Monday, October 30, 2017

My Sister Eileen (Columbia, 1942)

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

I squeezed in a movie in between 60 Minutes and Madam Secretary: My Sister Eileen, an item from the two-volume, eight-movie package of screwball comedies from Columbia I’d just cracked open to screen Theodora Goes Wild. My Sister Eileen was made in 1942 — a bit late in the day for the heyday of screwball; American movies, even the comedies, had turned more serious once the U.S. got into the war — and its tale of two rambunctious sisters from Columbus, Ohio who come to New York City to succeed actually had roots in real life. Though the family name of Eileen and her sister Ruth was changed in the film from “McKinney” to “Sherwood,” Ruth McKinney and her sister Eileen did come from Columbus, Ohio to New York in search of fame and fortune in the arts, Ruth as a writer and Eileen as an actress. They did this in 1934, and like the ones in the movie, the real McKinney sisters had to settle for a basement apartment in Greenwich Village (in the film the address is “Barrow Street” but in real life it was 14 Gay Street, just above the Christopher Street subway station: just about every Gay tourist who goes to New York gets him- or herself photographed on the fabled corner of Christopher and Gay Streets, the location of the Stonewall Inn where the 1969 riot of bar patrons against police staging a raid is commonly — but ridiculously inaccurately — thought to have sparked America’s Queer rights movement) where they had to deal with an eccentric landlord, a whole cast of Greenwich Village characters coming in and out of their apartment at odd moments, and the noises of the subway extension that was then under construction. Ruth McKinney managed to write a series of stories about her life in Greenwich Village with her sister Eileen, who was younger, more attractive and far more interested in men, and though New Yorker editor Harold Ross at first didn’t think this material was “classy” enough for his magazine, eventually he accepted McKinney’s articles, they became popular and in 1938 they were collected and republished as a book. Broadway producer Max Gordon saw the stage potential of McKinney’s stories and bought the rights, bringing in Joseph Fields and Jerome Chodorov to adapt them into a play, which he staged in 1940 with Shirley Booth as Ruth and Jo Ann Sayers as Eileen. (The real Eileen McKinney met a sad end: she married author Nathaniel West, moved to Hollywood with him, and the two were both tragically killed in an auto accident in 1940.)

Columbia Pictures bought the movie rights, though Gordon retained an interest and is listed on the film credits as the producer, and filmed it in 1942 with Alexander Hall (who was at his best with edgy comedies like this and the 1949 Bob Hope film The Great Lover) directing, Fields and Chodorov credited with the screenplay and Rosalind Russell as Ruth, the great comedienne Janet Blair as Eileen and Brian Aherne as the New Yorker editor (though here it’s called The Manhattaner) who squabbles with his publisher, Ralph Craven (Clyde Fillmore), over whether to publish Ruth’s stories. Russell and Blair don’t really look at all alike — even more than many Hollywood movies that have cast quite dissimilar-looking people as siblings, this one really requires a major suspension of disbelief to accept these people as coming from the same family — but in this case that’s less bothersome than usual because the difference in their appearance and attractiveness to men is an integral part of the plot. The gag is that Eileen keeps getting herself in trouble because so many men of various income levels, social positions and potential usefulness to getting her career started cruise her, while the more level-headed Ruth concentrates on her writing and on keeping the two alive on the meager $100 allowance their dad (Grant Mitchell) gave them when they left. (Their mom isn’t part of the picture — given the usual attitude of classic Hollywood towards divorce, we’re probably supposed to assume she’s dead — but they do have a female parental figure, their grandmother, deliciously played by Elizabeth Patterson.) They end up in that basement apartment on Barrow Street, which they rent for $45 per month from landlord Appopoulos (George Tobias), who’s also an aspiring artist who gives one of his works pride of place over their couch and won’t let them remove it. It turns out that part of the dues you have to pay for living in a Greenwich Village basement is that your window is on street level, so if you open the window — something you practically have to do in the middle of a New York summer — you’re just inviting all manner of people to stare at you and accost you, from two drunks who cruise the sisters to a cop who blames them for attracting this unwanted male attention to a professional football player named “Wreck” Loomis (Gordon Jones) — remember that pro football was still considered a very low-class way of making a living, and Loomis laments that he tried wrestling but couldn’t do it because “you have to do so much rehearsing” — who’s hung a bundle of bedsheets from a neighbor’s clothesline to use as a tackling dummy.

Eileen attracts the attentions of alleged reporter “Chic” Clark (Allyn Joslyn), who first offers to “interview” her as a star-struck young woman seeking a stage career in New York, then offers to place Ruth with his paper on an assignment to cover a ship from the Portuguese merchant marine that’s docking in New York. Somewhat to my surprise, the paper turns out actually to exist, but they’ve sent out another reporter — a man — to cover the ship coming in. After she realizes that “Chic” sent Ruth on this wild-goose chase only to be alone with her in the apartment, Eileen insists on joining Ruth at the docks, and they end up followed home by six Portuguese sailors — one of them played by Kirk Alyn, Columbia’s future Superman — who don’t speak a word of English. In one of the film’s most delicious scenes, they form a conga line that stretches throughout the neighborhood and ultimately sparks a riot that gets Eileen arrested. One could make the case that My Sister Eileen is essentially the stateroom scene from the Marx Brothers’ A Night at the Opera extended over the length of a feature film — in addition to the characters mentioned above there’s also a cat who goes through the bars on the sisters’ window, a dog who also goes through the bars to chase the cat, a soda jerk named Frank Lippincott (future director Richard Quine, who had also played this part in the Broadway stage production) who brings over a bottle of wine for what he thinks is going to be an intimate dinner with Eileen and ends up with it spilled all over his suit, and Effie Shelton (June Havoc, sister of Gypsy Rose Lee — 20 years after making this film with her, Rosalind Russell would play June Havoc’s mother in the musical Gypsy), who in the original material was a prostitute but in this version is a spirit medium who used to inhabit the Barrow Street basement and still gets professional visitors there. This bowdlerization, and the Production Code-mandated absence of any Queer characters (oh, how we could have wished for a gag in which Eileen sets her sights on a nice young man who proves impervious to her charms, and she’s crushed when she realizes that’s because he’s Gay!), makes My Sister Eileen less fun than it could have been, but even under Production Code restrictions it’s still a marvelous movie.

Fields, Chodorov and director Hall do “open it up” a bit, starting the film with a prologue in Columbus that establishes why the sisters are persona non grata there (Ruth wrote a review for the local newspaper hailing Eileen’s performance for a local amateur theatre company in the lead of Ibsen’s A Doll’s House before the show even took place, only the paper’s publisher pulled rank at the last minute, Eileen didn’t get to go on and the publisher’s daughter, whom we see enough of to note she’s wretchedly incompetent — compared to her Susan Alexander Kane was at the level of Sarah Bernhardt and Maria Callas — played the part instead) and at least occasionally getting us out of that basement apartment set that was probably the sole location of  the stage version. My Sister Eileen was a hit film and in 1953 Rosalind Russell repeated the part on stage in a musical adaptation of it called Wonderful Town, with a score by Leonard Bernstein and lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green (his previous collaborators on the hit show On the Town, which obviously inspired the title change). A kinescope of a TV presentation of this show with Russell in the lead exists, but it wasn’t filmed that way because Columbia wouldn’t either buy Wonderful Town or relinquish their rights to the underlying material. Instead in 1955 Columbia did their own musical remake under the My Sister Eileen title, with MGM refugee Betty Garrett as Ruth and Jack Lemmon in the role of the Manhattaner editor played here by Brian Aherne (who wasn’t that great an actor or that big a star — in his memoirs he jokes that he was the actor you called when Ronald Colman was unavailable — but he worked well with strong women like Katharine Hepburn in Sylvia Scarlett and Rosalind Russell here) with a different set of songs (by Jule Styne, music; and Leo Robin, lyrics) and Richard Quine promoted from actor to director. One thing I’m surprised Columbia didn’t do with the material is a TV series, since the episodic nature of the plot would seem to have made it a “natural” as a TV sitcom, but the 1942 My Sister Eileen is a start-to-finish delight and it gives Rosalind Russell one of her best ballsy-woman roles alongside His Girl Friday and another Greenwich Village story filled with eccentric characters, Auntie Mame.

Sunday, October 29, 2017

Flint (Sony Pictures Television/Lifetime, 2017)

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

I watched last night’s “Premiere” of one of the best and strongest movies I’ve ever seen on Lifetime, Flint, one of their rare excursions into socially conscious drama (along with Custody — which they re-ran right after Flint and was a quite good political film about the legal system and how it handles cases of suspected child abuse, and particularly how much harder the authorities are on people of color accused of abusing or neglecting their kids than they are on whites — For the Love of a Child, Prayers for Bobby, A Girl Like Me and the quite remarkably class-conscious Restless Virgins). Flint also has considerably more prestigious credits than usual for a Lifetime movie: the director is Bruce Beresford, who was part of the late 1970’s/early 1980’s Australian breakout with Breaker Morant and directed Driving Miss Daisy, and the stars include two of the greatest African-American soul singers of the day, Queen Latifah and Jill Scott, as well as white actor Rob Morrow. As you might expect, the film is about the water crisis at Flint, Michigan that started in 2014 when Rick Snyder, the Republican governor of Michigan, passed a bill through the Republican state legislature that allowed for the state to suspend democracy in cities that were in financial trouble and appoint “emergency managers” with dictatorial power over local governments. Flint’s emergency manager decided that one of the ways he would cut the city’s budget was to break its contract with Detroit’s municipal water utility, which got its water from Lake Huron and the Detroit River, and instead get Flint’s water from the Karegnondi Water Authority (KWA).

