Sunday, November 30, 2008

Syriana (Warner Bros., 2005)

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

Last night Charles and I had enough time together to run a movie of substantial length, and I picked the 2005 sort-of epic Syriana. Riffing off Pauline Kael’s description of Michael Cimino’s The Deer Hunter as “a small-minded film with greatness in it,” I’ve often described one movie or another as a bad film with a good film in it struggling to get out. The problem with Syriana is it’s a bad film with about four or five good films in it struggling to get out. It was written and directed by Stephen Gaghan, the screenwriter for the almost-as-messy Traffic, and was ballyhooed on its initial release as doing for oil what Traffic did for drugs.

It’s a multiple plot-line film “suggested” by Robert Baer’s nonfiction book See No Evil: The True Story of a Ground Soldier in the CIA’s War on Terrorism (which would probably make interesting reading: See No Evil was also the working title of the film) in which the central characters are rogue CIA agent Bob Barnes (George Clooney, almost unrecognizable in a full beard and I suspect wearing body padding to make himself considerably more heavy-set than the rather rangy guy we’re used to seeing in his other films), who once infiltrated Hezbollah in Lebanon; Bryan Woodman (Matt Damon), some sort of diplomat or international fixer whose exact role is something of a mystery but who gets to hang out with the Emir of a carefully unnamed Arab state that is probably supposed to be Kuwait; Bennett Holiday (Jeffrey Wright), an Obama-colored African-American attorney for a law firm headed by Dean Whiting (Christopher Plummer) whose job it is to see if the Killen (pronounced “Killeen”) oil company broke any U.S. anti-corruption laws in securing an oil contract for Kazakhstan — the firm is working for the much larger Connex company, which has arranged a merger with Killen in order to acquire the Kazakhstan contract after the Emir has cancelled their natural-gas concession in his country and given it to a Chinese firm instead; the Emir himself (Nadim Sawalha) and his two sons, Prince Nazir (Alexander Siddig) — who wants his country to sell its energy resources to the highest bidder and use the proceeds to develop an economy that can sustain his people when the oil runs out and allow him to institute democracy, secularism and women’s equality; and his younger brother Meshal (Akbar Kurtha), who just wants power for the sake of power and is willing to suck up to the Americans to get it.

Various things happen in this movie, including the electrocution of Woodman’s six-year-old child in a swimming pool at the Emir’s mansion in France (it’s not clear who wired the pool to electrocute the next person who swam in it, who the intended target was or the motive behind the operation);the kidnapping of Barnes in Lebanon and his torture at the hands of Mussawi (Mark Strong), who is trying to get him to give up a list of names, though who these people are and why their identities are so important is just one of the many things Gaghan’s maddeningly obscure script never bothers to explain; and a final climax in which the Emir abdicates and retires to the soft life in Europe (he’s in poor health and in his last scenes he’s in a wheelchair), names his younger son as his heir, and a missile is fired at a convoy of SUV’s (ostensibly by Muslim terrorists but actually, it’s clearly implied, as part of a plot initiated by the CIA) carrying the elder brother Nazir, killing both him and Barnes and wounding Woodman, just as Nazir and several generals in the mystery country’s army were planning a palace coup to install him on the throne.

The political point of the ending couldn’t be clearer — the U.S. doesn’t want democracy in the Arab world because a democratic government would be bound to follow the will of its people and wouldn’t make the kinds of sweetheart deals with the U.S. government and American oil companies the real Arab Gulf states have consistently done — but it’s been a long, confusing journey to that one point of clarity and it’s such a deeply depressing, pessimistic plot resolution it’s surprising that George Clooney put one of his “Movies Can Inspire — Now It’s Up to You to Act” leaflets inside the DVD cover. When he did that with Good Night and Good Luck it made sense — it was basically a message to Americans to protect their access to investigative journalism and fight the corporatization of the media and the cutbacks in editorial positions to feed the bottom line — but it’s hard to imagine Syriana inspiring anybody to anything but hopelessness: the film’s ending says, “The world is a bad place, and we do bad things in it, and if you want to keep gas prices down so you can continue to drive everywhere, this is the way it has to be.”

Saturday, November 29, 2008

The Yes Men (Independent, 2003)

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

The Yes Men is a 2004 documentary about a couple of pranksters, Mike Bonanno and Andy Bichlbaum, who got into the business by chance when they were offered an Internet domain name, “,” in 1999 just as George W. Bush was gearing up his run for the Presidency. (The real Bush Web site was They decided to use the site as an avenue for anti-Bush commentary — including posting the accusations that the young Bush had used cocaine during his party-hearty days before he sobered up and found Jesus, or maybe the reverse — provoking a comment from Bush himself that “there ought to be limits on freedom” (!) when he was asked about it during a press conference. (That explains a lot about how we’ve been governed over the last eight years!) Flush (so to speak) with that success, they then launched a phony Web site for the General Agreements on Tariffs and Trade — the predecessor to the World Trade Organization — and found that they were getting invitations to speak from people who thought they were part of the real World Trade Organization and wanted WTO representatives to address various conferences on the economic future of the world.

The movie doesn’t come right out and say whether or not Bonanno and Bichlbaum are Gay, or a couple (though it does begin with an intriguing scene of Bonanno helping Bichlbaum to undress in a men’s room — Bichlbaum arrived late for a demonstration and had to put on his costume in a rush — and the film drops a big hint when it mentions that before they got into political actions they worked for a video-game company and sneaked male-on-male kisses into a popular game), but in their stunts they come across as a real-life performance-art version of the Marx Brothers, especially the Marx Brothers in their two most audacious authority-defying films, Horse Feathers and Duck Soup. Like Groucho Marx as a college president in Horse Feathers and a dictator in Duck Soup, the Yes Men in character (Bichlbaum was usually their public spokesperson, under a variety of aliases, while Bonanno worked behind the scenes, helping brainstorm the actions and recruiting the other people they needed to make them possible) would appear utterly seriously before various corporate and political elite audiences, say the most outrageous things, and find the audiences agreeing with them — or at least hearing them out politely — when they called for things like the re-enslavement of the African workforce (“full private stewardry of labor,” they called it, showing an excellent command of WTO Newspeak) or the recycling of human waste into food for Third World countries (“ReBurger,” they called it, advancing it as a public-private partnership between the WTO and McDonald’s).

What’s most grimly amusing about The Yes Men is that they went into these meetings hoping to awaken a moral sense among the corporados who were the attendees — that by ramping up the corporations über alles assumptions of the WTO to the point of absurdity à la Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal” (a precedent frequently cited in the reviews of this film) they were hoping to get the people at these conferences to rebel, to chew them out, say how disgusting they thought these ideas were and walk out. Instead, the people in the audience sat calmly and took notes on all this garbage (much like the courtiers in Horse Feathers and Duck Soup trying to make sense of all Groucho’s nonsense and maintain the expected attitude of total obsequiousness to him). This forced them to ramp up the absurdity of their stunts to the point where at one conference they had Andy dress in a breakaway suit under which he was wearing a gold lamé superhero costume with a giant (four-foot long) inflatable phallus which, he explained, contained a TV receiver by which an executive on his “leisure” hours in a First World country could nonetheless observe and directly supervise workers in a Third World country via the transmitters surgically implanted in them as a means of remote control.

The only people in the movie who reacted the way Mike and Andy originally wanted them to and hoped they would were the college students at a university in Plattsburgh, New York to whom they gave the “ReBurger” presentation (adding an additional knife-twist by supplying the whole room hamburgers, actually perfectly normal ones from McDonald’s, and then leaving them to wonder whether they were really eating Shitburgers); one student walked out and others challenged them during the Q&A, saying that they seemed to be arguing that poor people deserve to eat shit simply because they’re poor. During the last sequence they get invited to a speech in Australia (their travel, interestingly, was funded by Herb Alpert’s foundation!) and, instead of repeating the “ReBurger” presentation as originally planned, they decided to announce a mea culpa statement by the World Trade Organization that effective in mid-2002 they would shut down all their operations and re-invent themselves as an organization actually devoted to ending global poverty instead of enriching corporations and elites in First World countries.

One man in the audience last night was upset by this last — and some later stunts the Yes Men have similarly pulled, emerging in places like Bhopal and post-Katrina New Orleans that have been especially hard-hit by corporate-driven depradations and promising them relief that in fact never arrives — saying that events like this give hard-hit people the hope that they’re going to be helped when they’re really not. (He also cited their very latest action — passing out a million copies of a mock edition of the New York Times, dated July 4, 2009, announcing as “news” every item on the progressive wish list for the Obama administration along with such other mock stories as Condoleeza Rice apologizing for helping the Bush administration lie us into the war in Iraq — as another example of them raising false hopes among the victims of corporate rule that reality will soon dash.) I could see his point; certainly the Yes Men themselves seem far more effective in their “negative” actions targeting the elites they’re ridiculing — and perhaps the two most poignant scenes showed Bichlbaum in character debating a real anti-globalization activist on the British version of CNBC (needless to say, the American version would never dare put on someone who didn’t think globalization and the WTO were the greatest inventions since fire!) and the real anti-globalization activist getting more and more flummoxed by the nonsense he was hearing and being asked to respond to; and a later sequence in which the Yes Men sought out the same activist for help on a subsequent project and had a hard time convincing him — even with Andy in the flesh leaning his head against the image of Andy on the TV screen showing their taped interview — that Andy was the person he had debated on CNBC.

2 Monogram Zombie Films: “King of the Zombies” (1941, “Revenge of the Zombies” (1943)

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

One was a 1941 horror item from Monogram called King of the Zombies, with an underweight cast (Dick Purcell as the lead, Henry Victor from Freaks as the villain — in a part that cried out for Karloff, Lugosi or Price! — Joan Woodbury as the heroine, though in a much less stimulating showcase for her quirky but real acting ability than she had in PRC’s Paper Bullets, a.k.a. Gangs, Inc. — and Mantan Moreland as the real focus of the film) but good direction by (a boy named) Jean Yarbrough (he also did The Devil Bat with Lugosi at PRC that same year, but this was actually a much better movie; certainly Yarbrough was a far superior director to William Nigh, with a good sense of pace and suspense far above the plodding style with which Nigh seemed to sink many a promising script), surprisingly atmospheric photography (the visual richness and effect lighting of many scenes recalled Universal’s horror efforts and were certainly far above the Monogram norm) and a marvelous performance by Moreland.

