Saturday, November 30, 2019

George White’s 1935 Scandals (20th Century-Fox, 1935)

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

Last Thanksgiving night my husband Charles and I had enough time alone after our dinner guests leave to watch a couple of movies together, including an oddball musical called George White’s 1935 Scandals. George White was a Broadway producer who, like Earl Carroll, decided to rip off Florenz Ziegfeld’s formula for success by doing a musical revue (Broadway-speak for a show without a plot or storyline) with a one-word title, changing the contents every year and putting the year number at the end of the show. Ziegfeld had the Follies, Carroll the Vanities, and White had the Scandals — a name he chose to let prospective audiences know that his show would feature racier sexual content than his competitors’. In 1934 the Fox Film Corporation hired White to make a movie called George White’s Scandals that, among other things, marked the screen debut of Alice Faye. The film was a big enough hit that they drafted Faye to be in this one, too, along with rather homely-looking leading man James Dunn (who’s playing a juvenile lead in this one even though his usual gig at Fox just then was playing Shirley Temple’s father — indeed, he did that so often quite a few 1930’s moviegoers thought he was Shirley Temple’s real dad!); Eleanor Powell, in her first film aside from a brief bit as “Party Guest/Dancer” in 1930’s Queen High); Ned Sparks; Cliff “Ukulele Ike” Edwards; Arline Judge (who just two years after her — forgive the pun — sensational performance in Monogram’s proto-noir Sensation Hunters got stuck in a nothing role); and Lyda Roberti (the tragically short-lived Eastern European performer whose specialty, like Carmen Miranda’s later, was fracturing the English language; alas, after her marvelous showcase as “Mata Machree, The Woman No Man Can Resist” in the 1932 film Million Dollar Legs, her film career had nowhere to go but down).

They also got Jack Yellen, who had co-written with Milton Ager the score for John Murray Anderson’s magnificent King of Jazz (1930), not only to work on the songs as lyricist for Joseph Meyer (indeed, one of the reasons I was interested in this film was because I’m working on a CD compilation of Meyer for my annual songwriters’ tribute), but to write the script as well, apparently attempting to duplicate the transition of Bert Kalmar and Harry Ruby from songwriters to screenwriters. Meyer apparently wrote only one complete score for a movie, this one, and from the pleasant but rather old-fashioned (even by 1935 standards) songs he supplied it’s easy to see why; Meyer was a great songwriter in the 1920’s and he lived until 1971, but unlike similarly long-lived songwriters like Ieving Berlin and Cole Porter his style didn’t change or grow with the times. George White’s 1935 Scandals is basically a revue, though there is something of a plot: on his way to a vacation in Palm Beach, Florida following the closure of the 1934 Scandals, George White (playing himself and claiming in the credits that the “entire production was conceived and directed by him — though lists two “ghost directors,” Harry Lachman and James Tinling, as also working on the film) gets off the train for what’s supposed to be a five-minute stop at a town called Crossway[1] in Oglethorpe County, Georgia. (The name “Oglethorpe County” is a tribute to James Oglethorpe, who founded the first British settlement of Georgia in the 1730’s and set up the colony as an alternative for people in debtors’ prisons in England.) George White sees a poster advertising a local theatre performing a show called “White’s Scandals,” produced and directed by Elmer White (Ned Sparks at his most Ned Sparkiest), who’s also the ticket-taker, the ticket-seller, the MC and, it turns out later, both the mayor and the sheriff of Crossway. George White is particularly upset that they’ve ripped off his name and his concept for a show, especially one whose main attraction is a dog act, so he decides to stay in Crossway, see the faux “Scandals” for himself and essentially copyright-troll it out of existence.

Only he changes his mind rather quickly when he sees the show and in particular the team of Honey Walters (Alice Faye) and Eddie Taylor (James Dunn) doing an act together to a song James has written — or at least he dictated the words and music to Aunt Jane Harper (Emma Dunn, apparently no real-life relation), much the way Irving Berlin couldn’t read or write music and needed a “musical secretary” to transcribe his songs for him. They aren’t exactly the most charismatic musical leads of all time —Faye was still wearing her hair in the platinum-blonde color of Jean Harlow’s which photographed dead white on the relatively slow film used in 1935, and there’s only one song (a late-in-the-film reunion duet between her and James Dunn called “You Belong to Me”) where we hear the world-weary moan that later became Faye’s trademark. As for James Dunn, he’s an avuncular-looking fellow whose main gig at Fox at the time was playing Shirley Temple’s father — which he did so often a lot of 1930’s moviegoers thought he was her father for real. George White’s 1935 Scandals has a plot of sorts — George White plucks Honey Walters and Eddie Taylor out of the knock-off rump Scandals and stars them in the 1935 edition of the real Scandals; they’re an immediate sensation but he worries that the “Broadway mud” will attract them and stick to them. The Broadway mud duly arrives in the persons of Larry Daniels (Walter Johnson) and Marilyn Collins (Eleanor Powell in her first major role — she gets to do one solo dance in a stunning black sequined pantsuit, but other than that she’s just another “other woman”), who make beelines for Honey and Eddie, respectively. Under the thrall of their new partners, Honey and Eddie start showing up late for the Scandals, their performances fall off, George White chews them out and they respond by turning in their two-weeks’ notices — which White accepts immediately, being so disgusted with them he pays them their severance but firing them from the show. (The marquee for the theatre where the Scandals is playing rather mournfully changes the billing from “Honey Walters and Eddie Taylor” to “All Star Cast.”)

A slimeball agent named Lou Pincus (played as a comic-relief Jewish stereotype by an actor unidentified on the cast list) hires Honey and Eddie to perform out of town in Scranton, Pennsylvania for $75 per week — but just then George White receives a telegram from Aunt Jane Hopkins back in Crossway (ya remember Aunt Jane Hopkins? Ya remember Crossway?) saying she’s coming to New York to see the sensationally successful Scandals show featuring her protégées. George White literally mobilizes the New York Police Department to find them — while simultaneously refusing to take the calls of Lou Pincus, the only character in the dramatis personae who actually knows where they are — and he finally catches up to them waiting in Pennsylvania Station (and it isn’t even quarter to four!) for the train to their gig in Scranton. They’re dragged back to the Scandals, they’re a huge success all over again, and for good measure they tell George White they got married that morning and therefore there won’t be any more nonsense involving other partners. George White himself (who takes an opening credit reading, “Entire Production Conceived and Directed By … ” and also a separate credit as dance director) and the “suits” at Fox seemed to have wanted the film to be a close replica of what it was like to watch the stage version of the Scandals — the opening production number is one of those ants-on-a-wedding cake things shit with an immovable camera from a safe distance, which led Charles to reference The Cocoanuts and suggest they really should have called this George White’s 1929 Scandals. The big numbers throughout the film are mostly pretty static — compare the treatment of the song “According to the Moonlight” with Busby Berkeley’s similar but far more cinematic staging of “Shadow Waltz” in Gold Diggers of 1933 (the one with the neon violins) — and when we finally get one overhead shot of a chorus line I burst out, “Finally!

Though White and his co-directors weren’t as fiercely opposed to the Berkeley style as Mitchell Leisen was when he partnered with Earl Carroll for Paramount’s fascinating 1934 production Murder at the Vanities — Leisen decreed that the Berkeley numbers were ridiculous because they were supposedly being performed on a stage but really couldn’t be done in any conceivable live theatre, so the numbers in his movie would be shot from a safe distance (about that between the stage and an orchestra seat in a Broadway house) and he wouldn’t do moving-camera shots, overhead shots, dancers in kaleidoscope formations or any of the other items in Berkeley’s armanetarium. White seems to have been less doctrinaire about it — he even lifted the Scandals’ curtain design, with paintings of three Asian-looking women on triangular sections that part to reveal the stage, from the “Chinese” number in John Murray Anderson’s stunning masterpiece King of Jazz — but George White’s 1935 Scandals could have been a lot more fun had the big numbers been staged more imaginatively. The film also suffers from the everything-including-the-kitchen-sink mentality of White and a lot of the other revue producers: the opening scene of the performance in Crossway includes a dog act (a quite extended one with several dogs, which starts to pale after a while) and an on-stage dance contest with athletic and fun-looking dancers performing in old vaudeville styles that were already considered dated in 1935. Indeed, one of the most entertaining parts of the film is a dream sequence in which Cliff “Ukulele Ike” Edwards, either loaned out or paroled from MGM, fantasizes being the lover of some of the great “bad women” of history, Cleopatra and Du Barry, as well as playing Romeo in the balcony scene. (Iromically, Edwards had previously been in another movie, Hollywood Revue of 1929, in which the Romeo and Juliet balcony scene was parodied, though he wasn’t involved in it. The scene in Hollywood Revue of 1929 is in two-strip Technicolor and features John Gilbert and Norma Shearer, first playing the scene “straight” and then in a 1920’s slang version.)

