing pathos, but his acting here is as bittersweet and moving as anything in Chaplin’s work despite his typical “Great Stone Face” understatement.) Then, in an ending Megrue and/or Keaton’s writers (Clyde Bruckman, Jean Havez and Joseph Mitchell) may have ripped off from Jules Verne’s Around the World in Eighty Days, Jimmie goes outside and sees the clock in the church steeple, which reads two minutes before seven — so Jimmie gets both his bride and his money, and in the end he and Mary are kissing in front of her house when they’re overwhelmed by his dog, now at Great Dane size. 

Though Keaton reportedly hated this film and didn’t want his friend Raymond Rohauer to restore it along with Keaton’s other features, Seven Chances emerges as a comedy classic, a brilliantly funny and subversive movie which runs roughshod over quite a few conventions, including some surprisingly Gay scenes (not only the Eltinge gag but also a sequence in which Billy, thinking he needs to give Jimmie a lesson in how to propose, gets on his knee and offers marriage to Snitz Edwards) and nervy racial gags (one woman Jimmie proposes to doesn’t know a word of English because she’s Jewish, which we realize when we see her reading a Yiddish-language newspaper in Hebrew script; another turns out to be Black — and there’s also a Black woman among the army in the church, surprising since in 1925 no U.S. state allowed a Black and white couple to marry) as well as some of Keaton’s spectacular acrobatic “trajectories.” Later, when sound came in, his marriage collapsed, he lost his berth at Joseph Schenck’s independent studio and thus artistic control over his career, and he responded to all this by drinking a lot (with his typical lack of sentimentality, in a late-in-life interview Keaton responded to a question about his alcoholism by saying, “No, I wasn’t an alcoholic — I was a drunk!”), Keaton started using stunt doubles, but in 1925 he did all his own stunts — including a life-threatening fall from a construction crane (one of the nastier women has impaled him on the end of it and is swinging him around on it) as well as some spectacular slides down hillsides during the chase scene with the rocks. (Indeed, Keaton would sometimes dress up as characters in other movies and, unbeknownst to those films’ stars and directors, do stunts for them: director Allan Dwan recalled that in his 1929 film Tide of Empire he saw someone he thought was just an extra do a spectacular pratfall out of a Western saloon, and after he called “Cut!” he realized that the man was Keaton.) I was also intrigued by the large man who briefly gets in Snitz Edwards’ way early on as he’s chasing Jimmie with the news of his inheritance, who looked enough like Keaton’s filmmaking mentor, Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, I wondered if it was indeed he — if Keaton was helping out Arbuckle by giving him a day’s work in a barely recognizable bit part three years after Arbuckle’s star career had been destroyed by scandal.

Monday, August 21, 2017

Endeavour: “Game” (British TV/PBS, 2017)

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

I looked for something I could watch on TV since the Lifetime movies were reruns of things I’d already seen before, The Psycho She Met Online and Sleepwalking in Suburbia, and the networks were all offering so-called “reality” garbage, and I managed to find something to watch amidst the Vaster Wasteland (“vaster” because TV is so much worse these days than it was when Newton Minow coined the term “vast wasteland” in 1961 — and to make it even more frustrating, most of the good shows on today’s TV are confined to premium cable channels or streaming services and therefore you have to pay through the nose to watch them): a recently released episode of the British TV series Endeavour, the 1960’s-set mystery show about the younger days of Endeavour Morse (Shaun Evans), whom British mystery fans knew from Colin Dexter’s original novels and the previous TV show based on them as an aging, dyspeptic, recovering alcoholic inspector who nonetheless continues to work as a police officer and solve crimes because it and listening to opera are the only two joys he has left.

