Monday, September 15, 2008

The Big Operator (MGM, 1959)

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

When Charles returned I ran him one of the DVD’s he’d got from a private source as my last year’s birthday present; The Big Operator (MGM, 1959), produced by Albert Zugsmith for his independent company and quite obviously inspired by Estes Kefauver’s U. S. Senate investigation of labor-union corruption in general and Jimmy Hoffa and the Teamsters Union in particular. Directed by Albert Haas (a far cry from the directors Zugsmith had worked with at Universal-International before he went independent, including Jack Arnold, Douglas Sirk and Orson Welles!) from a script by Paul Gallico, Allan Rivkin and Robert Smith (Gallico and Rivkin had served time on the blacklist and one gets the impression that writing an anti-union story like this was a sort of penance imposed on them to prove that their renunciation of Left-wing politics was sincere), this was a movie I was a bit skeptical about because the Hoffa-esque labor leader at the center of the action, “Little Joe” Braun, president of the “Toolers’ Union” (i.e., the Machinists — well, machining is what the members of his union actually do for a living), was played by Mickey Rooney, and some of his previous attempts to extend himself into “straight” acting roles in crime thrillers had been a bit on the silly side.

As things turned out, Rooney’s performance was far and away the best thing in the film! He’s tough, authoritative, commanding and yet curiously vulnerable, much the way James Cagney (a short Irishman who played these gangster and semi-gangster types to perfection) is in his best films, and even Rooney’s enthusiasm, which in some of the Andy Hardy films made him almost unwatchable, here comes across as part of the character’s psychopathology. The force for good in this movie is Bill Gibson (Steve Cochran in a rare good-guy role, at which he’s surprisingly capable), honest rank-and-file union member who stands up to Braun at a public meeting (booing him when everyone else is applauding). The opening scene depicts the murder of the union’s treasurer, Bill Tragg (Charles Chaplin, Jr.), by a gang of Braun’s enforcers, led by Oscar “The Executioner” Wentzel (Ray Danton, with one of those itty-bitty moustaches that in old-line Hollywood always marked a character as a crook or at least a no-goodnick).

In a televised U.S. Senate committee hearing, Gibson and his best friend, Fred McAfee (Mel Tormé, in a straight acting role that’s less risible than his one in Girls’ Town if only because this time MGM wasn’t asking us to believe in him as a teenager, though lots of people could have played this better and at one point, when he’s reminiscing about his career, I joked, “Did I ever tell you about the hit song I wrote for Nat ‘King’ Cole?”), realize that they’ve actually seen Braun and Wentzel together and therefore they are the key witnesses that can put Braun away for perjury, since he’s just testified before the Senate committee that he not only had never met Wentzel but had never even heard of him before they asked if he knew him. Braun, predictably, first tries to buy Gibson and McAfee out by offering them jobs as organizers, then attempts to keep the support of the rank-and-file in general by ordering thugs to set up a picket line around the company where Gibson and McAfee work and declare a strike (the goon squad is led by a thug named Zatko, who in a typical bit of Zugsmith “gimmick” casting is played by Vido Musso, best known as the star tenor saxophonist for Benny Goodman in the 1930’s and Stan Kenton in the 1940’s!) which, because Braun also represents workers at the company’s principal raw-metal supplier, is over in a day or two with the workers promised a 15 percent raise and three weeks’ paid vacation.

When all else fails, Braun tries kidnapping, first seizing Gibson himself (after a low-level thug in his organization grabs McAfee and sets him on fire — in an ineptly directed scene, we don’t actually see McAfee burning, we just see him being dumped on Gibson’s doorstep and their wives covering him with a coat to put the fire out) and taking him to a house for interrogation and pressure on him to recant his testimony and tell the court instead that he didn’t see anything, he’s not sure, it was too dark, etc. They tape his eyes shut throughout this process so he can’t figure out where he is, and when they’re unable to break him they grab his son Timmy (played by Jay North, who was Dennis the Menace on the 1950’s live-action TV series based on Hank Ketcham’s comic) and threaten to kill the kid. Gibson enlists the aid of his wife (Mamie van Doren, who got shoved into just about everything Zugsmith produced during this period — and though she’s certainly physically alluring, as an actress she’s terrible, delivering all her lines in the familiar porn-star’s monotone), McAfee and his wife (Ziva Rodann), and the local police and attempts to retrace the route back to the house where he was interrogated, and where he presumes his son is now being held, via the noises he heard along the way and the time he took based on his own pulse.

Though weighed down by some of the “gimmick” casting (not all of which flops; Jackie Coogan is quite good in a bit role, as is former Western star Don “Red” Barry) and a lazy resort to old-fashioned gangster tropes in its shoot-out climax, for the most part The Big Operator is a quite good movie and Rooney’s performance is especially fine. Obviously this was a role that really turned him on, which most of the parts he was getting in the 1950’s didn’t; though it wouldn’t be a Rooney film if he didn’t overact, for the most part he keeps it under control and gives a chillingly effective reading of the role that really “makes” this film.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Monster A Go-Go (B. I. & L. Releasing, 1965)

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

Anyway, the movie Charles and I ended up watching last night was an abysmal stinker from 1965 called Monster A Go-Go, a product of director Bill Rebane, who apparently started it under the title Terror at Halfday (which, given the Ed Woodian intermix of day and night shots seemingly at random, would actually have been quite an appropriate title for it) but abandoned the project unfinished when his money ran out. Three years later, hack (in both senses) director Herschell Gordon Lewis bought the rights to the footage to fill out one of the double bills on which he released his own product, filmed enough footage to get the movie to feature length and put it out under the inexplicable title it now bears. The only “a Go-Go” part of the movie is a sequence set in a disco, where a man leaves with a woman and in a later sequence, after they’ve parked their car (a Chevy Biscayne, as are virtually all the vehicles in this film), he’s eaten by the monster. The monster is Frank Douglas (Henry Hite), an astronaut whose capsule crash-landed on earth after having been … well, the continuity in the script Rebane co-wrote with Jeff Smith and Dok Stanford isn’t all too clear about this, but at first we’re given the impression that it’s the gimmick from The Quatermass Experiment that the astronaut’s body was taken over by a killer alien.

Only it turns out that before the guy left on his space flight he was given an injection of 200 cc’s of the radioactive serum “Tedium-51” (I’m not making this up, you know!) even though the normal dose is 100 cc’s and the human tests were done only on the previous formula in the series, “Tedium-50” — so the poor guy overdosed on Tedium (as will anyone who watches this movie!) and that’s what turned him into a monster — though all Rebane and his effects crew did to create the monster was to take a 7’ 6” tall actor, shave his head and plaster his face with something that looked like cottage cheese. The next gimmick is that one of the scientists at NASA (I’m not sure who plays him because this movie’s credits are so obscure that only Hite, Phil Morton as Col. Steve Connors and June Travis as Ruth, a female scientist who futilely tries to figure out how to disarm the beast, are identified by name with their roles on imdb.com) has actually developed an antidote (the only antidote to Tedium I can think of in connection with this movie is not to watch it at all!), only — as anyone who’s ever read Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (or seen any of the films based on it) would know — every time the antidote is used, it wears off more quickly than it did before and it has the unfortunate side effect of making the monster dangerous over a wider radius because his body actually gives off radioactivity that progressively makes it toxic for humans to be within 25 … 50 … 100 … 200 feet in his vicinity.

When I saw Herschell Gordon Lewis’s name listed as the copyright holder I worried that the film would feature some of the gory scenes for which he was known — it didn’t, but frankly they would have been an improvement: disgusting might well have been better than boring, which is what this film is. It has no suspense, no excitement, no pace, very little spoken dialogue — to cover the lacunae in Rebane’s unfinished footage, Lewis himself recorded a narration (à la The Creeping Terror, which compared to this film seems like a horror masterpiece!) explaining the plot (such as it was) as it went along (or didn’t) — and much of the dialogue you can hear you can’t hear very well because it was badly distorted, sort of like a long-distance phone call in the days before satellite transmission. The low point comes in a scene in which the characters return to the lab they left shortly before and find it … well, actually it looks like just a few test tubes have been knocked over but the dialogue (or the narrator, or both) tells us it’s been destroyed in a rampage by the monster — none of this is actually shown, perhaps because they spent a good deal of their production budget renting all the test tubes, beakers and flasks and didn’t want to risk breaking anything and having to pay for it.

Charles and I were watching this in a Mystery Science Theatre 3000 presentation that accompanied it with a Warners short from 1954 (a bit late in the day for such a dorky one-reeler) called Circus on Ice, dealing with the 40th Annual Carnival of the Toronto Skating Club and showing such unforgettable sights as a herd of trained zebras — at least that’s what they’re called in Ken Davey’s narration, though they’re actually female skaters in striped costumes — a “dragon” that’s scattered by another group of skaters, and a professional figure skater named Jacqueline du Bief who does a routine in which she plays a faun ambushed and killed by hunters. (Sarah Palin, call your office!) She seems like a nice enough person and definitely a talent with some charisma, but one would want to see her in a better showcase — and really, with the Ice Follies and Ice Capades already well-established parts of American pop culture by then, the idea of a “circus on ice” hardly had the novelty value director Gordon Sparling and writer Constance Jaquays clearly thought it did. At that, though, Circus on Ice clearly had far more entertainment value than Monster A Go-Go did!

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Into the Wild (Paramount Vantage, 2007)

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

I ran Charles a long movie from the modern-film backlog in our DVD collection: Into the Wild, a quite remarkable if flawed film from writer-director Sean Penn (odd that an actor with directorial ambition decided to make his first directorial effort a film in which he does not appear on screen!) based on Jon Krakauer’s book of the same title, dealing with Christopher McCandless (Emile Hirsch), who after graduating from Emory University in Atlanta in 1990 decided to chuck it all, ditch his car, give away his life savings (and even burn what little money he has left!) and live a life tramping away across the continent under the name “Alexander Supertramp,” eventually ending up in Alaska two years later, camping out in an abandoned bus for 10 weeks but finally dying — and, as with so much else about this story, it’s not at all clear whether he died of exposure, starvation, the effects of a toxic plant (he misread his guidebook on what was and wasn’t edible and ate a plant he shouldn’t have because it looked very similar to a close relative that was O.K. to eat) or all three.

