Sunday, December 29, 2019

Deadlly Hollywood Obsession (Imoto Productions/Lifetime, 2019)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2019 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night I finally got a new fix of one of Lifetime’s sleazy “pussies in peril” thrillers (the description was New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd’s from her book Are Men Necessary?) after over two months in which they stopped showing any movies but sappy holiday stories that interested me not at all. This was called Deadly Hollywood Obsession and dealt with a young woman named Casey Wright (the personable Sarah Roemer) whose fourth-grade class at an exclusive private school where she’s temping and hoping for a permanent job the next year includes Jack Austin (Brady Bond), son of movie superstar Sam Austin (Jon Prescott). When a creepy woman named Lynette Marris (Hannah Barefoot — yes, that’s what it says on her credit!) tries to kidnap Jack after school, telling him his dad has sent her to pick him up and take him for ice cream (that’s what gets Casey’s suspicions up because Sam Austin is a health freak who wouldn’t let his son have something as unhealthy as ice cream!), Casey breaks them up, rescues Jack, and apparently earns Sam’s undying loyalty and affection. Six months earlier, in a typical Lifetime prologue, Sam’s wife Naomi Tills (Kate Watson), also a movie actress (with the similarity of the names I’m thinking writer Patrick Roberts was thinking Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman here — though instead of getting killed, Kidman divorced Cruise, which actually turned out to be a boost for her career!), was shot and killed by a mysterious hooded driver who ran her car off the road.

Sam Austin offers Casey a private job as governess for Jack, whom he’s decided to pull out of school and have him home-schooled instead, and though she’s uncertain the big salary he’s willing to pay will allow her to keep her comatose mother Celeste (Patty Ann Nix) in a nursing home to which she owes $1,400 she has no way to pay. (Welcome to the club, fellow victim of America’s insane profit-driven health-care system.) Sam pays off the nursing home, drinks with Casey and ultimately seduces her, while Lynette seems able to skulk around Sam’s home almost willy-nilly when she isn’t pulling stuff like breaking into the apartment Casey shares with her African-American best friend T. J. Jones (Tia Hendricks) and spray-painting the walls with slogans like “LAY OFF BITCH SAM IS MINE.” (I feared for the life expectancy of the African-American best friend — usually Lifetime heroines’ Black confidantes learn the villains’ secret plans but get killed before they can tell the heroine — but T. J. is alive and well at the end of this one and the killing-off-the-Black-friend cliché seems be one part of the formula Lifetime’s current writers are moving away from.) There’s also Sam’s personal assistant, Mark Haynes (Adrian Gaeta, who frankly did more for me aesthetically than Jon Prescott did!), who seems to have some sinister connection with Lynette, as well as a blond cop who seems to be either on Sam’s payroll or just eager to keep on his good side. In one scene a frazzled Lynette goes through her closet and slashes a rack of unusually voluminous dresses — our friend Garry, who was watching this with me, thought they looked like maternity clothes, which made me wonder if the big twist at the end of Roberts’ script would be that Lynette was Jack’s surrogate mother (since an ambitious actress like Naomi wouldn’t want to take off the several months out of her career required to produce a child au naturel) and this gave her the delusion that they were meant to be a couple.

Instead, Roberts swung for the fences, cliché-wise, and in a climax at a deserted mountain cabin (not another deserted mountain cabin — and this one didn’t even have the excuse of being out of cell-phone range, since when the situation goes south Casey is able to get Jack to call 911 on his ubiquitous tablet) in which Casey watches a file on Jack’s tablet (Jack wants to be a movie director and is always photographing stuff with it) showing Sam and Lynette plotting Naomi’s murder. She realizes that everyone else in the movie is in on it — Sam ordered it because Naomi was getting too ambitious and assertive (and Sam, like a lot of other Lifetime villains, wants his women totally obedient), though Lynette actually committed it in hopes Sam would reward her by making her the next Mrs. Sam Austin. When Sam turned his attentions to Casey instead, Lynette had a jealous hissy-fit which ended up with her invading Sam’s apartment and going after him with a knife — and director Daniel Ringey had them fall off the back of Sam’s couch in their deadly embrace, with Lynette emerging dead from her own knife and Sam wounded but O.K. (This is the best scene in an otherwise plainly directed movie; apparently Ringey had read the interview with Alfred Hitchcock in which the Master said you should direct murders like love scenes and love scenes like murders.) It turns out that Sam, Mark and the blond cop were all involved with the cover-up (and also asked the Ukrainian government for dirt on Joe Biden — no, not really) and Casey saves herself and Jack by having them flee into the woods, where they hide out from Jack’s murderous dad long enough for the police to respond to Jack’s 9/11 call and arrest Sam and Mark. It wasn’t much of a movie but it was fun to see one of Lifetime’s cheesy thrillers again; I like Lifetime much better when they cut the milk of human kindness with acid instead of drowning it in glucose!

Saturday, December 28, 2019

Whoopee! (Samuel Goldwyn Productions, Z&G Productions, United Artists,1930)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2019 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night Charles and I watched a quite old but still entertaining movie, a sort of throwback to the days of VCR’s when I would record off Turner Classic Movies literally by the yard and we would often have evenings together in which we’d watch two or even three movies in a row from the 1930’s or 1940’s, including acknowledged classics as well as “B”-movies, some of which turned out to be minor gems. The one we watched last night was definitely a major production: Whoopee! (the original title credit has the exclamation point even though the original poster, reproduced on’s header page for the film as well as the DVD box and starter screen does not), a 1930 production of a Florenz Ziegfeld stage hit, Whoopee!, starring Eddie Cantor and running from December 4, 1928 through November 23, 1929 at Ziegfeld’s showcase, the New Amsterdam Theatre. The songs were by Walter Donaldson (music) and Gus Kahn (lyrics), and Cantor’s original co-star was Ruth Etting, who introduced the glorious ballad “Love Me or Leave Me” in the stage production. According to one “Trivia” poster, Whoopee! was still doing excellent business on Broadway and could have run another year, but Ziegfeld had been hit hard by the stock-market crash of October 1929 and the Great Depression that it spawned and he needed ready cash more than he did the steady income of a stage hit. So he either sold the movie rights to producer Sam Goldwyn or went into partnership with him — it’s not clear which, nor is it clear how much artistic involvement Ziegfeld had in the ultimate film. The various Goldwyn biographies have accounts of this film that sometimes cohere and sometimes clash; according to one story Ziegfeld and Goldwyn both recruited the most beautiful girls they could find for the film’s chorus line, and the people who saw both agreed that Goldwyn’s girls (who included future stars Paulette Goddard, Betty Grable and Virginia Bruce) were better-looking than Ziegfeld’s. (Lucille Ball would make her screen debut in a later Cantor-Goldwyn vehicle, Roman Scandals, dressed in nothing but a very long wig, elaborately coiffed to cover all the “naughty bits.”) 

Whoopee! was one of two huge musical productions made entirely in the two-strip Technicolor process in 1930 (Paul Whiteman’s King of Jazz, stunningly directed by John Murray Anderson, was the other); two-strip Technicolor had been available since 1922 but it didn’t really catch on until the late 1920’s, when a lot of people in Hollywood thought that color was going to be the new sound and audiences who had just experienced a revolution in movie entertainment with the rise of the talkies and the total annihilation of silent films would welcome another one in which dazzling color images would replace the cool black-and-white (often “tinted” or “toned” to simulate color) films audiences were used to. It didn’t happen, partly because the Depression did — though it didn’t really hit the movie business hard until 1931 — and partly because the original two-strip Technicolor process had one glaring limitation: it could not photograph blue. Blue is the shortest wavelength of visible light and early films in general had a hard time with blue — silent star Mary Miles Minter had blue eyes and in a lot of her early films they just photographed white, and cinematographer James Wong Howe “made his bones” in Hollywood by figuring out a way to “bounce” light off a black velvet curtain into Minter’s eyes so they would look normal on screen. Two-strip Technicolor, as the name suggests, used two strips of film in the camera — one to record red and one to record green — and the two strips were “married” in the lab in a process similar to lithography to create a single strip of film that could be shown in an ordinary projector. In 1932 Technicolor introduced a new process, three-strip Technicolor, which took advantage of the faster, more sensitive films that had been developed by then to include blue in their color mix along with red and green — and directors and cinematographers on three-strip films often went hog wild, dressing all the men in blue suits and all the women in blue gowns, showing lots of things (like sky and sea) one would expect to be blue, and having their set designers paint just about all the interior walls blue. (Even the night skies in three-strip Technicolor films usually were a deep, dark blue instead of the regulation black.) 

Three-strip was first used in Walt Disney’s cartoons (in 1932 he cut a deal with Technicolor under which Disney was the only producer able to use it in animated films), then in shorts and in film sequences, and in 1935 Rouben Mamoulian directed Becky Sharp, an adaptation of Thackeray’s novel Vanity Fair that was the first film shot entirely in three-strip. There’s a nagging assumption among some film buffs that two-strip wasn’t “really” color — Becky Sharp is all too often cited in reference books as “the first color film,” which it wasn’t — which I think is being really unfair to it. At its best (and if well-preserved, something you can’t always count on with old films), two-strip has a beautiful, painterly elegance that I often find more appealing than the often shrieking, clashing hues of the three-strip films that succeeded it. Someone not knowing the limitations of the process might watch a two-strip film and wonder why just about everyone’s wearing either salmon or turquoise, why the rooms are decorated similarly, and why the daytime skies are either beige or, at best, teal. But it delivered pleasing skin tones and a quite beautiful overall look. One thing about color is that in the 1930’s and 1940’s using it doubled the cost of making a film — which is why so few films used color and they were generally big historical spectacles like Gone with the Wind or The Adventures of Robin Hood, or musical fantasies like The Wizard of Oz. It wasn’t until the 1960’s, when Technicolor invented something called “denatured color,” that the association of color films with fantasy and black-and-white with realism was finally broken, and color at last became the standard — only now directors and cinematographers have gone the other way, shooting film after film in muted, dingy browns and greens and often leaving me wondering, “If you’re going to use so little of the visible spectrum anyway, why don’t you just shoot in black-and-white?” 

Whoopee! is generally one of the best-preserved examples of three-strip Technicolor — thanks largely to Sam Goldwyn’s attitude towards his own films: he didn’t think of them as here-today-gone-tomorrow commodities but as lasting works of art and entertainment, and his son Samuel Goldwyn, Jr. remembers dad taking him through the Goldwyn Studio vault, showing him the cans of film resting on their racks, and saying, “Son, this is your legacy.” In fact, the version currently available on DVD may have been tweaked as well as preserved: the opening musical number show the chorus, dressed as cowgirls, wearing powder-blue scarves, and while the skies are mostly the turquoise-teal shade we expect from a two-strip exterior, sometimes they look downright blue. (Some two-strip films — notably Warner Bros.’ 1933 production Mystery of the Wax Museum — look considerably bluer than they did when new because the yellow components of the green dyes have faded more than the blue components have, but I doubt that was the case here.) Whoopee! began life as a non-musical play by Owen Davis (also the author who adapted F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby into a Broadway hit in 1926, starring James Rennie — Michael Rennie’s father — as Gatsby) called The Nervous Wreck, about a milquetoast hypochondriac named Eddie Williams whose doctors recommend he go out to a dude ranch in Arizona, where the fresh desert air will presumably cure him of his maladies, real or imagined. Whoopee! got a top-flight production from Ziegfeld, including Eddie Cantor and Ruth Etting as stars, Walter Donaldson (writer of some of the most harmonically interesting songs of the 1920’s, including such memorable items in the Paul Whiteman-Bix Beiderbecke joint repertoire as “Changes,” “(What Are You Waiting For) Mary,” “Because My Baby Don’t Mean ‘Maybe’ Now” and “Out-of-Town Gal,” as well as composer of “My Blue Heaven,” which Gene Austin recorded in 1927 and became the best-selling record of all time until Bing Crosby recorded Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas” 15 years later) as composer and Gus Kahn as lyricist. 