Most of Joseph Meyer’s songs are serviceable without being great; there’s a reason why nothing from this musical has become part of the standard songbook, and there was only one Meyer song in the film I’d ever heard before: “The Hunkadola.” I’d known this piece mainly because it was Benny Goodman’s first recording for RCA Victor when he jumped there from Columbia in 1935; though he was only at Victor for four years, those four years (1935 to 1939) were the years in which he established himself and became a star. “Hunkadola” — Goodman’s record eliminated the article but the song clearly refers to “The Hunkadola” — was apparently Fox’s and White’s attempt to start a dance craze based on the ones launched by the first two Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers movies: “The Carioca” from Flying Down to Rio and “The Continental” from The Gay Divorcée. (Those songs are referred to here as “The Tapioca” and “The Accidental,” and oddly Herb Magidson, who wrote the lyrics for the real “Continental,” is credited here with “additional lyrics” on top of the credited songwriters, Meyer for music and Lemon for words.) The problem with “The Hunkadola” is that the dance instructions in the song are so complicated and difficult it’s well nigh impossible to figure out from the lyrics just how the dance is done — and parts of the ensemble dance are so bizarre and potentially injurious to the female participants I found myself wondering whether some of the shots were done with dummies, especially one scene in which two male choristers literally swing a woman back forth while a third uses her as a jump rope. It’s one of those oddball movies that occasionally dips its toe into the pool of cinema but mostly feels stage-bound — as if White’s main interest in making it seems to have been more to show the rubes and hicks in rural America (of which there was far more then than there is now!) what a George White’s Scandals looked like than to make a truly cinematic musical!

[1] — It’s spelled “Crossways” in a printed insert, but the actors pronounce it without the final “s.”

Mutiny in Outer Space (Hugo Grimaldi Productions, Woolner Brothers Pictures, 1964)

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

On Thanksgiving night, after George White’s 1935 Scandals, Charles and I watched the 1964 film Mutiny in Outer Space, a considerably less prestigious movie produced under the dubious auspices of the Woolner Brothers (when we caught one of their productions on Mystery Science Theatre 3000 I joked, “At the top of the food chain of studios founded by brothers is Warner Brothers, and at the bottom is Woolner Brothers”) and Hugo Grimaldi Film Productions. The Woolner brothers (Bernard, David and Lawrence, in case you were interested) and Grimaldi and Arthur C. Pierce (when I went to one of the Vintage Sci-Fi screenings in Golden Hill I saw his name on a writing credit and joked: “Ah! Screenplay by Arthur C. … uh, Pierce”) are the five co-credited producers, with Grimaldi directing from a script by himself and Pierce. ( claims Pierce also co-directed but is “uncredited” in that capacity, though Pierce and Grimaldi have a joint credit for “Original Story for Screen.”) I was interested in Mutiny in Outer Space because the proprietor of the Vintage Sci-Fi screenings ( had scheduled this for his late September screening, along with Missile to the Moon (the 1958 remake of the dreadful Cat Women on the Moon that was actually superior to the original from 1953, mainly due to the interestingly quirky direction of Richard Cunha and at least a slightly more literate script), but due to health issues was incapacitated for several months. While we had Missile to the Moon on a DVD boxed set with three other sci-fi cheapies, I’d never seen this and I went looking on for a download. Mutiny in Outer Space turned out essentially to be The Caine Mutiny meets Alien: virtually all the action takes place on Space Station X-7, where an exciting new shipment from the moon containing ice has just arrived and the commanders of Earth’s space program are really excited because if there’s ice on the moon, it can be melted down into water and also broken up into its elemental components of hydrogen and oxygen, which will give people something they can breathe. Then the world can colonize the moon and produce both food and industrial products there — which makes this movie sound like a prequel to Robert Heinlein’s novel The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress, in which the moon gets turned into a penal colony á la 19th century Australia until the colonists, with the aid of a sentient computer, rebel and declare their independence. Alas, there’s one itty-bitty problem with that ice from the moon: once it melts, it releases a fungus that’s invariably lethal to humans and grows into snake-like tendrils that basically devour everything in their path. 

The first crew member of Space Station X-7 to catch the fungus is Captain Dan Webber (Carl Crow), who’s essentially this film’s antecedent of the Star Trek “red shirts” whose only plot function was to get killed early on so we’d know what danger the rest of the crew — including the name stars — were in. He gets a huge red sore (at least we presume that it’s red, since this film is in black-and-white — you think a Woolner Brothers production budget in 1964 could afford color?) that opens a hole in his leg, but fortunately Grimaldi cuts away from his leg just when it’s starting to look really yucky and we’re only told that Webber has expired. Also, the commanding officer of Space Station X-7, Col. Frank Cromwell (Richard Garland) has caught a bad case of “space rapture” (analogous to the “rapture of the deep” suffered by terrestrial divers who get so carried away by the splendors of the underwater realm that they do dumb things like stay down too long for their oxygen supply or ascend too fast and get “the bends”) and it’s made him surly, quick to anger, paranoid and willing to give stupid and counterproductive orders, like allowing spaceships to continue to dock on Space Station X-7 even despite the risk that they will carry the fungus back to Earth and it will decimate billions. The other protagonists are the station’s other top officers, including second-in-command Major Gordon Towers (William Leslie, top-billed); ship’s botanist Faith Montaine (Dolores Faith), who first notices the effects of the fungus when the three months’ food supply she’s synthesized on board gets reduced mysteriously to just a few days’ worth; Lt. Connie Engstrom (Pamela Curran); and Sgt. Andrews (Harold Lloyd, Jr., son of the legendary comedian and, according to his biography on, “a submissive homosexual who would come home battered after a rough date”; his career abruptly ended when he suffered a stroke at age 34 from which he never fully recovered, and he died at age 40 in 1971 just a few months after the passing of his famous dad). along with the station’s resident medic, Dr. Hoffman (James Dobson), who first diagnoses the fungus, realizes how dangerous it is and orders the room in which Webber died from it sealed off so it doesn’t spread. (Incidentally one Josef von Stroheim is credited with “sound effects,” so Harold Lloyd, Jr. wasn’t the only person associated with this movie who had a far more famous dad.) Mutiny in Outer Space is that frustrating sort of bad movie with a good movie trapped inside it struggling to get out; the idea of an outer-space Captain Queeg isn’t inherently uninteresting, and though Richard Garland is hardly in Humphrey Bogart’s class as an actor he’s still the most authoritative player in this film. 

The problems with this movie include an incredibly cheap-looking production — the model showing the space station’s exterior is reasonably convincing but the interiors looked like they were furnished from a thrift store and the little animated cut-out rocket that lands on the station (or tries to) is so inept it’s risible. Yes, the Woolner Brothers only had $90,000 to work with, but it’s still embarrassing that a movie with so cheap and unconvincing a depiction of a spacecraft came out just two years after the original Star Trek TV series, with its far better thought-out and depicted ships, stations and planets, came out (and Star Trek was in color, which in the 1960’s made the special effects considerably more difficult!). It also doesn’t help that the costumes are so obviously designed to appeal to horny straight teenage boys, which Hollywood considered then (and still considers now) the core audience for science fiction; the male officers and crew are dressed in nondescript grey tunics that look like something a mortuary staff would wear, but the women are dressed in skin-tight jump suits with push-up bras and plenty of emphasis on their curves. (Dolores Faith is also afflicted with the least believable plucked eyebrows and drawn-in replacements I’ve ever seen in a film.) There are also the usual scientific inconsistencies, including one howler Charles spotted before I did: we’re told that the fungus grows in warm environments and exposure to cold will either kill it or render it harmless (which is why no one noticed it encased in lunar ice until the ice melted), but in the film’s most obvious attempt at a shock scene the fungus’s tendrils have somehow managed to exit the space station and surround it without getting killed by the cold of outside space. All in all, Mutiny in Outer Space is the best film I’ve seen from its rather dubious sources — the Woolner Brothers, Hugo Grimaldi (and Gino, whom I presume is his brother, who’s credited as “assistant to producers”) and Arthur C. … uh, Pierce — which isn’t saying much for it, but one wishes this basic story premise could have attracted a better director and writer as well as a more authoritative cast and a decent budget for sets and effects.

Wednesday, November 27, 2019

Dolly Parton: Celebrating 50 Years as a Member of the Grand Ole Opry (NBC-TV, “live,” November 26, 2019)

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

Last night NBC-TV put on a two-hour music special featuring country legend Dolly Parton celebrating her 50th anniversary as an official member of the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville, Tennessee, which was excellent when Parton herself was on stage but less so when they dredged up a long series of guest artists. I would have preferred it if the guests had sung with Parton instead of just being trotted out either to cover a Parton song or do their own schtick — but Parton’s own voice has held up beautifully and so have her looks. In terms of defying the visible signs of aging she’s the white Tina Turner, and of course she’s had incomparably better luck in the man department (married to the same guy for 53 years). I was a bit put out by her print-the-legend version of the history of women in country music, naming Kitty Wells’ “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky-Tonk Angels” as the first country song in which a woman took an independent, assertive position — what about Rose Maddox? I’ve become quite possessive about Rose Maddox since I discovered her on Ken Burns’ eight-part documentary on the history of country music, but I’ll say it again: there wouldn’t have been Kitty Wells, Wanda Jackson, Patsy Cline, Loretta Lynn, Dolly Parton, and on up to today’s women country stars like Miranda Lambert and Kim Perry if Rose Maddox hadn’t blazed the trail for women to sing country music with fierce independence and raw power. Still, I enjoyed the Dolly Parton show overall and especially the gospel number she did towards the end (remember that Parton, like Elvis Presley, started singing in church — it wasn’t just the great Black singers who started in church choirs!).

