Thursday, October 31, 2019

The Walking Dead (Warner Bros., 1936)

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

The film was The Walking Dead, another in TCM’s Boris Karloff marathon last October 30, and a movie that took some typical Karloff situations (including casting him as a man who dies and is then brought back to life by scientific means) but gave them fresh spins and managed to create a quite somber mood very different from the sensational (for its time) horror of a lot of his better-known vehicles. It was made at Warner Bros., which had just signed Karloff to a five-film contract (at one point in 1939, the height of the studio system, when most Hollywood actors were working for just one company, Karloff had non-exclusive multi-picture contracts with four studios at once: Universal, Columbia, Warners and Monogram.) Indeed, for its first few minutes it seems like a typical Warners crime drama and one wonders just how they’re going to fit Karloff into it: Stephen Martin (Kenneth Harlan) is on trial (without a jury) before Judge Shaw (Joseph King) on the charge of defrauding the government on contracts. Martin is actually part of a gang of high-class criminals headed by his attorney, Nolan (Ricardo Cortez). They mount a campaign of intimidation and threats against Judge Shaw to get him to acquit Martin, but he convicts him anyway. Nolan meets with his associates in the gang — Loder (Barton MacLane), Werner (Henry O’Neill) and Blackstone (Paul Harvey) — and announces he’s hired a hit man named Trigger (Joseph Sawyer) to kill Judge Shaw. When the other gang members protest that this will draw more heat on them, not less, Nolan tells them not to worry: he’s got the perfect fall guy lined up (obviously playing Sam Spade in the first version of The Maltese Falcon five years earlier had taught Ricardo Cortez a thing or two about finding a fall guy). His patsy is John Ellman (Boris Karloff), who 10 years earlier was sentenced to a long prison term by Judge Shaw for killing a man who accosted his wife. Ellman has just been released two weeks before Trigger’s scheduled hit on Shaw, and they arrange to run Ellman’s car off the road and plant Shaw’s body in it after they kill him.

The frame works and Ellman is tried, convicted and sentenced to death — Nolan, pretending he’s doing him a favor, deliberately mishandles the trial so badly as to ensure Ellman’s conviction (12 years before Orson Welles used the same plot gimmick in The Lady from Shanghai) — but there’s one complication. Jimmy (Warren Hull) and Nancy (Marguerite Churchill), two young medical students working as lab assistants to medical researcher Dr. Beaumont (Edmund Gwenn), actually witnessed the real killer run Ellman’s car off the road and transfer Shaw’s body to it. Jimmy wants the two to come forward as witnesses, but Nancy successfully talks him out of it until the night Ellman is scheduled to be executed, when she finally breaks down and allows him to go to Nolan with the information that can spare his client’s life. Nolan deliberately delays reaching anyone in law enforcement with this information so he can make a show of concern while really sabotaging things so that the governor’s reprieve reaches the prison just after Ellman is executed. He hasn’t reckoned with Dr. Beaumont, who demands that instead of being autopsied Ellman’s body be turned over to him at once, whereupon he takes it to his lab and, with Jimmy and Nancy assisting, plugs it into a bunch of Frankenstein-like gizmos (including the so-called “Lindbergh heart,” which the celebrated aviator and fascist apologist actually co-invented with Dr. Alexis Carrel, whose real-life experiments with research partner Dr. Robert Cornish in attempting to revive electrocution victims apparently inspired this film) that bring Ellman back to life. At first Ellman is incapable of speech — he emits only non-verbal whines, groans and snarls similar to those he used in Frankenstein — but eventually he comes to and achieves at least a bit of his former intelligence. He also seems to acquire some sort of extra-sensory power, because without any actual evidence he intuits the identities of the people who set him up and starts knocking them off one by one. Eventually the police close in on him and he’s shot down, and before he dies the second time Beaumont frantically tries — and fails — to get Ellman to describe what the experience of death (his first one) was actually like.

The Walking Dead is an intriguing movie that tends to argue against my general field theory of cinema that the quality of a movie is inversely proportional to its number of writers; though five people worked on this script (Ewart Adamson and Joseph Fields get credit for the story and Adamson, Peter Milne, Robert Andrews and Lillie Hayward for the script), it has a lot of felicitious touches. Asked if he has a last request, Ellman is at first indignant — “You take my life and you want to grant me a favor?” — but then comes up with one: he asks that a live musician play his favorite piece as he’s walking to the electric chair (and as he gets in the chair he gestures up to the ceiling and says, “He will forgive me,” meaning God). Indeed, the first half of this film is considerably more moving and better as drama than the second half — though the whole piece is presented with a remarkable subtlety for what was pretty obviously intended as an exploitation piece aimed at Karloff’s core horror audience. Michael Curtiz is the director, and he’s probably the best one Karloff worked with in the 1930’s other than James Whale (and maybe Edgar G. Ulmer). As Ellman, a sympathetic victim of both criminals and law enforcement, Karloff underplays throughout the film — a far cry from the snarling overacting he sometimes fell into with less carefully drafted scripts and less assertive directors — creating a vivid impression of a sensitive man, not especially bright but sympathetic and all too aware of what’s happening to him and why. 

The parallels to Frankenstein are there but they’re kept subtle — Ellman, even after he’s revivified, remains a normal human being (albeit one with quirky post-resurrection mental powers) and a likable if rather distant character whose killings are sufficiently well motivated that they don’t cost him the audience’s sympathy. The cinematographer is Hal Mohr (an Academy Award winner for the 1935 A Midsummer Night’s Dream and a far more prestigious name than one would expect on a 62-minute “B” picture), and even when he has Ellman doing Karloffian things like skulking around in graveyards, he creates a vivid and somber atmosphere just as effective as the outdoor scenes in Karloff’s 1930’s films for Universal. The Walking Dead is a quite good movie, ably showcasing Karloff’s remarkable sensitivity and subtlety as an actor and using familiar horror/sci-fi elements in intriguingly different ways. It helps that Edmund Gwenn’s character is also subtly played — instead of the usual “mad scientist” he’s a totally benign figure, even avuncular (in fact Gwenn plays this so much like his role as Santa Claus in Miracle on 34th Street 11 years later — and with his neatly trimmed white beard he even looks like he did as Santa Claus — that one half-expects him to announce to his lab assistants Jimmy and Nancy that as soon as he finishes the experiment he’s going to have to load his sleigh with toys to deliver them to all the children of the world on Christmas eve), motivated not by some mad scheme to rule the world or even (as Karloff was in most of his own mad-scientist roles) by an idea to help humanity that he pursues in an unethical way, but simply by a sense of atonement for the guilt of his associates in failing to stop Ellman’s execution. Though it sags a bit in the second half as the plot turns towards more conventional 1930’s horror situations, The Walking Dead is still an estimable movie that contains one of Karloff’s very best performances. Too bad his later work for Warners was in routine melodramas, most of them remakes (Invisible Menace, West of Shanghai, Devil’s Island, British Intelligence) that hardly “stretched” him the way this one did! — 11/4/09


Last night at 10 p.m. I caught a short but quite moving film on Turner Classic Movies, part of a program they were doing for the day before Hallowe’en of especially short (60 to 70 minutes) horror films. The film I watched was The Walking Dead, a 1936 movie from Warner Bros. that kicked off a five-film contract the studio had made with Boris Karloff, who in the middle of the studio era in which actors were typically under contract to a single company, had simultaneous non-exclusive contracts with four studios: Universal, Columbia, Warners and Monogram. The Walking Dead had unusually heavy-duty talent behind the cameras for a 66-minute “B” — the director was Michael Curtiz and the cinematographer was Hal Mohr — though the script was committee-written: Ewart Adamson and Joseph Fields were credited with the story and Adamson, Peter Milne, Robert Hardy Andrews and Lillie Hayward with the actual screenplay. The Walking Dead — not to be confused with the long-running modern AMC series about zombies — was a typically Warners-esque mashup of horror and gangster tropes, and one quirk about it was it featured former Sam Spade Ricardo Cortez and future Santa Claus Edmund Gwenn in the cast. Cortez plays Nolan, corrupt attorney and head of the rackets in the mid-sized city where this takes place. He and his associates Loder (a relatively restrained Barton MacLane), Blackstone (Paul Harvey), Merritt (Robert Strange) and Martin (Kenneth Harlan) decide to get rid of Judge Roger Shaw (Joseph King) because Shaw, giving a bench trial to a member of the gang accused of embezzling $350,000 from the city through phony contracts, found him guilty and sentenced him to 10 years in prison despite the efforts of the gang to get him to acquit. The gang needs a fall guy — apparently Cortez’s experience starring in the 1931 version of The Maltese Falcon had taught him something — and they find him in John Ellman (Boris Karloff), a musician who just got out of prison after serving a 10-year sentence for killing his wife’s lover. Since Shaw presided over Ellman’s trial, the gang decides he’s the perfect patsy: they set him up by having him surveil Shaw’s house, ostensibly working for a private detective trying to get the goods on Shaw on behalf of his wife, and in the end their hit man “Trigger” Smith (Joseph Sawyer) kills Shaw and stashes the judge’s body in Ellman’s car. The whole thing is witnessed by Jimmy (Warren Hull) and Nancy (Marguerite Churchill), a couple who both work as assistants to the great scientist Dr. Evan Beaumont (Edmund Gwenn, playing his part much the way Lionel Atwill did in Curtiz’s previous horror films, Doctor “X” and Mystery of the Wax Museum), but the two are intimidated by the gang and don’t come forward until the day Ellman is scheduled to be executed.