To write the script Goldwyn insisted on using William Anthony McGuire, who’d also written the original stage book, and he lavished additional talent on the film: the editor was future director Stuart Heisler, the art director was Richard Day, and Goldwyn hired one of the top bands in the country, George Olsen and His Music, to play Donaldson’s songs. At Cantor’s recommendation he also hired a dance director named Busby Berkeley, who hadn’t worked in films before but had created a sensation with his dances for the 1927 Rodgers and Hart musical A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. In his first film, Berkeley made it clear early on that he wasn’t going to be guided by the convention of the time that musical numbers should be filmed as you would see them in a particularly good seat in a theatre — which sometimes led to preposterous scenes in which chorus dancers were so dwarfed by the huge sets they looked like ants on a wedding cake. In Whoopee! Berkeley shot the first chorus or so of the film’s opening number, “Today’s the Day,” Berkeley takes his camera up on a boom and shoots the chorus dancers from above, then keeps going until he’s aimed his camera straight down at them and has them move in a kaleidoscope-like formation. Contrary to popular belief, Berkeley was not the first director to do that — at least three others had done it in 1929 (Luther Reed in Rio Rita, Joseph Santley in The Cocoanuts and Albertina Rasch in Lord Byron of Broadway) — but it would become one of his trademarks, and in a later number in Whoopee! Berkeley would do his other one: he had the chorus girls spread their legs apart to form a long tunnel of legs, then would have the camera track through the tunnel of legs to form a long line of girls, legs spread apart, shown only from the waist down. 

When I last saw Whoopee! 20 years or so ago I thought it was a marvelous movie, but I found myself liking it a bit less this time around even though it’s got a lot to recommend it. Among the pluses are great Walter Donaldson songs (mostly freshly written for the film: “Makin’ Whoopee,” a satirically bitter comment on marriage, infidelity and divorce, was apparently the only stage song that carried over into the film); superb use of two-strip technology by cinematographers Ray Rennahan, Lee Garmes and Gregg Toland (a decade later Toland would shoot Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane and create what is probably the most dramatic use of high-contrast black-and-white in Hollywood’s classic era); and a personable cast including Eddie Cantor (though his Jewish schtick gets a bit oppressive at times), Ethel Shutta as his long-time nurse Mary Custer who has a crush on him and gets to play the sexual aggressor, and Paul Gregory as the hunky Native American (at least we think he is until the end of the film) Wanenis, whom the ingénue, Sally Morgan (Eleanor Hunt), has the hots for even though her dad has promised her hand to Sheriff Bob Wells (John Rutherford), who even though he’s officially a representative of law enforcement is really the villain of the piece. Cantor gets a few great one-liners and responses — my favorite line was when Wanenis announces to Henry that he left the reservation to get a white man’s education, and Henry, mistaking it for his sort of white men’s education, says, “Oh, so you went to Hebrew school, too?” Among the minuses are a typically plodding Ziegfeld plot and the typical 1920’s musical alternation between big production numbers, intimate romantic duets (like “When the Sun Is Low,” in which Wanenis and Sally sing of their mutual love and Whoopee! starts to look and sound like the beta version of a Jeanette MacDonald-Nelson Eddy film), comedy scenes and bits of exposition to advance the plot. 

The plot, such as it is, deals with Henry loading Sally into the mountains to get her away from having to marry creepy Sheriff Bob Wells and hiding her in the Indian reservation, disguising himself in blackface (supposedly he hides in an oven and it explodes, ejecting him and charring his face and hands so he looks Black, but he’s in perfect burnt-cork makeup as he does one of the best songs in the film, “My Baby Just Cares for Me,” later covered by Nina Simone in the late 1950’s: she turned Gus Kahn’s line “even Chevalier’s smile” to, of all people, “even Liberace’s smile”). Eventually all the principals converge on the reservation and Wanenis reluctantly agrees to give up Sally even though the two of them are deeply in love on the ground that they won’t be happy in a mixed marriage between a white woman and an American Indian man — only Wanenis’s supposed father, Chief Black Eagle (Chief Caupolitan), tells him in a line McGuire probably copied from the script for the Valentino vehicle The Sheik, whose makers probably in turn copied it from W. S. Gilbert’s libretto for H.M.S. Pinafore that he’s not really native at all: he’s white, a foundling Black Eagle discovered on the desert with his dying mother after dad had fled and left them both to die (the rotter!). Of course I’d have rather had a more specifically anti-racist ending in which Sally proclaims her determination to love and marry Wanenis no matter what his racial ancestry or the discrimination that might get thrown their way because of it, but the end we have is an O.K. resolution of a good but wildly uneven movie which is absolutely beautiful to look at (especially the haunting outdoor scenes on the reservation which Berkeley uses to stage the legendary parade of chorus beauties obligatory in a Ziegfeld production) and occasionally, in Berkeley’s numbers as well as Cantor’s solo stints, especially the song “A Girlfriend of a Boyfriend of Mine,” which like a lot of the rest of the movie comes off today as far more homoerotic than their creators no doubt intended!

Thursday, December 26, 2019

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (Blueprint Pictures, Film Four, Fox Searchlight Pictures, 2017)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2019 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night Charles and I screened the film Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri with our friend Garry, who’d been talking it up to us for months, and while it’s far from the usual Christmas night fare, it turned out to be a marvelous movie whose only real flaw is its relentless astringency. The central premise is that eight months previous to the start of the action a teenage girl named Angela Hayes (Kathryn Newton, who’s dead at the start of the film but we get to see her in a flashback) went off alone one night and was kidnapped, raped and burned to death. The central character is her mom Mildred (Frances McDormand, top-billed and an Academy Award winner for this film), who is understandably upset that in the eight months since Angela’s murder the police have done virtually nothing on the case. So she rents three dowdy, long-unused billboards in the deserted part around Ebbing where the crime took place, calling on the police to do something at long last to solve it: RAPED WHILE DYING, STILL NO ARREST, and HOW COME, CHIEF WILLOUGHBY? The last is a reference to William Willoughby (Woody Harrelson), chief of police in Ebbing, who also keeps horses outside of town, is married to a much younger woman and has been diagnosed with terminal pancreatic cancer. In one confrontation scene with Mildred, he literally coughs blood in her face. 

Willoughby assigned the case to officer Jason Dixon (Sam Rockwell in a superb performance, miles away from his equally marvelous taciturnicity in Duncan Jones’ sci-fi film Moon), who specializes in “nigger-torturin’” and lives with his even more fearsome mother (Sandy Dixon), who tells him he can’t use the N-word anymore and he should say “people of color-torturin’” instead. (Actually the euphemism should be “Using enhanced interrogation techniques on people of color.”) The billboards cause an immediate sensation across Ebbing, with some residents demanding they be taken down because they’re a tasteless attack on a cop who’s not only doing his best but is dying of cancer. As the film progresses Mildred’s monomania crosses so many lines it’s hard for us to maintain our sympathy for her. Not that anyone else in the movie comes off much better: at one point Dixon confronts Red Welby (Caleb Landry Jones), the rather milquetoast advertising agent who sold Mildred the billboards, and pitches him out the window of his second-floor office. Mildred is also raising Angela’s brother Jerome (Darrell Britt-Gibson) as a single parent since his and Angela’s dad Charlie (John Hawkes) left her for an affair with a 19-year-old named Penelope (Samara Weaving) after Mildred threw him out for regularly abusing her. We get to see his temper and her icy cool when Charlie stops by Mildred’s home one day in which the confrontation gets so violent Charlie holds a knife to Mildred’s neck and their son has to rescue her — and just then Penelope, who’s been waiting in Charlie’s car all this time, comes in and asks if she can use the bathroom. 

It’s a grim story that escalates when, after Willoughby shoots himself because he doesn’t want to deal with the ordeal of dying a slow, painful death, he leaves Mildred enough money to keep the billboards up — and the state sends in a Black man to replace Willoughby in a scene that, though carefully not played for laughs, still came awfully close to Cleavon Little’s entrance into Rock Ridge in Blazing Saddles. Then someone sets fire to the billboards, only the signage is covered by insurance and Mildred is able to put them back up with the aid of the town dwarf, James (Peter Dinklage). In just about any other movie the avuncular African-American authority figure would re-launch the investigation into Angela’s murder and find the culprit; in this one Jason, who’s been fired from the police force for making a snippily racist comment to his new Black boss, overhears two men in a bar bragging about a crime that’s eerily similar to Angela’s murder and he’s convinced that one of the men is her killer — only by this time Jason is badly burned because he was in the police station when Mildred, seeking revenge for the burning of her billboards, throws Molotov cocktails into the Ebbing police station. It’s unclear whether writer/director Martin McDonagh meant for Mildred to attack Jason on purpose or whether she was planning an Earth Liberation Front-style attack that would destroy the police station but not actually hurt anybody because it would be closed. The new chief dashes Jason’s hope that he’s solved the crime by telling him the DNA sample he obtained by engaging the suspect in a bar fight does not match the DNA from Angela’s crime scene, but Jason insists that the man must be guilty of something and the film has an ambiguous ending with Jason and Mildred driving off together to Idaho (the man had been driving a truck with Idaho plates) in search of him. 

Three Billboards has often been mistaken for a Coen Brothers film, not only because Mrs. Joel Coen is the star but also because it has the same mix of small-town incestuousness (Ebbing is depicted as the sort of town in which everyone knows everyone else’s business), grim reality and black humor that has marked the Coen brothers’ output. McDonagh reportedly based his film on a true story that happened in Vidor, Texas in 1991 (did the name have a family connection with Texas-born classic-era director King Vidor?), but ironically the true story comes closer to movie cliché than the version McDonagh concocted: the real killer in Vidor was a member of a prominent, wealthy family and the authorities came together to protect the 1-percenter who committed the crime. Indeed, according to a “trivia” post on, the real billboards in Vidor were still up when the movie was made. Three Billboards is one of those movies that seems to deny the very existence of human kindness or compassion (and in that regard it’s an appropriate film for the Trump-era Zeitgeist), but that didn’t bother me as much as it has in some other recent films in which I’ve complained that there’s no one in the dramatis personae we actually like (we’re clearly meant at first to see Mildred as a sympathetic character, but she doesn’t let us for very long, and for me her character was “nailed” when one of the other people in the film pointed out that we never see her smile), and within that limit it’s actually powerful drama with two tour de force performances, McDormand’s and Rockwell’s. It also turned out to be an unexpectedly au courant movie for the year (2017) that marked the downfall of Harvey Weinstein and the rise of the #MeToo movement: after all, it is about a woman who takes on the male establishment to demand that they take seriously a crime of sexual violence against a female victim, and uses the tools available to her to publicize male law enforcement’s failure and disinterest in solving a crime against a woman!