I think it was Russell Lewis who had the idea of doing a TV series on Morse’s younger days, when he was the hotshot young sidekick to a dyspeptic older commander, Inspector Fred Thursday (Roger Allam), and it’s definite that Lewis wrote the script for this episode, “Game,” which combined an early attempt to build a chess-playing computer at Oxford University in 1966 (the computer played a Russian grandmaster, Yuri Gradenko — played by Robert Lackey — imported for the occasion, and Morse was assigned to guard Gradenko because he was the only one on Thursday’s force who knew any Russian) and a series of bizarre murders in which the victims are all killed by drowning. The other cops are convinced they’re the work of a crazy serial killer targeting victims at random, but Morse of course deduces that they’re all the work of an intelligent person planning revenge against identifiable people who did him wrong. Among the dramatis personae are a wheelchair-bound professor in charge of the artificial intelligence project at Oxford, George Amory (James Laurenson); his daughter, also an Oxford professor, Pat Amory (Gillian Saker); local reporter Tessa Knight (Ruby Thomas), who “breaks” the story of the multi-victim killer by filching Morse’s notebook while they’re on a date and hopes it will be her ticket to a big-time journalism job in London until she becomes one of the victims; and a couple of assistants in Dr. George Amory’s lab, Clifford Gibbs (Abram Rooney) and Broderick Castle (Chris Fulton). There’s also a hot young man named Mick Mitchell (Daniel Atwell) whom we get to see a fair amount of in a white shirt and very tight light blue shorts — he was the sexiest guy in the cast and I’d have liked to see even more of him, but his character is pretty peripheral: he and his wife own the public baths at which two of the victims were drowned.

From the appearance of Chris Fulton playing the stereotypical nerd, complete with glasses, in the Oxford lab scenes I should have been able to guess he’d be the murderer, and indeed he was: he was actually from a family in an out-of-the-way town near Oxford, whom Morse is able to trace with the help of the computer (which sorts out all the addresses in that area that match the partial name he has for the people he’s looking for), and his father was a plastic surgeon who operated on George Amory after his plane was shot down in the Battle of Britain — he could fix the burn damage to his face but, of course, neither he nor anybody else was able to get his legs to work (though some part of his lower anatomy must have still worked because he was able to father a child after the war) — the middle-aged woman he killed in the baths was a woman who had had an affair with his dad; he also killed one of the professors and the journalist as well as a young man with a criminal record who was doing a sort of  unofficial community service to help what would now be called “at-risk youths”, and he picked the pseudonym “Castle” because it’s also a name for the chess piece “rook.” “Game” was an example of the British mystery at its best: no on-screen violence or bloodshed, reasonably polite people who kill each other, when they do, for comprehensible reasons, and a climax that manages to be exciting without going over the top in the manner of most American crime stories and especially most Lifetime movies. It’s also yet more evidence that the British produce the greatest actors in the world, nice, competent people who don’t heave, strain or show off, don’t make a big to-do about the Method or “what’s my motivation?,” but who just say their lines, hit their marks and by quiet matter-of-fact understatement manage to convince us they’re the people they’re supposed to be playing.

Sunday, August 20, 2017

The Incredible Shrinking Man (Universal-International, 1957)

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

Last night’s Vintage Sci-Fi film screening ( consisted of two movies from the 1950’s in which people are either shrunken or enlarged and have to cope with the fate of their new sizes: The Incredible Shrinking Man and Attack of the 50-Foot Woman. I won’t comment on Attack of the 50-Foot Woman again since Charles and I had seen it relatively recently and it’s on the moviemagg blog at, but The Incredible Shrinking Man — which I hadn’t seen since the 1970’s — is a great film, a deserved classic from Universal-International. (Charles groaned when he saw the Universal-International logo, mainly because he associates it with such infamous Mystery Science Theatre 3000 targets as Tarantula, The Deadly Mantis and the awesomely awful The Leech Woman, but they also made great films with major directors like Douglas Sirk, Orson Welles and Stanley Kubrick and, in the last year they were still using the “International” suffix, they released To Kill a Mockingbird.) It was produced by Albert Zugsmith (whose career after he left Universal-International descended into horrible schlock, most of it starring Mamie Van Doren, but while he was at U-I he was responsible for great movies like Sirk’s Written on the Wind and The Tarnished Angels and Welles’ Touch of Evil), directed by Jack Arnold (who had established himself as a major director in the sci-fi/horror genre with The Creature from the Black Lagoon and It Came from Outer Space, and who’s in superb form here) and written by Richard Matheson, who got the job of adapting his own novel published in 1956, just a year before the movie was made. (They moved a lot faster in those days.) 

