Tuesday, January 28, 2020

Berlin Swings!

German Orchestra, Russian Conductor Do Justice to American Show Music in Berlin New Year’s Concert


Copyright © 2020 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

Until 1989, when Herbert von Karajan’s tenure came to an abrupt end in April just three months before his death that July, it would have been unthinkable for the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra to have a principal conductor who wasn’t German or Austrian. Throughout the 20th century three conductors — Artur Nikisch (who made a fascinating recording of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony with Berlin Philharmonic musicians in 1914), Wilhelm Furtwängler (who had the dodgy, to say the least, task of leading the orchestra through the Nazi years) and Karajan — had ruled the orchestra and dominated the German musical scene.
But times changed quite abruptly after Karajan left the orchestra in April 1989 and the planet three months later. His first replacement was Claudio Abbado, an Italian. When Abbado moved on he was replaced by the British Simon Rattle. Now the Berlin Philharmonic’s principal conductor is a Russian, Kirill Petrenko, and for his first major project with the orchestra — its New Year’s concerts at the end of 2019 — this Russian conductor chose to lead a German orchestra and a German vocal soloist, soprano Diana Damrau, in a program of music by American musical-comedy composers George Gershwin, Harold Arlen, Richard Rodgers, Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim. The only German represented on the program was Kurt Weill, who fled when the Nazis took over in 1933 — along with Albert Einstein and Thomas Mann, he’d been named by Adolf Hitler as one of the three Jewish Germans he particularly didn’t like — and the music by Weill played at the New Year’s concert was a “symphonic nocturne” arranged by Robert Russell Bennett for one of Weill’s American musicals, Lady in the Dark.
My husband Charles and I watched a download of the 2019-2020 Berlin Philharmonic New Year’s concert last Sunday, January 26, right after we saw the 62nd annual Grammy Awards. The program began with the overture from George Gershwin’s musical Girl Crazy, which, like Broadway overtures usually do, extensively “plugged” the songs audiences would subsequently hear in the actual show. Premiered in 1930 at the Alvin Theatre in New York (named for its co-owners, Alex Aarons and Vinton Freedley), Girl Crazy made stars of its female leads, Ethel Merman and Ginger Rogers and introduced such memorable Gershwin songs as “I Got Rhythm” and “But Not for Me.” The biggest surprise of the Berlin Philharmonic’s performance of the Girl Crazy overture was that they actually swung. Unlike a lot of other European orchestras who take on Gershwin, they didn’t take a leisurely amble through this music; they played it with the jazzy verve it demands.
Next Diana Damrau came on for two songs from the Broadway musical canon: “If I Loved You” from the Richard Rodgers-Oscar Hammerstein II show Carousel and “I Feel Pretty” from the Leonard Bernstein-Stephen Sondheim classic West Side Story. I take care to mention the lyric writers because the producers of the telecast didn’t: they attributed the songs exclusively to Rodgers and Bernstein, respectively. This was especially annoying because “If I Loved You” (which for some reason Damrau insisted on singing “If I Love You” — present tense, not conditional) was an example of a musical trick Hammerstein invented to solve the problem of how you can have the two romantic leads sing a love duet when their characters have just met.
Hammerstein’s solution was something he called the “conditional love song,” in which the lovers-to-be would imagine themselves having the relationship they wouldn’t develop until later in the plot. His first “conditional love song” was “Make Believe,” written with Jerome Kern for the 1927 musical Show Boat (a production that so totally rewrote the ground rules for musicals that Broadway historians frequently divide the history of American musicals into two eras, “before Show Boat” and “after Show Boat”): “We could make believe I love you/We could make believe that you love me/Others find peace of mind in pretending/Couldn’t you, couldn’t I, couldn’t we?”
In his first show with Richard Rodgers, Oklahoma!, Hammerstein wrote another “conditional love song,” “People Will Say We’re in Love.” For their second show together, Carousel, they wrote “If I Loved You” and had another smash hit: “If I loved you/Words wouldn’t come in an easy way/If I loved you, off you would go in a mist of day.” In a song aimed more at the so-called “legit” (short for “legitimate”) style of Broadway singing — which emphasizes clear, pure tones and comes closer to opera than the loud, aggressive “belt” that’s the other main style of Broadway song (and at which Ethel Merman was the mistress) — Damrau phrased eloquently and sounded right.
I had qualms with some of her artistic choices — singing “If I love you” instead of “If I loved you,” and in her next song, “I Feel Pretty” from the Bernstein-Sondheim West Side Story, adopting an annoying attempt at a Puerto Rican accent because her character, Maria, is supposed to be Puerto Rican. I also missed the choral interjections in “I Feel Pretty” as performed in the show, but it was still O.K. and if other opera singers have sung musical songs more effectively (like the great Eileen Farrell in the 1950’s and 1960’s), there’ve been others who’ve done them worse.
The song from West Side Story was followed up with a long instrumental selection from the same show, the so-called “Symphonic Dances from West Side Story” which were premiered by the New York Philharmonic in 1960, three years after the musical itself was first produced. It’s unclear from the online source at LeonardBernstein.com (the full link is at https://leonardbernstein.com/works/view/73/symphonic-dances-from-west-side-story) whether Bernstein himself made this arrangement of the big songs from his famous musical, but he recorded it in Los Angeles in 1978 and it’s been recorded fairly often since. The classical CD sales site ArkivMusic.com lists 49 recordings (it also identifies Bernstein as the arranger), though some of them are duplicate issues of the same performance.
One performance by the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra under Robert Shaw, conductor, was coupled on an early Vox CD with Tchaikovsky’s Fantasy-Overture on Romeo and Juliet as a nod to the way Bernstein, Sondheim and book writer Arthur Laurents adapted Shakespeare’s play for the plot of West Side Story, changing the characters from feuding families in medieval Italy to warring street gangs in New York City. Petrenko’s performance on the Berlin New Year’s concert was a bit draggy in spots but especially moving in the slower, more lyrical parts of the score.
Alas, after the Symphonic Dances there was an odd glitch either in the download from which we were watching the concert or the home-burned DVD we were watching it from. Diana Damrau was supposed to have come out to sing the song “Foolish Heart” from Kurt Weill’s U.S. musical One Touch of Venus, after which we were supposed to get an extended “Symphonic Nocturne” from another of Weill’s American shows, Lady in the Dark. This orchestral piece, arranged by Robert Russell Bennett (a capable Broadway orchestrator who did similar symphonic digests of other shows, including George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess and Cole Porter’s Kiss Me, Kate), was a bit misnamed because it alternated fast and slow songs and didn’t sound especially “nocturnal.”
About the only memorable songs from Lady in the Dark are the ballad “My Ship” and the raucous novelty “The Saga of Jenny,” and these were the highlights of Bennett’s allegedly nocturnal concoction. It would probably have been better if conductor Petrenko had represented this show by having Damrau sing those two songs — “My Ship” would have especially suited her voice — than by plowing through this medley from it which seemed to come alive only when he got to caress lovingly the long-lined melody of “My Ship.”
The glitching continued after Damrau returned to perform Stephen Sondheim’s “Send In the Clowns” from his musical A Little Night Music — based on Ingmar Bergman’s 1955 movie Smiles of a Summer Night. Ever since I first saw this entire show in a Cygnet Theatre production about a decade ago I’ve wished that the singers who do this song as a separate piece would add the beautiful reprise, which makes the piece less melancholy and more hopeful. Instead Damrau, like just about everyone else (including Sarah Vaughan, who brought wrenching emotion and power to her two versions, one with just piano and one with a full orchestra), just did the first part, but she phrased it eloquently even if not at Vaughan’s high level.
Alas, after “Send In the Clowns” the DVD bounced backwards to the middle of the same song, then jumped ahead and finally settled down to allow us to watch Damrau’s last piece of the evening, the classic Harold Arlen-E. Y. “Yip” Harburg song “Over the Rainbow” from The Wizard of Oz. I’ve heard this song in innumerable versions, many of them sung by the person who introduced it, Judy Garland. She had to trot it out in virtually all her live appearances until she got sick of it, and her 30 years’ worth of performances are a virtual testament to the wreckage of that prodigiously talented woman on the dark altars of alcohol and drugs, from the wide-eyed innocence with which she sang it in the movie and on her first record (with Victor Young’s orchestra on Decca) to the hard-bitten voice, worn down by the cares of the world and the burden of stardom but still rallying to project the song’s hopeful message.
Other great versions of “Over the Rainbow” include Ray Charles’ great cover from his 1963 album Ingredients in a Recipe for Soul (which remains my favorite non-Garland recording); Patti LaBelle’s impassioned but (at least to me) overwrought and over-ornamented soul version from the 1980’s; and the one Ariana Grande performed at the end of the benefit concert she gave in Manchester, England in 2017 as a benefit for the survivors and families of the victims of a terrorist attack on her earlier concert there. (Lifelong liberal Judy Garland, who’d campaigned for Franklin Roosevelt in 1944 and John F. Kennedy in 1960, would have approved — as would lyricist Harburg, whose Leftist activism had got him blacklisted in the early 1950’s.) Damrau’s version hardly reached these heights, but it was still credible, and she scored points with me for including the show’s rarely recorded verse.
The concert ended, as it had begun, with the music of George Gershwin — specifically his 1928 tone poem An American in Paris. As he had with the Girl Crazy overture, Kirill Petrenko brought real pizzazz and swing to music that’s usually treated all too “classically.” While Nathaniel Shilkret’s 1929 recording for Victor remains my all-time favorite — it was the first time the piece was recorded, Shilkret and Gershwin (who was there) got into an argument about tempi, Gershwin stalked out but then returned just in time for Shilkret, who realized he hadn’t hired a keyboard player to perform the piece’s short but important part for celeste — Petrenko threw himself into it and, as he had with Girl Crazy, got the Berlin Philharmonic to swing.