Saddled with the dumb Black stereotype it seemed all African-American comedians (with the possible exception of Eddie “Rochester” Anderson) were doomed to play in films at this time, Moreland actually wiggled around in it and made it his own, managing to make his comic stupidity seem actually amusing instead of merely insulting. The plot didn’t seem to make a lot of sense — when the “normal” leads were flying through the Caribbean in the middle of a night storm in the opening sequence, Charles asked, “Who are these people, where are they going and why should we care?” — but the script was at least well-constructed enough to provide some answers later on: they were American servicepeople trying to find the captured General Wainwright before the zombie master, who was also secretly working for Germany while posing as an anti-Nazi refugee, tortured him and forced him to reveal the defense secrets of the Panama Canal. (Yes, it’s one of those movies.)

Though one of the things that didn’t become clear was why the film should be called King of the Zombies — indeed, we weren’t quite sure whether there were any real zombies in it or just living people whom Victor had hypnotized into thinking they were zombies; at one point we were shown a book called Hypnotism by “Van Cleve,” and I asked Charles if that were a real author; he said he’d never heard of him but couldn’t say for certain that he wasn’t, either!) — this was actually quite a credible little film. — 11/4/98


I ran us another movie, a 1943 Monogram “B” called Revenge of the Zombies, a sequel to the surprisingly good 1941 King of the Zombies (even with the bland Henry Victor in a role originally intended for Bela Lugosi, and a pretty silly script) in which the zombie master is John Carradine and the director is Steve Sekely, who like such other “B” masters as Edgar G. Ulmer and Robert Florey, was a European expat with a flair for “artistic” compositions and using them to enliven otherwise dull “B” scripts. Unfortunately, this dull “B” script resolutely resisted Sekely’s attempt to jazz it up with interesting camera angles, tracking shots and chiaroscuro lighting.

Carradine plays German scientist Max Heinrich von Altermann (the first time I heard his name on the soundtrack I thought it was “Ottomann” and that he would turn out to have invented the zombie-making couch), whose wife Lila (Veda Ann Borg) has just died of a mysterious heart attack at their home in the Louisiana swamp country. Her brother Scott Warrington (Mauritz Hugo) calls in a private detective, Larry Adams (future Batman Robert Lowery), and a medical consultant, Dr. Harvey Keating (Barry Macollum), to investigate Lila’s death — and it turns out that Max is hiding out in the jungles to perform experiments on behalf of the German government to create an invincible army of zombies (though, as Tom Weaver pointed out in his book Poverty Row Horrors!, the out-of-shape middle-aged men marching ever so slowly through the swamp country are hard to imagine as any kind of effective fighting force).

He’s working with a lovely assistant, Jennifer Rand (Gale Storm, who was quite charming in the vest-pocket musicals Monogram was making at the time but is utterly unbelievable as a scientist, drones out her lines in a first-day-of-acting-school monotone and, of course, doesn’t get the chance to sing), who needless to say is utterly ignorant of the real purposes of his experiments and is there only to provide a love interest for Larry — much the way Black maidservant Rosella (Sybil Lewis) is there to provide a love interest for Warrington’s driver, Jeff — played by Mantan Moreland, who gave King of the Zombies most of the entertainment value it had but this time around is utterly wasted, mainly because screenwriters Edmond Kelso and Van Norcross (why does one of them sound like an appliance manufacturer and the other like a pen maker?) don’t bother to give him any funny lines: they even trot out the old chestnut, “I forgot something at home.” “What was that?” “I forgot to stay home!” Kelso and Norcross inexplicably also write in a scene in which Warrington and Adams decide that when they visit von Altermann they’ll impersonate each other — for reasons which remain impenetrably obscure because the writers never bother to do anything with this double imposture and van Altermann and everybody else in the movie takes them as the people the script said they were originally.

Revenge of the Zombies starts nicely (the Web site claims it contains stock footage from the 1932 Bela Lugosi vehicle White Zombie, but I didn’t notice any) but gets duller and duller as it drones on to a predictable climax in which the zombies turn on van Altermann and drive him and his wife — revived to zombiefied life by his high-tech version of the zombie curse (with a whole bunch of instruments that would seem more at home in Dr. Frankenstein’s lab) — into the swamp , where they sink to their deaths, following which the rest of the principals (including “B”-Western star Bob Steele, playing a country sheriff who was really an FBI man in disguise) leave, the door to the crypt on the grounds of Carradine’s swamp-country manse closes and the words “The End” are written on it — and it’s a good indication of the poverty of invention of Revenge of the Zombies (the sort of movie in which I joked that the word “original” in the original-screenplay credit definitely deserved quotation marks around it!) that that’s one of the most visually inventive scenes in the film! — 11/29/08

Friday, November 28, 2008

Foreign Agent (Monogram, 1942)

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

Charles and I eventually ran ourselves a sort of cinematic nightcap, Foreign Agent, yet another World War II thriller about sedition on the home front, loosely based on a couple of real-life traitors named Robert Noble and Ellis Jones, who had a couple of groups called “Friends of Progress” and the revealingly titled “National Copperheads” (after the original Copperheads, who were pro-Southern Northerners who attempted to sabotage the Union effort during the Civil War; it was to stop them that President Lincoln invoked the constitutional right to suppress habeas corpus “in cases of Rebellion or Invasion” and still got slapped down by the courts). In this version, they’re called “Robert Nelson” (Edward Peil) and “Elliott Jennings” (Boyd Irwin) and they’re an active part of a German-Japanese espionage and sabotage ring operating out of a recording studio in Los Angeles and sneaking messages to their agents in the “secret” grooves of otherwise innocuous records. (The one we see on screen is called “To a Water Lily” — the title is also used by the spies as a password — and is billed as a “Piano Solo by Eddie Kay.” The real Eddie Kay was the musical director for the film.)

The star is an actor named John Shelton, who plays an actor at a Poverty Row studio (this film was produced by a real Poverty Row studio, Monogram, and was directed by Monogram stalwart William Beaudine from a story by Martin Mooney and a script by Mooney and Joseph Krafft) who’s anxious to get into uniform and fight the war for real instead of playing a servicemember on a Monogram soundstage. Instead he’s recruited by Bob Davis (William Halligan), a grey-haired radio commentator who uses his daily show to expose Axis fronts, including the phony “peace” group Nelson and Jennings have organized at the behest of the master of the spy ring, Dr. Werner (Hans Schumm, who despite his seemingly authentic German name has a “German” accent so outrageously phony it sounds like he just has a cold), who works with a Japanese agent named Okura (played by Russian actor Ivan Lebedeff, who makes no attempt to make himself up to look at all Asian and whose sole concession to “Japanese-ness” is to spit out his lines in a high-pitched whine that sounds like no racial or ethnic group on earth) and has a Dietrich-esque girlfriend named Anna (Fee Malten).

There’s also a comic-relief couple consisting of a sound man at Monogram (the fictitious one, not the real one) named Eddie McGurk (Lyle Latell) and his stuntwoman girlfriend Joan Collins (Patsy Moran). Eddie turns out to be an undercover FBI agent at the end and Monogram sound department head Nick Dancy (George Travell) turns out to be one of the Axis agents. The script is packed with little details to bolster its factual background — including a newspaper headline about the eight real-life Nazi saboteurs who were arrested on the East Coast (Muller says they would not have been apprehended that quickly if he’d been in charge of them!) — and though it makes little sense, it’s at least better entertainment than many Monogram productions. The plot is kicked off when a Monogram lighting technician is found hanged to death in his hotel room — the police are convinced it’s suicide but Our Hero correctly intuits that it’s murder — just when he had invented a filter to be put over searchlights so their lights would still illuminate the sky but the planes they were designed to spot wouldn’t see the tell-tale beams. (Just how this was supposed to be physically possible Mooney and Krafft never bother to explain.)

Both the good guys and the bad guys are convinced that the victim’s daughter, Monogram star and nightclub singer Mitzi Mayo (Gale Storm, charming as ever and showing a real talent that had she been signed to a major studio instead of Monogram would probably have given her a shot at Doris Day-type roles instead of the dreck Monogram usually put her in), who sings in a nightclub that (thanks to Monogram’s budget restrictions) actually looks like a nightclub and renders her two songs (Bill Mellette’s “Down Deep in My Heart” and Bill Anderson’s “Taps for the Japs”) with only an on-screen accordionist as accompanist and not the infamous “secret orchestra.” Foreign Agent isn’t any great shakes as a movie, and the script by Mooney and Krafft really makes very little sense (the Axis is supposedly warming up to bomb Los Angeles but we’re shown almost none of that for real; about all we see of their supposedly nefarious activity is the usual standby, the bad guys relaying information about cargo convoys so submarines can sink them — though in this case the sub gets sunk instead and the radio operator on the ship that sinks it cables the famous real-life message, “Sighted sub — sank same”), but though it doesn’t have the high-tension speed Warners was able to bring to a similar story in Spy Ship, at least it’s a (relatively) fast-moving and entertaining film (director Beaudine for once doesn’t pace the film like he’s napping during much of the shoot), and John Shelton and Gale Storm are a pair of personable leads and well worth watching — and the historical background makes this film more interesting than it would be otherwise.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

The Being from Another Planet (Byzantine Productions, 1982)

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

The movie I ran was a Mystery Science Theatre 3000 presentation of a 1982 (a bit late in the day for an MST3K film) movie called The Being from Another Planet — a title that actually gives away almost the entire plot and which wasn’t the original release title: it was Time Walker, which would have been more ambiguous but also even more incomprehensible given the actual content of the movie. It begins with a crudely lettered credit sequence set against the backdrop of ancient Egyptian art (and the actors’ names — Royce Alexander, Ben Murphy, Michelle Avonne, Nina Axelrod, Kevin Brophy, Annie Barbieri and the ever-popular Robert Random — are so preposterous that between that and the crude lettering of their names it looks like the credit sequence for a porn film!) and the central character turns out to be anthropologist Douglas McCadden (Ben Murphy), who discovers that there’s another sarcophagus in Tutankhamen’s tomb.