The show began with Dolly singing “Nine to Five,” one of her great career triumphs not only because it’s a wonderful song but because it came from a brilliant movie and Parton held her own as an actress with the far more experienced Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin. When I saw the recent — and horrible — movie Horrible Bosses, I wrote, “Through much of the film I found myself wishing a genuine comic genius could have got hold of this premise — what a movie Preston Sturges could have made around this concept! — until I remembered that in the late 1970’s a genuine comic genius, Colin Higgins, did get hold of this premise and made Nine to Five, a brilliantly funny film that also centered around three main characters (women instead of men) and an asshole boss (only one, whom all the heroines work for) they’d like to see dead, but brought a brilliant, anarchic energy to the concept and also did a lot more social commentary on the whole idea of ‘work,’ of why the people of a country that celebrates ‘rugged individualism’ and democratic freedom in the political and social arena passively accepts the regimentation and dictatorial control of bosses in the workplace. Comparing Horrible Bosses to Nine to Five is a sobering lesson in how much the Zeitgeist has changed in the intervening 31 years, from an era in which movies could at least play at criticizing capitalism to one in which the system is sacrosanct and the people subjected to it realize that they really have no alternative but to knuckle under and hope for the best.”

My little digression into political and social commentary above is a good introduction to one of the most remarkable things about country music in general and Dolly Parton’s oeuvre in particular; even a song like “Coat of Many Colors,” which on the surface is a heartwarming, sentimental tale about the coat from quilt scraps Dolly’s mother made for her and sent her to school in — only to get laughed at by the other children with their store-bought finery — is also a slashing attack on the whole concept of consumerism and the idea a lot of parents have (because the capitalist system in general and the advertising industry in particular) that the more money you spend on your kids the more you “love” them. Alas, after Dolly’s brilliant performance of “Nine to Five,” the next song we got was “Islands in the Stream.” which Dolly recorded as a guest artist on Kenny Rogers’ 1983 album Eyes That See in the Dark — and not surprisingly Dolly’s church-bred country soul totally wipes the floor with Rogers’ pop-crooner blandness. The version we got last night was by Lady Antebellum, with their two lead singers, Hillary Scott and Charles Kelley, taking the parts originally sung by Parton and Rogers, respectively — and once again the woman totally outpointed the man. (That’s one of my problems with Lady Antebellum — Hillary Scott is so much more powerful a singer than Charles Kelley her attempts to sing backup to him sound as imbalanced as the late Janis Joplin’s attempts to sing backups to the far less interesting voices of the men in her first group, Big Brother and the Holding Company. My other problem with them is their name: “ante-bellum,” which literally means “before the war,” is the term unreconstructed Southerners still use to describe the alleged golden age of the great plantations and the happy, contented slaves who worked them: I remember bitterly joking when I heard there was a country group called Lady Antebellum, “What are they going to call their album — Slavery Was Cool?”)

Anyway, after one of the endless commercial breaks that inflicted this show (I suspect the total running time would be just about 80 minutes without the commercials) Dolly did one of her earliest hits, “Joshua,” about the unkempt, bearded, legendarily fierce mountain man of her youth, sort of like Mr. Brouckhoff in Meet Me in St. Louis, who she met when she trespassed on his land, he held a gun on her, but eventually she decided he was hot and fell for him. (Dolly hastened to assure us that this is one song of hers that is not autobiographical.) Then as a part of a reminiscence she sang a bit of a singularly beautiful song called “Mirror, Mirror” that could — and should — have had a full rendition. (Much of Dolly’s most powerful singing last night was on these little interstital segments during which she played oddball instruments, including dulcimer and autoharp.) The next song was Dolly’s dulcimer number, “My Tennessee Mountain Sweetheart,” and then Toby Keith came on and did a song called “Kentucky Gambler.” It’s not that great a song — as much as Kenny Rogers’ “The Gambler” has been ridiculed, it’s a better song on the same theme — but I was too relieved that Keith didn’t trot out one of his Right-wing “patriotic” anthems to mind any deficiencies in what he was singing. Afterwards Dolly did “Coat of Many Colors” — which got to be a trial when Dolly produced a two-hour TV movie dramatizing the story but still remains devastatingly effective as a three-minute song (though the movie made clear that the materials for the coat of many colors were collected by Dolly’s mom for a quilt she had planned to make for Dolly’s unborn brother, only she didn’t use them because he was tragically stillborn). Afterwards Dolly sang one of her earliest records, a George Jones cover called “If You Want to Be My Baby” which she performed, powerfully and beautifully, backed only by her own acoustic guitar.

Then Chris Janson came out for a cover of Dolly’s cover of Jimmie Rodgers’ country classic “Muleskinner Blues,” and he did it well enough even though I was irritated he got the first two lines of the lyric wrong (the correct words are “Good morning, Captain; good morning, shine; Do you need another muleskinner out on your new mule line,” and Dolly got them right but Janson got them wrong), and Dolly came back with a veteran banjo player whose name I can’t make out from my notes — it looks like Buck Tuitt or Tritt — for a song called “The Carroll County Accident,” in which the bodies of a man and a woman are found in the wreckage of a train and it turns out from the way the bodies are positioned and the ring one of them was wearing that they were having an extramarital affair. After a brief tribute to the Carter Family in which Dolly sang a bit of “Wildwood Flower” and played autoharp, Emmylou Harris came out with a cover of a Dolly Parton song, “To Daddy.” I still have a bit of resentment that Emmylou Harris had the career Ronee Blakely (who incandescently played the character based on Loretta Lynn in Robert Altman’s 1975 film Nashville) should have, but she, Dolly and Linda Ronstadt made a beautiful couple of albums together and Harris has kept the flame of the true, beautiful old-time country music alive when so much of the “country” being played today is really what we who were young in the 1970’s called “Southern rock,” the music of the Allman Brothers and Lynryd Skynyrd. Dolly next performed “Here You Come Again,” one of the great crossover hits she had in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s that had country radio D.J.’s and the mavens of the Nashville establishment wondering, “Is Dolly still country?” — as if that thick twang (thicker when she speaks than when she sings) would allow her to pass for anything else? Afterwards there was a bit of an old film clip of Dolly — her blonde wig more restrained than the ones she wore later (she told an old joke of hers during the program: “It costs a lot of money to look this cheap”) — singing a surprisingly independent song for the early 1960’s called “Just Because I’m a Woman.”

Then Dierks Bentley covered a Parton song called “Old Flames” — the gist of which is that he can meet all his old flames again and he’ll still stay committed to his current partner because s/he’s better than all of them — for one of the better guest covers of the night (though it still would have worked better if he and Dolly had duetted on it!). Then Dolly did one of her best songs of the night, a tribute to Hank Williams that featured her doing an a cappella version of “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry,” which she identified as her favorite of Williams’ songs. Almost inevitably this led into a segment featuring Hank Williams, Jr., who’s ballooned to enormous dimensions (would Hank, Sr. have ever looked like this if he’d lived longer? I doubt it!) and who did a medley of “Move It On Over” and “Mind Your Own Business,” which had basically the same melody and were therefore easy to combine. I recall Williams, Jr. demonstrating on the Ken Burns Country Music show that the early rock ’n’ roll classic “Rock Around the Clock” had the same melody as his dad’s “Move It On Over” — which it does, though Williams, Jr. didn’t mention that there’s an earlier source for the melody: the traditional blues song “Your Red Wagon.” (I was also struck that Williams, Jr. and his second guitarist, Bert Walker, were both playing with slides.) After that Dolly blessedly returned with one of her most haunting songs, “Jolene,” which on a recent YouTube comment I counterpointed with Loretta Lynn’s “You Ain’t Woman Enough to Take My Man” because Dolly seemed to be saying, “You are woman enough to take my man — but please don’t.”

After that there were a couple of other covers of Parton songs, Candi Carpenter doing “Little Sparrow” and doing it well (though I suspect Dolly herself would have been even better!) and Margo Price doing the beautiful white-gospel song “The Seeker.” Dolly then did one of her tributes to the greats of old and recalled an old-time banjo player who did a song called “Old Applejack,” playing the banjo herself as well as singing. The finale featured Dolly doing what’s become one of her most famous songs — even though she didn’t have the hit on it: “I Will Always Love You.” I had always read she wrote this song for the 1983 musical The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas until the Ken Burns Country Music documentary said it was actually written much earlier as a sorrowful mixed-emotions parting from Parton’s early mentor, Porter Wagoner, who put her on his country TV show (he patronizingly referred to her as a “girl” and generally treated her in a paternal way that comes off, especially now, as sexist) and built up her career. When she saw that she’d gone as far as she could with Wagoner and she’d have to leave him — they were not a romantic couple, though probably a lot of people back then (including me) had thought they were — in order to pursue the career she had the talent and ambition for, she wrote that bittersweet song about how much she’d always respect her and be grateful for what he did for her, but now she had to leave and make it (or not) on her own. The weird history of “I Will Always Love You” — particularly the way it became a huge hit not for Parton, but for Whitney Houston as the theme song of her film The Bodyguard (usually it’s white artists who take hit songs away from Black ones, but in this case it was the other way around) — can’t help but affect the way we hear it now.