Nolan, who’s represented Ellman all along but deliberately threw the case during his trial, holds up notifying the state’s governor that there are two witnessed who could exonerate him until after Ellman is already executed, but Beaumont claims the body and offers to revive him via a new process he’s invented featuring something called the “Lindbergh Heart.” This is a real deal, actually invented by former transatlantic flyer and future Nazi apologist Charles Lindbergh, though in the movie it’s incorporated into what’s otherwise some pretty familiar lab equipment from Charles Strickfaden that had already been used to bring Karloff to life in Frankenstein and ditto for Elsa Lanchester in The Bride of Frankenstein. This undoes the effect of electrocution and restores Ellman to life, but it also gives him a supernatural insight that makes him aware of the identities of the men who framed him and determined to kill them all — though the writing committee makes it clear that Ellman eliminates these people by scaring them rather than actually killing them with his own hands. When he’s not doing that Ellman is hanging out at the Jackson Memorial Cemetery, reflecting his in-between status, not dead but not fully alive either. In the end the last two surviving gangsters, including Nolan, confront Ellman at the cemetery and shoot him, and before he dies (permanently this time) Dr. Beaumont tries to worm out of him the sensations he felt when he died the first time — he lasts long enough to tell him it was peaceful but not much more than that, and there’s a bit of religious dialogue repeated by both Karloff and Gwenn that “the Lord is a jealous God” who zealously guards the secret of just what happens to people when they make the transition from this life to whatever may await us in the next one. The Walking Dead is actually one of Karloff’s best films from the period; not only does it allow him to play a sympathetic character, it’s full of felicitous touches, like Ellman requesting that a cellist perform his favorite piece of music, “Kamennoi-Ostrow” by 19th century Russian composer Anton Rubinstein (a piece that’s heard throughout the film and is the basis for much of its music score), as he walks to the electric chair, and also turning his head heavenward as the priest comes to give him last rites and saying, “He will forgive me” — meaning God. 

Thanks to Curtiz’s visually inventive direction and the quiet, dignified performance he got out of Karloff, The Walking Dead emerges as quite a good film, a showcase for Karloff that nonetheless remains rooted in the sorts of gangster stories Warners did well and a good start for his brief return to a studio where he’d made four films in 1931 (including his great role as a slimeball reporter who poses as a priest to get a story in Five Star Final and his brief turn as the father of a talented boy dancer who essentially sells his kid to John Barrymore’s club-footed choreographer in The Mad Genius, also directed by Curtiz), though Karloff’s subsequent films in his Warners’ stint weren’t so interesting: the dull West of Shanghai (Karloff as a Chinese warlord in a knock-off of a Western called Three Bad Men), The Invisible Menace (a dull would-be thriller set on a U.S. military base), Devil’s Island (essentially a cheap ripoff of John Ford’s The Prisoner of Shark Island, though it pissed off the French government enough that it received only a minimal release until France fell to the Nazis in 1940 and after that Warners couldn’t have cared less what the French thought of this particularly sordid part of their history being dredged up), and British Intelligence (a 1940 remake of Constance Bennett’s 1930 World War I espionage drama Three Faces East, the first of two times Karloff would remake a role originally played by Erich von Stroheim: the second time was Lured). — 10/31/19

The Mummy’s Tomb (Universal, 1942)

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

Two nights ago Charles and I ran a double bill of the first two films in Universal’s 1940’s Mummy cycle, The Mummy’s Hand and The Mummy’s Tomb. The Mummy’s Hand set the ground rules for this cycle: the unnaturally kept-alive mummy was Kharis, the former squeeze of the Princess Ananka, and he lived in the Temple of Karnak, a remote spot in the Egyptian desert where a cadre of priests headed by Andoheb (George Zucco) still practiced the ancient Egyptian religion. As Andoheb was told by his predecessor as high priest of this cult in The Mummy’s Hand (Eduardo Ciannelli) and he himself relayed to his own successor Mehemet Bey (Turhan Bey) at the start of The Mummy’s Tomb, Kharis is being kept alive by a tea brewed from tana leaves: a tea from three leaves administered every month during the full moon will keep Kharis alive in suspended animation, while a tea from nine leaves will allow him to move. The Mummy’s Tomb takes place 30 years after The Mummy’s Hand and is set in the U.S. town of “Mapleton” (its location is unspecified but it’s pretty clearly either in New England or upstate New York), where archaeologist Stephen Banning (Wallace Ford in Jack P. Pierce’s “age” makeup) lives in quiet retirement after he made his fame discovering the tomb of Princess Ananka — which he wasn’t actually shown doing in The Mummy’s Hand.

Andoheb and Kharis (played in The Mummy’s Hand by Western star Tom Tyler but in The Mummy’s Tomb and the subsequent films in the cycle by Lon Chaney, Jr.) somehow survived getting shot and burned, respectively, at the end of The Mummy’s Hand, and an aging Andoheb sends Mehemet to Mapleton with Kharis, instructing him to set the mummy loose on the Americans who desecrated Ananka’s tomb. Andoheb also arranges for Mehemet to have a cover job as assistant to the caretaker of the local cemetery, from which he brews the nine-leaf tana tea and sends Kharis out to kill. Banning’s wife Marta from the first film is already dead (she’s represented by a framed print of Peggy Moran’s head shot) but before she croaked the two had a son, John Banning, who’s trained as a doctor and is about to enter the service as a medic. (This was 1942, after all, and with the U.S. finally involved in World War II the studios were shoe-horning references to the war and the military into all sorts of movies.) One warning Andoheb gave Mehemet before he sent him to the U.S. was never to fall in love — a mistake Andoheb had made himself in The Mummy’s Hand when he kidnapped Marta and told her he was going to make them both into living mummies so they could remain together for all eternity — only, wouldn’t you know it, Mehemet gets the hots for John Banning’s girlfriend Isobel Evans (Elyse Knox) and kidnaps her to give her the mummy treatment before John corners him in an old house (a standing set at Universal that when I first saw this movie in the late 1970’s I thought had been recycled as Norman Bates’s home in Psycho — though this time around it did not look the same to me, albeit it was recognizable as Louise Allbritton’s crumbling Louisiana manse in the far superior Son of Dracula from 1943) and both Mehemet and Kharis die — though, of course, Kharis is only resting until the next movie in the cycle and the next round of Universal screenwriters who had to figure out a way to rescue the monster from the calamity that had beset him in the previous movie.

Directed by Harold Young (not one of Universal’s stronger horror directors) from a script by Neil Varnuck (“original” story) and Griffin Jay and Henry Sucher (script), The Mummy’s Tomb isn’t much of a movie — it’s only a bit over an hour long and much of that running time is taken up by clips from The Mummy’s Hand, some of those themselves recycled from the 1932 classic The Mummy, directed by Karl Freund and starring Boris Karloff in one of the most heart-rending performances of his career (it helped that Karloff’s version of the revivified mummy got to speak while Tyler’s and Chaney’s were mute, courtesy of having had their tongues cut out before they were mummified) — but according to Don Miller’s book “B” Movies it was a huge hit for Universal, grossing more than The Mummy’s Hand and spawning two sequelae, as well as establishing that wartime audiences wanted escapist entertainment, the more preposterous the better. Oddly, The Mummy’s Tomb (something of a misnomer because the mummy’s tomb is back in Egypt and the whole film takes place in the U.S.) has been the most elusive film in the cycle for me — I had seen it only once before, in the late 1970’s on a lousy over-the-air TV connection in San Diego, and on our print the first minute or so of the DVD was unplayable and so I didn’t get to see the opening credits (I really miss opening credits), though we got to see enough of the film that at least it made sense … albeit the preposterous level of “sense” it was going to make at all!