Wednesday, December 25, 2019

22nd Annual A Home for the Holidays (Dave Thomas Foundation/CBS-TV, aired December 22, 2019)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2019 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

On Sunday, December 22, out of all the holiday-themed music specials out there this Christmas season the one I ended up watching was what was billed as the 22nd anniversary presentation of A Home for the Holidays. Produced by the Dave Thomas Foundation (Dave Thomas is the owner of Wendy’s, which I regard as one of the better fast-food outlets but my husband Charles won’t eat there because Thomas was reportedly a major donor to Donald Trump’s Presidential campaign) and CBS-TV, A Home for the Holidays is — I kid you not — an annual infomercial for adoption. I remember catching this show years ago when it was hosted by Mariah Carey (ya remember Mariah Carey? Her downfall as a superstar abruptly came in 2001, when she starred in a film called Glitter that was such a mega-flop that after the 9/11 attacks Jay Leno joked, “They say that terrorists hide out in places where no one else goes. So that means they should be looking for Osama bin Laden in the theatres that are showing Mariah Carey’s movie Glitter”). This year the show was hosted by someone I consider a far better singer than Carey ever was: Idina Menzel, who burst onto the cultural radar six years ago when she was a voice double in the film Frozen and electrified audiences all over the world with her song “Let It Go.” (When Charles and I finally caught up with Frozen I was startled that this great song was sung by the story’s principal villainess and was an inspirational ode to the most terrible thing she does all movie: freezing out her home village so everyone there ends up cold and starving.)

Menzel just put out a holiday CD called Christmas — A Season of Love that is a majestic showcase for one of the most amazing voices in current popular music; she seems to be able to sing just about anything — rock, pop, Broadway and even jazz (judging from the swinging version of “Sleigh Ride” which opens the CD). Menzel sang four songs on the show, three of which were from her Christmas CD: the one that wasn’t was a brief a cappella version of “Let It Go” sung with a girl named Rose whom she picked out of the audience. She opened with “We Need a Little Christmas Now” from the musical Mame (the song that appears during the dark time in Mame’s fortunes when she’s lost her money due to the Depression, only to get it back when she marries a super-rich Texas oilman and he then dies in a freak accident, leaving her a wealthy widow), and she closed the show with a song I would have assumed was called “525,600 Minutes” but whose real name is “Seasons of Love.” In between she sang a song called “At This Table” which fit in perfectly with the theme of the show — and its interstital segments featuring happy adoptees and their adoptive parents, including one brother and sister who were adopted jointly from the foster-care system (we were told they were brother and sister, anyway, though their body language seemed to be heading just a bit too close to Die Walküre territory for my comfort) — a beautiful song about people being welcome at this table and being accepted for who they are. It was inspirational without being sappy — always a tightrope for both songwriters and singers trying their hands at this sort of material — and while it underscored the show’s message urging potential parents to take in foster-care children and give them stable homes and love, it transcended it and communicated a beautiful message of arms-outstretched acceptance we especially need to hear in such vile times as these, when the U.S. is run by a man (quite a few men, actually) who pride themselves on lacking empathy, compassion and any thought of welcoming the stranger.

There were other singers on the show but Menzel totally outshined them. One was Ne-Yo, yet another of those Black entertainers who I assume from their stage name would be a rapper but isn’t, doing a good cover of Smokey Robinson and the Miracles’ song “This Christmas” — not as good as the original, but still quite capable and enjoyable. Another was Kelly Rowland, doing her hit “I Love You More at Christmastime” — I wouldn’t have thought from the voice on the record that she’s Black, but she is, and she did a nice entrance through the audience, shaking the hands of the kids as she made her way to the stage. There was also Adam Lambert, the openly Gay near-winner of American Idol who made his first album in a dance-pop vein because to the music industry’s Pavlov-conditioned producers, “Gay = dance-pop.” He doesn’t have that kind of voice, and he’s proven what he can do by joining the surviving members of Queen in their tours to promote (and suck off the group’s increased popularity from) Bohemian Rhapsody, the biopic of their late lead singer Freddie Mercury. Here his song was “Whatever Gets Me Closer to You,” an O.K. pop ballad that didn’t give the (far more interesting) rock side of Lambert’s voice much of a workout. Whatever my problems with A Home for the Holidays as a concept, it was great to hear Idina Menzel sing her heart out on three songs; I remember hearing her do “Let It Go” on the 2014 Academy Awards (and I recall her version there as, if anything, even more impassioned than the one she sang in the film!) and thinking that now we had the perfect person to star in a biopic of Janis Joplin — only since then I’ve heard another modern singer, Maren Morris, who’d be even better! So would someone please make that movie already?

Sounds Like Christmas (EuroArts, ZDF, Arte, 2002)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2019 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Charles and I watched a DVD I had just got from called Sounds Like Christmas as part of a big sale they had on cut-out items. It was a 2002 concert from Pforta, a school in a former Cistercian monastery near Naumburg on the Saale River in the German state of Saxony-Anhalt (I got that last from Wikipedia and I’m still not clear in what part of Germany that is; it was in the Russian occupation zone that became East Germany, but the East German government de-listed it as a state in 1952 and it didn’t become a state again until the 1990 reunification; its largest city is Halle, also called Saale), and it was a co-production of EuroArts (the company that produced the DVD), ZDF (an acronym for Zweites Deutsches Fernsehen, which means “Second German Television” and is their farther-reaching version of PBS) and Arte (a French-German cultural TV network). This is yet another indication of the tradition of public-service broadcasting in western Europe, where national governments of whatever ideological stripe have long regarded radio and TV as truly public resources and not just arenas in which viewers’ ears and eyeballs are supposed to be sold to the highest bidder. The Sounds Like Christmas concert was an oddball mix featuring soprano Angelika Kirchschlager (Charles was amused by her last name because it literally translates “church whipped cream,” but some other major 20th century German singers had equally weird names, including Frida Leider — “unfortunately” — and Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, “blackhead”), the Freiburger Barockorchester conducted by Gottfried von der Goltz, a five-man vocal group called ensemble amarcord (I’m presuming the lower-case spelling is their choice because the titles telling us what the pieces were called and who was performing them were careful to keep their name lower-case) and trumpeter Tomasz Stanko.

Kirchschlager was dressed in a full-length gown that was grey above her waist and subtly changed to an odd color, sort of half-brown and half-lavender, around her midsection; she looked dignified and fortunately did not do any costume changes in mid-concert as more recent classical divas, ill-advisedly emulating their pop namesakes, have done. The Freiburger Barockorchester mostly performed standing up, except for the members who couldn’t because of the sheer unwieldiness of their instruments: I was particularly taken by a huge plucked-string instrument with 20 tuning pegs. Charles did a quick online search on his phone and decided it was an “archlute,” a giant-sized version of the traditional hand-held lute (the main plucked-string instrument in the West before the Moors imported the guitar from Persia — modern-day Iran — into Spain). It looked to me like some Western instrument maker had got hold of an Indian sitar and thought, “Gee, I can build something with that many strings, too!” The concert had some interesting repertoire and a few surprises, the most impressive being trumpeter Stanko, who first appeared accompanying ensemble amarcord in the traditional song “Le Baylère” and then behind Kirchschlager on “Lo, how a rose e’er blooming.” I was taken aback by the depth and richness of his tone — instead of the high, thin tone of most solo classical trumpeters he played surprisingly like Miles Davis, and it turned out later in the concert that he plays that way because he’s also a jazz musician. During the program he played two quite lively jazz pieces, “Little Thing Jesus” and “In the Silence of the Night” with a piano-bass-drums rhythm section (though we had to wait until the closing credits to learn who the other people were: Michal Miskiewicz on piano, Slawomir Kurkiewicz on bass, and Marcin Wasilewski on drums), which were about the only respite we got from the slow “reverential” tempi of most of the rest of the songs.

The only familiar Christmas standard performed was “Silent Night,” done in German by ensemble amarcord, though I also recognized “O sanctissima” from Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra’s early-1960’s crossover album The Glorious Sound of Christmas, an album my family grew up with and which is still the best-sounding Christmas crossover album I’ve heard from a classical orchestra. “Silent Night” was of course written by a German, Franz Xaver Gruber, and the legend is that Gruber was the musical director of a German church in 1816 when he had the dismaying task of reporting to the pastor that the organ had gone out of order on Christmas Eve and therefore there would be no music for their big Christmas Eve service. “What instruments do you have?” the priest asked Gruber. “One guitar,” Gruber told him. “Then write a song so simple you can play it on guitar,” the priest told him, and a classic was born. Since it was composed in Germany, German is the original language, and as much as I treasure the English version the German original has a special charm of its own — I particularly like “Schlaf in himmlischer Ruh,” the German for “Sleep in heavenly peace.” The rest of the program ranged from an aria from Bach’s Christmas Oratorio, “Bereite dich Zion,” with Kirchschlager and the Freiburg Barockorchester, then “Le Bayère” and after that the orchestra (with an unidentified violinist from the ranks taking the solo part) a full concerto by Vivaldi, Concerto in E major, RV 270: “Il riposo … per il Natale” — the DVD tracked each of the three movements separately — followed by ensemble amarcord doing another traditional song, “Maria durch ein Dornwald ging,” and Kirchschlager and the Freiburg Barockorchester doing an aria from Handel’s Messiah, “Thou art gone up on high,” with Kirchschlager singing with quite good English diction. (This has not always been the case with opera singers performing in English — I remember getting a download of one of the old Firestone Christmas albums featuring Joan Sutherland, Renata Tebaldi and Leontyne Price — and ironically Tebaldi, the only one whose native language was not English, had the best diction of the three.)

After that Kirchschlager and trumpeter Stanko did a version of “Lo, how a rose e’er blooming” — and then came the first of the two unexpected jazz interludes from Stanko and his rhythm section, “Little Thing Jesus.” (For some reason the composers of the jazz numbers were not identified in the titles even though the composers of the other pieces were.) After that came another complete concerto, Arcangelo Corelli’s Concerto Grosso in G minor, Op. 8, no. 6, part of a collection published after Corelli’s death (though at least it’s authentically by Corelli — his publishers didn’t do what Pergolesi’s did and slap his name on a lot of music other people actually wrote, much of it after Pergolesi’s death!), which is in six short movements (though the DVD gave it only five tracks) ending with a “Pastorale” largo movement that apparently has become something of a classical standard of its own. Then came Kirchschlager and Stanko on another standard hymn, “Von Himmel hoch,” the ensemble amarcord’s “Silent Night,” and Stanko’s second jazz interlude, following which they did “O sanctissima” and two bits of Bach: Kirchschlager and the orchestra in “Schlummert ein, ihr matten Augen,” BWV 82, and ensemble amarcord in “O Jesulein süss” — over which the closing credits came up. Director Michael Beyer indulged in some of those oddball shots of the surrounding countryside and cityscapes with which Arte directors often use to try to make their films something more than just performance videos — and since there was no applause it was clear that this was a studio production and not an actual concert — but though the tempi tended to drag a bit as the evening wore on and one wished for something faster and more openly celebratory, it was still a quite nice and lovely movie to watch on Christmas Eve.