The plot of The Incredible Shrinking Man is quite simple: Scott Carey (Grant Williams, a quite good-looking man who delivers a marvelously understated performance in a role that should have marked him for biggers and betters, but didn’t) is on a boat trip with his wife Louise (Randy Stuart — a woman named Randy?). He decides he wants a beer and, like a typical 1950’s movie male chauvinist, sends her below deck to get it for him — which turns out to be a good thing for her because, while he’s alone on top of the boat, a strange cloud of mist comes up off the water’s surface, envelops him and leaves him covered with shiny flakes that make him look like he’s about to become the world’s first glitter-rocker. Instead, as we learn later, the mist contains some sort of radioactive energy that interacts with some powerful insecticide Scott had been exposed to earlier to cause his entire body to get steadily smaller and smaller. At first he notices the difference when his clothes are suddenly too loose around his body, and his family doctor, Arthur Branson (William Schallert, unctuous as usual), is baffled by how he can be losing so much weight and even getting two inches shorter. Dr. Branson refers him to the researchers at a local medical institute, whose head, Dr. Thomas Silver (Raymond Bailey), figures out how he got smaller but it takes him a while to develop a serum to counteract it, and even then the serum will only arrest the incredible shrinking process — it won’t revert him to his normal size. In his three-foot state Scott visits a local carnival and is cruised by a lady little person, Clarice (April Kent), even though she’s already married to a fellow little-person carnival performer (played by the great little-person actor Billy Curtis, who made quite a lot of movies but very few as good as this one), and he asks how he can be happy in a world of “giants.” She answers, “I’ve lived with them all my life. Oh, Scott, for people like you and me the world can be a wonderful place. The sky is as blue as it is for the giants. The friends are as warm.” 

Alas, the serum stops working and Scott starts shrinking even further, to the point where he’s living in a doll house in the Careys’ home (though what they were doing with a doll house when they have no children is something of a mystery) and, in one of the film’s most famous terror scenes, he’s menaced by the family cat, who was loving towards him when he was normal-sized but now that he’s the size of a mouse is treating him as one. (The scene in which the cat’s-paw comes through the window of the doll house to grab Scott reminded me of the scenes in King Kong in which the giant ape put his hand through windows to grab normal-sized people — and I suspect Arnold intended the allusion.) Later Scott gets even smaller and ends up trapped in the Careys’ basement, having to use such common household items as matches and pins as weapons against a tarantula who’s going after him; Scott is searching for whatever crumbs of food he can get (in one great scene he figures out a way to trigger a mousetrap to get the cheese out of it, but the mousetrap catapults the cheese down a grating, well out of his reach) while the tarantula is obviously anxious to make Scott his dinner. “In my hunt for food I had become the hunted,” Scott explains in one of the bits of first-person narration that stud the film. “This time I survived, but I was no longer alone in my universe. I had an enemy, the most terrifying ever beheld by human eyes.” In Matheson’s original novel the spider that went after Scott was a black widow, but it was changed for the film, probably so Universal-International could recycle the stop-motion model of a tarantula they had built for the 1955 movie Tarantula, in which the humans were normal-sized and the tarantula menacing them had been artificially enlarged — the scenes with the tarantula appear to be the only shots in The Incredible Shrinking Man in which stop-motion was used: the earlier scene in which Scott is attacked by a cat look like they were shot with a real cat, with the images of the cat and Scott combined by Clifford Stine’s excellent process photography. (We’ve seen enough bad process work in films of this vintage — including Attack of the 50-Foot Woman, in which Allison Hayes’ appearance as the title character shows her with a black ring around her, telltale sign of a poorly matched process shot — to appreciate really good effects work.) 