It’s a very long (148 minutes) and intense movie, beautifully directed by Penn — who insisted on shooting as much as possible on the actual locations where the story took place and even cast some of the real people in Chris’s life as themselves (his sister Carine is played on screen by Jena Malone but the real Carine McCandless delivers at least some of the character’s narration). Into the Wild is one of those stories in which the central premise had been so widely publicized that virtually nobody went to this movie not knowing how it was going to turn out — which frankly can be a good thing: as much fun as a suspense film can be, there’s also an appeal in going into a work of fiction (or, in this case, dramatized nonfiction) knowing the outcome in advance but still curious as to how it’s going to get there. The sprawling screenplay Penn got from Krakauer’s book cuts back and forth between Chris’s last survival test in Alaska and all the stuff he did between his graduation — and his sudden turning his back on the relatively normal suburban lifestyle he’d led previously — and his death.

Through much of the film I found myself wishing that Penn had adopted the Citizen Kane narratage structure and used Jon Krakauer as an on-screen character, tracing Chris McCandless’s brief life and talking to the people who had known him, thereby introducing the flashback scenes that are the heart of the film — that would have given us someone in the story to identify with and would have also made the search for the truth about Chris part of the story instead of leaving us to wonder, “How the hell do they know that about him?” Still, I can also appreciate Penn’s decision to do the movie the way he did even though that makes Chris an even bigger enigma than he’d be otherwise — and it seems a bit “fake” to have the people who’d known him do soundtrack voiceovers that sound far more like Jon Krakauer’s (or Sean Penn’s) authorial voice than real utterances from the people we see on screen.

Among the people Chris met on his journey and worked and/or lived with for a while were Wayne Westerberg (a surprisingly sexy Vince Vaughn), who taught him to drive a harvester combine and gave him a chance to make some money in the Dakota wheat fields until Wayne was arrested by the FBI (according to some of the commentators on imdb.com, Wayne was busted for bootlegging cable TV equipment, but if there was a hint to that effect in the film itself it was so fleeting I missed it); Rainey (Brian Dierker) and Jan (Catherine Keener), two retro-hippies (in the early 1990’s they’re still living and driving around in a psychedelically painted bus) who make their living selling books and encounter Chris twice; Tracy (Kristen Stewart), aspiring (but not too aspiring) folksinger with whom Rainey and Jan try to match Chris, only when they’re alone he tells her, “We can’t do this,” and though her age (she’s just 16) is an issue so is Chris’s utter disinterest in any emotional connection with another human, much less a sexual one; and Ron Franz (Hal Holbrook), a man who’s lived on the edge of the desert near the Salton Sea (I told you this was a wide-ranging movie geographically!) since the death of his wife and tried to cope as best he could (and there’s a scene reminiscent of Jack Kerouac’s The Dharma Bums in which Chris dares him to climb a mountain as a source of spiritual fulfillment!) and who agrees to drive him to a good jumping-off point for him to hitch to Alaska.

Penn keeps it profoundly ambiguous whether we’re supposed to see Chris McCandless as a profound spiritual quester or a naïve jerk who went “into the wild” without either the equipment or the training to have a fair shot at survival. In the end we get the impression that he’s a little bit of both, not entirely unaware of the physical hazards of what he’s about to do (before he goes to Alaska he prepares, exercising to get himself into good physical shape and raising money working at a fast-food job to buy a gun and outfit himself with provisions — though he’s so free with his ammunition that through much of the movie I thought his demise was going to come when he ran out of bullets and therefore could no longer shoot game for his food; as it turns out, he shoots a moose but is unable to dry and smoke the meat before flies lay eggs on it and render it useless, thereby precipitating the search for edible plants that goes so horribly wrong for him) but also severely underestimating them: as one person on an imdb.com message board about this film noted, had he not found the bus he probably would have died in two weeks “in the wild” in Alaska instead of holding out for 10.

What makes Chris an especially moving and annoying character is his attitude towards other people; Into the Wild has the same sort of emotional coldness I’ve complained about in other recent films as diverse as Brokeback Mountain and Capote, but in this instance it’s more tolerable because the film is about someone who, whatever his good qualities, is incredibly cold and aloof, shunning every opportunity for contact with other people — sexual, familial (he not only deliberately keeps out of touch with his natural family but he rebuffs Ron’s offer to adopt him) or any other. He’s always walking out of situations where other people befriended him and got too close to him, and his journey “into the wild” appears as far more running away from emotional connection as the sort of spiritual quest he seems to see it as being himself. At the same time it’s not at all clear What Made Chris Run, and I suspect that’s as much Sean Penn’s doing as inherent in the challenge Jon Krakauer faced in reconstructing the life of a young man who took great pains to be as untraceable as possible; Penn clearly wants us to admire Chris but not to have illusions about him.

What drove him is the least-explained aspect of this movie: midway through we hear from his sister that their parents were never married because his dad, a rocket scientist (ironic that not long after reading M. G. Lord’s Astro Turf, about her own childhood as the daughter of a rocket scientist, I encountered another real-life based work about a rocket scientist whose own obsessions screwed up his family!), already had a wife — indeed, he was having sex with both women at the same time, with the result that Chris had a half-brother his own age — and ultimately left her for Chris’s mom but never bothered to divorce her. This is supposed to be the big motivation for Chris’s actions — as if the flaws in his own family (including the virtually constant arguments he recalled his parents having when he was growing up, which ironically stopped only when the fact of his disappearance brought his mom and dad closer together in their shared grief and fear: one irony is that this film shows his parents going through Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s famous five stages of grief even while their son, though out of touch with them, is still alive) were what turned him off to human contact in general; and, ironically, the catharsis at the end is that he learns — too late — that human contact is essential for survival, dying of a fate he could have avoided if he had had other people looking out for him (even “in the wild”) and ultimately writing between the lines of print in a book he’d been reading, “Happiness only real when shared.”

Into the Wild was a movie I’d simultaneously anticipated and dreaded, wondering whether I’d love it or hate it but not expecting a response anywhere in between. My response was actually more love than hate; though it’s not a perfect film, and Chris’s character does get annoying quite often (I think Charles was even more bothered by his sexlessness than I was, just as when we watched the 1949 film The Heiress together he was more bothered than I was that by finally turning away the Montgomery Clift character, Olivia de Havilland’s character was consigning herself to a life without sex), the movie managed to humanize him (as much as the facts of his life allowed Penn to!). Certainly Emile Hirsch’s performance in the lead — an especially intense acting challenge because he spends so much of the movie with no other humans in the scene — is utterly marvelous, understated and absolutely convincing (and after watching the trailer for There Will Be Blood at the start of the DVD and then watching Into the Wild it seemed utterly ridiculous that the Academy Award for Best Actor that year could have gone to Daniel Day-Lewis’s scenery-chewing in Blood instead of Hirsch’s subtle and involving work here … apparently the forces in Academy Award politics that gave the awards in the 1930’s to Luise Rainer instead of Greta Garbo are still alive and well today!). I suspect Into the Wild is the sort of movie that will grow on me and I’ll ultimately like better when I think back on it than I did when I was actually watching it; and it renewed my hope that someone will film his book Under the Banner of Heaven, about real-life murders in the netherworld of polygamous Mormon splinter groups.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Calamity Jane (Warners, 1953)

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

I ran a DVD I’d bought at Sam Goody’s of the 1953 film Calamity Jane, made at Warners by director David Butler (who’d made two important musicals in the early years — Sunnyside Up at Fox in 1929 and Pigskin Parade, also at Fox, in 1936; Sunnyside Up was historically important and quite advanced for the day, and Pigskin Parade is a pretty dull movie but noteworthy for the feature-film debut of Judy Garland, who already at 13 outsang everyone else in the cast! — and who had also directed Day before in Tea for Two, Lullaby of Broadway and By the Light of the Silvery Moon) from a script by James O’Hanlon. The project actually began as a sort of consolation prize; when the musical Annie Get Your Gun was a hit on Broadway, among the bidders were MGM (who wanted it for Judy Garland), Paramount (who wanted it for Betty Hutton) and Warners (who wanted it for Doris Day).

Irving Berlin decided to sell the show to MGM even though they were offering less than Paramount or Warners because he wanted Judy as the star; when Judy had one of her spectacular nervous breakdowns and was fired from the film — and Hutton was chosen to replace her — Berlin had a hissy-fit and withdrew the film from circulation as soon as the rights reverted to him in 1975 (and it took another quarter-century and Berlin’s death before his estate once again allowed the film to be shown), not surprisingly since had he wanted Betty Hutton to play Annie — which he hadn’t — he’d have sold the rights to Paramount and made himself more money. Meanwhile, Jack Warner wasn’t going to take being defeated in a rights battle lying down; if he couldn’t star Doris Day in a film of Annie Get Your Gun he’d just develop something similar for her, using the legend of Calamity Jane instead of the legend of Annie Oakley and even hiring the same male star, Howard Keel, as MGM had used in Annie. He hired the team of Sammy Fain (who’d made records in the early 1930’s as “The Crooning Composer”!) and ex-Ellington lyricist Paul Francis Webster to write the score (including a duet for Day and Keel called “I Can Do Without You” that’s an all too obvious knock-off of “Anything You Can Do, I Can Do Better”); used David Buttolph and Howard Jackson as score composers (though most of their work is based on Sammy Fain’s melodies); bathed it all in luscious Technicolor (Wilfrid Cline was the director of photography) and came up with a marvelously insouciant, gender-bending movie that actually turned out to be more entertaining than the final film of Annie Get Your Gun.

The plot: Calamity Jane (Doris Day) is stagecoach driver for the town of Deadwood City in the Dakota Territory, whose duties regularly include firing guns from the stage to ward off Indian attacks; when she’s not doing that she’s holding forth in the Deadwood saloon, owned by her friend Henry Miller (Paul Harvey), out-butching every man in the place (she’s dressed in buckskin and denim and sports a Union army cap on her head) and telling tall tales of her exploits that far surpass the on-screen reality, in the best tradition of Sir John Falstaff and W. C. Fields. She’s also in complete command of her body — even when she takes a pratfall off a bar rail one can see Doris Day is an excellent physical performer (and choreographer Sam Donahue has done a great job getting her to dance, a skill most people who came to movies from vocalist gigs in big bands didn’t have).

Indeed, what makes Calamity Jane a joy more than anything else is how convincingly butch Doris Day is — she’s always named this her favorite of her own films and it was seized on by the odd cult that grew up around her in the early 1970’s of feminists who saw her playing assertive roles in films like this and decided she was one of the movement’s foremothers. At times this almost seems like Sylvia Scarlett: The Musical, even though Day (unlike Katharine Hepburn in Sylvia Scarlett) isn’t trying to pass herself off as a man, she nonetheless crashes through the gender-role ceiling and leaves it shattered on the barroom floor — even though we’re also supposed to believe she’s upset because she’s so butch the guy she’s got a crush on, Army lieutenant Bobby Gilmartin (Philip Carey), won’t look twice at her.

