Saturday, February 27, 2010

It Might Get Loud (Sony Pictures Classics, 2008)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was It Might Get Loud, a 2008 documentary featuring three assorted rock guitarists from three different eras — Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin, The Edge (true name: David Evans) of U2 and Jack White of the White Stripes and the Raconteurs. The gimmick thought up by producer Thomas Tull and director Davis Guggenheim (who previously directed Al Gore in An Inconvenient Truth, which won him an Academy Award and briefly — all too briefly, alas — sparked a measure of concern in the U.S. population over global warming) was to have the three guitarists set up in a warehouse in Los Angeles and trade licks in what’s essentially a version of the “song swaps” at the Adams Avenue Roots Festival in San Diego and other similar events elsewhere in the country — only with internationally known superstars. But before that Guggenheim interviewed his stars with audio equipment only and used those tapes as voiceovers for standard-issue documentary clip footage highlighting their backstories — a conventional enough approach to music documentaries, but somehow it works here because the cuts back and forth between the three principals not only highlights their own personalities but also how much the music scene has changed over the years.

It’s interesting, too, that of the three Jack White is the only American and the only one who’s a singer as well as a guitar player — Page admits he can’t sing a note and The Edge actually has quite a nice voice (one of the highlights of the film is his slow, dirge-like solo version of “Sunday, Bloody Sunday” which projects the song’s anti-violence message more in sorrow than in anger and makes the cut to a full-tilt stadium-rock version by the whole band, with Bono’s far more theatrical vocal, seem a bit lame by comparison) but he’s been overshadowed by Bono’s in U2. The film isn’t, and wisely doesn’t pretend to be, a comprehensive history of electric guitar playing, and it focuses on one style of the instrument — the one that began with the acoustic country blues of the 1930’s, specifically that of the Mississippi Delta players like Robert Johnson and Son House, which developed into the electric Chicago blues style of Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf when they started playing the same licks on electric instruments. Hearing the guitarists (especially Page and White) playing alone without their bands behind them makes it clear just how much they owed to this style and how many of their licks are just recycled from Johnson, Waters and other classic blues musicians — though they’ve been creative enough to take the sounds beyond their models, mainly by adding distortion and other effects. The film also shows The Edge at work with his elaborate panel of foot controls that allows him to duplicate the sound of U2’s records on stage; he claims to have worked out a different set of guitar effects for each of U2’s songs, and when we see him punch the button for “Pride (In the Name of Love)” and the song’s title comes up on an LED screen built into his unit, we believe him.

Offhand, It Might Get Loud focuses on one very important electric guitar tradition — that of the Delta blues and how electrification both energized it and made it the basis for hard-rock and, eventually, heavy metal — and ignores another one, the line that extends from Charlie Christian and the jazz players he influenced (including Barney Kessel, Herb Ellis, Jim Hall and Joe Pass) through T-Bone Walker, B. B. King, Wes Montgomery (whose experiments in octave playing were clearly an unacknowledged influence on Jimi Hendrix) and ultimately Hendrix himself, who got lumped in with the white “psychedelic” players from Britain (Eric Clapton, Pete Townshend, Jeff Beck and Page) even though he had learned from Walker on the chitlin’ circuit, playing in bands that opened for him (virtually all Hendrix’ famous visual gimmicks — playing with the guitar behind his back, putting it up to his mouth and picking it with his teeth, etc. — were things he’d learned from watching Walker), and in essence Hendrix brought the two traditions together, writing songs like “Red House” in the Delta-blues tradition but also showing he could pick “clean” when he wanted to. (The “psychedelic” style as Hendrix encountered it in Britain when he moved there in 1966 was a white style based on Black roots; the “clean” Christian/Walker/King style was directly Black; and the dichotomy between the two reflects the dichotomy in Hendrix’ music — and in his life, caught between his own Black and American Indian roots and the white “psychedelic” audience that had powered his initial success after years of struggle.)

The contrasts between the three players featured in It Might Get Loud — Page the boyhood skiffle player, young session guitarist and ultimate superstar in Led Zeppelin (the band that converted the British blues-rock tradition to heavy-metal — earlier groups like the Who and Cream had approached metal, but it was the combination of Page’s guitar and Robert Plant’s relentlessly falsetto voice that really created the “metal” sound and laid the blueprint for all the power trios and quartets to come), the Edge the sound sculpturist (one effect this movie had on me was to convince me that a lot of the effects on U2’s records I had been convinced had to be synthesizers were simply the Edge’s gimcracked guitars) and White the man whose dual influences were Delta blues (in the movie he’s shown playing a track from Columbia’s 1960’s Son House LP Father of Folk Blues, the a cappella “Grinnin’ in Your Face,” and he says that’s the sound he’s been aiming for his entire career) and punk rock (less in his playing than in his singing and approach to songwriting) — are obvious but understated, and Guggenheim seems more interested in what the musicians have in common than in what separates them.

White’s backstory is particularly interesting in that he describes growing up in Detroit in the early years of this century, at a time when the guitar had ceased to be an icon of cool — indeed, not only did he grow up in a mostly Latino area but by his teen years rap had so totally taken over from rock as youth’s most popular music that you were looked down on if you actually played an instrument instead of rapping or doing beats with turntables. (In this regard the movie is an odd counterweight to the rap documentary Copyright Criminals, which depicts rap as an insurrectionary movement created by people who couldn’t play instruments because they couldn’t afford them, so they figured out another way to create music.) It Might Get Loud is also fascinating for Page’s backstory — it mentions his early success as a session musician (which he said he took up as a career because he was tired of the life in a scuffling touring band, driving from gig to gig in a van, only to get bored because he was literally playing Muzak — his odyssey from band sideman to studio musician to bandleader and superstar oddly seems to track Benny Goodman’s similar progression 30 years earlier!) and claims that he played on Shirley Bassey’s record of the theme from the James Bond movie Goldfinger — which means, as an contributor pointed out, that all three of the musicians in It Might Get Loud have played on James Bond title songs: the Edge was on the theme to Goldeneye and Jack White on Quantum of Solace.

He also mentions his much-talked about studio work with some of the early British invasion bands, including the Kinks (though Ray Davies insisted in his autobiography X-Ray that the solo on the Kinks’ breakthrough record, “You Really Got Me,” was by his brother Dave Davies, not Page) — oddly it doesn’t mention his work with Van Morrison’s first band, Them (in fact both Morrison and, of all people, Donovan were approached to be Led Zeppelin’s singer before Plant took the job — and the Them track “Mystic Eyes” is probably the best indication we have of what Led Zeppelin would have sounded with Morrison, just as the single “Goo Goo Barabajagal”/”Trudi” Donovan made with Jeff Beck is as close as we’re going to come to an indication of what Zeppelin would have sounded like with him).

It Might Get Loud is a fascinating movie thanks not only to the intrinsic interest of its subject matter (including scoring coups like taking The Edge back to the Mount Temple Comprehensive School, where U2 was born from an ad posted to a bulletin board in the hallway and where they played their first gig, standing on a concrete block and tossing off three songs during lunch break) but also to director Guggenheim’s strategy of balancing various elements so it’s not just a music documentary and not just an account of a jam session, either — it cuts artfully back and forth between them, though the jam footage we get is compelling enough I can’t help but wish Guggenheim and his producers had edited it together for a feature-length film in its own right and put that out as a second bonus DVD in the same package. It’s also ironic that a movie dedicated to the power and scope of the electric guitar as an instrument ends with a sequence from the jam session of the three players going to work on the Robbie Robertson song “The Weight” — and all playing acoustic guitars.

The film tries to make a case for the viability of the guitar as an instrument and the potentials left to be discovered in it — it points out that Guitar Hero, which lets you use a toy instrument to pretend to be “playing” the greatest songs by the greatest bands, is the world’s most popular video game (though I suspect a lot of those sales are powered by baby-boomers and Generation-X’ers who have long idolized these musicians and wanted to pretend to be them — I don’t have any information to back this up but I suspect the sales of Guitar Hero skew older than those of most video games) — though I’ve long suspected that after the onslaughts of rap and old-fashioned pop, rock has essentially become to the 21st century what jazz became in the 1950’s: still popular (and profitable) but no longer at the epicenter of music culture, and still attracting young musicians but no longer having the “cool” factor it once did (as Jack White’s personal story makes clear).

The film is a finely honed documentary that manages to avoid the sort of boring schoolmaster-ish presentation of a lot of music films, and though it doesn’t present complete performances of whole songs start to finish (one of my ongoing frustrations with the music-documentary genre as a whole), I miss them less than I would in a more straightforward presentation of each player’s career. The film was compelling enough that Charles and I went through some of the DVD “extras,” including deleted scenes (of which by far the most interesting was an exploration of how Page wrote the Led Zeppelin song “Kashmir,” though for some reason the music in the deleted scenes was mixed and mastered much louder than it had been in the body of the film — well, they warned us it could get loud!) and a 40-minute press conference given at the Toronto Film Festival in which Guggenheim, Page, Edge, White and producer Tull all spoke.