As Scott shrinks smaller and smaller, his battle for sheer survival gets more and more difficult, to the point where by the end he’s almost literally reverted to prehistoric status — he’s got a full growth of beard (this is not one of those movies in which the character looks clean-shaven throughout even though he’s supposedly been on a voyage of thousands of miles of open ocean or had some other arduous fate that would prevent him from grooming himself normally) and his clothes have shrunk to something that looks vaguely like a Roman tunic. He’s almost literally devolved, having to live by his wits and his resourcefulness in a world where ordinary objects have suddenly turned terrifying and meeting the simple, basic needs like food has become incredibly arduous — I suspect it wasn’t until The Hunger Games that a movie was this good about plunging the central character(s) this far down the evolutionary ladder this fast and forcing them into thinking about nothing but sheer survival — until the ending, in which Carey gets a soliloquy aimed at giving the story power and meaning beyond a sensational horror tale. An “trivia” poster said Jack Arnold added this to the script even though one of the attendees at our screening brought a copy of Matheson’s book and read the final chapter to us after the movie — and the two are surprisingly good even though Matheson made one change that actually strengthened its impact: he had Carey narrate it in the first person instead of telling the story in third-person as he had in the novel. Carey tells us that he finally realizes what his experience meant in the broader scope of cosmic philosophy: “I knew the answer to the riddle of the infinite. I had thought in terms of man’s own limited dimension. I had presumed upon nature. That existence begins and ends in man’s conception, not nature’s. And I felt my body dwindling, melting, becoming nothing. My fears melted away. And in their place came acceptance. All this vast majesty of creation, it had to mean something. And then I meant something, too. Yes, smaller than the smallest, I meant something, too. To God, there is no zero. I still exist!” (In Matheson’s book the last line is, “To nature, there is no zero.” Obviously the change was made to placate the Jesuits who were still in charge of the Production Code Administration and the overall social religiosity of the 1950’s, the time in which our Cold War enemy was defined not merely as “Communism” but “Godless Communism,” the Pledge of Allegiance was defaced with the words “under God,” and “In God We Trust” was added to our money.)  

The Incredible Shrinking Man is a great movie, hitting on conventional science-fiction and horror tropes but transcending them, including marvelous touches like having Scott pledge that he will remain faithful to his wife “as long as that wedding ring remains on my finger” — whereupon it immediately falls off because his finger has shrunk to the point where the ring is now too big for it. The Incredible Shrinking Man was remade in the 1970’s as The Incredible Shrinking Woman, starring Lily Tomlin and directed and written by her partner Jane Wagner, and it got terrible reviews when it came out but I remember it as quite good (and I’d love to see the two back-to-back sometime) — in her version what shrunk her was a toxic fume formed by the cross-reactions of all the chemicals she used as a housewife to clean her home. There may have been a straight remake since but I haven’t been able to find it, and neither was anyone else at our screening — there was Honey, I Shrunk the Kids, a Disney comedy from 1990 or thereabouts in which Rick Moranis was the star and the film copied the man-vs.-arthropod battle from this one (though with ants instead of a spider), but it’s probably just as well no other recent filmmakers have gone near this premise and come up with a bloated version that would compare to this one about the way the bloated remakes of Invasion of the Body Snatchers compared to Don Siegel’s near-perfect 1956 original.

The Wizard of Mars, a.k.a. Horrors of the Red Planet (American General Pictures, David L. Hewitt and Associates, Karston-Hewitt Organization, National Telefilm Associates, 1964)