What came over most to me last night was the way comparing the Parton and Houston versions shows my argument that despite the reputation country music has for emotional excess (there’s the old joke, “What do you get when you play a country song backwards? You get your house back, your job back, your car back, your wife back and you sober up,” to which my husband Charles once added, “Yeah, and your mother and your dog come back to life”), the very greatest country singers — Jimmie Rodgers, Hank Williams, Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, Patsy Cline, Loretta Lynn, Dolly Parton among them — have had the gift of understatement. The best country singers deliver the heartfelt, if sometimes overwrought, sentiments of country songs in ways that play against the melodrama (much the way Billie Holiday took the “torch songs” of the 1920’s, with their melodic leaps designed to allow the singer to sob and cry while staying within the melody, and edited out all those gimmicks, sang them simply and straightforwardly with the direct phrasing she’d learned from Louis Armstrong and Lester Young, and made them far more powerful and moving — indeed I’ve argued that Patsy Cline phrased so much like Billie that she, not any of the white jazz singers who deliberately tried to copy Billie, deserves the title “the white Billie Holiday”). Whitney Houston turned “I Will Always Love You” into a big power ballad, showing off those spectacular chops, but it’s Dolly’s version that seems more true to life, more honest and more moving. The show ended with an outro of “Nine to Five” that I assumed would be just an instrumental featuring the crack band the Grand Ole Opry assembled for Dolly’s tribute, but no-o-o-o-o, she joined in and sang the show out just as the closing credits came up. While I’d have liked to hear fewer solo turns from the guest artists and more songs on which they and Dolly sang duets, otherwise this was a great program with a lot of really fine music — and Dolly herself is not only well preserved (though she made a joke about how many plastic surgeons she’s kept in business) but just as exuberant a performer and a personality as she’s always been.

Together Again (Columbia, 1944)

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

Last Saturday Charles and I screened a download from called Together Again, a 1944 movie co-starring Charles Boyer and Irene Dunne which seems to be called that less because it has anything to do with the plot (the story, written by Stanley Russell and future blacklistee Herbert Biberman and turned into a script by Virginia Van Upp, who also produced, and F. Hugh Herbert, does not cast Boyer and Dunne as former lovers who reunite) than simply because it was their third film together, after Love Affair (the original 1939 version of the story that became the 1957 film An Affair to Remember with Cary Grant in Boyer’s role and Deborah Kerr in Dunne’s) and When Tomorrow Comes (also 1939). The plot casts Dunne as Anne Crandall, who took over as mayor of the small town of Brookhaven, Vermont following the death of her husband five years earlier. In fact, the Crandall family founded Brookhaven and the town has never had a mayor who hasn’t been a Crandall. What’s more, though Anne isn’t a blood Crandall she’s living in her husband’s old house with two people who are: her former father-in-law, Jonathan Crandall, Sr. (Charles Coburn, a bit less crotchety than usual), and her stepdaughter Diana (Mona Freeman). Diana has an age-peer boyfriend named Gilbert Parker (Jerome Courtland) but she’s having the usual squabbles with him, and Jonathan Sr. wants to find Anne a replacement husband so she’ll give up the mayoralty and assume the true destiny of a woman: to stay at home, forsake her ambitions and just … well, you know. 

For the first half of the movie the plot premise’s inherent sexism is kept at least somewhat under control, but it flares up big-time when a well-timed lightning bolt knocks the head off the statue of Anne’s late husband, Jonathan Crandall, Jr., that dominates the town square. Jonathan, Sr. tells his former daughter-in-law to take that as a sign from heaven that she’s supposed to leave Brookhaven and go to New York City to recruit a sculptor who can redo the statue — though what he’s really hoping is that she’ll meet the man of her dreams, leave Brookhaven permanently and restore the town’s politics to the male gender even if that means it will no longer be run by a Crandall. Anne’s principal political opponent, Witherspoon (Walter Buchanan), is the editor-publisher of Brookhaven’s principal newspaper and is always on the lookout for stories that will make her look ridiculous. When she goes to New York she has an appointment to meet sculptor George Corday (Charles Boyer — well, they had to give his character a French name to justify his real-life accent!), who makes the mistake of assuming she’s the life model whom he’s called to pose in the nude for another sculpture he’s working on — and of course he makes the predictable sexist cracks about running a city not being a suitable job for a woman. Corday takes the job of rebuilding the Jonathan Crandall, Jr. statue and moves into the back house (which is so old it’s still called the “carriage house”!) of the Crandall estate, where he basically makes a pest of himself and keeps trying to make Anne interested in him — only through a series of complications the writing committee does little to make interesting, Anne’s stepdaughter Diana forms a crush on George and makes it clear that if her stepmom isn’t interested in him, she is. 

The plot progresses (like a disease) into a bizarre situation in which Diana is about to announce her engagement to George, and Anne feels somehow obligated to accept Diana’s age-peer former boyfriend Gilbert (ya remember Gilbert?) as her fiancé — and in the film’s unintentionally funniest line, at one point George turns to Gilbert and says, “If this keeps up I’ll have to marry you,” a line that plays quite differently in this age of same-sex marriage than it no doubt did in 1944. It ends as the iron laws of Hollywood sexism required it to end in 1944; no sooner has the new statue of Jonathan, Jr. gone up than it crashes down again, George confesses that he deliberately sabotaged his own statue in order to break Anne out of her rut and get her to leave Brookhaven with him. (I was at least hoping for a not quite as sexist finish in which Anne would agree to marry him as long as they lived in Brookhaven and she continued to be mayor — much like the ending of George Seaton’s The Shocking Miss Pilgrim from two years later, in which rival entrepreneurs Betty Grable and Dick Haymes pair up at the end but do so as professional and personal equals; just how Seaton got away with that ending when just about every other message to women from the mass media said, “O.K., you’ve had your fun. Time’s up. You’ve got to quit all those cool jobs you were working during the war and let the guys who are coming home from the service take them back” is a mystery to me.) We last see Boyer and Dunne as silhouettes formed from lightning in the night sky, suggesting that God him/her/itself is ordaining that Dunne’s character give up her career for her man. 

Together Again is a better movie than I’m making it sound in these notes — it’s really one of the last gasps of the screwball style, a highly professional cast gives it their all, director Charles Vidor stages it efficiently (though his greatest films, the little-known 1933 “B” Sensation Hunters and the well-known Rita Hayworth/Glenn Ford vehicle Gilda, are both noirs and suggest he had a darker sensibility than Columbia usually let him indulge) and a thoroughly professional cast turns in acceptable if not great performances. I especially liked that Irene Dunne got a chance to sing in the film — she’d auditioned for the Metropolitan Opera as a mezzo-soprano and had made several musicals, and here she does the tango “Adios, Muchachos” (written in 1927 by Argentinian pianist Julio César Sanders and adapted in the early 1950’s for Louis Armstrong with an English-language lyric as “I Get Ideas”), which has already been established as “their song” for the Boyer-Dunne couple. Charles was impressed by her excellent Spanish diction; it’s true that aspiring opera singers have to learn a lot of languages, but there still aren’t many repertory operas in Spanish (though Spanish and Italian are close enough that knowing one probably gives you a leg up on learning the other). Through much of the movie I was wondering what it might have been like with Katharine Hepburn in Dunne’s role — she probably would have hated the ending (though she went along with similar taming-of-the-shrew finishes in many of her MGM films) and it seemed like Dunne was copying some of Hepburn’s twitches even in an overall more reserved, less strident presentation. But the real mystery of Together Again is how such a sexist movie could have come from producer and co-writer Virginia Van Upp, who was not only a pioneer in women’s equality in Hollywood but was sufficiently aware of Columbia president Harry Cohn’s penchant for hitting on any even remotely attractive woman (Cohn was essentially the Harvey Weinstein of his time) that she had it put into her contract as a Columbia producer that she would never be required to attend a meeting on Cohn’s yacht.

Saturday, November 23, 2019

Bessie (HBO Films, Flavor Unit Entertainment,The Zanuck Company, 2015)

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

Last night’s “feature” was Bessie, a biopic of the great 1920’s blues singer Bessie Smith, which premiered four years ago on Home Box Office (does anyone else but me remembers that that’s what “HBO” stands for?) and which I had wanted to see because for once a producer of a biopic cast the person I would have wanted to see play the role. The star was Queen Latifah, and I’ve wanted to see her do a Bessie Smith biopic ever since I saw the 2002 film Chicago, in which she utterly obliterated the rest of the cast in her big number, “When You’re Good to Momma (Momma’s Good to You)” — at least partly because, in the middle of a cast of actors who don’t usually sing and did a passable job, Queen Latifah was the only professional singer (and it showed!). Also, she proved in Chicago that she could not only sing in the powerful, uninhibited style of a 1920’s blues diva, she could look good in the kinds of overstuffed, elaborate 1920’s stage costumes the real Bessie Smith wore. I was annoyed by the film’s inaccuracies — especially towards the end, where director Dee Rees (who gets credit not only for directing the film but co-writing the “story” with To Kill a Mockingbird adapter Horton Foote and the script with Christopher Cleveland and Bettina Gilois) spins a total fantasy of Bessie Smith making a triumphant comeback and performing at John Hammond’s “From Spirituals to Swing” concert before a racially mixed audience in 1938.