However, using KWA water would require constructing an elaborate pipeline to get it to Flint, so in the meantime Flint’s manager decided the city would get its water from the Flint River, even though for decades the Flint River had been the dumping ground for industrial pollutants from the huge auto factories located there. (Remember that before the water crisis the two things Flint was most famous for were the sit-down strike of GM’s auto workers in 1936-37 that ultimately led to the recognition of the United Auto Workers, and the bitterly satirical film Roger and Me made by Michael Moore in 1989 about what happened to Flint economically and culturally when GM closed that famous plant.) The film Flint opens with a bizarre celebration at the Flint water plant in which the staff seem all too happy about the changeover to Flint River Water — and then we start meeting the principals. Iza Banks (Queen Latifah) is a mother who gets concerned when her daughter Adina (Lyndie Greenwood) has a miscarriage just a week or two after her last pre-natal examination said her baby was coming along just fine. LeeAnne Walters (a finely honed performance by Betsy Brandt) is a housewife and mother who’s alerted to the water crisis when her kids smell what’s now coming out of their taps and say it seems spoil. “Water doesn’t spoil,” LeeAnne innocently tells her family, until one of her kids starts acting out, having temper tantrums and smashing his toys, while another starts developing rashes and losing his hair in clumps. Melissa Mays (Marin Ireland) is a local organizer who starts researching water contamination online, and Nayyariah Sharif (Jill Scott) is a local pediatrician who’s alerted to the problem when a nurse on her staff steals medical records that indicate a lot of the kids they see are having problems that indicate some sort of toxic contamination of their environment. The four unlikely activists attend a meeting of the Flint City Council, where they’re treated like hysterical cranks — one city official even accuses them of putting teabags in their water samples to make the city’s water look brown — until they finally attract the attention of some experts who verify what’s happening. One of the bureaucratic heroes is Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) investigator Miguel Del Toral (Juan Carlos Velis), who does his own tests confirming high levels of lead in Flint’s water. The lead comes from the industrial pollutants in the Flint River and also from the ancient pipes installed in Flint’s houses, particularly the older ones, which are made of lead and which cross-react with the industrial pollutants to release lead into the water.

The residents of Flint start getting a series of “advisories” from the local water department, first telling them to boil all water to eliminate E. coli and other bacterial contaminants, later realizing that all that did was concentrate the lead — as LeeAnne bitterly comments in one scene, the Flint water department was giving them the choice of either letting their kids get sick (and possibly die) from bacteria or letting them get poisoned, permanently disabled and with their brains damaged, from the lead that would concentrate in the water if they boiled it first. The results include a run on the market on bottled water in Flint, with resulting price-gouging and uncertain supplies (in one scene one of Our Heroines chews out a store manager for not stocking more bottled water), as well as increasing public pressure on the Flint mayor and council. In one sequence the Flint city council actually votes 7-1 to reconnect their water system to Detroit’s so they can start getting the relatively pure water from Lake Huron instead of the crap coming out of the Flint River, but the emergency manager smarmily vetoes the move with a patronizing little lecture to the people Flint’s voters actually elected that they need to start learning to live within their means (not that different from what the people of Puerto Rico are getting from the Trump administration and Congress these days). Ultimately the Flint activists start showing up at protests wearing signs saying “Flint Lives Matter” — a parallel to the Black Lives Matter slogan which I think is actually historically anachronistic, since the Flint water crisis began before the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri that touched off the Black Lives Matter movement — and they also get the attention of America’s most highly regarded scientific specialist in water pollution, Professor Edwards of the University of Virginia (Rob Morrow). Edwards says that in order to get a measure of just how bad Flint’s water is, he’ll need to send out 300 test kits to residents in various parts of town, and while he’s been able to get an emergency grant to do the actual lab work he doesn’t have any funding to pay people to collect the kids.

Don’t worry, says Iza; she’ll recruit the volunteers, which she does through the local Black church — and in the end 271 of the 300 kits come back, which Edwards declares an umprecedentedly good response rate (usually you have to send 300 kits to get back just 70), and Edwards presents his report, which basically confirms the growing suspicion of Flint residents that they’re essentially being pumped toxic waste that’s called “drinking water” and not only drinking and cooking but bathing their kids and doing laundry in it. Another thing the activists discover is that the Flint water department has not been treating the water with so-called “corrosion controls,” basically chemical treatments that neutralize chemicals in the water that might corrode the pipes and release toxic metallic lead. Flint’s water department hadn’t used corrosion controls before because the Detroit water department from which they had historically bought their water was already doing that for them, and they didn’t institute corrosion controls when they switched from Detroit’s supply to Flint River water. Eventually the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) gets involved and files suit against the city of Flint, the state government and the EPA, and the film builds up to a happy-ending climax when Flint resumes purchasing its water from Lake Huron via the Detroit system. (It’s kind of ironic that this film holds up Detroit as an example of a city that did something right, given how prominently Detroit has figured in Right-wing demonology of what terrible things supposedly happen when you put progressive Democrats, especially African-American progressive Democrats, in charge of a major city.) Flint is a little too close to the Frank Capra template for my taste — it’s pretty obvious that Beresford and his writer, Barbara Stepansky, were looking at Norma Rae and Erin Brockovich as their templates for how to do a courageous-woman-stands-up-to-corporate-and-political-bureaucracy movie, and those films were themselves modern-day refractions of the Capra mythos — and there’s the sense that they’re trying to shoehorn a horribly open-ended story into a coherently structured story by using the devices of Old Hollywood.

But so what? Flint is a great movie, all the more surprising given its appearance on Lifetime (of all places); it not only has the right heroines but the right villains as well — the film really sticks it to the government of Michigan and in particular to the “emergency manager” Michigan’s governor put in charge of Flint (actually there were four “emergency managers” over a course of three years, from 2011 to 2014, and the one in the film is basically a conflation of the last two) on the idea that a city of poor people, especially poor people of color, can’t responsibly govern themselves and a white male expert has to be brought in to save money, no matter how many people die or get avoidably sick in the process. Flint would be a good educational movie for anyone concerned about the current direction of the country, since it, like the real-life story it is based on, is a cautionary tale of what happens when you let Republicans run things. You get an extreme Libertarian ideology that believes it’s not only bad public policy but actually morally wrong for the government to tax the rich to pay for programs that help the not-so-rich, and also believes that everything should be a commodity. According to the economic Libertarians currently dominating the Republican Party, even programs and infrastructure previously considered basic human needs it was the obligation of government to supply to all citizens should instead be commodities, available or not depending on whether you can afford to pay for them. The Flint crisis literally made water a commodity — if you’d paid recently to have your old lead pipes replaced with plastic, you got fewer (not zero, but at least fewer) contaminants in your water; and of course the toxicity of Flint’s water meant that Flint residents (“Flintstones,” they jokingly call themselves in the film) had to buy massive amounts of bottled water. Cher, who’s listed as one of the co-producers of the film and was planning to be in it (probably playing Nayyariah Sharif’s boss, Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, though that’s just my guess because the actress in the role, Sonia Dhillon Tully, looks quite a lot like Cher) until she had to drop out because her mother got seriously ill, actually paid for large amounts of bottled water and had it shipped into Flint at the height of the crisis.

Indeed, though the “happy” ending of the film occurs with the Flint city council voting to reconnect to the Detroit water system (and the “emergency manager” reluctantly going along with it), as of March 2017 the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) was still recommending that families use bottled water for at least some of their needs. The Flint crisis also meant the city and state had to spend millions of dollars — far more, of course, than it would have cost them to stay on the Detroit water system in the first place — to replace corroded lead pipes that are still releasing lead into the water even though MDEQ tests indicate that Flint’s water is within legal limits for lead content when it’s pumped from reservoirs into people’s homes. Flint is an example of the entire attitude modern-day Republican politicians take towards environmental crises, especially environmental crises that predominantly affect poor people and people of color; though the Democrats aren’t entirely blameless on these matters, it’s the Republicans who have made essentially a crusade out of attacking the environment. When President Trump defends himself against the charge that he’s done virtually nothing in his first year in office, the items he cites that he has accomplished include not only getting Right-winger Neil Gorsuch on the U.S. Supreme Court and pulling the U.S. out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) “trade” treaty, but at least four direct assaults on the environment: pulling the U.S. out of the Paris climate-change agreement (as loose as that was), canceling President Obama’s Clean Power Plan, and allowing the Keystone XL and Dakota Access oil pipelines to be built. (For all my alt-Left readers who still, in the face of all reason and hard evidence, insist that “there’s no difference” between the Republican and Democratic parties, these are all issues on which President Hillary Clinton would have made the exact opposite decisions.)

