Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Bulldog Edition (Republic, 1936)

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

The film was Bulldog Edition, a 1936 movie from the early years of Republic, when former Mascot studio head Nat Levine was still chief of production, cut down to 53 minutes for a 1950’s TV sale — though it didn’t suffer much because the original movie was only 58 minutes long anyway. It had an odd story credit — Richard English and Karen DeWolf were credited with the script from English’s “original” story, but the credit just below that said it was based on “Back in Circulation” by Danny Ahearn — and the film opened with the same gimmick as the 1937 Warners film Back in Circulation (which credited its story source as Adela Rogers St. John’s Cosmopolitan story “Angle Shooter,” published after Bulldog Edition was released!): Randy Burns (Evalyn Knapp), cartoonist and courtroom sketch artist for the New York Daily News, sees a signal from the courthouse where gangster and political boss Niki Enright (the marvelous Cy Kendall) is being tried — a window goes up in the jury room, which she’d bribed a juror $100 to serve as a signal that Enright had been convicted.

Only the rival paper, the Post (odd in a 1930’s movie to see the names of two real New York papers used!), bribed the same juror $200 to send a false signal, and when the actual verdict comes in and Enright is acquitted the News has to send out its distribution people to grab every copy of the incorrect edition and promise corrected papers later. There’s a rivalry between the News’s circulation manager, Ken Dwyer (Ray Walker), and the editor, Jim Hardy (Regis Toomey), with Ken insisting that the only reason the News is selling papers is because of the circulation stunts he’s pulling, which seem to consist mainly of sponsoring what would now be called “reality” shows on radio — including the finale of a “Happy Couples Contest” in which, in the film’s most entertaining sequence, an argument between the members of one of the supposedly happy couples snowballs into a big fight scene that livens up the otherwise empty radio studio and brings the contest into a spectacular but unintended finish. The movie, directed by Charles Lamont with “supervision” by William Berke, goes into some pretty hairy territory, as Enright gets so concerned about the possibility that the News will expose him and he’ll get charged with a crime he can’t weasel out of that he has the News’s distribution trucks waylaid and their papers burned (something that must have been a shocker to some audiences who’d seen the book-burning scenes from Nazi Germany).

Randy serves a three-day sentence for contempt of court for refusing to reveal her sources for her anti-Enright stories, and while in jail she meets up with Enright’s ex-girlfriend Billie (silent-era veteran Betty Compson) and gets the story that finally nails him. It all ends with Randy collapsing, Jim and Ken both trying to revive her, and her agreeing to marry Ken. Bulldog Edition is a lot of good ideas for a movie uneasily stuck together, and it suffers from the actors available to Republic at the time (though it antedates the Warners’ Back in Circulation by a year, one still can’t help but think how much better this movie would have been with Joan Blondell in the female lead!) as well as a script that offers some audacious ideas but can’t link them into a coherent story.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Lawyer Man (Warner Bros., 1933)

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

The first “feature” Charles and I watched last night was Lawyer Man, which came on TCM right after Central Park in their Joan Blondell tribute. It starred William Powell during his short (one-year) and unhappy (except for one great film, One-Way Passage) tenure at Warner Bros. In 1932 Jack Warner staged a major talent raid on Paramount and lured away Powell, Ruth Chatterton and Kay Francis — and then lost a lot of money on their films, which discouraged him from trying to poach other studios’ talent and focused him more on developing his own.

Chatterton made a series of overstuffed, overwrought romantic melodramas for the next three years — many of them starring her real-life husband, George Brent — and while Female (which casts her as a woman who inherited an auto company from her late father and who has turned her apartment into a seduction machine aimed at her stud de jour until Brent’s character breaks her at the end) is appealingly bizarre, most of Chatterton’s Warners films aren’t much and when her contract expired, Jack Warner let her go — whereupon she got a major comeback part from Samuel Goldwyn as Walter Huston’s faithless wife in Dodsworth. Kay Francis stuck it out at Warners to the bitter end of her contract in 1939 — years later she and Bette Davis ran into each other at a film festival and Davis asked her, “Why did you take all those horrible scripts Jack Warner gave you? Why didn’t you fight him, like I did?” “Because I wanted the money,” Francis ashamedly admitted. “Balls to that!” said Davis. “I wanted the career!”