It turns out to belong to Ankh-Venharis (Jack Olson), who’s inadvertently brought back to life when it’s brought back to the college where McCadden teaches and, in an attempt to X-ray the mummy before they open its coffin, it’s exposed to the maximum dose of X-rays. One of the students opens a secret compartment in the coffin and extracts five crystals, and Ankh-Venharis goes on a crime spree to recover them from the other students to which the thief has given them. There’s also a green mold that’s found on the mummy that’s incredibly toxic — it instantly burns your skin if you come in contact with it and turns you into a bubbling black mass — and a triangular medallion onto which the mummy places each of the five crystals when he recovers them. When he has all five, he starts transforming from a mummy into an androgynous space alien (it’s only about 10 minutes before the end of the movie that it’s finally confirmed to us that he is a being from another planet) that looks like Annie Lennox in one of her farther-out videos; he then beams up from this planet, Rocky Horror-style, but not before leaving some mold behind to eat up the university P.R. person who wanted the discovery revealed to the press well before McCadden was ready to do so.

Did I also mention that when the mummy disappears from its “box” there’s a school-wide search for it — or that the mummy gets the power to run his interplanetary travel gizmo by patching into the university’s on-site nuclear reactor? The Being from Another Planet is an example of the sort of film that could have been genuinely frightening and entertaining if its makers (director Tom Kennedy and writers Tom Friedman, Jason Williams and Karen Levitt) hadn’t bobbled the execution at almost every turn; the film is shot in Murkovision — cinematographer Robbie Greenberg (and yes, the MST3K crew had fun mocking the diminutive form of his first name!) has an unerring instinct for making all the most important shots so dark you can’t possibly tell what’s supposed to be going on — and it’s one of those movies in which the fact that it’s in color just makes it look tackier.

It’s also a film that makes the 1932 Mummy look even better than it is — the more I’ve seen later mummy movies (including the first two in Stephen Sommers’ recent cycle) the more I admire what Boris Karloff, Karl Freund and John L. Balderston accomplished in that 1932 masterpiece: a marvelous mixture of doomed romanticism and chills (there, too, a naïve young idiot inadvertently brings the mummy to life, but Freund makes it genuinely scary while Kennedy just makes it look normal for a mummy to get out of its coffin and walk around), in which Karloff’s heartbreaking line delivery indicates what a fine romantic actor he could have been if his craggy face and tall, gaunt appearance (as well as his age — he was 42 when he made Frankenstein) hadn’t marked him for character roles even before he got “typed” in the horror genre. It’s not clear what the makers of The Being from Another Planet were hoping to accomplish, but this is an example of a film with some evidently serious intentions whose reach fell so far short of its grasp that it ended up suitable for MST3K.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Rosalie (MGM, 1937)

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

The film I picked out was Rosalie, a big-budgeted MGM musical from 1937 based on a Broadway operetta produced in 1928 with a score by George Gershwin and Sigmund Romberg and a book by William Anthony McGuire and Guy Bolton. Curiously, the original songs were thrown out of the film version but McGuire got to do the adaptation of his original book — a rare privilege indeed for an original-material writer at MGM. (They tried to get Gershwin to write the songs, too, but he died before he could, which is the only good thing I’ve heard about Gershwin’s untimely death.) The plot is a rather clunky story which opens at the annual Army-Navy football game (represented largely by stock footage from newsreels and reminding us that the absurd pomp and circumstance that surrounds football games today is nothing new), the final game to be played by star cadet Dick Thorpe (Nelson Eddy, once again being cast as a military man so audiences would read his stiffness and limited acting skills as the discipline and reserve of an officer: a smart move on the part of MGM’s casting department).

Thorpe insists that his best friend, Bill Delroy (Ray Bolger), be put in the game for at least one play; Delroy fumbles the ball and sets up a Navy touchdown, but Thorpe scores for Army and the game is a tie. In the audience are Rosalie (Eleanor Powell), princess and heir to the throne of the fictitious European kingdom of Romanza (“I guess all the good names for fictitious European countries were taken!” I joked to Charles), and her lady-in-waiting and close friend, the Countess Brenda (Ilona Massey in her film debut). At the post-game party Thorpe romances Rosalie and she’s alternately put off by his egomania and attracted by his attentions — unfortunately, William Anthony McGuire never quite made either credible — and either as a test of his seriousness or a bizarre practical joke, she invites him to the Spring Festival in Romanza and says she’ll meet him dressed as Pierrette.

Thorpe accepts her invitation — did I mention that he comes from an independently wealthy family and his dad’s graduation present to him was his own private plane? — and, in defiance of West Point regulations, he flies to Romanza (where Billy Gilbert, of all people, is the air traffic controller at the Romanzan airport!), recognizes Rosalie at the end of her big dance number and romances her some more. Her parents are Frank Morgan and Edna May Oliver; she’s a stuck-up bitch who insists on making a dynastic marriage between Rosalie and Prince Paul (Tom Rutherford) but he’s a down-to-earth guy who’s as foofy as the King of Romanza as he was as the mayor in The Dancing Pirate a year earlier and would be as the Wizard of Oz two years later. (The scenes between Morgan and Bolger are among the most entertaining parts of this film and show off that the chemistry between them in The Wizard of Oz was no accident.) The King has also taken up ventriloquism as a hobby, and while he’s terrible at it he does express through his dummy, “Nappy,” what he really wants to do instead of what the Queen, his chancellor (Reginald Owen) — who’s also Prince Paul’s father — and his general, Maroff (George Zucco), are telling him to do. Of course, what he really wants to do is let Rosalie marry her American army officer/football player and let Prince Paul marry Brenda, with whom he’s genuinely in love.

This film rumbles through 122 minutes of running time, stretching its plotlet to genuinely annoying lengths, and while it would have been impossible for MGM to spend this much money (the set for Eleanor Powell’s big dance number cost $200,000 to build — other studios made whole movies for that kind of money! — plus another $30,000 for the electricity to light it) and this much high-powered talent and not make a movie with some entertainment value, Rosalie is a clunker. Nelson Eddy and Eleanor Powell have zero chemistry between them — it doesn’t help that he’s a singer and she’s a dancer (her vocals are dubbed by Marjorie Lane) and their talents don’t mesh (one reason for the appeal of the movies Eddy made with Jeanette MacDonald was their sheer real-life joy in each other’s voices; though they weren’t romantically linked in real life it was clear that they genuinely liked to hear each other sing). There are two great dancers in this movie, Powell and Bolger, but their characters barely meet and they don’t get to perform together.

Part of the problem with this movie is Cole Porter: yes, he was one of America’s great songwriters, but he was so out-of-place attempting to supply songs for a Nelson Eddy operetta that he wrote seven versions of the title song before MGM head Louis B. Mayer finally heard one he liked. “In the Still of the Night” has become one of the Porter standards (though it’s not one of his better love songs and lacks the ironic wit of Porter at his best) but all the other songs in this movie have been pretty well forgotten (though the “Rosalie” they ended up using was the subject of a vicious deconstruction by Artie Shaw and his band, featuring one of Tony Pastor’s clowning vocals — essentially giving it the same treatment they gave “Indian Love Call” from the MacDonald-Eddy Rose Marie). Like a lot of MGM musicals before Arthur Freed started producing them in 1939, Rosalie is too big for its own good: the central set of the Romanzan courtyard looks like it could encompass the entire country, and (as Charles joked) the set for the party after the Army-Navy game looks like they put a roof over the football field and held the party there. It also ill-uses the talents of Ilona Massey; though MGM had signed her largely on the strength of her singing voice, it’s not clear whether she gets to sing at all — there’s a coloratura number heard as part of the Romanzan Spring Festival done by a blonde soprano who’s shown only in long-shot and who sounds like Massey, but the singer is not identified with her or the character she’s supposed to be playing.

There are some delightful moments in this movie — including all the scenes between Morgan and Bolger and some of Edna May Oliver’s “takes” at her on-screen husband’s antics (let’s face it, it’s hard enough to believe that Frank Morgan and Edna May Oliver would ever have had sex with each other, and it totally defies belief that their offspring would be Eleanor Powell!), and Powell’s big dance numbers are intensely athletic but director W. S. Van Dyke frames her poorly (all too often he cuts her off at the ankles and we don’t get to see her feet) and she danced better in other movies (including Born to Dance and Honolulu — a far less pretentious movie than Rosalie and one in which Powell does a marvelous hula that proves she could dance with her whole body, not just her legs).

MGM’s greatest missed opportunity with Rosalie was that, given a story that is essentially The Student Prince with the genders reversed, they should have dared a similarly unhappy (or at least bittersweet) ending — and if you protest that U.S. audiences wouldn’t have stood for a Nelson Eddy musical with an unhappy ending, they did the very same year with Maytime, a MacDonald-Eddy musical and their best film together, an awesome emotional wrench where Rosalie is just a yawn. At the time Rosalie was made, the best musicals being made in Hollywood were the Busby Berkeley extravaganzae at Warners and the Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers vehicles at RKO — and frankly, though Astaire as an all-star West Point football player would have been a bit of a stretch, at least he and Rogers would have given this movie the insouciant charm it needed.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Horrors of Spider Island (Intercontinental Film GmbH, Rapid Film, Pacemaker Pictures, 1962-65)

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

Charles brought over the last Mystery Science Theatre 3000 “Digital Archive Project” DVD collection disc — which supposedly completed the extant episodes of this series even though there are some titles from its last years I have on VHS that are not included here (mostly, I suspect, Universal productions which are still under copyright and therefore could get the people in charge of this site in trouble) — and I cued it and noticed one movie that seemed like it might not be half-bad because it was in black-and-white. The cheapo color horror/sci-fi cheapies from the 1960’s are generally even tackier than the black-and-white ones — as if the producers, in an era in which color production was still more expensive, saved it for the scripts that were so bad they really needed the bolstering of their commercial appeal from filming them in color.

The movie we watched was Horrors of Spider Island, and it turned out to have had a convoluted production history: it was originally made in West Germany and Yugoslavia in 1960-61 under the title Ein Toter hing im Netz, which literally translates as “A Dead Body Hangs in a Net.” The plot features a troupe of eight dancers who are stranded on a desert island — with the sort of magnificent indifference to geographic sanity characteristic of ultra-low-grade productions like this, the dancers are en route to Singapore from Los Angeles via New York (I suspect the German producers had access to no other stock film clips of an American city viewed from the air), but their plane crashes and burns and, after four days in a life raft, they and their male employer and guide, Gary Webster (Alex D’Arcy), end up on a desert island. They find an archaeologist’s hammer, which indicates that other people have been there, and then they find a cabin with the other person inside — only, as you might have guessed from the title (especially the German one), the archaeologist is dead, stuck to a giant-sized web spun across his living room (and in fact crudely tied together from ordinary ropes — whatever technology Universal had for creating those marvelously huge spider webs in the 1931 Dracula was unavailable to the German producers of this one).