Wednesday, October 30, 2019

The Mummy’s Hand (Universal, 1940)

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

I relaxed somewhat with Charles and we hit the video collection for what looked like it would be the final movie of the Conlan-Nelson Video Theatre for 1998: The Mummy’s Hand, one of the better “New Universal” horror films. It wasn’t near the 1932 Mummy with Boris Karloff, and Karl Freund’s stunningly moody direction, but it was a lot of fun, with campy performances by Wallace Ford and Cecil Kellaway for comic relief — indeed, the first half of the film is more comedy than anything else — and a fine (as usual) job by George Zucco as the principal villain, who in the opening sequence inherits the mantle of the priests of Karnak, charged with keeping the mummified Kharis (played by Tom Tyler in this one — a former cowboy star, he was billed eighth! — and Lon Chaney, Jr. in the three sequelae) alive with the sacred (and carefully preserved, since the plant had long since become extinct) tana leaves (brew the fluid from three leaves and the mummy remains alive in suspended animation, brew nine leaves and he gets up and moves, brew any more than that and he becomes an uncontrollable monster). Alas, the tape we were watching was a dub from an old Beta recording I made in the mid-1980’s, and the visual and especially sound quality left a lot to be desired (though even through the haze of an old tape one could note that Elwood Bredell’s photography, as good as it was, didn’t have the atmospherics of Charles Stumar’s work in the 1932 film, much of which was spliced into this one as stock footage to pad it out and make it look like it had bigger production values than it did). Still, it was a lot of fun, and the Mummy’s appearance (Karloff biographer Donald Glut has suggested Tyler was cast because he was about the same height and build as Karloff and therefore could more convincingly “double” for him in a new film built largely around the available Karloff footage from 1932) was properly frightening even though Jack Pierce did his face with a phony-looking mask (one could see a shadow between the eye socket and Tyler’s actual eyes, which gave it away) instead of the eight-hour collodion build-up job he’d put Karloff through eight years earlier — and the Mummy didn’t appear often enough to outstay his welcome, but was wisely deployed sparingly by scenarist Griffin Jay and director Christy Cabanne (this may be Cabanne’s finest film ever, not that that’s saying much for it). — 12/31/98


At 9 last night Charles and I took a vacation from watching the news and I ran him two of the films in Universal’s 1940’s Mummy cycle, The Mummy’s Hand and The Mummy’s Tomb. Neither of these movies comes anywhere near the quality of the first (and best) Mummy movie, the 1932 classic directed by Karl Freund from a script by John L. Balderston and starring Boris Karloff as a revivified Egyptian mummy, Imhotep (depicted in the film as a commoner who fell in love with a princess and for his lese-majesté was sentenced to be mummified and buried alive, only an inept anthropologist revived him by reading him the Scroll of Thoth, though the real Imhotep was the architect who designed the pyramids and was the only human other than the Pharoahs the ancient Egyptians elevated to godhood), who spends most of the movie disguised as an Arab trader, Ardath Bey, who attempts to revive the mummy of his one-time love, Princess Anckesenamon (an equally marvelous piece of acting by Zita Johann, who should have had much more of a film career than she did). The Mummy’s Hand is often listed as a remake of the 1932 version, but it’s really what would now be called a “reboot” rather than a remake. This time the mummy is named Kharis and is played by Western star Tom Tyler (who apparently was picked largely because he was the same height as Karloff and would therefore match the stock clips director Christy Cabanne spliced in from the 1932 version) and he was a prince in love with the Princess Ananka, only she died and he stole the Scroll of Thoth to revive her — only he got caught at it and, like Imhotep in the original film, he was sentenced to be buried alive and the slaves assigned to do this were themselves killed so they couldn’t reveal the original location of his tomb. The good guys are anthropologist Steve Banning (Dick Foran), whose remarkable list of previous accomplishments includes finding Inca ruins in Mexico (a neat trick, since the Inca lived in what is now Peru) but who’s now adrift and unemployed in Cairo with  his comic-relief partner Babe Jenson (Wallace Ford). 

The two stumble across a broken vase which supposedly contains a clue to the location of Princess Ananka’s tomb, but they’re kept under surveillance by a supposed beggar who’s actually an agent of Andoheb (George Zucco). We first see Andoheb walking through the Egyptian desert wearing a fez and looking like he was on his way to the set of Casablanca but got lost along the way. It turns out he’s the apprentice to the High Priest (Eduardo Ciannelli — I was trying to figure out if this is a promotion or a comedown from Ciannelli’s best-known role, as the Lucky Luciano-like boss of all New York’s rackets in Marked Woman) of the Temple of Karnak in the Egyptian desert. The High Priest is about to croak, but before he does so he reveals to Andoheb the secret of the living mummy Kharis, who’s been kept in suspended animation for 3,000 years by the regular administration of tea brewed from the sacred tana leaves, which were produced by a tree that has since become extinct (though the on-screen props looked like eucalyptus leaves to me). The High Priest explains to Andoheb that a tea from three tana leaves will keep the mummy in suspended animation, while one brewed from nine leaves will allow him to move. Give him more than nine leaves and he will become an uncontrollable monster. After we get that exposition out of the way, we get a series of scenes from writers Griffin Jay and Maxwell Shane that are closer to screwball comedy than horror film; the intrepid archaeologists get backing from a stage magician whose real name is Tim Sullivan but who performs as “Solvani the Great” (Cecil Kellaway, who 13 years later played the idiot scientist who wanted to keep the monster alive for research purposes in The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms) despite the conviction of his daughter and stage assistant Marta (Peggy Moran) that they’re swindlers. 

Banning and Jenson show their broken vase to Professor Petrie (Charles Trowbridge) of the Cairo Museum, who pronounces it authentic but wants to get a second opinion — only the Egyptian professor at the Cairo Museum turns out to be Andoheb, and he not only denounces the vase as a fake but breaks it still further and warns them that all the members of the previous expeditions that sought Ananka’s tomb were killed. Despite the warning, Banning, Jenson, both Solvanis, Petrie and their native guide Ali (Leon Belasco) set out on the expedition — only the tomb they find is not Ananka’s but Kharis’s, and Andoheb revives the mummy and sends it out to kill everyone on the expedition. Kharis takes out Ali and Professor Petrie but in the final confrontation (set on an elaborate stage set built for James Whale’s 1940 film Green Hell and reused often by Universal — including as a Tibetan temple in the serial The Adventures of Smiling Jack) Jenson shoots Andoheb (who takes a spectacular fall down a flight of stone stairs — most of the fall is obviously doubled but the real Zucco tumbled down the last three steps so director Cabanne could dolly in for a close-up) and Banning burns up the mummy with a torch. The End. The Mummy’s Hand is actually a quite capable movie, lacking the beautiful air of doomed romanticism of the 1932 version (in which Karloff’s delivery of his dialogue is utterly heartbreaking and makes us feel sorry for the poor guy) but fun in its own way even though so much of it is played for laughs one could readily imagine Bud Abbott in Dick Foran’s role and Lou Costello in Wallace Ford’s (and Abbott and Costello’s last film for Universal was 1955’s Abbott and Costello Meet the Mummy, which was surprisingly good, genuinely funny and genuinely scary). —10/30/19

Monday, October 21, 2019

Mad Money (Big City Pictures, Granada Entertainment, Grand Army Entertainment, Overture Films, Millennium Films,Anchor Bay Entertainment, copyrighted 2007, released 2008)