As for William Powell, he slogged his way through assignments like this and lasted a year before Jack Warner dropped him, and at first the only nibble he could get was from Columbia — but his agent was savvy enough to get Columbia’s interest in Powell to encourage the far larger and more prestigious MGM to make him an offer. MGM did, and within a year he’d starred in a blockbuster hit, The Thin Man, and would remain a major box-office attraction for over 10 more years. Lawyer Man is one of Warners’ you-can-take-the-man-out-of-the-slums-but-you-can’t-take-the-slums-out-of-the-man dramas, which started life as a novel of the same title by one Max Trell and was adapted into a screenplay by Rian James, James Seymour and an uncredited Wilson Mizner. It starts with attorney Anton Adam (Powell) — the assonance between his names and his occupation seems deliberate — holding forth from an office on New York’s East Side (building all those tenement sets for The Jazz Singer seems to have been one of the best investments Warners ever made, since they used them over and over and over for the next 30 years) and being on a first-name basis with all the pushcart owners, street peddlers and women taking their children to playgrounds. He has one staff person, secretary Olga Michaels (Joan Blondell), who’s in unrequited love with him.

Things change for him when he finds himself up against big-time attorney Granville Bentley (Alan Dinehart) and cleans Bentley’s clock in a case — whereupon Bentley makes him a partnership offer and Adam accepts. As they close up their East Side office and have one last meal in the old neighborhood, Olga warns him that the problem with previous East Siders who tried to make it uptown was “they got mixed up with the ladies” — advice Adam, of course, ignores. First he ends up in an affair with Bentley’s sister Barbara (Helen Vinson) — Olga’s reaction to the news that Adam is going to take her to lunch is to grab a pair of scissors and wave them at his face as she moves their blades (it took me a split second to get the Delilah reference) — and, as if that weren’t bad enough, he ends up falling for Virginia St. Johns (Claire Dodd), a showgirl who hires him to represent her in a breach-of-promise case against Dr. Gresham (Kenneth Thompson), who treats people for workers’ compensation cases and takes bribes to inflate their injuries.

Adam is warned by Bentley not to take on Gresham — his brother (whom we never see) is a judge and both are powerful people in the organization of political boss John Gilmurry (David Landau) — but of course he ignores the warnings, keeping the letters Gresham wrote Virginia (in one of the few scenes that actually shows off the kind of dry wit William Powell did so well — and so much more of in his great movies — Adam tells Gresham, “For an intelligent man, you certainly write some of the stupidest tripe”) in his desk (and telling that to the other side!) and ignoring the possibility that he’s going to be toppled — which he is when Gresham and Virginia reconcile, Gresham bugs the phone as Virginia calls him to tell him she’s dropping the case and he pleads that she can’t do that to him, and he’s indicted for fomenting a phony case to profit from it.

The letters are stolen from his desk drawer and, without the documents, he has no defense — though the jury in his case deadlocks 9-3 for acquittal, the judge declares a mistrial even though Adam is sure they’d free him if they could continue to deliberate. He’s thrown out of the partnership with Bentley — though he somehow manages to stay in Bentley’s old office — and he eventually decides that if he’s going to have the shyster name, he might as well play the shyster game, taking the seediest cases and charging inflated fees. Then he runs into a victim of the Gilmurry machine, takes his case to trial and manages to bluff Gilmurry into settling even though the jury’s verdict, still sealed when the settlement papers were signed, is for acquittal. Gilmurry offers him a post as assistant district attorney — and Adam uses the power of that office to nail both Dr. Gresham and his brother the crooked judge. Gilmurry offers Adam the judgeship vacated by Gresham, but Adam turns it down and walks out of his fancy office to resume his old practice on the East Side, this time with his arm around Olga indicating that he’s finally come to see her the way she sees him.

Lawyer Man, directed by an overqualified William Dieterle (who tries to throw a few visually interesting shots into a journeyman assignment that offers him little stimulation), is a story that does some genuinely creative twists on the old clichés, though they remain the old clichés, and according to the American Film Institute Catalog the part was originally intended for Edward G. Robinson — who would have been more believable as a crooked lawyer but less so as a lover. Powell is just too urbane for his part here; he’s more believable as the uptown shyster than he was as the slum kid who never wanted to leave the neighborhood, and there’s so little chemistry between him and Blondell I couldn’t help but wish Myrna Loy had still been at Warners so she could have played the role instead. Oddly, from the TCM synopses I had expected Central Park to be a chip off the old programmer block and Lawyer Man a suspenseful and innovative thriller — instead it was the other way around!