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

Two nights ago, the Mars movie screening in San Diego’s Golden Hill neighborhood ( consisted of two low-budget films, Devil Girl from Mars (a British production from 1954 about an implacable woman who arrives on a spaceship from Mars that looks like a giant bathtub stopper looking for men because the Martian males have become so emasculated through years of battle-of-the-sexes civil wars with the Martian females they can no longer impregnate them and make little Martians) and The Wizard of Mars, a truly weird American production from 1964 (though gives the date as 1965, it’s 1964 that’s listed on the credits as the copyright date — actually it’s MCMLXIV, but you get the idea) that’s advertised as “starring John Carradine,” though given their ultra-limited production budget ($33,000 according to, $40,000 according to the proprietor of the screening) they could only afford him for one day. By chance they signed Carradine just as his (third) wife, Doris Rich, was playing Mrs. Santa Claus in an even worse movie than this one, Santa Claus Conquers the Martians (whose only distinctions are that Pia Zadora had a child role in it and it features the same stock clip of U.S. Air Force bombers doing air-to-air refueling that was seen in Dr. Strangelove — so that clip ended up in one of the worst movies ever made and one of the best!). The Wizard of Mars was at least to some extent intended by its creators, writers David L. Hewitt (who also directed) and Armando Busick, as a conscious parallel to The Wizard of Oz, but about the only real similarities are they’re both about four people, including a woman named Dorothy (Eve Bernhardt), exploring a strange world, finding a “Golden Road” and encountering a super-powerful being who appears to them as a giant disembodied head. The setting is New Year’s Day 1975 and the crew of the first manned spacecraft to explore Mars — Dorothy (who’s depicted not as the surprisingly resourceful and plucky junior heroine L. Frank Baum envisioned in The Wizard of Oz but yet another dull spaceship crew member, sort of like Lt. Uhura in the original Star Trek, who’s there just for window dressing and so the filmmakers can feel oh so ahead of their time in actually putting a woman on a spaceship as part of the crew!), ship’s commander Steve (Roger Gentry), Doc (Vic McGee) and the incredibly annoying comic relief character Charlie (Jerry Rannow, who seems to be spending the whole movie trying to channel Jerry Lewis’s whiny delivery of dialogue even though he hasn’t a clue how to do physical comedy — may the real Jerry Lewis rest in peace and not have to fear from horrible imitators like this anymore!) — were originally supposed only to orbit the Red Planet. 

Instead they find themselves pulled in by some sort of force beyond their control and end up landing on it. They had already jettisoned the main stage of their rocket in the process of orbiting Mars, but we’re told in the Hewitt-Busick dialogue that if they can only find it again, they can use it to blast off the Martian surface and get home. Instead they get stuck in an endless series of caves ( lists the location as Lehman Caves in the Great Basin National Park in Nevada) which are actually the most appealing element of the film: though the vistas get dull after a while, by 1964 color film was cheap enough that even ultra-low-budget productions like this could use it, and the spectacular sights of the walls in Lehman Caves are considerably more entertaining than the dreary antics of the humans walking around them. (They also probably blew a big chunk of the budget renting the extensive array of lights and porting in all that equipment they would have needed to film inside caves.) Eventually, after narrowly avoiding falling into the lava from a seemingly active volcano (that was obviously stock footage), they finally make their way out of the cave only to stumble on a few golden paving stones suddenly revealed when a sandstorm blows off the sand that had previously covered them as part of the Martian desert. Following the golden brick road, Our Non-Heroes find themselves inside a sort of mausoleum featuring a number of glass tubes, each of them containing a sort of papier-maché body that looks like the sort of thing you used to see inside a fun house. (Remember fun houses? I’m probably part of the last generation that got to experience them in our childhoods.) In any event, the travelers encounter one of these creepy statues that talks to them, first in double-talk and then, as the whatsit figures out their language, in English that sounds like the voice of John Carradine — indeed, the figure looks like Carradine in elaborate trick-or-treater makeup, and I suspect the filmmakers created this preposterous contraption so they could have a mechanical Carradine to use for longer than the one day they had the real one under contract. 

Ultimately the real Carradine appears as a disembodied head in front of a black screen and launches into a preposterous explanation of his and the other indigenous Martians’ current plight that makes it seem like Hewitt and Busick were ripping off not only The Wizard of Oz but Forbidden Planet as well: it seems that the “Martians” are actually a super-powerful race that wandered around the galaxy with no fixed abode in any one solar system. They developed their technological knowledge so extensively that they were able to break any connection with space and appear anywhere they wanted to as pure mental energy — but that wasn’t enough for them: they also decided to break any connection with time, with the result that the entire race congealed into the disembodied head of John Carradine and became immortal, which they find so boring they plead with the astronauts to head into a ridiculous-looking gizmo that appears as a Mr. Sun-type solar face with a pendulum attached. Once they follow Carradine’s instructions and restart this device’s pendulum, time will start again and all the entities appearing as Carradine’s head will be able to die at long last — and once they do that, in a ripoff of the silly ending MGM’s screenwriters put on the Wizard of Oz movie even though it wasn’t in L. Frank Baum’s book, the astronauts come to aboard their spacecraft, still orbiting Mars, and only two minutes have elapsed since their experiences started — that’s right, folks, It Was All a Dream! If Devil Girl from Mars was an example of the frustrating sort of bad movie that isn’t good enough to be entertaining on its own merits and isn’t bad enough to be camp, The Wizard of Mars (which also exists, according to, in a seven-minutes-longer version under the title Horrors of the Red Planet) is an example of that even more frustrating sort of bad movie: one that seems to have a good movie trapped inside it, struggling to get out.