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

I ran Charles a movie I picked out of the DVD backlog because it’s one of the two feature films (so far) directed by Callie Khouri, who “made her bones” writing the screenplay for the film Thelma and Louise and got picked to do this movie, Mad Money (dated 2008 on even though the copyright date on the closing credits is 2007), because it’s also about unlikely and ordinary-seeming women becoming crooks. I was interested in Khouri’s credits because she had directed last Saturday’s Lifetime “premiere” Patsy & Loretta, about the mentoring relationship between country-music superstars Patsy Cline and Loretta Lynn between 1961, when they met, and 1963, when Cline died in a private-plane crash. Mad Money turned out to be the sort of movie that’s entertaining but all too obviously recycled from innumerable past models, starting at least as far back as 1951’s The Lavender Hill Mob: a “caper” film about ordinary and previously law-abiding people who are tempted by the wealth that surrounds them into staging a big crime to steal some of it. Mad Money also recycles at least two films starring Jane Fonda, the underrated 1977 farce comedy Fun with Dick and Jane (in which Fonda and George Segal play a couple who plunge downwards from their upper-middle-class lifestyle when Segal is suddenly laid off from his high-paying corporate job and turn to street crime to make ends meet; and 1980’s Nine to Five, in which Fonda is one of three secretaries dealing with a yucky boss (played by Dabney Coleman — and there’s a creepy boss in this movie, too, named Glover and played by Stephen Root, who proves they didn’t break the mold after they made Dabney Coleman) and finally turning the tables on him. Mad Money began as a script by Neil McKay and Terry Winsor called Hot Money which actually got made in 2001 (that one was set in Britain and the target for the thieves was the Bank of England, though the original McKay-Winsor script was rewritten by John Mister), and Glenn Gers got the assignment to rewrite Hot Money with a U.S. setting: Kansas City, Missouri, home of one of the branch offices of the Federal Reserve. Bridget Cardigan (Diane Keaton) suddenly loses her opulent suburban lifestyle when her husband Don (Ted Danson) is laid off from his high-paying corporate job. Their bills pile so high that they’re four months behind on everything, they have to list their home for sale, and in one of the film’s most grimly amusing scenes Bridget has to pay off her cleaning lady with a silver trophy since she has no cash. Desperate to earn the family some kind of income, and handicapped by being in her 50’s with a college degree (comparative literature) that’s useless in the job market and not having worked in over two decades, Bridget finally gets a job as a cleaning woman at the Kansas City Federal Reserve. The money she’s tempted to steal is money that doesn’t officially exist: it’s worn bills that are taken out of circulation and returned to the Federal Reserve to be destroyed. 

Bridget hooks up with two other low-level employees, Nina Brewster (Queen Latifah) — who wants to be able to send her kids (she’s raising two boys as a single mom) to private school so they don’t meet the usual fate of African-American children in 21st century America (especially 21st century movie America) — and Jackie Truman (Katie Holmes, better known as Mrs. Tom Cruise #3 — she was a last-minute replacement for Lindsay Lohan after the film company couldn’t get a completion bond with Lohan involved because of her much-publicized drug problem, though since her character is supposed to be a druggie as well Lohan wouldn’t have been inappropriate; Holmes will never have a reputation as an actress equal to that of Mrs. Tom Cruise #2, Nicole Kidman, but she’s quite good here and her on-screen husband, Adam Rothenberg, has the kind of half-homely, half-sexy Scooby-Doo guy look I actually like) — and notices that the three padlocks that safeguard the Federal Reserve’s stashes of about-to-be-shredded cash are identical to a $25 brass padlock sold at Home Depot. So she works out a scheme that involves substituting their own padlocks for the official ones and helping themselves to the cash, which they stuff into trash bags and smuggle some of it out on their bodies. They get away with this long enough that they have the problem of how to spend the money, given not only that they are stealing far above their salaries but also the Internal Revenue Service has a requirement that any time you spend $10,000 or more in cash on something, you have to file a report stating how you got that money. (The film doesn’t mention that this law has a significant loophole — you don’t have to file if you spend the money on real estate — which is how Donald Trump got in bed with the Russian Mafia in the first place: in the 1980’s he was having trouble moving the condo units in New York’s Trump Tower until he was bailed out by Russian mobsters looking for a convenient way to launder their money and get it into the U.S.) In order to explain how they suddenly have so much more money than they’re supposed to have, Don Cardigan works out a scheme by which he’ll pretend to be a “corporate consultant” and Jackie’s husband Bob will pose as a day trader. 

They’re finally caught by a Black security guard at the bank, Barry (Roger Cross), who in one of the film’s most wickedly funny lines starts feeling up Nina (it’s been established earlier that he has the hots for her and has been cruising her all movie) and then tells her the jig is up — “Unless you have a half-dozen very hard rectangular breasts, we need to talk.” Fortunately Nina is able to seduce Barry, literally and figuratively, into going along with their scheme in exchange for an equal share of the money, and the crime ring only gets broken by the arrival of a bank examiner (played by an appealingly dorky actor who’s hotter-looking than Franklin Pangborn in a similar role in W. C. Fields’ 1940 classic The Bank Dick but is still doing the same sort of monomaniacal characterization) who figures it all out and gets Glover to bust the thieves despite his protestations that nothing like this could ever happen at a Federal Reserve facility. (According to some “Goofs” posters, it couldn’t: “When currency is destroyed at a Federal Reserve, it is carefully accounted for: serial number, denomination, and destroy date. In addition, the carts carrying money are weighed full & empty — as well as the shredded output — with very sensitive scales at several stages for comparative analysis. Allegedly, the scales can detect the absence of a single bill. At the Federal Reserve, no employee is left alone with the money during cash processing. In Federal Reserve cash processing facilities, multiple denominations of money are never allowed to mingle.” So don’t try this yourselves.) The thieves are arrested and Nina the Black single mother is especially upset because a criminal conviction — even one with no prison time — will mean her sons will end up in the foster-care system (at this time Charles joked, referencing I Am Somebody’s Child: The Regina Louise Story, “It’s not like Diane Keaton did anything really horrible, like try to adopt Queen Latifah’s kids”) and she’ll lose custody of them forever. 

The cops hold all the defendants separately to see which will rat out the others first — the rat turns out to be Jackie, whose condition for cooperating is full immunity not for herself but for Nina so she can keep her kids — and ultimately the charges against them are dropped by the Kansas City police but their ill-gotten gains are confiscated by the Internal Revenue Service. Earlier in the film Bridget had used the name “Capone” while taking a weekend vacation at a fancy hotel, an obvious in-joke reference to Al Capone’s ultimate fate: he escaped prosecution for bootlegging, murder and all his other more obvious crimes but was ultimately convicted of income-tax evasion and served a decade in Alcatraz. However, in the final scene they’re shown as having held on to some of the proceeds, which they declare is their “mad money” (hence the film’s title) and they gleefully throw around the screen just before the final fade-out and the end credits. Mad Money is a likable film but it could have been quite a bit more — with my habit of mentally recasting movies with some of the other people who would have been available at the time I fantasized a version with Jane Fonda as Bridget and Whoopi Goldberg as Nina (however awkward it might have been for her and Danson to work together again!); Fonda might have brought more authority and spark to the role (Keaton plays her with a kind of glum seriousness that went against her strengths as a comic actor) and Queen Latifah, as much as I loved her in Chicago (and ache for the chance to see the Bessie Smith biopic HBO made with her — for once a real-life filmmaker cast a biographical film with the very person I would have used!), has too much on-screen integrity to be believable as a crook, even a lovable one. But the real problem with Mad Money is the sense that we’ve seen it all before; it’s an enjoyable movie (and at 1 hour 45 minutes it doesn’t overstay its welcome like so many films do these days) but little more than that, and as a vehicle for Callie Khouri’s directorial talents it doesn’t work as well as Patsy & Loretta — if only because we’d rather see a female-solidarity movie about women who make it above-board as singing stars than make it on the down-low as crooks!

Sunday, October 20, 2019

Patsy & Loretta (Sony Pictures Television, Lifetime, 2019)

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

Last night Charles and I settled in for the night to watch the Lifetime “premiere” TV movie Patsy & Loretta. As you could probably guess from the title and the faux-“country” lettering of the title in the credits, this was a film about the friendship and mentorship between country star Patsy Cline and up-and-comer Loretta Lynn between 1961, when they met, and 1963, when Cline died in the crash of a private plane one of her band members had bought in hopes of making it to and back from gigs without costing her too much time away from her home, husband and kids. The film is competing with two big-budget theatrical movies from the 1980’s, the well-received Lynn biopic Coal Miner’s Daughter (with Sissy Spacek not only starring as Lynn but doing her own singing — and quite effectively, too — while Tommy Lee Jones got his star-making career as Lynn’s all-too-often straying husband, Doolittle Lynn, variously called “Mooney” or “Doo,” the subject of some of her greatest songs, including “You Ain’t Woman Enough to Take My Man” and “Don’t Come Home a-Drinkin’ with Lovin’ on Your Mind”) and the less well-received Cline biopic Sweet Dreams (with Jessica Lange as Cline and Patsy Cline’s old records used for the soundtrack, but with the original accompaniments digitally erased and new ones added à la Clint Eastwood’s Bird), and though I never saw Sweet Dreams the memories I have of Coal Miner’s Daughter (with Beverly D’Angelo indelible as Cline even though she got only about 10 minutes of screen time) are of a better movie than this.