She’s also upset because the men who hang out at the saloon (which is everyone there except her!) are all buying packs of cigarettes (at a time when "real men" smoked cigars) just to get photos of “actress” (actually music-hall performer) Adelaid [sic] Adams (Gale Robbins), whose dress in the photo puts Calamity Jane off and makes her mutter about “girls who get their pictures taken in their underwear.” Henry Miller has sent for a New York performer, Frances Fryer, to entertain at his saloon, but when the person in question arrives he’s unpleasantly surprised that it’s really Francis Fryer (Dick Wesson), a mousy little guy and hardly the luscious bit of womanhood the crowd at the Deadwood Saloon were expecting. Fryer dons drag and goes on anyway, only to get “outed” when his wig gets caught on the trombone slide and lifted off his head; and to stave off a riot that could destroy the saloon, Calamity promises to go to Chicago and bring back Adelaid Adams herself.

Only when she gets there — and after some hilarious fish-out-of-water scenes in which she thinks the wigs in a wig-shop display are scalps taken by Indians and a cigar-store Indian is the bona fide brave who took them — Adams herself is bailing out of her career and going off to Europe. She gives her stage-struck maid, Katie Brown (Allyn McLerie), her costumes — which she packs in a satchel marked “Adelaid Adams” — and naturally Calamity thinks Katie is Adelaid and brings her back to Deadwood. Katie thinks she can get away with the impersonation because Deadwood is 200 miles from the nearest railroad station — only Francis Fryer saw the real Adelaid and is on to Katie immediately. Katie tearfully confesses on the stage of the Deadwood Saloon that she’s not Adelaid Adams, but Calamity forces the rest of the audience to listen to her at gunpoint and Katie finds her own groove as a performer and becomes a local star. She also attracts the attention of Lt. Gilmartin and also Wild Bill Hickock (Howard Keel), Calamity’s friend and needler.

The relationship between Calamity and Katie — which began when Katie, confronting Calamity in her (actually Adelaid’s) dressing room back in the Chicago theatre, screamed because she thought Calamity was a man — takes on decidedly Lesbian overtones after Calamity invites Katie to move into her cabin and Katie fixes it up and gives it a “woman’s touch” — she also paints “Calam & Katie” on the door. That doesn’t stop the (heterosexual) romantic rivalry, though, as Katie attracts Gilmartin and eventually Calamity realizes that she really loves Wild Bill and will have to wear dresses and act more “feminine” to get him.

Though the ending is the usual “she becomes a woman” cop-out (a pity Butler and O’Hanlon didn’t dare the marvelous ending of George Seaton’s The Shocking Miss Pilgrim, in which leads Betty Grable and Dick Haymes get together at the fadeout but do so as personal and professional equals), it’s forgivable because the rest of the film is so good and because Doris Day makes the transition with surprising eloquence. As the butch Calamity, she talks in a hillbilly accent that turns just about every terminal vowel into “y” (her favorite drink, sarsaparilla, beomes “sasparilly,” and “Chicago” becomes “Chicagy”) and sings in a broad, caricatured voice; as the femme version, she drops the affectations and sings the movie’s hit (and Oscar-winning) song, “Secret Love,” with wide-open vocal tones and eloquent phrasing that shows that, for all the associations of Day with the wholesome and square, within her style she was capable of real soul.

Calamity Jane is a truly great movie, a rambunctious romp that far outdoes its model (the film version thereof, anyway) and makes one wish that if they wouldn’t (or couldn’t) get a performance out of Judy Garland in Annie Get Your Gun, MGM would have gone after Doris Day instead of Betty Hutton (who simply couldn’t handle the sensitive ballads in Berlin’s score the way Garland or Day could have). Also, Day’s skills as a markswoman in this film (though undoubtedly simulated) make me wish Alfred Hitchcock’s remake of The Man Who Knew Too Much had retained the final shoot-out of the original version; on the basis of this film Day could have done at least as well as Edna Best in playing a woman who has to pick off the villain who’s holding her child hostage without hurting the child! It was interesting to note that a film this feminist in plot and theme also broke through in women’s rights off-screen; Doris Day’s stunt double was Donna Hall — at a time when stuntwomen were rare and actresses were usually stunt-doubled by men in drag.

According to imdb.com, Day disliked her first rushes because, though she looked convincingly butch, her high, piping voice gave her away — so she dropped it a couple of registers lower — and when she pre-recorded “Secret Love,” she sang it in one take. As I mentioned, one accepts the semi-sexist ending (though at least Calamity gets to ride in pursuit of the stagecoach and bring Katie back after she’s fled, thinking Lt. Gilmartin and Calamity are a couple and not wanting to come between her boyfriend and her friend) and exults in the sight of Doris Day superbly playing butch. I wouldn’t call this the greatest Doris Day film — that would be Love Me or Leave Me, in which she gives the greatest dramatic performance of her career — but this is certainly one of her best and a far cry from the dreary “comedies” she turned out again and again after the success of Pillow Talk!

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Warrior of the Lost World (Regal Films, 1983)

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

I greeted Charles, who came over from his place about half an hour after I called him, and we settled in for another Mystery Science Theatre 3000 program: one of the later ones when Joel Hodgson was still hosting, a 1983 movie called Warrior of the Lost World, directed by David Worth (and of course the MST3K crew couldn’t resist the obvious “David Worthless” pun on his name!) from his own script, though according to an imdb.com “Trivia” item on this movie he was actually hired to make it and went out to Italy to find that all they had was a title and a poster — so he was obliged to write and direct a movie based on the poster art.

What he came up with was a Mad Max knock-off (“Mildly Annoyed Max,” I called it) in which the hero, identified only as “The Rider” (played by Robert Ginty, who must have played the Timothy Bottoms role in the TV version of The Paper Chase because the MST3K crew referred to him throughout as “the Paper Chase guy”), rides around in a post-apocalyptic future (the backstory is explained to us in one of those horrible receding crawls the enormous success of the first Star Wars briefly made fashionable), pretty much minding his own business — or trying to — until he’s recruited by Nastasia (Persis Khambatta, whose only well-known role is as a bald ship’s officer in Star Trek: The Motion Picture and who is virtually unrecognizable with hair), daughter of a resistance leader (whom for some reason the MST3K crew decided looked like Jimmy Carter even though the resemblance totally eluded me) who’s challenging the absolute rule of Prossor (Donald Pleasance, whose striking resemblance in the role to John Houseman must have given Ginty a sense of dèja vu), a dictator who comes off less as Hitler, Stalin or Big Brother than like the idiotic blowhard Passworthy (Edward Chapman), the piss-ant dictator in the post-apocalyptic sequences of Things to Come.

The movie has virtually no plot — just Our Rather Huffy Hero riding his motorbike around various apocalyptic sites (though the largely pastel color by cinematographer Giancarlo Ferrando is quite pleasant — this was a U.S.-Italian co-production and the studio work was done at Cinecittá, where Fellini’s masterpieces were shot — about the only connection I could think of between Warrior of the Lost World and any good movies!) and meeting up with whatever menacing weapons and vehicles the filmmakers could conjure up on a very limited budget, from “death cars” that were obviously old Dodge Darts with front scoops and rear spoilers to make them look frightening to a large truck remodeled into something called “Megaweapon” by the addition of spikes to its front and armor to its sides (the hero manages to disarm it by reaching under its big wheels and disconnecting its computer — and I can’t imagine how the MST3K crew missed the obvious joke of singing “Bicycle Built for Two” as the computer expired). The hero’s bike is also equipped with an annoying talking computer that flashes him messages and speaks in a Jewish-mother voice — an interesting off-take on the computer-in-the-car in the TV series Knight Rider— and, as all too often happens in this sort of production, the computer has all (or at least most of) the best lines.

The film drones on and on and on and on — it’s yet another one of these supposed “thrillers” that remains too leadenly-paced to achieve thrills (which seems to have been something the “brains” behind MST3K consciously looked for in seeking out films to make fun of) — leading to a Lone Ranger-ish ending in which they finally kill the dictator (though it turns out he’s half-robot and enough of the mechanical part of him survives to create a clone and bring him back to life that way — were they really expecting enough people to buy tickets for this movie to set up a sequel?) and the obnoxious computer on the hero’s motorbike tells him to kiss the heroine; he does so but then rides off into the sunset (a quite pretty sunset with the same giant-orange sun we saw at the beginning) and the final credits come up. Viewed au naturel this would have been a pompous bore, but giving it the MST3K treatment at least raised it to reasonably pleasant light entertainment.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Touch of Evil (Universal-International, 1958)

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

During the two-hour stand-down Charles and I adjourned to his place and I ran him a tape of the Orson Welles film Touch of Evil — which he liked so much, despite its Universal-International parentage, that he asked me if it had actually been made by Paramount and simply acquired by Universal ex post facto, like Psycho two years later (which it strongly anticipates in the presence of Janet Leigh and her torment at the hands of a strange night clerk — Dennis Weaver instead of Anthony Perkins this time — in an impossibly remote motel whose business plummeted when the interstate highway was built somewhere else).

It’s a movie I also found myself liking better than I had in the 1970’s, partly because time has caught up with it — certainly the issues of racism, narcotics, moral corruption, a policeman’s role in a democracy and the tensions along the U.S.-Mexico border are, if anything, even more “live” today than they were in 1958! Welles’ direction is marvelous, even though he builds suspense less through editing than from oblique camera angles (not many directors went as extremely into deep-focus as he did; the shots of two people’s heads, of dramatically different on-screen size but both still in focus, were a Welles trademark from Citizen Kane on but are deployed especially effectively here), and the plot, though complex, is actually surprisingly easy to follow if one concentrates. (The reputation this film has for being confusing is not altogether unearned, but if you give the story your full attention it isn’t hard figuring out who’s doing what to whom, and why; it’s certainly better constructed than, say, The Big Sleep — novel or movie.) Touch of Evil was a flop when it was released — partly because Universal-International gave it almost no promotion, partly because audiences 40 years ago weren’t as able to handle films with multiple plot-lines and quick cuts from one storyline to another as they are today (in fact, today the film emerges as an early exercise in cinematic post-modernism — and one can readily see what about Welles’ directorial style that has influenced the two generations of directors since).

Touch of Evil is a film that works on a surprising number of levels: as a morality play, as a study in corruption, as realistic (or surrealistic) drama and as film noir. Basically, it’s the story of the clash in values between Mexican narcotics official Miguel Vargas (Charlton Heston, who’s actually surprisingly credible visually as a Mexican — his performance falls short of credibility only in his refusal to attempt even the hint of a Spanish accent; granted he’s supposed to be playing an upper-class Mexican who speaks English well, but it’s still hard to believe he speaks it that well) and Welles as San Diego police officer Hank Quinlan, who has made it a habit of planting evidence in order to see that criminals get convicted regardless of due process.