These aren’t the most articulate people in the world (of the three guitarists, Page seems the most at ease at a press conference) but it’s nice to see them in this relatively low-keyed setting and it’s also fascinating to see how many times — three — Page got asked if there would be a Led Zeppelin reunion. The first time he ignored the question completely and the third time he finessed it with a say-nothing-but-make-it-sound-like-you’re-saying-something response a politician would have envied. Apparently the big stumbling block is Plant — so much so that in 2008 and 2009 Page, bassist John Paul Jones and drummer Jason Bonham (son of the original Zeppelin drummer John Bonham, whose death in late 1980 officially ended Zeppelin’s career as a band) were auditioning other singers with the idea of doing a tour that would include new material and Zeppelin songs, only to abandon the idea when they couldn’t find anyone they liked. Plant agreed to the one-shot Zeppelin reunion for the 2007 memorial concert for Atlantic Records co-founder Ahmet Ertegun at the O2 arena in London (the one where Michael Jackson’s comeback concerts were to have taken place if he hadn’t died before he had a chance to give them) but begged off because he’d just finished his album with neo-bluegrass star Allison Krauss and wanted at least a year to tour with her in support of it — and according to Page’s interview in the February 2010 issue of the British music magazine Uncut, Plant has just finished another album with Krauss and is going to keep performing with her rather than sign on for a Zeppelin reunion — which, given that Plant no longer has the killer falsetto that was his trademark with Led Zeppelin (and in his post-Zeppelin work has been quite savvy in writing around the voice he actually has rather than the famous one he used to have), is probably just as well.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Puccini: Edgar (RAI Trade, 2008)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I decided to take the opportunity to run a relatively long DVD I had just got: the world premiere recording of the original 1889 version of Puccini’s second opera, Edgar. Puccini had had a modest success with his first opera, Le Villi (based on the same German folk tale as Adolphe Adam’s ballet Giselle, dealing with a nobleman’s son who loves and abandons a commoner, only to find in the second act that she’s changed into a Willi, a spirit who reaches from beyond the grave and has her revenge by dancing him to death) and had been signed by the most powerful Italian music publisher, Ricordi. With Verdi, Ricordi’s greatest gold mine near the end of his career (and his life), Giulio Ricordi heard Le Villi and decided Puccini was the most likely successor and gave him a long-term contract that included commissioning another opera with the same librettist as Puccini had used on Le Villi, Ferdinando Fontana.

That was the biggest mistake; Fontana, much more a poet than a man of the theatre, picked a French verse play by Alfred de Musset (a contemporary of Chopin and the lover of George Sand just before she jilted him for Chopin) called La Coupe et les Lèvres, which means “The Cup and the Lips” — a title whose basis in the play, whatever it may have been, didn’t carry over to the opera. The piece tells the tale of Edgar, a knight in 13th century Flanders, who in the opening scene is torn between two lovers, a good girl named Fidelia and a bad girl named Tigrana. (The symbolism in their character names is entirely too obvious.) Edgar is in love with Fidelia and she’s in love with him, while Fidelia’s brother Frank — Edgar’s best friend — has the hots for Tigrana, but Tigrana only wants Edgar and seeks to break him and Fidelia up so she can get him on the rebound. The pious citizens of Flanders sing a religious song on their way to church; Tigrana mocks them and Edgar unexpectedly comes to her defense, getting so flustered that he burns down his own house (it’s been in his family for generations but he’s decided he’s tired of it and the generational obligations it represents) and leaves town with Tigrana.

That’s Act I; Act II takes place in Tigrana’s bordello, where she and Edgar have been living in sin in more ways than one; Edgar is bored with debauchery, however, and when an army marches through town captained by Edgar’s friend Frank (ya remember Frank?), Edgar decides to join it and marches off. Act III takes place back in the town where it all opened; Edgar has been killed in battle — or at least so everyone thinks — and the townspeople are staging his funeral and coming forward to talk about how he died a hero in combat saving Flanders from the occupying French (though the dialogue in Act II had suggested he was actually fighting on the French side). A mysterious stranger wearing a monk’s habit crashes the funeral and starts denouncing Edgar as a debauchee and a murderer, and of course he turns out to be Edgar himself, not dead after all. The rest of the crowd turns against Edgar but Fidelia stands up for him and she agrees to marry him, and then Tigrana bursts onto the scene and swears vengeance as the curtain falls.

Act IV takes place on the morning of Edgar’s and Fidelia’s wedding day; they sing a long love duet (containing a scrap of music Puccini later recycled for the “Amaro sol per te” duet in Act III of Tosca) and it looks like they’re going to get to live happily ever after when suddenly Tigrana appears again and stabs Fidelia; she gets a few dying notes and expires, leading Edgar bereft as the last-act curtain falls. Edgar is a ridiculously melodramatic story that makes utterly no sense — Il Trovatore looks like hard-edged realism by comparison — and it’s also reminiscent of all too many other operas, not only Carmen (the most obvious antecedent and the one usually pointed to by critics) but also Tannhäuser and Traviata.

But the biggest problem with Edgar is its lack of any really memorable tunes; Fidelia’s big arias at the start of act three come close, but there’s nothing here on the level of the great arias from Puccini’s next (and star-making) opera, Manon Lescaut, or any of his work after that. It had occurred to me that maybe Puccini’s and Fontana’s mistake was basing their opera on a French story — but then I remembered that Puccini’s next three operas, Manon Lescaut, La Bohème and Tosca, all based on French stories, were smash hits. Edgar just sort of pokes along, filled with pleasant music that doesn’t really rise to the thundering melodramatics of the story, and one of its problems is that — unlike Bizet, who in Carmen was clearly far more interested in the bad girl than the good girl — Puccini was clearly more interested in Fidelia than Tigrana.

For the rest of his career Puccini avoided villainesses until his final opera, Turandot (he did seek the opera rights to Pierre Louÿs’ The Woman and the Puppet, filmed in 1934 by Josef von Sternberg as The Devil is a Woman and in 1977 by Luis Buñuel as That Obscure Object of Desire, but based on his failure to bring Tigrana to any sort of life it’s probably just as well this was one story Puccini didn’t get to set: he was as temperamentally wrong to adapt this story as Sternberg was right) — and while Turandot is a rich and vivid creation, even though Puccini didn’t live long enough to compose the ending in which she was supposed to discover love and reform, Tigrana is not; she mostly sings the same soaring, lyrical melodies as Fidelia and only a few sinister strains from the orchestra whenever she enters mark her as any different from her goody-good rival in love. Fidelia is really the beta version of all Puccini’s star-crossed heroines — Manon, Mimì, Tosca, Butterfly, Angelica, Liù — the ones who love not wisely but too well and are done in by disease, politics or culture at the end — and it’s not surprising that even though this is the only Puccini opera (aside from his one-act comedy Gianni Schicchi) named after its male lead, it’s Fidelia who gets the best music.

The original version of Edgar lasted only three performances at La Scala in 1889. Puccini, whose inveterate tinkering with his operas made him a precursor of George Lucas (who was once asked by a New Yorker reporter when he would be finished revising the Star Wars movies, and he answered, “When I die”), revised it in 1891, dropping the dramatically irrelevant fourth act and moving the climax — Tigrana’s murder of Fidelia — to the end of the third. He tweaked it again a couple of times and in 1905 finally arrived at a version that satisfied him, more or less, and it’s usually the 1905 version that’s heard today on the rare occasions Edgar is performed at all. This DVD, filmed at the Teatro Regio in Torino (Turin) in 2008 in a co-production with the opera house in Bologna, is the first recording in any format of the original 1889 version. It was originally supposed to be a reconstruction by Puccini scholar Linda Fairtile, who was set to work on her own orchestration of Act IV from the surviving piano-vocal score, but Simonetta Puccini, the composer’s granddaughter, suddenly surprised Fairtile and the musical world in general by announcing that the original orchestral score survived, and she had it.

The production was staged by Lorenzo Mariani, who decided to move the action up from 13th century Flanders to 19th century Italy in the middle of the wars over the Risorgimento — though the countries involved in the war Edgar goes off to fight (and is thought to have lost his life in) are still named Flanders and France, and in the opening act Tigrana’s presence in the Flemish village is explained by her having been part of a caravan which passed through town when she was a girl; everyone else in the caravan died of plague and she, as the only survivor, was taken in and raised collectively by the townspeople. This is a very anachronistic plot device for the 19th century!

The cast and the conductor, Yoram David, are good but not great; he rather plods through a score that could have used more oomph. His Fidelia, Amarilli Nizza, not only has the best music but is the strongest singer in the cast, reminiscent of Mirella Freni in her delicate balance between fragility and strength. The Edgar is José Cura, who made a splash in the 1990’s as a tenor specializing in the heavier Italian roles; he’s made up to bear an odd resemblance to Puccini himself and his voice, though a bit ragged, portrays the strength of the character but is less up to the burden of depicting his neuroses. Tigrana is Julia Gertseva, who’s electrifying visually in the red dress she wears throughout — as if her name wasn’t enough to tell us she was the bad girl, director Mariani introduces her leaning under a tree at the Flemish picnic ground eating an apple, thereby tying her in with Eve and the original “bad girl” — but she can’t make the character convincing because Puccini’s music for her is just too lyrical, too nice, not seductive enough. (Compare to the great songs of seduction Bizet gave Carmen — the “Habañera,” “Séguidilla,” “Chanson bohème” — and the overall greater sophistication Bizet brought to the task of dramatizing “that kind of girl.”) The lower-voiced men — Marco Vratogna as Frank and Carlo Cigni as Gualtiero, father of Fidelia and Frank — are competent without being spectacular.

The set designs are bizarre; the picnic ground in the first and fourth act looks relatively credible but the same patch of grass that forms the ground also appears in act two as the floor of Tigrana’s whorehouse (the one the restive Edgar, like Tannhäuser, dreams of escaping — only not only did Puccini fail to give Tigrana any music rivaling Carmen, he didn’t give Edgar an angst aria at the level of “Die Töne löb” or “Inbrunst im Herzen” either) — and though the Fanfare magazine reviewer, Raymond Tuttle, thought it looked like artificial grass it seemed like real sod to me (which would explain why they didn’t want to remove it between acts).

One quirky thing about Edgar may help explain why Puccini decided to set a story that was not only fundamentally silly but also not in accord with his usual dramatic interests. Puccini was the seventh in a line of composers in his family who had taken up the musical torch generation after generation, but most of the previous musical Puccinis had written almost exclusively religious music (though in the 1970’s the Musical Heritage Society issued a quite nice, very Mozartean piano concerto by Domenico Puccini, Giacomo’s grandfather), and it’s possible that in forsaking the church for the theatre and writing mostly operas Puccini was setting himself up for the same sort of frustration with the burden of his ancestors that leads Edgar to burn down his house at the end of Act I. What’s more, the libretto of Edgar frequently calls on Puccini to supply church music — composed to texts in Latin (which are left that way in the subtitles) even though the bulk of the opera is in Italian — and the religious choruses in Edgar (including one for an off-stage women’s chorus referred to in the credits of the DVD as “voci bianchi” — “white voices”) are among the more impressive parts of the score, proof that had Puccini followed in his ancestors’ footsteps instead of staging his Edgar-like rebellion and going secular, he might have been quite a good church composer. (He actually used a student piece, a “Te Deum,” for the cantata Tosca is performing in Act II of her opera.)

