Saturday, December 31, 2011

Cowboys & Aliens (Universal, DreamWorks and Relativity Media, 2011)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The night before last Charles and I had screened a recent DVD: Cowboys & Aliens (the ampersand is part of the official title), a 2011 movie directed by Jon Favreau — I was amused that the blurbs on the DVD box mentioned that he was the director of Iron Man but not the director of Elf — from a script that went through so many hands it was as if the producers of this movie (Universal, DreamWorks and Relativity Media) were going out of their way to prove my general field theory of cinema that the quality of a movie is inversely proportional to its number of writers. Cowboys & Aliens began life as a comic book by Scott Mitchell Rosenberg for a company called Platinum Studios. After that it went through Mark Fergus, Hawk Ostby, and Steve Odekirk for an “original screen story” that got converted into an actual screenplay by Fergus & Ostby and Damon Lindelhof and Roberto Orci & Alex Kurtzman. What these six writers working in three relay teams came up with was essentially a science-fiction version of The Bourne Identity out West: the setting is 1873, in the Arizona territory, in and near the town of Absolution (I joked that if they continued down the same trail they’d reach a town called Extreme Unction!).

We’re first introduced to Jake Lonergan (Daniel Craig), who’s come to on the trail to Absolution with a mysterious, ornate metal bracelet on his wrist and no idea who he is or what he’s called. He’s immediately ambushed by three thugs, whom he easily vanquishes — at this point I joked, “I’ve played an Israeli assassin and James Bond. You guys didn’t have a chance!” For the first half-hour of the movie there’s no hint of any alien presence other than that weird bracelet on Jake’s wrist, and the film meanders through an ultra-slow introduction of its other principals: local cattle rancher Woodrow Dolarhyde (Harrison Ford — obviously part of the logic of this film was to tap the supposed commercial appeal of a James Bond and an Indiana Jones acting in the same movie, though as pointed out Ford had appeared with Sean Connery in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade and therefore this was not his first movie with an actor who’d played Bond), his psycho son Percy (Paul Dano, who as usual stole every scene he was in), and a woman, Ella Swenson (Olivia Wilde), who seemed to be there just to be decorative and to give Jake someone he could walk away from at the end à la the Lone Ranger once the world was saved from the space creatures once and for all.

The aliens finally appear and turn out to be giant green monkey-like creatures, moving with a fearsome agility far beyond that of humans even though we own this planet and they’re the ones trying to conquer it (were we supposed to believe the gravity was heavier on their planet than on ours?), and Favreau’s direction of the alien sequences goes as much or more for horror than action, with a lot of quick cuts and “shock” edits that worked on one level even though, after quite a lot of footage of these ugly green things, I found myself regretting that Favreau hadn’t followed the example of George Pal in the 1953 War of the Worlds (and, outside the sci-fi realm, of Val Lewton before that!) of merely teasing us with what the monsters looked like. Still, the scenes in which the cowboys are actually battling the aliens are quite a bit more entertaining than the rest; the film is surprisingly slow-paced (especially given that Favreau’s earlier directorial efforts have moved!) and the script by the writing committee is full of Western clichés that seem to have lodged in their subconscious minds many moons ago and get played out at excruciating lengths. Add to that a job of cinematography by Matthew Libatique that is such an extreme example of the past-is-brown look that at one point I joked that he was making the people (all of whom are white, mind you!) look as dark as possible so they’d match the mahogany bar of the town saloon, and Cowboys & Aliens emerges as a movie that thoroughly deserved its fate as a box-office flop.

On standard indicia of quality it’s no doubt a “better” movie than the 1935 serial The Phantom Empire — the title I came up with when I asked myself, “What other sci-fi Westerns have there been?” — but that old tacky Republic serial with comfort-actor Gene Autry as a decent but unheroic lead was actually (at least for me) more fun to watch, and one reason is that the Muranians were played by identifiable human actors and drawn as conscious, sentient characters with (often clashing) agendas of their own, rather than a bland, silent fighting force seemingly out to conquer the Earth (Ella explains to Jake that they’re probably “scouts,” sent as an advance guard from their planet to see if Earthlinks either can or will fight them off, and therefore he has to make sure all of them die so none of them report back home and the leaders of their world decide that Earth is too tough a nut to crack and leave us alone) but not given any sign of higher intelligence — much like, come to think of it, the racist way American Indians were usually portrayed in classic-era Westerns!

Scrooge (Twickenham, 1935)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film I wanted to watch last night was Scrooge, a 1935 British version of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol that I wished to screen before we got too far away from the end of the holiday season, and which frankly I didn’t have much hope for. It was produced at Twickenham Studios, where Arthur Wontner made all but one of his five films as Sherlock Holmes (the reason for the fear was that the one non-Twickenham Holmes film with Wontner, the 1932 Sign of the Four, was quite the best of them), and the director was Henry Edwards, previously known to me only for Juggernaut, a 1936 mad-scientist melodrama with Boris Karloff that was simply dull. Well, I got surprised: Scrooge turned out to be a quite tough-minded version of the Dickens story, which by removing most of the sentimentality and virtually all the comic relief, made the tale seem considerably more radical — politically — than it usually does in screen adaptations.

The Scrooge was Seymour Hicks, a veteran British actor who had first played the role in a silent version as early as 1913 (!) and would remain active until his death in 1949, and though he didn’t have the comic chops of Alastair Sim he’s quite convincing in the role — particularly in the chilling (literally and figuratively) moment in which he catches Bob Cratchit trying to sneak a few more lumps of coal onto the heater in his outer office. Cratchit is intriguingly cast: Donald Calthrop, usually an actor who played slimy villains (he’s best known as the blackmailer in Hitchcock’s Blackmail and as Boris Karloff’s crippled assistant in The Man Who Changed His Mind, the good mad-scientist movie Karloff made in his native England in 1936 just before Juggernaut). There are a few odd corners cut — the ghost of Jacob Marley doesn’t make an on-screen appearance at all (he’s just a disembodied voice) and the Ghost of Christmas Past is literally a “ghostly” presence (of the three, only the Ghost of Christmas Present shows up the way Dickens described him) — and the “Past” sequence doesn’t include the heart-rending scenes of Scrooge as a lonely boy at school, or his apprenticeship with Mr. Fezziwig (just where did Dickens come up with these bonkers character names?), and the one scene from Scrooge’s past we do get (the kiss-off from his girlfriend Belle, played by Mary Glynne) is so overwrought — Glynne literally screams at him — that we’re liable to think, “Good riddance,” instead of regarding that as the turning point for Scrooge’s character.

But overall this is a quite good adaptation, one of the best ever made of this oft-filmed story, particularly strong in cinematic atmosphere. Some of that may be due to the involvement of John Brahm, German expat who would eventually head for Hollywood and become a director himself (of such atmospheric British-set horror-mysteries as The Undying Monster, the 1944 version of The Lodger, and Hangover Square), who’s credited here as “production supervisor” and may have goosed up Edwards and cinematographers Sydney Blythe and William Luff into coming up with a marvelously Gothic atmosphere for the tale. There are a few inconsistencies, less within the film than between it and my imagination of the tale (I always thought the goose the Cratchits ate on Christmas Eve was considerably smaller than it’s shown here, and the prize turkey the reformed Scrooge buys them on Christmas Day was much larger), and somehow Seymour Hicks is a good deal less convincing as Scrooge post-transformation than he was pre-transformation (though I liked the touch of him shaving his scraggly beard to indicate his change), but overall the 1935 Scrooge is a worthwhile film, vividly directed, mostly well written by H. Fowler Mear (though I regretted the omission of Marley’s mea culpa), finely acted (Calthrop’s Cratchit is a triumph of anti-type casting) and staged in sets that look credible as 19th century London (the story is set in 1843, the year Dickens wrote the original) but also provide an appropriately Gothic atmosphere for what Dickens, in his preface to the original book, called “a ghostly tale.”