If nothing else, the adventurous programming of the Berlin Philharmonic’s New Year’s concerts is a welcome antidote for the hidebound concerts the Vienna Philharmonic gives for New Year’s. The Vienna Philharmonic always performs the music of the Strauss waltz family, interspersed with other light music from other European composers, and the program is so controlled by the traditions laid down over the years it takes a conductor with real spirit to make the program fun (as Andriss Nelsons did this year). The Berliners do a different program each year, usually centered around a different country and its light-music traditions, and this year’s show was a triumph that showed how the works of America’s musical theatre are loved, enjoyed and, most importantly understood the world over by both players and audiences.

Monday, January 27, 2020

Billie Eilish, Demi Lovato Shine at Troubled Grammy Awards


Copyright © 2020 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

Last night CBS-TV telecast the 62nd annual Grammy Awards from the Staples Center in Los Angeles — billed as “the house Kobe Bryant built” because the arena was originally built at least in part to host the Los Angeles Lakers basketball team when Bryant was one of its stars. By a freak of timing, Bryant had just been killed in a helicopter crash that day along with his daughter and seven other people. So the Grammys largely became, in a weird but appropriate way, a tribute to a celebrity and his tragically premature demise even though the music world the Grammys supposedly honor and the sports world in which Bryant thrived are normally miles apart.
If nothing else, this gave the Grammy participants and organizers something legitimate to mourn over and took attention away from the latest scandal surrounding the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences (NARAS), which puts on the Grammys: the sudden either resignation or firing of the group’s first female executive director, Deborah Dugan, four days before the show. Last December Dugan filed a 46-page complaint against the group alleging she was sexually harassed by general counsel Joel Katz, and also that NARAS wanted to re-hire former director Neil Portnow as a consultant despite an outstanding rape charge against him by a female recording artist. (Portnow’s predecessor, Michael Greene, was also forced out over sexual harassment allegations.)
My source for the story was the Hollywood Reporter at https://www.hollywoodreporter.com/thr-esq/can-cbs-grammys-telecast-weather-an-explosive-scandal-1272073. The article explained that the Dugan issue threatened to cast a cloud over the awards show — particularly since one of the sins she’s accusing NARAS of is rigging the awards and the live telecast so female artists (and probably not just female artists!) are being boosted with awards and appearances on the show based on whom they’re sleeping with. At least two major women singers ended their performances last night by walking into the audience and singing the final verses directly to much older men in the front rows.
Being able to honor Kobe Bryant and turn the ceremony largely into a memorial tribute to him, even though he had nothing to do with music (unlike some other major athletes these days, Bryant blessedly didn’t think he could sing or act, and therefore didn’t try to do those things in public), gave NARAS and the on-air talent a way out of having to confront the latest Grammy scandal. Bryant’s death united the crowd both at Staples Center and on TV in mourning for a celebrity tragedy instead of thinking, “Who’s been sleeping with whom to get this award?”

Billie Eilish the Night’s Big Winner

The top awards at the 62nd annual Grammy Awards came to a prodigiously talented Irish-American singer-songwriter named Billie Eilish. I first encountered her when I bought her CD as part of a bunch of discs I picked up one night at a Target store (which since the demise of most brick-and-mortar record stores under the lash of the Internet has become one of the most convenient places to pick up CD’s of current mainstream pop) and I’m not sure why. Having the same first name as my all-time favorite singer, Billie Holiday? Putting a provocative cover on her release: a photo of her with long black hair and a baggy white outfit draped over what’s either a white piano or a white couch? Or giving her record a philosophical title: When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?
My first impression when I actually played Eilish’s disc was, “If Tori Amos made a drum-and-bass record, this is what it would sound like.” It’s a sound that’s hard to characterize — if you look it up on Apple Music’s Gracenote database it gives Eilish’s genre as “Electronica,” and there are certainly elements of electronic dance music in it. But the sound Eilish and Finneas, her brother, producer and co-writer, have created is a haunting blend of low-frequency dance-pop bass lines; bits of guitar, piano and synth used as ornaments, Eilish’s own multitracked vocals and a matter-of-fact singing style that projects richly — if sometimes self-consciously — “poetic” lyrics.
Yes, like just about every woman singer-songwriter who attempts depth in both her music and her words these days, there are elements of her great predecessors — not only Tori Amos but Joni Mitchell before her and Melanie before her. (I still think Melanie is one of the most savagely underrated artists of the 1960’s; she’s remembered — if at all — only for hippie-dippy anthems like “Beautiful People” and “Brand New Key,” but she wrote a lot of songs about the darker sides of human existence and sang them in a wrenching soul voice matched, among white women singers in the 1960’s, only by Janis Joplin’s. If you like Cyndi Lauper, Jewel, Lorde or any of the other white women today who sing enervated songs in high ranges with fast vibratos, you’re liking Melanie whether you know it or not.)
I hope whatever Deborah Dugan has to say about the process by which the Grammys are awarded — and how NARAS, in her telling, is an organization that makes Harvey Weinstein’s operation look like a model of feminist sensitivity by comparison — doesn’t take away from Eilish’s achievement. She won Album of the Year, Record of the Year, Song of the Year (for “Bad Boy,” shared with her brother, Finneas O’Connell) and Best New Artist. Despite the unfortunate green patch she splashed on her hair — she looked like the guy in the Dr. Seuss story Green Eggs and Ham threw out the green eggs and they landed on her head — she presented herself on the show as an artist, not a sexpot.
She also seemed overwhelmed by the attention she got. Both she and Finneas said that they never expected their album to sweep the Grammy Awards. Neither, quite frankly, did I. I thought she’d have a career like Tori Amos’s, releasing delightfully enigmatic albums at regular intervals and building up a cult following without making it into the major music marketplace. I didn’t think music this complex, this individualistic, this unique and this beautiful was going to land its maker on the cover of Rolling Stone.
Eilish is probably the most off-beat Grammy Album of the Year winner since the Canadian band Arcade Fire. This seems like one time the much-maligned NARAS — whom I still haven’t forgiven for giving the 1984 Album of the Year award to Lionel Richie’s All Night Long instead of one of the two ground-breaking masterpieces released that year, Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the U.S.A. and Prince’s Purple Rain — got it triumphantly right.
Not, of course, that there won’t be crabbing. Doubtless there will be some complaints from the hipper-than-thou critics at the Los Angeles Times that once again the NARAS voters have failed to give Album of the Year to a rap (or “hip-hop,” to use the euphemism for rap by people who like it) release. There will also probably be people who will claim Lizzo, the giant African-American soul belter, should have won Album of the Year and Best New Artist, and claim that she didn’t because NARAS is racist.
But from what I’ve heard of Lizzo (whose silly stage name sounds like a cheap knock-off laundry detergent you buy at 99¢ stores or in Mexico), she isn’t doing anything Aretha Franklin didn’t do better before her, or Dinah Washington didn’t do better before Aretha did. Lizzo’s great, but we’ve heard her music before. Despite the influences — not only the ones I mentioned but the ones Eilish has copped to: rapper Tyler, the Creator (who won the 2019 Best New Artist Grammy I thought should have gone to the searing R&B singer H.E.R.), Childish Gambino, Avril Lavigne (another of Melanie’s artistic daughters!), Earl Sweatshirt, Amy Winehouse, the Spice Girls and Lana Del Rey — Billie Eilish is unique.