Aside from that, however, Edgar is a sporadically interesting piece that shows Puccini’s gift for lyricism but rarely his gift for music drama — and here it’s given a competent but not great performance that’s historically interesting but hardly a spectacular night of operatic entertainment. Incidentally, this morning I was listening to the revision of Edgar in a 1980 broadcast from the Wexford Festival — alas, a hissy recording that didn’t do justice to the piece or Puccini’s orchestration — and the revised version is tighter, considerably shorter (about 100 minutes instead of the 157 minutes of the “complete”) but not otherwise much different — he may have recomposed scattered parts of the opera but he didn’t radically rethink it the way Verdi rethought I Lombardi as Jérusalem or Stiffelio as Aroldo. Edgar isn’t one of those neglected operas that deserves a place in the standard repertoire — this isn’t a spectacular rediscovery on the order of Mefistofele (I will never forget the shock I had, after years of reading the patronizing crap that had been written about Arrigo Boïto as composer — that he was untalented, that he had good ideas for opera but needed a musical genius like Verdi to realize them — and then listening to Mefistofele start-to-finish for the first time and being utterly blown away by the power, drama, scope and force of the piece, finally deciding it was a neglected masterpiece and the best Italian opera ever written by anyone other than Verdi or Puccini — though Bellini’s Norma comes close) but a sporadically interesting opera given a sporadically interesting production by solidly professional performers who make a good case for it.

Monday, February 22, 2010

I Killed That Man (Monogram, 1941)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I Killed That Man was an intriguing 1941 movie made by producers Frank and Maurice King at Monogram after they’d made their producing debut at PRC with Paper Bullets, later known as Gangs, Inc., with a marvelous performance by the underrated Joan Woodbury as a woman who gets mixed up with the underworld in a medium-sized city and ends up running it. I Killed That Man was a remake of a now-lost 1933 Monogram film called The Devil’s Mate in which Woodbury was brought over to play a part originated by another one of my cult-favorite actresses, the classically beautiful Peggy Shannon. The star was Ricardo Cortez, cast in a part originated by Preston Foster, and the gimmick of the original story by Leonard Fields and David Silverstein (the 1941 script based on it was by Henry Bancroft) was a gimmick more famously recycled by Warners in 1944 for the film Murder in the Big House.

I Killed That Man opens in a hallway where a series of high-stakes craps games are going on and the participants are wisecracking through them — and then suddenly two large curtains in the back of the room are opened and it’s revealed that we’re actually in the viewing room of an execution and the gamblers are actually the reporters and criminal-justice personnel about to witness it. The victim announces just before he’s supposed to be put in the electric chair that he’s going to admit his guilt for the murder but also finger the person who hired him to commit it, who up to now has escaped justice — only just when he’s about to speak the name he keels over dead a few minutes ahead of scheduled, courtesy of a small poisoned dart fired at him from a blow gun. Inspector Roger Phillips (Ricardo Cortez) of the district attorney’s office immediately seals off the area and even makes all the people in the room strip so he and his men can search for the blow gun — and when one of the people being held challenges Phillips to strip himself, he does so (though, this being a Production Code-era film, they don’t go far beyond shirts).

The opening promises a powerful film noir, and while the rest of the movie doesn’t quite deliver — it’s a good, workmanlike thriller but doesn’t rise to the heights of the opening reel — it’s still a nice little movie and a good role for Cortez, delivering a much more authoritative performance in the lead that can’t help but remind one of his Sam Spade in the first (1931) version of The Maltese Falcon — a movie that was being remade even as I Killed That Man was being filmed. Joan Woodbury isn’t as good here as in her rangier role in Paper Bullets (which got reissued later in the 1940’s not so much because of her as because of Alan Ladd’s appearance in a key supporting role a year before his star-making part in This Gun for Hire) but, as a reporter who’s also Cortez’s girlfriend (a clichéd movie situation if there ever was one), she’s appealing and spunky and deserved a bigger career than she had. (She was apparently an heiress to the Woodbury Soap fortune and didn’t really need the money from acting, but she did it quite well and I suspect it was only her oddly bony face that kept her out of the top ranks of movie stardom.)

I Killed That Man was a movie that could have been better if it had delved more into the aura of corruption and powers-behind-the-scenes that supposedly motivated the murders (both the one the death-penalty defendant was convicted of and the one he was killed to cover up) and if director Phil Rosen (who also made The Devil’s Mate) had made it all more shadowy and noir, but on its own it’s still a good movie and it benefits from Monogram’s lack of a backlot, which forced them to shoot the exteriors on real L.A. streets and gave us a fascinating “look” at how rural the area still was in 1941.

The Blue Dahlia (Paramount, 1946)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Later I ran the videotape of The Blue Dahlia — whose soundtrack was virtually incomprehensible (I recorded this 11 years ago on an old Beta VCR, and my current Beta wasn’t always able to “grab” the linear soundtrack at the right angle — I ended up running the sound through the stereo and leaving the TV’s own speaker on simultaneously so we could hear the dialogue!). The movie is still problematical, with stunning supporting performances by William Bendix, Howard da Silva and Doris Dowling (who owns this movie, with her chilling performance as Alan Ladd’s unashamedly unfaithful wife, from her first appearance in it until she’s killed 24 minutes in) and a typically messy but evocative script by Raymond Chandler on the plus side, and routine performances by Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake in the leads (I still wish this movie had been made with Bogart and Bacall in the leads — Lake even combed her hair back, away from her famous forehead, to look more like Bacall) and indifferent, unatmospheric direction by George Marshall, who worked well with Bob Hope (and handled the horror aspects of The Ghost Breakers well enough) but was totally at a loss with Chandler’s noir script. (Just compare his handling of the rain scenes with Howard Hawks’ direction of the similar scenes in The Big Sleep and you’ll get an idea of the difference.) The Blue Dahlia is one of those what-might-have-been movies, Chandler’s only original screenplay (well, at least the only one that was actually filmed) — though at this late date it’s easy to spot the contrivances in the script that were designed to give Alan Ladd’s fans what they expected (namely, a chance to beat up several people at once, and a scene in which he gets beaten by several people at once!) — and a story that deserved far stronger production support (like a director like Hawks or Huston, and a star cast worthy of the script and the supporting players!). — 3/19/95


Charles and I ran the movie The Blue Dahlia. I find that, while I can still fantasize a better version of this movie with Bogart and Bacall in the leads and Huston or Hawks directing, I’ve grown to like Alan Ladd a good deal better, especially after seeing some of his other films (particularly his others with Veronica Lake, This Gun for Hire and The Glass Key). While Ladd’s understated acting does sometimes become a caricature of itself — at times he makes Robert Mitchum seem like Richard Burton by comparison — it’s effective for the type of role he played in The Blue Dahlia (less so in a film like O.S.S., where he’s supposed to be a more conventional action hero — though O.S.S. is an historically important film because it was produced by Richard Maibaum, who wrote the screen adaptations of the early James Bond movies, and is therefore a direct ancestor of the Bond genre both personally and thematically).

Lake’s performance is also workmanlike, given her enigmatic character, and the story’s structure as a whole is a good illustration of Douglas Sirk’s interesting comment about how sometimes it’s good filmmaking to make your supporting characters more interesting and multidimensional than your star leads. In his interview with Jon Halliday, on the subject of the film Written on the Wind, Sirk commented (p. 116): “[T]here is the contrast of the still intact represented by Mitch Wayne (Rock Hudson) and Lucy Hadley (Lauren Bacall). Now these two were, box-office-wise, the real stars of the picture. And I think this was then, as before, a happy combination — to put your star values not into the so-called interesting parts, but to strengthen the other side by good names and first-rate acting. For an actor an eccentric role like the [Robert] Stack or [Dorothy] Malone parts certainly is always more rewarding to play than the straight ones. Now, this picture offered a quartet of equally competent performances and, as you know, Malone and Stack got Academy nominations [as best supporting actress and best supporting actor, respectively — and Malone won the Oscar in that category]. And there’s another thing — and please don’t smile at what I’m about to say — I had not only one split character in the picture, but two, performing their un-merry-go-rounds.”

Sirk’s analysis of his own film applies to The Blue Dahlia as well, in which the Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake characters are the star parts, but the interesting acting challenges and the multidimensional character roles belong to the supporting cast: most obviously to William Bendix’s brain-damaged war veteran and Doris Dowling’s chillingly effective performance as Ladd’s faithless wife (too bad she’s killed one-quarter of the way into the film). Howard da Silva’s nightclub owner (in partnership with an unscrupulous gangster) and Will Wright’s pathetic house detective (who turns out to be the real murderer — and one amazing aspect of this film is that Paramount had a contract player whose physical appearance and demeanor was so appropriately repulsive as to be perfect for this part) also have more complexity than the leads and the elements of “split character” Sirk talked about throughout his book.

The biggest weak links in The Blue Dahlia were the direction by George Marshall, which too often fell short of duplicating the atmospheric elements in Raymond Chandler’s script (the ones Wilder, Dmytryk and Hawks staged so ably in Double Indemnity, Murder, My Sweet and the original Big Sleep, respectively); and the inappropriate musical score by Victor Young — the main theme, in particular, is too romantic and unatmospheric for this type of movie. Also, the film would have been considerably more tragic had Chandler’s original intention been followed — according to Carl Macek in The Film Noir Encyclopedia, in Chandler’s draft script, Bendix’ character, “blinded and desensitized by the brutalizing effects of the war,” actually killed Dowling’s, but “the studio met with objections from the Navy and forced Chandler to rewrite the film implicating Dad [the house detective at Dowling’s bungalow court, played by Wright] as the murderer” — but as it stands, as the only film produced from a story Chandler wrote especially for the screen, The Blue Dahlia is a disappointment, a good film that could oh so easily have been great.