Sunday, December 22, 2019

Star Trek: “The Cage” (Desilu Productions, 1964)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2019 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Charles and I had planned to attend the Vintage Sci-Fi screening in Golden Hill ( — especially since he had the day off and therefore we could go together — and the screening proprietor had planned to screen all three incarnations of the pilots for Star Trek. First was “The Cage,” the 1964 version with Jeffrey Hunter as Captain Christopher Pike, Majel Barrett as his second-in-command, a tall,raven-haired, emotionless woman simply called “Number One,” and virtually none of the familiar cast members we came to know and love from the 1966-1969 series. Besides a different captain and second-in-command, there was a different ship’s doctor (veteran character actor John Hoyt as “Dr. Phillip Boyce”), engineer, helmsman and everybody else. The only character from this episode to carry over to the series was Leonard Nimoy as Mr. Spock — ironically, since one of the reasons NBC rejected this pilot submission was they didn’t want someone visibly alien on board and they especially thought people wouldn’t want to see those now-famous pointy ears every week. I’ve known the history ever since I read the book The World of Star Trek in the 1970’s: Gene Roddenberry, whose one previous TV series was a cop show called The Lieutenant that aired for one season (1963-64) on ABC, wanted to do a science-fiction series that would have continuing characters, not an anthology like Tales of Tomorrow, The Twilight Zone or The Outer Limits. He pitched it to potential studios and networks as “Wagon Train to the Stars,” and he first went to MGM, which had produced The Lieutenant with him. MGM heard out his pitch and then told him they were already developing their own sci-fi series, Lost in Space, and they wouldn’t be interested in Star Trek. Neither would CBS, which had agreed to air Lost in Space and therefore wasn’t going to put on a competing show. Roddenberry ended up at Desilu Studios, created by Desi Arnaz and Lucille Ball to produce I Love Lucy and now Ball’s property following her 1960 divorce from Arnaz. He successfully pitched a prospectus to NBC and got a budget for a pilot episode — which he blew through quickly thanks to all the elaborate sets, including the interiors of the starship Enterprise, that had to be built (and of course could be re-used for the series if it were picked up).

Out of several stories Roddenberry submitted to NBC, they picked one called “The Cage,” which dealt with the Enterprise being lured to the planet Talos-4 by a phony distress call, ostensibly from a ship called Columbia with crash-landed there 18 years earlier. The Talosians, like the long-deceased Krell of the 1956 MGM film Forbidden Planet, solved the problem of supporting themselves so well they eventually developed their mental powers and became androgynous beings (they were actually played by women but their voices were dubbed by men) who created illusions to entertain themselves and relieve the boredom of not having to struggle for existence. Only they did such a good job of developing their intellects that they neglected everything else about their planet, including losing the technological skills that had built their infrastructure in the first place. So they decided to create illusions that would lure other species to their world in hopes of finding one they could breed and use to create a race of permanent slaves that could do the manual and technical labor needed to maintain their world and once again live on its surface instead of underground, which is what they’re doing when we meet them. Christopher Pike (Jeffrey Hunter), captain of the starship Enterprise, beams down to Talos-4 and is promptly kidnapped by the Talosians, who decide he’s going to be their Adam and sire a race of human slaves. His Eve is going to be Vina (Susan Oliver, listed as “Guest Star” on the credits), the one survivor of the Columbia crash, whom the Talosians rescued and reconstructed as best they could. In a series of illusions created by the Talosians,

Vina appears as the damsel in distress Pike previously rescued from a creepy monster on the planet Rigel-7; as his old girlfriend in a bucolic scene set in farm country that’s the one time the 1960’s Star Trek ever attempted a depiction of the earth of its time (now that I’ve read a lot more science fiction than I had then, this sequence seems quite obviously, shall we say, inspired by the similar illusion in Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles), and a green Orion slave girl in an orgy sequence obviously modeled on Cecil B. DeMille’s depictions of ancient Rome. (This last sequence posed a problem for Roddenberry and his director, Robert Butler: they kept putting green makeup on Susan Oliver and the footage kept coming back with her skin color looking white-person normal. They painted her darker green and she still came back from the processing lab looking like a normally-colored white woman. Then they found out that someone at the processing lab, thinking they were correcting a hideous mistake, had been taking the green out of her and changing Oliver’s footage back to normal color.) When the Enterprise crew decides to send a landing party down to the surface of Talos-4 to investigate what’s going on — and to bring a laser cannon to breach the entrance from the surface to the Talosian caves so they can break in and rescue Captain Pike — only the two women are beamed down, and the Talosian “Keeper” (Meg Wyllie, voiced by Malachi Throne) explains to Pike that since Vina apparently hasn’t suited him, he has the choice of two other women to be Eve to his Adam. The Talosians also have a particularly cruel set of punishments they can inflict on their captives — they can either send pain waves directly into their bodies or surround them with an illusion like the fire that engulfs Pike in one scene (“From a fable you once heard in childhood,” the Keeper explains — to which I couldn’t help leaning over to Charles and saying, referencing Hunter’s most famous credit as Jesus Christ in the 1961 remake of King of Kings, “I played Jesus Christ! I know all about suffering!”) — and the Keeper gives a matter-of-fact explanation that’s the siren song of totalitarians everywhere: “Wrong thinking is punishable; right thinking will be as quickly rewarded. You will find it an effective combination.”

The Talosians also hack into the data banks of the Enterprise to get background information on the human race, and they make the discovery that humans hate being held captive, “even when it is pleasant,” and therefore they won’t make good slaves after all even though they’re otherwise the most adaptable workers they’ve been able to find. “Your unsuitability has condemned the Talosian race to extinction,” the Keeper says as he allows the Enterprise crew members to beam back up to their ship — while Vina stays behind after, in a scene obviously copied from the famous ending of Lost Horizon, the Talosians strip her of her illusion of beauty and show her as she really is, not only old and decrepit but also lopsided because the Talosians had never seen an earth woman before and thus didn’t know quite how to put her back together from the wreckage of the Columbia. (Charles flagged this as a plot hole, pointing out that since the Talosians themselves have bilateral symmetry, they would have made their reconstruction of Vina bilaterally symmetrical as well instead of having her lean over like a woman who’s been given a single radical mastectomy.) I wouldn’t go so far as to call “The Cage” the best science-fiction film ever made to that point — if pressed I’d probably say either Fritz Lang’s Metropolis or Robert Wise’s original 1951 version of The Day the Earth Stood Still — but it’s an estimable one and would probably have done at least fairly well at the box office if it had been released theatrically as a one-off after NBC turned it down. Instead, NBC actually commissioned a second Star Trek pilot — which became the other film screened last night, “Where No Man Has Gone Before” — and ultimately agreed to air Star Trek as a weekly series.

“The Cage” — or significant portions of it — first saw the light of day when it was incorporated into a two-part episode (the only time the original Star Trek did a serial!) called “The Menagerie,” with a newly filmed framing story in which after the events of “The Cage” the United Federation of Planets slapped an embargo on Talos-4 that was punishable by death — the only death penalty left in the universe, or at least any Federation member planet — and Captain Christopher Pike suffered a horrible space accident that left him in an odd self-moving wheelchair that looked like a portable sauna. He was able to answer yes-or-no questions by blinking one or another light on the front of his chair, but otherwise couldn’t communicate any more than he could move without the chair. Spock takes the ship to Talos-4 against not only the orders of his new captain, James T. Kirk (William Shatner), and the footage of “The Cage” appears to illustrate what happened to Pike there 13 years earlier. There are some glitches in the transition — though the ship is visibly the same size, in “The Cage” it had a crew of only 200, not the 430 established as its complement in the later show; and it’s Number One, not Mr. Spock, who’s the emotionless, logical member of the officer corps — but overall the two parts of “The Menagerie” were among the most compelling episodes of the original Star Trek. Alas, in extracting the sequences from “The Cage” used in “The Menagerie,” Desilu Studios lost track of the clips they deleted from the version ultimately aired on TV, and for years the only copy of “The Cage” known to exist was a black-and-white 16 mm work print from Gene Roddenberry’s personal collection. Roddenberry showed this to several Star Trek and science-fiction conventions, and in the process the print suffered damage.

Then in the 1980’s Paramount, which had taken over the Star Trek property by buying Desilu in 1967, decided to issue “The Cage” on home video. They took the scenes that had been used in “The Menagerie” and ran those in color, while splicing in the scenes that hadn’t been used in the TV version from Roddenberry’s black-and-white work print, restoring them as best they could. Then a researcher named Ron Furmanek was going through Paramount’s vaults looking for old prints of 1950’s 3-D films and came upon the scraps of film that had been removed from “The Cage” when it became “The Menagerie.” Alas, the footage was all there visually (except for a couple of scraps still missing) but there was no sound, so the soundtrack had to be pulled from Roddenberry’s old black-and-white work print. This was the version we saw last night — interestingly, a lot of people who’ve seen this one have thought it was a version in which the black-and-white scenes were colorized — and it remains a quite effective piece of science-fiction filmmaking. It also sparks the obvious debate over whether the series would have been stronger or weaker with Jeffrey Hunter as the captain instead of William Shatner — an argument a Fanfare magazine critic made when reviewing albums of the Star Trek scores in the 1980’s, in which he said he’d never been that much of a Star Trek fan largely because he’d been put off by Shatner’s overacting. He thought the quiet, less overwrought Hunter would have made a better series lead — and it’s not clear why Gene Roddenberry didn’t keep Hunter on the show when he made the second pilot, the one NBC bought. One report is that Jeffrey Hunter’s wife talked him out of it, saying he was a serious actor and shouldn’t be wasting his time doing science-fiction; another is that it was a simple scheduling conflict — Hunter was working on something else when the call came for a second Star Trek pilot. Ironically, Hunter died quite young — age 41, on May 27, 1969 (ironically, just about the time the original run of Star Trek was coming to an end), of a stroke and a fall — and the potential of a Star Trek series with him in the lead remained tantalizingly unfulfilled.