Incidentally, apropos of A Christmas Carol and its politics, Dickens was clearly a liberal rather than a radical — the message of A Christmas Carol is that the problems of industrial society could be solved by a moral appeal to the capitalists themselves to change their ways and treat their workers and customers more fairly — and I’m surprised nobody but me ever seems to have noticed that Scrooge’s character arc, from unscrupulous money-maker in the first half of his life to generous philanthropist in the second half (giving away much of the money he made by being so hard and mean in the first place!), has been lived by quite a few real-life super-rich people, from John D. Rockefeller and Andrew Carnegie a century ago to Bill Gates, Warren Buffett and George Soros in our own time.

Friday, December 30, 2011

Christmas in Vienna (ORF Austrian Broadcasting, 2011)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

After seeing The Artist Charles and I didn’t want to watch another movie that might blow the mood, so instead I screened a video download of a recent Christmas in Vienna concert given December 16 and 17, 2011 (the broadcast seems to have been a delayed one pieced together from both concerts and the title was actually given in English — it wasn’t called Weinacht von Wien — even though all the between-songs commentary was in German) — we only got through the first 47 minutes of it and ran the remaining 50 minutes last night. It turned out to be a quite nice program even though it had one flaw — just about all the songs were in rather droopy mid-tempos, nothing too slow and nothing too fast — and it also didn’t help that the first three selections, the chorus “Singet dem Herrn” from Haydn’s oratorio The Creation, “Der Engel” from Wagner’s Wesendonck Lieder and the opening movement of Mozart’s “Exsultate, Jubilate,” were easily the finest pieces on the long and eclectic program. The orchestra was the Vienna Radio Symphony, the conductor was Sascha Goetzel (who even joined in on the unlisted encore, “Silent Night,” during which all the soloists sang), and the soloists were Angela Denoke (soprano), Liliana Nikiteanu (mezzo), Herbert Lippert (tenor) and Paul A. Edelmann (bass), along with Alois Mühlbacher, a person of sufficiently androgynous physical appearance and vocal sound that at first I thought he was a woman oddly clad in a pantsuit.

He was assigned (hopefully not coercively!) the solo part in “Exsultate, Jubilate” (probably because Mozart originally wrote it for castrato, though it’s usually performed today by a biologically normal female soprano) and he sang it well, though without the aplomb I’ve heard from women in this music; and later he sang something called “Pueri concinite” by Johann Ritter von Herbeck (1831-1877), in which he was a lot less self-assured than he was in the Mozart: all too often his voice went “white” and off-pitch when the score sent him high — an odd sound not unlike that on the records of Alessandro Moreschi, the one castrato who actually recorded! It’s hard to say what Mühlbacher is — according to the Internet he’s 16 years old and has been billed as “the boy who sings like a diva,” though listening to the two samples of his work here I found myself utterly confused whether he’s simply a boy treble, a countertenor (or perhaps a treble training to be a countertenor) or a Michael Maniaci-style male soprano (Maniaci is the fascinating American singer whose voice didn’t completely change when he went through puberty, giving him most of the good sides of being a castrato without the abominably bad side!).

The program, like most others of its ilk, stayed (mostly) classical for its first half (there was a marvelous bit from the Mendelssohn “Lobgesang” Symphony — the name means “Hymn of Praise” and it consists, like the Beethoven Ninth, of three purely instrumental movements plus an extended finale with soloists and chorus: the text is from Martin Luther’s translation of the Bible and the work was an occasional piece devoted to commemorating the 400th anniversary of the printing of the Gutenberg Bible; it’s numbered Symphony No. 2 even though it was the last of the five Mendelssohn wrote, and though it’s the least-known of his symphonies it’s my favorite!) and strayed into pop for the second, though the first half did include a pretty lame rendition of Jester Joseph Hairston’s “Mary’s Boy Child” sung by Edelmann (as well as a version of Pietro Yon’s “Gesù Bambino” in which tenor Lippert proved he is no Pavarotti — he negotiated the music well enough but the sense of drama and awe Pavarotti brought to this piece was totally absent), and the first half ended with a marvelously haunting a cappella “Locus Iste” by Anton Bruckner. — 12/29/11


Charles and I came home and we ran the rest of the Christmas in Vienna concert. The second half was supposed to represent “populäre Weihnacht” and began with a couple of O.K. Austrian folk songs, a Japanese lullaby called “Yurikago” and a weird, unswinging performance of Sammy Cahn’s “Let It Snow, Let It Snow, Let It Snow” that probably would have killed Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra or Woody Herman if they weren’t already dead. Later, oddly, the same forces did a version of José Feliciano’s “Feliz Navidad” — far from one of my favorite holiday songs — and actually caught something of the spirit. The best parts of the “popular” half were the last two songs, the “Hallelujah” chorus from The Messiah and “Silent Night,” in German except for one chorus in English, that ended this uneven but generally pleasant concert whose main weakness was the lack of variety in the material. Virtually all of it was medium-slow and self-consciously “reverential” — one ached either for something ballsier (given how beautifully the Philadelphia Orchestra performed Beethoven’s “The Worship of God in Nature” on their early-1960’s album The Glorious Sound of Christmas I’m surprised more symphony orchestras haven’t included that in their holiday concerts, especially since Beethoven is a bread-and-butter composer in the symphonic repertoire!) or something more genuinely spiritual — but still it was a nice concert and a welcome download. — 12/30/11

Thursday, December 29, 2011

The Artist (La Petite Reine, La Classe Américaine, uFilm, 2011)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Charles and I had planned to go to the movies on Tuesday night, and though I might have preferred a major-studio 3-D blockbuster like Tintin or Hugo, the film he picked out was an absolute marvel: The Artist, the much-ballyhooed modern-day silent movie made in France about the final days of silent films and the rise of the talkies. Written and directed by Michel Hazanavicius (an odd name even in France!) — credits him with “scenario and dialogue” even though the film contains no audible dialogue (“scenario and titles” would have been more accurate and more in line with the historical theme of the film) — the film stars Jean Dujardin, a tall, rather beefy actor with a striking (and entirely appropriate) resemblance to Douglas Fairbanks, Sr. He plays George Valentin (the last name an obvious reference to another silent-screen legend, Rudolph Valentino), a silent star specializing in action films — in the opening he’s being tortured by a Stroheim-esque villain who’s trying, according to the titles, to force him to talk (the word “talk” appears quite often in the titles and takes on an ironic double meaning throughout), a sequence which is eventually revealed to be a scene from his current film.

In his next production, he’s called upon to do a scene taking place at a dance and a young actress, Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bero), plays one of his dancing partners, is only briefly in the scene with him, but nonetheless makes an impression on him — and he on her — even though he’s already married to a rather bitchy blonde woman, Doris (Penelope Ann Miller), who’s also the owner of the giant villa he’s living in. Then talkies come in and Peppy Miller gets discovered by the head of the Kinograph Studios, where Valentin has been working, and becomes a giant star of early musicals (I suspect her character name “Peppy Miller” was derived from Peggy Pepper, the character Marion Davies played in the marvelous 1928 film Show People, in which she played an aspiring actress who crashes Hollywood, becomes a major star in comedies, then tries to go “serious” and flops). Valentin haughtily refuses to make a sound film, claiming that he is an “artist” and not a mere entertainer (a reference that provides the title of the film), and leaves Kinograph to make a silent film, Tears of Love, with his own money. Needless to say, Tears of Love is a major flop — and despite Valentin’s arrogant claim of being an “artist,” from what we see of it (an ending in which Valentin’s character drowns in quicksand despite the best efforts of his on-screen girlfriend to pull him out again) it looks terrible, and terrible in a lowest-common-denominator rather than an “artistic” way.