What’s strongest about Patsy & Loretta is its depiction of the relationship between the two women and how much it bonds over two key commonalities: their mutual dedication to their music and the problems each has with their husbands. Megan Hilty grips the screen as Cline, not only acting the role but doing her own singing — and doing it with complete authority even though Cline’s surprisingly jazz-like phrasing (I’ve written elsewhere that it was Patsy Cline who was “the white Billie Holiday,” not any of the white women jazz singers who deliberately tried for that title: much of Cline’s actual singing reminds me of Billie, particularly the way she hung behind the beat and the “dying falls,” the downward glissandi with which both Billie and Patsy liked to end a line so the lyric became a kind of sigh) pretty much eluded her. She projected more vocal authority than Jessie Mueller as Lynn — but then Lynn herself didn’t have the gripping, almost tragic dramatic sense of Cline. What made Loretta Lynn great was less the voice per se and more the sheer audacity of her material — at a time when the conventional wisdom in the country world was that a man could sustain a career on songs he wrote himself (like Jimmie Rodgers, Hank Williams and Johnny Cash), a woman didn’t have the chops to do that and would have to rely on professional songwriters, Loretta Lynn not only wrote her own songs but gave the Nashville establishment an in-your-face defiance by calling one of her albums Loretta Lynn Writes ’Em and Sings ’Em. As I’m writing this I’m listening to the Lynn CD All-Time Greatest Hits (including her cover of Cline’s hit “She’s Got You”) and it seems like an almost day-to-day diary of her and Mooney’s marriage (the only song missing that would have completed the story would have been “I Can’t Hear the Music,” the absolutely heart-rending song she wrote after his death based on his literal last words; I remember a TV special on Lynn through which an annoying announcer, Joan Lunden, babbled her way through the show and kept undermining the effect of just about everything Lynn sang … until Lynn tore up the stage with “I Can’t Hear the Music” and the effect was so emotionally intense that for once in her life Joan Lunden just shut up). The soft-rock singer-songwriters that dominated the L.A. music scene in the 1970’s thought they were inventing the art of basing your songs directly on your personal life — only Lynn and other country singers had been doing it way before that. 

Indeed, much of country music’s appeal lies directly in the emotional bond between singer and audience; Ken Burns’ recent Country Music documentary recounted that when Patsy Cline released her song “I Fall to Pieces” she got a fan letter from a woman who had just been through a bitter breakup and had finally overcome enough of her traumas to go out and accept a friend’s invitation to a party — only who should turn up there but her ex. So the woman wrote to Cline and basically said, “How did you know? How did you know what I was going to feel?” The film Patsy & Loretta was, among other things, yet another triumph for the women filmmakers Lifetime has given opportunities to even while feature-film assignments remain one of the thickest glass ceilings (almost as bad as the Presidency) — the director was Callie Khouri, who’s made two theatrical features (Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood and Mad Money) and shown her chops as a director of films about country music with episodes of the TV series Nashville, and the writer was Angelina Burnett — and judging from her whole list of credits Khouri’s specialty seems to be stories about women bonding and supporting each other in the face of abuse by men. In Patsy & Loretta both Cline and Lynn are physically assaulted by their husbands (though Cline’s abuse is shown only elliptically, when Lynn points to the bruise on her face and calmly says she needs more makeup to cover it before she goes on stage) and the only two real quarrels shown between them come when Lynn makes a remark about how much time Cline is staying on the road away from her kids. Cline reacts to this like Dracula to the crucifix and eventually she tearily confesses that the reason she’s so concerned about being accused of not caring enough about her children was that she was herself sexually abused by her father. Casting director Susan Edelman deserves credit for getting first-rate actors to play the male leads — maybe Joe Tippett isn’t quite as demented-looking as Tommy Lee Jones as Mooney, but he’s got just the right mix of machismo and vulnerability he’s believable even though when he goes out honky-tonkin’ he might as well wear a warning sign saying, “Go to bed with me and Loretta Lynn’s next record will be about you.” 

Kyle Schmid is a bit too unassuming for Cline’s husband Charlie Dick (her second husband, actually; it was a short-lived first marriage that gave her the last name “Cline,” but naturally Dick feels insulted and ashamed when someone addresses him as “Mr. Cline”[1]) but he’s believable, though I wish screenwriter had shown the incident in which Dick woke Cline up at 4 a.m. to tell her he’d found the perfect song for her next record: “Crazy,” from a demo recorded by a then little-known songwriter named Willie Nelson. In the movie Cline finally listens to the song and is taken by it — and we hear Willie Nelson’s voice on the soundtrack in what’s supposedly his demo but is probably a re-recording he made years later, after Cline’s death and in the full flush of his own fame. (I first knew Willie Nelson wrote “Crazy” when he sang it on the premiere episode of Austin City Limits in 1975 and thanked Cline for launching his career by recording it.) Cline sings along with Nelson’s demo and learns the song that way, though in the Burns Country Music documentary Harold Bradley, director of the session band that his brother, ace producer Owen Bradley, used on his records, recalled that Cline wanted to record “Crazy” at the tempo Nelson had used on his demo. Owen Bradley wanted it slower, and he ended up recording just the backing track so he could get the tempo he wanted and had Cline add the vocal a day later. (This would become the common way of recording rock in the late 1960’s but it was still unusual in 1961.)[2] Indeed, one of the best things about both Cline and Lynn was they managed to make great, soulful records even with Owen Bradley — the architect of the string-laden, usually syrupy “Nashville Sound” of country-pop — producing them; Cline resisted a string orchestra until her very last session, on which she made “Sweet Dreams” and her awesome cover of Bob Wills’ “Faded Love” which turns a simple honky-tonk lament into a deathless romantic tragedy; much the way Billie Holiday did when she recorded with strings, Cline buzzes with unquenchable integrity and raw emotion and triumphs over the rather cloying arrangements. 

The only thing I could have done without about Patsy & Loretta was the three appearances of Patsy Cline’s ghost — or at least Loretta Lynn’s imagination conjuring her up — after her fatal plane crash (and it doesn’t help that Khouri and Burnett anticipated it by having Cline’s last scene shot in slow motion and accompanied by dire instrumental strains: one wants to yell at her, “Patsy! Don’t do it! Don’t get into that little teeny plane in the rain! Does the name ‘Buddy Holly’ mean anything to you?”), including singing a duet with her on Bill Monroe’s “Blue Moon of Kentucky” at a tempo midway between the two most famous versions of the song, Monroe’s original and Elvis Presley’s uptempo cover on the B-side of his first Sun Records single. If she had to do a duet after Cline’s death, the person she should have been shown doing it with is Connie Smith, an aspiring country singer Lynn picked up in a pay-it-forward way and tried to mentor the way Cline had mentored her. Otherwise, though, Patsy & Loretta is a beautiful, moving tribute to women’s solidarity as well as two of the most formidable talents ever to perform in as unfairly maligned and slighted a genre as country music — and Cline and Lynn are two of the people I cite when I point out that despite country’s reputation as a music of melodramatic excess, its greatest performers have wrenched and moved their audiences’ emotions precisely by being understated, delivering their laments in a matter-of-fact tone quite the opposite of the 1920’s and 1930’s “torch singers” who introduced a lot of the songs in the Great American Songbook … until great jazz singers like Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald took out the phony cries and sobs and showed just how good, and how emotionally timeless, those songs actually were. So are the songs of Patsy Cline and Loretta Lynn, and the powerful understatement with which they sang them.

[1] — Indeed, one of the big issues filmmakers Khouri and Burnett hint at — though, praise be, they don’t get preachy about it — is how intensely macho men like Charlie Dick and Doolittle Lynn must have felt when their wives became superstars and made far more money than their families had ever dreamed of having — but at the cost of being away from home most of the time, which forced these men into the “womanly” role of taking care of their kids.

[2] — One irony is that the Ken Burns Country Music documentary told another story about a singer being awakened to hear a song at 4 a.m., and also involving Willie Nelson. It seems Nelson was in the middle of recording a duet album with Merle Haggard and in the wee hours of the morning he happened to be listening to an Emmylou Harris album and was struck by her cover of Townes Van Zandt’s song “Pancho and Lefty.” Nelson decided that would make a great song for the album and woke Haggard up at 4 a.m. to play him the song and record it then and there. Haggard protested that he didn’t want to sing his vocal until he’d had a full night’s sleep, but he went ahead and he and Nelson recorded the song. Then he went back to sleep, and when he got up he wanted to redo his vocal. Nelson said no, and the record went out with their 4 a.m. vocals on what turned out to be its title song.