What’s more, the situation in Puerto Rico — where U.S. citizens were left without electrical power for over a month on end and, when the government finally decided to do something about that, they gave a $300 million sweetheart contract to a company called Whitefish Energy with only two full-time permanent employees because the company is based in Whitefish, Montana, home of Trump’s Interior Secretary, Ryan Zinke, and Zinke’s son once worked a summer job for Whitefish Energy — is essentially Flint all over again, only worse. Once again a disaster has left a whole lot of poor people, most of them people of color, without access to food, water, electricity or an infrastructure capable of delivering those, and once again instead of the help they need they’re getting patronizing gestures (remember Trump going to Puerto Rico and throwing rolls of paper towels at people, like it was feeding time for the animals at the zoo?) and lectures about how they need to “live within their means.” (Like Flint, Puerto Rico was already in economic crisis before their disaster happened, and the island’s government was under the administration of a junta of bankers and financial people who had veto power over the democratically elected island officials — and used it to impose austerity measures on the island that, like similar measures in the Third World and European countries like Greece, far from facilitating economic development actually work to choke it off as the source.) Flint is a vivid cautionary tale of the real-world implications of Libertarian economics and an indictment of the whole idea that people are only entitled to the necessities of life to the extent that they are able and willing to pay for them — an idea that, after the outcome of America’s last four elections, has become the ruling principle of this country’s national government (and most of its state governments as well) and will remain so until the American people come to their senses and stop electing Republicans to anything.

Stalked by My Neighbor (Johnson Production Group, Shadowland, Lifetime, 2015)

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

Last night, after watching the excellent “problem” Lifetime movie Flint, I put on a recording I happened to have from a 2015 broadcast of a previous Lifetime film, Stalked by My Neighbor, which had eluded me twice — it’s been on more recently but twice when I tried to watch it Charles was home and he asked me to turn it off so we could run something else instead. I stumbled across the disc containing it in my backlog of home DVD recordings and ran it, realizing it would be an anticlimax after Flint. It was, but it was also good clean dirty fun in the best Lifetime movie tradition and a quite well-done suspense thriller. It starts in a condo in West Hollywood, where Jodi Allen (Kelcie Stranahan) is indulging in her hobby of photography. She’s taking photos from her window of just about everything that goes on around her, only she’s interrupted by a knock on her door that turns out to be a stranger who forces his way into her apartment and rapes her. Her mother and only guardian, Andrea Allen (Amy Pietz, top-billed), decides to sell the condo and move them into a suburban neighborhood where her daughter will presumably be safer, only Jodi is sufficiently unnerved and suffering from what would probably be diagnosable as post-traumatic stress disorder that just about any noise from the outside sets her off and makes her afraid someone is going to break in and assault her again. Jodi starts photographing the neighbors, including a cute guy who lives across the street; his name is Nick Thompkin (Grant Harvey) and both he and we (the straight women and Gay men in the audience for this film, anyway) are given quite a lot of choice look-sees of his naked chest as he bends over various people’s cars. He tells people he’s just working on fixing his friends’ cars but it soon develops he’s really operating an unlicensed auto-repair business out of his family’s garage — and he’s able to get away with that because his mom is out of the picture (whether she and Nick’s dad divorced or she died isn’t made clear by writer-director Doug Campbell) and his dad is on a long-term assignment as a petroleum engineer in Saudi Arabia. Unfortunately, he’s aroused the ire of local busybody Lisa Miller (Kelly Packard), who made a ton of money in California real estate and, since she runs her business out of her home, wants Nick to stop fixing other people’s cars in the neighborhood because it’s making noise and therefore she can’t hear her clients when she tries to talk to them on the phone.

Lisa is determined to close Nick’s unofficial business and threatens to call the police on him, and soon enough Lisa is bludgeoned to death in her bathtub by a mysterious intruder and Nick is suspected because the two publicly argued and he had to close his business because of his interference. Nick is hot-looking enough that by the usual Lifetime iconography that the cutest guy in the film is always the villain, we’re expecting him to be guilty (especially since earlier in the film he stole Jodi’s camera, then returned it but not before downloading the photos on her memory card to his own computer and threatening to blackmail her with them if she ever did anything to cross him). But we soon learn that the real culprits are Kristen Chambers (Katrina Norman), Lisa’s niece whom she took in following the mysterious deaths of both her parents; and her boyfriend Ted Wilcox (Ethan Erickson), who’s older than Nick but also considerably more muscular and butch, and hot enough he can fulfill the cute-guy-is-also-the-villain Lifetime code. Kristen and Ted are after the $100,000 Lisa had saved from her real-estate deals, and Ted did the dirty deed in exchange for half Lisa’s estate — only Kristen decides, in the manner of the typical Lifetime villainess, to double-cross Ted and kill him with his own gun, faking the scene to look like suicide (after Ted had earlier faked the death of Lisa to look like a slip-and-fall accident in the bathroom). What Kristen doesn’t know is that Jodi sneaked into her house (for people in what is supposed to be a security-conscious neighborhood, they sure leave their doors open a lot) after her mom tried to ground her, brought her camera along and actually took a video of Kristen killing Ted — then ran out of room on her SIM card and replaced it, only just after she did that and tried to resume filming Kristen caught her, held her at gunpoint with Ted’s gun, and forced her to drive to the woods where the two had previously buried the murder weapon (then dug it up again and planted it in Nick’s home to frame him), smash her own camera and dig her own grave.

Only mom realizes that Jodi escaped, sees her drive off with Kristen in Ted’s car, and is suspicious enough she gets in her own car and follows them. She calls the police and says she thinks her daughter is being kidnapped, but is told to wait until the car containing Jodi stops and she can report its location. But the wooded area where Kristen has forced Jodi to drive is out of the service area of mom’s phone, so she has to confront Kristen herself and ultimately does so, subduing her with the shovel and somehow holding her until the police arrive — though how the police got there if there was no cell-phone service to the area remains a mystery locked in Doug Campbell’s head. Still, despite some of the usual Lifetime plot holes, Stalked by My Neighbor is actually one of their better thrillers: Campbell has a genuine flair for suspense and Gothic atmosphere, and he’s able to make a seemingly nice and cozy suburban area look sinister. He also gets good work from his actors, Kelcie Stranahan in particular; for once the actress playing the avenging-angel character in a Lifetime movie is genuinely powerful and enigmatic, a bit of a busybody (at one point the lead cop on the case, Detective Franklin — played by Dorien Wilson as Lifetime’s usual avuncular African-American in an authority role — warns Jodi that by taking pictures of people and their homes without their permission she’s breaking the law) but able to make the character’s obsession and her turnaround on Nick, from suspecting him of murder to falling in love with him, credible. Stalked by My Neighbor is a better-than-average Lifetime movie and I’m glad I finally caught up with it!

Austin City Limits: Norah Jones and Angel Olsen (KRLU/PBS, 2017)

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

After that I watched an Austin City Limits episode featuring two female singer-songwriters, one I’d heard of before, Norah Jones, and one I haven’t, Angel Olsen. Norah Jones is one of those people I admire more than I actually like: she writes pleasant songs with literate lyrics, and in the mini-interview she did at the end of her set (an annoying affectation the producers of Austin City Limits instituted in the last few years after blessedly allowing the musicians merely to present their music without having to talk about it) she mentioned that since the mega-success of her first album she’d been able to indulge in experiments, like shifting from piano to guitar and taking up country music (her band for this included herself on piano on four songs, guitar on one, as well as a Hammond B-3 organ player and a pedal-steel guitar player) before returning to piano and making a second album that included songs in both styles. I found her pleasant but not all that compelling: she did five songs and, since I’m not familiar enough with her to recognize them and Austin City Limits does not give chyrons containing the song titles the way the local show Live at the Belly Up does, I can only guess at the titles: “Peace Is For Everyone,” “Don’t Be Denied” (a Neil Young cover but, since Neil Young has written so many songs and I’ve not kept track of his career anywhere near obsessively enough to keep track of all of them, I didn’t recognize it, either), “(It’s Hard to Touch) The Other Side,” “So Carry On” and (her one guitar song) “It’s a Hand-Me-Down,” which was actually the most infectious thing she did all night.

Angel Olsen was quite a bit more interesting, though there’s a certain mopiness about her music that takes some of the edge off an otherwise quite good performer and songwriter. She herself dressed in a black top and black skirt, but all her band members (male and female, and she seemed to have both) had to wear matching grey suits and white shirts with string bolos instead of ties. She did only three separate selections, though judging from the way her lyrics rambled from one poetic theme to another it seemed likely to me that each separate selection actually consisted of two or more songs she was presenting in medley form. She seems like the result of a bizarre experiment to hybridize Chrissie Hynde and Nico — she has Nico’s ethereal monotone and at least some of Hynde’s strident power, which is as odd a combination as you’d think from that description — and though she mumbles so much it wasn’t always that easy to tell what her songs are about (the guesses I made as to her titles included “Nothing Else but the Feeling,” “I Want to Be There” — an odd song whose sentiment is that she wants to be there with her former lover and their new partner  — “All My Life I’ll Change” and “You and My Mind”), she sounds like a compelling performer and I might want to seek out her CD’s (she’s made two, Burn Your Fire for No Witness and My Woman — an album title that makes me wonder about her sexual orientation — as well as a third one she released only on LP, Half Way Home). Incidentally, her LP was released on Bathetic Records, Burn Your Fire for No Witness came out as a limited-edition cassette (that’s right, cassette! In 2014!) on Bathetic with the CD and LP versions released on a label called Jagjaguwar, and My Woman is also a Jagjaguwar release.