The flop costs most of Valentin’s money, his wife leaves him and throws him out of the house (she writes her kiss-off note on the back of one of his publicity photos, which she’s vandalized by drawing a comic moustache and glasses on it, and to add insult to injury she adds a P.S. in which she tells him to go see Peppy Miller’s latest film because it’s surprisingly good) and he ends up in a seedy but not absolutely derelict living space — it’s still a detached home rather than an apartment, and he has enough money left he can afford a refrigerator (an expensive novelty in the early 1930’s) rather than having to rely on an icebox — attended by his faithful butler/chauffeur Clifton (James Cromwell, son of early-talkie director John Cromwell) even though he hasn’t been able to afford to pay Clifton for a year. (He eventually fires him and sends him packing to take a job that can pay him, and Clifton ends up — natch — in a similar position with Peppy Miller.) And since he’s a silent star on the skids, Valentin spends most of his time drinking and watching his old movies (though the clip we see is actually from Douglas Fairbanks’ first costume film, the 1920 Mark of Zorro) until he gets disgusted with what’s left of his life, burns the prints of his old movies (except for one film can he clutches which turns out to be the reel containing his dance scene with the then-unknown Peppy Miller), gets out a pistol and is about to commit suicide with it — Hazanavicius even gives us a shot of Valentin’s face with him sticking the gun into his mouth, then it cuts to a title, “Bang!,” only we soon see the “Bang!” came not from the gun but from Peppy Miller’s car.

She had driven to Valentin’s place to save him and had crashed her car on a tree in front of his house; eventually she gets to him and offers him a comeback, since she’s made an ultimatum to the studio head (John Goodman) that she won’t make any more movies unless the man she once loved (though nothing actually ever happened between them off screen!) is in them with her. Since Valentin still refuses to talk, Miller hits on the idea of having them do a dance number — and though the film remains dialogue-free, the final sequence is the first part of the film that actually offers natural sound: the music is heard off a playback machine and we get the normal noises of film production as we see the scene in the movie-within-the-movie being shot. Plot-wise, The Artist owes considerably more to the behind-the-scenes depictions of Hollywood and show business generally in such early talkies as What Price Hollywood? (1932), Dinner at Eight (1933) and the first A Star Is Born (1937) than anything made during the silent era, as well as real-life incidents in the lives of Douglas Fairbanks, John Gilbert and Charlie Chaplin (though City Lights, the self-financed silent film Chaplin made in 1931 in defiance of the dominance of the talkies, was a major hit instead of a major flop).

Technically it’s a silent film rethought for the modern era — it doesn’t really look like a film from the late 1920’s even though the recreation of the era is virtually flawless (I noticed only two anachronisms, Valentin’s record player — a 1910-style exposed acoustic horn attached to an electric turntable of a type used in the late 1940’s and early 1950’s — and a montage of Hollywood magazines featuring Peppy Miller, in one of which she’s called a “superstar,” a term that didn’t come into common use until the 1970’s though Andy Warhol had coined it a decade earlier) — and though I wish Hazanavicius had used the color-tinting device (which not only would have made it look more authentic but would have salved the disinclination of many modern-day moviegoers to sit through a movie entirely in black-and-white), in general he did a marvelous job evoking the techniques of late silent-era moviemaking without slavishly copying them. The transition from silent to sound has become one of the most legendary — and misreported — eras in movie history; I’ve read B.S. like one writer’s assertion that none of the major silent-era stars carried over into sound (what about Gary Cooper, Ronald Colman, John and Lionel Barrymore, William Powell?) and the common myth that John Gilbert (who provided much of the real-life basis for George Valentin’s character) flopped in talkies because he had an unrecordable voice. (His voice was perfectly fine; from the Gilbert talkies I’ve seen his problem was that he never really learned how to act with his voice, how to modulate his lines and speak in different tones of voice to convey emotions.)

 The Artist is a marvelous story, neatly balanced between the reality and the myth, and the acting is just stylized enough to be believable as silent-screen playing without going whole hog into the ridiculously exaggerated gestures and expressions most people who’ve never seen a silent film start-to-finish in their lives think all silent films were acted like. It’s a film that works on virtually every level imaginable: a coherent story that makes us like and identify with the leads, excellent direction by Hazanavicius (I especially liked his nervy use of actual records of the period, notably Duke Ellington’s “Jubilee Stomp,” and later — a campy run-through on “Pennies from Heaven” with vocal and piano by an uncredited Rose “Chi Chi” Murphy; ironically it was the second night in a row Charles and I had seen a movie that deliberately used a bad version of “Pennies from Heaven”, since Elf had used Louis Prima’s version to show the attraction between its romantic leads: in both cases these cheerily campy versions of the song worked far better than any of the genuinely great records of it — Bing Crosby’s, Billie Holiday’s, Frank Sinatra’s — would have), an appropriate musical score by Ludovic Bource, cinematography by Guillaume Schiffman that (like the direction) evoked the silent era without trying to copy it, and an overall air of homage without descending into pastiche. It’s a movie that deserves all the success it gets!

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Elf (New Line Cinema, 2003)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I wanted to run my recently acquired DVD of the 2003 Christmas comedy Elf, starring Will Ferrell as Buddy Hobbs, a human baby who stowed away in Santa Claus’s toy sack one Christmas Eve and was raised by Santa’s elves, Papa Elf (Bob Newhart — and the sight of him in the green tunic and yellow tights that are standard elf drag is weird enough in itself!) in particular. But he’s aware of the identity of his real (human) father, Walter Hobbs (James Caan, portlier than we remember him from his Godfather days but still an accomplished actor), a put-upon executive of a children’s book company who’s so out of touch with the Christmas spirit that he ships a book with two blank pages so anybody who reads it won’t know the fate of the pig and the penguin who are its central characters, simply because he doesn’t want to spend the $30,000 on a reprint. Walter lives with his wife Emily (Mary Steenburgen) and their son Mike (Daniel Tay), and Buddy manages to find his way out of Santa’s kingdom at the North Pole and make it to New York City and into the Empire State Building, where he crashes his dad’s office and gets escorted out by security.

Though David Berenbaum seems to have assembled rather than actually written the script — there are plenty of references to other Christmas stories, including A Christmas Carol, It’s a Wonderful Life and Miracle on 34th Street (much of the action takes place at Gimbel’s department store — which had already gone out of business when this movie was made! — and, like Santa in Miracle, Buddy points out all the mistakes the store’s decorators have made in their depiction of the North Pole) — he and director Jon Favreau have constructed a marvelous showcase for Ferrell’s antics. Elf is pretty much a one-joke movie — the joke being Buddy’s fish-out-of-water response to the normal human world — and I couldn’t help but wonder how Buddy was able to do things (like take his human-raised human girlfriend to dinner) that require normal human money when there was no evidence that he ever obtained any, either legitimately or otherwise — but at least the one joke is genuinely funny, the movie avoids any blatantly dirty gags (thank goodness) and there are some nice zingers. When Buddy redecorates the Gimbel’s North Pole to more closely resemble the real one (and makes a convincing replica of the Empire State Building out of Lego blocks!), the department manager (played by a corpulent Black actor named Faizon Love, who was born in 1968 in Cuba — though he looks older than that on screen — and was raised in Newark, New Jersey and in San Diego) immediately gets suspicious and thinks the Gimbel’s management has brought in a professional decorator and his job is in jeopardy.

The plot resolves itself through a gimmick Berenbaum seems to have ripped off from Peter Pan — it turns out that Santa’s sleigh is powered by a turbine engine someone in the elves’ workroom developed after there was no longer enough Christmas spirit in the world to make it go the old way (the idea is that now so few people believe in Santa Claus the sleigh can’t remain aloft just on Christmas spirit and reindeer power anymore), and the engine falls out of the sleigh on Christmas Eve night and lands in Central Park, stranding Santa there until Buddy can be summoned to re-install it. So Buddy’s girlfriend, Jovie (Zooey Deschanel), implores the crowd surrounding Central Park (which the police have closed off and intend to send a horseback patrol to push the mysterious visitor out of there) to start singing “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town” to provide enough Christmas spirit to get Santa’s sleigh going before the horse-mounted park rangers catch up with him and either arrest him or just run him down. (It’s as close as they could get to “clap your hands if you believe in fairies” without getting sued by that children’s hospital to which Sir James M. Barrie willed the rights to Peter Pan.)