I Am Somebody’s Child: The Regina Louise Story (Lifetime, 2019)

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

Last night, after the surprisingly quiet and dignified drama of Patsy & Loretta, Lifetime ran a rerun of an older film that was if anything even more emotionally wrenching and powerful, I Am Somebody’s Child: The Regina Louise Story, also based on a true story and also the work of a woman director (Janice Cooke) and a woman screenwriter (Camille Thomasson[1]). Most of it takes place in Oakland, California in the 1970’s and involves Regina Louise (Angela Fairley), who at the start of the film is 13 years old when she’s incarcerated in the Locke home for delinquent children after both her birth parents rejected her. She was busted as a runaway after her father, who conceived her as a result of a one-night stand when her mom was just 13 herself, threw her out of his house after she butted heads with her half-brother and half-sister from dad’s new wife. Dad said he’d turned his back on his former lifestyle, become a born-again Christian and turned her out when she threatened his younger, legally “legitimate” kids. Mom — whom we don’t meet until well into the movie — has also put her formerly dissolute lifestyle behind her and is shacking up with a guy she hopes to marry, and doesn’t want him to know she’s got a teenage daughter already lest that be a deal-breaker for him. Locke is run by a fiendishly buttoned-down Black administrator named Gwen Ford (Kim Hawthorne) who runs the place according to strict discipline, though under her are two white women who are considerably more compassionate and caring, Jeanne Kerr (Gennifer Goodwin) and her more heavy-set co-worker Annie (Lauren Cochrane). Jeanne reaches out to Regina with love and affection, crossing the boundaries big-time but also forming a bond with this troubled kid and being the only person at the facility who can actually get Regina to behave. Jeanne invites Regina to her own home for Christmas, they exchange presents — Regina gives Jeanne a rope holder for a plant pot she made in the Locke arts and crafts department, and Jeanne gives Regina a collegiate dictionary to make it clear that she thinks Regina, despite being three grades behind her age in formal education, has the smarts to make it to college and succeed there. Later on Jeanne also gives Regina a mini-cassette tape recorder and the two make a tape together that becomes significant later on.

Indeed, Jeanne is so taken with Regina that after Regina fails in two foster-home placements — in one because she’s placed with a couple of Black senior citizens and most of the wife’s affections are going to her husband because he’s on oxygen; and in another with a school coach and his family, which seems like it’ll work out O.K. except the coach’s oldest son tries to rape her and she successfully fights back and gets the hell out of there — Jeanne applies to adopt her. Alas, that sends Gwen into a hissy-fit that at least to me sounds like reverse racism, saying that Jeanne is not a fit adoptive parent for Regina for no other reason than that Regina is Black and Jeanne is white. The adoption hearing where Jeanne’s request is heard turns into a grim farce that sounds as if it were co-scripted by Franz Kafka and Louis Farrakhan; Gwen goes into the courtroom and announces that the National Association of Black Social Workers has decreed that Black children should only be adopted by Black parents (at this point I was thinking, “I’ve never even heard of the National Association of Black Social Workers, and if I were the judge in this case I’d be wondering what on earth the National Association of Black Social Workers has to do with this case, especially since they haven’t formally intervened as an organization”). Her arguments against Jeanne’s adoption of Regina go so far that in one particularly bizarre courtroom outburst Gwen accuses Jeanne of “genocide” against Black children — and you want to (or wish the judge would) tell her that this is preposterous: Jeanne doesn’t want to kill Black children en masse, simply to adopt one. The ironies deepen when we realize that every Black person Regina has been involved with has treated her horribly: her birth parents have abandoned her, the other Black kids at Locke have bullied her unmercifully (most of the disciplinary “red stars” she’s racked up have been because she fought back against kids who were bullying her), and Gwen has treated her as a statistic and totally ignored her needs as a person.

Amazingly, the judge (a grey-haired old white guy) buys all this racialist crap and sentences Regina to a psychiatric hospital, where — in yet another irony, given that the whole reason Gwen opposed Jeanne’s adopting Regina was that she deserved to be raised among other Black people — there are no other Black people, either among the inmates or the staff, except for one Black orderly. The rules at this facility are so strict and so relentless it seems like the entire staff trained at the Nurse Ratched School of Psychiatric Care. The kids are supposed to take medications in front of a nurse, who makes them stick their tongues out to prove they’ve swallowed them (though Regina, after the meds make her sick, figures out a way to stick them in the back of her throat and then, when she’s alone, get them out again and stockpile them to take all at once in case she wants to kill herself). When Regina actually does attempt suicide with her stockpile of meds — she chooses to take them at the swimming pool, use the pool water to get them down, then drown herself in the pool because one of the few positive memories in her life is of Jeanne teaching her to swim, only the Black orderly rescues her in what’s the first decent thing any other Black person has done for her — the hospital changes the policy so the kids have to take the meds in liquid form. The blonde woman nurse in charge of administering them tells Regina, “Do you know I almost lost my job because of what you did?” Regina responds by spitting the liquid medication in her face. Jeanne attempts to visit Regina at the hospital, but her letters are intercepted (sort of like Lucia di Lammermoor, in which Lucia’s malevolent family intercepts all her lover Edgardo’s letters to her so she’ll think he’s abandoned her and will be willing to marry the upper-class twit they think will rejuvenate the Lammermoor family fortunes — and, not surprisingly, she ultimately goes homicidally crazy), she’s escorted off the premises when she tries to visit, the hospital actually takes out a restraining order against her and Gwen eventually tells Regina that Jeanne has married a foreigner and moved out of the country. (Oddly, we never find out whether or not this is true, though we see at least two men dating Jeanne.)

The only two slip-ups in the hospital’s relentless regime to get Regina to forget Jeanne by convincing her Jeanne has abandoned her are they let her keep the dictionary and the tape recorder Jeanne gave her way back when — and Regina studies the dictionary relentlessly every chance she gets and plays the tape of her and Jeanne until the batteries wear down and ultimately die. (One decent thing the Black orderly does, besides save her from her suicide attempt, is give her fresh batteries for her machine so she can hear Jeanne’s voice again.) Regina’s rebellious attitude only eases up when she asks for permission to leave the grounds every day to attend high school and is told she has too many demerits to have “away privileges,” so she decides to play by the rules as long as she can, goes to high school, excels, gets a scholarship to attend San Francisco State University (my own alma mater, by the way), goes to work for a hairdresser (the second Black persom in the entire movie who’s treated her with any human decency) and ultimately opens a hair salon of her own. When she was released from the psychiatric hospital — not because they thought she was cured but because she’d turned 18 and “aged out” — she demands to see her psychiatric records. The staff says those are “confidential” (from whom? They’re her records and she’s legally an adult now! Obviously they’re worried that if they supply her documentation on what they did to her, she’ll find a lawyer and sue them) but they give her all the letters Jeanne sent her, many of which included mini-cassettes on which Jeanne recorded messages.

The film ends with Regina writing a book about her experiences called Somebody’s Someone — after the hope she’d expressed throughout her ordeal that someday she could be “somebody’s someone” — and a much older Jeanne running into an adult Regina (played by Sherri Saum, who’s actually a good physical match for Angela Fairley) at a book-signing. The two recognize each other and a title tells us that in 2003, in the same courtroom where Jeanne’s petition to adopt Regina had previously been denied, Jeanne is granted a petition to do an adult adoption of Regina and the ceremony, which weirdly looks and sounds like a wedding, duly takes place. I Am Somebody’s Child moved me to tears (indeed, I’m tearing up all over again just writing about it!), an inherently gripping and emotionally intense story which the filmmakers, Janice Cooke and Camille Thomasson (among other things, last night Lifetime gave us a great case for women directors and displayed that there are quite a few women out there with the chops to direct feature films), trusted to tell itself without either sentimentalizing it or making it nastier and more brutal than it has to be. Regina Louise’s real tragedy was not only that they grew up unwanted and unloved but that the system that was supposed to backstop her and protect her instead treated her in ways that just compounded her problems — yet they did so in the apparently sincere belief that they were helping her. (In one chilling scene Gwen ridicules Regina’s dream of attending college and says it’s her job to make Regina accept what she can do and not try to do things she can’t.) Throughout the film I was reminded of what mystery writer and former Child Protective Services case worker Abigail Padgett told me when I interviewed her for the June 2001 issue of Zenger’s Newsmagazine:

I have a lot of trouble with systems. I really like the idea of looking at individuals and meeting their needs, which will never be the same needs that have been outlined for everyone by a system. Of course, you can’t always do that. You can’t educate each child individually. You have to have school. But when you’re dealing with something as sensitive as child abuse, I would have been more comfortable working there [at Child Protective Services] if more attention had been given to individual situations, rather than, “O.K., this is what we do, routinely, with everybody.