Friday, October 27, 2017

Theodora Goes Wild (Columbia, 1936)

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

I ran Charles and I a 1936 movie called Theodora Goes Wild, which I’d heard about for years but mostly from Bob Thomas’s biography of Columbia Pictures studio head Harry Cohn. Thomas said that the filmmakers, director Richard Boleslavsky and writer Sidney Buchman (adapting a more-or-less “original” story by Mary McCarthy, not the writer who became famous in the 1960’s for her novel The Group but an earlier Mary McCarthy whose best credit was probably the screenplay for Dudley Nichols’ alternative-health masterpiece Sister Kenny in 1946), had raised Cohn’s ire by deliberately making the opening of their film boring until the titular “wild” heroine returns to a small town carrying a baby — but that happens only at the very end of the movie and what precedes it isn’t boring at all. Theodora Goes Wild begins in the small town of Lynnfield, Connecticut, where the local townspeople — especially the Lynnfield Literary Society, a group of middle-aged and older women with a highly puritanical sense of “morality” — are up in arms over the decision of Lynnfield Daily Bugle editor Jed Waterbury (Thomas Mitchell) to publish a serial version of The Sinner, the scandalous novel by Caroline Adams that has become America’s number one best seller. (Given that Theodora Goes Wild was made just two years after similar women’s clubs and the Legion of Decency, the censorship arm of America’s Roman Catholic Church, had clamped down on Hollywood and forced it to get serious about enforcing the Production Code, I couldn’t help but think McCarthy and Buchman meant this as a satire of censorship in general and in particular how the movies had been forced to give up the relative moral honesty and freedom of the so-called “pre-Code” era.)

The campaign to stop the Bugle from publishing The Sinner is led by the three Lynn sisters, daughters of the founder of the town, and their niece Theodora Lynn (Irene Dunne). We then cut to a scene in New York, where Arthur Stevenson (Thurston Hall, considerably less overbearing and more human than usual), publisher of The Sinner, is about to meet with Caroline Adams — and of course it turns out that “Caroline Adams” is really Theodora Lynn, who wrote the book under a pseudonym but now finds herself blocked on a second novel because she can’t write for fear her townspeople will discover her secret. She goes out with Stevenson, his wife and Michael Grant (Melvyn Douglas), who drew the sexy cover for The Sinner, and rather unconvincingly protests that she’d thought she was writing an innocent romance novel and didn’t realize how steamy it was until she heard one of the women’s club members read part of it aloud at their meeting. She’s also hyper-concerned about not revealing her secret, but her cover gets blown when she starts ordering straight whiskeys, gets drunk, goes home with Michael Grant and (this being a 1936 movie) escapes with her virtue (and, we suspect, her virginity) intact but leaves behind some papers than enable him to trace her. Michael blackmails Theodora into hiring him as a gardener for the Lynn estate and, in the usual fashion of a 1930’s movie hero, tries to get Theodora to fall in love with him by annoying her. He whistles — there’s a great scene in which Theodora tries to drown him out by playing the Lynn family piano and singing (and yes, it’s Irene Dunne’s own voice: she was an operatically trained mezzo-soprano who auditioned for the Met but decided to sign with RKO and make movies instead) — and pressures her into going out with him to the countryside, where they pick blackberries and fish. (One wonders if the inclusion of a fishing scene was, uh, “inspired” by the similar, and even funnier, fishing scene in MGM’s Libeled Lady the same year.) The gag, of course, is Theodora is great at those tasks while Michael is hopeless. Michael finally breaks down Theodora’s resistance and leads her to abandon her small-town values and become more like the woman she wrote her best-seller about, only just when Theodora thinks they’re going to run off together Michael leaves her a note that explains that now that she’s liberated the two of them will be better off alone.

It turns out that the reason for Michael’s sudden departure is he has a secret of his own — he’s married, and while he and his wife are estranged they’re staying together for the sake of the political career of Michael’s father, who’s the lieutenant governor of New York state and has insisted that Michael (who already betrayed the family’s financial-industry tradition by walking out on his bank job and becoming an artist) stay married at least for the duration of his term in office. There’s an acid little comment about the governor also having a penchant for dating beautiful women other than his wife that sort-of anticipates Buchman’s script for Mr. Smith Goes to Washington three years later. The film’s second act is an obvious turning of the tables, as now it’s Theodora, in “Caroline Adams” guise, pushing Michael to break free of his oppressive family and lifestyle, which she accomplishes by getting herself named as co-respondent first in publisher Stevenson’s divorce case and then in Michael’s (and there are lots of neat cut-ins to the reaction of the people back home in Lynnfield as every new development in Theodora’s love life gets reported in huge bold banner headlines in the Bugle), and of course ultimately Michael divorces his wife and he and Theodora get together. In case you’re wondering where the baby comes in, she’s actually the daughter of Theodora’s cousin Adelaide and the rather milquetoast husband (Roger Taylor) she met in college, but when she shows up at the Lynnfield train station (to a heroine’s welcome) with the kid in tow, that’s just one more frisson for the townspeople. I thought Theodora Goes Wild was a sheer delight, but Charles was considerably less taken with it; he said that today the actions of the Melvyn Douglas character would be read as stalking and sexual harassment rather than the charming, devil-may-care rakishness the filmmakers intended — and even though the second act set up the situation so she could turn the tables on him, Charles said that didn’t work for him because it only made her less likable. My one problem with this film was that it’s hard to believe Theodora was really so innocent about the content of what she had written: the plot might have worked better if she had originally given her manuscript a more anodyne title and been genuinely shocked when her publisher renamed it The Sinner and played up the sex aspects in his promotion.

Still, I think it’s a lovely comedy, atmospherically directed by Boleslawsky (who’d die the next year in the middle of filming Joan Crawford’s Cinderella farce The Bride Wore Red — Dorothy Arzner replaced him and got sole credit) and so beautifully acted by the leads it’s hard to believe it was ever pitched to anyone else. According to an “Trivia” poster, it was originally intended for Marion Davies and Clark Gable as a follow-up to their 1936 film Cain and Mabel (which I haven’t seen in decades but I recall as not very good, even though Davies remains one of Hollywood’s most underrated talents and she was quite good in comic roles), and when she turned it down it was pitched to Carole Lombard — who would have been great in Theodora’s comic moments but wouldn’t have brought the underlying seriousness to the small-town side of the character that Dunne did. The only other actress I thought of while watching the film was Katharine Hepburn, mainly because I think Dunne was copying Hepburn’s flaring intonation to make herself believable as a New Englander (which Hepburn was for real and the Kentucky-born Dunne wasn’t), but Dunne was the right choice for the role even though it seems odd that this was one of the five films in which she was nominated for an Academy Award and one would have thought her other 1936 role, as Magnolia Hawks Ravenal in James Whale’s film of Jerome Kern’s Show Boat, would have been more deserving.

Monday, October 23, 2017

Easy A (Screen Gems, Olive Bridge Entertainment, 2010)

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

Last night’s “feature” was Easy A, a DVD I picked out of the backlog out of sheer desperation — I didn’t want anything too “dark” or action-oriented that might not be Charles’ cup of tea. I was looking for “light,” and I got it: a 2010 comedy that proved to be surprisingly good. I got this out of the really cheap table at Target one day when I was there looking for more prestigious entertainments, and I grabbed it thinking it was a Lifetime-like story about a high-school teacher accused of giving one of his nubile young female students easy A’s in exchange for sex from her. It turned out to be something completely different: set (and filmed) in Ojai, California, it’s about high-school wallflower Olive Prenderghast (Emma Stone, showing the promise she’s since fulfilled big-time) — she’s so “invisible to the opposite sex” she complains, “If Google Earth were a guy, he couldn’t find me if I was dressed up as a 10-story building.” At one point, in the middle of girl talk with her best friend Rhiannon (Aly Michalka), she decides to invent a made-up tryst between herself and a community-college student who’s a friend of her older brother (whom we never see, though we do see her younger — adoptive — brother, a Black kid who pisses off Olive’s parents when he reveals that he knows he’s adopted). Things snowball and she becomes the latest gossip victim, with her sexual exploits becoming the talk of the student body and boys who’ve never noticed or said word one to her before suddenly coming up to her in hopes that if she “put out” for that nameless college guy, she’ll do it with them as well. By chance, she’s in an English literature class with her favorite teacher, Mr. Griffith (Thomas Haden Church), and they happen to be reading The Scarlet Letter.

Olive takes her cue from the book (and from the 1926 silent film version directed by Victor Sjoström and starring Lillian Gish and Lars Hanson): first she goes to a party hosted by the school’s most popular girl, Melody Bostic (Johanna Broddy), and takes her “Kinsey-six” Gay friend Brandon (Dan Byrd) into a back room, where she fakes having sex with him — including punching him in the crotch to get him to moan like he’s having an orgasm. This not only boosts her already burgeoning reputation as a slut, it gets the school bullies off his back by making people think he’s really straight. Then Olive sews a scarlet “A” and puts it on her clothes, like Hester Prynne was forced to do in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novel, and sets up a racket by which, in exchange for gift certificates at local restaurants and stores, she’ll allow the other boys in school to say they had sex with her even though they didn’t. One of her “customers” is a heavy-set (but not altogether unattractive: he’d do well at a Bears event) guy named Evan (Jameson Moss), who’s so persistent with her I couldn’t resist joking, “He’s going to grow up to be Harvey Weinstein.” Another is Anson (Jake Sandvig), who takes her on a date at the local lobster restaurant but makes it clear he expects actual sex from her for his actual investment. By chance, Todd (Penn Badgley), the boy Olive really has a crush on — and has had since the eighth grade, when she wanted him to kiss her and he drew back (a scene which at first made me thing screenwriter Bert V. Royal was going to make him the Gay one, but no such luck) — happens to work at the lobster restaurant, and he agrees to take her home (but no more than that!) after Anson strands her there. Olive’s antics also attract the ire of the school’s Christian group, headed by Marianne (a nice comic-bitch performance by Amanda Byrnes) and her guitar-playing boyfriend Micah (Cam Gigandet), who’s 22 years old but has been held back from graduation four times because he can’t pass any of the tests. It turns out Micah has been messing around for real with Mrs. Griffith (Lisa Kudrow), school guidance counselor and wife of Olive’s favorite teacher, and she’s given him chlamydia — which of course he blames on Olive.