The most interesting name on the credits of The Wizard of Mars is the film editor, Tom Graeff, who seven years earlier had made a surprisingly compelling film called Teenagers from Outer Space. Despite its terrible title (the idea of Warner Bros.’ marketing department after Graeff sold the film to them because they needed a double-bill partner for Gigantis, the Fire Monster, actually the first sequel to Godzilla) and some tacky production values, Teenagers was a surprisingly well-written and well-acted film, one of the better knockoffs of The Day the Earth Stood Still with some quite original aspects in its own right, including a quirky sense of spirituality — and bits and pieces of that same sensibility appear in The Wizard of Mars, suggesting that in addition to editing the film Graeff may have had a hand in writing it as well. (Eventually Graeff went so far overboard with his quirky spirituality that he became convinced he was the second coming of Jesus Christ, started an independent church where he was worshiped as such, and even filed a petition with the Los Angeles County courts to have his name legally changed to “Jesus Christ II” — which was unsuccessful.) The Wizard of Mars is hardly the worst movie John Carradine was ever in — The Unearthly and the unspeakably awful The Astro-Zombies (which looks like it was shot on Super 8 and sounds like it was recorded on cassettes) are definitely below this one on the quality scale — but it’s an indication of how horrible Carradine’s career trajectory was, from achieving notice in his marvelous supporting role in John Ford’s underrated The Prisoner of Shark Island, his repeated appearances as part of the “Ford Stock Company” in films like The Grapes of Wrath and Stagecoach, his marvelous starring role in Edgar G. Ulmer’s 1944 Bluebeard (a film of real quality, and recognized as such at the time it was released), before his career trailed off into ever tackier appearances in crap like this, from which he collected the money so he could keep his semi-professional Shakespeare company in L.A. going. (One wonders what its productions were like.) At least Boris Karloff managed to maintain his dignity and pride no matter how crappy the films he got cast in were; Carradine, like Bela Lugosi, seemed to be subsumed in them and one gets the impression he can’t wait to get off the set, sign for his money and go back to his friends and play Shakespeare!

Saturday, August 19, 2017

Devil Girl from Mars (The Danzigers, Spartan Productions, 1954)

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

Last night’s Mars movie screening in Golden Hill,, billwas a double bill of a 1954 British “B” called Devil Girl from Mars and a 1964 (though lists the date as 1965) American cheapie alternately called The Wizard of Mars and The Horrors of the Red Planet. Devil Girl from Mars was one of those weirdies in which a femme fatale from another planet descends on earth because millions of years of war between the sexes has essentially emasculated the indigenous male population to the point where the only way the Martian women are going to be able to make little Martians is if they can import breeding stock from some other planet … and of course they’ve chosen Earth because at just 33 million miles away at their closest point, we’re practically their next-door neighbors. The gimmick on this one is that the Martian spaceship, which looks less like a flying saucer than a flying bathtub stopper (or maybe a flying merry-go-round, since it’s circled by a band of flashing lights that rotates when the ship is in motion but grinds to a halt after it lands), is flown by just one crew member, a hot-looking woman called Nyah — it’s pronounced to rhyme with “Maya” but in cold print in the closing credits it looks like a line from a Three Stooges script — played by Patricia Laffan and dressed in an amazing form-fitting black polyvinyl chloride costume, with an accompanying cape, that looks so spectacular Ronald Cobb got a special credit for designing it. Alas, it also meant Laffan could neither eat nor drink on set because the difficulty of getting her in — and, even more importantly, out — of the costume meant they couldn’t risk losing valuable shooting time by letting her use the restroom. (Some of the actors on the original Star Trek had this same problem: since Gene Roddenberry had decided that 25th century clothes would have invisible fasteners that didn’t exist in the 1960’s, many of the Star Trek actors literally had their costumes sewn on around them.) 