Charles, it must be noted, doesn’t care much for my parlor game of recasting the classic movies, either fantasizing what they might have been like with some of the actual casting suggestions at the time (i.e., The Wizard of Oz with Shirley Temple and W. C. Fields; Gone with the Wind with Tallulah Bankhead and Ronald Colman; or Sunset Boulevard with Montgomery Clift in the William Holden role) or making up cast replacements from the actors who conceivably could have played those roles at the time the films were made (i.e., Barbara Stanwyck replacing Mary Astor in The Maltese Falcon; or Judy Garland replacing Debbie Reynolds in Singin’ in the Rain). He commented, “Of course you can imagine any film being better if it had been cast with absolutely the best talent available at the time!,” and went on to prove his point by starting in to fantasize an alternate cast that could have improved Plan Nine from Outer Space — we eventually came up with Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn in the Gregory Walcott and Mona McKinnon roles (one can readily imagine Hepburn’s quavery intonations in the line, “Saucer? You mean, the kind from — up there?”), Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor as the aliens who launch the dreaded “Plan Nine,” Marlon Brando as their superior “Controller,” Boris Karloff (“that limey cocksucker!”) filling in Bela Lugosi’s role, Lucille Ball (with red hair — we upped the budget to include Technicolor) in the Vampira character, Jackie Gleason as Tor Johnson, James Dean and Sal Mineo as the two policemen and Orson Welles as Criswell.

“Of course,” I pointed out to Charles, “if they remade Plan Nine today, Arnold Schwarzenegger would play the Tor Johnson role, James Cameron would direct, they’d spend $40 million on the special effects and the story would still be stupid.” “Yeah,” Charles replied, “but the people who went to see it would go, ‘Wow, what great special effects!’ and wouldn’t care that the story was stupid!” — 11/17/95


On Friday night I got to see The Blue Dahlia, the 1946 Paramount production that was the one original script by Raymond Chandler that was actually produced as a film. (He wrote another, Playback, for Universal in 1947 but it was not made — and, with his career in the doldrums after the death of his wife in 1954, Chandler reworked it as his last completed novel in 1958.) The movie remains a quite good film noir that could have been a good deal better; Paramount planned it as a vehicle for their star team of Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake (who had previously co-starred in This Gun for Hire and The Glass Key, the latter based on a novel by Chandler’s principal role model as a writer, Dashiell Hammett), which makes it rather churlish to think of what this movie could have been with the more powerful noir actors who were under contract to other studios at the time — Humphrey Bogart, Robert Mitchum or Dick Powell. I remember on one go-round with The Blue Dahlia thinking what a fine movie this could have been with Bogart and Lauren Bacall in the Ladd and Lake parts — not that Alan Ladd is bad, actually; he’s certainly “right” for the part and yet the kind of riveting alienation Bogart could have brought to it is sadly missed (even though Bogart in 1946 would have been about 20 years too old for the part of a returning servicemember who had just got out of the Navy following World War II).

The Blue Dahlia was produced by former Orson Welles associate and future The Paper Chase star John Houseman, whose idea it was to have Chandler write a screen original (Chandler had made a great movie debut as co-writer for Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity, an adaptation of a novel by Chandler’s Black Mask colleague James M. Cain, but his later assignments had been tearjerkers like There’s Always Tomorrow for which he was singularly ill-suited) and drench it in the Los Angeles noir underworld that had always provided him the best background for his fiction. But either Houseman or the “suits” at Paramount made a singularly inept choice for a director: George Marshall, who was best known as a comedy director (he was Paramount’s go-to guy for Bob Hope vehicles at the time). The film was also hurt by a badly compromised ending insisted on by the U.S. Navy.

The plot features three returning servicemembers, Johnny Morrison (Alan Ladd), Buzz Wanchik (William Bendix) and George Copeland (Hugh Beaumont), who settle in the L.A. area after the war. Morrison lived there before in a suite of bungalows called the “Cavendish Arms” with his wife Helen (Doris Dowling, in a movie-stealing performance that regrettably ends when her character is killed one-fourth of the way through), but when he goes home he finds a wild party in full swing. Helen has been so licentious while her husband was away at war that most of her guests are startled as all hell to find out she has a husband; during the war she had written Johnny and told him their son Dickie had died of diphtheria, but the boy really was killed when his mom had a drunken accident in her car with him in it, and she’s so cruel that she actually welcomed the death of her son because having the boy had kept her from a full-tilt ride on the wild side with her friends — including her main squeeze, Eddie Harwood (Howard da Silva, playing farther up the social scale than usual but still doing subtle malevolence quite well), owner of the Blue Dahlia nightclub on the Sunset Strip. The club gives out blue dahlias as a trademark — dahlias aren’t normally blue but the club’s minions dye them that color — and Helen’s living room features a pot of them, prominently displayed.

Part of the problem with The Blue Dahlia is the sheer number of coincidences Chandler relied on in structuring his plot — Helen picks up Buzz at a bar and brings him home with her without having any idea that he’s a friend of her husband’s; and Johnny, on the run as the prime suspect after his wife is found murdered, meets and takes up with Joyce Harwood (Veronica Lake), estranged wife of his murdered wife’s boyfriend. Anyway, Helen is found, murdered, by the cleaning lady who comes in in the morning — and whose first intimation that something is wrong is the radio blaring an inane morning program (it’s the most creative scene in an otherwise surprisingly flatly directed film) — and the police assign the case to two sour-looking detectives who are convinced the husband is the killer, just as Johnny is convinced that Harwood is the killer — especially after he finds a note from his wife on the back of a photo of himself stating that Harwood is really the wanted criminal Eddie Bauer, still sought in New Jersey on a murder rap.

Chandler’s original choice for the killer is Buzz, who along with Helen Morrison is easily the most fascinating member of the dramatis personae; the script establishes that he suffered a severe brain injury during combat and was fitted with a metal plate in his skull, which renders him susceptible to serious blackouts and also makes him aurally allergic to swing, which he calls “monkey music” and reacts to so violently that when it’s playing in a bar he and his service buddies are in, he unplugs the jukebox and then rips the jack off the end of the cord. Chandler had the idea that Buzz would suffer a mental episode in Helen’s apartment and kill her with the gun Johnny had left there in a previous scene — and then the U.S. Navy got wind of the proposed scene and told the Paramount executives that if they sent out a movie in which the murderer was a brain-damaged servicemember rendered mentally ill by a combat injury, they would never again cooperate with any Paramount production. So Chandler was forced to write an alternate ending in which the killer turns out to be “Dad” Newell (played by the marvelously homely character actor Wil Wright), the Cavendish Arms’ house detective, and though Chandler gave him a nicely turned confession speech at the end his motive remains something of a mystery.

The ending, and Marshall’s almost total avoidance of the visual atmospherics usually indulged in by noir directors, weaken this movie but can’t eliminate its appeal altogether, and The Blue Dahlia is a good film for what it is but there’s also the unpleasant aura of what-might-have-been about it. Incidentally, the year after this film was made model and aspiring actress Elizabeth Short was killed in L.A. in a crime that is still unsolved — and she was called “The Black Dahlia” by a reporter that got his signals crossed and paralleled her demise to the events of The Blue Dahlia, which was playing at a theatre a block away from where she was found. The name stuck, and The Black Dahlia has been the subject of several books, including a novel by James Ellroy that has itself been filmed. — 2/22/10

Andy Hardy’s Private Secretary (MGM, 1941)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Our “feature” last night was Andy Hardy’s Private Secretary, which I wanted to watch since I’d stumbled on my DVD recording of it and thought it would make a nice envoi to MGM singing star Kathryn Grayson, who passed away February 17 at the age of 88. Andy Hardy’s Private Secretary was Grayson’s first film and her part is somewhat similar to the showcase roles Judy Garland had in two previous entries in the Hardy series, Love Finds Andy Hardy and Andy Hardy Meets Debutante. The film basically provided MGM a comfortable way to introduce new starlets in a series that already had a marketable title — the Hardy films seem more like extended TV sitcom episodes than actual movies, even though they tended (like a lot of other movies on the lower rungs of MGM’s output) to last too long for their own good: this one went on for 101 minutes and could easily have been a half-hour shorter without losing much.

Grayson had been born in Winston-Salem, North Carolina on February 9, 1922 (though MGM’s diction coaches were good enough that there was almost no hint of a Southern accent in her voice, speaking or singing) and she was scouted while performing as a radio singer and offered an MGM contract in 1939 in hopes of building her up as a competitor to Universal’s Deanna Durbin — though she put them off for two years and didn’t sign until she was 19. Ironically, the delay was because she had originally wanted a career in opera — and the Met actually offered her Lucia di Lammermoor shortly after she started at MGM, but Louis B. Mayer had her turn them down. It’s a bit hard to believe that story after hearing her sing the Lucia Mad Scene in this film — she’s quite good from a technical point of view but lacks either the odd playfulness of Lily Pons, the Met’s reigning Lucia at the time, or the dramatics Maria Callas would bring to the role later (and forever change opera fans’ expectations for it from mindless, twittering vocal display to intense, riveting drama).

Grayson gets to warble three pieces in this film, the Lucia Mad Scene, Johann Strauss, Jr.’s “Voices of Spring” and — in a concession to the pop-minded audience — Cole Porter’s “I’ve Got My Eyes On You.” (Earlier in the film Mickey Rooney as Andy Hardy had said of her, “Why does she always have to sing grand opera instead of music?” — expressing the attitude of many of the people who went to see this film as well as Rooney himself, who was taken to a ballet by one of his directors, Clarence Brown, and his only recorded reaction was a lewd remark about one of the ballerinas.) Grayson had a small but technically agile voice, though it wasn’t quite as technically agile as the people at the MGM music department thought it was; she sounds here, as she did in many of her later films, like a mezzo trying to push up (her highest notes on “Voices of Spring” are so scratchy I wondered if they deliberately sped up the recording during playback to make her sound higher than she actually was; it is known that when she sang “There’s Beauty Everywhere” in the film Ziegfeld Follies, the final high B was dubbed in by another singer since Grayson’s wasn’t considered loud or full-bodied enough), and a quiet but winning personality that enabled her to hold her own against Rooney just as she did in her later films with such strong male personalities as Frank Sinatra, Mario Lanza (who obliterated her as far as vocal intensity and musicianship were concerned) and Howard Keel (probably her most comfortable co-star; they did the remakes of Show Boat and Roberta, retitled Lovely to Look At, as well as the film of Cole Porter’s stage hit Kiss Me, Kate).