The original intent of the German producers was to make a nudie film, with eight (reasonably) attractive ladies in various stages of undress cavorting around “island” locations (actually a park in Yugoslavia) and a few giant spiders and a horror plot around mostly as a pretext. In 1962 the film got released in the U.S. with a dubbed English soundtrack and got played at the underground theatres that showed nudies in defiance of what was left of the Production Code, and in 1965 it was re-edited with all the actual nudity removed and what remained passed off as a horror/sci-fi film called Horrors of Spider Island. In the process, most of the cast members shed their German names and acquired Anglo ones — though director and co-writer Fritz Böttger became “Jaime Nolan,” which briefly made me wonder if this were a Mexican production. The leads, D’Arcy and Barbara Valentin (as Babs, the most sluttish and sexually rambunctious of the dancers), retained their original names — though “Valentin” became the more (in English) normal “Valentine” — but Elfie Wagner became “Donna Ulsike” and Dorothée Parker became “Norma Townes.”

For the first half-hour or so this is actually a reasonably entertaining movie — it’s visibly cheap, even without the nude scenes it’s clear that the filmmakers are more interested in the cheesecake than the horror, there are horrendous lapses in continuity and an overall indifference to narrative sense, but it’s fun, the sleazy pop-jazz score by Karl Bette and Willy Mattes is appealing and what you’d expect from a movie like this, and even the “giant” spiders — actually about a foot and a half long — are reasonably credible, with silly cartoon heads but sufficiently intricate bodies that one can suspend disbelief (and the filmmakers didn’t make the common error of movies like Them! and posit the existence of arthropods larger than about a foot and a half, which is about the upper limit of how big an exoskeletal creature can be in earth’s gravity without its shell collapsing on its internal origins and therefore destroying it). Then the writers (Böttger, Eldon Howard and Albert G. Miller — I suspect the latter two did the English-language dialogue but had nothing to do with the original movie) make a BIG mistake: they have Gary bitten by one of the sub sandwich-length spiders and thereby turned into a were-spider who starts killing off the rest of the cast members. (Actually all they do is slather some hairy makeup on his face and give him claw-like gloves to indicate his “spideriness” at this point, and the only thing we see him do is lay his fingers, which look like they’ve acquired the Mother of All Hangnails, on the shoulders of his intended victims.)

From then on the movie just gets sillier and more boring, especially when two other guys show up — Bobby (“Allen Turner” née Rainer Brandt) and Joe (“Temple Foster” née Harald Maresch) — who are supposed to represent friends and assistants of the dead archaeologist (ya remember the dead archaeologist?) — who seem determined to outdo each other in male-chauvinist attitudes as they cruise the girls. Even the MST3K gags seemed a bit “off” in this one — though there were some truly inspired ones, riffing off the film’s shaky geography and such deep contempt for women even Ernest Hemingway couldn’t have watched this film without getting angry at its sexism — especially when during one of their interstital segments, we see Mike Nelson encased in a spider web on board the Satellite of Love before we’ve seen this happen to anybody in the actual movie (and it’s an indication of just how cheap this production was that the rope web on the MST3Kset is every bit as credible as the one in the movie!).

Friday, November 21, 2008

Cop Hater (United Artists, 1957)

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

I ran him Cop Hater, a quite interesting 1957 thriller ( dates it as 1958, but the copyright date is a year earlier) based on the first Ed McBain 87th Precinct novel and produced independently by its director, William Berke — mostly a director of “B” Westerns who made the 1945 RKO Dick Tracy and The Falcon’s Alibi, the last in the RKO Falcon series, among his few previous forays into contemporary crime. Who would have thought a “B” director like Berke had such an intense, grungy, grittily realistic movie in him? McBain’s book, as adapted by screenwriter Henry Kane, really brought out the best in him even though the entire movie sometimes seems to take place inside police stations, seedy apartment buildings and bars (or in the streets outside of bars).

It drove me nuts that the central character of Detective Steve Carella (Robert Loggia) was called “Carelli” in the film (was that, like a number of other name changes between book and film, to give the actors something easier to pronounce?), and a reference to Staten Island “outed” the locale as New York City (McBain kept the city carefully anonymous; it was clearly based on New York but the five boroughs were given fictitious names to keep us guessing — Manhattan became “Isola,” as in “island”), but otherwise the film was quite tight, faithful to the McBain mythos and the utter lack of sentimentality inherent in his writing. The plot deals with the mysterious murders on two days of 87th Precinct detectives Bill Riordan (Alan Bergnan) and his African-American partner Dave Foster (Lincoln Kilpatrick in his film debut), followed a week later by the killing of detective Mike Maguire (Gerald S. O’Loughlin).

Naturally the cops assume the killings are the work of either a recently released convict whom one or more of the cop victims had been instrumental in catching in the first place, or a psychopath targeting police officers for the fun of it — though none of the cops are killed while on duty and the opening scene plays a neat trick on us: we see Riordan getting up from his bed (topless, and showing a nice expanse of chest hair — when this movie came out there was a lot of fuss about the amount of female flesh it showed barely clothed, including the blonde-bimbo wife of one suspect who gets out of the shower and appears before the cops wrapped in a towel and nothing else while they question her husband and he tells them how impatient he is for them to get lost so he and the blonde can have connubial bliss on their wedding night — but in fact there’s as much beefcake as cheesecake here) and putting on street clothes and packing a gun, and at first we assume he’s the cop-hating killer and it’s only later we find out he’s actually going to become the first cop victim.

The film is quite well acted by a pretty no-name cast — Loggia, Vince Gardenia (who plays a police informant who fingers a junkie as a possible lead in the killings) and a young and almost unrecognizable Jerry Orbach as the head of the Grovers, a street gang with beatnik pretensions suspected of involvement in the murders, were the only names I recognized. (It’s interesting that Orbach began his career appearing in a series about police work in New York City and ended it playing the lead detective on Law and Order, a series about police work in New York City.) But the best performance in the film is turned in by Shirley Ballard as Maguire’s wife Alice, who’s depicted as a slatternly figure much like Marie Windsor’s character in Stanley Kubrick’s The Killing and who turns out — surprise! — to be the mastermind of the killings, having hooked up with Mumzer (Jerry Orbach), the leader of the Grovers, to kill not only her own husband (it’s not that there’s anyone else: she’s just tired of being married to a cop and he won’t give her a divorce) but two other cops to make it look like a psychopathic cop killer is on the loose.

Cop Hater is a quite impressive movie, pushing the sexual envelope for 1957 and also making actual New York locations work at least as well as the studio sets on which most of the great noirs were shot; its dramatis personae include drug addicts (still a relative novelty in American film then) and other human flotsam, and the men of the 87th Precinct look properly proletarian themselves (Carella/Carelli and his deaf-mute girlfriend Teddy Franklin — they’d be married in later McBain novels and McBain’s understanding of how the deaf communicate improved by leaps and bounds: in the early books in the series she’s confined to reading lips but in later books she and Carella talk through American Sign Language — live in an apartment little better than the abodes of the crooks he goes after) — and Berke turns out to be quite a good little atmospherist, getting the overall ambience triumphantly right and eschewing cheap thrills in favor of a reasonably accurate depiction of the long hours of tedium broken only by short bursts of panic that every real cop I’ve talked to or read about tells me police work is like. Berke made at least one more film of a McBain novel, The Mugging, and made a movie called The Lost Missile before suddenly dying in 1958 at the age of only 54 — which is a real pity; apparently he croaked just when it seemed he was hitting his stride as a filmmaker!

Attack of the the Eye Creatures (AIP, 1966)

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

When Charles and I finally got together I ran a movie from the Mystery Science Theatre 3000 collection — from one of the later shows with Joel Hodgson, which seems to have been when MST3K hit their peak (just before Joel moved on and Mike Nelson, who’d already been working on the show as its principal writer, replaced him on screen) — of a film called Attack of the Eye Creatures. Actually it was originally called just The Eye Creatures — and in that form the filmmakers created a somewhat cool-looking logo in which the words “The Eye Creatures” were arranged in the shape of an eye — but someone decided they needed a more “action” title, so they patched in the words “Attack of the … ” just above “The Eye Creatures,” so the actual on-screen title ended up Attack of the the Eye Creatures.

The MST3K crew’s mockery of this ridiculous movie — which was one of a number of 1960’s made-for-TV productions by American International based on some of their almost as inane 1950’s drive-in sci-fi films (in this case, Invasion of the Saucer Men) — was pretty inspired, but the movie itself, even with their lampooning, was pretty dull. The eye creatures themselves are white-clad actors with their baskets (the male ones, at any rate) clearly visible; they’ve got bumpy ridges all over them that apparently represent their home planet’s version of very bad acne, and the only thing especially “ocular” about them is the gaping maws at the bottoms of their faces, which is where ordinarily one would expect to see mouths but instead one sees a lot of black specks one MST3K crew member compared to Beluga caviar (appropriately) and one assumes those are the titular eyes.

The film is in color, Washedoutcolor in which the only hue that reproduces vividly is blue — an inadvertent opposite to two-strip Technicolor — and the “stars,” if you can call them that, are John Ashley (the man who sang “You Gotta Have Ee-Ooo,” a song whose title is its own critique, in the otherwise quite entertaining 1958 AIP production How to Make a Monster) and Cynthia Hull as Stan Kenyon and Susan Rogers, respectively, one of a number of young (straight) teen couples who do their necking on the farm of Old Man Bailey, who keeps trying to warn them off with a shotgun (at one point he actually pulls the trigger, but he’s forgotten to load the gun first) and dialogue like, “Another carload of those blasted smoochers on my property! I’ll get the law after ’em.” It’s one of those movies that’s so dull even the MST3K interjections couldn’t make it entertaining — though I did like the fact that whenever the hero was introduced as “Stan Kenyon” one of the crew joked, “Stan Kenton?” — an “in”-joke that probably sailed over the heads of most of MST3K’s younger viewers. (I just wanted them to take it a bit further and have Old Man Bailey beckon Stan to the piano and growl, “If you’re Stan Kenton, let’s hear you play ‘Artistry in Rhythm.’”