The Song-by-Song Countdown

In previous blog posts on the Grammy Awards I’ve mostly given a song-by-song countdown on the various musical performances incorporated into the show. As the Grammys have evolved the pretense that it’s an “awards” show has become weaker and the showcase numbers by major musical stars have become the show’s point. What’s more, the range of musical styles showcased has become narrower and narrower: the brief appearance after the “In Memoriam” segment honoring the people the music industry lost in 2019 of a band billed on screen as “Orleans Street” but advertised in the narration as the Preservation Hall Jazz Band playing the classic New Orleans funeral song, “Oh, Didn’t He Ramble,” it was a flashback to the days when the Grammys at least acknowledged, via a token song, the existence of classical and jazz.
The show was hosted by Alicia Keys, a talented singer but one with an exaggerated reverence for her own talents: she sang several numbers throughout the show, including a moving a cappella version of “It’s So Hard to Say Goodbye” as a tribute to Kobe Bryant (which was nice) and a lo-o-o-ong tribute to the Grammys themselves (which wasn’t). The show opened with Lizzo — taking a slot that in previous years has gone to Paul McCartney, Paul Simon, U2, Don Henley and Billy Joel, among others — doing what appeared to be a medley of songs called “I’m Crying ’Cause I Love You” and “Shampoo and Brush Get You Out of My Hair.” I loved her form-fitting outfit — like Adele, Lizzo is a “woman of size” and isn’t afraid to show it off — and the fact that she plays flute as well as singing. Vocally she’s a great soul belter, and if anyone wants to do a biopic of the great 1940’s-1960’s gospel singer Mahalia Jackson she’d be a good casting choice — but she’s still a great practitioner of a familiar style.
After Lizzo’s opening and Alicia Keys’ Bryant tribute, the next artists up were country singer Blake Shelton and his current squeeze, Gwen Stefani. I’m not a fan of Blake Shelton and I don’t find him sexy at all — I was astounded when he won one of those “Sexiest Man Alive” awards — and I still can’t understand how this homely, not particularly talented and uncharismatic man has managed to get two far sexier and more talented singers, Miranda Lambert and Gwen Stefani, to fall in love with him. (“Maybe he has a big dick,” said my husband Charles.) At least I can hope that they’ll break up and Stefani will make a great album about it the way Lambert did.
Next up, after Keys’ interminable Grammy salute, were the Jonas Brothers doing a surprisingly good song called “What a Man’s Gotta Do,” which isn’t the slice of mindless machismo one might expect from the title. Afterwards came a rap number of mind-boggling pointlessness and pretentiousness from Tyler, the Creator — not only did he take the 2019 Best New Artist Grammy H.E.R. deserved, but his stage name is so egomaniacal I couldn’t resist joking to Charles, “Now we know God’s last name” — along with Charlie Wilson and some genuine musical talent from a great group, Boyz II Men, attempting to redeem what aside from their sweet vocal harmonies was a pseudo-musical mess.
After that was a musical salute to Prince led by Usher — who was actually a good choice — with former Prince associate Sheila E. and someone else whose name I missed. They did some pretty obvious song choices — “Little Red Corvette” from 1999, “When Doves Cry” from Purple Rain, and “Kiss” from Parade (the soundtrack album to Prince’s self-directed film flop, Under the Cherry Moon) —but did them better than just about anyone besides their creator could. Then Camila Cabello, who had opened the 2019 Grammys with her ridiculous tribute “Havana,” came out with a surprisingly different song choice, an intense ballad called “First Man.” “I like her better when she’s channeling Melanie than when she’s channeling Gloria Estefan,” I commented.
The next song up was one of the most powerful and emotional selections on the program: an aging but still attractive Tanya Tucker, her voice ravaged by the years but still powerful, doing a song called “Bring ’Em Home” in which she bids her lover to bring her flowers while she’s still alive instead of waiting to send them to her funeral after she croaks. Brandi Carlile, one of the greatest current talents in country music, appeared with Tucker but only as her piano accompanist; part of me wishes they had done a duet but part of me realizes the song was more powerful with Tucker alone; like Loretta Lynn in her later recordings, Tucker summoned up her history to drive the song home with maximum impact.
After that came Ariana Grande, a singer who’s impressed me not only for her noble response to the terrorist attack on her concert in Manchester, England on May 22, 2017 — instead of either canceling her tour (which would have made it look like a victory for the terrorists) or continuing it (which would have made her look insensitive), she scheduled another concert in Manchester, made it a benefit for the victims’ families, and closed it with a moving version of the classic “Over the Rainbow.” She wasn’t on the 2019 Grammy Awards because she wanted to perform a song from the CD she had just released, and Grammy producer Ken Ehrlich wanted her to do a song from the previous album she’d been nominated for.
Last night she did a medley of songs that included, at least according to my best guesses of their titles, “Kiss Me and Take Off Your Clothes” (I like role-reversal songs in which it’s the women telling the men to get down to business and have sex already!), “Imagine My World,” “My Favorite Things” (yes, the Rodgers and Hammerstein “My Favorite Things” from The Sound of Music, but with additional lyrics that turned the song into a sexy Madonna-esque romp — just how she got the famously protective Rodgers and Hammerstein Organization to let her do that is a mystery to me), “Gimme the World” and “Morning Love.” I like the idea of Ariana Grande better than I actually like her act, which seems to be yet another attempt by a baby diva to step into Madonna’s seven-league stiletto heels.
Next up was Bille Eilish’s number, which was just her and Finneas doing a simple performance of a song whose title I noted as “I Like It Like That” — doubtless it was called something else on her album but I can’t identify it without a recording of the show with which I could compare it to the CD — and then there was a reunion of the rock band Aerosmith with the pioneering rap act Run-D.M.C. (back when rap still had the potential to develop into a genuinely powerful and sophisticated musical form instead of hardening into a disgusting set of braggadocious clichés about how many women the singer has fucked, how many cops he’s killed, how many Queers he’s bashed and how much money and “bling” he’s accumulated) that started with Aerosmith alone doing “Living on the Edge” (a better song than I remembered it) and the Run-D.M.C. collaboration “Walk This Way.”
After that there came another unlikely collaboration of screaming-queen rapper L’il Nas X (he couldn’t even come up with an original name!), one-hit wonder country singer Billy Ray Cyrus (who’s had the indignity of seeing his daughter Miley have a longer and more lucrative career than his!), Diplo, the Korean “K-Pop” boy band BTS and someone else whose name I didn’t catch on the song “Old Town Road.” The song set a record by remaining Number One on the Billboard “Hot 100” chart for 19 weeks — though one wonders how much that had to do with the lack of competition — and the Wikipedia page credits L’il Nas X with inventing “country-rap” as a genre (haven’t these guys heard any of Johnny Cash’s many talking songs?). Frankly I’ve liked some of the covers better than this version — though I suspect the Grammys crowded the song with too many guest artists — and Johnny Mercer did the same basic concept better with “On the Nodaway Road” in the 1940’s.
After that came one of the most powerful, wrenching moments of the show: Demi Lovato singing her heart out on a song called “Anyone.” The announcement of her performance stated that she had written the song just a few days before a terrible crisis in her life — just what the crisis was wasn’t stated but, according to a post-Grammys article by Spencer Kornhaber on The Atlantic’s Web site (https://www.theatlantic.com/culture/archive/2020/01/demi-lovatos-beautiful-shocking-grammys-song-anyone/605509/) , it was a drug overdose that led to her hospitalization. Backed only by a piano — like Tanya Tucker and Billie Eilish, she eschewed the insanely elaborate productions that studded the show and made some segments (especially Tyler, the Creator’s) virtually unwatchable — she tore into a song about her history of depression and how everything she’d tried, from music to substances, hadn’t been able to heal it.
Kornhaber read the song as connected to her O.D. and her relapse into drugs after six years loudly proclaiming her sobriety: “I tried to talk to my piano, I tried to talk to my guitar  / Talked tomyimagination / Confided into alcohol / Itried and tried and tried somemore / Told secrets ’til my voice was sore.” My only modification would be that Lovato has a long history of delivering emotionally raw and flabbergasting performances that shatter the usual anodyne character of awards shows. I searched my http://moviemagg.blogspot.com blog for my references to her and found that again and again — the Ray Charles tribute at the White House on March 1, 2016; “Dick Clark’s Rockin’ New Year’s Eve” on December 31, 2016; the “Hand to Hand” hurricane relief mini-telethon on September 12, 2017; and the 45th annual American Music Awards on November 19, 2017 — I’ve praised Lovato for blowing away the pretensions of such occasions and delivering raw, emotion-ridden, soulful performances.
Next up was a tribute to slain rapper Nipsey Hussle, an L.A.-based performer who got literally caught up in the crossfire of the long-standing rivalry between the Bloods and the Crips gangs. To me, as someone who generally can’t stand rap and who had never heard of Nipsey Hussle before he was killed, Hussle’s murder was just more evidence of the fundamental evil behind most rap: the genre is so committed to extolling the “virtues” of crime and killing that even someone who tries to communicate a positive message through rap and use the money he made from it to better his community will ultimately fall victim to the vicious, anti-social nature of the form.
Among the artists who paid tribute to Hussle last night at the Staples Center (which had also been the site of his memorial service on April 11, 2019, 12 days after his murder) were John Legend, Meek Mill, D.J. Khalid, Kirk Franklin and (via a clip from one of his videos) Hussle himself. After that Rosalía, a Latin music sensation, did a couple of songs in Spanish (I couldn’t make out many of the words beyond “A ma cantar” and “La noche liber”) which were good attempts to incorporate flamenco music, including the traditional way of singing it, into modern pop — but I think I’d rather hear real flamenco than Rosalía’s rescension of it.
Then came one of the surprises of the night — introducing the award for Song of the Year Smokey Robinson and the country group Little Big Town did an a cappella version of the classic “My Girl,” which Robinson wrote for The Temptations back in 1964. (Actually he wrote it for his own group, the Miracles, but the Temptations managed to wrench it away from him.) Robinson is surprisingly well-preserved both physically and vocally; as I told Charles during his segment, watching him now it’s hard to believe he had his first hit, “Shop Around,” 60 years ago.
The next number was Alicia Keys doing her third number of the show (how’s that for over-exercising a host’s prerogative? The more she showed off her ego, the more I thought the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has made the right move by doing away with a host at all), “Underdog,” with Brittany Howard, the powerful lead singer of Alabama Shakes and an excellent solo artist in her own right, behind her. Alas, Howard only played guitar behind her and wasn’t allowed to open her mouth — much the way Tanya Tucker treated Brandi Carlile in her segment, but without the power of Tucker’s vocal that made up for it. After that H.E.R. (true name: Gabriella Wilson) did a song I noted as “Sometimes” that to me was great but didn’t live up to the scorching performance she’d given on last year’s Grammys — though Charles identified H.E.R. as the artist on the program of whom he’d most like to hear more.
Then former Grammy winner Bonnie Raitt — her famous red hair starting to get streaked with grey — came out and did “Angel from Montgomery,” but only did one verse of it because she was introducing it as a tribute to its composer, John Prine, one of this year’s Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award winners. Then Gary Clark, Jr., whose style is perched between neo-blues and neo-Hendrix, did a great song called “This Land Is My Land” that was the title track of his most recent album and was one of the few openly political songs on the show.
Though there were a handful of very veiled anti-Trump statements on the program, there was almost none of the Trump-bashing we’ve seen on other awards shows, at least partly because even more than other branches of entertainment, music is controlled by gatekeepers (especially in the channels musicians need to get their music out, like radio and streaming services) who are on the Right of the political spectrum. Frankly, these days the most politically progressive songs are coming from people like Willie Nelson, Steve Earle and Neil Young who are already way past their commercial primes and therefore can afford to piss off the people who control much of what we hear.
After a moving “In Memoriam” segment and the Trombone Shorty/Orleans Avenue/Preservation Hall performance of “Oh, Didn’t He Ramble,” the Grammys lurched to their overdue end (the show was blocked for 3 ½ hours and still went 20 minutes over), with what has been billed as a tribute to music education. One of the few unambiguously good things NARAS has done is not only lobby public school districts to maintain their music programs in the face of the so-called “back-to-basics” movement, which holds that the schools’ job is to teach reading, ’riting and ’rithmetic without any of those humanistic and politically suspicious frills like art and music, but also give grants and awards to particularly stellar music programs.
To communicate this message, the 62nd annual Grammy Awards entrusted a head-spinning list of talents — Camila Cabello, Cyndi Lauper, classical violinist Joshua Bell, Ben Platt, The War and Treaty (a Black duo of whom I inevitably joked to Charles, “Which one is The War and which is Treaty?”), Lee Curran, Guy Clark, Jr., Black ballerina Misty Copeland, classical pianist Lang Lang, and an orchestra and dancers selected from music students across the country — to perform a song from the 1980 musical film Fame. The moment I heard that I dreaded that I would hear another dreadful slog to Irene Cara’s hit song from the film, “Remember My Name.”