Star Trek: “Where No Man Has Gone Before” (Desilu Productions, Norway Corporation, 1965, aired 1966)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2019 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The only other film we got to see last night (the proprietor had planned to show “The Menagerie” as well, but his Blu-Ray player screwed up towards the end of the final film he did show) was the second Star Trek pilot, “Where No Man Has Gone Before.” Unlike “The Cage,” which was Gene Roddenberry’s own script, “Where No Man Has Gone Before” was written by Samuel A. Peeples and directed by James Goldstone after the original director, Robert Butler, had bailed on the whole show because he thought it was too action-oriented, too much the “Wagon Train to the Stars” Roddenberry had promised NBC and not strong enough as science-fiction. (Ironically, one of the reasons NBC gave for rejecting “The Cage” was it was “too cerebral.”) Though it was shot in 1965, a year before Star Trek debuted as a weekly series, “Where No Man Has Gone Before” was actually the third show aired, after “The Man-Trap” (in which members of the Enterprise crew are attacked by a salt-eating monster) and “Charlie X” (a quite similar plot to “Where No Man Has Gone Before” in which the Enterprise has to deal with a human who’s been given mental super-powers by an alien something-or-other). It was also never one of my favorites among the original Star Trek episodes, at least partly because while some of the familiar Star Trek “regulars” were in the cast — William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy and, in pretty minuscule parts, James Doohan as Chief Engineer Scott and George Takei as Sulu (here an “astrophysicist” instead of a “helmsman,” and also the third in command instead of Scott) — Nichelle Nichols as Lt. Uhura wasn’t yet in the cast, and neither was DeForest Kelley as Dr. McCoy. Instead, the old character actor John Hoyt who’d played the ship’s doctor in “The Cage” was replaced by old character actor Paul Fix, as “Dr. Piper,” and while at least Hoyt got a nicely philosophical opening scene with Jeffrey Hunter at the start of “The Cage” (albeit one DeForest Kelley could have played much better!), Fix is just there and it’s clear that Kelley, whom Gene Roddenberry had worked with on his previous TV series The Lieutenant, was the actor he really wanted for the part. (DeForest Kelley had first achieved notice for the 1947 film Fear in the Night, based on a story by noir writer Cornell Woolrich, in which he plays a young man who actually commits a murder under hypnosis but believes he only dreamed the killing. Later Kelley noted that for 20 years after Fear in the Night the only parts he got offered were psycho killers until Roddenberry cast him as Dr. McCoy in Star Trek, whereupon the only parts he got offered after that were doctors.) The plot of “Where No Man Has Gone Before” deals — once again — with the Enterprise receiving a distress signal from a spacecraft lost decades before, in this case the Valiant. They’re unable to find the wreckage of the Valiant or any sign of its crew, but they essentially find its “black box,” a large cylinder about three feet in each direction containing in its memory banks the information about what happened to the earlier ship.

Spock figures out how to hack the recordings — at least the ones that are still in good enough shape to be readable — and they find that the captain was doing increasingly frantic research on the subject of extra-sensory perception. In trying to reach the Valiant the Enterprise crosses through a series of red tendrils in space — then have to back out again, as the Valiant tried to, when the tendrils start screwing with the starship’s controls. Soon they realize that one of the things the Great Whatsit does is target people with especially strong ESP, which at the moment includes at least two people aboard the Enterprise: crew member Gary Mitchell (Gary Lockwood, whom Roddenberry had worked with on The Lieutenant and who after this show wrapped would head to England to play astronaut Frank Poole in Stanley Kubrick’s classic 2001: A Space Odyssey — thereby ending up in two of the most iconic science-fiction film projects of the 1960’s!) and psychologist Dr. Elizabeth Dehner (Sally Kellerman, three years before her date with stardom in the movie M*A*S*H), who’s there to study the reactions of starship crew members under stress. Mitchell starts growing more and more powerful — and also more and more crazy: like the Invisible Man in H. G. Wells’ classic novel (and James Whale’s classic film), Mitchell becomes a super-powerful megalomaniac who can shoot bolts of energy from his hands that can incapacitate normal humans. Mitchell is shown as an old acquaintance of Captain Kirk from Starfleet Academy — apparently Mitchell was a student there when Kirk was one of the instructors — and he alternately goads him into trying to kill him “while you still can” and appeals to their old friendship as a reason Kirk should spare him. Eventually Kirk has the idea of stranding Mitchell and Dehner on a nearby planet where there’s an automated lithium processing plant (it’s referred to in the dialogue as a “lithium cracking” plant, which one contributor red-flagged as a “goof” because lithium is an element and therefore can’t be “cracked,” but I figured the plant either extracted lithium from the ore containing it or processed it into the dilithium crystals later established as an indispensable part of the Enterprise’s propulsion system), but Mitchell catches on and there’s a fight to the finish in which Mitchell threatens to kill Kirk and bury him in a grave he’s already created with his mental powers. (He’s also etched a tombstone that gives his intended victim’s name as “James R. Kirk” when Kirk’s middle name was later established as “Tiberius” — apparently Gene Roddenberry noticed the mistake during production but decided correcting it would be too expensive and time-consuming.)

“Where No Man Has Gone Before,” like a lot of other early Star Trek episodes, shows Roddenberry challenging the social, political and especially sexual norms of the 1960’s while at the same time not challenging them so far he’d risk losing his audience. One reason he’d had to cancel the character of “Number One” was that neither the NBC executives nor the test audiences for whom he screened “The Cage” accepted the idea of a woman as second-in-command of a spaceship, and throughout Star Trek Roddenberry’s own attitudes towards women are surprisingly (or maybe not so surprisingly) schizoid. On the one hand he’s inclined to create female characters with real agency and power — like “Number One” in “The Cage” and Dr. Elizabeth Dehner here — while on the other hand he fills the Enterprise’s lower ranks with so-called “yeomen,” actually short-skirted or hot-pantsed young women who seem to be there only to provide Captain Kirk convenient and readily available sexual outlets and to offer titillation to the teenage straight boys Hollywood considered the core audience for science fiction (and still does!). Roddenberry even had clashes with NBC’s censors over how little he was costuming his women crew members. According to some reports, Roddenberry’s attitude to sex off-camera was just as split as his attitude on-camera; he started dating Majel Barrett while he was still married to someone else, and later he started an affair with Black actress Nichelle Nichols (who played Uhura) while he was also dating Barrett. Indeed, someone at the screening quoted Nichols’ autobiography that at one point Roddenberry suggested a three-way with Nichols and Barrett — which Nichols refused. (It sounds like if Roddenberry were still alive and active he’d run afoul of the “#MeToo” witch-hunters and be yet another once-powerful man driven out of the entertainment industry.)

It was interesting to revisit these Star Trek episodes and be “present at the creation” of one of the most popular and long-lasting franchises in the history of science fiction — only Star Wars seems to have exceeded Star Trek in the sheer size and breadth of its fandom, and the longevity of the cult surrounding it — and to once again be present at the creation of a science-fiction universe based on optimism. In the 1960’s it was still possible to create mass-market science fiction that assumed the human race solved its current problems and went on to bigger and better things, like space exploration, whereas today it’s almost all dystopian. Most science-fiction franchises today, including The Hunger Games and Divergent, assume that most of the human race has destroyed itself and what’s left is eking out a precarious existence on what’s left of Earth. In these stories civilization has collapsed so completely that neither the money nor the technology exists even to think about going to the moon (again), let alone exploring other planets — an all too accurate social and artistic response to a society dominated by an ever-greedier ruling class that will almost literally stop at nothing to impoverish everyone else.

Saturday, December 21, 2019

Mr. Nobody (Pan-Européenne, Virtual Films, Christal Films, Pathé Genuine, Canal+, French Channel 2, French Channel 3, 2009)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2019 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night’s first “feature” on the Mars movie night screening in Golden Hill ( was one of the worst movies I’ve seen recently, a perfect example of what the late critic Dwight MacDonald called “the Bad Good Movie” — a film that is obviously aiming high for artistic achievement and depth, but falls so far short of its ambitions it became virtually unwatchable. It’s called Mr. Nobody and features a character called “Nemo Nobody” (Jared Leto) who as the film begins has lived to be 118 years old — though in his world that’s not an accomplishment because everyone else is immortal. Humans have figured out how to live literally forever by regeneratively cloning themselves, so they not only don’t die but they’re permanently young (or at least youngish). Nemo has become a spectacle because he’s the only living example of the once-ubiquitous process of human aging — and he’s become the star of a reality-TV show featuring a poll asking people to log in to say whether he should be cloned and thus enabled to live forever like everyone else, or he should be allowed to die. (There’s a nicely chilling scene in which the votes are recorded on a bar graph and the “death” line rises to be higher than the “life” line.) The film was a co-production of companies from France, Gemany, Britain and Canada — indeed, with so much foreign money in the film and the writer-director, Jaco Dormael, having a clearly foreign name, I was a bit surprised when it turned out to be in English — and its frame is a series of disjointed flashbacks of Nemo’s life at various stages as he’s hypnotized by Dr. Feldheim (Allan Corduner) and interviewed by a reporter. Nemo’s memories come back but in fits and starts as he recalls bits and pieces of his past — or, rather, his pasts, as early in his childhood Nemo had to make a decision to go with his mom or his dad when they split up, and supposedly the film illustrates both his futures depending on which choice he makes.

If this sounds familiar, it should — as early as 1934 RKO filmed J. B. Priestley’s play Dangerous Corner, in which the action takes place at a dinner party and is told twice, once in which a tube in the characters’ radio blows out and plunges the party into silence, from which the characters emerge into conversations that ultimately expose their secrets; then another telling in which the radio stays functional and so the conversations stay light and the secrets stay secret. More recent films that have used this premise include the early-1970’s movie Slaughterhouse Five (though I haven’t either seen that film or read Kurt Vonnegut’s source novel since then, one person at our screening thought of that movie as a precursor to Mr. Nobody) and the 2008 Scott McGehee-David Siegel film Uncertainty (a Run, Lola, Run-like urban chase film that, like Dangerous Corner, presented two alternative renderings of its story based on one key choice the characters make) along with Pedro Almodóvar’s Talk to Her and the movie I kept thinking of when I was watching this one, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Indeed, after Mr. Nobody was over I said, “It’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind with all the warmth, humanity and emotion taken out!” Supposedly the various events of Nemo Nobody’s life are seen from two vantage points — one in which he stays with his mom and moves with her from Britain to Canada (I think) when they break up, one in which he stays with his dad — though that point is made far more clearly in the synopses than in the film itself. He has at least two, possibly three, women he proclaims as the great love of his life: in the story in which he grows up with his dad her name is Elise (Sarah Polley) and she falls victim to depression and ultimately kills herself — at least we think she kills herself — while in the (more interesting) story in which he stays with his mom his great love is Anna (Diane Kruger), whom he meets when his mom remarries.

Anna is his stepfather’s daughter by his previous wife, and she and Nemo end up in one of those weird relationships, like the one between Henry Frankenstein and Elizabeth Lavenza in Mary Shelley’s original Frankenstein, that’s emotionally incestuous even though the lovers are not biological kin. They’re separated when stepdad leaves mom in shock over the discovery that his natural daughter is having an affair with his stepson, and they meet again years later but circumstances still keep them apart (she writes her phone number on a slip of paper — which, like the typewriter on which Nemo writes his reminiscences, is one of those incongruously retro references in a story ostensibly set in the future — but a stray drop of rain washes the ink away and renders the number illegible). There’s also a third woman in Nemo’s bed, an Asian whom he marries on the rebound after Elise (ya remember Elise?) tells him she’s not interested in him because she still has a crush on a guy named Stefano even though Stefano isn’t at all interested in her. (This sounds like Cole Porter’s marvelously cynical song, “I Loved Him, but He Didn’t Love Me,” in which the punch line is the singer lamenting that they’ve changed their minds and now “he loves me, but I don’t love him.” It’s the sort of thing a Gay songwriter would think of!) At some point one of the Nemos has kids with one of the wives, and they’re two boys named Paul and Michael (I wonder if writer-director Van Dormael was thinking of Paul McCartney and his brother Michael), and one of the more annoying gimmicks in a film full of them is that the various Nemos keep dying — one in a motorcycle crash, one in a car crash, one when he’s shot in a bathtub by a professional assassin and one a simple drowning because one of the Nemos is afraid of water and can’t swim, while the other is so unafraid of swimming pools he works as a pool maintenance person and dreams of someday becoming rich enough to own a big house and a pool of his own.

If Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is an example of how to do a non-linear movie that plays fair with its audience and is actually emotionally moving, Mr. Nobody is an example of how not to; about the only genuinely entertaining aspect of Mr. Nobody is getting to look at cute Jared Leto during much of its running time (especially when he’s shown either in close-ups of his angelically beautiful baby face — it’s a major disappointment when the character gets old enough to shave — or in mid-shots that show off a quite impressive basket), and that’s not enough to sustain interest through a 2 ½-hour movie, especially since through all too much of it Leto is in age makeup reminiscent of what Stanley Kubrick put Keir Dullea through in the later stages of 2001: A Space Odyssey. It didn’t help that we were watching a 153-minute “director’s cut” version (the standard DVD is 141 minutes and the theatrical release was 138 minutes) that — unlike the director’s cut of The Butterfly Effect, another movie on the same premise but a far better film (at least with the director’s original ending instead of the stupid one tacked onto the theatrical release) — probably just added length and even more mind-boggling complexity (and stupid complexity rather than artistically legitimate complexity) to an already long and dreary film. And, in case you were wondering what this film’s connection to Mars was, at one point Nemo takes a regular excursion flight to Mars as part of a group tour of the Red Planet — or does he only imagine that such flights are available and he takes one? Frankly, we don’t know and we (or at least I) don’t care!

Friday, December 20, 2019

Bullets or Ballots (Warner Bros.-First National, 1936)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009, 2019 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I got up and watched a movie on Turner Classic Movies, Bullets or Ballots, a 1936 vehicle for Edward G. Robinson (playing “Johnny Blake,” a New York police detective who went undercover to infiltrate the rackets and smash them — based on a real-life detective named Johnny Broderick who did the same thing), directed by William Keighley (whose last name I had no idea how to pronounce until I heard a broadcast recording of a Lux Radio Theatre he hosted and the announcer introduced him by pronouncing his last name “Keeley”) and co-starring Joan Blondell (as the white girl who, according to the version of history contained in this script by Seton Miller and Martin Mooney, actually invented the numbers racket — which she ran while performing as a singer in a cabaret; it looks like Miller and/or Mooney had been to see Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps) and Humphrey Bogart (as a trigger-happy thug who commits the only on-screen murders and is the one person in the gang who actually catches on to the fact that Robinson is really an undercover cop). It’s a measure of what Warner Brothers thought of Bogart at the time that he’s billed fourth — after Robinson, Blondell and Barton MacLane as the CEO of the rackets (he takes his orders from the mysterious “big guys” above him — who turn out to be the directors of the Oceanic Bank, moonlighting in crime on the side!) — ironic to anyone who’s seen The Maltese Falcon, made five years later with Bogart top-billed and MacLane way down in the cast list as one of the two police officers who harass Sam Spade. Robinson remembers this one in his autobiography as the movie whose smashing success enabled him to negotiate a super-contract with Warners that gave him the money to pay for his burgeoning art collection — aside from that, it’s a tight-knit Warners melodrama (I’ve always admired the simplicity of the solution they came up with when the Robinson and Cagney gangster pictures were criticized by the Legion of Decency — keep using these actors in crime stories but just switch them to the right side of the law!) that illustrates the truth of the joke both Robinson and Bogart made about how in the 1930’s, when Robinson was a star and Bogart a supporting player, Bogart had to die in the next-to-last reel and Robinson died in the last reel; later, in the 1940’s, it was Robinson who had to die and Bogart got to live!— 4/2/98


The night before I’d run the film I recorded on the same disc as Little Caesar: Bullets or Ballots, a film Robinson made six years later, after the Legion of Decency and the Production Code crackdown and after Jack Warner and Hal Wallis responded to the criticisms of films like Little Caesar and The Public Enemy for allegedly “glorifying” crime by taking their stars, Robinson and James Cagney, and putting them in crime films where they played people on the right side of the law: Cagney as an FBI agent in G-Men and Robinson, in Bullets or Ballots, as New York police detective Johnny Blake (based on real-life cop Johnny Broderick), who ostensibly gets himself “fired” from the force and seemingly switches sides to hire on to the gang led by Al Kruger (Barton MacLane) and “Bugs” Fenner (Humphrey Bogart). Only, as we suspect all along and the film soon tells us, it’s a ruse: by being cashiered out of the police force so spectacularly and publicly (after throwing a fake punch at the new police commissioner at a public cabaret owned by a gangland associate), he seeks to convince the gangsters that he’s burned his bridges with the police so he’ll be more believable when he claims he’s changed sides. (Warners used this plot gimmick quite a few times since, including at least two World War II melodramas: Across the Pacific, directed by John Huston and starring Humphrey Bogart in his subsequent good-guy career; and Desperate Journey, with Errol Flynn.)

Blake also has a quirky relationship with Lee Morgan (Joan Blondell) — and yes, it is jarring to see a white female character with the same name as a subsequently famous Black male jazz trumpeter — who owns the cabaret where he mock-punched out the police commissioner and who also took over the numbers racket from her Black maid, Nellie LaFleur (Louise Beavers) — where there seems to be some degree of mutual attraction (though, as in Little Caesar, none of the gangsters seem to have any romantic or sexual relationships) — only to have her control of it threatened in turn by Kruger and Fenner. In any event, Bullets or Ballots is a surprisingly dull film, ineptly directed by William Keighley (a far cry from the rapid, energetic direction Mervyn LeRoy brought to Little Caesar, including some oblique camera angles and a few shots with ceilings over a decade before Orson Welles supposedly became the first director to show ceilings in Citizen Kane) and decently but not especially thrillingly scripted by Seton I. Miller from a story co-written by Miller and Martin Mooney, a Chicago crime reporter who once went to jail rather than identify his sources (as Richard Serrano and Judith Miller would later) and who achieved sufficient fame for that stand that the original trailer for Bullets or Ballots actually advertised the film as “Written by Martin Mooney — The Man Who Wouldn’t Talk!” The best part of the film is its ending, a two-person shoot-out between Robinson and Bogart in which they mortally wound each other (thereby dispatching Johnny Blake more permanently than his real-life counterpart, Johnny Broderick, who lived long enough to write a book about his experiences) and a quite engaging death scene for Robinson on the floor of Morgan’s cabaret in which he and the police commissioner forgive each other — it’s nowhere near as powerful as the “Mother of mercy, is this the end of Rico?” line at the end of Little Caesar but it’s still well written and well acted by Robinson, who remembered Bullets or Ballots as the movie that was such an enormous hit that he was able to renegotiate his Warners contract for much more money and the right of story and script approval, as well as an “out” clause allowing him to make one film a year elsewhere. — 1/19/09


I flipped around the channels last night and came upon most of the 1936 movie Bullets or Ballots, based on a story by Martin Mooney — a former crime reporter who’d gone to jail rather than reveal the sources for his stories on the rackets, a fact Warner Bros. exploited in publicizing this film: the original trailer read, “Written by Martin Mooney, the man who wouldn’t talk!” The film was directed by William Keighley (pronounced “Keeley,” by the way) from a script by Mooney and Seton I. Miller (who later, as producer as well as writer, bedeviled Fritz Lang on Ministry of Fear) and starred Edward G. Robinson as “Johnny Blake,” a New York police detective who spends years attempting to bust the big rackets ostensibly headed by Al Kruger (Barton MacLane) but really run by three ostensibly respectable bankers who operate it from the board room of the Oceanic Bank and Trust Company. (I joked, “A lot of their loans are underwater,” and Charles joked back, “Yeah, but they’re really good at floating bond issues.”) Things start to unravel for the gang when Kruger’s lieutenant, “Bugs” Fenner (Humphrey Bogart in one of his standard-issue gangster roles of the period — he’s an emotionless killing machine — about which Bogart himself joked to friends that he could write all his dialogue on 3” x 5” cards because he said the same lines in every movie and all that changed was the order in which he had to say them), kills an investigative reporter who’s trying to expose the gang. The authorities bring in a special prosecutor who calls together a grand jury and has it meet in secret so the gang can’t infiltrate or corrupt it, and the prosecutor hires New York police officer Joe McLaren (Joseph King) to head the enforcement operation — a job McLaren takes on condition that he doesn’t have to answer to anyone or report to anybody about what he’s doing or why. 

Johnny Blake gets into a public confrontation with McLaren and gets fired from the police force, then takes a job with Kruger working for the gangsters he used to try to arrest (sort of like Rudolph Giuliani), only “Bugs” Fenner is suspicious of him from the get-go and warns his fellow gangsters that Blake may be an undercover police agent. Fenner is absolutely right, of course; there’s a scene in which Blake, driving Kruger’s car, gets a parking ticket and beats up the horse-mounted cop who wrote it, then gets busted and held in a solitary cell — only it’s already occupied by McLaren, who’s chosen this ultra-secure location to get Blake’s reports. The prosecutors and police bust racket after racket and Kruger, with the usual stupidity of a Barton MacLane character, refuses to believe that he’s brought this on himself by hiring an ex-cop. Desperate for a new source of income, the racketeers determine to take over the numbers game, which in this version of history was invented by Nellie LaFleur (Louise Beavers), the Black maid of Lee Morgan (Joan Blondell), who has a legitimate business running a nightclub as a front for her criminal activities. The casting of Blondell as a crook is unusual and decidedly off the beaten path for a Warner Bros. movie, though she’s also a throwback to the good-bad gangsters of late-1920’s and early-1930’s movies like Underworld and The Doorway to Hell in that she’s not only Blake’s sort-of girlfriend but she has characteristics of decency and nobility — she’s really the only multidimensional character in this story. One of the good things about Bullets or Ballots (a title that’s never really explained — there’s nothing like the awkwardly patched-in scene in the 1932 Scarface in which the audience is told that ultimately they’re the ones keeping the gangs in business by continuing to vote for corrupt politicians instead of reformers) is that it shows a surprisingly business-like arrangement in the gang’s secret headquarters, where money is taken in, counted and accounted for just like a legitimate business — a scene that may have been influenced by the depiction of the racket’s secret operation in Fritz Lang’s 1928 German film Spies