The utter impotence of the eye creatures themselves is one of the most bizarre and awful elements in this film. They’re supposed to have killed one of the human characters but it’s impossible to figure out how, and when one of them gets its arm severed, the arm continues an independent life of its own (courtesy of all-too-visible wires moving the prop), a gimmick that didn’t come off that well even in The Beast with Five Fingers (a much better movie than this, made at a major studio with a strong director, Robert Florey) and looks even sillier on an AIP made-for-TV budget. Ashley and Hull at least have a faint idea of acting — something that seems to elude the rest of the cast, especially the ones who play Army officers looking at a new infrared setup and using it to play long-distance peeping Tom on the kids necking in the field (and who come off so queeny one wonders why they’re bothering to look at straight people necking and haven’t trained the device on the nearest tearoom instead).

The climax comes when the kids realize they can incinerate the monsters with flashbulbs and other quick bursts of light — sort of like the way the kids in The Horror of Party Beach (a rotten movie that looks like a masterpiece compared to Attack of the the Eye Creatures!) killed the monsters by throwing sodium flakes at them — and we realize that The Giant Spider Invasion was not the stupidest and most irremediable movie MST3K aired in its long run. The MST3K crew followed up the movie with a twist-the-knife-in segment showing stills from the film exposing all its technical defects, including the rapid-fire alternations between night (or what’s supposed to be night — this is the sort of film where, even when it’s “night,” the sky is still blue) and day that would have embarrassed even Ed Wood, and the fact that the budget was so low that some of the “monsters” wore only the head and shoulders of a monster costume and a black turtleneck and leotard under it — which could have worked if the director, Larry Buchanan (who even “appeared” at the end of this, courtesy of an MST3K cast member “playing” him), could have avoided showing them in all their non-finery in some of the monsters’ group-attack scenes.

Spy Ship (Warners, 1942)

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

I ran Charles the 1942 film Spy Ship, an interesting Warners “B” that, like Espionage Agent and Foreign Correspondent, was also topical intrigue relating to the war effort — though in this case the film was also a remake of the 1934 Warners programmer Fog Over Frisco, which had given Bette Davis one of the few roles of her early Warners years she was genuinely proud of: an heiress who turns to crime out of sheer boredom and is ultimately murdered by her fellow conspirators as a warning to her innocent sister (Margaret Lindsay) and sis’s boyfriend (Donald Woods) to stay away and keep from exposing the gang.

Spy Ship doesn’t have anyone remotely in Bette Davis’s league as an actor, but in its own way it’s quite a good film and perhaps even better than its predecessor (both were based on a novel by George Dyer called The Four Fragments; Spy Ship was written by the ubiquitous Robert E. Kent, who for once actually seemed to be giving a damn about what he was doing instead of rattling off descriptions of baseball games as he typed away). In this one, the bad sister, Pam Mitchell (Irene Manning), is a record-breaking aviatrix and isolationist speaker for “America Above All” — Charles immediately noticed the character’s resemblance to the real-life Laura Ingalls, record-breaking aviatrix in the 1930’s who was a major speaker for the America First Committee and, though she was never convicted of espionage, was tried and found guilty of being an unregistered agent of the German government and was sentenced on February 20, 1942, less than four months before Spy Ship was released on June 6, 1942. (She served a year and a half and died quietly in 1967, long out of the public eye.)

Pam poses as a “country first” isolationist but she is really a German spy; aided by her boyfriend Gordon Morrel (Michael Ames), an agent with a maritime insurance company, she extracts information about American cargo shipments to the Allies in Europe and gives the information, in code, in her public speeches, thereby instructing the Germans where the ships are so their U-boats can sink them. Pam is the older daughter of Harry Mitchell (George Irving), owner of another maritime insurance company whose principal investigator, Ernie Haskell (John Mitchell), proposes to Gordon that the two companies work together to try to uncover the spies who are giving the information on their ships to the Germans and thereby costing both firms a lot of money. Ernie is working with anti-Nazi reporter Ward Prescott (Craig Stevens, top-billed — he’s a personable leading man and a credible action figure, but he wouldn’t really become a star until he played the title role of the TV crime series Peter Gunn 15 years later), who’s industriously trying to put Pam Mitchell behind bars while also dating her (half-)sister Sue (Maris Wrixon). (In Fog Over Frisco the Bette Davis and Margaret Lindsay characters had the same mothers but different fathers; here they have the same father but different mothers, and naturally Ernie gets a speech about how Pam reminds her of all the things he came to hate about her mother before she left him.)

The director is B. Reaves Eason, who was usually a second-unit action specialist on some of Warners’ biggest films (including The Adventures of Robin Hood, probably his most famous credit) but occasionally got to direct an action-oriented “B” solo — and he moves the film along at a relentless pace climaxing in a shoot-out on the titular spy ship, after it’s revealed that Pam’s former boyfriend Martin Oster (William Forrest) — who publicly is an interventionist heading the “Liberty Committee” in opposition to “America Above All” (which Charles realized the next morning translates into German as Amerika über alles!) — is really the head of the German spy ring. There’s also a chilling little scene in which Keye Luke appears as a Japanese agent named Haru (he looks as uncomfortable as he always did playing the Japanese villains he got assigned in the war years instead of the Number One Son-type parts he’d played before that, where at least he’d got to play his genuine Chinese ethnicity!) and chillingly hints at the attack on Pearl Harbor to come (naturally, this film takes place over the first week of December, 1941). There’s also a quite good scene early on of a submarine attacking a cargo ship in which Eason deftly intermingles new footage, model work from a previous Warners war movie (I think) and stock footage from newsreels of real U-boat attacks to highly convincing effect.

One other nice thing about this movie is that Irene Manning and Maris Wrixon look enough alike one can actually believe that they are sisters (which one couldn’t with Bette Davis and Margaret Lindsay!), and though Manning is hardly in Davis’s league as an on-screen bitch, on her own terms she delivers a quite credible bad-girl performance even though it’s a bit unclear whether her motives for joining a German espionage ring are ideological, financial or romantic (she got involved in the first place because that seemed the best way to Martin Oster’s heart). Still, for the most part Robert E. Kent wrote a tight, logically constructed script (indeed, he did a better job of getting a through-line out of George Dyer’s convoluted tale than the writers of Fog Over Frisco, Robert N. Lee and Eugene Solow, had), and Charles said that purely as a thriller it seemed to make more sense than Foreign Correspondent because it didn’t have as many lacunae as a story (like what was so important about Van Meer’s information and why the baddies went to all the trouble of faking an execution, even to finding and killing a double, just so people would think he was dead when in fact he was alive and being tortured — in one scene, one of the tortures was playing him Benny Goodman-style swing records really loud, an interesting anticipation of the heavy-metal tortures the U.S. would later use against Manuel Noriega and the Guantánamo detainees) — and the spectacular shoot-out at the end is a far more stirring resolution than the rather limp one of Fog Over Frisco, while precisely because Irene Manning is so much less electrifying a personality than Bette Davis, this movie survives her character’s demise without turning dull the way Fog Over Frisco did.

Spy Ship is an entertaining war-themed thriller — even the obligatory democracy vs. dictatorship speeches are a good deal less didactic than usual (probably because Robert E. Kent really didn’t seem to care much about them) — and a good example of how well the studio system could turn out a movie like this and how a major company could give a strong technical gloss even over a workmanlike movie destined for a second spot on double features.

Foreign Correspondent (Walter Wanger/United Artists, 1940)

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

When Charles and I got to watch a movie, I picked out Foreign Correspondent because I’d wanted to see it ever since we ran Espionage Agent, the movie made the year before at Warners with the same star (Joel McCrea), at least one supporting actor (Martin Kosleck) and similar sequences taking place in rainstorms, but Espionage Agent was directed by the hacky Lloyd Bacon and Foreign Correspondent was directed by Alfred Hitchcock — and that makes all the difference. Foreign Correspondent was the sixth and last film on which Hitchcock worked with Charles Bennett, who was to Hitch what Dudley Nichols was to John Ford or Robert Riskin to Frank Capra — the writer with whom the great director worked out his style and who had a lasting influence on him even after their direct collaboration ended. Bennett co-wrote the script with Hitchcock confidante Joan Harrison, with Lost Horizon author James Hilton credited with “dialogue” — as is Robert Benchley, who plays the alcoholic foreign correspondent for the New York Globe live-wire reporter Johnny Jones (Joel McCrea), rechristened “Huntley Haverstock” by his editor, replaces and whom Hitchcock allowed to write all his own scenes.

Foreign Correspondent was produced by Walter Wanger for his independent company, releasing through United Artists, and as a contract director for David O. Selznick (another independent producer distributing through UA) Hitchcock was loaned to the film. Foreign Correspondent actually began as Wanger’s attempt to make a movie based on real-life foreign correspondent Vincent Sheean’s memoir, Personal History, which Wanger bought as soon as it was published in 1935, but after four years and 16 scripts nobody had figured out how to turn Sheean’s rambling memoir into a feature film. Hitchcock and his two writing collaborators, both of whom had long histories with him, solved the problem basically by throwing out all of Sheean’s book and keeping only the basic situation of a foreign correspondent, newly arrived in Europe, stumbling across a classic Hitchcock MacGuffin — a secret clause of a treaty that was never put down on paper and exists only in the memory of Dutch diplomat Van Meer (Albert Bassermann, who knew no English and learned his part phonetically — when working with a German director like Fritz Lang or a Germanophone director like Hitchcock, this wasn’t a problem; when Bassermann worked with George Cukor on A Woman’s Face, his co-star Conrad Veidt — German by birth but fluent in English — translated Cukor’s directions for him) — the sort of thing that, as Hitchcock pointed out in interview out of interview, is all-important to the characters and totally unimportant to the audience.