Eventually — as we might have predicted — Buddy wins his father’s love and Walter saves his job by publishing Buddy’s story as a children’s novel, and there’s a bittersweet parting scene as Buddy takes off in Santa’s sleigh and leaves Jovie behind (though Will Ferrell is hardly in Chaplin’s league in the pathos department!) as well as a nice gag in which Buddy’s (half-)brother Mike reads from Santa’s list (a large book bound in leather like a Gutenberg Bible) and tells Carolyn Hutton (Lydia Lawson-Baird), the newscaster who’s covering the event live for Channel 1, that what she’s told Santa she wants for Christmas is “an engagement ring, and for my boyfriend to stop putting me off and commit already!” There’s also a nice scene at the publishing company in which, desperate for a best-selling idea, they hire the eccentric, egomaniac writer Miles Finch (little-person actor Peter Dinklage), whom Buddy mistakes for an elf, and when Miles takes that as an insult and physically attacks Buddy, Buddy says, “He must be a South Pole elf.” Elf is a genuinely funny movie that’s well worth seeing — perhaps because it was aimed at a family audience (it was rated PG “for some mild rude humor and language”), it avoided the potty jokes of some of Ferrell’s other movies and was all the funnier for dodging the raunch — and I was pleasantly surprised at how good it was.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Religious Racketeers, a.k.a. The Mystic Circle Murder (Fanchon Royer, 1939)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I ran a film Charles and I recently downloaded from Religious Racketeers, a.k.a. The Mystic Circle Murder, a production of Fanchon Royer Features from 1939 (Royer’s films generally had unusually good production values for independent movies of the late 1930’s) originally shot under the Religious Racketeers title but changed either before or shortly after the original release, probably because Religious Racketeers would suggest a story about crooked evangelists when the film is actually about crooked spiritualists. The central character is a phony medium called The Great LaGagge, a.k.a. Louis LaGagge (Robert Fiske, turning in a solid performance though sometimes I wished the producers had cast Bela Lugosi in the role, especially after his superb performance as a phony medium in The Black Camel), and the film begins at a party being thrown by Mrs. Ada Bernard (Betty Compson, silent-screen veteran who occasionally got good parts in otherwise wretched movies in the 1930’s and generally out-acted the rest of the cast, as she does here). She’s a client of LaGagge’s — he’s promised to get her in touch with her late husband and she’s also fallen in decidedly unrequited love with him — and she’s invited several guests for a séance, among them millionaire steel heiress Martha Morgan (Helene Le Berthon) and her boyfriend, reporter Elliot Cole (Arthur Gardner).

Frank O’Connor directed and also came up with the screenplay, though Charles Condon has a co-writer credit, and it’s essentially an assemblage of fake-spiritualist movie clichés — it’s plotted pretty much along the lines of the 1933 Warners production The Mind Reader and the indie, also from 1933, Sucker Money (with Mischa Auer engagingly anti-typecast as the phony swami), though with a few fascinating wrinkles, notably a plot that takes the characters out of the U.S. and first to Egypt and then to India (one Bhogwan Singh got a technical-adviser credit for the Indian sequences, even though they’re nothing more than a few stock shots of pilgrims approaching or bathing in the Ganges and a parade of relatively dark-skinned extras walking down a vaguely exotic set, probably recycled from another film). LaGagge hatches a plot to weasel Martha’s million dollars out of her by promising to get her in touch with her recently deceased mother — apparently she was doing the Grand Tour in Europe when mom died and she’s never forgiven herself for not being by her mom’s bedside when she croaked — and of course Elliot is not only a disbeliever in spiritualism, he’s convinced LaGagge is a crook (especially when he finds a clipping in his newspaper’s morgue with a picture of LaGagge under a headline calling him “The Great Garno”) and is trying to get Martha to see through him. This gets considerably harder when Elliot’s editor asks him to write a puff piece on Martha — a sort of lifestyles-of-the-rich-and-famous thing — only the editor has other people rewrite it to suggest that Martha has become an antisocial recluse, and Martha is so upset at being trashed in a piece with her boyfriend’s byline she stops speaking to him for several reels.

Meanwhile, LaGagge is feeling the heat because Mrs. Harry Houdini (playing herself and providing enough exploitation opportunities that Royer actually briefly considered calling the film Madame Houdini Speaks) has taken up her late husband’s cause of exposing fake mediums: she announces that when her husband died 10 years earlier he gave her, on his deathbed, a code message that he would communicate to her from the Great Beyond, and if any medium purported to be in contact with his spirit but didn’t reproduce this message, she would know that person was a fake. Mrs. Houdini — who not only doesn’t look a bit like Janet Leigh but reads all her lines in a first-day-of-drama-school monotone and proves utterly unable even to play herself — holds what she announces will be her last séance, and if it doesn’t produce the secret message her husband left her just before he died, she will denounce all mediums as fakes. This duly happens, and things get hot for LaGagge and all the other mediums in town (not that we actually see any of the others!), and Wilson (David Kerman), the ex-con LaGagge has hired as his assistant (and whose proletarian accent and gangster slang makes him a breath of fresh air in the otherwise pretentious world of phony “mystic” mumbo-jumbo this film inhabits), warns him not to get the hots for Martha but just to separate her from her money. To do that, LaGagge and Wilson conceive the idea of sending her to Egypt with contact with her mom as the lure — and for some reason LaGagge disguises himself as an Egyptian and does a séance there after hiding out on the ship and having Wilson send Martha and Ada (who has accompanied her) notes supposedly blown in from the spiritual ether. Ada notices the “Egyptian” prophet’s physical similarity to LaGagge, but he convinces her that “all prophets project the same aura.” Cole follows the principals to Egypt and LaGagge reports him to the Egyptian authorities, who arrest him, but after having got only $25,000 of Martha’s fortune LaGagge decides that he has to flee again.

He orders Martha and Ada to go to India, and once again disguises himself so he can meet with Martha and convince her to donate half her fortune to the spiritualist cause (i.e., to himself), only Cole is still on their trail (how he got out of an Egyptian prison is left cheerily unexplained by the O’Connor-Condon script) and LaGagge decides to use a “transmutation” trick he’s done before. He will encase himself in his “Indian Prophet” drag in a block of ice, have himself thrown in the Ganges, and re-emerge as LaGagge, claiming to have visited the spirit world in the meantime. The ice is ventilated so the person inside it can breathe, but LaGagge and Wilson forget this when Elliot crashes their temple, rips off LaGagge’s wig and beard, and is about to expose him. They put Elliot inside the ice block, thinking it will kill him, only Elliot discovers the ventilation apparatus and survives. In the final sequence, LaGagge stages a séance and fakes the voice of Martha’s mother — which [surprise!] is what finally convinces her he’s a phony, since her mom never spoke: she was mute. Out of love for Martha, LaGagge tries to give her back the $25,000 he took from her, only Wilson kills him and Martha and Elliot flee. Back home, they read a headline that Wilson was arrested by the Indian authorities for LaGagge’s murder and Elliot’s partner on the police department, Inspector Burke (Robert Frazer), is there as he proposes and she accepts. (The American Film Institute Catalog synopsis says that Mrs. Houdini makes another appearance at the end to proclaim once again the phoniness of all spiritualists, but that scene was missing from the print we saw.)

Religious Racketeers differs from most anti-spiritualist movies in that it doesn’t bother to show just how the fake mediums do their tricks (there’s a quite convincing one in the opening sequence in which LaGagge has the guests at Ada’s party write their questions on slips of paper, then ceremonially burns them in a large metal bowl, then new slips of paper appear in the bowl containing the answers — and Martha is taken in by him in the first place because the answer to her question is written in a convincing simulacrum of her mom’s handwriting, which makes one wonder how LaGagge knew what Martha’s mom’s handwriting looked like) and in its bizarre traipsing around the world even though we wonder whether all the bills for traveling, renting “temples” in each new city and the like aren’t going to deplete Martha’s fortune so much that LaGagge’s “take” will hardly be worth all the trouble. The film also doesn’t bother to explain the odd intercom system that announces, in a heavily distorted “spiritual” voice, whenever anyone is approaching LaGagge’s live-work space.