Alas, the rest of Devil Girl from Mars is pretty dull: it’s set in a pub called the Bonnie Charlie in a remote part of Scotland, and it’s based on a stage play by John C. Mather and James Eastwood (presumably no relation), which Eastwood adapted into the film’s script and David MacDonald directed. It’s all too obvious that this movie started out as a play since it almost never leaves the first-floor room of that combination inn and pub; occasionally we get a cut-away shot to one of the rooms or something from outside, but for the most part we’re stuck in that room and things get awfully claustrophobic. The human principals are scientist Arnold Hennessey (Joseph Tomelty, who looks like some odd attempt to cross-breed Sydney Greenstreet and Robert Morley) and his traveling companion, reporter Michael Carter (Hugh McDermott), who drive out to Scotland to investigate a meteor that’s just fallen to Earth but end up seven miles from where it fell. Carter shows up at the inn and immediately falls in love with former model Ellen Prestwick (Hazel Court), who previously had been in a relationship with the designer she was modeling for but broke it off when she found out he was already married (to which I couldn’t help but think, “A dress designer — married — to another woman?”), then fled to Scotland because he wasn’t about to take no for an answer from her and she needed to hide out in as remote a location as possible to keep him from finding her. There’s another star-crossed couple at the bar: Doris (Adrienne Corri, whose most famous credit is as the rape victim Mrs. Alexander in A Clockwork Orange), a barmaid who’s in love with escaped convict Robert Justin (Peter Reynolds), who’s using the name “Albert Simpson” at the pub until reporter Carter recognizes him and figures out who he really is. It seems that Justin was in prison in the first place for murdering his wife, and Doris has forgiven him for that but not for leaving her to marry the wife he killed in the first place. There are also the Jamiesons (John Laurie and Sophie Stewart, the latter in a marvelous busybody performance that proves they didn’t break the mold after they made Una O’Connor), the owners of the Bonnie Charlie; and Tommy (Anthony Richmond), your typically obnoxious and insufferable movie kid. 

The action, such as it is, occurs when Nyah demands that one of the males in this unlikely assemblage accompany her back to Mars and be her stud service — originally she was supposed to arrive in London but she miscalculated her landing trajectory and ended up stuck in the Scottish Highlands instead — and she’s also got an enforcer robot named Chani. The film’s special effects are otherwise quite good, but it loses all credibility when Chani enters and he’s basically just a big box with a head, arms and legs sticking out in the appropriate places, the box being mostly featureless except for four dials stretched across his chest and a few other bits and pieces of holes and protuberances apparently meant to represent controls. Nyah puts a force field around the pub to prevent anybody from communicating with the world outside, and at one point, when Michael volunteers to be her stud but then grabs her ray gun with which she controls the robot, she manages to get it back from him and tells the group at the pub that out of revenge for Michael’s attempted deception, she’s going to kill all of them except for the one who agrees to go with her. Dr. Hennessey gets inside the spacecraft and realizes its power source is a spherical nuclear core, and if someone can get inside the ship and make the core go super-critical, it will blow up the ship and the Devil Girl from Mars as well, though it will also be a suicide mission for whichever Earthling tries it. Eventually Robert Justin agrees to go inside the spaceship because as a convicted murder and escapee from prison, he knows his life is forfeit anyway and he ultimately redeems himself by blowing up the spaceship — represented by a cool little fireball effect that consumes whatever model the production crew was using. 

Devil Girl from Mars is that frustrating sort of movie that’s not good enough to be entertaining on its own merits but not bad enough to work as camp, either; it’s got the usual impeccable acting from the all-British cast (what is it with British actors? Is there some strain in the British DNA that keeps churning out all these beautiful, well-spoken, reliable and always convincing actors?) and a degree of understatement that’s refreshing, especially given the melodramatic overwroughtness with which American filmmakers usually handled plots like this. But it’s also dull, dull, dull, especially when Nyah isn’t on screen showing off that ultra-cool costume designer Cobb made for her — the screening organizer wondered why more recent “cosplayers” at fan conventions haven’t taken up her dress: probably because of the sheer difficulty of taking it on and off and the need to put various excretory functions “on hold” while wearing it.