Instead they did the film’s spectacular closing anthem “I Sing the Body Electric,” a phrase with an interesting history. It began as a line in a poem by Walt Whitman, then was used by Ray Bradbury as the name for a science-fiction story about domestic robots, and later the title of the second (and best) album by the 1970’s jazz-rock group Weather Report. Here it came out as an anthem to hope, and while the plethora of guest stars (including two musicians from the classical world the program otherwise totally ignored) weighed it down and seemed too consciously intended by Ehrlich (who was directing his 40th and last Grammy Awards telecast) to create a “Grammy moment,” it still moved and brought this lumbering beast of an awards show, with the palls of Demi Lovato’s near-death, more sexual scandals from NARAS and the insanely macabre end of Kobe Bryant, to a powerful and affirmative close.

Sunday, January 26, 2020

Chris Watts: Confessions of a Killer (Magic Rock Productions, Sony Pictures Television, Lifetime, 2020)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2020 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night I watched an unusually compelling Lifetime movie in their “Ripped from the Headlines” series (the phrase was actually coined by the marketing department at Warner Bros. in the 1930’s to tell would-be moviegoers that their stories were based on things that had actually happened, and recently happened at that) called Chris Watts: Confessions of a Killer. Chris Watts (Sean Kleier) was a seemingly ordinary married middle-class man in Frederick, Colorado — he had a job at an oil refinery just outside of town and his wife Shan’ann (Ashley Williams) was a saleswoman for “Strive,” an Herbalife-style multi-level-marketed weight loss product whose principal distinction was that it was applied as a skin patch instead of being taken as a pill. Then, on August 13 2018, his wife suddenly “disappeared” along with their two daughters, four-year-old Bella (Dahlia Oldham) and three-year-old Celeste, nicknamed “Ceecee” (Ellie McPhee). Lifetime followed this up with an hour-long “Behind the Headlines” documentary on the real case which showed just how much the screenwriter, Barbara Marshall, took from the actual dialogue as it survives on tapes of the police interrogations, including a polygraph test, the police put Chris through and ultimately learned — and got him to confess — that he had strangled his wife in their bed and afterwards killed both daughters by smothering them in a blanket and hiding their bodies in oil drums on his work site.

Having watched previous dramas about how police will fixate on one particular suspect and “interrogate” them, essentially browbeating them into confessions to crimes they didn’t actually commit, it was interesting to watch the same technique being used on someone who was definitely guilty — though a) when a person is murdered under these circumstances the police almost always suspect the spouse or significant other, and b) as my husband Charles pointed out, no one else in the dramatis personae had a motive to kill the Watts family (unless, he rather macabrely joked, it was an Herbalife distributor trying to eliminate the competition). I can’t really fault the filmmakers, writer Marshall and director Michael Nankin, for not giving us much of an inside into What Made Chris Run — just why he committed such a heinous crime (he was actually convicted on his own guilty plea of four murders, including that of his unborn son Nico — though I must say as a pro-choice person I’m nervous about the whole idea of declaring a fetus a “person” and charging the killer of a pregnant woman with an additional murder for killing it) — but then I’m not sure anyone really knows that, and that includes Chris Watts himself. The two things that seem to have sent him off the rails were the upcoming birth of his son — which he’d originally been happy about (there’s a video — apparently a real one, since Shan’ann was a big Facebook person and much of the last year or so of her life survived in documentation on home videos she’d posted to Facebook — of her wearing a T-shirt quoting the opening line of Britney Spears’ song, “Oops — I did it AGAIN!”) but later got scared of assuming the additional responsibility of caring for a third kid; and a co-worker named Nichol “Nikki” Kessinger (Chloe Van Landschoot) with whom he had an affair.

It’s not all that clear whether Nikki was Chris’s only extra-relational interest — or whether he was only interested in women, since on August 29, 2018, after Chris was in police custody but before he’d confessed, a then-unidentified man came forward and told CNN reporter Ashleigh Banfield that he’d had a Gay affair with Watts for nearly a year (https://www.queerty.com/man-claiming-secret-lover-accused-wife-killer-chris-watts-attracted-male-20180829?utm_source=Queerty+Subscribers&utm_campaign=87f8364a06-20180829_Queerty_Newsletter&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_221c27272a-87f8364a06-430235561). The man wasn’t originally named but he was later in a May 2019 follow-up to Inside Edition as 29-year-old Wyoming resident Trent Bolte (https://www.queerty.com/second-man-claiming-sex-family-killer-chris-watts-talking-police-20190308?utm_source=Queerty+Subscribers&utm_campaign=26a1e7aea3-20190308_Queerty_Newsletter&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_221c27272a-26a1e7aea3-430235561), and the possibility that Watts was having affairs with several people — and not all of them were women — puts a quite different “spin” on the case than the one we get here, which shows Nikki as his only affair partner and motivates their get-together by his loneliness when Shan’ann visits her family in North Carolina and leaves him alone for several weeks.

As it is, the story is told so much from Chris Watts’ point of view we almost feel for the guy — we get the impression that he had legitimate grievances and he just hideously, monstrously overreacted. The film gives rather short shrift to the two friends of Shan’ann’s who alerted the police and pushed them to suspect Chris Watts in the first place — Nickol Utoft Atkinson, who reported her missing in the first place, and another whose name I can’t recall but who was interviewed on the Behind the Headlines show; writer Marshall changed their names to “Cassandra” and “Amber” and left pretty much unexplained why a blond teenage boy was following the police around as “Cassandra” pointed out locations on the Watts property and steered the police to security video footage taken by her husband in his capacity as a Neighborhood Watch commander. (The kid was really Nicholas Atkinson, Nickol’s son.) The big question raised by the Chris Watts case — and it’s actually articulated in Marshall’s script — is how well we really know our neighbors and how our media-conditioned idea of evil is quite different from the reality of people who commit murders. Chris Watts wasn’t a monster per se, though he did monstrous things; he seemed until the morning of August 13, 2018 to be an ordinary suburban worker, husband and father, hardly a perfect man but not the screaming, obviously insane portrait of evil we’ve been conditioned by the media to expect given what he did. The idea that a totally “normal” person could go so completely off the rails and do such a horrible thing not only to the wife he was cheating on but to their children, who were as “innocent” as anyone can be in this world, is the scariest part of the story.

The other fascinating thing about this show is how much of the dialogue Barbara Marshall took from the actual case files, including police videotapes; even the final scene was dramatized based on Watts’s own confession from a jailhouse interview in Waupun, Wisconsin in December 2018. The film also raises some odd jurisdictional issues: the two law-enforcement officers who interrogate him are from the Colorado Bureau of Investigation and the Federal Bureau of Investigation, respectively — and one wonders how the FBI got jurisdiction and what part of Watts’s actions constituted a federal crime: he disposed of the bodies in Colorado and did not take them across a state line, which would have given the feds jurisdiction. The film also doesn’t explain why, when his crimes occurred exclusively in Colorado, Watts was imprisoned in Wisconsin; the Wikipedia page on the case claims it was due to “security concerns” (as if there wasn’t a secure enough prison in Colorado to hold him?), but as the U.S. expands the use of private, for-profit companies to run prisons it’s actually become common for private prisons in one state to market their services to governments in another state and offer to house their convicts — despite the hardship that wreaks on the convict’s relatives who have to travel a far greater distance to visit them. The Chris Watts story raises a lot of questions about how we treat our lawbreakers and also what can make previously law-abiding individuals “snap” and commit heinous acts — Hannah Arendt’s famous phrase about Adolf Eichmann, “the banality of evil,” has become a cliché but it certainly applies here — and it makes a mockery of the idea that we can somehow “profile” people and thus determine in advance whether they are likely to commit crimes. No one would have “profiled” Chris Watts as a potential murderer — until he became a killer for real.