Grayson did winsome quite well — it was her stock in trade and what made her more than just another pretty girl with a great voice — and she dominates this movie the way Judy Garland did with her first two Hardy series films. (Judy got screwed over in her last, Life Begins for Andy Hardy, when at the last minute her four big songs were all removed from the final cut.) Aside from Grayson, Andy Hardy’s Private Secretary is the usual mix, a sitcom-ish plot in which on the eve of his graduation from high school Andy Hardy gets involved in planning the graduation as senior class president, and is so overwhelmed by this task that he hires Kathryn Land (Kathryn Grayson, in one of those fairly common scripting decisions in which a newcomer is put at ease by being given her own first name for her character — though in fact “Kathryn” was a middle name and “Grayson” her mom’s maiden name) as, natch, his private secretary, figuring that since she’s studying typewriting and shorthand rather than any academic courses, this will be good job experience for her.

Andy ended up $14 short in the bank account for the graduation because the check written by Kathryn’s father, Steven V. Land (Ian Hunter), bounced — and Andy’s own father takes it on himself to help the Lands out financially. Since Steven once ran a school in Turkey for American expats (until the war and the uncertain international situation forced all the expats home and he ran out of money and had to close it and return to the U.S. himself) and speaks nine languages, including Portuguese, Judge Hardy arranges for Steven to go on a foreign service job to Brazil — only Andy screws him out of it by rewriting his telegram accepting it to delay his departure by two days so Kathryn and her brother Harry (played by Todd Karns in what’s probably the most intriguing performance in this movie: his rather rebellious attitude and fierce pride makes it seem like he wandered in from a teen movie of the 1950’s and is stuck in a time warp) could attend the graduation. Also, Andy gets so overextended by all the planning for the ceremony that he flunks out on his English final (in an example of the incestuousness with which these films were plotted, the teacher who flunks him is also his aunt!) and it’s touch-and-go for a while whether he’ll be able to graduate at all, let alone participate in the preposterous play he wrote, a ripoff of Greek tragedies in which Andy casts himself as Apollo, the literal deus ex machina.

All turns out right in the end, of course; Andy gets to take a makeup test and graduate after all, he gives Kathryn a place on the graduation platform to sing, he gets a new car as a graduation present from his father, and he sets out for college at the end after assuring his dad, “I’d rather go to college than be six feet tall!” (The real Rooney wouldn’t get to do either of those things.) Andy also manages to persuade his regular girlfriend, Polly Benedict (Anne Rutherford), that there was nothing between him and Kathryn despite him appearing with her lipstick on his cheek and otherwise showing reasonable prompts for one of the jealous hissy-fits Anne Rutherford was always obliged to act in Hardy films with a comely female guest star. The Hardy family movies achieved an exquisite state of comfortable dullness that was enlivened only by the guests — Judy elsewhere, Kathryn Grayson here and the marvelous child actor Virginia Weidler in Out West with the Hardys (a better-than-average series entry which got the Hardy family out west in more ways than one, with a ballsier script that featured funnier comedy than usual) — and this one begins with a sequence in Judge Hardy’s courtroom that only underscores how rarely during the series that we actually got to see Lewis Stone’s character function as a judge.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

The Good Student (Screen Media Films, 2006)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Our “feature” last night was The Good Student, originally released in 2006 as Mr. Gibb — after the name of the central character, small-town teacher Ronald Gibb (Tim Daly); one wonders if giving him the same last name as the Bee Gees was just one of the odd little pieces of whimsy Adam Targum inserted into the script. The blurb on the DVD box for this one promised a nicely sleazy Lifetime-esque thriller: “When Ally (Hayden Panettiere), a popular teen and local celebrity, goes missing, her small suburban town erupts in panic. Mr. Gibb (Tim Daly), her dorky teacher with a known infatuation with her, is the last person to see Ally alive and becomes the major suspect.” Instead what Targum and director David Ostry actually came up with is an engagingly loopy comedy in which they continually underplay situations that in a Lifetime movie would be the occasions for scenery-chewing melodrama.

Ally (short for Allyson) isn’t actually kidnapped until about one-third of the way through the movie, and until then it’s a nice little small-town comedy (the location work was done in Poughkeepsie, New York) in which Gibb — who doesn’t look all that dorky; he’s not drop-dead gorgeous but he is attractive — is shown as so dedicated a history teacher that in order to teach a lesson on the Gettysburg Address he actually comes to class dressed as President Lincoln, complete with stovepipe hat and outrageously fake beard. It’s explained that he’s had a lifelong fascination with American history in general and Lincoln in particular (at this point I joked that he was so obsessed with Lincoln that he was going to find a country where there were still slaves so he could go there and free them), and he also has a flaming crush on Ally, who’s the daughter of “Honest Phil” Palmer (William Sadler), local used-car salesman who uses his cheerleader daughter in his commercials much the way Cal Worthington used animals. (Sadler’s performance, one of the highlights of the film, approaches genius in his rendition of the sliminess of his character.)

Mr. Gibb is frustrated at the thickness of most of the students in his class — particularly Brett Mullen (John Gallagher, Jr.), Ally’s on-again, off-again boyfriend — while at the same time he ignores the one (apparently) genuinely smart student he’s supposed to be teaching, Amber Jinxs (Sarah Steele), a dark-haired young woman (Ally, of course, is blonde) who goes around with a camera and manages to photograph the other principals of the story in singularly embarrassing poses. She’s the one who takes the picture of Ally kissing Gibb in gratitude — he gave Ally an “A” on her test (he insists she deserved it but that’s not the impression we get from what we’ve seen so far) and also gave her a ride home (in a huge Dodge Ram pickup he just bought from Ally’s father’s lot, paid for with a cash stash we later learn was an insurance settlement after an accident that killed Gibb’s wife) after Brett stranded her at school, and dropped her off moments before she was kidnapped — and Amber had earlier joked, when Gibb told her the upcoming test would be worth 20 percent of the grade for the course, “Is Ally’s ass going to be one of the questions?”

In this delightfully loopy movie, we first get the impression that Amber is the typical female nerd, proud of her academic skills and pissed off that her teacher is ignoring her in favor of the girl with the hot bod; later we see her at “Video Treats,” where Gibb is renting a straight porn film called Young, Blonde and Ready! which he’s selected because its protagonist resembles Ally; and still later we learn that Amber is having an affair with “Honest Phil” Palmer and stalks out of his house in a hissy fit when she catches Phil having sex in the bathtub with Amber’s own mother (played by a blonde actress who doesn’t look in the slightest like Sarah Steele). The Good Student is a film that takes a very mordantly cynical attitude about love and sex, from the fellow teacher who boasts to Mr. Gibb that he readily trades good grades and college recommendations to nubile young female students in exchange for sex (and assumes Gibb is doing the same) to the affair between the sleazy used-car salesman and the person we think is the “good girl” on campus.

It’s also got some nice satire of the whole obsession with missing kids; when Ally is kidnapped lemonade stands spring up in her benefit, a solid wall of yellow ribbons appears on every locker in school, and Phil Palmer responds to the disappearance of his daughter by announcing that he’s going to put every car on his lot on sale at a discount until she’s returned safely. In the middle of all this Gibb drifts into an affair with his next-door neighbor, Holly Cooper (Paula Devicq) — who for my money is a lot hotter than Hayden Panettiere (she has a penchant for going braless and wearing T-shirts that give us a nice look-see at her nipples poking through) as well as past the age of consent and a much more grounded human being and therefore a more suitable sex (and romance) partner for Our Hero. There’s also a fascinating screen presence in actor Brian Anthony Wilson (presumably using his middle name so no one gets him confused with the leader of the Beach Boys), who plays the lead detective on the police’s investigation of Ally’s disappearance, and is appropriately named Moon since his head rather looks like the moon.

Director Ostry and writer Targum don’t seem all that interested in who kidnapped Ally — we get a couple of insert shots showing her bound in a closet filled with mops and other cleaning implements, leading us to think that the rather twitchy school janitor is holding her — but at the end, as Gibb and Holly are fleeing the town and driving to New York City, Gibb’s hand is shown letting go a lock of blonde hair from the window of his truck as he’s driving, and his voiceover (Tim Daly narrates the whole movie and Targum’s writing here is nice and as challengingly quirky as the rest of the film) talks about his dual nature and his evil side, and we’re obviously supposed to think he really did kidnap Ally even though his motives, as well as her whereabouts during her captivity, remain a mystery. We’re evidently supposed to read this ending much the way as the accidental death of the nerdy corporate executive’s son in Joseph Heller’s Something Happened (to my mind Heller’s masterpiece and a much better book than the overrated Catch-22) that pushes the protagonist to become aggressive and take control of his life at last — but thou the ending is a bit of a cheat, and the film overall nervously balances itself between comedy and drama in a way that rarely works, overall The Good Student is a charming little piece of work, a minor film (it had the hint of a theatrical release but probably made most of its gross on DVD sales) but a nice and quite entertaining one — even if Charles noted the peculiar anomaly that in a movie about teenagers made and set in 2006, no one has a personal computer, an iPod or even a cell phone!

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Dark Alibi (Monogram, 1946)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was Dark Alibi, the eighth in the Monogram Charlie Chan series — you’ll recall that after Castle in the Desert in 1942 20th Century-Fox had decided the Charlie Chan movies had run their course and Chan remained off the screen for two years. During that time, the rights to the Chan character reverted to the estate of his creator, Earl Derr Biggers, who had died in 1933. Sidney Toler, who had starred in the later Fox Chans, negotiated with Biggers’ widow to buy the rights to the Chan character and see if any other studio wanted to produce Chan films. All the other majors passed, but Monogram Pictures bit and in 1944 launched their own Chan series with Charlie Chan in the Secret Service, all too accurately described by William K. Everson as “a tedious and talkative film with a dreary musical score.”