The weirdest thing about this movie is how uneven it is: director O’Connor’s images are appropriately Gothic for the tale (particularly the marvelous wrought-iron gate at his U.S. temple) — the cinematographer is future PRC stalwart Jack Greenhalgh — but the film was obviously shot on such a short schedule that several times the actors blew their lines and O’Connor didn’t take time out to retake. (In at least one of those instances, a conversation between Cole and Inspector Burke, Arthur Gardner’s hesitation and stumbling over his line actually adds to the believability of the scene since it makes it seem like he’s a normal person stumbling over his words in the course of a normal conversation.) The performances themselves are also uneven: Le Berthon in particular is attractive, has real screen “presence,” and delivers her lines convincingly in her scenes with Gardner as her skeptical boyfriend — but when she’s supposed to be under LaGagge’s spell she’s utterly unable to deliver the “spiritual” malarkey he’s feeding her with any degree of conviction. Religious Racketeers is an odd curio — hardly in the same league as such previous fake-psychic movies as The Mind Reader and Sucker Money or a later film that’s the best fake-psychic movie of all, Nightmare Alley, but well worth seeing anyway even though Betty Compson’s old-school professionalism beats out the rest of the cast (though the fate of her character is just another one of this film’s many loose ends!).

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Santa with Muscles (Cabin Fever Entertainment, Cineplex Odeon Films, HIT Entertainment, 1996)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night’s library movie was in their “Schlockfest” series, a 1996 release called Santa with Muscles, filmed in Fillmore, California (a town in Ventura County whose population rose from 13,643 in the 2000 census to 15,002 in the 2010 census and whose urban motto is “The Last, Best Small Town”!) and starring professional wrestler Hulk Hogan as Blake Thorne, health-foods magnate and arrogant bastard who spends his time doing martial-arts training with his household help (the scene at the beginning in which they “attack” him with kitchen implements is marvelous) and insisting that his picture on every one of his products be made larger and his skin in the photo be made more tan. As a movie rich guy, he’s clearly deserving of a comeuppance and he gets one when a gang of unscrupulous speculators led by Ebner Frost (a still hot-looking Ed Begley, Jr.) and the sinister Dr. Blight (Steve Valentine, who looks like some weird cross-breeding experiment to produce a hybrid of the young Malcolm McDowell and John Lone) target the local orphanage. It takes several reels before the filmmakers — director John Murlowski and writers Jonathan Bond, Fred Mata and Dorrie Krum Raymond — tell us why the land under the orphanage is so important to these baddies, but we already learn from Ebner’s map that he’s putting together parcels to form a large landholding and he and his gang force the next-to-last owner to sell by literally stringing him upside-down until he complies.

While all that’s going on, Blake leads his household crew into war games with paintballs, driving in front of them in a Hummer and attracting the attention of the local sheriff, Thomas Hinkley (Clint Howard), who’s convinced they’re domestic terrorists (remember this is 1996, when the term “terrorist” was as likely, if not more so, to conjure up images of a Timothy McVeigh-style Right-wing white-supremacist nutcase as anyone Arab or Muslim) and gives chase. Fleeing, he ends up in a mall whose anchor tenant, a giant toy store, is awaiting the arrival of their Santa Claus. The stage set where Santa holds forth in the store is being swarmed by hundreds of kids demanding Santa’s appearance with the frenzy of a rock audience waiting for a tardy star, and the originally engaged Santa is nowhere to be found. Blake flees into the store and comes upon a locker containing the store’s Santa costume; he dons it but a bit of his camo uniform sticking out the back gives him away. The store’s security people, radioed by the sheriff to be on the lookout for him, chase him down a garbage chute — and he’s hit on the head by a life-sized plaster bust of Santa and the combination gives him amnesia, or at least movie amnesia. He develops the delusion that he is Santa Claus, and the only person in the movie that is onto his true identity is Lenny (a nicely Danny DeVito-esque performance by Don Stark), who lifts Thorne’s wallet and tries to access his ATM — only instead of numerical codes, this ATM uses fingerprint identification and has a threatening voice (Melody Clark-Curzon) that snarls when an unauthorized person tries to access an account.

Blake a.k.a. “Santa” foils a plot by two young crooks (whose ineptitude is so risible they make the thugs in Home Alone seem like Moriarty and Mabuse by comparison) to steal the in-store collection from the orphanage, whereupon he gets covered in the local media, dubbed “Santa with Muscles,” and gets a re-tailoring of his Santa suit from Lenny, who cuts off the sleeves and makes it fit more snugly to emphasize his musculature (though, somewhat surprisingly for a film starring a professional wrestler, I can’t recall any scenes in which we got to see him topless). Eventually he ends up in the orphanage trying to save the kids, the woman who runs the place (Robin Curtis) and the old Black retainer whose function remains a bit mysterious (Garrett Morris from the early cast of Saturday Night Live) from having it taken over by Ebner, Blight and their weirdo gang, which includes a top-knotted samurai wanna-be and Dr. Watt (Diane Robin), a woman with an electrical charge running through her body so anyone she touches gets a jolt of current. It turns out that the reason the orphanage is so important is that it and the neighboring buildings are sitting on a rich deposit of piezoelectric crystals that promise to be a new energy source for the world, and Ebner plans not only to take over the crystal deposit but force the orphan kids to mine it for him, sort of like Alberich and the Nibelungs.

Santa with Muscles got voted number 63 on a poll of the worst Christmas movies of all time, but it’s really not as bad as all that; it’s a typical modern dorky comedy (though there’s one good thing about it: no gags about vomiting, farting or other involuntary bodily functions) but it’s at least good fun, and much of it is genuinely amusing in ways the writers and director clearly intended it to be. It’s also nice that Hulk Hogan, unlike some men of artificially enhanced bulk who have become or attempted to become movie stars (can you say “Arnold Schwarzenegger”?), takes himself refreshingly un-seriously and seems well aware that he’s in a rather silly movie whose main attraction was trading on his fame doing something else. An awful lot of it hearkens back to older, better movies — including the final duel with piezoelectric stalactites, which is an obvious cop from the light-saber fight in the original Star Wars — and even the music score by James Covell is full of bits and pieces that are supposed to make us think of earlier films, from the main theme for The Great Escape to the opening of Richard Strauss’s Also sprach Zarathustra as heard in 2001: A Space Odyssey (an odd reference because — unlike the similar quote in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory — there’s no attempt in this film to make fun of 2001 itself, either thematically or visually) — but still Santa with Muscles, though not a great movie, is a nice little comedy that didn’t deserve to make it on an all-time-worst list (though if Mystery Science Theatre 3000 were still in existence they could probably do a pretty good job on it!).

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Kimbar of the Jungle (1949); The Dinosaur and the Missing Link (1915); The Ouija Board (1920)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I ran a smorgasbord of shorts I’d downloaded from, including a real oddity: a 1949 TV show called Kimbar of the Jungle, a Tarzan knock-off starring Steve Reeves in the title role, and a scrap of film so obscure that’s page on Reeves doesn’t list it. What makes this even odder was that its producers wanted to make a classic, old-fashioned serial for TV, complete with cliffhanger endings, only they were shooting for a time slot of just 15 minutes (!) and so the scrap we have is just 10 minutes long, and while it’s ballyhooed as the first episode of a serial, “The Lion Men of Tanganyika” (actually normal humans dressed in really risible “lion” suits; they not only looked funny in the wrong way but covered the bodies of the actors so well I suspected that there were white people inside even though the lion men were supposed to be African natives), the post on said that this was the only episode actually filmed.