That didn’t happen for real because in 1937 Bessie Smith was killed in a car accident in Mississippi, a sordid tale that’s been the stuff of legend-making ever since. The legend was that she had been picked up by an ambulance driver who took her to the emergency room of a whites-only hospital, where she was turned away and told to go to the Black hospital farther on the outskirts of town, and while she was on her way to the Black hospital her injuries turned life-threatening and she died. That was a rumor that swept Mississippi’s Black community at the time and was reported as fact by John Hammond, whose Down Beat article “The Death of Bessie Smith” spawned generations of rumor-mongering (including a 1961 one-act play by Edward Albee) before the truth emerged. The truth was the ambulance driver had driven by the white hospital without stopping — he knew the rules — and when she finally got to the Black hospital the Black doctor who treated her decided her injuries in the crash had been so extensive she couldn’t have survived them anyway. I would have liked to see Bessie Smith’s death accurately dramatized in the film, and instead of the actual final scene (Bessie visiting a cemetery and laying flowers on the tombstone of her sister) I’d have liked a postlude showing that Bessie Smith’s grave was left unmarked until 1970, when another doomed blues singer who died too young, Janis Joplin, paid for a tombstone inscribed, “The Greatest Blues Singer in the World Will Never Stop Singing,” and made what turned out to be the last public appearance of her life at its unveiling. (Charles was just as happy with the film for not including Bessie Smith’s death.)

What I liked about Bessie was mostly the sheer power of Queen Latifah’s performance and the fact that the film, despite the many wrong or altered details of fact, captured the character of Bessie Smith as it’s been described by people who knew her: rough and tumble, profane, not taking shit from anybody and fiercely independent. (In that it reminded me of another musical biopic, Amadeus, which similarly played fast and loose with the facts of Mozart’s life but was true to his character as described in his own letters and the reminiscences of people who knew him.) Despite a bit too much of the past-is-brown convention for my taste (at times the lighting seemed almost designed to blend the skin tones of the Black cast members with the overall brown tone of the backgrounds), cinematographer Jeff Jur created a credible 1920’s look and avoided obvious anachronisms in the visual portions. (The audio portions weren’t as accurate; at one point in the film we hear a background cue that sounds more like late-1930’s swing than anything that would have been heard in the 1920’s.) I also liked the fact that Rees and his writers were honest about Bessie Smith’s bisexuality — she’s shown in plenty of sex scenes with both men and women, and despite the legend that she was “brought out” by fellow blues singer Gertrude “Ma” Rainey when she was working as part of Rainey’s “Rabbit Foot Minstrels” show, the film (believably) shows Bessie making out with women before she and Rainey meet. And the relationship between Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith is shown as a mentorship that reminded me of the way the relationship between Patsy Cline and Loretta Lynn was shown in the films Coal Miner’s Daughter and the recent Lifetime production Patsy & Loretta.

There’s also a more conventional romantic triangle between Bessie, her husband Jack Gee (Michael Kenneth Williams), whom I’ve read was a former police officer — I’d like to have seen them go into that background more because I’ve always been curious about how a Black man got hired to be a police officer then and how and where he would have worked — and her bootlegger and lover Richard Morgan (Mike Epps), who seems to have been the most decent guy she was ever involved with and who was also the uncle of another jazz great, Lionel Hampton. About the only aspect of the film that rubbed me the wrong way was the fantasy ending, which shows Bessie Smith doing the last recording session of her life in 1933 with John Hammond producing (accurate except for the inclusion of a drummer — Hammond had hired one but Bessie refused to record with a drummer, telling Hammond, “I don’t need no drums. I set the tempo”) and then going on to perform at the “Spirituals to Swing” concerts (she’d been dead over a year when these took place, and Bessie’s friend Ida Cox performed there instead — there’s a marvelous anecdote from Chris Albertson’s Bessie Smith biography I wish had been in the film, when Bessie is walking through the streets of Harlem in 1934 and comes on a marquee advertising “The Sepia Mae West” — she told her companions, “Who the fuck is this ‘Sepia Mae West’?,” went into the theatre to find out — and was astonished that it was Ida Cox, her old friend and colleague from the TOBA Black vaudeville circuit — the initials officially stood for Theatre Owners’ Booking Association but the performers themselves, as shown in this movie, nicknamed it “Tough on Black Asses”).

I was also irritated by Queen Latifah singing Bessie’s first record, “Downhearted Blues” (a song actually written by Alberta Hunter and her accompanist, Lovie Austin, and recorded by Hunter in 1921, two years before Bessie’s version; when Hunter made her late-in-life comeback in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s she would tell people — accurately — that she’d written Bessie Smith’s first record, and they wouldn’t believe her!) and singing the line “I ain’t never loved but three men in my life” as “three mens in my life” — Bessie sang “men,” not “mens” (she was “country” but she wasn’t that country!) — but it’s a testament to how well Queen Latifah assumed the mantle of Bessie Smith and how close she came to her style that the use of a real Bessie Smith record, “Gimme a Pigfoot” (heard first “as is” and then with a loud, obnoxious big band dubbed over it that brings it closer to the cover version Billie Holiday recorded in 1949), over the closing credits doesn’t blow Queen Latifah out of the water; instead it sounds of a piece with everything we’ve heard before. Though I still think Clint Eastwood’s Bird is the best film ever made about a real-life jazz giant, Bessie is quite a good one. Now, how about a biopic of Sister Rosetta Tharpe with Brittany Howard of Alabama Shakes playing her?

Sunday, November 17, 2019

Edward Scissorhands (20th Century-Fox, 1990)

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

I ran Charles one of the videos I’d just ordered from what was billed as the 25th anniversary Blu-Ray edition of the 1990 film Edward Scissorhands. This was a movie that had somehow eluded me when it came out — and Charles hadn’t seen it either, mainly because when it came out he was living with his mother in Grass Valley, California and ironically it was easier to see obscurities and art films there (an amateur ran his own pocket cinema under the stars and booked oddball fare) than a mainstream movie (for which he’d have to go to Nevada City) — even though Edward Scissorhands is a “mainstream movie” only in that it was made by an established studio (20th Century-Fox) and featured a director (Tim Burton) who already had mainstream hits under his belt (the original trailers advertised it as “From the Director of Batman and Beetlejuice”) as well as at least an “A-minus list,” if not an “A-list,” cast. The star is Johnny Depp, who had made his feature-film debut in the original 1984 A Nightmare on Elm Street and had had the lead role in John Waters’ Cry-Baby but was best known for his role on the TV series 21 Jump Street. Ironically, Tim Burton had never seen 21 Jump Street when he agreed to cast Depp in the title role of Edward Scissorhands — replacing either his or the studio’s first choice, Tom Cruise, who would have been terrible in the role. (Cruise wanted Burton and his co-writer, Caroline Thompson, to rewrite the story to have a happy ending.) This was the beginning of the long-term collaboration between Burton and Depp, which strikes me as one of the strongest and most interesting director-star partnerships in film history, alongside George Cukor/Katharine Hepburn, John Ford/John Wayne, John Huston/Humphrey Bogart, and Douglas Sirk/Rock Hudson. It was also the first collaboration between Burton and composer Danny Elfman, who started in music as the leader of the band Mystic Knights of the Oingo Boingo (later abbreviated simply to “Oingo Boingo”) and who, like the star, was only a second choice. Burton made Edward Scissorhands’ hair resemble that of Robert Smith, leader of the rock band The Cure (whose music was so notoriously depressing they were sometimes jokingly referred to as “Music to Commit Suicide By”), and he also wanted Smith to do the film’s score. But Smith turned it down and Burton hired Elfman, who took to writing an orchestral film score after an experience doing little but rock like the proverbial duck to water, supplying a score that perfectly captured the bittersweet mood of the story. 