Ironically, given her imaginary tryst with Brandon, both Olive’s parents turn out to be Bisexual: her dad, on hearing that his daughter is dating a Gay man, says, “I was Gay once,” and her mom later confesses to Olive that in her own high-school days she was the school slut, “mostly with men.” Indeed, Easy A is a quite literate film in its quirkiness and kinkiness; though the original script was heavily edited to keep it at a PG-13 rating, writer Royal and director Will Gluck fill the movie with marvelously quirky bits and as many “plants” as the best-constructed movies of the 1930’s: at one point Olive blurts out that the only book she’s read in high school that hasn’t had an analogue to her life or that of anyone she knows is Huckleberry Finn — “’cause I don’t know any teenage boys who have ever run away with a big, hulking Black guy” — and at the end her Gay friend Brandon does run away with a big, hulking Black guy (and we get a glimpse of them in a bed together watching the 1938 film of Huckleberry Finn with Mickey Rooney, and the actor playing Jim telling him, “I likes steering” — for once in a Hollywood movie we actually see a Gay character with another man in bed!!! And though the actor playing Brandon’s boyfriend isn’t quite as big, hulking or Black as the script hints, he’s quite enough of those to thrill me and appeal to my fantasies!). Easy A is one of that handful of recent movies, like Little Miss Sunshine, Stranger than Fiction and Kabluey, that convinces me that movie comedy isn’t entirely a lost art: for the most part it’s a delightful film, making some social comments about the power of rumor and the bizarreness of the whole concept of social media — and it’s also ironic that as the school’s hard-nosed principal director Gluck cast Malcolm McDowell, who got his start in the 1968 film “If … ”, in which he played a high-school rebel who led his classmates in an occupation of the boarding school they attended!

Sunday, October 22, 2017

Fireball XL-5: “Robert to the Rescue” (AP Films, Associated Television, Independent Television Company, 1963)

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

Last night’s “Vintage Sci-Fi” films ( were of particular interest to me because they featured the work of puppet auteur Gerry Anderson, who was born April 14, 1929 in London and created a number of cheap TV series for Britain’s commercial channel with science-fictional themes: Thunderbirds, Supercar, Stingray, Captain Scarlet and the Mysterians (which sounds like the name of a rock band!) and Fireball XL-5. The Anderson movies were filmed in a process he called “Supermarionation,” which simply meant that the lead roles were all played by puppets and voiced by human actors who dubbed in the dialogue later. Our program last night began with Superthunderstingcar (, a bizarre spoof of Anderson’s films created by Peter Cook and Dudley Moore (Dudley Moore you’ve probably heard of; Peter Cook was his sidekick and they were both members of Beyond the Fringe, the late-1950’s/early-1960’s British comedy troupe that was basically Monty Python before Monty Python), featuring great gags — in one of which Lady Penelope, a running character in Anderson’s Thunderbirds series, asks her butler why he speaks in such a ridiculous accent. “I’m just doing the Americans’ idea of a lower-class British accent,” he replies. There was also a nice bit in which the villains triumph at the end, and when the principal villain’s sidekick reminds him that they were supposed to lose, he answers, “I keep forgetting to read the ends of the scripts.” 

The works of Anderson’s own which were shown included a Fireball XL-5 episode called “Robert to the Rescue.” originally aired March 17, 1963 — Robert is the robot crew member (though since they’re all puppets he’s not appreciably less human-acting and –appearing than the rest of the cast; he’s distinguished mainly by being made of what look like upended clear toy beach buckets and speaking in an incomprehensible monotone) and he takes the lead in saving the (more or less) human crew members of the interplanetary spaceship Fireball XL-5 from the inhabitants of a hollow metal planet which hides in the solar system and whose population is so concerned about keeping their existence secret they will either kill anyone who stumbles onto them or use a transformation machine to erase all their memories and incorporate them as members of their own people. It’s one of those movies that’s cheery in its own obvious ineptitude — it was obviously made for children and I’m lucky that I first saw Fireball XL-5 when I was a child, when the independent TV station Channel 2 in the Bay Area ran them back to back on weekday afternoons with another one of Anderson’s cheap puppet series, Supercar. I also vividly remembered the theme songs for both shows — the one for Supercar sang the praises of the title vehicle (“It travels on land and under the sea/It can journey anywhere/Supercar!”) but the one for Fireball XL-5 was actually a soft-rock ballad crooned by one Don Spencer that made traveling through the universe on the titular spaceship sound like just another teenage date option: “I’d like to be a spaceman/The fastest man alive/I’d travel through the universe/On Fireball XL-5.” (He was basically a soft-rock singer in the mold of Frankie Avalon, who did a similarly dumb but campy song at the opening of the 1961 sci-fi non-epic film Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea.) This is dumb entertainment and if your age is above single digits you’re not going to take a moment of it seriously, but it’s still a lot of fun.

Thunderbirds Are GO! (Associated Television Overseas Limited, Century 21 Television, 1966)

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

In addition to the Fireball XL-5 episode and the spoof Superthunderstingcar, last night’s Vintage Sci-Fi screening ( contained two full-length movies, also by British producer Gerry Anderson in partnership with his wife Sylvia. The first “feature” on last night’s program was Thunderbirds Are Go!, a 1966 attempt by Gerry Anderson and his wife Sylvia (a collaborator through all of these as well as voice for the heroine — though she was born in South London two years before her husband she did her voice work in an affected pseudo-Eastern European accent that made her sound like Zsa Zsa Gabor with a head cold) to take one of their cheap, tacky black-and-white TV show and build an entire feature film in color (or “colour,” as the Brits would say) around it. The Thunderbirds are part of an international space rescue team headed by John Tracy (Ray Barrett) and there are five members of it: Jeff Tracy (Peter Dyneley), Gordon Tracy (David Graham), Scott Tracy (Shane Rimmer), Virgil Tracy (Jeremy Wilkin) and the Sad Sack of the bunch, Alan Tracy (Matt Zimmerman). At first I was wondering if the Thunderbirds were like the Ramones — you had to take the last name “Tracy” to join — but it soon turned out that we were supposed to believe that all the Thunderbirds were John Tracy’s biological (or manufactured) offspring. The show begins with the launch attempt of a new spacecraft called “Zero-X,” which is supposed to be the first human-piloted vehicle to land on Mars, only a sinister stowaway gets caught in the gears joining its various stages (Gerry Anderson did some really cool bits of animation showing the various parts of the ship being driven down runways before they are joined together for the launch — which, as in Fireball XL-5, he showed as being horizontal, like a normal airplane takeoff, rather than vertical like a real rocket launch) and the rocket is unable to lift off — instead it drives into the sea, the humans on board manage to eject themselves in a yellow capsule, but the ship itself blows up underwater. Two years later the space agency that launched the Zero-X, or tried to, are ready to try again — only they’re concerned about another sabotage attempt, so they call in the Thunderbirds. John Tracy tells them that they’ve never provided security for a launch before it happened — their only purpose up until now has been to rescue people in space after a spacecraft failed — but he reluctantly agrees to take on the assignment. There’s an awful lot of pseudo-military palaver — Gerry and Sylvia Anderson, who co-wrote the script, seemed in love with dialogue containing terms like “Roger” and explaining in depth what the procedures would be for launching the second Zero-X (they didn’t change the name to Zero-X-2 or something, probably because the Andersons wanted to reuse the exact same animated model footage of the first launch to represent the second).

There’s also another character, who’s pretty peripheral to the action even though she’s by far the coolest person in the film — and she drives by far the coolest car: she’s Lady Penelope Creighton-Ward (Sylvia Anderson) and her car is called the FAB 1 (we’re not told what the initials FAB stand for, if anything, but this film was made at the height of “Swinging London” and the word “fab” — short for “fabulous,” and meaning, well, fabulous — was a popular slang term). It’s a pink Rolls-Royce convertible with six wheels — two pair of wheels in the front and one in the back — and it has many special capabilities, including being able to go underwater and also to fly and fire rockets at enemy aircraft. (At the time this film was made there actually was a car being manufactured called the Amphicar — it couldn’t submerge or fly, but if you had one you were supposed to be able to drive it into the water and use it as a powerboat. The commercials for it showed their test driver doing just that.) She actually has a butler drive it for her — these were the characters Peter Cook and Dudley Moore so devastatingly caricatured in their spoof Superthunderstingcar — and at one point she offers Alan Tracy a date to go with her in the car and attend the “Swinging Star” nightclub, where they see a band perform a song of that title. The band is billed as “Cliff Richard, Jr., and The Shadows,” and the actual performer is Cliff Richard, Sr. and the real Shadows (though by the time this film was made their lead guitarist, Jet Harris — the only member of the band the Beatles ever admitted to liking; George Harrison recalled how he tried to learn Harris’s guitar introduction to the song “Move It” but never could until he saw them on TV and was able to watch how Harris’s fingers moved as he played the lick — had left to pursue a solo career). Cliff Richard was the most popular British rock star of the 1950’s, though in his one attempt at a U.S. tour he bombed completely, and like a lot of the people who followed in the wake of Elvis he was a decent crooner with a nice, respectable voice; later he became a born-again Christian and hooked up with Billy Graham to make an “inspirational” film called Two a Penny, a worldwide flop. His song here — he just sang one, though there are several other bits of the instrumental score played by his backup band, the Shadows — is decent enough pop but hardly what was “happening” on either side of the Atlantic in 1966. The “Shooting Star” sequence actually represents Alan Tracy’s dream, since at the last minute his dad forbids him to go on an actual date and he has to stay at home in bed — but it’s also by far the most entertaining part of the film.