Another is the epochal confrontation between the Robinson and Bogart characters at the end, in which their characters kill each other but Blake lasts long enough to finger the secret heads of the gang to the police before he expires. (Robinson takes so long to die this became one of those movies about which I joked, “I’ve seen operas that had less extended death scenes than this!”) Bullets or Ballots was based on the exploits of real-life New York undercover cop Johnny Broderick, who unlike his movie counterpart lasted long enough to give a series of newspaper interviews about his activities which Warner Bros. bought the rights to and filmed (though in yet another example of the confusion between their two corporate identities, the closing credits have the Warners “shield” logo and right next to it a legend identifying this as “A First National Picture”). It was one of the movies Jack Warner concocted because the Production Code Administration and the Legion of Decency were coming down on them and saying that the gangster films starring Robinson and James Cagney were glamorizing the criminal life — so Warner decided to keep making crime films with these actors but move them to the right side of the law, casting Cagney as a FBI agent in the 1935 film G-Men and Robinson as a undercover cop here. In his autobiography, Edward G. Robinson recalled that just after he made this movie he took a vacation to Paris and went on a buying spree of Impressionist art, coming home with a lot of expensive paintings and no clear idea of how he was going to pay for them. While he was gone, Bullets or Ballots was released and was a blockbuster hit — so with his new-found box-office clout he was able to negotiate a new contract with Warner Bros., giving him story and script approval and also jacking up his salary enough he could afford his art collection. — 12/20/19

Saturday, December 14, 2019

The Mummy’s Ghost (Universal, copyrighted 1943, released 1944)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2010, 2019 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I recorded the 1944 Universal horror film The Mummy’s Ghost, either the third or fourth film in the Mummy cycle (depending on whether or not you count the original 1932 film, The Mummy, which starred Boris Karloff and Zita Johann, was subtly directed by Karl Freund and had a literate script by John L. Balderston that resorted to supernatural intervention for an ending but otherwise actually made dramatic sense within the limitations of the form — but in that one the mummy’s name was different and there wasn’t the gimmick of tana leaves supposedly needed to keep him alive). The Mummy cycle of the post-Laemmle, pre-International Universal extended to four films: The Mummy’s Hand (1940), The Mummy’s Tomb (1942), The Mummy’s Ghost (1944) and The Mummy’s Curse (also 1944, and reportedly padded out with outtakes from the earlier films — I wouldn’t know because it’s the one film in the sequence I haven’t seen). While at least they didn’t stick the Mummy into the middle of the multi-monster fests they also made during this period (Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, House of Frankenstein, House of Dracula), they made the Mummy a considerably less interesting character than he’d been in the Karloff film, in which he doffed his bandages, put on Arab street clothes and spent most of the film as the mysterious “Ardath Bey,” with a wizened old face (thank you, make-up genius Jack P. Pierce) and the Karloff voice. 

In the later Mummy films he had a new name (Kharis, instead of Imhotep — the true identity of the Karloff character and actually a real person in Egyptian history, though far from dying in disgrace the real Imhotep was the architect who designed the pyramids and was the only human being other than the Pharoahs whom the Egyptians later declared a god), was mute, and was the creation of the cult of Arkhan, which kept him alive with tana leaves (a tea brewed from four of these leaves would keep him in suspended animation, while a tea brewed from nine leaves would allow him to move). The original Mummy’s Hand, with cowboy star Tom Tyler playing the Mummy, was actually quite entertaining, accurately described by Leslie Halliwell as “start[ing] off in comedy vein [not the campy black humor of the James Whale films, but charming boob humor and slapstick], but the last half-hour is among the most scary in horror film history.” The Mummy’s Tomb introduced Lon Chaney, Jr. as the Mummy (Chaney was actually the only actor to play all four of the big Universal horror characters: the Frankenstein Monster in Ghost of Frankenstein, Dracula in Son of Dracula, the Mummy three times and the Wolf Man, which he originated, five times if you count the spoof Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein). It was pretty tacky — Wallace Ford and Dick Foran, in unbelievably sloppy old-age makeup that Jack Pierce should have been embarrassed to take screen credit for, reappeared in a story that took place 20 years after The Mummy’s Hand and got killed for their pains, before the Mummy himself was burned to death (presumably) in what on my first viewing of this film I thought was the old haunted-house set on the Universal backlot that Alfred Hitchcock would use, much more famously, 18 years later as the home of Anthony Perkins and his “mother” in Psycho. (It didn’t look that much like the Psycho house the most recent time I saw The Mummy’s Tomb: more like the set used for the decaying plantation where Louise Allbritton’s vampire-obsessed character lived in Son of Dracula a year later.) Halliwell calls it a “shoddily made sequel to The Mummy’s Hand, with much re-used footage; astonishingly, it broke box-office records for its year, and provoked two more episodes.”

The Mummy’s Ghost (we actually got there!) was the first of these, and though Halliwell calls it “a slight improvement on its predecessor” it’s actually a pretty dreary film, with Robert Lowery (a future Batman!) pretty dumb and hopeless as the romantic lead and Ramsay Ames reprising Zita Johann’s role from the Karloff Mummy as a modern Egyptian woman who is the reincarnation of the Princess Ananka, Kharis’ main squeeze back in his days as an ordinary person in ancient Egypt until they were caught together and sentenced to death by being buried alive in a tomb (screenwriters Griffin Jay, Henry Sucher and Brenda Weisberg borrowed this gimmick from Balderston’s script for the Karloff film, and I suspect Balderston in turn ripped it off the Mariette Bey/Camille du Locle/Antonio Ghislanzoni libretto for Verdi’s Aïda). Though she’s hardly in Johann’s class as a screen presence, she’s just about the only person in this movie who even attempts to act — and there’s an odd gimmick with her makeup; early on in the film she develops a grey streak in her hair (as if she’s become a regular patron of the Bride of Frankenstein Salon), and in the climax (when John Carradine, who took over from George Zucco as head of the cult of Arkhan, has decided he wants the girl for himself instead of giving her to the Mummy) she gets a matching streak on the other side of her face, and by the time the film has ended (in a surprisingly bleak final scene in which the Mummy kills Carradine, carries the girl into a swamp — a surprising phenomenon given that until the swamp appears we’ve been told this film takes place in a college town in New England — and drowns both her and himself) her hair has gone stark white and her face is all crinkled and grey to suggest instant old age. With mediocre direction by Reginald LeBorg (Stuart Timmons mentions him in his Harry Hay biography as one of Hay’s 1940’s boyfriends, but as a Gay horror director he’s as far from James Whale as Ed Wood was from Orson Welles as a straight director — only LeBorg’s access to a major-studio infrastructure kept this film from achieving a truly Woodian tackiness), generic photography and a really overbearing musical score, The Mummy’s Ghost was far from Universal’s best in the horror field. — 10/22/98


Last night’s “Schlock Cinema” entry at the San Diego Library was The Mummy’s Ghost, a 1944 series entry from Universal (actually filmed in the fall of 1943 but not released until June 1944) that depending on how you reckon it was either the third or the fourth in Universal’s original Mummy cycle. I say that because the first entry, The Mummy (1932), was very much an outlier: it was as much a reworking of Dracula as a mummy movie (as David J. Skal wrote in The Monster Show, “virtually every plot element as well as key performers [notably David Manners and Edward Van Sloan] … were recycled from Dracula,” as was the Swan Lake-derived theme music which opens both films), though I regard it as a superior film to Dracula, partly because of Boris Karloff’s almost romantic intensity in the title role (after the famous opening scene of the mummy coming to life, he’s in “drag” as a normal human, Egyptian mystic Ardath Bey, throughout the rest of the film) and also Zita Johann’s deep, rich performance as the modern-day woman (a half-British, half-Egyptian girl) whom the mummy realizes is a reincarnation of his long-dead forbidden love, far superior to Helen Chandler’s wooden acting in the counterpart role in Dracula. Written by John L. Balderston and directed by Karl Freund, The Mummy is much more a romantic fantasy with a supernatural element than an out-and-out horror film, and Karloff is not only fully articulate but he has some of the best dialogue of his career — when he pleads with Johann to join him in eternal (mummified) life, his line readings are so heart-rending one practically feels for him. 

The later Universal Mummy cycle really started with the 1940 film The Mummy’s Hand, which liberally used footage from the 1932 film (the actor who played the Mummy, Western star Tom Tyler, was even cast largely because he was the same height and build as Karloff so his footage would match the stock from the older film) and set up the rules and character names for the subsequent three: the mummy’s name was Kharis, he’d been sentenced to living mummy-hood as a result of his forbidden love for the Princess Ananka, and a cult of Egyptian priests who were keeping Egypt’s old pagan religion alive (one could watch all these movies and have almost no idea that contemporary Egypt was a mostly Muslim country!) maintained Kharis’ mummy in a permanent state of suspended animation by repeatedly giving him a tea brewed from four tana leaves — coming from a shrub long since extinct — while if they used nine leaves to brew the tea, the mummy would regain the power to move but not the power to speak (which disappointed me when I first saw these films — though given how much less talented the writers on these were than John L. Balderston, maybe it’s just as well these mummies didn’t have any lines). The Mummy’s Hand did well enough (and it’s a charming film in its own way, emphasizing campy comedy in the first half and effective horror in the second) that Universal did a sequel in 1942, The Mummy’s Tomb, though this time out they put Lon Chaney, Jr. into the mummy’s wrappings and mask-like head. 

The Mummy’s Tomb was supposedly set 20 years after The Mummy’s Hand and showed two people from the earlier film’s cast, Wallace Ford and Dick Foran, in heavy age makeup; it posited the King Tut-derived idea that there was a curse on the mummy’s tomb and that Kharis was marking for death anyone who had been involved in the expedition that opened the tomb of his former beloved Ananka, and as a result Ford and Foran were both murdered by the mummy before it was supposedly burned to death along with a house which when I first saw The Mummy’s Tomb I thought looked like the exterior Alfred Hitchcock picked out for Norman Bates’ creepy old house in Psycho. The Mummy’s Tomb was an even bigger hit than its immediate predecessor, so of course Universal and particularly its head horror producer, Ben Pivar, naturally commissioned another series entry. It opens in Egypt, where the high priest of the cult of Arkham (did writers Griffin Jay, Henry Sucher and Brenda Weisberg deliberately appropriate the name from H. P. Lovecraft?), Andoheb — played by George Zucco in heavy age makeup in what’s the best performance in the movie: though he disappears after the first reel, Zucco is absolutely convincing, literally shaking as he speaks and convincing us he’s really a palsied old man — commissions his assistant, Yousef Bey (John Carradine in “Egyptian” makeup that looks like he just got back from a six-week course at a tanning salon — why, when Universal had an authentic Egyptian, Turhan Bey, under contract, they didn’t use him is a mystery, but Carradine is at least effective in a sort of role he’d already played quite often and would eventually run into the ground), to go to the U.S., bring back the mummy of Ananka and also get Kharis back out of the land of the infidels and home where he belongs. Yousef asks how he can lure Kharis out of wherever he is, and Andoheb tells him that the mummy will scent out the tana leaves as soon as Yousef — or, it turns out, anybody else — brews them and come a-running. 