Fortunately, the films got a little better as the series progressed — especially after the usual director, Phil Rosen, got replaced, sometimes by people with even hackier reputations (like Lesley Selander) but sometimes — as in Dark Alibi — by someone considerably better: Phil Karlson, who would later direct Marilyn Monroe in her first starring role (the 1948 “B” musical Ladies of the Chorus) and get a better performance out of her than some of her later, more prestigious directors; and still later would make quality noirs like Kansas City Confidential. Karlson’s work here is quite good — especially a wordless, atmospheric opening scene showing a gang of bank robbers breaking into a vault and blowing it open, and later two long sequences set in a deserted theatrical warehouse — though the print we were watching (a download from was too murky to do these scenes justice: Karlson and his cinematographer, William A. Sickner, no doubt intended them to be dark and atmospheric but I don’t think they were supposed to be this dark and atmospheric!

The film’s plot (by George Callahan, Monogram’s usual go-to guy for Chan scripts) is also better than usual: Thomas Harley (Edward Earle) is arrested at the boarding house where he lives with his daughter June (Teala Loring), charged with the bank robbery we witnessed in the opening scene, and since a bank guard who discovered the robbers was murdered he’s charged with murder, convicted and sentenced to die. Part of the case against him is that he’s an ex-con — though he hadn’t committed a crime in 20 years and his daughter had no idea that he’d ever served time (he was in prison when her mother died giving birth to her, and when he got out he picked her up from her foster parents and raised her without ever telling her he had a criminal record) — but the main piece of evidence is that his fingerprints were found on the scene. With just nine days remaining before his execution, his daughter accidentally meets Charlie Chan and Chan agrees to take the case and see if he can exonerate her father — which in the days of DNA testing and the Innocence Project seems like a quite fresh storyline even though it’s also old enough there are probably cave drawings telling it.

By this time Monogram was also selling the Chan films to theatres in Black communities on the strength of Mantan Moreland’s recurring role as Chan’s chauffeur, Birmingham Brown, and though he’s playing the usual Black scaredy-cat stereotype he’s several cuts above the torpor of Stepin Fetchit and Willie Best; one highlight of the film is the three double-talk dialogues Moreland does with Ben Carter, another Black comedian who plays Moreland’s brother, a convict in States Prison where Chan, his son Tommy (Benson Fong — presumably his Number Three Son since Keye Luke played Number One Son in the Warner Oland Chans and Victor Sen Yung was Number Two Son in the later Fox Chans with Toler) and Brown are visiting to try to solve the case. Chan traces the whole thing to a variety of intriguing characters, including Miss Petrie (Janet Shaw), an embittered woman who lives at the boarding house with the Harleys; her husband (she carefully went by “Miss” and her maiden name so no one would suspect she was married to a convict), Jack Slade (Anthony Warde); Mr. Danvers (Ray Walker), a glad-handing salesman who makes bank security equipment and therefore could presumably figure out a way to break through his own system and enter a bank unmolested; and a surprise mastermind who has a position inside the prison and is using it to engineer the whole scheme, which involves a successful way of faking someone else’s fingerprints and planting them on the scene of a crime.

Chan discovers at least two other people have been wrongfully convicted of bank heists in this fashion — though both are already dead; one died in a prison accident and one committed suicide — and in an interesting climax the finger of suspicion seems first to be pointing to the prison warden (Russell Hicks), not surprisingly since it was almost always the tendency of Monogram’s casting department to cast portly middle-aged men as their murderers: but in a legitimate and genuinely surprising twist turns out to be someone else altogether. There’s also a nice little red herring at the boarding house played by Milton Parsons, the fascinating character actor who was in three of RKO’s four contemporaneous Dick Tracy movies. Dark Alibi has some pretty lurching transitions — most of Mantan Moreland’s comedy is genuinely funny but the constant cutaways from the mystery and action so he and Carter can do their dialogue gags are a bit wrenching after a while (though there’s a nice payoff at the end when Toler as Chan joins into one of their double-talk scenes and fits right in) — but overall it’s a nicely done film, burdened with a few typical Monogram plot holes (the night of the robbery Thomas Harley is locked inside a theatrical warehouse to which he’s been lured by a typewritten message signed with the name of a man who served time at States Prison when Harley did but has been dead for eight years; whoever concocted the plot would have to have known that Harley hadn’t heard of the man’s death for the trap to work) but quite entertaining and several cuts above the common run of the Monogram Chans.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Alexander’s Ragtime Band (20th Century-Fox, 1938)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Yesterday TCM showed two consecutive films that had in common the same production company (20th Century-Fox), songwriter (Irving Berlin) and performer (Ethel Merman), Alexander’s Ragtime Band (1938) and Call Me Madam (1953). Merman was actually billed fourth in Alexander’s Ragtime Band, which was a marvelous assemblage of Irving Berlin songs tied to a sturdy old set of plot clichés, including the Jazz Singer one of the young man who defies his family and its traditions to pursue a career as a pop musician and entertainer. In this case the young man is Roger Grant (Tyrone Power), whose Aunt Sophie (Helen Westley) and music teacher, Professor Heinrich (Jean Hersholt), are grooming him for a career as a concert violinist — only in his spare time he’s leading a pop orchestra with Charlie Dwyer (Don Ameche) as his piano player and Davey Lane (Jack Haley) as his drummer. One day his band is auditioning at “Dirty Dan’s” nightclub in San Francisco’s Barbary Coast district (San Francisco seems to have been chosen as a locale because that’s where Paul Whiteman started his career path from aspiring concert violist to pop bandleader) at the same time as singer Stella Kirby (Alice Faye) comes in, also looking for a job.

One of Roger’s musicians loses the band’s music in a taxi, so they grab a piece of sheet music for Irving Berlin’s song “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” (well, the title tune had to enter into it somewhere!) which Stella had brought thinking it was her sure ticket to a job, since the song was a hit in New York but hadn’t been heard in San Francisco yet. There’s a clever scene in which the members of Roger’s band try to play the piece in strict time, then realize that in order to get it to work they have to syncopate it (and I wondered if Tyrone Power had ever studied the violin, since although the sounds were undoubtedly those of a 20th Century-Fox studio musician his arms at least looked right fretting and bowing the fiddle) — and just then Alice Faye, who’s made up and costumed in the early reels to look like Jean Harlow (her earlier film with Power, In Old Chicago, had been planned for Clark Gable and Jean Harlow, who were going to do it on loanout to Fox in exchange for Shirley Temple starring in The Wizard of Oz — only Harlow’s death ended that deal), swoops in full of righteous indignation that this upstart band has stolen her song. She gets even more indignant — as does Roger — when they’re told by the club owner that he’s interested in hiring them but only together. What’s more, in honor of their trademark song the owner insists on billing Power’s character as “Alexander” — and so they start on a steady climb upwards to bigger and better nightclubs in San Francisco, with Power’s hatred for Faye turning into love — ironically to the strains of “Now It Can Be Told,” a song supposedly written by Don Ameche’s character in furtherance of his attempt to seduce the pretty blonde singer (and actually the only new song Berlin wrote for this film — all the others were from his catalog).

The act gets split up when impresario Charles Dillingham (Joe King) hires Stella Kirby to star in his Broadway show, but isn’t interested in Alexander’s band — whose members soon find themselves drafted into World War I, where they mostly play medleys of Berlin’s patriotic songs (not very good ones; it doesn’t help that the best-known of the World War I songs, “Over There,” was written by George M. Cohan, not Berlin). After the war they find the U.S. uninterested in their sort of music, but they find that hot music is all the rage in Paris, so their band becomes a success there with a new singer, Jerry Allen (an appropriately gender-ambiguous name for an Ethel Merman character), and on the strength of that they return to the U.S. and become major stars on radio. By this time Alexander has swollen his band to virtually symphonic dimensions — though the sound we hear is actually pretty credible big-band swing — and Stella has dropped out of sight after her career on Broadway has run its course. She’s also married Charlie and divorced him after he realized she was still pining for “Alexander” — in the meantime Power’s character has proposed to Merman’s but she’s realized she was just a rebound relationship for him and turned him down.

The story plods on to the all too predictable climax — a big swing-music concert Alexander is giving at Carnegie Hall during which Stella Kirby, now down-and-out and virtually forgotten, flees a bar run by Alexander’s friend Bill Mulligan (Paul Hurst) and gets into a cab driven by, of all people, John Carradine — who’s so miscast his presence in this movie achieves camp (“Don’t let him park you under a bridge!” Charles called out) — who drives her around the city while he has Alexander’s concert on the radio. They end up at Carnegie Hall, where she gets out, finds that the concert is sold out but manages to get let in just in time to sing the encore, “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” (what else?), and from the combination of the movie conventions and Tyrone Power’s smoldering looks at her we get the impression they’re going to pair up at last and live happily ever after.

As dull and hackneyed as the plot is (though at least the romantic rivalry between Power and Ameche for Faye’s affections isn’t laced with the nastiness of the similar intrigues between Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire in Holiday Inn), Alexander’s Ragtime Band is saved not only by the great Irving Berlin songs but by the respect and authenticity with which the period is treated. The arrangements by Alfred Newman are correct for the period — at least in the early part of the film, where the ensembles that we hear have the same instrumentation and voicings that we hear in pop records from the nineteen-teens — and the visuals also seem authentic given the fragmentary evidence we have of what vaudeville and music-hall performances actually looked like. When a trio of singularly unattractive vocalists (Jane Jones, Otto Fries, and Mel Kalish) comes out and performs Berlin’s “Ragtime Violin” we realize that the 1910’s were an era that put much less of a premium on physical glamour than later periods in entertainment.

As the plot goes along, though, the entire jazz era of the 1920’s gets skipped over — Alexander’s music leaps from 1910’s dance to 1930’s swing (his Carnegie Hall concert is significantly billed as “swing music,” not as jazz or as the “Experiment in Modern Music” Paul Whiteman presented at Aeolian Hall in New York on February 12, 1924, and at Carnegie three weeks later (one of the clear inspirations, along with Benny Goodman’s swing concert at Carnegie on January 16, 1938, for this sequence) — and what we hear is pretty typical high-powered late-1930’s white swing (quite credibly reproduced by the 20th Century-Fox studio orchestra). The arrangements are better than the singers; Don Ameche proves surprisingly credible as a vocalist on “Now It Can Be Told,” though no one would have ever considered him one of the golden throats of the 20th century; the producers wisely decided against having Tyrone Power attempt to sing; and the women are good but also a bit problematic. Alice Faye acts her part superbly — her character’s emotional turmoil, professional jealousy and final world-weariness are all beautifully delineated in her performance — but her voice, with its foghorn-like quality and limited phrasing, was always more serviceable than genuinely great.