Plotwise, Edward Scissorhands is an interesting variation on Frankenstein — though like the original film of Blade Runner, Edward Scissorhands actually captures more of the pathos and dramatic sophistication of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein novel than any of the direct adaptations (though, thanks to the genius of director James Whale and writer John L. Balderston, The Bride of Frankenstein came close). The film starts with vistas of a haunted old castle looming over a modern suburban development (though exactly when Edward Scissorhands takes place isn’t clear — judging from the cars, room décors and hairstyles, my guess is the mid-1970’s) which is first represented by an overhead shot of a model of such deliberate obviousness Charles couldn’t help but quote the line from Monty Python and the Holy Grail: “It’s only a model.” When we see the actual homes of the characters — or at least the clapboard false fronts representing them — they’re not much more realistic than that model: like Jim Sharman in The Rocky Horror Picture Show (another Frankenstein knockoff!), Burton and his set designer, Bo Welch, deliberately made the “normal” settings of the story look artificial and phony to send the message that it is the fantasy characters who have the more “real” (and realistically portrayed) inner lives. After a brief establishing shot of that mystery castle and then the model shot of suburbia, Edward Scissorhands opens with Avon saleslady Peg (Dianne Wiest, three years after she similarly interacted with fantastic characters in The Lost Boys) having a frustrating day of turn-downs (her low point was when she demonstrated her entire catalog in front of a 12-year-old girl who burst her bubble when she said, “You really don’t think I have any money, do you?”) and finally deciding to drive up the long, winding road to that old haunted castle. When she arrives she discovers Edward Scissorhands (Johnny Depp), alone in that old house, wearing a studded black leather jumpsuit that looks like one of Michael Jackson’s stage outfits and shocking Peg because he has scissor blades instead of hands. He can manipulate these as if they were fingers but he can’t actually grip anything with them — though he keeps trying — and about the one thing he can do with his hands the way they are is trim bushes into fantastic topiary sculptures. Peg immediately takes pity on Edward and offers to take him in without bothering to ask anyone else in her family, which includes her husband Bill (Alan Arkin) and their kids, teenage daughter Kim (Winona Ryder, second-billed to Depp) and prepubescent son Kevin (Robert Oliveri). 

There are some charming fish-out-of-water scenes of Edward trying to eat normal human food (he ultimately gives up on tableware and spears individual peas with the ends of his scissor fingers) and poking holes in Kim’s waterbed when he tries to sleep in it. Bill warns Edward that if he wants to survive in the normal world he needs to figure out how to make some money, and the opportunity comes along when one of the women in town asks Edward to clip her poodle. He does such a stunning job he’s in-demand as a dog groomer, and when one of his female customers asks if he can do her hair as well, he’s got a new career as a hairdresser. One of the local women offers to open a salon with him — she’ll run the business end, Edward will do the hair styling and Peg can have a cosmetics counter — but she’s really after Edward’s body. She takes him into the back room of the space in the local mall she’s thinking of renting, and while there she sexually assaults him, only just as the situation is heating up and one wonders how Burton and Thompson are going to write themselves out of the predicament they’ve written themselves into, the chair they’re making out on (with Edward expressing the same naïve inability to comprehend just what this woman wants from him that Stan Laurel did in similar seduction sequences in the Laurel and Hardy movies) collapses. Then it turns out that no one in Peg’s circle has the money for seed capital for Edward’s salon, and after the local bank turns them down Kim’s boyfriend Jim (the hot, hunky Anthony Michael Hall) concocts a scheme by which Edward, whose scissorhands make him an ace lock-picker, will burglarize Jim’s father and get around the elaborate security systems his dad has installed. Only it’s a trap: what Jim really wants is to get Edward arrested and disgraced because he’s jealous of how Kim is responding to him. Jim’s scheme not only works, it leads to the humiliation and ostracism of Peg’s and Kim’s entire family. No one comes to their annual Christmas party, and eventually Edward is driven out of the community and the villagers — oops, I mean the suburbanites — chase him to the haunted castle from whence he came. 

In the meantime we’ve got two flashbacks relating Edward’s origins: he’s an artificial human, created by the castle’s previous occupant, a mystery man known only as “The Inventor” (Vincent Price, in his final film — like Edward G. Robinson in Soylent Green, the terminally ill Price was cast and delivered a moving death scene as his final work in films — though Burton signed Leonard Nimoyto take over the part in case Price croaked before he shot all the character’s footage; certainly Price got a better exit than Boris Karloff did in that wretched Snake People and the three other films he shot for Azteca Studios in the last month of his life!), who gave Edward everything else he needed (including a heart the Inventor made from a heart-shaped cookie!) and was just about to install hands, replacing the scissors he’d intended only as temporary place-holders, when he suddenly died. Jim and his friends, driving a black van with “fire” trim that reminded me of the one in the TV cartoon Scooby-Doo, Where Are You?, nearly run down Kim’s brother Kevin. Edward saves Kevin’s life from the runaway van but in the process scratches Kevin’s face, and that just inflames the locals even more. Jim and his crew hunt down Edward and Jim carries a gun, intending to kill him. Edward kills Jim instead and Kim descends from the mountain with one of Edward’s scissorhands, saying they killed each other —and then the film flashes back to its opening with Kim as an old woman (Winona Ryder in heavy age makeup) reading Edward’s tale as a bedtime story to her granddaughter, and we get a final sequence of Edward skulking around That Castle, presumably for eternity because as a mechanical contraption instead of a living being, he need never die. 

I suspect I avoided Edward Scissorhands when it was new because the concept seemed too grotesque to be entertaining, but it turned out to be a quite remarkable movie with a lot of marvelous touches — and I think it especially affected me because I’ve spent most of my adult life helping people with various disabilities even though it was frustrating that over half a minute of screen time elapsed between the time Bill poured a drink for Edward and the time it finally occurred to him to give Edward a straw so he could drink it without being able to grip the glass and lift it to his mouth. The most moving scene in that regard is the one that got used in all the trailers — Kim, who’s realized she’s in love with Edward, asks him to hold her, he briefly ponders the mechanics of this and finally says, sadly, “I can’t,” before she takes charge and pulls his arms around her. Edward Scissorhands holds up as quite a beautiful movie, full of pathos and dramatic richness (one wishes someone would actually have directed an adaptation of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein with the sensitivity director Burton and co-writer Thompson brought to this film!), with an understated but nonetheless quite evident bit of social satire of the dullness of suburbia and the way it’s killed the imaginations of virtually everyone who lives there.

Thursday, November 14, 2019

A Kiss for Corliss, a.k.a. Almost a Bride (Strand Productions/United Artists, 1949)

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

Last night’s film was an independent production by James Nasser from 1949 originally released as A Kiss for Corliss and later retitled Almost a Bride for legal reasons surrounding its origins as a sequel to a 1944 film called Kiss and Tell. It’s mainly known as the last film ever made by Shirley Temple (her filmography lists a late-1950’s TV series she hosted called Shirley Temple’s Storybook and a final appearance as a guest star on Red Skelton’s TV show in 1963) before she retired from show business at age 21. She and Deanna Durbin are my Exhibits A and B in my contention that the only way a child star can have a rational, sane aduithood is to get the hell out of show business altogether, though Temple said in her autobiography Child Star that she took that decision after she turned 21, legally became an adult, and found that the trust fund that had supposedly collected her earnings as a child star had been so systematically looted by her parents (despite the passage of “Coogan’s Law” by the California legislature in the 1930’s that was supposed to keep that from happening) she only had $10,000 left from a career that had literally earned millions. The few movies Temple made as a teenager in the 1940’s reveal a performer who wasn’t readily able to adapt to the challenges of playing adult roles (as Elizabeth Taylor and Natalie Wood would do), and casting directors seemed thrown by her. A Kiss for Corliss is generally written off as an artistic disaster, but it turned out to be a much better movie than its reputation, suffering from some of the problems of teen movies then as now but mostly an agreeable light entertainment. It begins with attorney Harry P. Archer (Tom Tully) arguing in court that the defendant he’s going after is the most despicable character he’s ever encountered in his career: “Seldom in my long career as an attorney have I ever encountered a man who can claim no virtue. But I say to you, you have such a man in your courtroom today. Cold-blooded and ruthless, unmoved by the pain he has caused, Kenneth Marquis smugly sits there gloating.” At first we think Kenneth Marquis (David Niven) must be a serial killer Archer is prosecuting, but he turns out to be the defendant in a divorce case brought by his third wife, whom Archer is representing. Archer’s daughter Corliss (Shirley Temple) wants to watch her dad’s trial but he’s barred her —she tries an ineffectual disguise to sneak into the courtroom but the bailiff recognizes her immediately and bars her.

Corliss concocts a plot to make her age-peer boyfriend Dexter Franklin (Darryl Hickman) jealous; with the help of her friend Mildred Pringle (Virginia Welles — no relation) she concocts a phony diary suggesting that she and Marquis are lovers and she’s headed for the altar to be his wife number four. Only she gives it to another local kid, Raymond Pringle (Robert Ellis), to be rebound in leather — and Raymond photostats the pages, leaks them to Dexter — who publishes a small-scale paper of his own — and Dexter in turn shows them to Marquis to wangle an ad out of him. Marquis, who was so offended by Harry Archer’s victory in court (he won Marquis’ ex a $200,000 property settlement) he’s been looking for ways to needle him and seized on the idea of making it look like he’s dating Archer’s daughter as a good tactic to get under Harry Archer’s skin. Corliss and Dexter actually spent a night together, albeit a Production Code-licit one, when they tried to sneak into a gambling establishment called the Penguin Club and got locked in its basement overnight after they went there to hide out from a police raid on the place (engineered by a citizens’ committee led by Harry Archer that was determined to close down the club), but thanks to a whole lot of lying by the other characters Harry Archer and his wife Janet (Gloria Holden, who never had the star career playing the title role in the 1936 film Dracula’s Daughter should have given her), everyone gets the impression that that was when she spent the wild night with Kenneth Marquis described in her diary. At one point Corliss tries to fake amnesia to try to convince her parents she doesn’t remember That Night, and Shirley Temple spends about a reel of the film acting like the pre-pubescent Temple from a decade earlier — the one the world had fallen in love with and made the biggest movie star of the 1930’s.