Jones gets the job of European reporter when his editor, Mr. Powers (Henry Davenport), gets disgusted at the recycled official handouts his previous London correspondent, Stebbins (Robert Benchley), is giving him. Powers rechristens Jones “Huntley Haverstock” in his editorial office, with Stephen Fisher (Herbert Marshall), head of the Universal Peace Party, in attendance. “I’ve never witnessed the christening of an American newspaperman before,” Fisher says in Herbert Marshall’s most marvelously sardonic tones. “Maybe we should break a bottle of champagne over his head.” Haverstock née Jones gets sent to London with instructions to get an interview with Van Meer, whose strategy for getting rid of intrepid newspapermen is to babble incoherently about birds and weather — when Our Hero isn’t shaken so easily, Van Meer asks him point-blank, “What American newspaper are you with?”

Haverstock follows Van Meer from London to his native Netherlands, incidentally meeting and falling in love with Fisher’s daughter Carol (Laraine Day), and witnesses Van Meer being shot to death at an outdoor gathering in a torrential rainstorm. He traces the killer to a windmill which, anticipating by 19 years the crop duster that was dusting a barren field in North by Northwest, he spots one of the windmills turning against the wind and realizes it’s a signal for a plane to land and pick up the assassin. (This was inspired by Hitchcock’s desire to incorporate the trademarks of every country in which a key sequence takes place: he thought the Netherlands were known for windmills and tulips, and he worked a windmill into the script. He also had the idea to have a single drop of blood fall on an otherwise pristine white tulip, but gave it up because this was a black-and-white film and he didn’t think the shot would work without color.)

He also discovers the real Van Meer being held hostage in the windmill — the one who was publicly assassinated was a double recruited by the bad guys — though by the time he’s able to alert the Dutch police and penetrate the language barrier, the baddies are gone. Later on Haverstock forms an alliance with a British reporter, Steven ffolliott (George Sanders) — in his most sardonic tones he tells Haverstock that an earlier member of his family was executed by King Henry VIII and in protest the family ever since has de-capitalized its last name — who briefs him that Stephen Fisher, supposedly a peace activist, is in fact head of the Axis spy ring that kidnapped Van Meer, faked his assassination and intends to torture him to get him to tell them what’s in the secret treaty. (It’s so like Hitchcock, with his relentless drive to cast actors against type, to make George Sanders a good guy and Herbert Marshall a villain.)

In another scene that anticipates one in a later, much better-known Hitchcock film, Fisher offers Haverstock the services of Rowley (Edmund Gwenn), ostensibly as a bodyguard to protect him but really as a hit-man to kill him — and in a scene almost uncannily premonitory of the end of Vertigo 18 years later, Haverstock and Rowley confront each other at the top of the Tower with various nuns in attendance (a High Church service is going on at the cathedral below) and one of them falls to his death below — and it’s only later that we learn for sure it was Rowley: Haverstock was alerted to the situation and jumped out of the way just as Rowley was about to push him off the Tower, and Rowley’s momentum carried him over the edge instead. Haverstock and ffolliott stage the kidnapping of Carol Fisher in an attempt to get her dad to release Van Meer — naturally, in the one noble aspect of his character, he’s carefully concealed his double life from her and she’s innocent and a genuine believer in his pretend “peace” movement — and when that plot fails all the characters get on the last Clipper plane from London to New York.

The plane is shot down by a German boat and crashes into the water, where Fisher nobly lowers himself from the floating wing that is keeping the other principals afloat and alive, and an American captain rescues the rest but refuses to allow Haverstock to phone in his story. He’s allowed to make a call to his family to let them know he’s all right, and he uses the privilege to call “Uncle Powers” and turn in his story anyway, and in an after-the-fact ending written by an uncredited Ben Hecht and stuck onto the film just before its release, Haverstock makes a stirring propaganda speech from a London radio studio to the folks back home urging the U.S. to arm itself and get ready to fight on the Allied side.

Cloudburst (Exclusive/Hammer/United Artists, 1951)

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

Charles and I eventually settled in and I ran him a 1951 British thriller called Cloudburst, whose title has only the most peripheral connection to its action but which otherwise turned out to be pretty good. The setting is 1946 London, where John Graham (Robert Preston, drawn as a Canadian émigré to explain his utter lack of a British accent) is a high official in the British codebreaking department. (They’re still using chalkboards and what look like paper plates with individual letters written on them to break codes; the real British codebreaking office during World War II had access to the world’s first electronic computer but that was probably a fact the British government didn’t want their filmmakers advertising.)

Though the war is over, the codebreaking office is still important because some of the key pieces of evidence in the ongoing war-crimes trials are contained in coded enemy documents. Graham is happily married to Carol (Elizabeth Sellars, who’s second-billed even though her character is killed off 21 minutes into this 81-minute movie — so Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho wasn’t the first movie to use that gimmick!), who is pregnant with their first child, and their lives seem to be going on an even keel until one fateful night when Carol goes driving off on an errand, John decides to walk along the road on which she will return and meet her — he also wants to show off a patch of land next to their house which he plans to buy and convert into an athletic field for his son (he’s assumed their child will be a boy even though in 1951 there was no way to tell pre-natally like there is now — future audiences watching old movies with birth scenes in which the filmmakers deliberately built up the is-it-a-boy-or-a-girl suspense will just be scratching their heads and going, “Don’t they know already? Didn’t they do amniocentesis?”).

First a constable comes along to warn them that a Bonnie-and-Clyde like criminal couple, Mickey Fraser (Harold Lang) and Lorna Dawson (Sheila Burrell) are on the run from having shot a lighthouse keeper earlier that night; then Carol tells John that if she were ever killed like that, she’d want him to hunt down the perpetrators and find them before the law did; then Bonnie and Clyde — oops, I mean Mickey and Lorna — duly appear, run down Carol while she’s standing in the road (unable to flee because with a baby inside her she can’t run fast enough, and she trips and falls) and then back up over her just to make sure that she’s dead. John contacts some of his old resistance buddies — just where they fought in the resistance is never made clear, since Britain itself was never occupied during World War II, but it was a sufficiently traumatic experience that John met his wife there after she’d been tortured by the Nazis and associated the whole effort with the darkest part of his life until his wife was murdered) — for help in locating Mickey and Lorna, and when he finds them he hasn’t the slightest intention of turning them over to the authorities.

No: he goes after Mickey in his car and runs him over the way he had run over Carol, and he’s determined to get to Lorna too even though the police — who caught on that the murderer was a codebreaker when they found a coded message on Carol’s body (it was a list of birthday presents for her John had presented her, in code, so she wouldn’t know what they were until he gave them to her) — have already fixed on John as a suspect. Cloudburst has its faults, including a somewhat slow exposition during which you can all too readily see the imaginary curtains falling (the film was written by Francis Searle, who also directed, but the basis was a play of the same name by Leo Marks, a former codebreaker in real life) and a rather miscast Robert Preston (the role really cried out for Bogart!), but on the whole it’s surprisingly edgy for a British thriller of the period and staged effectively and movingly, a bit placidly paced but even that’s in line with the generally greater interest in character than thrills that British directors went for in stories like this.

Joy Fielding’s The Other Woman (Lifetime, 2008)

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

This morning I ran a Lifetime movie I recorded on Saturday, Joy Fielding’s The Other Woman — a rather awkward title picked obviously because Lifetime thought Fielding’s name would attract viewers. I read a couple of her books in the mid-1980’s, this one and Kiss Mommy Goodnight (an even more chilling tale than The Other Woman, in which a woman’s divorced husband kidnaps their child and the plot deals with her increasingly desperate search for the child), and thought she was a workmanlike writer of fun “reads” with women protagonists suffering picturesquely. The Other Woman, as its title suggests, deals with Jill Plumley (Josie Bissett — Fielding wasn’t all that great at naming her characters; Jill’s maiden name is unmentioned in the film but in the book it was Listerwoll), who previous to her current marriage was the “other woman” in her man’s life: Derek Plumley (Ted Whittall) was dating her and having an affair while still married to his first wife, Elaine; and they had a daughter who when the film opens is 16 years old and sexually coming into her own herself with a boy named Tyler (Travis Milne, whose long, raven-black hair and wiry build easily makes him the sexiest male in this movie!).

Derek is a prominent defense attorney who’s currently defending a man accused of molesting and then murdering his 16-year-old (female) babysitter, and a female associate in his law firm, Nicole Clark (Lisa Marie Caruk), has set her cap for Derek and bluntly tells Jill at a party, “I’m going to marry your husband.” To get the chance to work with him day-by-day, Nicole seduces Seth Weatherly, Derek’s boss, who turns out to be a wife-beater whose wife succumbs to battered-woman syndrome and offs him towards the end. Jill is also a college journalism teacher (where one of her students, Barry, played by Graeme Black, has an endearing little crushette on her) and a former TV reporter who, while still working as such, dated her working partner Pete (played by Jason Priestley, who also directed) and falls in with him again when he turns up at the courtroom covering Derek’s trial and whom she teams up with to make a documentary on the Weatherlys’ troubled marriage that will include an interview with the wife that will hopefully make her more sympathetic in preparation for her trial.

The movie tones down the feminist-awakening aspects of the novel (in particular it omits the scene in which Jill is deciding which last name to use on the credits of the documentary she and Pete are making, and opts for Listerwoll over Plumley, signaling that she’s giving up her marriage to reclaim her career) and it makes Nicole more of a malevolent stalker than she came off as in the book, but otherwise it’s pretty close and a good, solid bit of entertainment in the Lifetime tradition — updated, natch, from the 1980’s to the 2000’s and including such modern phenomena as cell phones and laptops (Jill receives her students’ homework assignments by e-mail).

Iron Man (Marvel Studios/Paramount, 2008)

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

At least last night we finally had the chance to watch the film Iron Man, which I’d bought on DVD on my last shopping spree at Sam Goody’s (in the deluxe two-DVD edition that’s actually packaged in a metal container!) and I thought it was quite good, though hardly a world-beater even in its genre of comic-book superhero movies. In this version, Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) — the man who would become Iron Man — is the principal owner and CEO of a large defense contractor, Stark Industries, founded by his father, who worked on the Manhattan Project during World War II. When his parents were killed in a car accident, company manager Obadiah Stane (an almost unrecognizable shaved-headed Jeff Bridges) took over as a sort of regent until Tony — already established as a precocious scientific genius with a record of inventions well before puberty — turned 21 and could take the reins himself.