Wednesday, January 22, 2020

The King and I (20th Century-Fox, 1956)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2020 by Mark Gabrish Conlan

The movie The King and I was — blessedly — color-restored, the rich pinks, blues and greens of John DeCuir’s art direction brought back to what they were originally instead of the murky mix of greens and browns they were in the prints that have previously circulated lo these many years. It also ran at its full running time of 133 minutes, even though it felt cut — three songs (“My Lord and Master,” “Shall I Tell You What I Think of You?” and “I Have Dreamed”) that are on the soundtrack album don’t exist in the film. Still, it’s an amazing movie, holding up quite well if you can handle the relentless stylization (the sets of “Siam” look about as much like the real Thailand, then or now, as the sets of Top Hat actually looked like the real Venice). Yul Brynner turned in one of those performances that wins the Academy Award simply because the scenery-chewing is so obvious (it would be utterly absurd to take this seriously as a realistic portrayal of absolute power, but within the confines of this flamboyantly unrealistic conception, Brynner’s acting works; the problem was it was virtually impossible for him, once he got “typed” as the King of Siam, to soften his technique to play anything else!), and Deborah Kerr’s acting as Anna is effective — though it would have been much more effective if she, like Gertrude Lawrence or Julie Andrews, had actually been able to sing; as it is, like Audrey Hepburn’s collaboration with Marni Nixon in My Fair Lady, this is only half a performance, the voice double trying to suppress any of her own originality to “match” the on-screen actress, who because she isn’t doing her own singing can’t bring any unique, personal touches to the songs the way Lawrence and Andrews could. Still, The King and I holds up as a marvelous movie, efficiently directed by Walter Lang (about all he really had to do is make sure the giant CinemaScope 55 cameras were pointed in the right direction), ravishingly photographed by Leon Shamroy (with just a hint here and there of his obsession with color filters, with which he would proceed to ruin the film of South Pacific) and vividly designed by DeCuir. — 8/15/93


Yesterday afternoon I spent most of the day “out,” hitting Horton Plaza to cash a check and buy a pair of jeans at the Original Levi’s Store (I’ve, uh, expanded so much over the years that there was only one style of pants in the entire store that came in my size!), then hot-footed it up to Hillcrest and got some more blank tapes to do a few more copies of my Beatles cover tape (these as a good-will present for my out-of-town distributors and for a few additional friends, including Moksha Todd, Jim Villa and Bob Evans) and returned in time to see Peter Ray and watch the 1956 film of The King and I with him. Watching this movie with Peter was like someone else watching a movie about politics or jazz with me; Peter pointed out all the technical errors (ranging from the Japanese-style garden in the palace of the King of Siam to the rickshaws — never used in Thailand — and Yul Brynner’s gesticulations while he was supposedly praying to the Buddha, which is actually done with arms outstretched and flat on the ground; Brynner began and ended his prayer in the right position but got up and “acted” in between) as well as giving them points for authenticity (apparently the palace in the movie is an exact replica of the real one, which still exists in Bangkok). Peter pointed out that the metal hats, worn in the film by the King’s children of both genders, are actually worn only by women (so the Crown Prince wouldn’t have had one); and he also pointed out that the actor who played the Crown Prince looked Nepalese instead of Thai. He noted that one of the costumes was exact except that it was missing an extra fold of cloth down the back, and naturally he noticed that while Rita Moreno’s attempt at a Thai accent was credible, it was readily distinguishable from the real thing. (Carlos Rivas, who played Moreno’s illicit lover, was also Latino but, unlike Moreno, he didn’t even try for an Asian accent; when he sang the line “We hide from the moon,” the “h” in the word “hide” was the rasping “ch” sound Spanish speakers usually make with that letter when it begins a word.) — 12/30/97


Last night’s “feature” was The King and I, 20th Century-Fox’s 1956 filmization of the classic Rodgers and Hammerstein musical based on the more or less true story of Anna Leonowens, a British widow who was hired to be tutor to the 67-plus children of King Mongkut of Siam (the country now called Thailand). Though Leonowens apparently wrote her own memoir — which might be worth reading: it’s the sort of movie that makes one wonder how accurate it is and whether the real story might have made better drama — the original source for this was a book called Anna and the King of Siam, which 20th Century-Fox had produced a non-musical film of in 1946 starring Irene Dunne as Anna and Rex Harrison as the King. (I’ve never seen that film complete but I’ve seen a few clips from it, and what I remember is the preposterous amount of eyeliner they gave Rex Harrison in an attempt to make him look Asian.) In 1951 Oscar Hammerstein II wrote the book and lyrics for a musical version that was intended both as a follow-up to their string of smash Broadway hits Oklahoma!, Carousel and South Pacific and a vehicle for the great Gertrude Lawrence, who was cast as Anna opposite a then little-known Russian-born actor named Yul Brynner as the King. 

Alas, Lawrence was already ill with cancer when she took the role and she died in the middle of the original Broadway run (though, fortunately, her beautifully phrased singing of Anna’s songs is preserved on an original-cast album), so when producer Charles Brackett (Billy Wilder’s former writing and producing partner) put together the film he had the task of finding a different Anna. He carried over Brynner from the stage cast (making him one of the few actors, along with Barbra Streisand, who won a Tony and an Oscar for playing the same role) and decided to cast Deborah Kerr as Anna. The only problem was that Kerr couldn’t sing, so Brackett went with Marni Nixon as her voice double even though, according to imdb.com, Nixon’s voice was a high soprano and Richard Rodgers had written the songs for a lower voice — so they ran Nixon’s voice through some early examples of electronic filtering and got it to sound richer and deeper. Though one (or at least someone like me) treasures the irony that Fox cast the non-musical version of this story with an actress who could sing, Irene Dunne, while they cast the musical with someone who couldn’t, director Walter Lang and the sound crew at least deserve credit for matching Deborah Kerr’s speaking voice and Marni Nixon’s singing voice quite well. The real auteur is the production designer, John DeCuir (Lyle Wheeler gets co-credit but that was just a department-head credit and doesn’t necessarily mean he worked on this specific film), who had also done the set designs for the stage production and came up with a stunning world of never-never Siam that probably wasn’t any more like the real Siam of the 1860’s than it is the real-life Thailand of today. 

I first saw The King and I as an eight-year-old on a 1961 reissue double bill with the film of Carousel — I also had the movie soundtrack album, which confused me for years since it contained three songs — “My Lord and Master,” sung by the slave girl Tuptim (Rita Moreno) in supplication to the king when she’s presented as a gift from the King of Burma; “I Have Dreamed,” one of the stage score’s two romantic duets for Tuptim and her true love, fellow Burmese Lun Tha (Carlos Rivas — so both the second leads were cast as Latino/as!); and “Shall I Tell You What I Think of You?,” a marvelously assertive number for Anna in which she makes clear to us, at least, what she thinks of the King, including the marvelous lines, referring to how extensively he’s reproduced and the sheer size of his harem, “A flock of sheep and you the only ram/No wonder you’re the wonder of Siam!” — that aren’t in the final cut of the movie. I remembered the 1961 prints as a visual feast — the film was shot in a short-lived process called “CinemaScope 55,” which used a wider (55 instead of 35 mm) film gauge to produce a clearer image even though they still used the anamorphic-lens technology of the original CinemaScope process to “squeeze” the wide-screen image onto the film. MGM had a competing wide-film process called “Window on the World” — the logo for that one was a globe with a trap door that opened, allowing the camera to appear — which used 65 mm film, but given that both would have required different projectors it’s not surprising that The King and I played almost exclusively in 35 mm reduction prints. (20th Century-Fox booked one New York theatre for the 1961 reissue, equipped it with the 55 mm projectors and showed the film in CinemaScope 55, but that was the only time the process was exhibited as intended.) 

Alas, by the time I saw it again in a revival theatre in the 1970’s the color (Fox used their in-house process, DeLuxe) had badly faded and Leon Shamroy’s stunning cinematography had become a light-brown murk that made the story look like it was taking place in a mud bath — so it was nice to get this Blu-Ray restoration and see the film glow in a way it hadn’t since I was a kid. Plot-wise, this film is very problematic: Charles called it “the last gasp of Orientalism” and I noted that it’s easy to see why the Thai government has not allowed any of the film versions of this story to be shown because they regard it as an insult to King Mongkut, one of their national historical heroes. Try as he might — Oscar Hammerstein II was anti-racist long before anti-racism was cool and he did sympathetic depictions of interracial relationships in both Show Boat and South Pacific — he was still stuck with the whites-good, Asians-not-so-good biases of the original story as filtered through 19th century British sensibilities. As adapted by Ernest Lehman (another great talent with imposing credits, including Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest), Hammerstein’s book depicts King Mongkut as a man almost constantly at war with himself, anxious to modernize his country and keep it from being turned into a European colony the way its neighbors, Viet Nam, Cambodia and Burma, were during this period (Viet Nam and Cambodia by the French and Burma by the British) while at the same time unwilling to give an inch in maintaining his absolute power over everyone in the country: religious, political, economic and sexual. The key song is his monologue “A Puzzlement,” in which he complains that things he was brought up to be certain of are being questioned by these pesky Westerners whom he knows he needs to learn from but at the same time he can’t comprehend their values — and of course the film assumes that Western values are automatically superior to Asian ones even when Westerners don’t always live up to them. 