Like the judge in Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None (or Ten Little Niggerboys, or Ten Little Indians, or whatever the p.c. title for it currently is), Quinlan is concerned about nailing people his instinct (symbolized by his “game leg”) tells him are guilty but against whom there isn’t sufficient evidence to convict unless he creates some. This aspect of Touch of Evil naturally involves the same themes as Detective Story and Dirty Harry, and whereas Wyler’s film unequivocally condemned the cop who pushed past the lines of due process and Siegel’s film unequivocally (at least until the final scene) made him a hero, Welles’ film is typically more complicated. On the whole, we sympathize with Vargas’ moral position (while at the same time we hate him for being so cavalier about the safety of his Anglo wife, the Janet Leigh role), but at the same time we see him sink to some pretty scummy levels himself in his eagerness to frame Quinlan, including planting a wire on Quinlan’s long-time partner Menzies (Joseph Calleia) to get the evidence he needs to prove that Quinlan shot the Mexican drug-dealer Grandi (Akim Tamiroff) and tried to frame Mrs. Vargas for the crime.

Not that this plot line is the only thing going on in Touch of Evil. The film opens with the famous sequence in which a wealthy industrialist (one can hardly imagine an Orson Welles film without a wealthy industrialist somewhere in the dramatis personae) and his stripper girlfriend are blown up by a bomb planted in their car — which not only makes for an impressive opening sequence (which would have been even more impressive had Welles won his argument with the studio that the credits should have been placed at the end of the film, as is the standard practice today, instead of at the beginning, where they distract from the long-take flow of the scene) but also sets up one hell of a jurisdictional snarl, because the bomb was planted on the Mexican side of the border but exploded on the U.S. side.

Vargas (who was an Anglo in the original source novel, Whit Masterson’s Badge of Evil — in the novel he was an American D.A. and his wife was Mexican — and, not surprisingly, Heston was set for the role before Welles took over the writing and direction and decided to reverse the racial backgrounds of Mr. and Mrs. Vargas) is being threatened by Grandi because, before the film begins, he arrested Grandi’s brother on drug charges (a Latin American drug ring run by a family — in that, too, Welles’ film anticipated present-day reality!), and Grandi (the one we see on screen) wants to intimidate Vargas into dropping the case by threatening (and eventually raping) Vargas’ wife (not that he commits the rape himself — he has Mrs. Vargas cornered in the motel by his nephews and a bunch of other things, one of whom — the one who pleads to be able to stay and watch — is Mercedes McCambridge in drag; McCambridge had just been blacklisted and Welles, flaming liberal that he was, wanted to give her work, and it’s hard to imagine any better way of “covering” her presence in the film than by casting her cross-gender!). Both the Vargases make that task almost absurdly easy — he by being incredibly callous towards her safety (leaving her alone at the drop of someone else’s police badge and holing her up in the scummiest hotels he can find — though maybe the point was that these cheap dives were all an honest Mexican narcotics cop could afford!) and she by being a typical blonde bimbo.

When I first saw Touch of Evil in the 1970’s I found it almost impossibly complicated — I liked the beginning and the ending (the final confrontation between Vargas, Quinlan and Menzies — who ultimately shoots Quinlan, who years before had saved Menzies’ life, to keep Quinlan from killing Vargas) but found most of what went between unfollowable. This time around I found some parts of the film as silly as they seemed before — though Joseph Cotten is marvelous in a one-scene cameo as a vice cop (the bushy white moustache and matching white frizzled hair make him almost unrecognizable physically, but the famous voice is unmistakable), Marlene Dietrich’s role as a cantina owner who hosts Quinlan for chili and solace is just plain silly (and her curtain line, “What does it matter what you say about a man?,” is pure camp, though it was taken seriously enough that it was quoted in virtually every obituary when Welles finally did die in real life) and Zsa Zsa Gabor’s part as the head of a strip joint is even sillier.

But, once you get used to multiple plot lines and a suspense film that builds most of its tension through long, uninterrupted takes instead of intercutting (though Welles actually wanted more of the sequences intercut than they are in the final cut), Touch of Evil is surprisingly entertaining. Welles himself turns in a marvelous performance as a man whose physical corpulence and general air of dishevelment become superb metaphors for his ethical and psychological deterioration — though he was already fat, he added 70 pounds of body padding to make himself not just large, but grotesquely obese (he would pad himself again to play Falstaff in Chimes at Midnight seven years later); and though his use of a walking-stick (which figures prominently in the plot) is explained in the film by his having stopped a bullet with his leg years before, but one subliminally gets the impression that he needs the cane just to hold himself up. (Welles actually fell in the first week of shooting and really needed the cane for the rest of the film.)

The location — Venice Beach, California — works superbly as a site for decay and corruption, though the oil wells look somewhat incongruous for what’s supposed to be the San Diego/Tijuana border and it’s frequently impossible to tell just by looking whether we’re supposed to be in the U.S. or Mexico. (The only visible difference is that in the scenes set on the U.S. side, the bilingual signs on the buildings have the English on top, where in the scenes set in Mexico the Spanish is on top.) And even though it’s a sign of a more naive time that Welles’ dialogue had to contain laborious explanations of what a “bug” actually was, the final scene in which Vargas is maintaining electronic surveillance of Quinlan (and has to follow him at close range because of the limited range of the transmitter he’s wired Menzies with) is powerful and still timely. — 11/12/97

•••••

The film Charles and I watched last night was Touch of Evil, the 1998 re-edit that, in a truly Orwellian perversion of language, has been hyped by Universal as the “director’s cut” of the film even though Orson Welles had been dead for 13 years when this edit was made. The justification for that was that it was supposedly based on a 58-page memo Welles gave to Universal on how he wanted the film to be edited that had, according to the hype, been unknown until Charlton Heston, the film’s star, discovered it among his papers in 1995. This doesn’t explain how Frank Brady, in a Welles biography published in 1989, could not only have read the memo but noted that about half of its suggestions had already been followed in the two versions of the film that existed previously, the 90-minute 1958 release print that is the only version entirely directed by Orson Welles and the 105-minute alternative version that was rediscovered in the Universal vaults and issued in 1975. (This was the version I saw first, in a hole-in-the-wall theatre in the East Bay from a 16 mm print; later I saw the 90-minute version on TV and actually found it more coherent and better entertainment.)

The film began life as just another Universal policier, based on a paperback thriller by Whit Masterson called Badge of Evil (the title Welles actually wanted to retain for the film) and adapted into a screenplay by Paul Monash, and Charlton Heston was signed for the lead — an Anglo-American D.A. who clashes with a corrupt cop in a border town. Universal signed Orson Welles to play the corrupt cop even before they got Heston, and when they offered Heston the project he asked, “Who’s directing?” The Universal execs told Heston they didn’t have a director signed yet but Welles was already attached to the project as an actor. “Why don’t you let Orson direct it?” Heston said — later recalling in his journal that the guys from Universal reacted to that suggestion as if he’d said, “Why don’t you let my mother direct it?” Welles never read Masterson’s novel but wrote his own screenplay from the Monash script, in the process deciding that instead of playing a U.S. D.A. married to a Mexican woman, Heston would play a Mexican narcotics cop, Ramon Miguel “Mike” Vargas, and his wife would be the Anglo one and be played by Janet Leigh. (Leigh thereby became one of three actors — the others being Joseph Cotten and Anthony Perkins — who played leads for both Welles and Alfred Hitchcock.)

Welles got carte blanche to shoot the film his way when Albert Zugsmith, who’d previously handled Douglas Sirk on Written on the Wind and The Tarnished Angels, agreed to produce, and as usual with a Welles project that had solid financial backing and a major-studio infrastructure, the actual shooting proceeded relatively smoothly but the film ran into trouble with the editing. Welles went behind schedule in post-production and the “suits” insisted on seeing a cut version as it stood — and Universal editor Ernest Nims worked on it for five weeks while Welles pulled one of his celebrated disappearing acts. Meanwhile, the execs decided the film was totally incoherent and needed additional scenes, and with the studio already disillusioned with Welles they assigned another director, Universal contractee Harry Keller, to shoot about 15 minutes of additional footage — which was accordingly shot, edited into the film and then, amazingly, not used in the release version; instead they just put out the 90-minute cut without Keller’s additions.

What made it even more bizarre was that in 1961, when Peter Bogdanovich hosted a question-and-answer session with Welles at the New York Museum of Modern Art, Welles identified some of Keller’s footage as his own and attacked the studio for removing it (though it’s possible, as Brady suggested in his book, that Welles had directed similar scenes that hadn’t been included in the first cut). Anyway, the 58-page memo was written by Welles after he saw the cut with the Keller-directed insertions — and, according to Brady, about half his suggestions were followed in the version ultimately released in 1975. One could actually make the case that each re-edit of the film, far from getting closer to Orson Welles’ “intentions” (and I daresay not even Welles himself was fully conscious of what his “intentions” were!), has actually moved farther and farther from what he had in mind when he was actually shooting the film.

Be that as it may, the 1998 re-edit of the 1975 version (already re-edited and with additional scenes shot by another director) of the 1958 original cut of Touch of Evil remains pretty much the same frustrating movie it always was: either a bad movie with flashes of brilliance or a great movie flawed by trivial subject matter. There’s one decided improvement in this edition — the famous tour de force tracking shot at the beginning, in which the fabulously wealthy contractor Linnekar and his stripper girlfriend de jour are blown up by a bomb planted in the trunk of their car is finally visible without the distraction of having the film’s credits superimposed over it (which Zugsmith insisted on over Welles’ objections) — and one decided drawback: the early scene in which Mrs. Vargas is rather stupidly lured to a cheap hotel and forced to confront “Uncle Joe” Grandi (Akim Tamiroff), brother of the cartel boss Vargas is scheduled to testify against at a trial in Mexico City, is kept all in one shot instead of intercut with scenes involving Vargas. For all the hype about this being a re-edited version, some of the jump cuts are awfully sloppy and it’s hard to imagine a director so picky with his editors as Welles was letting them get away with some of the jarring non-transitions in this version of the film.