At the start of the film Tony is riding in a Humvee in Afghanistan with three soldiers — including the driver, a woman whom Tony at first doesn’t realize is such but instantly makes a pass at her when he catches on — when it’s hit by enemy forces and blown up. Tony survives but is taken prisoner, and then there’s a title, “Thirty-Six Hours Earlier,” which introduces a flashback that explains what Tony’s life was like before that. Basically he was a combination Charles Foster Kane, James Bond and Arthur (the one Dudley Moore played in two 1980’s movies), drinking, partying, carousing, womanizing (he goes to Las Vegas to receive an “Apogee Award” for his defense work — “The military-industrial complex has its own Academy Awards?” Charles asked incredulously — only Obadiah has to accept it for him because Tony is too busy romancing women and shooting craps at the hotel’s casino) and even getting to go to bed with a reporter, Christine Everhart (Leslie Bibb) who publicly called him a “merchant of death” and who wakes up the next morning in Tony’s palatial mansion, empty except for his personal assistant Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow, giving a good account of herself even in what is probably the silliest role of her career), who explains that “sometimes my duties involve taking out his trash” before escorting Ms. Everhart out the door.

Just when I was wondering where John Gielgud (or his equivalent) was, he turned up in the person — or device, rather — of Jarvis (voice of Paul Bettany), Stark’s rather nanny-ish household computer (as distinguished from all the ones he works with). The flashback takes us back to Afghanistan, where Tony had gone to demonstrate a new super-weapon, the “Jericho,” to the U.S. forces — and it turns out his captor is Abu Bakaar (Sayed Badreya), an Afghan warlord and Genghis Khan wanna-be who wants Tony to build him a duplicate of the Jericho so he can rule the world — or at least that corner of it. Realizing that Abu Bakaar is going to kill him whether he builds him the Jericho or not, Tony pretends to go along; with the assistance of Raza (Faran Tahir), a decidedly heterodox fellow Abu Bakaar kept alive only because he needed an English translator to communicate with Tony, Our Hero manufactures a crude version of the “arc reactor” that powers his entire factory and inserts it into his own heart, which is full of bits of shrapnel from a fragmentation missile that will kill him if he doesn’t wear some sort of electromagnet to keep the pieces away from his heart.

Then he constructs a metal suit and turns himself into an indestructible warrior; he uses it to escape but has to abandon the pieces in the desert. When he gets back to the U.S. he holds a press conference to announce that from then on Stark Industries will no longer do defense work — Iron Man is really a change-of-the-Zeitgeist film; though it was released last May it appears to signal a change in U.S. political and social consciousness from the devil-may-care individualism and foreign adventurism of the Bush II years to the more sober, more restrained approach on both domestic and foreign issues Obama promised in his campaign — and Obadiah Stain, turning the movie into a sort of high-tech version of Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, files suit to have him declared incompetent and have the board fire him.

The rest of the movie shows Tony, aided only by Pepper and his computer Jarvis (and Pepper has to do a lot of fancy reverse-hacking to make sure Tony’s files appear only on his own computer and not on the company ones which Obadiah is watching), developing a new version of his Iron Man suit that will enable him to fly, be invulnerable to ordinary bullets and fire special “repulsor rays” powered by the same arc-reactor technology that is keeping the shrapnel inside him from destroying his heart. It turns out that Obadiah has been the bad guy all along; he’s cut the deals that have sold Stark Industries weapons to countries and free-lance armies all over the world, including enemies of the U.S., and he arranged with Abu Bakaar to have Tony kidnapped and killed, apparently out of jealousy that Tony inherited the company he had kept going through Tony’s minority. Obadiah uses the bits of Tony’s prototype suit Abu Bakaar’s forces salvaged from the desert to design and build his own version, and the two Iron Men battle it out at the end in the film’s big set-piece action scene.

The best thing about Iron Man is the sheer quirkiness of casting Robert Downey, Jr. in the title role — I suspect this is the most eccentric bit of playing a superhero in a comic-book movie since Michael Keaton’s turn as Batman in the 1989 Tim Burton franchise revival film, which still remains my touchstone for the genre: Burton’s dark, atmospheric direction and the superb performances he got from Keaton as Batman and especially from Jack Nicholson as the Joker have yet to be equaled. (Perhaps I should reserve judgment until I have a chance to see the latest Batman film, The Dark Knight — which Charles saw in a theatre when he visited his family and said was even more “gadgety” than Iron Man.) Aside from the mild political/social commentary about the morality (or lack of same) of the defense industry, Iron Man is a workmanlike film, surprisingly unsuspenseful (in all the action scenes we’re quite well aware beforehand of what is going to happen and the director, Jon Favreau, brings a lot to the film but can’t or won’t really do suspense), and as an action movie Iron Man delivers the goods but could use a bit more excitement.

There’s a nice scene in which Downey as Tony Stark is trying out his suit for the first time and taking a good deal of joy out of his new-found power — though the first Spider-Man movie did this trope even better — and the high point of Downey’s acting comes when Obadiah removes the device in his heart that’s keeping him alive and he has to flounder around on the floor to reach the backup device; I couldn’t help but wonder if he’d done the Method thing and used his experiences in rehab as the basis for his work in this scene.

Iron Man isn’t a great movie but it is a quite workmanlike one, entertaining and a pleasant way to while away two hours but a bit short of what it could have been with more of Tim Burton’s demented imagination or the social comment the Wachowski brothers have sneaked into some of their movies (V for Vendetta in particular) — and it seems a pity that almost no one but Charles and I noticed Downey’s fine work in The Singing Detective, a movie that seems to have sank into the dustbin of movie history, notable only for the trivia that someone associated with the production of Iron Man saw it and thought Downey would be good in this role. Iron Man is also noteworthy as the first film Marvel Comics has produced itself — though in partnership with Paramount — on the quite natural theory that rather than sell the rights to their characters to other studios and get only a small share of the profits, they can make both the movies and the lion’s share of the money from them themselves.

Crash of Moons (Official Films, 1954)

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

Charles and I ran a show from his Mystery Science Theatre 3000 back files: Crash of Moons, actually a film assembled from three episodes of the early-1950’s sci-fi TV series Rocky Jones, Space Ranger and looking about like you’d expect an early-1950’s TV show with a title like Rocky Jones: Space Ranger to look. Rocky Jones (Richard Crane) and his “comic” (quotes definitely appropriate!) sidekick Twinky — oops, I mean Winky (Scotty Beckett) — command an interstellar spaceship on a mission to save the motley crew of a space station (that looks like a giant orbiting roulette wheel) from a pair of twinned moons that orbit around each other instead of anything else in space. The gimmick is that the moons have an “atmosphere chain” between them — represented by some far-out graphics that make the two look like a gigantic dog bone in space — and the space station, which wasn’t built to withstand the pressure of an outside atmosphere, will be crushed if it gets between them.

Add to that an indigenous civilization on one of the moons — headed by an avuncular old man and a recently born baby (and of course director Hollingsworth Morse milks the shots of the kids for all the tears he can shake out of our ducts!) — and another planet, ruled by bitchy Queen Cleolanta (Patsy Parsons in by far the best job of acting in this film, even though it’s not clear whether her character name is meant to evoke Cleopatra or something you take for a chronically upset stomach). The gimmick is that one of the twin moons is on a collision course for Cleolanta’s planet and everyone on both worlds is doomed unless Rocky Jones can convince them all to evacuate — which is going to be tough because Cleolanta had earlier threatened Rocky Jones, his entire crew and everyone in the “United Worlds” federation with death if they ever so much as touched foot or set down on her planet again.

The best thing about Crash of Moons is the title; the rest is a typical boys’ sci-fi adventure with plenty of odd names to keep track of (the dramatis personae include Atlasan, Potonda, Bavarro and Atlasan’s wife Trinka — and the place names are just as weird as the people’s!), written by Warren Wilson with an all too obvious debt to When Worlds Collide, and so dull and soporifically paced that it’s the sort of movie during which you can nod off for 20 minutes or so, wake up and find you haven’t missed anything. Despite some pretty good talents behind the camera — including Guy Roe as director of photography and McClure Capps (Sam Goldwyn’s son-in-law) as art director — the production is ultra-cheap, though endearingly so: one eventually comes to love the cardboard cut-outs that serve to represent rocket ships (they’re animated on black velvet backdrops and one scene of the rocket ship landing on a planet is used so often you want to wave to it and say hello), the chintziness of the painted backdrops that represent space vistas and the headquarters of the Space Rangers, a (model) building that the MST3K crew joked that it could have been built with a Lego set — and they were right!

It’s also amusing to watch the overall cheapness of the interiors, including a Republic-like spaceship outfitted with standard office furniture they probably purchased at a remainder store (or else brought over from the studio’s own offices for the occasion!). MST3K prefaced this with a 1950’s episode of General Hospital in which one man overpowers the girlfriend who was trying to get away from him and marry someone else — he comes as close to raping her (in his car!) as 1950’s television would permit — even though the episode doesn’t come anywhere near a hospital!

Pack Up Your Troubles (Hal Roach/MGM, 1932)

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

Charles asked me either not to run a movie at all or to pick something “funny and uplifting.” I managed to find a film that was both: Pack Up Your Troubles, the second feature-length Laurel and Hardy vehicle, produced by Hal Roach in 1932 and directed by George Marshall (best known for his later vehicles for Bob Hope) and Ray McCarey (Leo’s brother) from a script by H. M. Walker (credited as the dialogue writer and one of the few silent-movie title writers who successfully made the transition to writing sound scripts) and probably worked on by Laurel himself as well as the usual crew of Roach gag-writers. The film opens in 1917; the U.S. has just entered World War I and a recruiter (Tom Kennedy) picks Laurel and Hardy as the unlikeliest cannon fodder conceivable.

They screw up in all the predictable service-comedy ways, from being unable to march in step with the rest of their unit (Aristophanes probably pulled this gag in Athens but it’s still hilarious) to getting assigned to dispose of the military’s garbage: when they ask the cook what they’re supposed to do with four trash cans’ worth of smelly kitchen leavings, he sarcastically tells them, “Take it to the general!” Of course, Laurel and Hardy do just that, dumping it all in the living room of the general (James Finlayson with a Bismarck-esque white moustache — his appearance in this role leaves one to wonder why the American army in World War I had a Scottish commanding officer) and ending up in the brig — along with the cook, who makes it clear he won’t forgive them for having snitched on him. To get rid of them, their commander in the field sends them on a suicide mission to pick up a German prisoner — and they end up stealing a tank and ensnaring an entire German company in barbed wire.