That, if anything, is the moral of I Am Somebody’s Child: The Regina Louise Story. It’s clear from what Abigail Padgett told me in our interview (and what she wrote in her novels featuring Bo Bradley, a Child Protective Services worker who’s continually getting in trouble with her bosses precisely because she wants to work out what’s best for each individual in her caseload instead of following the standard protocols) that she and Jeanne Kerr were sisters under the skin. It’s a story I found incredibly moving, at least partly because while my father was never anywhere nearly as dismissive or hostile as Regina Louise’s, it was always clear that he thought of me as a mistake, something he had been stuck with from his brief and ill-advised marriage to my mother (they divorced when I was 1 ½ and I never had any direct experience or memories of them as a couple) before he remarried the Stepford Wife he always wanted, they had the Stepford Daughter they wanted, and she in turn married the Stepford Boy and gave them the Stepford Grandchildren. Though I generally avoid Lifetime movies that aren’t sleazy crime stories, last night’s films — as well as some previous efforts of theirs like For the Love of a Child, another true-life tragedy about the founding of the Childhelp Foundation (a film which, as I wrote about it when it aired in 2009, makes you love humanity for bringing forth the two women who started Childhelp and also makes you hate humanity for having enough depraved people they needed to start Childhelp) — are among the most powerful and dramatically moving productions I’ve seen anywhere and need none of the usual apologetic dismissals like, “Good — for something directed by a woman,” or, “Good — for a Lifetime movie.”

[1] — Shouldn’t that be “Thomasdottïr”?

Monday, October 14, 2019

Killer Contractor (Maple Island Films, Reel One Entertainment, Lifetime, 2019)

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

Last night Charles and I watched yet another “premiere” on Lifetime, which after the excellence of The College Admissions Scandal (a great story to begin with, told powerfully, movingly and with a degree of understatement rare on this network) was a return to their usual schlock and, if anything, was below their average. It was called Killer Contractor — a title risible enough in itself — and starts out with a mysterious figure in a black hoodie (not another mysterious figure in a black hoodie!) loosening two screws on a banister rail in and old house so its elderly male occupant falls down the stairwell and dies. The scene then shifts to San Francisco (we get that from a stock shot of the San Francisco skyline which includes Coit Tower and the Transamerica pyramid) where we meet the old man’s daughter and granddaughter. The daughter is Kerry McLeod (Alyshia Ochse) — the last name is pronounced “Mc-LEE-odd,” not the more usual “Mc-CLOUD,” by the way — and she makes her living as a writer and illustrator of a highly successful series of children’s books called the “Ella” series, after her own daughter. (Oddly, the page on this movie doesn’t list the child actress who plays Ella, though some adult cast members in shorter and less significant roles are listed.)

Kerry and Ella go to the small town where Old Man McLeod lived with the plan of hiring a contractor to fix up the house and then sell it. They’re greeted by an annoyingly chipper realtor (or is that “Realtor™”) named Claire, who gets to wiggle her ass at the camera a lot (director John Murlowski is really into ass shots, of both men and women) and at first agrees to list the house for sale but then decides she wants to buy it herself. Of course, the Killer Contractor hears this and breaks into Claire’s own home, rewiring her electric circuitry so she gets electrocuted when she tries to turn on a light switch. We meet the Killer Contractor, Mike Dean (Zac Titus), when he turns up on the property and asks for the job — and like a typically stupid Lifetime heroine, instead of going to Home Advisor or Angie’s List or anywhere else that would be sensible, she hires him on the spot because they were friends back in high school. Indeed, Kerry’s friend Meghan (Kendra Andrews) warns her against Mike because she was also in high school with them and noticed him hanging around her a lot in what she assumed was an unrequited crush Mike had on Kerry. The next person we meet is the Good Contractor, Jason Carr (Mark Lawson), who’s shorter and stockier than Mike but also a good deal better-looking (and director Murlowski gives us some nice shots of his basket — yum!), who also bids for the job of fixing Kerry’s house but is just a few minutes too late. He offers to look around the place and goes into the attic, pronouncing it just fine, while Mike insists it needs work. This becomes significant when Kerry goes into the attic, we see some removed screws on the floor, and sure enough she tumbles through the floor and onto her couch, where she lands surprisingly little-scathed.

Just as I was praising this movie for defying Lifetime’s usual iconography in which the cute guy is almost always the villain, Charles warned me that the writer, Meridith Stack (the page spells her first name the more normal way, “Meredith,” but “Meridith” is what appears on her credit), might be setting us up for a reversal in which Jason would turn out to be the Killer Contractor and Mike the Good — or at least Morally Ambiguous — Contractor. We also get a number of twitchy scenes between Mike and his mother Eleanor (a marvelously acid performance by Rebecca Tinley) in which Mike lovingly fingers photos of himself and Kerry when they were kids and Eleanor tells him he shouldn’t think of her and threatens to burn the photos. It turns out from an insurance investigator that the MacGuffin is a large life-insurance policy that Kerry’s dad took out on himself with Kerry and Mike as co-beneficiaries — and in the first of Stack’s spectacular reversals, it turns out that Mike is actually Kerry’s half-brother, since her dad had an affair with Eleanor before he married Kerry’s mom. Dad was planning to rewrite the insurance policy so Kerry would be sole beneficiary, but he didn’t sign the form to do that before he died — and sure enough, with just 15 minutes of running time to go, Stack pulls her second big reversal and has Jason turn out to be the Killer Contractor after all (something we should have been expecting not only because Mark Lawson was so much hotter than Zac Titus but also because Jason drove a black truck while Mike drove a white truck — a throwback to all those “B” Westerns in which the good guy wore a white hat and rode a white horse, while the bad guy wore a black hat and rode a black horse) — indeed he’s a literal “contractor,” meaning a hit man, and he’s desperately in need of money because his previous employers are going to have him “hit” if he doesn’t come up with some scratch, pronto.

The person who’s hired him for this job is Eleanor Dean, Mike’s mother, who’s after the insurance money for herself and doesn’t care how many people she has to kill — including all the McLeods (it was Jason who loosened the banister rail in granddad’s home and thereby started all this) as well as her own son and Meghan, who stumbles on the truth, gets clubbed by Eleanor, survives but is tied up, manages to escape her bonds but is run over by a van, taken to the hospital and revived, only Eleanor, who happens to work at the hospital as a nurse, shows up for her shift and takes an unauthorized detour into Meghan’s room, where she intends to smother her with a pillow (how is she going to make that look like an accident? In most Lifetime movies in which a nurse tries to murder a patient, it’s by introducing a toxic substance into her IV), only the police show up and arrest her in time, while both Mike and Kerry herself take their swings at the real Killer Contractor and finally subdue him long enough for the cops to arrest him, too. Killer Contractor is a good example of everything that’s wrong with Lifetime movies, from the risible title to the melodramatic situations to the ill-justified reversals (though Mark Lawson deserves credit as an actor for playing both the good and evil incarnations of his character superbly, and I’d like to see more of him) and the over-the-top ending (about the one Lifetime cliché Murlowski and Stack avoided was having the villain kidnap daughter Ella at the end), and yet it’s also a thrill ride of pure camp and therefore manages to be entertaining.

Sunday, October 13, 2019

The College Admissions Scandal (Varsity Films, Lifetime, 2019)

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

Last night I wanted to watch the fourth and last in the Lifetime “Ripped from the Headlines!” movie series, and while the previous week’s entry had been something ripped off from yellowing headlines since it was based on a case from 1980, this time it was from fresh newsprint: The College Admissions Scandal, a film directed by Adam Salky from a script by Stephen Tolkin (I’d never heard of Salky before but Tolkin is an old Lifetime hand, responsible for New York Prison Break and many other Lifetime movies, including quite a few previous ones based on true stories), which despite its rather clinical title (the FBI sting operation against the parents of the kids involved in the real college admissions scandal was called “Operation Varsity Blues,” and that might have been a better title for the film) managed to be genuinely insightful and moving drama. The film has one deep flaw, which I’ll get into later because it was also implicit in a lot of the news coverage of the real case. The central characters are three parents, financial services manager Bethany Slade (Mia Kershner) — who’s been raising her daughter Emma (Sarah Dugdale) as a single parent since dumping Emma’s dad years earlier because instead of seeking a corporate job he was trying to be a writer and was doing drugs and drinking — and a still-intact couple, corporate attorney Jackson Deviers (Robert Moloney) and his wife, interior designer Caroline Deviers (Penelope Ann Miller), who are concerned because, though he has a high I.Q., their son Danny (Sam Duke) — incidentally on the cast list for this film on his last name is spelled “Devere,” which suggests that the character finds his parents’ spelling of the name pretentious and has simplified it — is more interested in playing in a band and pursuing a musical career than in attending a prestigious college the way his parents want him to.