Much of the movie turns on questions of individual freedom: Anna makes a great plot point of demanding a separate residence for herself and her young son Louis (Rex Thompson) — just to make sure the King gets the point, she teaches his kids the song “Home, Sweet Home” and makes them march around him, singing it — and she also gives Tuptim a copy of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin to help her improve her English. (At least this film makes a plot point that the Asian characters are learning English to help them navigate their relations with Europeans; we’re not asked to believe, as we are in so many American movies set abroad, that everybody in the world automatically speaks English.) Tuptim naturally analogizes the plot of Uncle Tom’s Cabin — which she renames “The Small House of Uncle Thomas” after Anna explains to her that the word “cabin,” which she’s never encountered before, means “small house” — and in the film’s climactic scene, she stages an elaborate ballet based on it (stunningly choreographed by the great Jerome Robbins) that’s a thinly veiled plea to the King for her own freedom. The King and I is strongest when it dramatizes not only the culture clash between Anna and the Siamese court but the inner torment of the King and the disconnect between his desire to modernize technologically and his determination to maintain his absolute authority — indeed, watching this movie on the first day of President Donald Trump’s impeachment trial probably made the King seem more Trumpian than he would have otherwise, confident and sure of himself even when he’s wrong (he dictates a letter to Anna offering to send 100 male elephants to the U.S. so they can start a population, and when Anna tries to tell him that he’ll need to include female elephants as well, he angrily brushes her aside) and moving through his life with a sense of hereditary entitlement. It’s also a fascinating study in the knife’s-edge task of maintaining one’s life and one’s sanity in a court environment run by someone with literally life-or-death power over everyone else; indeed, this time around I found myself wondering if the Russian-born Brynner might have based his characterization of the king on Joseph Stalin. 

The King and I is a marvelous movie overall despite problems with the casting of the leads: Brynner delivers a high-energy performance and when he’s standing still (which is rare) or moving he’s convincingly alien, if not especially Asian, but he’s basically playing the King the same way he played Ramses in The Ten Commandments and when he starts discussing the story of Moses with Anna, I couldn’t help but joke that she’d tell him, “Well, when you’re in The Ten Commandments you can ask him yourself!” What’s more, at his big raging moments — especially at the end of “A Puzzlement,” when he’s in full vocal cry — his genuine Russianness comes out just as Maria Montez’s real-life Latina origins came out when she played an Arab or Polynesian queen and ended her proclamations with “I have espoken!” And with Gertrude Lawrence gone Deborah Kerr was probably as good a choice as any — after all, she’d previously played a similar character (an Englishwoman hired to be governess in a remote Asian state) in Michael Powell’s Black Narcissus in 1947 — except that she couldn’t sing and I couldn’t help wondering what this movie might have been like with the young Julie Andrews in the role. Andrews later (in 1991) made a CD of the score of The King and I; she became a U.S. star in the 1956 Broadway production of My Fair Lady with Rex Harrison, who’d played King Mongkut in the 1946 film Anna and the King of Siam; her most famous film was The Sound of Musicalso a Rodgers and Hammerstein musical about a woman who becomes governess to the children of a highly strict authority figure; and to top off her connections to this story, Andrews followed up The Sound of Music with Star!, a biopic of Gertrude Lawrence, who had created the role of Anna on stage. — 1/22/20

Monday, January 20, 2020

Stolen by My Mother: The Kamiyah Mobley Story (Robin Roberts Presents/Lifetime, 2020)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2020 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night, after Charles and I had watched the early-1930’s Universal horror films JMurders in the Rue Morgue and The Black Cat (at least nominally based on stories by Edgar Allan Poe) since yesterday, January 19, was the 211th anniversary of Poe’s birth, I put on the Lifetime channel for a movie I had been particularly looking forward to but hadn’t been able to watch the night before, when it “premiered: Stolen by My Mother: The Kamiyah Mosley Story. The film was based on a true story that started in 1996, when Gloria Manigo (Niecy Nash) drives from her home in the small town of Walterboro, South Carolina to a hospital in Jacksonville, Florida. We’re originally under the impression that Gloria is a nurse at the hospital — screenwriters Richard Kletter and Marie Samit and director Jeffrey Byrd don’t even make it clear that the action is happening in two different cities, let alone that Gloria is not a hospital staff member (though she’s dressed in scrubs, albeit with a civilian shirt over the top of them, which makes us think she’s one of the hospital nurses) —but what is clear is that Gloria, desperate to show up with a baby since her own pregnancy ended in a miscarriage and her abusive second husband, Charles Manigo (Garfield Wilson), was desperate for a child of his own and threaten to beat her (or worse) if she lost “their” baby, simply boosted one from one of the Black patients in the maternity ward, Shonara Mobley (Ta’ronda Jones). She claimed she needed the child for 15 minutes to take her to another room and have her temperature taken, but she never returned; instead she took the child back to Walterboro and raised her as her own. She even called the girl Alexis Manigo instead of Kamiyah Mobley, the name Shonara had chosen for her daughter. One of the ironies of this story is that thanks to the responsibility of child-rearing — even though the child is not only not her own but is in her life because of the worst and most immoral thing she’s ever done — leads Gloria to turn her life around. (Though her previous sins aren’t specified in the script, they were sufficiently serious that her ex-partner sued and won custody of both her biological sons — and neither these boys nor their father appear as dramatis personae in the movie.) Gloria dumps the abusive Charles and raises Alexis as a single parent until, as a heavy-duty and highly trusted volunteer at her church, she meets the lead singer in a gospel quartette and marries him. The problem is he comes not only with his own daughter, Arika Williams (Natalie Malaika) but her child as well — like Shonara Mosley, Arika became pregnant while still a teenager, and by a rather sketchy guy who quickly skedaddled out of the Williamses’ lives. Alexis and Arika have the usual bonding problems of two women who aren’t at all biologically related but are forced to be — and accept each other as — “sisters.” 

Things go tensely but generally well for the Williamses until Alexis turns 16 and wants to take a job waitressing at the local coffee shop. The owner is amenable and says the job is hers whenever she wants it; all she has to do is produce a Social Security card and a legal I.D. Alexis asks Gloria for these things — and Gloria finally tells her the truth: that Gloria isn’t her legal mother, she kidnapped her from a hospital in another state, and she had hoped she’d never have to tell her this but now that the issue has been forced, now’s the time. Alexis responds to the trauma by pouring her heart out to her boyfriend Swerve (Kareem Tristan Alleyne) and agreeing to have sex with him for the first time — which led me to worry that the cycle of Black women getting pregnant as teenagers was going to continue and become the focus of Alexis’s life — but instead Gloria agrees to turn herself in to the local authorities and she finds herself awaiting trial for kidnapping Alexis. Meanwhile, birth mother Shonara Mosley tries to reconnect with her stolen daughter as soon as she hears the news that Alexis — or Kamiyah, as she insists on calling her — has been found at last. Shonara insists that Kamiyah live with her until she turns 18 and is legally emancipated, but Kamiyah/Alexis insists that as far as she’s concerned Gloria, the woman who raised her, is her mother and she’s totally uninterested in having another one. This sends Shonara ballistic; she threatens to get a court order forbidding Kamiyah/Alexis from seeing Gloria, she gloats when Gloria ends up arrested and imprisoned pending trial, and when the trial finally occurs and the judge (Gloria has pleaded guilty so the only open question is whether she’ll draw the maximum 24-year sentence for the kidnapping or the judge will be more lenient) asks Shonara what sentence she thinks the judge should impose, Shonara says that she knows it’s not an option but the only thing that would satisfy her is a death sentence on Gloria. The judge ultimately decides to sentence Gloria to the maximum, or awfully close to it, and in the end Alexis/Kamiyah (it’s obvious she prefers Gloria’s name for her because when she finally does land a waitressing job — courtesy of her lawyer, an African-American, who obtained new and legal identity documents for her — the name she has her employer put on her I.D. tag is “Lexi,” short for “Alexis”) is left alone except for her stepfather’s relatives and the promise that soon she will be 18 and can make her own way in the world — which she plans to do by attending college, possibly on the scholarship the state university system in Florida has offered her to go to school there. 

Stolen by My Mother: The Kamiyah Mosley Story is a beautifully done story that offers quite a lot to think about, including some heavy-duty issues about parenting, parental love and just who a child belongs to, anyway: the people whose sperm and egg came together in a uterus to conceive her biologically or the people who put the blood, tears, toil and sweat into the difficult and challenging task of raising her and bringing her into the adult world? (I think you can pretty well tell from the way I phrased that last sentence which side I’m on.) It’s also a story about the clash between legal and moral justice: one can read it as Gloria getting her just deserts for snatching another woman’s child and putting her through psychological hell for 18 years, or Gloria as a basically good woman who did a really bad thing but atoned for it by raising the daughter, and raising her so well. The film also raised some confusing jurisdictional issues, not only with the state of Florida treating this as an active kidnapping and prosecuting it as if the crime had occurred 18 days instead of 18 years before — wouldn’t the statute of limitations have run out, or did the Florida law allow them to define the kidnapping as a continuing criminal enterprise since Gloria still had custody of her kidnap victim? Also, as Charles pointed out, wouldn’t the federal government have had jurisdiction, since under the so-called “Lindbergh Law” (passed in the wake of the kidnapping and murder of Charles Lindbergh, Jr. in 1932) it’s a federal crime to take a kidnap victim across state lines? Or maybe Florida’s statute of limitations didn’t apply but the feds’ one did. As in the film I Am Somebody’s Child: The Regina Louise Story, also based on a true story about a highly traumatic real-life case, I felt the judge’s decision fundamentally unjust and untempered by mercy — if I’d been in her shoes I probably would have cited the famous anecdote from the Bible of King Solomon having to decide between two women who claimed custody of the same child (a reference I’m surprised didn’t occur to any of the characters in the film even though religion is depicted as an important part of their lives) and given Gloria half the maximum sentence, partly as a sort of Solomonic splitting-the-distance and partly to acknowledge the moral complexity of Gloria’s actions — yes, she did evil, and she so deeply wounded Kamiyah’s birth mother that woman wanted to see her dead; but she also turned her life around and raised Kamiyah to be a decent, productive, intelligent and self-actualizing human being. 