As for Ethel Merman, this was still early enough in her career that her voice wasn’t as musclebound as it became later; she could still sing a ballad with some degree of credibility, though predictably she’s stronger on the fast numbers — especially “Pack Up Your Sins and Go to the Devil,” her featured number in the Paris cabaret and one which I wish the “suits” at Fox had allowed to be filmed in color — the skin-tight suits her choristers are wearing to impersonate devils and her own electrifying costume cry out for color — and she also looks considerably better than she did later, before her face hardened to the point where she was barely recognizable as the same person who had made this film, the Eddie Cantor vehicles Kid Millions and Strike Me Pink, the 1936 Anything Goes (a rare chance for Merman to repeat one of her stage roles on film) and the Ritz Brothers comedy Straight, Place and Show (a Damon Runyon horse-racing story she made right after Alexander’s Ragtime Band which featured an unusually restrained Merman singing two songs, including a quite good ballad called “With You on My Mind”).

I slighted Faye’s vocal contributions a bit during the film, but afterwards I tried to think of who could have sung Berlin’s songs in 1938 better than her and came up only with people who’d never have been given the part: Billie Holiday (too Black), Mildred Bailey (too fat), Connee Boswell (too disabled) and Judy Garland (too young). All in all, Alexander’s Ragtime Band is a fun musical — there isn’t a song in it that wasn’t done better by someone else but all the performances are better than serviceable and show off Berlin’s melodies at their best — and even the clichéd plot (based on a story by Berlin himself, adapted by Richard Sherman and scripted by Kathryn Scola, Zanuck favorite Lamar Trotti and an uncredited Sheridan Gibney and Zanuck himself) gives the film a sense of comfortable familiarity — as does the typically quiet, understated direction by Henry King, who gives the actors (Power and Faye especially) a chance to shine and plays down the melodramatic and soap-opera elements of the plot just about anyone else in Hollywood at the time would have played up.

Call Me Madam (20th Century-Fox, 1953)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

After Alexander’s Ragtime Band TCM played Call Me Madam, also produced at 20th Century-Fox, also starring Ethel Merman and also featuring songs written by Irving Berlin — though this time based on a stage musical and reversing the ratio of old songs to new from the previous film; whereas Alexander’s Ragtime Band had had just one new song and a score otherwise drawn from Berlin’s back catalog, Call Me Madam had mostly songs written especially for the stage version and just one oldie Berlin shoe-horned into the film version, “The International Rag” (which had been performed by Alice Faye in Alexander’s Ragtime Band — and Merman’s rendition here, with an added lyric to key it into the mild political satire of Call Me Madam, is predictably less musical but more electrifying).

It was Merman’s first movie since Straight, Place and Show 15 years earlier, during which time she’d suffered the indignity of seeing her great stage hits go to other performers for the movie versions: Lucille Ball in DuBarry Was a Lady, Ann Sothern in Panama Hattie and Betty Hutton (ironically, Merman’s co-star in Panama Hattie on stage) in Annie Get Your Gun. By this time Merman’s voice had lost just about all the traces of subtlety, musicality or phrasing it had still had when she made Alexander’s Ragtime Band — in Call Me Madam Merman can be heard hitting notes squarely off pitch and then trying to bend them back to where they should be; her high notes are heat-seeking missiles but they rarely land where either the composer or (probably) Merman herself intended them to; and her overall presentation is so butch it justifies the famous Bob and Ray joke in which a man being interviewed by a person-on-the-street broadcaster says, in a deep, butch voice, “My name is Ethel Merman Strunk,” and when the interviewer asks why, if his parents wanted to name him after a famous person, they didn’t pick a man, he says, “Because when I was born, my parents had only heard Ethel Merman sing on the radio, and they thought she was a man.”

The play ran on stage for 665 performances and Merman got screwed out of being on the original-cast album — it was on RCA Victor and her label, Decca, wouldn’t loan her out for it; instead they did an album of their own with Merman, Dick Haymes and Eileen Wilson (and on the album Merman performs one of the stage show’s most charming songs, “Washington Square Dance,” which is heard in the film only as instrumental background during the opening scene at a party in Washington, D.C.). Call Me Madam premiered on stage in 1950 and was based on the career of Washington hostess Perle Mesta, who in 1949 was appointed by President Truman to be the U.S. ambassador to Luxembourg — and the controversy surrounding an ambassadorial appointment to a woman whose principal qualification seemed to be that she gave great parties attracted the attention of veteran playwrights Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse. They drafted the script for a musical based on Mesta — though they called her “Sally Adams” — in which she wins an appointment to be ambassador to the fictional country of “Lichtenburg” (a name formed from two genuine postage-stamp countries in Europe, Lichtenstein and Luxembourg).

She brings along Kenneth Gibson (Donald O’Connor), a former reporter who talks himself into a job as her press attaché, and when they arrive in Lichtenburg they’re advised on correct protocol by the supercilious Pemberton Maxwell (Billy DeWolf), the chargé d’affaires at the U.S. embassy — who expects to be running the show and allowing the political appointee to go through the motions. Instead Mrs. Adams takes charge, helping facilitate the budding romance between Gibson and Lichtenburgian princess Maria (Vera-Ellen) while falling in love herself with Lichtenburg’s secretary of state, General Cosmo Constantine (George Sanders, who gets a rare opportunity to play a sympathetic character full of genuine wit and charm, and who also warbles some choice Berlin songs quite pleasantly — it’s a voice that would have been well suited for operetta and it’s a pity this is Sanders’ only musical).

The Lindsay-Crouse book was adapted for the screen by former Marx Brothers screenwriter Arthur Sheekman, and one gets the impression that with his experience as one of Groucho’s gagmen behind him he could have come up with something zippier, zanier and far more mordantly satirical than this film turned out to be — but the script is quite good enough to set up the numbers and the songs, while awfully derivative of things Berlin had written before (and written better), are certainly charming and lots of fun. Most were written for Merman, and Berlin was savvy enough to emphasize her strength — which was essentially just that, brute strength — and minimize her weaknesses (only on the ballad “The Best Thing for You,” which she sings as a duet with the surprisingly subtle and evocative Sanders, do we wish we were hearing someone with more vulnerability and a more sensitive sense of phrasing).

There’s also the great contrapuntal duet “You’re Just in Love,” which became one of the show’s big hits — and was done superbly on a 1950 radio broadcast by Bing Crosby and Judy Garland, both far more musical than Merman and her partners (Dick Haymes on records and Donald O’Connor in the film — indeed, O’Connor complained that even on a pre-recorded playback Merman’s voice was so loud and overpowering that when they shot the scene he had to wear earplugs) — though Berlin had pioneered the device of writing a contrapuntal song with two singers doing different melody lines in 1914 with “Play a Simple Melody” (also a hit in 1950, for Bing Crosby and his son Gary) — and “It’s a Lovely Day Today,” which is indeed a lovely song and is presented beautifully in an Astaire-and-Rogersish vocal/dance duet by O’Connor and Vera-Ellen (with Carol Richards as her voice double), though the basic idea was done even better by Berlin in 1935 with “Isn’t This a Lovely Day?,” danced so memorably in Top Hat by the real Astaire and Rogers.

If you can stand (or at least accept) Ethel Merman’s stridency and let yourself be entertained by her sheer over-the-topness, Call Me Madam is a great movie, efficiently directed by the reliable Walter Lang and vividly photographed (in one of the last gasps of three-strip Technicolor) by Leon Shamroy -— maybe the primaries clash a bit too vividly on screen, but it’s still a lot of fun to see such bright, luminous, overwhelming colors on the screen in an era in which dull greens and browns dominate all too many movies. It’s the sort of film that could never get made today — and yet that’s a big part of its charm!

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Invaders from Mars (National Pictures/20th Century-Fox, 1953)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Charles and I finally did watch a movie last night: the original 1953 version of the film Invaders from Mars, a low-budget Cinecolor science-fiction film directed and designed by William Cameron Menzies, photographed by John F. Seitz (who began at Metro and shot Rudolph Valentino’s breakthrough film, The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, then went downhill in the 1930’s but made a blazing comeback shooting Billy Wilder’s 1940’s classics for Paramount) and written by Richard Blake from a story by John Tucker Battle. The cast is considerably less illustrious than the behind-the-camera talent; the top-billed stars are Helena (non-Bonham) Carter as Dr. Pat Blake and Arthur Franz as astronomer Dr. Kelston, who take charge of young boy David MacLean (Jimmy Hunt) when he flees his parents, George and Mary MacLean (Leif Erickson and Hillary Brooke).

It begins with David and George peering through a telescope at 4 a.m. — much to Mary’s consternation; she insists that they go to bed at once — and subsequently David, unable to sleep, returns to the window of his room and sees a Martian spacecraft land in a nearby sand patch. Though the spacecraft itself is the usual saucer-shaped thingie dangling crudely on wires, the Martian technology is apparently sophisticated enough that the spaceship is able to burrow through the sand and set up a trap so that David’s parents, the two police officers called in to investigate when George disappears, the local police chief and anyone else who ventures too close to the sand patch is sucked into it as through quicksand and ushered into the Martians’ surgery lab, where a little piezoelectric device is implanted in the back of their necks. The device, whose presence is revealed by an X-shaped scar the implantation process leaves behind, immediately destroys the willpower and mental independence of the victim and renders him or her subject to Martian mind-control — until the Martians have no more use for them, whereupon a signal from Martian Central zaps a charge into their brains through the device, killing them instantly.