Eventually the “Zero-X” 2.0 takes off and this time makes it to Mars but goes awry and crashes on its way back to Earth — and of course the Thunderbirds have to come to the rescue. I don’t always agree with the reviews that come up when you look up a film on, but the one that materialized when I looked up this one (by “bob the moo” from the U.K.) was right on and pinpointed the biggest failing of this movie: it basically seems like a 26-minute Thunderbirds TV show padded out to a 90-minute running time. After it ends we see the leader of the Band of Her Majesty’s Royal Marines — and quite frankly, after 90 minutes of watching jerky puppets it’s a relief to see an actual live human appear on screen in this film! — and then the camera pulls back to show the entire band playing the “Thunderbirds Are Go” march, and the band members use their bodies to form the words “THE END” as the film, well, ends. Then there are a number of what would call “Crazy Credits” that, while maybe not as funny as the one at the end of The Asylum’s 2005 production of H. G. Wells’ War of the Worlds (“Why are you still reading this? Go back to the video store and rent another Asylum film. You know you want to”), have their own dorky appeal: “The producers gratefully acknowledge the co-operation of: Space Colonel Harris of the Martian Exploration Center Cape Johnson; Jim Glenn, President of the New World Aircraft Corporation, Designers and Manufacturers of the Zero X; Commander Casey; [and] Commander in Chief Glenn Field, without whose help this motion picture would not have been possible” (those are all names of characters who appear in the film rather than any real-life people who helped make it), “Martian Sequences filmed by Century 21 Space Location Unit,” and my favorite, “None of the characters appearing in this photoplay intentionally resemble any persons living or dead ... SINCE THEY DO NOT YET EXIST!”

Journey to the Far Side of the Sun (Century 21 Television, 1969)

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

Fortunately the last film on the program, Journey to the Far Side of the Sun, though also a Gerry and Sylvia Anderson production, at least featured a live-action cast of real humans, albeit not especially prominent actors. The star is Roy Thinnes, playing American astronaut Col. Glenn Ross (apparently the Andersons liked to recycle the names of America’s actual astronauts for their fictional ones), who’s brought on a mission sent by the EUROSEC — European Space Exploration Council — to explore a new planet supposedly just discovered by astronomers. They have found that the new planet is the same distance from the sun as Earth, follows the same orbit and has similar day-and-night rotation patterns, but it’s never been observed before because it’s always exactly 180 degrees away from the Earth’s orbit and is therefore invariably exactly opposite from Earth in space. They want the U.S. to contribute $1 billion towards this project, and of course the lure they use to get the money out of the American government is the prospect that a sinister secret power is going to get to the new planet first, claim it for their own and use it either to extract its resources or mount an attack on Earth. Journey to the Far Side of the Sun was made in 1969, one year after the release of Stanley Kubrick’s sci-fi masterpiece 2001: A Space Odyssey, which revolutionized the dramatization of space travel on film and, among other things, raised the bar on the actual depiction of spacecraft.

No longer could you just take a cigar or saucer shape, have it jerk around or revolve on screen, and call it a spaceship: thanks to Kubrick, Douglas Trumbull and their effects crew (and Gene Roddenberry and his effects people on the original Star Trek TV show before them), you had to design a contraption that looked like, given the right motive power, it could actually fly in space. Both the models of the spaceship exteriors and the sets of their interiors are very Kubrickian and are done with an attention to detail far beyond what we got in the sci-fi films of the 1950’s (though, surprisingly, the terrestrial models of what the future Earth is supposed to look like are almost as tacky as the ones in the Andersons’ puppet films that preceded this one), and there are other 2001 quotes, including the reflections of the lights of the spaceship’s controls on the visors of the astronauts’ spacesuits, the decision to put the astronauts into chemically induced hibernation for the three weeks it will take them to get to the new planet and the three weeks it will take them to get home, and even the psychedelic images the Andersons and their director, Robert Parrish, have the astronauts see while they’re in hibernation (it looks as if the mix of drugs used to put them under contained LSD). The film takes up about half its 101-minute running time detailing the extensive training Col. Ross and his co-astronaut, British astrophysicist John Kane (Ian Hendry), have to go through to prepare for the mission, and also the soap-operaish complications of Col. Ross’s love life: he’s married but his wife Sharon (Lynn Loring) is clearly tired of him, especially his long absences while he’s in space, and he’s clearly being cruised by Lisa Hartmann (Loni von Friedel), assistant to the Eurosec director Jason Webb (Patrick Wymark). Both women are wearing oddball dresses with so little holding them together one wonders how they stay on, and there’s an early scene in which Sharon, having just come out of the shower and not yet having dressed, confronts her husband over yet another spaceflight and he responds by slapping her across the face. (Journey to the Far Side of the Sun is one of those movies that got a “G” rating when it came out but probably would be rated more toughly — PG or even PG-13 — today.)

Once the rocket finally launches (after a lot of those shots Gerry Anderson so loved of various components of it being driven across the spaceport to be assembled on the launching pad) we heave a sigh of relief that all that tiresome exposition is over and we can finally get to the meat of the sort of sci-fi action we came for — only the astronauts return three weeks after they launched instead of the six weeks that would have been needed to complete the mission, and Webb and his colleagues at Mission Control accuse Col. Ross of having aborted the mission and come home early. He swears he didn’t, and eventually he stumbles on the truth when he sees a cologne bottle in his bathroom — only the label is printed backwards and reads like a mirror image of the writing he’s used to. Eventually the Andersons and their collaborator on the script, Donald James, explain that Col. Ross actually landed on the parallel Earth while his counterpart, an identical double, landed on the Earth from which Col. Ross left. Everything on the parallel Earth is the same as on our Earth — down to the events duplicating themselves exactly as they happen on the Earth we know (so don’t get your hopes up for the existence of a parallel U.S.A. of which Hillary Clinton is President!) — except that everything on one Earth is a mirror image of what it is on the other: people shake hands with their left hands, they wear their name tags and military patches on the other side, and presumably their hearts are on the right sides of their bodies. There’s one glitch; though at one point Col. Ross complains that a car that was approaching him was driving on the wrong side of the road, the car that nearly hit him head-on was still set up for the British system of driving on the left (if everything on the new Earth was the mirror image of the old one, the Brits would be driving on the right and we would be driving on the left — I once met a British tourist who said he didn’t want to drive in the U.S. because it would have been too much of an adjustment for him to learn to drive on the other side of the road!).

As all this comes out, relations between Col. Ross and the people at Eurosec (his fellow astronaut John Kane was badly burned when his ship crash-landed and, though he spends several days encased in a clear plastic breathing chamber, he ultimately dies of his burns) deteriorate, and ultimately a crash takes out Eurosec’s entire supply of rocket fuel and all the humans involved — except Jason Webb, who ends up in a wheelchair in a mental institution, babbling away about a cooperative European space program that he used to head, since the reaction of the various governments that spent billions on this useless program has been to cover it up and pretend it never existed at all. It’s the most nihilistic ending I can think of in a science-fiction movie to that time — I suspect only X-Men: Apocalypse comes close among more recent movies — though it also seems to have been written as an excuse for the Andersons to blow up all those pretty (but singularly unconvincing) little models they had built to represent the headquarters of Eurosec and the rest of what parts of their future Earth they chose to show. Journey to the Far Side of the Sun is the sort of frustrating bad movie that could have been good if its creators had been more alive to the possibilities of their central premise; there’ve been other movies about duplicate Earths but they’ve usually had at least some level of suspense as the astronaut who ended up on a different Earth notices subtle discontinuities — like the one shown on Mystery Science Theatre 3000 that, though generally tacky, had a nice moment like the fact that the astronaut first realizes there’s something wrong when he makes a joke about Paul Revere and the people treating him in the parallel Earth’s hospital don’t know who that was.

Saturday, October 21, 2017

H. G. Wells’ War of the Worlds (The Asylum, 2005)

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 films more or less based on H. G. Wells’ classic and much-adapted science-fiction novel The War of the Worlds, which as you probably know deals with an invasion of Earth by Martians with high-tech killing machines and heat rays. The Martians, who are far more advanced technologically than we are, turn Earth into a gutted, smoking ruin and then start importing their own plant life to make our environment resemble theirs — only it turns out that they’re laid low not by any of the puny, ineffective attempts of Earth people to fight back, but by being infected and killed off en masse by Earth germs to which Martian immune systems offered no resistance. The most famous adaptations of The War of the Worlds are the Orson Welles radio broadcast from 1938 (in which, by staging the show as a “news” broadcast as if the invasion were actually happening, he inadvertently caused a panic among people who tuned in and thought the invasion was actually happening), the 1953 Paramount film directed by Byron Haskin and starring Gene Barry as Wells’ original scientist protagonist, and the big-budget 2005 remake directed by Steven Spielberg and starting Tom Cruise, though Spielberg and his writers, Josh Friedman and David Koepp, demoted his character from a scientist to an ordinary working stiff looking for his estranged wife and their daughter among the ruins of a Mars-conquered and –occupied Earth. 