What’s frustrating about Touch of Evil is that it’s a film with a good deal more psychological, political and ideological weight than your standard police thriller — most especially the confrontation between Hank Quinlan (Welles) and Vargas over whether the ends justify the means and it’s morally O.K. to get convictions against genuinely guilty people even when you have to plant evidence and frame them to do it (a dilemma that recurred in real life when Mark Fuhrman’s antics were exposed during the O. J. Simpson trial!) and the marvelous ending, in which Vargas, angry with Quinlan for having framed his wife on drugs and murder (the victim was Grandi, whom Quinlan shot with Vargas’s gun), gets Quinlan’s long-time (and long-suffering) partner, Menzies (Joseph Calleia in an understated performance that’s quite welcome in a film in which too many of the actors seem to be trying to duplicate their director’s histrionics in their own performances!) to wear a wire (it’s indicative of how unusual this was that the script has to explain to us what this is!) in order to get the goods on Quinlan and prove that his bending the law has turned into outright breaking it.

The problem with Touch of Evil is not only how Welles was bending — and at times breaking — narrative coherence and common sense in the story (he’d done that similarly a decade earlier in The Lady from Shanghai, which also was largely set in Mexico but was a far better constructed film and had a truly great performance by Rita Hayworth in the lead) but also the vast gap between the depth and richness of the main intrigue — the clash between corrupt Quinlan and honest but ineffective Vargas over the ethics of law enforcement (still a live issue today, given how much applause Republican vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin got for the line in her acceptance speech, “Al Qaeda terrorists still plot to inflict catastrophic harm on America, and [Barack Obama]’s worried that someone won’t read them their rights”), leading to Vargas’s line, “A policeman’s job is only easy in a police state” (those who find it ironic to hear future National Rifle Association president Charlton Heston deliver that line should be reminded that at the time Heston made this film he was still a liberal Democrat; like Ronald Reagan, he moved Right over time) — and the sleazy business with Janet Leigh, whose existence in this film seems to be more as an object of titillation for the audience, since she’s successively cruised by one of Grandi’s young, greasy nephews (the quasi-racist epithet is appropriate for how the character is played in the film), Grandi himself, the motel manager (Dennis Weaver in a performance and situation clearly anticipating that between Leigh and Anthony Perkins in Psycho) who runs the place where he’s stashed, then an entire gang of J.D.’s in Grandi’s employ (including Mercedes McCambridge in drag) who gang-rape her and plant reefers (the word is actually used on the soundtrack) around her to bolster Quinlan’s cover story that both Mr. and Mrs. Vargas are junkies and he’s sold out to the cartel to insure that both of them get drug supplies.

One problem with Touch of Evil is that it’s one of those God-awful plots that’s dependent on the “good” guys being totally stupid ninnies; accepting Charlton Heston as a Mexican is less of a problem than accepting him as such an idiot that he keeps putting his wife in harm’s way even though he would surely know that the cartel he’s about to testify against would try to intimidate him into silence by targeting her. For all the visual virtuosics, there’s a hard core of silliness about this movie — epitomized by Marlene Dietrich’s inexplicable casting as Tanya (a name the other actors find impossible to pronounce; it keeps coming out “Tana” or “Tanner”), owner of a saloon where Quinlan used to drink (he got on the wagon in the backstory but falls off it spectacularly during the film) with a player piano that cranks out two songs over and over again, one a sappily sentimental waltz Welles used as the recurring theme of the film.

But the main problem is that, after his brilliant beginning in films with Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons, Welles seems to have decided that the reason his two masterpieces had flopped was the high-falutin’ nature of their subject matter, so he attempted to re-invent himself in a more “commercial” vein by making thrillers: Journey Into Fear, The Stranger, The Lady from Shanghai (easily his best work in the genre), Confidential Report and this, broken only by the Shakespearean productions Macbeth and Othello (and even there he selected two works from the Shakespeare canon that anticipate film noir: a man murders his way to a position of power and authority and then loses it again; a man is enticed by his best friend to suspect his wife of adultery and ends up killing her) and — if my argument that it should “really” be considered a Welles film is true — the fascinating 1949 Black Magic, a much more coherent and entertaining film than Touch of Evil (and, intriguingly, also featuring Welles as a corrupt opportunist who falls by over-reaching).

I think Dwight Macdonald might have had a point that Welles did his best work when the story he selected pushed him towards realism — either the thinly veiled real life of William Randolph Hearst in Kane (plus the precision of veteran screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz in constructing the script; I think Pauline Kael went overboard in suggesting that the script for Kane was entirely Mankiewicz’s work, but he was certainly responsible for the underlying concept and its basic construction) or the realistic fiction of Booth Tarkington in Ambersons — and did less interesting work when a weak story gave him room to indulge his most baroque stylistic obsessions at the expense of narrative coherence. The odd thing about Touch of Evil is that many of its good and bad points anticipate the films (and the social issues!) of today; certainly a movie about a family-run Mexican drug cartel terrorizing the police on both sides of a border town is awfully au courant, and the very structural shakiness of Touch of Evil that gave the Universal executives conniption fits way back when makes it seem modern in an era in which all too many young directors indulge in an orgy of odd angles and quick cuts on the theory that their MTV-raised audiences not only don’t expect but don’t want narrative coherence.

But I can’t help thinking that a director more sympathetic to the noir universe — like Fritz Lang, maybe? — could have done a much better job dramatizing the central story of Touch of Evil than Welles did, and for all Welles’ attempt to create a couple of antagonistic characters expressing a moral dilemma about law and authority, Hank Quinlan — with his obscene obesity (Welles really wasn’t that fat; he wore heavy body padding here and later as Falstaff in his last Shakespearean film, Chimes at Midnight, as if he’d decided that once he could no longer slim down to romantic-lead size he’d go the opposite way and make himself not just fat but grotesque and monstrous in size), his gravelly voice and his overbearing manner — is hardly as eloquent a spokesperson for police-state tactics as either Walter Huston in The Beast of the City before him or Clint Eastwood in Dirty Harry afterwards, and Charlton Heston is so annoyingly prissy (apparently when he put that dark makeup on a lot of his machismo came off!) you can’t really root for him either. Though I like The Trial a lot better than Macdonald did (admittedly it’s a film that should only be seen if you have read the book, but I don’t hold that against it), I think he was right about Touch of Evil when he invidiously compared it to the 1941 Maltese Falcon and added, “If all the cards are wild, you can’t play poker.” — 9/9/08

Monday, September 8, 2008

Rediscovered Orson Welles Classic: "Black Magic" (1949)

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

When Charles finally did get home I ran him the 1949 (that’s the date on imdb.com, though other sources have given 1947) film Black Magic, a U.S.-Italian co-production by Edward Small (who made up for being called “Small” by creating a logo showing his name in giant size!), ostensibly directed by Gregory Ratoff but really directed by its star, Orson Welles. It’s the story of Cagliostro, as adapted by Charles Bennett (screenwriter for six of Alfred Hitchcock’s films and the writer who, more than any other, formed the “Hitchcock style”) with additional dialogue by Richard Schayer from Alexander Dumas père’s novel Memoirs of a Physician. There’s a narration running through the film delivered by Berry Kroeger in character as Dumas père, after a framing scene in Paris in 1848 during which Dumas père and Dumas fils (an almost unrecognizable Raymond Burr!) meet and discuss what they’ve both been working on lately (naturalement, Dumas fils has just finished Camille) and this gives the older one the excuse to narrate the story.

Though different sources have different accounts of the extent of Welles’ contribution to this film, Welles biographer Frank Brady interviewed Nancy Guild, the leading lady, and her recollection was that Ratoff spent almost the entire shoot sitting in his director’s chair reading newspapers while Welles placed the cameras, blocked the actors and gave them notes — in other words, directed. Certainly Black Magic looks like an Orson Welles film — all that chiaroscuro photography (the cinematographers were Ubaldo Arata, Anchise Brizzi and an uncredited Otello Martelli), all those vertiginous camera movements (including one scene in which the Gypsy parents of Cagliostro, t/n Joseph Balsamo, are being tried for witchcraft and the camera swoops across the landscape and dollies in to the window of the courtroom in an obvious visual quote of Gregg Toland’s famous tracking-crane shot in the opening of Citizen Kane that “discovers” Susan Alexander Kane, or what’s left of her, drinking after her vocal shift at El Rancho nightclub) and that swirling aura of fate that surrounds Welles’ own performances in the films he directed.

I even suspect Welles had a hand in the script, too; not only is the whole thing structured as a flashback (with at least one sequence presented as a Casey Robinsonesque flashback within a flashback!) but there are two points at which Cagliostro, at the height of his influence with the common people in Paris, boasts that he can get them to believe anything he wants them to, and any Welles fan can’t help but recall his similar boast in Citizen Kane that people would think “what I tell ’em to think!” The best way to look at Black Magic is as a previously undiscovered Orson Welles film, and as such it suffers from some clunkiness in the script (particularly some wince-inducingly ridiculous bits of dialogue), but overall it has a fustian energy one gets from few if any other directors.

The route to a Cagliostro film had its share of the usual “development” issues: Universal briefly considered producing one in the early 1930’s as a Boris Karloff vehicle (and with James Whale or Robert Florey as director that might have been quite a good one!) but abandoned it in favor of The Mummy, and the project lay fallow until Edward Small revived it in the late 1940’s, first hiring Douglas Sirk to direct and George Sanders to star. Judging from the two Sirk-Sanders vehicles from the period that I’m familiar with — A Scandal in Paris (also a fictionalization with at least a possible basis in real life) and Lured — their version of Cagliostro would have been quirkier and more sophisticated than Welles’ but nowhere near as much fun.

The plot of Black Magic starts out with the dual-Dumas framing sequence and then cuts to the south of France in the late 18th century; Joseph Balsamo’s Gypsy parents (Leonardo Scavino and Tamara Shayne — he’s an otherwise unknown name to me but she played Al Jolson’s mother in both The Jolson Story and Jolson Sings Again) are condemned to be hanged for witchcraft. The judge who sentences them is the Viscount de Montagne (Stephen Bekassy), and he also orders the boy (Annielo Mele, a generically cute child actor we don’t really believe could grow up to be Orson Welles) to be whipped and, if he survives, to be blinded in both eyes. He survives the whipping, but just before they’re about to put his eyes out he’s rescued by a Gypsy band led by Gitano (frequent Welles collaborator Akim Tamiroff), who becomes his foster-father.

When he grows up they’re running a patent-medicine concession and inadvertently sell one of the customers lamp oil; she drinks it and is almost poisoned, but the quick-thinking young Joseph Balsamo (at this time Welles was hefty but still good-looking enough to be credible as a romantic lead) uses his eyes to hypnotize her and his mouth to give her an induction that gets her over the health crisis. Nonetheless, their show is broken up and they’re forced to flee, and Joseph is arrested but bailed out in the custody of Dr. Franz Anton Mesmer (Charles Goldner), who tells Joseph that though he’s never heard the word “hypnotism” he was a natural-born practitioner of it. (Actually, as Charles pointed out to me at this point — and I later posted as a “goof” on imdb.com — Mesmer never used the words “hypnotism” or “mesmerism” himself; he called it “animal magnetism.”)