Power Dive (Pine-Thomas/Paramount, 1941)

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

After Lawyer Man Charles and I watched Power Dive, a 1941 film (though we were viewing a reissue print for TV in the 1950’s with a redone title and end card that kept the association with Paramount, original distributor of this William Pine-William Thomas production, a deep secret) that was a good deal more clichéd than Lawyer Man and seemed redolent of every movie about civilian aviation ever made to that time. Richard Arlen stars as hot-shot test pilot Brad Farrell, who as the film begins is setting off on an attempt to break the cross-country speed record for his employer, Dan McMasters (Roger Pryor) — only the plane is stuffed so full of gas its engine can’t lift it off the ground, and while he’s futilely taxiing Brad ends up crashing it into a passing train and breaking his leg. While he’s laid up and unable to fly, his brother Doug (Don Castle) comes to work for the McMasters company. Brad has paid for Doug’s education as an aeronautical engineer and expects Doug’s aviation career to be spent entirely on the ground, but Doug has other ideas and wants to be a hotshot test pilot like his big brother.

Doug literally bumps into a woman on the McMasters field — she turns out to be Carol Blake (Jean Parker), daughter of a professor (Thomas W. Ross) who designed a potentially revolutionary plastic airplane but was then blinded in a chemistry experiment. Carol wants her dad’s design to be developed and produced, and that’s what she’s doing looking for Mr. Farrell on the McMasters grounds — and she assumes Doug is his brother and he’s so smitten by her he doesn’t disabuse her of the notion. The script — by Maxwell Shane and Edward Churchill based on a story by Paul Franklin, and directed by James Hogan, a hack but at least a solidly talented one — goes through the predictable motions of a romantic melodrama about aviation, with the expected romantic triangle between the brothers over the girl, and an obstacle in the form of Johnny Coles (Louis Jean Heydt — tall, blond, striking-looking and quite attractive, it’s a wonder this serious actor got stuck in the character salt mines and never got a shot at stardom), who brings a rival plastic-plane design to McMasters and tests it himself, with predictably fatal results — leaving behind a wife (Helen Mack) and son (Billy Lee). McMasters is sufficiently upset by this to put the plastic plane in mothballs, even though the Farrells and Carol try to convince him that the internal aspects of the designs are completely different, and there’s a parting of the ways between Brad and Doug when Doug thinks Brad has aced him out of Carol’s affections (he hasn’t; by then Carol has decided nerdy little Doug, not butch test-pilot Brad, is the Farrell she loves).

Ultimately the Farrells convince McMasters to take a chance on the Blake plane design — aided by interest from the U.S. army, who’s interested in it as a training plane (this film was released June 4, 1941, when the U.S. was doing a sort of clandestine preparedness even though most of the country still believed we both should and could stay out of World War II — had this been made after Pearl Harbor the role of the military would have been portrayed very differently) and whose officers demand to supervise the test flight of the prototype, telling Brad that instead of flying by the seat of his pants he’ll have Doug as a co-pilot and a full set of flight recorders and other instruments relaying information to the ground about how the plane is performing minute by minute. The flight is, of course, the big climactic sequence — and in one of the quirkier plot twists of all time, the flight recorder (this is probably the first film ever made that actually shows a so-called “black box” — and indeed, at least this early, that’s exactly what it was!) falls loose from its moorings and jams the controls, forcing Brad to cut the wires to the joystick, wrap each wire around his hands, and try to maneuver the plane to the ground that way. Of course, the test is declared a success, the Army buys the plane and authorizes production, Brad agrees to stop flying and run a desk job, Doug ends up with Carol and there’s at least a hint that Brad will hook up with the widow Coles and give her son a father.

Power Dive, produced by William Pine and William Thomas for Paramount release and an example of the kind of unpretentious entertainment they were good at, and which ultimately won them “A” assignments, is a decent enough movie but there’s not that much interesting about it; aside from a fight in a restaurant/bar between the Farrells (“You mean something exciting actually happened in this film?,” Charles joked), about the only truly thrilling scenes are the actual flight sequences, and even those are heavily, shall we say, filled out with stock footage. It’s an unpretentious movie and at the end one has the consciousness of having spent an hour and 10 minutes watching something nice and comfortable in its clichés — even though at several points in the 1930’s Warner Bros. did the same movie better, usually with Pat O’Brien in the role of the older man in the triangle!