It’s a nice little curio, fun to watch when Reeves is on screen showing off his body (blessedly naked from the waist up!) — it’s interesting that back in the 1950’s you could still win Mr. Universe without turning yourself into something as downright ugly as Arnold Schwarzenegger; Reeves comes off as muscular but without having built himself so far as to look like a relief map of the moon — and rather stupid at other times, especially since much of the soundtrack is animal noises unrelated to any human language. Apparently we were expected to believe that Kimbar, like Dr. Dolittle, had managed to figure out how to talk to the animals in their own tongues — the principals at the trading post (or whatever it was) who were being menaced by the lion men even sent Kimbar’s pet chimpanzee to fetch him — and at one point they referred to him as “king of the jungle,” just before we saw a series of quite venerable clips of wild fauna and I joked, “The King of the Jungle is reviewing his stock footage.”

The other items we watched last night were one of Willis O’Brien’s earliest films, The Dinosaur and the Missing Link, and an “Out of the Inkwell” Fleischer brothers’ cartoon called The Ouija Board. The Dinosaur and the Missing Link was made in 1915 and was a bit of a surprise because of how crude it was; that early, O’Brien wasn’t yet doing authentic-looking stop-motion models but was instead practicing what eventually came to be called Claymation, animating both his human and non-human characters out of clay. The effect is charming but low-tech and the film itself — except for a beautiful shot of the missing link hanging from a tree branch (a still of this appeared in the book The Making of “King Kong” and was captioned with an explanation that O’Brien called this character “Kong’s ancestor”) — is pretty dumb, a would-be comedy that isn’t all that funny.

The Ouija Board was the least ambitious of these three films but also easily the most entertaining: genuinely funny in its fusion of live-action and animation, and with some excellent gags (the ouija board itself is actually in the live-action portion of the film, but its needle is being moved not by magic vibrations but by Koko the Clown, an animated character, crouching under it) including a great finale: Koko leaps off the animated page but instead of going back into his inkwell (which is how these things usually ended) he leaps onto one of the three humans in the room and becomes a large black stain on his white shirt. One of the three live-action people in the movie is Black, and is obliged to do the usual scared-servant schtick (a real pity, especially since he’s a lot better-looking than most of the people after him who did these parts), but aside from that lapse The Ouija Board is genuinely creative and also very funny and well worth its six-minute running time.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Delicious (Fox, 1931)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was Delicious, an oddball 1931 musical from pre-20th Century Fox starring their already established “love team” of Janet Gaynor and Charles Farrell, directed by David Butler — who had helmed their mega-hit from two years earlier, Sunnyside Up — from a script by Guy Bolton and Sonya Levien (based on a previous piece of writing by Bolton, though the records are unclear whether he wrote the source material as an original film story or an unproduced play) that, like Sunnyside Up, cast Gaynor as a poor girl and Farrell as a rich young man who falls in love with her and ultimately hooks up with her Cinderella-style. What made this film unique was that it was the first time George and Ira Gershwin were hired by a movie studio to create an original score for a film, and they were paid the then-whopping sum of $100,000 to do so. Not only that, but the “suits” at Fox clearly thought that George Gershwin’s name would be box office in itself, because the opening title reads “JANET GAYNOR and CHARLES FARRELL in DELICIOUS with GEORGE GERSHWIN MUSIC.”

If they were hoping for a major box-office boost from the Gershwin songs, the Fox people were sorely disappointed, mainly because by 1931 Gershwin’s music was becoming less openly “popular” and much more experimental. He was moving away from the sorts of musicals he’d written in the 1920’s, which had been either revues with no plots at all or star vehicles with silly plots whose functions were just to cue in the songs, and exploring operetta and, ultimately, opera. Delicious opened in New York on Christmas Day, 1931, just one day below the Gershwin musical Of Thee I Sing, which used elaborate contrapuntal devices and featured many songs in the patter style of operettas in general and Gilbert and Sullivan in particular. Gershwin was also relying considerably less on his unquestioned gift for big memorable tunes; he was starting to construct both his songs and his concert instrumentals on what musicians call “motivic cells,” little bits of music that aren’t particularly distinguished in themselves but can be combined to create elaborate and artful structures.

The songs Gershwin wrote for Delicious aren’t in the big-tune style that had made him popular, most of them are patter songs (at least in part because, though this was supposed to be a musical, there was no one in the cast who was a professional singer; he had to make do with Janet Gaynor’s pleasant but limited voice and the patter singing and half-singing, half-rapping of the rest of the cast) and though there’s one pleasant ballad, “Somebody From Somewhere” (a “conditional” love song in the manner of the Gershwin hit “The Man I Love”), which Janet Gaynor sings to the accompaniment of a music box concealed in a whiskey bottle (it sounds whenever the bottle is lifted), little of this music would “work” outside of context and it’s not surprising that none of these songs are among Gershwin’s most covered material (though Ella Fitzgerald recorded “Somebody From Somewhere” — beautifully — on her Gershwin songbook album, and Sarah Vaughan recorded the satirical “Blah Blah Blah,” a commentary on how pop songs are written in which the lines go “blah-blah-blah” except for the hackneyed rhymes, “June/moon,” “above/love,” etc. at the ends of each one, on hers).

What’s most fascinating about Delicious is how dark a movie it really is. The situations are conventional musical tropes and the story is so close a reworking of Sunnyside Up it almost counts as a remake, but director David Butler and writers Bolton and Levien push the basic situations into surprisingly edgy territory. Janet Gaynor isn’t just a slum dweller or a homeless street urchin this time; she’s actually an undocumented immigrant to the U.S. from Scotland. She’s been sent for by her Uncle Angus in Idaho, and along the way she’s befriended a group of Russian musicians and performers who are on their way to the U.S. to open a cabaret in New York — which Gaynor’s character, Heather Gordon, thinks is right next door to Idaho; she promises she’ll visit them often. The film opens with a sequence copied quite closely in James Cameron’s Titanic 66 years later: Heather and her fellow steerage passengers, including her roommate Olga (Manya Roberti) and composer Sascha (Raul Roulien — a real-life Brazilian cast as a Russian! His most famous credit would come two years later, as the Brazilian hotel owner who loses Dolores del Rio to Gene Raymond in Flying Down to Rio) are having a wonderful time, briefing each other on the lyrics to “The Star-Spangled Banner” (which they expect to be on the test for new immigrants at Ellis Island) and gaily dancing to a medley of decidedly non-Gershwin songs, including the “Irish Washerwoman” and “Ortchi-Tchornya.”

The first Gershwin song we hear is the title number, actually spelled “Delishious,” because it’s cued by Heather’s insistence on pronouncing the word “delicious” with four syllables and Sascha correcting her that it only has three — then spinning a song that stretches “delicious” and its rhyme, “capricious,” over four notes each. While the steerage passengers have been partying on the lower deck, the first-class passengers have been watching them from above with a mix of envy and disgust: star polo player Larry Beaumont (Charles Farrell) sees Heather dance and is immediately smitten, while his fiancée Diana Van Bergh (Virginia Cherrill) and her mother (Olive Tell) are predictably revolted by the spectacle of people without money actually presuming to enjoy themselves.

To practice their new song, Heather and Sascha sneak onto the first-class deck to find a piano, and they’re discovered by Sascha’s friend and Larry’s valet, Janssen (Swedish dialect comedian El Brendel). They’re also chased by various stewards and pursers until they’re bailed out by Larry, who comes upon them and thinks the song is charming and the girl it’s about is even more so. He says she should be sure to contact her once she gets off the boat if she’s ever in trouble, only he makes the mistake of leaving the note with his contact information to Diana — who’s decent enough she’s willing to give it to Heather, but her mom takes the note, tears it up and throws it in the ocean. Then the boat docks and Heather finds that she’s going to be deported on the spot — her Uncle Angus has lost so much money in the Depression he no longer can afford to support her — and in sheer desperation she hides out in the stall of Larry’s polo pony, Pancho, and sneaks into the U.S. by hiding in the van transporting the pony off the ship and onto Larry’s estate. She’s chased throughout the movie by immigration agent O’Flynn (Lawrence O’Sullivan), who’s after her with a Javert-like persistence.