Mesmer hopes he can use Joseph to prove to the skeptical doctors of France that his theories are accurate, but that’s all too altruistic for the self-serving Joseph, who escapes from Mesmer’s home (leaving him a note saying he’d rather have his rewards in the here and now than the respect of generations to come) and takes the alias “Cagliostro” from a star, touring Europe as an itinerant healer and eventually encountering (you guessed it!) the Viscount de Montagne, along with a young girl named Lorenza (Nancy Guild) who’s the spitting image of Marie Antoinette — Louis XV is still king of France and Marie Antoinette has just married the crown prince, the future Louis XVI, but she’s already starting to run up a reputation for extravagance and the French people are already starting to get restive about it.

The only problem is that Lorenza falls in love with another man who happens into the story at this point, the French cavalier Gilbert de Rezel (Frank Latimore),and she’d rather settle in with him than hang out with Cagliostro and Montagne and be readied to impersonate Marie Antoinette for some sinister purpose. A co-conspirator in all this is Madame Du Barry (Margot Grahame), who wants to trash Marie Antoinette’s reputation before her keeper, Louis XV, croaks and puts that self-righteous moralist and her weak husband on the thrones of France. The conspirators hatch a plot to buy the Boehmer necklace, made by jeweler Boehmer (Giuseppe Varni) for one million francs — Du Barry will provide the money out of all the dough Louis XV has lavished on her over the years — and let Lorenza be seen wearing it, then secrete it in Marie Antoinette’s chambers and spread the word that at a time when a good chunk of the French population was starving, the queen-to-be spent one million francs of French taxpayers’ money on this insane bauble. (This is another part of the story that has at least a faint resemblance to actual history; there was such a necklace and Boehmer, stiffed by the husband of the noblewoman who commissioned it originally, tried to get his money back by unloading it on Marie Antoinette — a chapter in her biography that fairly recently generated a whole movie of its own, The Affair of the Necklace.)

As (bad) luck would have it, the king does indeed croak and Marie Antoinette banishes Du Barry from the court (a scene done effectively here but even better in the marvelous 1934 Warners biopic Madame Du Barry, directed by William Dieterle and starring Dolores Del Rio), but de Montagne decides to go through with the plan anyway and Cagliostro intends to participate in it and then double-cross de Montagne and have his revenge by disgracing him at court and getting him convicted of treason against the queen. Needless to say, the whole plot collapses and de Montagne and Cagliostro both end up on trial for treason, though Cagliostro manages to hypnotize de Montagne into confessing in open court and looks bound for an acquittal when a deus ex machina turns up in the form of Mesmer, who grabs the Boehmer necklace off the evidence table and uses it to win a battle of hypnotic wits with Cagliostro, gets him to confess and sends him off to a picturesque death at the hands of Zoraida (Valentina Cortese), the Gypsy girlfriend he jilted for Lorenza.

Black Magic is a great movie — not at the level of Kane or The Magnificent Ambersons but at least as good as a lot of Welles’ other, later productions — and it’s powered by his performance and the open, unashamed theatricality of the whole concept. With all the fussing about “lost” Welles films like Don Quixote and The Other Side of the Wind, it’s somewhat surprising that the members of the Welles cult have pretty much ignored Black Magic because his directorial contribution wasn’t formally credited, even though it’s a film that plays to Welles’ strengths as a performer (he even gets to do on-screen magic tricks, a favorite pastime of his off-screen as well) and a director, using all those handsome old Italian buildings (though set in France it was actually shot in Italy and most of the supporting cast members were Italian, including Silvana Mangano in an uncredited bit part) much the way Welles would do in his later Othello and creating a rich, unforgettable look out of a mini-budget through sheer force of will. Certainly it’s hard to think of anyone other than Orson Welles who could have made this film — and not just because he’s the star and he makes the lead role so much his own it’s inconceivable that Boris Karloff or George Sanders could ever have played it!

Reefer Madness (G&H Productions, 1938; colorized 2004)

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

For Reefer Madness — originally issued in 1938 as Tell Your Children, then reissued in 1939 as The Burning Question (one of the worst puns in a movie title ever) and in 1947 under the name it has been known, loved and loathed by ever since — we ran the DVD Charles had bought via the Internet and brought our own DVD machine to play it. I hadn’t seen this since the last time I ran my Beta video in the early 1990’s and I’d forgotten how dull a movie it really is. In a number of ways it’s a good deal better than the average 1930’s exploitation film — it was made at a semi-respectable studio (Grand National), the acting is professionally competent (for the most part; a couple of the principals really ham it up in the final reel but I’m inclined to blame the director, Louis Gasnier, whose best known credit was the original Perils of Pauline in 1914, rather than them) and the sets have a refreshing solidity to them — they don’t look like they’re about to fall down on the hapless actors, as they do in some of the Monogram films from the 1940’s — and though there are a few obvious stock-footage clips (including that familiar “Help is on the way!” shot of police cars roaring out of a station that was also used in two far better films, the Marx Brothers’ Duck Soup and the original King Kong) the film doesn’t seem padded out with stock footage, as some of the tackier independent productions of the 1930’s, 1940’s and 1950’s do.

Alas, a relatively competent technical production (including the occasionally creative camera angle) is enlisted in the service of a particularly ridiculous script (by Arthur Hoerl from an “original” story by Lawrence Meade), not only in its overwrought presentation of the case against marijuana (which comes straight out of the presentation Harry J. Anslinger, who was essentially FDR’s “drug czar,” made to Congress in support of the 1937 law that illegalized marijuana) but also in its utter inability to dramatize the depravity to which the drug allegedly makes its users sink and its lazy fall-back on traditional 1930’s gangster tropes. One problem with the early-1950’s anti-Communist movies that keeps most of them from reaching even guilty-pleasure status was that Hollywood knew only one way to depict evil — so the bad-guy Communists, the bad-guy Nazis in earlier films or the bad-guy drug dealers here end up behaving exactly like the bad-guy gangsters in Little Caesar, Public Enemy and all the subsequent films that followed that template.

Thelma White’s performance as Mae Coleman, live-in girlfriend of drug dealer Jack Perry (Carleton Young), actually creates a multidimensional character — a good-time girl and borderline alcoholic herself, she nonetheless has enough morality left to question her partner’s ethics in hooking high-school kids onto marijuana and eventually she becomes the closest thing this movie has to a genuinely tragic figure. The rest of the cast members are either doing the snarling gangster clichés or are your typical mid-20’s Hollywood actors looking utterly unconvincing as high-school students (did male high-school students in the 1930’s routinely go around in suits and ties? I didn’t think so!), and while Lillian Miles as Blanche actually turns in one of the better performances in this film as the girl who hooks Our Hero, Bill Harper (Kenneth Craig), on pot so she can have her wicked way with him, her competence here only underscores the horrible career tragedy that plummeted her from a featured role in a Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers musical in 1934 (she sang a chorus of “The Continental” in The Gay Divorcée) to a film like this just four years later.

All the clichés get trotted out — Bill’s gooder-than-good girlfriend Mary Lane (Dorothy Short — with all the Catholics running the Production Code Administration and the Legion of Decency it’s not surprising that the name “Mary” became irrevocably attached to the most innocent female character in film after film after film in 1930’s Hollywood) gets shot accidentally in Jack’s and Mae’s apartment, Jack frames Bill for her murder, Bill is tried and meanwhile Jack is killed by Ralph Wiley (Dave O’Brien — I guess he had to be in something that would make his later PRC vehicles look good by comparison!), the craziest pothead of all, who at the end of the film is judged criminally insane and sentenced to an asylum for the rest of his life.

One problem with Reefer Madness is that, whereas there were plenty of people in Hollywood who either had been alcoholics themselves or knew alcoholics and therefore had a knowledge base with which to depict the effects of drink with some semblance of realism, either nobody there had had any real experience with marijuana or (if they had) they weren’t about to admit it — and more than anything else I suspect it was the sharp variance between its effects in real life and the depiction of them in this film that made Reefer Madness a camp classic in the early 1970’s when it was rediscovered and watched — for the first time in its exhibition history — by people who had actually smoked marijuana themselves and therefore realized what it did (and didn’t) do. About the only clue the actors had as to how to portray being “high” was to roll their eyes and grin hideously! — 11/13/02

•••••

One more piece of movie trivia: this morning’s Los Angeles Times contained an obituary for Thelma White, who was in Reefer Madness (she played Mae, the co-tenant of the apartment where the film’s pot orgies take place), who just passed away at the age of 94. She said that she was an RKO contractee in the 1930’s and they actually loaned her out to participate (needless to say she was not happy about that!), and in later years she was distressed that this, of all films, was the one she was remembered for — though she clearly had a sense of humor about it: when the recent stage version of Reefer Madness (which spoofed the original) opened White attended two performances and enjoyed it immensely.

The last time I watched Reefer Madness I singled out White’s performance as the one genuinely good piece of acting in the film: “Thelma White’s performance as Mae Coleman, live-in girlfriend of drug dealer Jack Perry (Carleton Young), actually creates a multidimensional character — a good-time girl and borderline alcoholic herself, she nonetheless has enough morality left to question her partner’s ethics in hooking high-school kids onto marijuana and eventually she becomes the closest thing this movie has to a genuinely tragic figure.” R.I.P., Thelma White, and may your spirit end up in a place that has as good a sense of humor about the awful movie you did your best to redeem as you did! — 1/13/05

•••••

We ran two rather eccentric items from the “Oddities” disc of the Mystery Science Theatre 3000 digital archive project, an episode of a really cheesy animated series from the Cartoon Network called Space Ghost that featured MST3K creator Joel Hodgson and magicians Penn and Teller as guests and a 2004 colorized and “restored” version of the film Reefer Madness with Mike Nelson delivering an MST3K-style commentary. The colorization was flamboyantly unrealistic, especially in the scenes set in the apartment of the dope-pushing couple at the center of the action (such as it is), Jack Perry (Carleton Young) and Mae Coleman (Thelma White); every wall of the place is in a different “shocking” pastel color and when the film’s participants exhale the smoke from the (to borrow the title of a different anti-pot exploitation film of the period) “weed with roots in hell,” everyone exhales smoke of a different pastel color: shocking pink, bright purple, bilious green, jaundice yellow.