Enter The Asylum, a production company that has made it a specialty of ripping off a story — either one based on a public-domain property like The War of the Worlds or an easily “appropriated” plot gimmick, like humans fighting ghosts or doing street races in fast cars — that a major studio is about to release a big movie about and rushing their own version into production, hopefully beating the major-studio version into theatres or at least onto DVD’s. We’d encountered The Asylum at a previous Mars film screening via A Princess of Mars, the adaptation of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Mars stories they rushed out just ahead of the big Disney version, John Carter, which flopped big-time (though the Disney John Carter, albeit flawed, is a quite entertaining sci-fi action film in the modern manner and considerably superior to its Asylum would-be clone). This time, surprise, the comparison was closer, though the Asylum War of the Worlds — actually released as H. G. Wells’ War of the Worlds to distinguish it, more or less, from the Spielberg/Cruise version — still isn’t a very good movie. (Neither was the Spielberg, for that matter: though it incorporated a few elements from the Wells novel previous filmmakers hadn’t used, it was unnecessarily gross and had some risible moments as well as bits of the Spielberg sentimentality that has a way of creeping into even his most “serious” projects.) The Asylum War of the Worlds was the brainchild of one David Michael Latt, who produced and directed it as well as co-writing the script with Carlos De Los Rios. To their credit, Latt and De Los Rios stuck a lot closer to what H. G. Wells wrote than Josh Friedman and David Koepp did: they kept not only the basic premise of a Martian high-tech invasion of Earth and such details as Wells’ description of the Martian war machines as half-mechanical and half-organic, blurring the distinction between life form and machine (the Spielberg version did that as well but none of the previous adapters, at least the ones I know about, did), they also kept the central character a scientist and gave him long, tendentious debates with a military officer and a minister just as H. G. Wells had. They even named the central character “George Herbert” — a tribute to Wells since the H. G. in his name stood for “Herbert George” — and they cast C. Thomas Howell, a considerably less annoying actor than Tom Cruise, to play him. 

That’s the good news; the bad news is they had a surprisingly low special-effects budget to play with, which vouchsafed us very few glimpses of the Martian war machines in action. (They also designed the Martian electro-organic devices with six legs instead of the three that Wells specified and the Haskin and Spielberg versions went with.) Most of Katt’s War of the Worlds is just three people — Howell as George Herbert, Andy Lauer as Sgt. Kerry Williams and Rhett Giles as Victor, the minister — hiding out in closets, rooms and in one case what looks like an outhouse, and talking, talking, talking to each other in didactic ways that would have made H. G. Wells proud (Wells never seems to have set pen to paper without having some didactic purpose in mind) but, especially delivered by the caliber (or lack thereof) of actors The Asylum could afford, just seemed dull: My Dinner with André while Mars Invades the Earth. The most interesting character in the film is Lieutenant Samuelson (William Busey), a heavy-set military commander with orange hair who takes advantage of the Martian invasion to set himself up as a petty fascist dictator (or try to) on the ground that only harsh martial law will enable humanity to marshal its forces to defeat the Martian invaders — given that the U.S. President is currently a would-be fascist dictator with orange hair this plot element seems more au courant than it would have if I’d seen this film in 2005, but even without the Trump parallels the character seems like the most interesting figure in the dramatis personae. (Then again, often in these sorts of stories the villains are far more interesting than the heroes.)  

H. G. Wells’ War of the Worlds is disappointing in a singular way: in a sense it’s both a Good Bad Movie and a Bad Good Movie — at once a film that treads on camp without quite falling into it and making itself unwittingly entertaining, and a film that goes for High Seriousness and falls embarrassingly short of its goal. About the one interesting change Latt and De Los Rios made in the story is that, instead of merely encountering Earth’s germs and dying from them by happenstance, the Martian invaders are deliberately injected with a rabies serum by George Herbert (how on earth did he get it? He’s an astronomer, not a medical researcher!), infecting one Martian who spreads it to their fellows and thereby stops the invasion. (Do the Martians regularly bite each other? Maybe I’m wrong, but I thought you had to be bitten by a rabid animal — either that or eat one — to get rabies.) It ends predictably sappily, with George Herbert reunited with the wife, Felicity (Tinarie van Wyck Loots), and son, Alex (Dashiell Howell), he’d sent on to Washington, D.C. for a vacation, intending to meet them the next day. They’d promised to meet on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, and indeed they do — even though there’s no explanation for how they ultimately found each other and the U.S. capital is a smoldering ruin and the Lincoln Memorial had been so totally blown to pieces that there was only one of its steps remaining. As one of the other attendees at the screening said, this is the sort of movie that seems twice as long as it actually is, and the most entertaining part of the film for most of the people there — at least all the straight guys in the audience, which was everybody except one young woman and me, thought so — was the brief glimpse of a bare-breasted woman early on in the action.

War of the Worlds 2: The Next Wave (The Asylum, 2008)

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

In 2008, three years after their own War of the Worlds as well as the release of the Spielberg version (which did O.K. at the box office but was not the huge blockbuster hit Spielberg and the studio backing him, Paramount, were hoping for), The Asylum trotted out the property again for a sequel called War of the Worlds 2: The Next Wave. This takes place two years after its predecessor, though the only characters who cross over are George Herbert (C. Thomas Howell, who also directed this time, from a script by the first film’s auteur, David Michael Latt, with Eric Forsberg from a story by Sam Bevilacqua) and his son Alex (Dashiell Howell — gee, I wonder how he got the part!). We’re told that George’s wife/Alex’s mother Felicity died somewhere between the two films, though we aren’t told how (she obviously made it through the Martian invasion since she was in the final scenes of the first film); I joked that the actress who played her in film one must have wanted too much money for the sequel, and someone else in our audience said, “Or she had too much self-respect to do it again.” Though claims War of the Worlds 2 had only half the budget of its predecessor ($500,000 as opposed to $1 million), it actually looked like a more elaborate production: though the Martian machines/life forms are down to their original three legs from the six they had in Asylum’s first go-round with this premise, there are quite a few more of them on screen, as well as whole fleets of Martian spaceships that pour our of a wormhole conveniently located between Mars and Earth. This is offered mainly as an explanation for how the Martians (unlike their counterparts in H. G. Wells’ original novel and the other adaptations of it) were able to arrive on Earth suddenly, without warning, and without Earth’s astronomers noting that they were on their way. It also allows the people on Earth, organized as a so-called “Free Earth” force, to retrofit existing U.S. Air Force fighter planes to travel through space and take out the Martian mothership — yes, as in the movie Independence Day (itself spotted by critics when it came out as a War of the Worlds knockoff), the aliens are directing their invasion from a large spacecraft that in turn sends smaller ones on the missions needed to do the invasion. 

One plot gimmick this time is that the Martians prepare for a second invasion in part by kidnapping Earth children so they can draw their blood and figure out how to develop their own antibodies to the common Earth germs that killed them the first time around, and wouldn’t you know it, George Herbert’s son Alex (ya remember Alex?) is one of the ones they grab. There are also two long and infuriatingly gross scenes of George and various other Earthlings inside the Martian machines, where they’re constantly under the threat of Martian stomach acids spurting out and attempting to digest them. This particular bit of grossness was actually the contribution of Josh Friedman and David Koepp, writers on the Steven Spielberg version, who not only had their principals (or some of them) spend time inside a Martian stomach but figure out how to get excreted from it while still intact. It doesn’t help that through the wormhole George Herbert and an annoying Black sidekick, Pete (Christopher Reid), have been transported into a town that looks like Earth but is actually a replica created by Martians on the surface of their planet for reasons Latt and Forsberg really don’t explain (aside from the possibility that one of them read Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles and decided to rip off yet another legendary sci-fi master), or that there are two women in the dramatis personae. One is Victoria Reed (Kim Little, who according to one of the people at last night’s screening got the job because she’s the wife of one of the producers — apparently her lack of acting ability wasn’t enough of an attribute for the role), a scientist with the Free Earth Force who figures out how to get ordinary terrestrial aircraft to go through space. The other is Sissy (Danna Brady), fellow inmate of George’s and Pete’s inside a Martian digestive system, who warns them as they walk through the Martian intestines, “Don’t touch the walls!” (as if the “floor” wouldn’t be made of the same toxic stuff as the walls?), and who figures out that the wormhole between Mars and Earth has a sort-of analogue, represented by a glowing multicolored ball-like blob inside the Martians’ stomach, that allows anyone who’s been swallowed by a Martian to escape easily and beam back down to the surface of Mars. In case you were wondering or hoping that one of them might serve as an alternative romantic interest for George Herbert now that he’s become a widower, no such luck. 

The big problem with War of the Worlds 2 is that the author of its original story, Steve Bevilacqua, is no match for H. G. Wells as a story constructionist, let alone as an author of imagination, and he and the people who adapted his “original” outline (heavily, shall we say, “influenced” by Roland Emmerich’s script for Independence Day), David Michael Latt and Eric Forsberg, did some awfully jarring cuts between the four main locations (Earth’s surface, Mars’ surface, the innards of the Martian bio-robot and the F-14 that transports the Earth characters to Mars and back). Yes, this is one of those movies that makes such wrenching cuts from one plot thread to another you worry about getting whiplash and sometimes find yourselves asking, “Where are we? When are we?” In some ways War of the Worlds 2 is better than the previous film in the sequence — there’s more action and less claustrophobia — but it makes far less sense as a story. It’s also handicapped by C. Thomas Howell’s direction: like a lot of better known actor-directors (like Stroheim, Welles, Redford and Eastwood) he gets reasonably subtle and understated performances from his cast members (aside from Christopher Reid’s updated version of the Stepin Fetchit schtick and Kim Little’s “what’s acting?” impassivity), but he lacks the flair for suspense and horror Latt showed in his direction of the earlier film and War of the Worlds 2 pretty much just lurches to a close. When I looked it up on the user review that popped up was from someone who watched it thinking it was a sequel to the Spielberg War of the Worlds and was sorely disappointed: “Two seconds into the movie i realized that...well...that it wasn’t a Spielberg sequel. So all you people expecting to see a good movie, be warned you’re going to regret watching it. It’s 85 minutes of your life you are never getting back.” It’s not quite that bad, but, even more than the first version, it’s perched on an uncomfortable place on the continuum between good movies and bad ones: not inept enough to be enjoyable as camp, but not good enough to be taken seriously as genuine entertainment either.