The only friend they made in the army was Eddie Smith (Donald Dillaway), the son of a rich family who married beneath what his parents considered proper for their station and was rewarded by his wife leaving him for someone else and dumping their baby daughter on him. Before he went into the service he placed the kid with two foster parents (Rychard Cramer and Adele Watson) who seem like the stuff of Charles Dickens’ nightmares — though there’s plenty of laugh-out-loud Laurel and Hardy comedy in this movie, it’s one of the darkest they ever made — and when Eddie is killed in the war Our Heroes take it on themselves to find his daughter and then trace his parents and introduce them. The second half of the film is a surprisingly dark search as they try to find the Smiths and are up against not only the sheer plethora of people with that name in New York City but also the law (who accuse them of kidnapping the child) and the child welfare people (who want to recover her and put her back with those abusive foster parents — child welfare workers were as clueless then as they are now).

They end up innocently taking money from a bank — they attempted to borrow on the lunch wagon they bought as a post-service business and when the bank president tells them, “In order to lend you $2,000 on that thing, I’d have to be unconscious,” he’s obligingly rendered unconscious when a bust of Shakespeare (what was a bank president in a 1932 movie doing with a bust of Shakespeare in his office?) falls on him at the precise moment. It turns out that the bank president is Eddie Smith’s father and the girl is therefore his granddaughter — and when he realizes this he’s so overjoyed that he refuses to press charges and invites Laurel and Hardy to dinner … only his cook is the guy they snitched on back in the early part of the film, and so it ends with them fleeing the scene and running hell-bent for their lives again.

Though it was only their second feature, Pack Up Your Troubles is a surprisingly well-structured movie (some of the Laurel and Hardy features were haphazard assemblages of gags, musical numbers and bits of plot, but not this one), with carefully “planted” plot devices and a refreshing lack of sentimentality. Though it’s a little girl (Jacquie Lynn) instead of a little boy, the resemblance of this film to Chaplin’s The Kid is pretty obvious (but then Stan Laurel had understudied Chaplin in Fred Karno’s comedy troupe in Britain and the Chaplin influence hung heavily on him his entire career!), and like The Kid, Pack Up Your Troubles is deliberately played to avoid the sentimentality that usually took over when Hollywood in the 1930’s did anything involving kids. (The fact that this movie was made two years before the emergence of Shirley Temple probably helped; once Temple became the biggest movie star of the 1930’s, just about every pre-pubescent actor in Hollywood of either gender got pressed into her rancid cutesie-poo mold.)

Even one of the film’s funniest scenes has a dark undercurrent: they’ve traced Eddie Smith to a society home that’s hosting a big wedding (with Grady Sutton as the bridegroom and Billy Gilbert as the bride’s father!) and, when Laurel and Hardy announce that they’re bringing Eddie Smith’s baby, naturally his father-in-law-to-be decides that the man is a cad (Grady Sutton a cad?) and the wedding is not to be, so a perfectly innocent man loses his chance at a good marriage out of a mistaken identification that the filmmakers don’t stop long enough to give him a chance to clear up. There’s one other interesting scene, in which one of the “Smiths” Our Heroes trace turns out to be Black — and though the actor in this role gets only three lines and less than a minute of screen time, he’s able to play his part with a surprising level of dignity and humanity for an African-American character in 1932. Also, this film was remade surprisingly closely by the Ritz Brothers in 1939; though their studio, 20th Century-Fox, didn’t acknowledge the similarity and claimed that their version of Pack Up Your Troubles was based on an “original” screenplay by Lou Breslow and Owen Francis, the synopses in the American Film Institute Catalog describe virtually identical plotlines.

Espionage Agent (Warners, 1939)

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

I ran him a 1939 movie called Espionage Agent from the Warners factory, which started with the “Black Tom” explosion in 1915 and then leaps ahead 21 years to the outbreak of the Spanish civil war in Morocco, where Barry Corvall (Joel McCrea), a third-generation U.S. Foreign Service officer, is flooded with visa applications from Americans desperate to get out and get back home. (Hmm, a Warners’ production with an American in a northern African city dealing with desperate people trying to get visas to the U.S. — where have we seen that since?) He meets a mystery woman, Brenda Ballard (Brenda Marshall, in her screen debut), supposedly an aspiring opera singer, and gets her passage home on the S.S. Fredonia (no, Groucho Marx is not the captain!) by giving her his stateroom and forcing his partner at the consulate, Lowell Warrington (Jeffrey Lynn), to share a tiny room amidst the boilers.

Barry is desperately in love with Brenda and wants her to marry him; she keeps putting him off but finally yields, and at a party thrown by Barry’s widowed mother (Nana Bryant), Brenda is approached by Karl Müller (Martin Kosleck, stealing the movie as usual), supposedly a journalist for a German news service but actually a spy. (This is historically accurate; the Germans did press their international news services into espionage work.) Müller reminds Brenda that before she met Barry she signed on and took money from them, agreeing to work with them and extract U.S. military secrets — and he gives her an assignment to steal the U.S.’s military preparedness plan. She confesses all to her husband, and instead of rising in righteous anger at having been betrayed by a woman who married him just to get him to turn traitor, he automatically assumes she’s telling the truth when she says she wants no part of the spy ring and is loyal to her new husband and his country.

Needless to say, the embarrassment leads to Barry being forced to resign from the Foreign Service, though he continues to investigate as a private person and is determined to expose the other members of his wife’s spy ring — and he eventually goes to Switzerland with her and traces it to the World Peacemaking Forum, headed by Dr. Rader (James Stephenson) — an interesting premonition of the Cold War movies that also invariably depicted “peace” organizations as fronts for the international bad guys.

The spies see through Brenda’s pretense at being willing to work for them again and Rader takes her hostage, putting her on a train bound from Switzerland for the country that dared not speak its name — not only did the screenwriters (Robert Buckner, story; Warren Duff, Michael Fessier and Frank Donoghue, script) carefully avoid having any of the characters on either side say the name “Germany,” but the members of the goon squad Rader sends after Brenda are wearing white armbands but without a swastika or any other emblem on them. Nonetheless, the two lovebirds escape by pulling the emergency brake to stop the train (had any of the members of the writing committee seen The Lady Vanishes?) and are eventually congratulated by Barry’s former Foreign Service superiors.

The American Film Institute Catalog notes that the original reviews of Espionage Agent “compared the picture too [sic] Confessions of a Nazi Spy because of its exposé about espionage,” but there’s really no comparison: Confessions of a Nazi Spy had a much better script (though it too had its ridiculously melodramatic moments, particularly the scene in which a loyal German-American challenges the Bund publicly and gets beaten to death for his pains — instead of quietly taking it all in and then reporting their treasonous activities to the police, which is what any sensible person in that position would have done), a strong director (Anatole Litvak) and a vivid, energetic performance by Edward G. Robinson as the spy hunter; Espionage Agent is directed by Lloyd Bacon at his most slovenly and hacky and can’t begin to compare either with Confessions or the film McCrea made a year later, Foreign Correspondent, in which he played an even more naïve character (a journalist instead of an aspiring diplomat) caught up in international intrigue on the eve of World War II, but with Alfred Hitchcock as his director (which made all the difference), a far tighter script (by Charles Bennett and Joan Harrison — it was Bennett’s last of six films for Hitchcock, and as I’ve argued elsewhere Bennett was to Hitchcock what Dudley Nichols was to John Ford or Robert Riskin to Frank Capra, the writer who more than any other set and worked out the “Hitchcock style”), a more expansive production (an interesting coincidence is that both Espionage Agent and Foreign Correspondent have scenes that take place outdoors during driving rainstorms) and the energy of an intensely handcrafted film instead of the ennui of a typical studio product that drags down Espionage Agent.

Street of Women (Warners, 1932)

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

I ran Charles Street of Women, a 59-minute Warners programmer from 1932 starring Kay Francis. The titular street of women isn’t one in a red-light district full of bordellos hosting down-on-their-luck “women of the night,” but refers to the sector of New York where the fashion business is centered. Francis is supposed to be playing a great dress designer and salon owner, but aside from us getting to see her in a lot of genuinely spectacular clothes (uncredited but probably by Orry-Kelly) all that’s made of that is a couple of scenes in which she’s shown dealing with the usual bitchy middle-aged couples who patronize this business and on whom it depends (or at least depended then) for its existence.

Mostly it’s a soap opera from the “pre-Code” Hollywood glasnost, in which Natalie “Nat” Upton (Francis) is having a long-term relationship with developer Lawrence “Larry” Baldwin (Alan Dinehart, who as good as he was as a slimy villain in A Study in Scarlet and Supernatural hardly seems like passion’s plaything), who’s currently building the tallest building ever and in the opening scene, on Natalie’s advice, off-handedly instructs his architect, Linkhorne “Link” Gibson, to make it 20 stories higher. (The idea that Baldwin went into construction on this building without having quite decided how tall it was going to be is one of this film’s most amusing conceits — as is the fact that Gibson blithely accepts that he’s going to have to figure out a safe and structurally sound way to lengthen a building that’s already half-built. One can readily imagine how a later Warners architect, Howard Roark in The Fountainhead, would have reacted!)

The plot thickens when Nat’s brother Clarke (Allen Vincent) returns — we’re never told from quite where — and falls for Baldwin’s daughter Doris (Gloria Stuart in her first film — which puts everyone else in this cast one degree of separation from Leonardo DiCaprio!), only to get disenchanted with the whole situation involving his sister and his beloved’s father. It goes on like that for several reels until it finally gets resolved when Gibson tricks Baldwin’s wife Lois (Marjorie Gateson) into going to Reno to divorce him, therefore paving the way for Baldwin and Nat to pair off, likewise Clarke and Doris. Indifferently directed by Archie Mayo, this is a soap opera pure and simple that doesn’t require anyone in the cast to do any hard-core acting; they suffer nobly, acceptably and uninterestingly — when Robert Osborne suggested this film was a prototype for TV soaps like All My Children or One Life to Live he wasn’t kidding! Written by Mary C. McCall, Jr. with “adaptation and dialogue” by Charles Kenyon and Brown Holmes from a novel by Polan Banks, it’s a routine potboiler that fits comfortable in 59 minutes but, even in that short a running time, still seems pretty dull; most of the people in it — Francis, Dinehart and Stuart — proved they could act in other films, but you’d never tell it from this one.