The movie has never looked better since its initial release — imagine all that time, effort, money and computer power spent restoring this! — nor has it been sillier; though Mike Nelson didn’t sound as funny without the two robot voices also involved (at least part of the fun of MST3K was the way the three performers played off each other in ridiculing the films), he got in some zingers, from his comment on the long opening foreword (“Yeah, a crawl with five minutes of text” — actually it was only three — “that’ll really grab ’em!”) and the ridiculous performance by actor Josef Forte as Dr. Alfred Carroll, principal of Truman High School (you mean they named one after him before he was President?) and the principal authority figure and propagandist within the film itself, lecturing to an on-screen audience of extras who seemed hardly able to contain their boredom. (One wonders if there was an assistant director with a classroom pointer jabbing them to wake them up between takes.)

The movie remains a great camp classic, not as outrageously over-the-top as Dwain Esper’s Marihuana: Weed with Roots in Hell and actually considerably better produced, since it was shot at a good third-tier studio, Grand National (though the production of the film has variously been attributed to a church group and the U.S. Army, the named producer, George W. Hirliman, was studio head of Grand National when this film was made and was also making Westerns for RKO release) and the sets have a refreshing solidity. Cinematographer Jack Greenhalgh (later the PRC house man) lights everything clearly and visibly — even scenes that would have benefited from a dark, noir-ish atmosphere don’t get it — and the acting is wooden (with one exception, Thelma White’s genuine pathos as Mae, conscience-stricken dope dealer who’s willing to sell to adults but resents her boyfriend for hooking naïve high-school kids on the stuff) but not as mind-numbingly incompetent as some of the performances we’ve seen in other exploitation “B”’s of the period.

As I’ve written before about Reefer Madness, I suspect the reason this long-forgotten anti-dope film (which was actually called Tell Your Children on its initial release and for which imdb,com lists at least four other titles: Dope Addict, Doped Youth, Love Madness and The Burning Question) caught on in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s as a cult movie was that for the first time it was actually being seen by people who had themselves used marijuana and therefore knew that whatever it did, it didn’t make people behave anything like the manic way they do in this film, falling into uncontrollable laughter at the first few puffs and then getting more hyper until they go crazy and kill someone. (In Dr. Carroll’s opening spiel he mentions a teenage reefer smoker who went so totally bonkers on the stuff he killed his entire family with an ax.) The colorizers deliberately ramped up the camp value the way they treated the film, and their intentions were showcased in a long credit roll in which virtually everyone who worked on the restoration and colorization job (which seemed to be more people than were involved in making the film in the first place!) was given a “stoner” alias in the middle of their real name.

Incidentally, imdb.com gives the U.S. release date for this film as 1936, which can’t be right since the name of the movie on the marquee of the theatre the car driven by Jimmy Lane (Warren McCullom) passes while en route to running down an elderly man on the street in a pot-stoked hit-and-run is Any Old Love, a fictional film starring “Terry Rooney” — the film-within-a-film James Cagney’s character was shown making in the 1937 Grand National musical Something to Sing About. Therefore, 1938 — the date given in the American Film Institute Catalog — is more believable as a release date for Reefer Madness.

Also, imdb.com claims that Dorothy Short, who plays the virginal heroine Mary Lane (remember what I’ve pointed out about how movie writers in the 1930’s often called their virginal heroines “Mary” to make the Catholic audiences — and, more importantly, the Catholic censors — happy?), and Dave O’Brien, who plays her killer, Ralph Wiley (the poor kid who at the end goes entirely crazy due to his long-term pot use and is incarcerated in a mental hospital for the rest of his life) were married for real — and I can’t watch this film without wondering how Lillian Miles, who plays Blanche (the heavy-duty pothead who seduces tragic victim Bill Harper, played by Kenneth Craig, away from Mary and despoils him), could have fallen so far so fast from her days sharing the big “Continental” number in The Gay Divorcée with Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers just four years earlier! And I did like Mike Nelson’s joke about the film’s use of the older spelling of “Marihuana” — “This film was made before the letter ‘j’ was invented.” — 8/24/08

The Atomic Brain (Monstrosity) (Independent, 1964)

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

Charles and I ended up watching a Mystery Science Theatre 3000 episode from early in Mike Nelson’s tenure as host (in fact, the very next show after Beginning of the End) based on a 1964 movie called The Atomic Brain, though according to imdb.com its theatrical release title was Monstrosity (actually better in terms of conveying what the movie is about). The plot deals with multimillionairess Hetty March (Marjorie Eaton, top-billed and the only genuinely talented actor of either gender in the film: she was in Zombies of Mora Tau and stood out in that cast, too), who’s quite old and is keeping an over-the-hill gigolo named Victor (Frank Fowler). She’s also subsidizing a mad scientist, Dr. Otto Frank (Frank Gerstle) — were we supposed to think, à la Frankenstein’s Daughter, that his real name was Frankenstein? — who’s built a fully functioning nuclear reactor (which looks like an outdoor privy with a dry-ice machine on the floor to indicate when it’s working) in her basement and is using it to do a series of experiments transplanting animal brains into the skulls of recently deceased humans.

Her intent in bankrolling these bizarre experiments is to keep herself alive indefinitely by having him transplant her brain into a young woman’s body, and so she’ll have a suitable body for this purpose she has Victor write letters to employment agencies in three countries to send them girls to work as maids, with the threat of being deported if they cause trouble. The girls are Bea Mullins (Judy Bamber) from Britain, Nina Rhodes (Erika Peters) from Austria and Anita Gonzalez (Lisa Lang) from an unspecified Latin American country (or if they specified it, I missed it — I nodded off a lot during this film) — and the Mystery Science Theatre 3000 crew was especially savage in their mockery of Judy Bamber’s inability to maintain a consistent British accent, sometimes sounding like Eliza Doolittle at one end of her transformation and sometimes sounding like her at the other.

The Atomic Brain was actually a movie that even on a “B” budget had real potential: the central premise is legitimately frightening, Marjorie Eaton’s performance has real depth and pathos, and with someone like Edgar G. Ulmer (who had previously worked with the film’s producer, Jack Pollexfen, on the interesting The Man from Planet “X”) at the helm this could have been quite an exciting, suspenseful film with good shock moments. Instead, the script (by Pollexfen, Dean Dillman, Jr., Sue Dwiggins and Vy Russell, all of whom were also named as producers) is messy and ill-constructed, and the actual director, Joseph V. Mascelli (the cinematographer on one of the legendary bad movies, Ray Dennis Steckler’s The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-Up Zombies), is slovenly in the extreme, cutting directly from the appealingly Gothic sets of Hetty March’s house (which the MST3K crew likened to the Selznick International Pictures building) to the airport where the three girls have just arrived in the U.S. and leaving us to wonder, “Who the hell are they?”

The movie is saddled with an incredibly pretentious narration, delivered by Bradford Dillman (uncredited), who seems to have more actual talking time on the soundtrack than all the officially billed actors combined. Even by the standards of MST3K this is a really stupid movie — and the fact that it wastes a potentially good premise and an excellent performance by Marjorie Eaton only makes it that much more obnoxious — though it inspired the crew to an excellent performance of their own, with rapid-fire jokes and a neat bit in which they warbled the opening of the Beatles’ “Back in the U.S.S.R.” as the plane carrying the three transplant-pigeons to the U.S. flies into view on the screen. The ending is really ridiculous: the vengeful Dr. Frank puts Hetty’s brain into the body of her pet cat, then the cat locks him inside his own reactor and he dies as it goes critical and consumes the house (à la the ending of the 1955 film Kiss Me Deadly, which seems like hard-edged realism compared to this!), and then Bea escapes while the cat chases her … and meanwhile there’s also a previous monster from Dr. Frank’s workings, a person of indeterminate gender (I thought it was supposed to be a man but the credits indicate s/he was played by one Margie Fisco — so maybe we were supposed to think this was the movie world’s first Transgender monster) who got the brain of a dog and started acting in canine fashion (or, more accurately, in were-dog fashion) and randomly killing off some of the other cast members.

I’d expected a film called The Atomic Brain to be an inept “B” about a super-computer run on nuclear power that goes crazy and tries to conquer the world, not a stupid “B” about a rich psychopath hoping that funding the development of brain-transplant technology will help her stay young forever!

The Creeping Terror (Metropolitan International, 1964)

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

I ran one of Charles’ Mystery Science Theatre 3000 downloads of one of the legendarily bad movies of all time: The Creeping Terror, a 1964 sci-fi/horror non-classic by director Art J. Nelson (and for some reason the MST3K crew didn’t make the obvious joke about their host being his namesake!), who also produced, edited (in a manner of speaking) and (under the name “Vic Savage”) starred as Martin Gordon, who returns from his two-day honeymoon with his bride Brett (a girl named Brett?) (Shannon O’Neil) to his native Angel County, California, where his uncle is sheriff. A spaceship lands in Angel County (represented by a stock shot of a rocket launch run backwards so the rocket appears to be coming towards earth and landing on it instead of leaving it) and it contains two occupants, one of which is tied up with metal harnesses because it appears to be a redundant backup system for the other. The other, which goes out and starts eating people, is essentially a giant quilt made up of carpet samples with a cobra-shaped head from which dangle about 10 bedsprings with ping-pong balls glued on them: the ping-pong balls have black dots painted on them and are obviously supposed to represent the whatsit’s eyes.

Martin becomes the town’s acting sheriff when his uncle is consumed by the creature, as is the forest ranger who was the first to spot the spaceship, and in an overkill of secrecy that even Dick Cheney would probably blanch at, the U.S. army brass in Washington, D.C. tell Col. James Caldwell (John Caresio) to clamp down and refuse to release any mention of the existence of a human-eating monster in the neighborhood — which, of course, only accelerates the body count. They also put a civilian scientist, Dr. Bradford (played by William Thourlby, who later wrote a men’s dress-for-success book bound in a cover made of the black pin-striped material he recommended in the text), in charge of the operation, and Bradford is one of those dorks (like Robert Cornthwaite’s character in the original The Thing) who’d rather keep the monster alive and try to communicate with it than kill it and actually save the lives of some of the down-cast players.