Janssen hides Heather in an unused room in Larry’s home, and Larry discovers her and offers to help, but she sneaks away the next morning, determined not to accept his charity but to make her own way in the new world. Sascha, who’s in decidedly unrequited love with her, offers her a job in their cabaret but says she’ll have to disguise herself as a Russian; she protests that she can’t possibly sing in Russian, but they say they’ll write her a song that they can sing around her, and the song is yet another Gershwin patter number called “Katinkitschka,” after her “Russian” alias. Larry shows up at the cabaret when Heather performs and actually recognizes her; unfortunately, so does O’Flynn, and she’s forced to flee while Olga puts on Heather’s makeup and passes herself off as Katinkitschka. Heather finds out that Larry and Diana have finally become engaged when the Russians are engaged by Diana’s mother to perform at the wedding, and she reluctantly agrees to marry Sascha on the rebound — only Sascha and the troupe make the mistake of buying her a radio for a wedding present, and the moment she switches on the radio she hears a broadcast of Larry’s big polo match, which announces that he has been seriously injured and taken to a hospital. Immediately Heather sets off for Larry’s home, where he’s recuperating, and Diana lets her in but then calls the police to have her arrested.

Heather flees again and, in the film’s most famous sequence (mainly because it’s been excerpted in a number of documentaries on Gershwin even though the rest of the film was out of circulation for decades), she runs through an Expressionistic nightmare vision of the New York streets to the accompaniment of a Gershwin concert work he began writing in Los Angeles while working on the film (“I was under no obligation to the Fox Company to write this, but the old artistic muse must be satisfied sometimes,” he explained) originally known as “Rhapsody in Rivets,” then as “New York Rhapsody,” and finally as “Second Rhapsody.” (The title “Second Rhapsody” goes out of its way to invite comparison to the “Rhapsody in Blue,” and comparing the two pieces shows just how much Gershwin had evolved technically between 1924 and 1931; “Rhapsody in Blue” is based on three Big Tunes with little or nothing in the way of development between them, while “Second Rhapsody” has one soaring melody but is mostly composed of little musical fragments pieced together and developed the way a classical composer would. I wouldn’t say either is “better” than the other, but that they’re both excellent pieces even though they’re as different as they could possibly be given that they were both products of a composer with as distinctive a “sound world” as Gershwin.)

By far the best musical sequences in the film are the montage to the “Second Rhapsody” (the piano player on the soundtrack was not credited, but the part is played with such power, force and command of this odd music I’m sure it was Gershwin himself) and a dream sequence, early in the film, in which Heather falls asleep on the ship and imagines that she’s getting a heroine’s welcome, including interviews with four reporters, a chorus line full of dignitaries and six dancing Uncle Sams — yet another indication that Gershwin was losing his interest in the traditional musical and was more interested in constructing operetta-ish set pieces (which was probably quite disconcerting to the people at Fox who had no doubt O.K.’d the $100,000 the Gershwins were getting in the belief he’d give them some nice, bright, tuneful songs which would become hits quickly and help promote the movie). Eventually Heather shows up at a police station and turns herself in, and is told that the government is willing to set aside the year-long prison sentence she’d earlier been threatened with, but she’s going to be deported on the next available ship to Scotland — only Larry, who in the meantime has dumped Diana, finds out and crashes the ship himself, intending to have the captain marry them so they can honeymoon in Europe and she can return to the U.S. legally as the wife of an American citizen.

One fascinating thing about Delicious is that it’s one of the most class-conscious American musicals ever made; it’s hardly the only one that addressed class issues via a rich person/poor person couple, but it’s one that pushed the tropes considerably more relentlessly than most. Janet Gaynor’s character is trapped not only by poverty but by status — her situation as an undocumented immigrant seeking to survive on her own merits is one that rings true today, and the constant surveillance she’s under by O’Flynn (whose Irish brogue marks him as either an immigrant or the son of an immigrant himself — indeed, much of the film turns on the irony of one generation of immigrants overly enforcing the rules on the next and forgetting what they were going through when they or their parents were the newbies heading into Ellis Island), makes us not only sympathize but ache for her as she negotiates a game that is largely stacked against her, and if it weren’t for Larry’s interest in her would be totally stacked against her.

Delicious is also a fascinating film for the sheer weight of its staging; while part of the overall darkness may be an artefact of the condition of the surviving print, clearly it was intended from the get-go by director Butler and cinematographer Ernest Palmer as a dark, chiaroscuro, almost noir atmosphere piece. I’d been a bit skeptical of Tag Gallagher’s theory in his book on John Ford that the presence of German director F. W. Murnau on the Fox lot in the late 1920’s led a number of the Fox directors, including Ford, to copy his style and make their movies darker, richer and more atmospheric — but much of Delicious is shot with such a rich, dark sense of atmosphere it looks like the sort of film Murnau might have directed if he’d lived long enough to make a musical. In terms of cinematic style it’s much closer to the Sternberg/Dietrich films and the ones Mamoulian and Lubitsch made with Jeanette MacDonald and Maurice Chevalier than the template set by 42nd Street a year later (in which urban poverty was represented not by atmospheric cinematography of a stylized cityscape but by clearly, plainly photographed scenes filmed on grungy-looking sets of working-class apartments), and while it misses a few opportunities (when Larry left Heather and Sascha at the piano whistling their song I was hoping for a Love Me Tonight-style scene in which the entire passenger complement of the ocean liner, as well as the crew, would have picked up the song), it grabs so many it’s hard to believe that the director was a hack like David Butler rather than someone with a more creative reputation.

 Delicious has its flaws: Janet Gaynor’s Scottish accent comes and goes, and while she’s mostly credible in portraying the shifting emotions of the character, her naïveté is so extreme (she thinks Ellis Island is run by a Mr. Ellis and that New York and Idaho are so close together she can easily live in one and visit the other) one can understand the London Times reviewer’s comment that “her affectations are increasing at such an alarming rate that there is a real danger that in her next film she will relapse into baby-talk once and for all.” Charles Farrell barely can act at all (this film happened to be made while the young Humphrey Bogart was under contract at Fox, and if the people running the place had seen what they had in him from his performance in John Ford’s Up the River they might have given him this part and got a tense, riveting performance rivaling Gaynor’s instead of a tailor’s dummy being steered through scenes on autopilot), and El Brendel is funny but wildly variable — his lines are brilliantly funny sometimes and wince-inducing other times. Raul Roulien actually gives the lovestruck songwriter a genuine sense of pathos — anyone who knew him only from his “stick” performance in Flying Down to Rio (even though there he was playing his real nationality!) will be startled at how multidimensional an actor he is here!

 Delicious was advertised as “a screen poem, presenting a lyrical setting to the lilting refrains of George Gershwin’s music,” but there’s nothing particularly lyrical about Gershwin’s music (he’s known to have written at least one more song for the score than was used, “Mischa, Jascha, Toscha, Sascha,” but it was yet another Gilbert and Sullivan-esque patter song, this time about famous Russian-born violinists) and the London Times said, “Mr. Gershwin’s music is eccentric and aggressive, and the film is, in its conventional sentimentality, its precise antithesis.” That’s an arguable way to look at Delicious, but Butler’s stylistic direction and the overall darkness of the atmosphere puts an edge on what would otherwise be horribly treacly sentimental situations and puts Delicious alongside Hallelujah, The Love Parade, Applause, The Smiling Lieutenant and Love Me Tonight in the top tier of early musicals.