Marquis himself leaks the diary to the mainstream press, a weekly magazine called Glimpse (i.e., Life) publishes the news that little Corliss Archer is about to become the fourth Mrs. Kenneth Marquis, Corliss’s uncle George (Roy Roberts) — a Navy chaplain — agrees to perform the ceremony despite his loathing for the groom — only at the end everyone comes to their senses and Corliss ends up innocently paired with Dexter while Kenneth ends up with a black eye (literally!) from Corliss’s dad. Written by Howard Dimsdale with F. Hugh Herbert getting a “characters created by” credit for having written Kiss and Tell, the film this was a sequel to (which is neatly referred to here when Kenneth sends Corliss an ornate box with a nightgown, each one embroidered with the day of the week on which she’s supposed to wear it, though after we see five white nightgowns labeled “Monday” through “Friday” the sixth drawer in the box contains a black nightgown embroidered “Kiss and Tell”), and directed by Richard Wallace, A Kiss for Corliss turns out to be a quite droll comedy with a marvelous comic-villain performance by David Niven, of whom we see surprisingly (and disappointingly) little even though he’s second-billed. Temple is O.K. playing a trope that was actually quite common in the 1940’s — a teenage girl cruising an older man in an attempt to make her teenage boyfriend jealous — Jane Powell’s lumbering (124-minute) MGM musical Holiday in Mexico had told much the same story, only in that one Powell was being raised by a single father (Walter Pidgeon) and the older man was pianist José Iturbi (playing himself!). But what came off as engaging precocity in the 1930’s when Temple was actually a child just seems like annoying immaturity here, and one can tell why Temple chose to make this her last film and get the hell out of the business.

Tuesday, November 5, 2019

Wicker Park (MGM, Lakeshore Entertainment, 2004)

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

At 9 p.m. last night I ran us a DVD from the extensive backlog of items I’ve acquired over the years: Wicker Park, a 2004 U.S.-Canadian co-production (the exteriors were shot in Chicago, where the story takes place, but the interiors were shot in Québec and many of the below-the-line personnel had French names) and a vehicle for Josh Hartnett during his brief run at stardom. This was three years after what should have been his star-making role in the 2001 Michael Bay Pearl Harbor, and it’s clear MGM and their co-producers, Lakeshore Entertainment, were pushing him as the star attraction: he’s billed above the title on the DVD (and in the film’s opening credits as well — back when movies still had opening credits!) while his co-stars, Rose Byrne, Matthew Lillard and Diane Kruger, are below the title. Wicker Park was based on a 1996 French film called The Apartment (a title the U.S. filmmakers probably decided not to use because it would have caused confusion with Billy Wilder’s 1960 film The Apartment, starring Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine), and the writing credits list Gilles Mimouni as writer of the original French film as well as Brandon Boyce for adapting it into the script for this one. From the online synopsis at — “Matthew (Josh Hartnett), a young advertising executive in Chicago, puts his life and a business trip to China on hold when he thinks he sees Lisa (Diane Kruger), the love of his life who walked out on him without a word two years earlier, walking out of a restaurant one day. With a little help from his friend Luke (Matthew Lillard), Matthew obsessively and relentlessly tracks Lisa down and while doing so, runs into another young woman calling herself Lisa whom, unknown to Matthew, is an actress named Alex (Rose Byrne), and may hold the key to Lisa’s disappearance, and discovery” — I had expected a knock-off of Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo, but that wasn’t the only Hitchcock movie the writers and director Paul McGuigan were ripping off. 

Also, unlike Hitchcock and his writer, Samuel Taylor, McGuigan and Boyce made their movie non-linear — it’s often hard to tell when a particular scene is taking place and our only even semi-reliable clue is that Josh Hartnett is generally better dressed in the current scenes than he is in the flashbacks. When he first met Lisa two years before he was an aspiring photographer who worked in a video repair store — they met, in fact, when she brought in a camcorder and asked him to fix it because it wasn’t recording sound — and he wore T-shirts and casual pants. By the time they re-meet he’s moved to New York, hooked up with an advertising agency and become engaged to his boss’s daughter, Rebecca (Jessica Paté), and so the “modern” Matthew wears a suit and tie. He’s just been relocated back to Chicago and as the film begins he’s scheduled to fly out to Shanghai to nail down a big account with a Chinese company — only he never leaves because while having dinner at Bellucci’s Restaurant (apparently an in-joke reference to Monica Bellucci, the female star of the original French film, though so many scenes take place at that restaurant one wonders whether there aren’t any other eating places in Chicago besides that one and a Wicker Park diner, and why the characters don’t go somewhere else given all the dire things that happen to them at Bellucci’s) he sees Lisa, or thinks he does, after hearing her voice tell someone off in the corridor leading to the restrooms and also a room that’s marked “Telephone.” (This film takes place in a sort of technological in-between when cell phones existed but enough people didn’t have them that an infrastructure of public pay phones still survived.) He traces her to her apartment and they hook up — only the woman he hooks up with isn’t the original Lisa, though she says her name is Lisa, and it turns out only many reels of confusion later that she’s really the actress Alex, who’s in Lisa’s apartment because she’s Lisa’s roommate. The film is full of highly symbolic and “charged” objects, including a silver compact Lisa supposedly inherited from her grandmother (and the klutzy Luke drops it and breaks its mirror) and the key to the apartment, which Matthew accidentally drops down a storm drain and then has to retrieve in a scene all too obviously copied from Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train

Wicker Park is the sort of movie you want to like but it won’t let you because, despite some quite impressive scenes, it’s just too confusing. We’re constantly being kept off-balance as to when we are — if the Charlie Kaufman-Michel Gondry Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Pedro Almódovar’s Talk to Her are models of how a non-linear film should be done, this is a model for how one shouldn’t — and it also doesn’t help that Josh Hartnett, whom I quite liked during his brief vogue, seems miscast. He comes across like the sort of actor who in the 1930’s and 1940’s got built up to replace a potentially recalcitrant star — and the star they seemed to be aiming him to replace was Tom Cruise, not exactly the greatest actor or most romantic figure either (and with Cruise in the lead Wicker Park would be even weaker than it is). It also doesn’t help that the payoff for all the strange incidents of the plot seems rather silly — it seems that Alex, even though she was dating Matthew’s friend Luke, formed an instant, obsessive crush on Matthew the first time she laid eyes on him and determined to break him and Lisa up so she could get him on the rebound. And the final meet-up between Matthew and the real Lisa at O’Hare Airport just when he’s hanging out there and still pretending to have taken that flight to China (ya remember the flight to China?), and he’s run into Rebecca and broken off their engagement, just smacked of old-time movie convention. Frankly, this film would have been more powerful dramatically with them never getting back together and Matthew spending the rest of his life thinking he recognizes her in various crowds — something like the beautiful “A Needle in a Haystack” scene in the Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers film The Gay Divorcée, whose writers eventually brought the Astaire and Rogers characters (back) together in a way far more credible dramatically than anything Paul McGuigan (yet another director who thinks he’s Alfred Hitchcock, and isn’t) or Brendan Boyce could manage.

Sunday, November 3, 2019

Sweet Smell of Success (Norma-Curtleigh Productions, Hecht-Hill-Lancaster Productions, United Artists, 1957)

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

I watched a fascinating movie last night that was being shown on Turner Classic Movies as part of “Noir Alley”: Sweet Smell of Success, a thoroughly acrid story centered around a desperate publicity agent, Sidney Falco (Tony Curtis), whose entire livelihood depends on his ability to place items about his clients into the New York Globe column written by all-powerful arbiter, tastemaker and what would today be called an “influencer” J. J. Hunsecker (Burt Lancaster, who also produced this film with his business partners Harold Hecht and James Hill). The story began as a Collier’s magazine fiction piece by Ernest Lehman, though the magazine rejected Lehman’s original title and called it “Tell Me About It Tomorrow.” Lehman actually called the story “Sweet Smell of Success,” but the Collier’s editors didn’t like the idea of publishing something with the word “smell” in the title — but when Lehman republished the piece as a novel he reverted to his preferred title, and that’s the one that was used for the film. Lancaster originally considered other actors for the role of Hunsecker, including Frank Sinatra (whose still-diminutive frame would have come closer to the character’s real-life model, Walter Winchell) and Orson Welles (who would probably have wanted to direct the film as well, especially since the story deals with his favorite theme — the power of the media — that informed his most famous works, the 1938 War of the Worlds radio broadcast and the 1941 film Citizen Kane), before deciding to play the part himself.