The scene then shifts to Mapleton College in New England, where professor Matthew Norman (Frank Reicher) is holding forth to a rather bored-looking undergraduate class about Kharis and how he menaced their town some years before, until he burned up in the house — only, of course, he didn’t really burn up. That night, Norman looks at the box in which Kharis’ stash of tana leaves were found way back when and finally deciphers a hieroglyphic that had previously eluded him, annoying his wife (Claire Whitney) who naturally wants him to call it quits for the evening and come to bed with her, realizing it represents the number nine (number nine … number nine … number nine) and that’s the correct number of tana leaves to brew the tea that will revivify the mummy. He brews the leaves in a similar crucible to the one Zucco was using back in Egypt (though the details are different enough it was not the same prop!) and sure enough the mummy scents it — exactly how the mummy survived the fire and kept alive during the intervening years are details the writing committee doesn’t bother even trying to explain — comes into Norton’s room (through a conveniently open outside window), kills him and drinks the tana-leaf tea. The police immediately catch on that the mummy is loose again from the mold around Norton’s neck where the mummy strangled him — as the third entry in the series this isn’t one of those movies that was going to waste a lot of time having the characters initially doubt the monster’s existence — and from then it’s a series of chase scenes with the police and the townspeople (an intriguing adaptation of the “angry villagers” scene to an American setting) are trying to catch the mummy and the mummy, which is impervious to bullets, keeps eluding them. 

The writers also borrow the reincarnation schtick from the 1932 film; when the mummy breaks into the museum of Egyptology in which Ananka’s mummy is being displayed and reaches for it, it crumbles to dust at his touch and all that’s left is a bunch of dirty bandages. It turns out Ananka’s soul is now housed in the body of Egyptian exchange student Amina Mansouri (Ramsay Ames), whose boyfriend Tom Hervey (future Batman Robert Lowery) is naturally put out at her discomfort whenever anyone around her mentions Egypt or mummies. Every time Kharis comes near her, a little more of Amina’s hair becomes grey and it looks like she’s been having highlights done at the Bride of Frankenstein salon — though, astonishingly, none of the other characters in the movie seem to notice! Supposedly the influence of Kharis is prematurely aging her and fitting her to join him in living-mummydom, though in the middle of all this Yousef Bey decides that he has the hots for Amina and instead of injecting her with tana fluid to make her a mummy again, he’s going to give her the drinkable form of the tana tea and keep her for himself. (He decides this in a rather odd structure that consists of a shack on top of a long series of sloped tracks that seem like a low-tech grain elevator — I’ve seen this movie many times and I’m still unclear what was the original function of this bizarre-looking building.) It ends with Kharis realizing that Yousef has double-crossed him, killing him, kidnapping Amina — who’s turning into an old hag, with fully white hair and a wrinkled old face that’s much more frightening, actually, than the mummy himself — and carrying her into a bog, where Tom wants to go in after her but is warned by the cops that to enter the bog means certain death. (I joked that at this point Tom should have said, “If I were Batman I could rescue her!”) As often as I’ve seen this movie before, I’d quite forgotten that Amina dies at the end — I was expecting a resolution in which Tom rescues her, Kharis dies and as he expires his influence over Amina ends and she turns back into a normal young person again — instead the mummy at least temporarily drowns in the cranberry bog, only with the next film in the cycle, The Mummy’s Curse, the bog has turned into a bayou and the mummy has somehow floated under about 1,500 miles worth of the U.S. to end up in Louisiana. 

Stiffly directed by Reginald LeBorg — whom Universal kept giving horror assignments to even though his “straight,” non-supernatural thrillers are consistently better and more convincing movies — The Mummy’s Ghost isn’t much of a movie, and Kharis isn’t much of a monster either: he has a paralyzed arm (except when he picks up Amina, when it suddenly re-acquires normal strength), a slow, staggering walk (one would think his human victims could just out-run him) and one permanently closed eye, and Jack P. Pierce’s makeup is so thick there’s no way Chaney or anyone else behind the mummy’s mask could do the subtle, nuanced acting Karloff did inside Pierce’s makeup for the Frankenstein monster. Seeing this on the big screen, after so many years of knowing this movie only from TV and video, made it look surprisingly “fake” — the join line around Kharis’ one working eye where Pierce’s makeup left off and Lon Chaney, Jr.’s real skin began was all too obvious, and so were the lines on the breakaway fence rails when the mummy bursts through a fence in an early scene: I knew where the rails were going to break and, sure enough, they did exactly where I thought they would. The Mummy’s Ghost is a product of Universal’s horror cycle in its later, most decadent form (in terms of quality, not content), at a time when aesthetic leadership in U.S. horror had decisively shifted to Val Lewton’s unit at RKO — in the next film, The Mummy’s Curse, one could see the Universal-ites making some half-hearted attempts to incorporate Lewtonian touches, including a visually rich Louisiana setting and a street singer used as a sort of Greek chorus, but these didn’t gel with a big old ugly monster roaming around the film — and part of the problem with these movies is that their makers seemed to equate “ugly” with “frightening” and also they’d forgotten the art Universal had once mastered in the early 1930’s of keeping the monsters powerfully off-screen at first and then introducing them with careful, suspenseful buildups instead of just having them walk around with no buildup at all — though the box-office returns of these films indicated that they were at least giving their audiences what they wanted to see, just as what today’s horror audience wants to see is rivers of blood gushing across the screen, never mind suspense, thrills, terror or any degree of imagination and subtlety! — 10/28/10


I broke open the Blu-Ray boxed set of Universal’s classic monster movies from the 1930’s, 1940’s and 1950’s (the last decade included Creature from the Black Lagoon and its sequelae but not any of the “bugs!” movies Martin Landau as Bela Lugosi contemptuously dismissed in Tim Burton’s Ed Wood like Tarantula and The Deadly Mantis), which somewhat to my surprise included at least one one-off disc, the 1943 version of The Phantom of the Opera with Claude Rains. (They did not include the 1925 silent version with Lon Chaney, Sr., but I have that elsewhere.) I had wanted the new collection because my previous DVD edition of the set had a lot of glitchy discs (especially since then Universal’s manufacturers were doing two-sided discs, which means an extra layer and therefore greater chance for the layers to separate and cause disc rot), and after screening movies two and three in Universal’s Mummy cycle on Hallowe’en, last night I ran movies four and five, The Mummy’s Ghost and The Mummy’s Curse. Universal’s first Mummy movie was made in 1932, directed by Karl Freund and starring Boris Karloff as the revivified mummy Imhotep and Zita Johann as the modern-day reincarnation of his lost love from way back when. The script for the 1932 film was by John L. Balderston and is practically an object lesson in how to introduce romance and pathos into the horror genre; Karloff’s delivery of Balderston’s lines about how no one has suffered as much for love as he has is heartbreaking, and Johann matches him and beautifully portrays her confusion as the soul of the Princess Ankhensamon battles within her for dominance over the modern woman she has become and wants to remain. Alas, the Mummy movies went downhill from there: in 1940 the “New Universal” put into production The Mummy’s Hand, which was refreshingly campy in the first half and suitably scary in the second. The mummy in that one was called “Kharis,” his long-lost squeeze from the ancient days was “Princess Ananka,” and instead of being revivified by a reading of the Scroll of Thoth, Kharis was kept alive over the centuries by a fluid brewed from tana leaves, the remnants of a now-extinct tree. According to the script for The Mummy’s Hand, a tea made from four tana leaves would keep the mummy alive in suspended animation, while one from nine leaves would render him animate and capable of movement. (In the final film in the cycle, The Mummy’s Curse, the number of leaves needed to keep him in suspended animation was reduced from four to three, but that was hardly the most blatant violation of continuity between these films!) 

In The Mummy’s Hand the mummy was played by Western actor Tom Tyler, who apparently was cast mainly because he was the same height as Boris Karloff and therefore they could use clips from the earlier film as stock footage. For The Mummy’s Tomb the time of the story was moved up 20 years and Dick Foran and Wallace Ford, as the anthropologists who found the mummies of Kharis and Ananka in the first place, were not too convincingly aged 20 years (though the cars, clothes and settings in both films were those of the early 1940’s) before the mummy, now played by Lon Chaney, Jr., knocked them off before perishing in a house fire. But of course he didn’t really die: in 1943 (that’s the on-screen copyright date, though lists it as a 1944 film) they dredged Chaney out of the ruins of that burned building as George Zucco, the head of the priesthood of Arkham that had kept Kharis alive all those years, sent his apprentice Yousef Bey (John Carradine, delivering a good enough performance if you can accept his almost total impassivity — Amina Mthis was just before he made Bluebeard at PRC and delivered a rich, powerful, multi-dimensional performance as the kindly young artist psychologically driven to kill) to recover Kharis and get back the Princess Ananka, whose recovered mummy was on display at the Scripps Museum in the New England town of Mapleton. (The writers, Griffin Jay, Henry Sucher and Brenda Weisberg, never specified just which New England state Mapleton was in.) I’ve probably seen The Mummy’s Ghost more times than any other film in the cycle besides the initial one with Karloff (which is really an outlier because of its articulate mummy and its overall air of doomed romanticism, which the later films didn’t even try for), including a showing at the San Diego Public Library where, after years of having seen it only on low-resolution black-and-white TV’s, I noticed for the first time the breaks in the fence rail where they were set to come apart when the mummy crashed through them, and the obvious gap between where the mummy’s facial mask ended and Lon Chaney, Jr.’s real face began. (According to an “Trivia” poster, the mask still exists — it’s in the Experience Music Project Museum in Seattle, though what it’s doing in a museum nominally devoted to Jimi Hendrix is a mystery — and it’s the only fragment of a makeup created by Jack P. Pierce that still exists.) 

The one thing Jay, Sucher, Weisberg and director Reginald LeBorg (with a name that cool he should have made better films! I read him referred to in Stuart Timmons’ biography of Harry Hay as one of Hay’s lovers during the 1940’s, which only made me say that as Gay Universal horror directors went, Reginald LeBorg was no James Whale!) did right was return to John Balderston’s gimmick in the first film of having Princess Ananka’s soul reincarnated in the body of a modern woman, Egyptian émigré Amina Mansouri (Ramsay Ames, who delivers the film’s strongest performance even though she’s hardly in Zita Johann’s league in depicting the conflict between her ancient and modern selves!). I also liked Frank Skinner’s musical score, which I’ve described as “overbearing” in previous comments on the film but now seemed especially eerie when Skinner added electronic organ tones to give an otherworldly ambience to certain scenes. I’m still mystified about the original purpose of that bizarre wooden structure in which Carradine’s character hides the mummy and in front of which the final confrontation scene takes place. I’d always thought it was some sort of grain elevator; Charles said he thought it might have been a small smelting plant, but I hardly think anyone would have handled molten metal in a building made of wood. It was also interesting that as Ramsay Ames’ character was taken over by the mummy, her hair turned grey (first just streaks of it — which of course made me joke that she’d been to the Bride of Frankenstein Salon — and eventually all of it) and her skin gets older-looking and more wrinkled as Kharis the Mummy carried her into the cranberry bog outside Mapleton and the two (presumably) drowned together. I was hoping that her rather tacky college boyfriend Robert Lowery (four years before he became the second screen actor to play Batman, who surely would have been able to effect the rescue!) had been able to grab Ananka from Kharis and she would have returned to normal as the mummy drowned, but in some ways the tragic ending they did supply is more moving — even though none of the later Universal mummy films even came close to the beautiful romance and pathos of the one Karl Freund, John Balderston, Boris Karloff and Zita Johann had created in 1932! — 12/14/19