So they hook up with college consultant William “Rick” Singer (oddly the actor playing this part is not credited on, though the script uses the character’s real name and casts him as a heavy-set wrestler type — the real Singer, helpfully shown in a Behind the Headlines documentary that followed the film, was a former swimming coach and still was surprisingly lean for his age), who according to the documentary began as a legitimate “college coach,” obtaining SAT and other “prep tests” that aren’t identical to the real ones but are close enough they can be used to practice, and arranging for special tutoring for the children of the rich and/or famous. Then his operation shaded off into pursuing what he called the “side door” to college admissions; as the documentary explained, Singer explained to his clients that there’s a “front door” for a kid to get into college (good grades, hard work and high admission test scores), a “back door” for especially well-heeled people (paying for new buildings on a campus or making major donations to the endowment) and a “side door” for the folks whom he was targeting as his market, who seem to have been what might be called the 2 to 10 percent — not outright members of the 1 percent but folks with enough money (and enough of the sense of entitlement that comes with it) to afford him. 

Among his tricks were putting the kids of his clients through psychiatric exams with his own hired-gun “therapists” to claim they needed more time to take the tests, giving the tests at his own proctoring centers (and either correcting errors the students made or actually having “ringers” take the tests for them), and faking athletic backgrounds for the would-be admittees — usually in recherché sports like squash and crew, though Emma gets to fake being a soccer player (let’s face it, it’s easy enough to photograph someone kicking a ball around a field) while Danny is passed off as a crew coxswain (though the fake photograph we see of him shows him leaning off the deck of a sailing yacht adjusting a sail). The FBI stumbles across the scheme when their agents interrogate a man they’ve nailed on an unrelated case of financial fraud, and when he makes them an offer to turn in Singer’s scheme in exchange for leniency on his own case, they bite. The FBI arrests Singer, who almost immediately turns state’s evidence and rats out his own clients (as well as the high-school and college athletic coaches who took bribes from him to say they played sports they really didn’t), agreeing to call them and get them on tape admitting to their involvement in his criminal schemes by telling them his non-profit “charitable” foundation, The Key International (ostensibly set up to help Cambodians and other low-income students attend college, actually a device for Singer to launder his ill-gotten gains and give his clients the side benefit of being able to write off their payments to him from their own taxes), is being audited by the Internal Revenue Service and they need to get their stories straight as to what they will tell the IRS investigators. (One line on one of the actual tapes from a real Singer client played on the documentary was even more chilling than anything in Tolkin’s script: “After all, it’s only the IRS. It’s not USC!”) 

There are certain people in the movie — including a Black counselor at Emma’s school who notices the abrupt jump in her SAT scores when she retests and gets suspicious — but the scheme rolls on until Singer rats on all his clients (though the documentary claims he helped up to 800 families and only 35 have been busted so far) and ultimately everyone comes to grief. Bethany is fired from her firm — they invoke the morals clause in her contract to seize her 10 percent equity share in her company — and when her attorney says she still owns her property, including at least two houses (one in the L.A. area and one in Aspen), she tells him she mortgaged them all to fund Singer’s campaign to get Emma into Yale. Emma loses her coveted admission slot to Yale and also gets dumped by her boyfriend Bryan (Sebastian Greaves), whom she wanted to go to Yale in the first place because he was already a freshman there, while her younger sister’s future also gets screwed because she’s part of the same family even though her own grades were so good mom didn’t buy her Singer’s services because she figured she didn’t need them. Jackson Deviers finds himself faced not only with a prison sentence but near-certain disbarment, his wife loses all her interior design clients (including the ones that were in foreign countries, which she can no longer visit because as a condition of bail she had to surrender her passport) and Danny, who in a way is the most tragic character, loses the legitimate opportunity his musical talents had earned him when the major manager who was interested in representing him suddenly decides he’s a hot potato and drops him. (We’re told in the script he’s the next Bob Dylan, David Bowie or Bruce Springsteen — all of whom Danny cites as examples of music superstars who never went to college[1] — but when we finally hear a song ostensibly by him at the end of the show it’s a pretentiously sappy acoustic ballad that led me to joke, “He could always get a job writing songs for Lifetime movies.”) 

Just what Danny or Emma were supposed to be studying once they won their credentials to prestigious universities (Yale in her case and Stanford in his) is never made clear — though Emma makes some noises about wanting to do something to help the homeless — but what is made clear is how incredibly stratified America has become, and for members of the 10 percent who want their kids to make it into the 1 percent a degree from a high-prestige school has become all-important. The one aspect I didn’t like about this movie is that it assumes that college admissions are part of a genuine “meritocracy” and Singer and his clients were screwing that up for everyone else by gaming the system. The insanity of well-heeled parents using their money to get their children legs-up in America’s relentlessly competitive career market and economy reaches far lower than college: we’ve heard stories of parents bribing their kids’ ways into prep schools, private grade schools and even private pre-schools on the assumption that even when you’re all of three years old your whole future can be determined by whether you get into the “right” schools and thereby win the all-important bragging points (“I went to … !”) that will ensure your ability to advance. The whole idea that grades and test scores measure something called “aptitude” for success in college is a monstrous myth (all test scores measure is your ability to take tests, and as standardized testing has filtered lower and lower in the education system and is now hailed as the ultimate test of how well the schools are teaching our kids, the built-in prejudices of those tests — which were designed in the first place in the late 19th and early 20th centuries by racists seeking “proof” that whites were smarter, and hence more fitted to rule, than anyone else — have once again become institutionalized in our education system). 

Grades measure what you’ve already learned, and that’s dependent not only on how well the schools have taught you (and how much money they have for books, small classes, equipment and other factors that give kids from affluent neighborhoods a built-in advantage) but what your home life is like and how much your parents know and encourage you to learn instead of just making it through school as a chore. As America has basically wiped out its middle class and become far more class-stratified than it was through most of the 20th century (where you could still hold down a job if you hadn’t gone to college, and you could make a fair amount of money — enough for a middle-class lifestyle — once workers organized into unions and won better wages, benefits and on-the-job safety protections), a college education has changed from something helpful to something virtually necessary if you don’t want to be stuck in ultra-low-wage jobs all your life. At the same time the number of seats open in colleges has been deliberately kept low, partly because America has never put the kind of public money into education most other advanced countries have (in most of Europe college is available free of charge to just about anyone who can benefit from it; in the U.S. that’s considered a dangerously radical and unaffordable idea) and partly because historically college in the U.S. was one of the ways the rich and privileged retained their money and privileges across the generations. Through much of the 19th and 20th century it was just accepted that colleges were something rich kids went to in order to prepare to keep their families in the ruling class since America had never had an hereditary aristocracy, or at least one that called itself that), and though college became democratized somewhat in the mid-20th century (as a lot of those working-class families who had good union jobs and used some of that money to send their kids there), the current American ruling class regards that as a threat and has used various tactics to once again restrict college to the rich and powerful. 

Among those techniques are insanely restrictive admissions criteria (the parts of the system Rick Singer and his clients were trying to game), increases in the actual costs of going to college that have risen faster than overall inflation, a system of student loans (i.e., forcing would-be students from less affluent backgrounds to borrow huge amounts of money that leave them essentially as debt peons for life, especially since student loans are one of only two categories of debt, the other being taxes, that cannot be discharged in bankruptcy) and other techniques to keep the number of college graduates low (and the number of graduates from the high-prestige institutions Singer was aiming his clients’ kids to especially low) in order to increase their value in the job market, since as anyone who took Economics 101 will remember, reducing the supply of something automatically increases its price. The idea that certain people have (including an Asian-American mother named Toy who’s profiled on the documentary, who filed a $500 billion lawsuit against Singer and his clients, claiming that because of their actions her son was denied the place at a prestige university to which his grades, test scores and hard work should have entitled him) that America’s college system, and the admissions policies that are its gateway, is a genuine meritocracy is nonsense. America’s college system was set up by the rich and privileged to maintain their wealth and privileges across the generations, and by and large it’s done an excellent job of doing that. Rick Singer’s clients were rich people who wanted to get their kids into the elite precincts of the super-rich (as I put it above, 10-percenters who wanted their kids to be 1-percenters). As University of Oklahoma history professor Wilfred McClay wrote in a Newsweek article quoted on the Wikipedia page about the scandal, “The thing driving the current scandal seems to be that ultimately parents were willing to do anything to game the system to get their kids these advantages, not because the education was better but because the legitimation of social position would be better.”

[1] — Actually, I think Dylan briefly attended the University of Minnesota — the earliest extant recordings of him are from that campus — though he didn’t graduate.