Lancaster got upset when he hired Ernest Lehman to adapt his own story for the screen but Lehman got sick and dropped out of the assignment; his replacement, Clifford Odets, if anything made the script even more acid and cynical — and Odets was forced to write in a terrible rush, sometimes sending pages by messenger to the set where the film was being shot and forcing the actors to learn them immediately. This is hardly the best way to make a film, and it pissed off the director Lancaster actually hired, Scottish filmmaker Alexander Mackendrick — who’d previously worked at Ealing Studios and made, among other things, the anti-capitalist satire The Man in the White Suit — but when the BBC bought Ealing’s physical plant and shuttered its production company in 1956 Mackendrick decided to try his luck in Hollywood. Mackendrick was reportedly a William Wyler-style perfectionist — the sort of director who maddened actors by calling for take after take of a scene without giving them a clue as to what he wanted done differently — but, aided by the great cinematographer James Wong Howe (just the right person to create noir atmospherics on actual locations — though some of the film was shot in Hollywood on the Samuel Goldwyn lot, much of it was actually filmed in New York City and incorporates some of the famous nightclubs and restaurants mentioned in the dialogue), Mackendrick turned in a marvelously paced, fast-moving film whose subject is power and corruption. What struck me most about this film in 2019 is how close the character of J. J. Hunsecker is to Donald Trump: egomaniacal, utterly without scruples, constantly dropping the word “favor” (in both its literal meaning of “I want you to do something for me … ” and the symbolic meaning, as in “royal favor,” since the story depicts Hunsecker as literally a person who can make or break people with a few words in his column and everyone around him continually begs him for the royal favor, the nod that will indicate they’re in his good graces and he will help them rather than destroy them) and also literally turning from someone’s fast friend to his bitter enemy. (The parallel between Hunsecker and Trump is even stronger when you consider that seven years after he made this film, Lancaster starred in Seven Days in May as an ambitious U.S. army general who attempts to overthrow the U.S.’s democratically elected government and install himself as the nation’s dictator.)

The plot kicks off when Falco picks up the latest copy of the New York Globe (whose delivery trucks advertise Hunsecker’s column as the main reason people should buy the paper) and notices that for the fifth day in a row an item Hunsecker promised to print for him hasn’t appeared. Approaching Hunsecker to find out why he’s being frozen out — he has to place a phone call from a booth in a restaurant to the phone at Hunsecker’s table, and you hear the chilling sound of Lancaster’s voice in the role even before we see him — Falco finds it’s because Hunsecker assigned him to break up the romance between Hunsecker’s sister Susan (Susan Harrison) and jazz guitarist Steve Dallas (Martin Milner), who’s shown on-screen leading the real-life Chico Hamilton Quintet, an unusual group that featured flute and cello as lead instruments along with a rhythm section of guitar, bass and drums. Just why J. J. is so anxious to break them up is unstated, though we get the hint that Hunsecker has an incestuous attraction to his sister (another Trump parallel: Trump once said his daughter Ivanka was so hot-looking that “if she weren’t my daughter, I would date her”), but it provides the plot line for the entire movie. To smear Steve in the press, Falco writes a “blind item” that doesn’t name him but accuses him of being both a drug user and a Communist (incidentally the filmmakers had the members of the Chico Hamilton Quintet followed for several weeks to ensure that none of them were using drugs, lest the real Winchell expose them in his column to discredit the film), and he shops it around to other columnists. He picks one because previously he had promised Rita (Barbara Nichols), a cigarette girl, an interview for a piece he was doing on the lives of cigarette girls — only the “interview” took place in the columnist’s hotel room and his interest in her was more physical than journalistic. (Just in case anyone thought that the shit Harvey Weinstein pulled on women to get sex was anything new … )

When the columnist not only fails to take the bait but confesses his indiscretion to his wife — who’s right there next to him — Falco tries again with another columnist, Otis Elwell (David White, who would later play a similarly slimy and unscrupulous character as ad boss Larry Tate on the TV series Bewitched), and this time offers Rita to him as a one-night sex toy if he’ll print the item. The item gets Steve and his band fired from their nightclub gig, but when Steve goes to the set of Hunsecker’s TV show to complain to the Great Man — and the Great Man says, “When you insult me, you insult all 65 million people who read my column and watch me on TV” (another Trump parallel: he recently told a rally audience in Mississippi that in attempting to impeach him the Democrats were not only attacking him, they were disenfranchising all 65 million people who voted for him[1] —just as elsewhere in the movie Hunsecker employs another of Trump’s favorite tricks, telling someone that “people are saying” something bad about them, when in fact it’s he who’s saying it and the “people” are figments of his imagination) — Hunsecker abruptly reverses course and decides to play White Knight and help Steve get his job back if he’ll just leave Susan alone. But the stress on Susan of being essentially the rope in a tug-of-war between her brother and her boyfriend leads her to attempt suicide by throwing herself off the balcony of J. J.’s high-rise apartment — and Falco grabs her to keep her from killing himself just as J. J. arrives, instantly comes to the conclusion that Falco was trying to rape Susan, and beats Falco up, leaving Falco back in the gutter just as he thought he had worked himself into J. J.’s good graces and would finally get to enjoy “the sweet smell of success.” Sweet Smell of Success was one of those movies (like The Wizard of Oz, Citizen Kane and Vertigo) that was a box-office bomb when initially released (though I suspect it wasn’t anywhere near as much a flop as’s figures would indicate: they said the film cost $2.6 million, running way over an initial budget of $600,000, and listed a “Cumulative Worldwide Gross” of just $7,336, which must be a typo) but has since become regarded as a classic.

I think it’s a film that just misses greatness: the overall conception is wonderful if you regard it as entertaining to be told for 96 minutes that human beings are nothing but swine (which I do, since it’s awfully close to the truth); Mackendrick’s direction is effective and atmospheric; and Lancaster and Curtis deliver among the greatest performances of their careers, both fully relishing the evil they were called upon to portray — Lancaster the super-bully and Curtis the pathetic sycophant. Barbara Nichols is also excellent as the woman Falco rescues from being sexually exploited by one columnist and then himself “sells” her to another. One problem with this movie is we really don’t get a sense of how Hunsecker and Falco got that way — a bit of Citizen Hunsecker explaining how he started out, how he got so powerful and what is his relationship to the owners of the New York Globe might have made Sweet Smell of Success not only more effective social commentary but more powerful drama (though it’s arguable that we don’t want to see Hunsecker as fallen idealist because he, unlike Charles Foster Kane, never had any ideals to lose. We also don’t get much of a hint about Hunsecker’s sexuality; in the real world someone with as much power over others as we’re told he has uses it to force himself onto barely willing (or sometimes outright unwilling) partners to get his rocks off. We don’t see him do any of that — which reinforces the impression that he’s got an incestuous crush on his sister, either that or he’s totally asexual and power, in the Orwellian definition as “the ability to make others suffer,” is his real turn-on. But the biggest problem with Sweet Smell of Success is the incredibly weak casting of the only two people in the dramatis personae we’re actually supposed to like, Steve and Susan. About all Susan Harrison can do is pose for the camera looking pretty and pout her way through the big moments (based on her work in the similarly themed — and equally unsuccessful commercially — A Face in the Crowd, Lee Remick might have been a better choice for the role), and Martin Milner is simply one of the most boring actors of all time.

When Charles and I watched him a decade later in the film Valley of the Dolls I began to wonder if that film’s director, Mark Robson, ever had a stagehand put a mirror under Milner’s nose to see if he was still breathing after a particularly somnolent take from him, and while he’s not quite as inanimate a presence in this film, he’s awfully damned close. According to the “Trivia” posters, Milner was cast at the last minute after the actor originally given the role, Robert Vaughn (later star of the TV James Bond knock-off The Man from U.N.C.L.E.), suddenly got drafted — but with the one actor who’d have been totally right for the role, James Dean, having been dead for two years the filmmakers would have been better advised going for one of the many young men around then trying for the Dean mantle, like Paul Newman, Steve McQueen or even Michael Landon, someone who could have given at least the appearance of trying to fight back against Hunsecker’s obscene power. While watching the film I had at least given Milner credit for putting in the effort to look right in the scenes in which he’s supposedly playing guitar with the Chico Hamilton Quintet — his left arm moved credibly across the guitar neck — but in his outro the TCM host said he really wasn’t doing it: the Hamilton Quintet’s actual guitarist, John Pisano, stood behind him off-screen, reached around him to the neck of the guitar, and fretted it for him. Despite the weaknesses in the casting, though, Sweet Smell of Success is a fascinating film, well worth watching and seeming quite modern in its unremitting cynicism — indeed, according to a brief mention in Steven Bach’s book Final Cut, in the late 1970’s Faye Dunaway approached United Artists about remaking it with her in the Burt Lancaster role of the all-powerful columnist (which would have been interesting) — and it would be interesting to imagine a modern version with Hunsecker a fabulously successful online “influencer” whose word on his Web site could make or break careers!

[1] — Actually only 62 million Americans voted for Trump. The Electoral College and the distribution of voters throughout the country effectively disenfranchised the 65 million of us who voted for Hillary Clinton to be our President.