For some reason only screenwriter Robert Silliphant (any relation to Sterling?) could explain, the monster particularly targets people in various states of sexual arousal; though it makes exceptions (a chubby amateur fisherman whose grandson, unlike just about everyone else in the movie, had the good sense to run away — the MST3K crew joked, “Running hadn’t been invented yet” — and a housewife hanging laundry are among the victims), mostly it targets couples necking in the park and in lovers’ lanes (ironic for a film that was obviously destined for drive-ins, where the audience would be so busy necking for real they wouldn’t notice how bad the film was!) as well as participants in a school dance and members of the budding counter-culture having a hootenanny in the park and listening to one over-the-hill singer-songwriter play a singularly boring song. When the monster crashes their party, the singer attacks it with his guitar, with predictably dismal results — and Charles and I both registered a cultural reference the MST3K crew missed and started singing Tom Lehrer’s song, “We are the folk-song army/Guitars are the weapons we bring … ”

The Creeping Terror is one of those legendarily bad movies that could have achieved mediocrity were it not for a series of bizarre production mishaps rivaling anything auteurs like Phil Tucker and Ed Wood had to go through during the makings of Robot Monster and Plan Nine from Outer Space, respectively. First, according to one post on imdb.com, they actually spent some money to create a reasonably credible-looking monster, only to have it stolen from them five days before shooting began, forcing them to assemble the weird mess of carpet samples (with the feet of the people under it moving it around clearly visible in some scenes) you actually see in the film, which is so pathetic that on at least two occasions the actors forced to impersonate its victims have to crawl into it to suggest that it’s consuming them.

Then director Nelson, in order to save money, decided to shoot the film silent and record the soundtrack on a separate tape recorder — which is not entirely a bad idea; most mainstream movies were actually made that way between the development of tape recording for films in the 1950’s and its replacement with digital sound in the 1990’s. But most mainstream movies that did that had access to a synch-pulse generator that recorded a pulse on both film and tape so they could be kept in perfect synchronization during post-production. Without having had such a machine, Nelson found when he’d finished shooting and tried to piece the film together that the task of matching picture and sound was virtually hopeless, so in the film as it stands you occasionally see pictures of people delivering dialogue the way they would in a normal movie, but for the most part it’s a silent film with music (by Frederick Kopp) and a narrator (Larry Burrell, uncredited) talking over what were supposed to be dialogue scenes to tell us what’s supposed to be going on. A sample: “Despite Brett’s inquiries about what Martin had seen in the spacecraft, he avoided specific details for fear of disturbing her more than she was. If the truth were known, Martin was more than a little disturbed himself.”

The film is so appealingly dorky that, during one monster-free scene in which Martin and Brett are together at home and Martin’s old bachelor buddy, deputy Barney (Norman Boone) — who for sheer competence makes the other famous fictional sheriff’s deputy named Barney, Don Knotts’ role on The Andy Griffith Show, look like Dirty Harry by comparison -— is with them and definitely making three a crowd, the narration makes it seem like the MST3K crew got their reels mixed up and started showing one of those 1950’s high-school “educational” films about marriage, sex and relationships that they frequently ridiculed: “Barney and Martin had been bachelor buddies for years. But now that Martin was settling down to marriage, they were slowly drifting apart. Barney, naturally, was still dating all the girls in town, and he couldn’t understand why Brett and Martin didn’t pal around with him more than they did. He couldn’t comprehend that married life brought with it not only new problems and duties, but the necessary togetherness of husband and wife as well. Despite Brett’s most tactful considerations, such as inviting him over to dinner quite often, Barney was growing resentful of her, or at least she felt that he was. Since time began this change in relationships probably happened to all buddies in similar circumstances. Life has its way of making boys grow up, and with marriage, Martin’s time had come. His life was now Brett, a life that he thoroughly enjoyed.”

MST3K had a lot of fun with this film, mostly making fun of the monster’s ridiculous appearance, the immense amount of cool electronic gear inside the alien’s spaceship (it looks like the filmmakers got a $10,000 gift certificate at Radio Shack and spent it all at once) and the dorky pseudo-rock instrumentals played in the school-dance sequence. Indeed, the funniest part of the show was only tangentially connected to the film: Mike Nelson has supposedly built himself a state-of-the-art stereo system out of gear similar to that in the movie, and for his demonstration CD he plays … that dumb instrumental the people were dancing to just before the monster ate them! (Mike is also shown applying a green marker to the inside ring of his CD, an urban legend from the early 1990’s: supposedly if you painted the inside of a CD green, it would sound better.) They also made fun of the sheer body count and wondered why the monster, eating person after person (supposedly the monsters are electronic gizmos and are doing chemical analyses of their “dinners,” then beaming them back to their home planet so the life forms therein can figure out humans’ weaknesses and conquer us), didn’t seem to be gaining any weight. The Creeping Terror was produced by a company with the grandiose name “Metropolitan International Pictures,” just reinforcing the general field theory of bad cinema that particularly awful movies emanate from studios with the word “International” in their names.

Friday, September 5, 2008

Freshman Love (Warners, 1936)

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

I decided to run us the first in an all-day Turner Classic Movies marathon of sports-themed films from the 1930’s: Freshman Love, an appealing semi-musical from Warners in 1936 based on a 1904 (!) play by George Ade called The College Widow. This was once again a “serious” (more or less — any movie that casts Frank McHugh as a coach can’t be all serious!) treatment of something the Marx Brothers had brilliantly satirized in Horse Feathers (where Thelma Todd’s seductress character is referred to as “the college widow” in the dialogue!): the use of blonde co-eds as sexual lures to get top athletes to attend a particular college in order to beef up its sports teams.

The gimmick in this movie is that the sport involved is rowing, and the “college widow,” Joan Simpkins (Patricia Ellis, top-billed), is actually the daughter of the Billings College president (Henry O’Neill), though she’s cooked up the plan to seduce ace rowers Tony Foster (Walter Johnson) and Bob Wilson (Warren Hull, second-billed) into beefing up the Billings team so the school can win its first Tri-State Regatta since 1911. Also in the dramatis personae are E. Prendergast Biddle (George E. Stone), descendant of one of the aces of that 1911 team but more interested in bandleading than rowing — he becomes the team’s coxswain and has them practice to music, and there’s a battle of the bands during the final race when the coach of the rival Chase College team attempts to sabotage Billings’ chances by having their school band play a tango during the race, which slows Billings down until the Biddle band plays an uptempo version of “Dixie” that speeds up the Billings crew and allows them to win.

The movie also features three rather good songs ostensibly composed by George E. Stone's character but actually by M. K. Jerome (music) and Jack Scholl and Joan Jasmyn (lyrics): “The Collegiana,” an uptempo romp in the mold of “Americana” and “Balboa” from Judy Garland’s early films Every Sunday and Pigskin Parade, respectively (and as good as Patricia Ellis’s voice is — especially by comparison to some of the other songstresses who croaked out songs in Warners’ “B”’s then — it’s a pity we can’t get to hear Judy Garland sing this one!); the romantic ballad “Romance After Dark,” by which Warren Hull woos Ellis away from her first boyfriend (the Walter Johnson character (who frankly seemed both nicer and sexier to me!), who’s later conveniently deleted when he flunks a makeup exam the academic-minded president requires all the rowers to take on the eve of the big race); and the title track, set in a soda shop and rather creatively staged — as is “The Collegiana,” even though it’s set in a nightclub and it appears as if the people you thought were just random dancers turned out to be the performers in the floor show (and the number is well done for a “B” budget but one wonders what Busby Berkeley could have done with it!).

It’s a thoroughly predictable film but it also has a certain charm, and while hardly the laff-riot Laurel and Hardy’s Bonnie Scotland was it was reasonably amusing even though it tended to drag towards the end and one began to wonder (even in a 65-minute movie) just when they were going to have Billings win the damned race already!

Hold ’Em Jail (RKO, 1932)

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

Charles and I had enough time together last night for me to run him a movie, the 1932 Wheeler and Woolsey comedy Hold ’Em Jail, directed by Norman Taurog from a script by Walter DeLeon, S. J. Perelman (!), Eddie Welch and an uncredited Mark Sandrich, on his way up at RKO from writer to shorts director to maker of Wheeler and Woolsey comedies himself as well as Melody Cruise and, ultimately, five of RKO’s nine Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers musicals. Wheeler and Woolsey play Curly Harris and “Spider” Robbins, respectively, novelty salesman who end up in prison as part of a plot by Bidemore State Penitentiary to recruit top-notch football players so their team can beat their historic rivals, Lynwood, in the big annual prison-against-prison football game.

The whole absurdity of this ridiculous premise promised a considerably funnier movie than this one, but this is still pretty good, essentially moving the template of the Marx Brothers’ film Horse Feathers (made just a few months before Hold ’Em Jail, and on which Perelman was also one of the screenwriters) from a college to a prison and thereby more or less cross-breeding it with Laurel and Hardy’s Pardon Us. It helps that the warden is Edgar Kennedy, and that he lives on-site at the prison along with his sister (the marvelous dry-wit comedienne Edna May Oliver) and his daughter (played by a young woman who would later grow up to be Betty Grable — she’s only faintly recognizable in the severe bobbed hair that was at the tail end of fashion in 1932, and she doesn’t get either to show her legs or to sing and dance — in fact there aren’t any musical numbers in this film, and it could have used some; even Laurel and Hardy found excuses to sing and dance beautifully in Pardon Us!) — and the romantic complications, with Wheeler pairing off with Grable and Woolsey with Oliver, lead to some of the funniest gags in the film.

The best one is when Wheeler arranges to meet Grable “in the courtyard at 9 o’clock” and the other cons, overhearing it, think it’s the signal for when and where to begin their escape attempt — they tell each other in a man-to-man daisy chain and eventually one of them tells Woolsey, who tells the warden, who of course orders the guard around the wall doubled, with the result that poor Wheeler gets fired upon when he’s just out there to get a bouquet to Betty Grable. Many of the gags come from the guilelessness of the Wheeler and Woolsey characters — time and time again they either foil an escape attempt by innocently notifying the authorities (and, of course, earning the enmity of the other prisoners they’re snitching on, though the writing committee could have made more of that than they did!) or blow the football game by … well, there’s one scene in which Wheeler seems headed for a touchdown when a member of the other team politely asks him for the ball, and he gives it to him!

While hardly in the same league as either Pardon Us (or its even funnier Spanish-language version, De Bote En Bote) or Horse Feathers — as usual, Wheeler and Woolsey’s football game is an amusing comedy routine while the Marxes’ is a comedic holocaust — this is still a clever and funny film, though frankly the wise-cracking Woolsey is consistently more amusing than the rather whiny milquetoast Wheeler and it’s a real pity Woolsey died of kidney failure in 1938, ending one of RKO’s more reliable bread-and-butter film series (though the American Film Insitute Catalog records that Hold ’Em Jail actually lost $55,000 on its initial release and RKO shipped them to Columbia for their next film, So This Is Africa, which featured two women who also made films with the Marx Brothers, Raquel Torres and Esther Muir).