So I was surprised when during one of the interstital segments in which the people involved in making the movie discussed it, producer Robin Roberts (who first encountered the story as a host on the ABC-TV show Good Morning, America) said she thought the judge’s decision was just. I was startled by that because it went right to the heart of what I thought was the one flaw in this otherwise excellent production: writers Kletter and Samit and director Byrd really stacked the deck in Gloria’s favor. Though some of the time cuts are a bit jarring and hard to follow (especially when the characters changed their hair style and thus made it harder, especially for we white people in the audience, to tell who was who), I think this movie could have used more of a sense of who Shonara was and what she went through from losing her daughter even though she stayed with Kamiyah’s biological father (something we wouldn’t have bet on since at the time of Kamiyah’s birth her biological father was serving a prison term) and has had two more kids she was able to raise normally. I flashed back to the 1949 film Not Wanted, Ida Lupino’s first film as a director, which tackled a story like this from the other direction — a teenage girl gets pregnant and is forced to give up her baby for adoption, then goes crazy from what would now be called post-traumatic stress disorder, freaks out whenever she sees a baby because she thinks (or imagines) the kid is hers, and finally, in a daze, picks up someone else’s kid and is let go because she obviously did it because she was freaked out and she needs psychological treatment, not punishment. Making Shonara more of a complex character instead of cutting away from her and mostly leaving her out of the story until her daughter’s whereabouts are discovered, whereupon she turns into a vengeful bitch, would have made an already high-quality film even better. But that’s the only major flaw I can see in what’s otherwise one of Lifetime’s very best recent productions, an alternately heart-warming and heartrending story that challenges our most basic and taken-for-granted notions of parental love, crime, justice and mercy, and is finely acted by a beautiful and highly talented cast.

Murders in the Rue Morgue (Universal, 1932)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2008, 2020 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The first film we ran last night was Murders in the Rue Morgue, a 1932 production that was essentially a consolation prize for Bela Lugosi and director Robert Florey after they lost out on Frankenstein — Lugosi because he turned it down as lacking dialogue and Florey because he was taken off as director when James Whale was assigned to it (the Universal Horror documentary on Turner Classic Movies suggested that Whale was unwilling to do Frankenstein and had to be forced to take the assignment, but my other sources indicated that he was offered it along with two other scripts and accepted it because he wanted the challenge of doing a story that was physically impossible and making it believable). Rue Morgue was ostensibly based on a story by Edgar Allan Poe, but the only elements retained were one murder (in which the heroine’s mother is stuffed up the chimney by a murderous ape) and a grimly amusing bit of dialogue in which three witnesses mistake the ape’s chattering for Italian, Danish and German, respectively. The rest of it was a newly minted tale of Dr. Mirakle (Lugosi), a sideshow entertainer who’s worked out the theory of evolution 22 years before Darwin published The Origin of Species, and who wants to prove his theory by mixing the blood of his pet ape (it’s really an orangutan — or, rather, an actor in an orangutan suit — but it’s referred to in the dialogue as a gorilla) with that of a human female. His first on-screen attempt to try this involves a prostitute (played by Arlene Francis, a startling credit indeed to anyone who knew her as that nice middle-aged woman on the What’s My Line? panel all those years!) who dies from the operation because her blood is already tainted (with syphilis, presumably; we’re not told that, but we can guess). Later a medical student named Dupin (he’s from the Poe story, but both his first name and his profession have been changed) — played by a beefy actor billed as Leon Waycoff, but who was later (and better) known as Leon Ames — figures it out just in time to save his virginal girlfriend (Sidney Fox) from being the latest guinea pig in Lugosi’s sinister experiment. Though a bit slow and suffering from the absence of a musical score, Murders in the Rue Morgue is a fine, atmospheric horror film, giving Lugosi a better showcase than Dracula did, with beautiful expressionistic sets (at times the buildings of Paris seem about to cave in on the characters!) obviously influenced by The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari — and though the overall script is by Dale Van Every, Tom Reed and Richard Schayer, John Huston (of all people) gets an “additional dialogue” credit. It’s a neat movie, and surprisingly sexy for the period (the middle of Hollywood glasnost). — 10/26/98


Charles and I ran another from the classic Universal horror collections: Murders in the Rue Morgue, one of the unsung masterpieces of the Universal cycle and one of Bela Lugosi’s two best-ever starring vehicles (along with White Zombie, made the same year, also filmed at Universal but for an independent producer who was just renting the space). Oddly, the film began as a consolation prize for its star, Lugosi, and its director, Robert Florey (an actual Frenchman directing a story about Paris — what a novelty!) because Lugosi had turned down the original Frankenstein (supposedly because he didn’t want to play a part without any actual dialogue — a claim supported by the fact that when he finally did play the Frankenstein monster, in Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, he signed for the film on the basis of a script in which the monster does speak, though the monster’s lines were erased from the final release) and Florey had been taken off the project in favor of James Whale, the British wunderkind who had had hits with Journey’s End (which he’d previously directed on stage) and the 1931 version of Waterloo Bridge. Florey originally wrote a script for the film that stuck closely to the original 1843 story by Edgar Allan Poe (which was actually an episode in his detective-mystery series featuring the hero, C. Auguste Dupin — called “Pierre Dupin” in the film and played by Leon Waycoff, later known as Leon Ames, who as I once joked to Charles was the one degree of separation between Lugosi and Judy Garland!), but the “suits” at Universal turned it down because they wanted a horror film rather than a mystery, so Florey and his credited writers, Tom Reed, Dale Van Every, Richard Schayer and John Huston (credited with “additional dialogue” — he’d got a screenwriting job at Universal because his father, Walter Huston, was making two films there and wanted him on the writing staff, and this was the first film on which John Huston was credited that did not involve his dad), came up with a mélange of Dracula, Frankenstein and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. Dr. Mirakle (Lugosi) is operating a concession in a carnival sideshow that features an ape called “Erik” (Charles Gemorra, doubled in some scenes by Joe Bonomo and in others by a real chimpanzee, even though the character is supposed to be a gorilla), whom he is exhibiting as proof positive of the theory of evolution. (The setting is 1845, two years after Poe published the original story and 14 years before Charles Darwin published The Origin of Species.

Mirakle wants to mingle Erik’s blood with that of a human woman in order to prove his theory, but so far he’s experimented with two women, unsuccessfully, and disposed of their corpses via a Sweeney Todd-ish trap door under his experimental setup — which actually involves chaining the unfortunate women to an X-shaped cross that looks more like something you’d find in an S/M dungeon than in a scientific laboratory. The film opens with a series of traveling shots through a Caligari-esque Paris (this film is probably the closest a mainstream Hollywood producer ever came to the Caligari look; the art directors, Charles D. Hall and an uncredited Herman Rosse, went all-out to suggest the Expressionist sets of Caligari), with buildings that slant and hang uncomfortably over the people who walk by them, before we discover the carnival and see Dupin there with his girlfriend, Camille L’Esplanaye (Sidney Fox, top-billed — according to Bette Davis, she and studio head Carl Laemmle, Jr. were having an affair, which meant she got quite a few parts that were beyond her abilities, including the lead in Strictly Dishonorable for which Davis had been brought to Hollywood and Universal in the first place), his comic-relief roommate Paul (Bert Roach, who unlike most of the “comic relief” figures in these movies is actually genuinely funny) and his girlfriend Mignette (Edna Marion). Not surprisingly, when Dupin and Camille see the gorilla, the beast takes a shine to Camille (even taking the bonnet off her head and cradling it) and an instant aversion to Dupin, “planting” a Beauty and the Beast-like attraction between the two that almost exactly mirrors the plot of the as-yet-unmade King Kong.

In the next scene, Mirakle picks up a character identified only as “Woman of the Streets” (a truly bizarre credit for Arlene Francis — and, aside from a part in Orson Welles’ never-released filmed inserts for the play Too Much Johnson in 1938, she didn’t make another movie until All My Sons, also for Universal, in 1948!) and, right after two men have killed each other over her (it’s that kind of movie, getting its shocks as much from the amorality of the overall setting as from any specific scene), Mirakle takes her to his dungeon, straps her to the S/M cross and gets ready to perform his experiment, only first he looks at her blood under his microscope and declares it unsuitable: “Your BLOOD is as BLACK as your SINS!” Lugosi thunders in his most hysterically anguished tones (obviously, in this “pre-Code” film, we’re supposed to read this as an infection with syphilis or some other similarly intractable STD), and just then the “Woman of the Streets” expires and Lugosi’s manservant Janos (Noble Johnson) throws the switch on the trap door and pitches her body into the Seine. In this version, Pierre Dupin is a medical student who bribes the coroner to get interesting specimens from the morgue so he can study them, and he’s the one who makes the connection between the latest victim and the previous two; he sees the injection marks (which serve the same purpose in this film as the throat punctures in Dracula) and realizes, once he examines the victims’ blood under his microscope, that they died from a reaction from the ape’s blood injected into them.