Brief Moment (Columbia, 1933)

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

The film was Brief Moment, a quite good romantic comedy from Columbia in 1933 based on a Broadway play by S. N. Behrman, co-starring Carole Lombard as nightclub singer Abby Fane and Gene Raymond as Rodney Deane, the banker’s son (who’s on a $4,000 per month allowance — that’s $4,000 in 1933 dollars, at a time when according to the film Central Park one could buy quite an ample dinner for two at a restaurant for $2! — to stay away from his banker father and the family’s bank) whom she marries. The film opens with Abby singing at the nightclub (a song called “Say What You Mean, Mean What You’re Saying to Me” in a rather croaking but still obviously dubbed voice) and Rod announcing to her that that’s the night she’s going to meet his parents. When they express doubts as to whether he should marry a “blues singer,” Rod fires back, “Whom should I marry — Schumann-Heink?” (The reference was to Ernestine Schumann-Heink, the famous operatic contralto who had retired the year before after a final appearance at the Met as Erda in Wagner’s Das Rheingold — and it’s ironic because when Gene Raymond actually did marry in 1937, it was to Jeanette MacDonald, an opera singer as well as a film star.)

Eventually Rod and Abby do get married, and they go off on a honeymoon and then on a six-month binge at home in which Rod spends so much time with his poorer but just as dissolute friend Sigrift (Monroe Owsley) that one begins to wonder if Behrman and his screen adapters, Edith Fitzgerald and Brian Marlow, mean to hint at a Bisexual love triangle à la North by Northwest. Certainly Abby couldn’t be more jealous of Sigrift if he and Rod were sleeping together! Finally, after months of enduring Rod going out at all hours and coming home after long nights of partying and carousing with his rather dubious friends, Abby gets him to agree to stay home with her one night — only Sigrift and a few of his cronies come over and remind Rod that that’s the opening night of the new Scandals revue (the American Film Institute Catalog synopsis calls Scandals “a new club,” but the reference to opening night and Rod’s protest that he’s never missed an opening night of Scandals clearly shows that what the writers meant was the annual George White-produced Broadway show — though since White was under contract to another studio, RKO, they couldn’t use his name), and the fiasco of Rod tearing off for yet another night on the town leads Abby to lay down the law: either Rod quits partying and gets a job or they’re through as a couple.

Accordingly, Rod goes to his dad’s bank and insists he’s ready to start at the bottom — so they stick him in a basement and his entire job is to go through two stacks of slips, check to make sure the dollar amounts on each match, and put them in one pile if they match and another pile if they don’t. (It’s made clear to him that if he does find a discrepancy, resolving it is a matter for another department.) He lasts two weeks until he finds out that his brother Franklin, who’s vice-president of the bank and whom Abby has been holding up to him as a role model, actually does nothing and spends most of his afternoon attending (and gambling on) horse races — so Rod goes out to the races with Franklin and does that for several weeks, telling Abby he’s still working. Only he’s “outed” when Steve Walsh (Arthur Hohl), owner of the nightclub where Abby worked before her marriage (and who was, of course, in unrequited love with her), spots him and reports him to Abby. Rod and Abby separate and Steve rehires her, and though she resumes using the name “Fane” the Deanes still think she’s singing just to exploit the notoriety of her marriage and separation — they offer her a settlement if she’ll give up her career to save the Deane family name, but Rod decides to win Abby back by taking a job under a false name. There’s a long montage during which he’s repeatedly turned down because he has no job experience, but finally he pleads for a position, gets one and is re-introduced to Abby by Steve. He shows her his paycheck, she asks, “Who is Preston?,” and he explains that’s the name he was using when he got the job — and the two get back together, presumably for the poor but happy existence beloved of filmmakers at the time.