Friday, October 20, 2017

Men of America (RKO, 1932)

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

Men of America was a 57-minute RKO vehicle for William Boyd, later Hopalong Cassidy in the long-running series which began at Paramount and ended at United Artists. Here he plays “Jim Parker” in a film set in the year it was made, 1932, though with two prologue sequences featuring Smokey Joe Miller (Charles “Chic” Sale, the second lead) warding off Indians and saving cattle trains (done with quite effective use of stock footage from older, more lavishly budgeted productions — it’s a testimony to the quality of the RKO effects department that the stock footage is not obvious and only the relative unambitiousness of this film gives away the fact that it’s been used) before he settles into a charmingly rustic dotage in the small town of “Paradise Valley” in northern California. Boyd’s character is a World War I veteran desperately trying to make a living as a farmer in the area and flirting with Smokey Joe’s granddaughter Annabelle (Dorothy Wilson, a subtle and genuinely charming performer who could have become a major star with a few more breaks), who clerks in the general store Smokey Joe owns. There’s also a tight-knit community in the area with a wide assortment of ethnic types: Native American “Indian Tom” (Alphonz Ethier), Italian vintner Tony Garboni (Henry Armetta), Ole Jensen (Fred Lindstrom) et al. Trouble comes to paradise (valley) in the form of Cicero (played by Ralph Ince, who also directed), an escapee from Leavenworth, and his gang, who first steal gasoline and food from Smokey Joe’s store and then turn out to be hiding out in the mountain until they can figure out a way to “break” the 50 thousand-dollar bills that are the only money they got in their most recent bank robbery. Just when you think this film is going to anticipate The Petrified Forest by three years, instead of holing up inside Smokey Joe’s store and holding the principals hostage, the gangsters return to their redoubt in Box Canyon after having shot Tony Garboni for having refused to help them pass their stolen money. (Henry Armetta gets a surprising dying-words speech in which he upbraids the mob’s Italian member for giving all Italian-Americans a bad name.)

Thanks to a misunderstanding, Garboni’s seven-year-old son fingers Jim Parker as his father’s murderer, so our poor hero finds himself pursued by both the townspeople (who are threatening to lynch him) and the gangsters (since he’s the only one — aside from Smokey Joe, and he seems to have forgotten all about them! — who’s seen them and knows of their existence). Parker saunters into the schoolhouse where the townspeople are debating his own lynching — exhibiting the kind of self-assured swagger that would later become John Wayne’s trademark — and in nothing flat he manages to convince them that the gangsters exist and they, not he, killed Garboni. (The speed with which he talks them out of lynching him is frankly unbelievable, but let’s be realistic here; it’s only a 57-minute movie.) This sets up a vertiginous shoot-out climax in the mountains in which Parker manages to take out the gang’s machine-gun shooter and later to kill Cicero in a great feat of sharpshooting even though the baddie is holding Annabelle hostage (a bit of business Alfred Hitchcock repeated two years later as the climax of the first version of The Man Who Knew Too Much). The title promises a greater movie than it delivers — one would have expected an expansive, expensive Richard Dix vehicle along the lines of Cimarron and The Conquerors — and director Ince’s pacing is rather stodgy until the climax, while the story is no great shakes either (it was written by Humphrey Pearson and Henry McCarty, and adapted into a screenplay by Samuel Ornitz — later a major writer — and Jack Jungmeyer), but Men of America is the sort of movie with reliable audience appeal, good of its kind (apparently William Boyd took over the direction himself in the scenes in which Ralph Ince appeared — interestingly they’re never on screen at the same time!) and benefiting from beautiful photography by J. Roy Hunt, who was no doubt helped by the fact that virtually all of it took place outdoors and therefore he didn’t have to worry about lights! — 10/27/04


I figured I could squeeze in at least a “B” movie last night before Charles and I crashed, and I found it in one of my later recordings off Turner Classic Movies: Men of America, an hour-long RKO “B” modern-day Western from 1932 starring William Boyd as Joe Parker, a rancher who’s unjustly suspected of murdering a local farmer. The film starts with a charming montage of “Smokey Joe” Miller (Charles “Chic” Sale, an important character star of the time in radio and on bookshelves as well as in films: he did a surprisingly restrained performance as Abraham Lincoln in a 1935 MGM short about the Gettysburg Address called The Perfect Tribute, but most of his other appearances, including this one, are just annoying), first in 1887 Arizona (where he’s shooting at cattle rustlers), then in 1899 California (where he’s shooting at bandits), then in 1932 (where he’s running a gas station and blacksmith shop — thereby servicing both horse and car owners — and popping popcorn over the open fire of his furnace). All this tales place in the idyllic farming town writers Henry McCarty, Humphrey Pearson, Sam Ornitz and Jack Jungmeyer all too obviously named “Paradise Valley,” only it gets invaded by a bunch of big-city bank robbers in a fancy car. The gang is headed by Caesar (Ralph Ince, who’s also credited with directing the film, though according to William Boyd co-directed, taking over behind the cameras for all the scenes Ralph Ince was in), who’s pissed off because all they brought back from the bank robbery was 50 $1,000 bills, way too big to risk spending and thereby bringing the law down on them. They hide out in a deserted canyon near Paradise Valley and get the windshield of their car shot at by Smokey Joe, who probably would have bit the big one then and there had not shining Western hero Jim Parker come along, noticed that the gangsters had Thompson submachine guns (the famous “Tommy gun”) and therefore Smokey Joe was hopelessly under-armed.

Nothing much happens in this movie except that the gangsters steal from the locals and ultimately shoot down and kill the head of an Italian-American farming family, Tony Garboni (played by another habitually annoying character actor, Henry Armetta). Thanks to testimony from Garboni’s son, who saw his dad and Parker having an argument and noticed that Parker was carrying a gun, the townspeople organize a vigilante posse aimed at either arresting Parker or lynching him — but they’re talked out of it in nothing flat by Parker himself, who persuades Garboni figlio that he couldn’t possibly have murdered the kid’s dad and re-organizes the townspeople to go after the real crooks. Only the real crooks have kidnapped Parker’s girlfriend Anne (Dorothy Wilson, a potentially good actress way overqualified for this damsel-in-distress role) and intend to take her with them as a hostage while they make their getaway. There’s a surprisingly violent (for a 1932 movie; apparently the relative freedom of loose Production Code enforcement in the so-called “pre-Code” era went to violence as well as sex!) shoot-out in which both most of the gangsters and a few of the townspeople bite the big one, and the climax eerily anticipates the ending of the first version of Alfred Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much two years later: with his unparalleled skills as a marksman, Jim Parker has to pick off Caesar without hurting his girlfriend, whom Caesar is holding hostage. The problem with Men of America — aside from the gap between its grandiloquent title and its prosaic reality (in 1932 one would have expected an RKO film called Men of America to be an epic multi-generational saga starring Richard Dix, along the lines of Cimarron and The Conquerors) — is that so many of its basic dramatic tropes were done much better in later films: The Petrified Forest, High Sierra and others. Indeed, the whole Western-town-menaced-by-gangsters schtick was what Mel Brooks and his writing committee were making fun of in Blazing Saddles.

It’s a decently done film but hampered by an odd slowness one doesn’t expect to find in an hour-long “B” — it’s not until 45 minutes in that we see anyone get killed (though we hear that one of the bank robbers was shot and killed during the robbery by a bank security guard, and that the dead gang member was the one who was carrying the bag full of low-denomination bills, which is why the gang left the bank only with those peskily difficult-to-pass $1,000’s) and the members of the writing committee really have to race through the last 15 minutes of the film to make the good guys triumph and resolve all their plot strands within an hour’s total running time. Men of America’s acting ranges from the unfulfilled promise of Dorothy Wilson’s spunky performace as the heroine to serviceable (William Boyd, who was still pretty enough to get away with this sort of part — later, after RKO fired him in a case of mistaken identity because another actor named William Boyd had been arrested for alcohol and drug possession; the good William Boyd sued the bad William Boyd and won a judgment that the bad one thenceforth had to bill himself as William “Stage” Boyd so the good Boyd wouldn’t be blamed for the bad Boyd’s defalcations: alas, the bad Boyd made only one movie under his “Stage” moniker, the 1935 serial The Lost City, before his bad habits caught up to him and he died young) to irritating (Sale and Armetta). Its best aspects are the spectacular real-life (albeit movie-familiar) Western locations and the gorgeous cinematography of them by J. Roy Hunt (veteran RKO director of photography and the man who would shoot a lot of their classic noirs in the 1940’s), and also some stirring strains from scores Max Steiner had originally composed for other RKO movies, but overall Men of America is an odd little disappointment, blazing a few trails other filmmakers did considerably more with in later movies. — 10/20/17