Meanwhile, Camille receives a replacement bonnet from Mirakle — indicating, since she’d refused to tell him where she lived, that he’s been stalking her — and one night Mirakle sends Erik to kill Camille’s mother (Betsy Ross Clarke) and abduct her. In the one major incident of the film actually taken from Poe’s story, Camille’s mother is shoved up the chimney of her room and three witnesses, having heard the chatter of an ape, insist that the killer spoke Italian, Danish and German, respectively. Dupin has to fight off a stupid police prefect (Brandon Hurst) who wants to arrest him, but eventually he figures out that Camille has been kidnapped and taken to Mirakle’s redoubt in the Rue Morgue, whereupon he chases him there with a squad of gendarmes in tow, and Dupin rescues Camille just before Mirakle can inject her with the ape serum, Erik kills Mirakle, Dupin kills Janos and Erik and, in the end, Mirakle’s body is received by the coroner. Murders in the Rue Morgue is notable not only for its audacity — its links of sexual perversion and murder are pretty strong stuff now and an indication of some of the things Hollywood’s kinkier directors could get away with in the early 1930’s — but also the other, later films it influenced: King Kong (in this one the ape is normal-sized, but certainly the theme of an ape who runs wild through a city and can only be tamed by a woman is common to both films!), The Mummy and Mystery of the Wax Museum (also about demented geniuses who kidnap women and not only put them through procedures that will kill them but seem convinced that they’re doing these women a favor by doing so!), as well as all those dreary mad-scientist movies Lugosi would ultimately make at PRC, Monogram and even cheaper studios. Though somewhat hamstrung by the lack of a music score, Murders in the Rue Morgue is a far better film than Dracula: the writing is sharper and wittier, the direction more assured (Florey keeps the camera in almost constant motion, propelling us into the action instead of forcing us to watch it at a distance) and Lugosi’s performance — perhaps because he wasn’t playing a part he’d done on stage for two years — fresher and more vital. — 10/20/08


Charles happened to have mentioned while we were in Balboa Park that yesterday was the anniversary of the birth of Edgar Allan Poe — which gave me an idea for our movie night: instead of making him sit through a typical Lifetime modern-day melodrama like last night’s “Premiere,” Murder in the Suburbs a.k.a. Secrets by the Lake, I’d dig out the back files of Universal’s classic 1930’s horror movies and show him two films at least nominally inspired by Poe. I got out the Universal boxed set The Bela Lugosi Collection and noted that not only did four of the five films in this box also feature Boris Karloff (thereby encompassing half of the eight films Karloff and Lugosi both appeared in) but at least three of them had nominal bases in Poe: Murders in the Rue Morgue (1932), The Black Cat (1934) and The Raven (1935). I ran Murders in the Rue Morgue and The Black Cat, both of which I’ve seen many times before, both of which had interesting commonalities — though neither have much to do with the Poe stories they were nominally based on, they were both made by highly talented non-American directors (Robert Florey and Edgar G. Ulmer, respectively) who made “B” movies so well they got pretty much stuck in the “B” realms and didn’t get the chance to strike out into “A” features with “A”-list casts the way other “B” directors like Joseph H. Lewis and John Brahm did. I’ve long thought Murders in the Rue Morgue is one of Lugosi’s two best starring vehicles (White Zombie, produced by an independent company but actually filmed at Universal, is the other), largely because — unlike the surprisingly dull 1930 Dracula, which is of interest only for the performances of Lugosi and Dwight Frye — it’s a brilliantly made movie.

Director Robert Florey was actually French, but he couldn’t have been less interested in realistically depicting 1845 Paris, where the story is nominally set (later, working as Chaplin’s assistant and technical advisor on the 1947 film Monsieur Verdoux, he had long, frustrating arguments with Chaplin trying to get him to make the film, nominally set in France, look more “French”). Instead, he, cinematographer Karl Freund (the German genius who’d worked on some of the Weimar-era classics and had got a brilliant tracking shot of Dracula’s coffin collection, including his three vampire brides, into the otherwise surprisingly static 1930 Dracula movie) and art director Charles D. Hall went all-out to copy the look of the famous Expressionist 1919 German film The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, down to and including the fantastically “bent” buildings in the slum parts of Paris. Oddly, the star billing in this film went to Sidney Fox — a girl named Sidney and apparently the mistress of Carl Laemmle, Jr., whose father had founded Universal and who put “Junior” (as he was ubiquitously known) in charge of it at age 20 — as “Madame Camille L’Espanaye,” girlfriend of aspiring medical student Pierre Dupin (played by an actor billed here as “Leon Waycoff” but far better known later as Leon Ames — he was the father of the family in Meet Me in St. Louis and is therefore the one degree of separation between Bela Lugosi and Judy Garland!), who encounters sideshow exhibitor Dr. Mirakle (Bela Lugosi) and his pet ape Erik (we’re told he’s a gorilla but sometimes he’s played by Charles Gemora in his fabled gorilla suit and sometimes, especially in his close-ups, by a real chimpanzee even though chimps are considerably smaller than gorillas). Dr. Mirakle is an early believer (14 years before Charles Darwin!) in the theory of evolution — his sideshow act includes a lecture on it, and when Mirakle is challenged on it by a heckler from the audience who accuses him of heresy, he replies, “Heresy? Do they still burn men for heresy? Then burn me monsieur, light the fire! Do you think your little candle will outshine the flame of truth?” — which reminds one (well, me anyway) that this film was made just seven years after the 1925 Scopes trial, when the debate over evolution was still very much a public concern (as it still is, incredibly, today!) 

The rich, fruity dialogue (the credited writers are Dale Van Every, Tom Reed and “additional dialogue” by the young John Huston, who got a job at famously nepotistic Universal because his dad Walter Huston was a star there), beautifully delivered by Lugosi in his stylized version of English (he never learned more than the most basic English and learned his scripts phonetically — though one imdb.com “Trivia” contributor noted that on the rare occasions when Lugosi speaks French in this nominally French-set film he speaks it perfectly; apparently Lugosi had learned quite good French as a second language even though he never troubled to learn English despite living and working for over 30 years as an actor in an English-speaking country), is thrilling. Forrest J. Ackerman recalled that a year or so before Lugosi died he dug up a copy of the Vitaphone soundtrack records for Murders in the Rue Morgue and played them for Lugosi (Universal actually issued their first sound films with Movietone sound-on-film soundtracks but they may have made Vitaphone versions available for the theatres that had gone with Vitaphone instead of Movietone or the system that eventually became standard, Photophone), and Lugosi’s whole face lit up on hearing the performance he’d delivered a quarter-century earlier. Dr. Mirakle intends to prove his theory of evolution by infusing a human woman with the blood of Erik the ape, and his first research subject (at least the first one we see) is a “Woman of the Streets” played by, of all people, the young Arlene Francis, who had just signed a starlet contract with Universal and, as her first assignment, played the role of a prostitute who’s rescued from a pimp intent on beating her by Mirakle and his sidekick — only to be given a worse fate: she’s tied to the sort of sideways cross favored by S/M practitioners and readied to become the bride of Erik when Mirakle, looking at her blood through a microscope, declares that “your blood is as black as your sins!” and leaves her to die on the tilted cross. (Even for a movie made during the nominally “pre-Code” era of 1930-1934, the clear implication that Francis’s character is a prostitute suffering from at least one STD, and possibly more, is surprisingly daring.) He has his sidekick cut a rope that drops her body into the waters of the Seine below the building he’s using as a live-work space — and later we learn that he’s disposed of at least three other would-be subjects that way. Dupin has become interested in these bizarre murders and has realized that the victims did not die of drowning, as the police had originally assumed, but from a foreign substance introduced into their blood. 

Meanwhile, when Dupin and Camille visited the carnival at which Mirakle was exhibiting, Erik the ape had got a crush on Camille and stolen her bonnet. Mirakle had asked her where she lived so he could send her a replacement; she refused to tell him but he sent his sidekick after her to follow her, and later he has Erik kidnap her — though the ape is discovered by Camille’s mother (Betsy Ross Clarke) and kills mom by shoving her up a chimney. This, and the following scene in which three other tenants in Camille’s building insist that the chattering of the ape was actually a foreign language — a German insists it was Italian, an Italian insists it was Danish, and a Dane insists it was German (and when the German, played by German character actor Herman Bing, takes umbrage at this he starts speaking angry rapid-fire German that anticipates Adolf Hitler’s speaking style) — are the only parts of the film that actually derive from Poe’s story, in which the central character was called “C. Auguste Dupin” and was a quite obvious precursor of Sherlock Holmes. It ends with Mirakle about to subject Camille to the ape-to-human blood transfusion (and possibly worse) — since she’s a virgin her blood is “perfect!” — when Dupin arrives, the ape kills Mirakle and then flees with Camille’s body. Though the ape isn’t giant-sized, this part of the film oddly parallels King Kong — the ape fleeing across the roofs of a cityscape holding the human woman he has a crush on, and the hero waiting for him to put her down so he can shoot the ape and the ape can do a picturesque fall off the top of a building into the Seine. The two films were actually in production at the same time so it’s an open guess as to whether the similarities were coincidental or, if they weren’t, who influenced whom. Murders in the Rue Morgue is a quite good film, powered by Lugosi’s supercharged performance, Florey’s evocative direction and Freund’s almost constantly moving camera. It was also rather ironic viewing after we’d just been to see the William-Adolphe Bougereau exhibit at the San Diego Museum of Art, since Sidney Fox’s makeup (by Jack P. Pierce) and costuming were clearly meant to make her look like one of Bougereau’s idealized proletariennes. — 1/20/20