The Battle-Blake script is sufficiently well constructed that we learn all this in dribs and drabs, and it’s probably the sheer obsessiveness of the piece that has made Invaders from Mars a cult classic even though I don’t rate it as highly as some of the other early-1950’s sci-fi pieces (the Universal film It Came from Outer Space, though in black-and-white, strikes me as a much more successful film on the same theme). Invaders from Mars is one of those frustrating films because it almost works — it’s sporadically effective and brilliant, but it’s also surprisingly dull in stretches, at least in part because the big action climax inside the Martian spacecraft is shot so appallingly darkly that it’s often difficult to tell just what is supposed to be going on. The Martians are a bunch of lean, green figures, carefully kept in shadow most of the time —which may have been Menzies’ Lewton-style artistic decision to make them seem more frightening by not getting too close to them, or a budget limitation, or both — ruled by a multi-armed head in a glass globe (supposedly played by a little-person actor, Luce Potter, though the extra limbs are all too obviously supported by wires).

What sets Invaders from Mars apart from the other sci-fi cheapies of the time is that it probably marks the first use of the Invasion of the Body Snatchers gimmick in a science-fiction film — though the idea of a person captured by mind control was already an old one in printed science-fiction (I remember a 1930’s story from the book Rivals of “Weird Tales” about an incredibly charismatic person who was hypnotizing people en masse to join his fascist movement and ultimately become dictator of the world — at a time when Joseph Stalin, Adolf Hitler, Huey Long and Charles Coughlin were all alive and at or near the peaks of their powers, obviously that sounded a note with the Zeitgeist), it’s used in Invaders from Mars three years before Body Snatchers was filmed for the first time and, I believe, two years before the Jack Finney novel on which Body Snatchers was based was published. The mind-control gimmick in Invaders from Mars probably had its own real-life resonances in the Zeitgeist of 1953, as it was the year the Korean War ended and the first so-called “brainwashed” prisoners started to be released — and no doubt a lot of 1953 moviegoers drew the association between the mind-control victims in the movie and the “brainwashed” servicemembers describing how they’d been controlled in Chinese prison camps and led to betray their country.

The other aspect that makes Invaders from Mars more interesting than most of the contemporary films in its genre is Menzies’ surprisingly stylized direction — he turns an ordinary suburban setting of the period into a nightmare vision of forced perspectives and suggests a lot of his interiors (particularly in the police station) by simple props and railings — at least part because the film was supposed to be shot in 3-D (and the style in which the film’s title appears in the credits — in big red block letters with dimension lines trailing behind them — is a dead giveaway that this film was planned for 3-D), only producer Edward Alperson ran out of money and couldn’t get access to a 3-D camera in time. There’s also an “exterior,” pretty obviously built inside a soundstage, that’s a virtual plagiarism from one of the most impressive outdoor sets in Gone With the Wind (for which Menzies was production designer).

Invaders from Mars is a frustrating film because it could have been so good and it’s so uneven — it contains plenty of powerful moments (to me, the most frightening scene is the one in which the zombie-ized father crudely and suddenly back-slaps the son who’s been reaching out to him with affection and love, knocking him across the typical suburban living-room floor, the stereotypically warm, comfy, family-nurturing suburban home suddenly turned into a scene of terror and hate; that seemed scarier than all the cheaply done would-be fright scenes in the Martian spaceship), and yet a lot of it just seems dull. Menzies’ strength as a director was his visual imagination; his weakness was a problematic sense of pace — and both are readily evident in this film. Invaders from Mars had such a cult following that sci-fi specialist Tobe Hooper remade it in 1986 — but that, too, was a surprisingly dull film in between the highlights — and like the remake, the 1953 version is good in spots but doesn’t hang together all that well as a whole. Interestingly, it’s presented on the current DVD in two versions: the original 79-minute U.S. release and the 83-minute British version; we screened the latter, which has a longer establishing scene set in Dr. Kelston’s observatory and a shorter ending; apparently the U.S. version makes it clear that the main events of the film just represent a dream of the boy David MacLean, while the British one just has a brief shot at the end that hints that.

Monday, February 8, 2010

The Letter: An American Town and the “Somali Invasion” (Hamzeh Mystique Films, 2003)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The movie was a 2003 documentary called The Letter: An American Town and the “Somali Invasion,” and the American town it dealt with was Lewiston, Maine. Lewiston was merely a classic story about America’s de-industrialization and the closure of the textile mills that had led to the town’s founding in the first place and had been operating for over 100 years — from the 1850’s to the 1980’s — and the economic wrench their abrupt closure had on the people living there, most of whom were French-Canadian immigrants whose ancestors had crossed the border when the mill was in full operation and you could apply for a job one day and be reasonably sure of being told, “You start tomorrow.” Then, in the early 2000’s, hundreds of Somali refugees started settling there.

Just how they found the place is a bit of a mystery; the Somalis had originally been resettled from their home country to the Black districts in Atlanta, but they didn’t want to stay there because the omnipresent gangs and the drug trade they controlled made the Somalis feel as endangered as they’d been from the civil wars in their home country. There’s a hint in the film that it was the federal government’s idea to resettle them in Lewiston, and other reports suggest that a few Somalis searched out Lewiston on their own, moved there and then sent for their families and clansmen (like a lot of Africans, Somalis live in an extended clan structure and have a far more expansive definition of what constitutes a “family,” and therefore what constitutes a family obligation, than we do).

However it happened, it engendered a lot of community opposition among the people of a town that, like Maine itself, was overwhelmingly (97 percent) white — though they’d had an African-American mayor, Jerry Jenkins, who’d won community credibility by running a storefront program for ex-convicts and at-risk youth. The anti-Somali backlash was enough to get the liberal woman mayor who had succeeded Jenkins defeated at the polls and replaced by Laurier “Larry” Raymond, a sixty-something attorney who in 2002 wrote an open letter to the Somali community telling them they were no longer welcome in Lewiston and please stay away. The timing was right after 9/11, when anti-Muslim hysteria was fueling the anti-Somali reaction and giving people who didn’t want to ’fess up to their racism a more socially acceptable excuse to hate them — and the Somalis’ stay in Lewiston was complicated by the release of the movie Black Hawk Down, since one of the 18 U.S. servicemembers killed in that incident had been a native of the Lewiston area and a stretch of freeway leading into Lewiston had just been named in his honor.

Raymond claimed that the mail into City Hall was running 100-to-1 in favor of his anti-immigrant stand, but tensions heated up even beyond what the Mayor was expecting when a group of open white supremacists affiliated with something called the World Church of the Creator came to Lewiston in hopes that they could score points for their cause with white Lewistonians opposing the so-called “Somali invasion.” (It’s not clear from the film itself or the information about it on the Web whether the World Church is a “Christian Identity” organization — one of those which believes that the white “Aryan” race, not the Jews, are God’s chosen people — but they do describe themselves as “a religion based on the supremacy of the white race.”)

The film’s climax came at two rallies in the city, both held on January 11, 2003, a pro-Somali, pro-tolerance effort sponsored by an ad hoc group called “Many Into One” who managed to score Maine’s highest elected officials, governor John Baldacci (who comes off in the movie as rehabilitating the white race from association with the idiocies of Mayor Raymond and the World Church people) and Senators Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins, as well as the two immediately previous mayors, and fill a huge school auditorium and still leave an overflow crowd outside (in Maine, in January! You can see the people bundled up in warm clothing and still shivering from the cold and with their mouths steaming as they breathe), while the World Church and its secular affiliate, the National Alliance, ran a rally inside a small room that they were unable to fill.

The Letter ends with the filmmaker, Ziad H. Hamzeh, interviewing Mayor Raymond and asking how he felt about the letter now and in particular how he felt about becoming a symbol for racists when a relative of his is in the process of adopting an African-American child — and Raymond is literally unable to speak; he’s shown crying on camera and blurting out a “no comment,” and then a title mentions that Raymond chose not to run for re-election when his term expired. Interestingly, items in the media since 2003,when the film was made, have mostly shown the integration of Somalis into Lewiston a smashing success — they’ve revitalized the business community and broadened Lewiston’s tax base (a fascinating refutation of the whites in the film who were shown spouting off the usual anti-immigrant prejudices — that they’re lazy, they don’t want to work hard, they don’t speak English, they aren’t working and they’re a drain on the tax base — which director Hamzeh quietly and painstakingly refutes; he cuts from one white Lewistonian saying that the Somalis don’t want to learn English to a Somali stating that he speaks five languages, of which English is one) — though a racist “aggregator” Web site called the Vanguard News Network reprinted a story from the Lewiston Sun-Journal last December about Somali gangs beating up white people and replaced the Sun-Journal’s headline (“Police investigate Somali attacks”) with the inflammatory “Somali niggers attacking whites in Maine.”

There are now about 4,000 Somalis in Lewiston (including some Bantu people, an ethnic minority from southern Africa that have been oppressed by the ruling tribes in virtually every African country they’ve tried to settle in, sort of like the Jews in Europe in the 19th century or the Kurds in the Middle East in the 20th) and there seems to be a more or less lasting truce between them and the white locals. The Letter is a quite powerful movie, making the expected points against prejudice and for tolerance but with a lot less breast-beating than most progressive political documentaries — and perhaps the most chilling person in it is David Stearns, the local spokesperson for the World Church (and, according to the Associated Press coverage at the time, the only Lewistonian who would publicly admit to being a member of the church) and the sort of person whose quiet, matter-of-fact tones only add to the chill from the content of his message. I literally laughed out loud in the auditorium when Stearns cited Bill O’Reilly as a role model and inspiration — by their fruits you shall know them, indeed! — and I was amazed and flabbergasted at the extent to which Stearns was able, with his calm demeanor, to make his outrageous, open racism sound almost like common sense. (Perhaps if more of the Right-wing talk radio hosts adopted this approach instead of the screaming style of Rush Limbaugh and Mark Levin, their medium would be an even more effective outlet of Right-wing propaganda than it already is.)

Though one wishes Hamzeh had continued to film and made a follow-up about just how well the Somalis have integrated into Lewiston (or not), The Letter is a powerful movie as it stands and a pretty good preview of what American politics are likely to look like in the next few years as rising unemployment continues to take its toll on what’s left of the American middle class and the bottom-feeders of Right-wing populism continue to have the bulliest of bully pulpits to get people to blame their economic troubles on those below them — especially immigrants of color — rather than on those above.