A Bullet for Joey (Bischoff-Diamond/United Artists, 1955)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The night before last Charles and I had watched a far less exalted movie: A Bullet for Joey, a 1955 independent thriller made by producers Sam Bischoff and David Diamond for United Artists release with the over-the-hill gang: the stars are Edward G. Robinson and George Raft, and the female lead is played by Audrey Totter, a talented and powerful actress who never quite got on the “A” list — though comparing her performance here to her work in a similar role in the 1947 film of Raymond Chandler’s The Lady in the Lake makes clear that she was just as striking a screen personality and had got considerably better as an actress in the intervening eight years. The film is a good one but one which could have been considerably better: the plot deals with Raoul Leduc (Robinson), a lieutenant in the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, who heads an investigation into the bludgeoning to death of one of his officers. The officer was killed by an organ grinder — actually a spy disguised as an organ grinder — who was keeping watch on a nuclear physics professor at McGill University, Dr. Carl Macklin (George Dolenz) and who had concealed a movie camera in his barrel organ to photograph Macklin’s morning routine so the head of his spy ring, Eric Hartman (Peter Van Eyck), could make arrangements to kidnap him. To head the kidnapping ring he hires Joe Victor (Raft), a criminal who insists that his whole gang be brought in as part of the deal — including his former girlfriend Joyce Geary (Audrey Totter), who’s running some sort of legitimate business in Cuba and really doesn’t want to rejoin Joe on the dark side, only one of Joe’s other men blackmails her into it.

The film was directed by Lewis Allen from a script by “Geoffrey Homes,” a.k.a. Daniel Mainwaring, and A. I. Bezzerides (two much better writers than one would gather from this movie) based on a story by James Benson Nablo, and the main reason it isn’t a better film than it is is Allen’s paceless direction; scene after scene that needs relentless pacing to make its effect ambles along at a lackadaisical pace that gives the audience all too much time to ponder the plot holes. The biggest one is one Charles spotted: why, when the seemingly all-important professor — obviously the writers were thinking the Soviet Union wanted to kidnap the professor so he would work on their nuclear arsenal instead of America’s — has utterly no security detail around him at all, the bad guys go through all this elaborate planning instead of just grabbing him. Maybe the idea was that they were setting the Audrey Totter character to seduce him and ultimately either get him so far in sexual thrall or make him spend so much money on her as to get him so far in debt that he’d agree, more or less willingly, to change sides in the Cold War and go to work for the Soviets voluntarily — but nothing in the script even hints at that. Instead the writing committee pulls one of the stupidest clichés in the book and has Totter’s character fall genuinely in love with the professor — and they actually go off together after Robinson’s character and his squad of Mounties figure out the plot and get their men.

 A Bullet for Joey has the air of a penance project for both Robinson and Mainwaring, who’d been blacklisted for their Leftist connections and seemed to have taken the chance to work on an open piece of anti-Soviet Cold War propaganda in hopes that would get them off the list (though in Robinson’s case the man who got him off the blacklist was Cecil B. DeMille, who cast him as Dathan in The Ten Commandments a year later). Cold War propaganda films can be good movies on occasion (the Paramount cheapie The Atomic City with Gene Barry is a tight, exciting thriller and as long as you view the “atomic bomb secrets” as just another MacGuffin you should be fine with it) but this isn’t one of them, and it’s less the fault of Robinson or Raft (who turn in perfectly polished, non-groundbreaking old-pro performances — it was their second film together, after Manpower in 1941, but the publicity for it made it seem like their first) than of that damnably sluggish director, who made his first mark in 1944 with The Uninvited — a ghost story, and one expects ghost stories to be slow!

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Borrowed Wives (Tiffany, 1930)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Our “feature” last night was Borrowed Wives, a 1930 film from Tiffany that I had originally thought would be a romantic melodrama with envelope-pushing “pre-Code” kinkiness, something on the order of Expensive Husbands. Instead — as the bouncy stock music over the opening credits (instead of the dire stock music I’d been expecting) made clear even before the film began — it was a comedy, and it began with what was by far its best scene. We see a huge billboard announcing that visitors are arriving in Monterey, listing the fruits and vegetables the area is famous for (including the casaba), and announcing that visitors are welcome. Behind the billboard we see two motorcycle cops, Bull Morgan (Paul Hurst) and Mac (Tom London), lamenting that they haven’t seen any people driving through the area above the speed limit lately. Then a man in a nice car zips through and Mac gives chase, and afterwards another man in a nice car zips through and Bull gives chase.

It turns out they’re both racing to a nearby airport to meet their fiancées and marry them — and it also turns out, this being at least an attempt at a romantic farce, that they’re both hurrying along to meet the same woman, Alice Blake (Vera Reynolds). The first man, who disappears from the action after the opening scene, gets read the riot act by the fiercely misogynistic Mac, who says he should be glad he’s going to arrest him and thereby keep him from getting married. The second man is Peter Foley (Rex Lease, top-billed, a “B”-lister in the silent era who became a “C”-lister when sound came in), who has to marry that day so his wife can inherit his family’s fortune; otherwise his uncle Henry (Charles Sellon) gets it. He is, or at least seems to be, genuinely in love with Alice, but when he meets her at the airport and she turns him down, he looks for someone else he can marry, or at least pose as being married to, on the spot so he can have a “wife” by midnight and grab the fortune. His friend Joe Blair (Robert Randall, later known as Robert Livingston) has the answer: Blair is an executive in love with his secretary, Julia Thorpe (Nita Martan) — though Julia is also Bull Morgan’s girlfriend and the cop is so jealous he’s threatened to beat up any other man who shows interest in her — and they hatch a scheme to go to Uncle Henry’s home and claim that Julia is his wife.

About 20 minutes into the film, its action moves to Henry’s old dark house, full of the expected secret passages — including a room where Henry keeps a pet panther (at least that’s what it’s called in the synopsis; it was some sort of big cat but I couldn’t tell it was a panther just by looking at it in the film). Henry is in a wheelchair, though to no one’s particular surprise (no one in the audience, that is) he doesn’t really need it: I think there were far more able-bodied people posing as cripples in 1930’s movies than there were people who appeared in wheelchairs because their characters actually needed them (a taboo that got broken only when Lionel Barrymore became so disabled by his crippling arthritis he really needed a wheelchair, so MGM had to come up with parts for him he could play from a chair — he had just been scheduled to play Scrooge in A Christmas Carol, a part he’d become identified with on radio, when he lost his ability to walk and had to give up the part; Reginald Owen stepped in at the last minute, though Barrymore still appeared — as himself — in the trailer!).

Anyway, after about a long, dreary half-hour in which everybody congregates at the old dark house — including Bull Morgan and a minister or something (at least someone with the legal authority to marry people; I think he was supposed to be the lawyer or judge with the power to settle the estate Peter’s wife is supposed to inherit), as well as Alice, who’s thought better of her rejection of Peter’s proposal — Julia is kidnapped. Peter reveals the two weren’t really married so he can get the officiant to marry him and Alice, so he can get the inheritance and also the woman he really wants, and then Alice is kidnapped — and in yet another plot twist script compiler Scott Darling (who later wrote the Mr. Wong series films for Boris Karloff at Monogram; I say “compiler” because he seems merely to have assembled this script from old movie clichés and it’s therefore hard to refer to him as a “writer”!) obviously thought would be far more surprising to the audience than it is (or probably was even to a 1930 audience!), the culprit turns out to be Uncle Henry. Well, he is the one with the motive — if Peter doesn’t have a wife, authentic or otherwise, by midnight he gets the inheritance, so it’s in his interest to spirit away any woman Peter might be, or want to be, married to so she can’t get the money and therefore it devolves to him.

Borrowed Wives is the sort of movie that seems to last even longer than it actually does ( doesn’t give a running time and the download from we were watching timed out at 62 minutes) and it evokes all too many memories of the genuinely good, imaginative movies it ripped off, not only The Old Dark House but Buster Keaton’s comedy masterpiece, Seven Chances — just as I once joked that at the top level of quality of movies set in the central California missions there was Vertigo and at the bottom level there was Incubus, so at the top of movies with the central premise that a young man has to marry within the day to receive an inheritance there is Seven Chances and at the bottom there’s Borrowed Wives. The director was Frank R. Strayer, who in the early 1930’s had a quirky career at the various independent studios that generated quite a few watchable movies and two minor gems in the horror genre, The Vampire Bat (1933) and Condemned to Live (1935), before he signed with Columbia and settled down to a long career helming the Blondie series — a real pity; it undoubtedly made him a decent living but it steered him away from the Gothic atmospherics that were his greatest strength as a director, and which give some interest even to something as tacky and silly as Borrowed Wives.