Brief Moment is a typical story for Behrman, though its resolution is somewhat unusual for him — he’d won his reputation for The Second Man, in which a young man is living with a wealthy widow, essentially serving as her gigolo, until he meets a woman his own age — only at the end he stays with the rich widow because he’s more interested, long-term, in money than love. (It’s essentially Sunset Boulevard without the murder.) This time he switches the genders of the leads — it’s the guy who has money, and ultimately he gives it up for true love and an honest if impecunious career. It’s a well-made movie, with good performances by the leads and quite creative direction by David Burton — including a great montage of Rod and Abby partying like there’s no tomorrow before her disgust with the aimlessness of that sort of life gets to her (and given how much Rod is drinking, a viewer — a modern-day one, at least — is as fearful for the future of his liver as for more abstract issues like his honor and integrity). The film was well preserved technically except for one reel which was in considerably worse shape than the rest — with a lot of emulsion flecks and projector scratches — still, what we had did justice to Ted Tetzlaff’s cinematography.

Incidentally, Brief Moment was compared by early reviewers to the real-life relationship between tobacco heir Zachary Smith Reynolds and torch singer Libby Holman — though there’s almost no similarity between the real story and the film’s plot and the movie Sing, Sinner, Sing, made the previous year, is far closer to the real story and is much darker, more dramatic and qualifies as a proto-noir instead of a romantic comedy (though Lombard’s serious performances, especially in Victor Halperin’s Supernatural, suggest that she could have been a quite credible noir heroine if she’d survived long enough).

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Central Park (Warner Bros. as “First National,” 1932)

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

The film was Central Park, a 1932 “B” (58 minutes) from Warner Bros. in “First National” drag and a quite exciting film that manages to pack a lot of plot in a relatively short running time, with the sort of narrative economy that’s one of the big differences between films then and now. It’s basically two stories: Dot (Joan Blondell, top-billed — we were watching this in a recording I made from TCM on their “Summer Under the Stars” tribute to Blondell), an unemployed would-be actress in New York City, meets Rick (Wallace Ford), similarly unemployed after the rodeo he was touring with fell apart in the Big Apple, meet in Central Park one morning (after a beautifully done montage sequence of the park and its denizens, both human and other species of animal, awakening at the start of a day — I get the impression Rouben Mamoulian’s “city symphony” opening of Love Me Tonight, based on an idea he’d already done on stage in his production of DuBose Heyward’s play Porgy, was influential on a lot of other filmmakers!) while they’re cruising a luncheon counter and eyeing the big sausages the counterman (Henry Armetta) is cooking up with a combination of hunger and lust.

The counterman knows they’re hoping for a chance to grab some of his food, and when a group of kids playing baseball in the park hits a ball through one of the windows of his counter, he thinks Rick has done it — and while he’s grabbing Rick, Dot makes off with two sausage sandwiches and they hang out in another part of the park and eat them, sparking a romantic attraction (unnaturally quickly, but then this is a 58-minute movie). Dot gets called over by two mysterious men in a taxicab, who identify themselves as police officers (and flash badges to prove it) and ask her to pose as an undercover operative at a contest being given that night at the Central Park Casino for “The Most Beautiful Girl on Fifth Avenue.” The gimmick is that the event is a fundraiser to help the unemployed — the admission is $100 per ticket — and the contest winner will be given a key to the box containing the proceeds and will ceremonially open it and hand it to the representatives of the charity. The people she’s talking to say that they’re worried about protecting the money from any attempt to steal it, but as we suspect (and so does she, though she takes the job anyway), they’re really the crooks who intend to rob the event and are using her as a decoy to substitute for the (already selected, secretly) contest winner.

Of course the pretend “cops” swear Dot to secrecy about the operation, but she has enough misgivings about it (even though she’s been promised $100 for her part in it) that she tells Rick while they’re having a quite ample meal, funded by the $2 he got from a cop — a real one — to wash the police force’s motorcycles so they’ll look bright and shiny for the Big Event. The other plot line is set in the Central Park Zoo and involves Charlie (Guy Kibbee), a (genuine) police officer who’s patrolled Central Park for over three decades and got to know the people who work there; Luke (Charles Sellon), who’s the keeper in charge of the cage in which they keep the dangerous lion Nebo; and Smiley (John Wray, who was briefly hailed as “the new Lon Chaney” when Paramount remade The Miracle Man in 1932 and he played Chaney’s original part of the actor who fakes being crippled, and then being healed, as part of a faith healer’s act), who formerly had Luke’s job until he went crazy and was put in a mental hospital, only he’s escaped. Charlie’s eyes are going bad on him (weren’t police officers allowed to wear glasses in 1932?) but he wants to hang on for one last week so he can get his pension — when we hear that about him we’re all too aware that his character is likely to be exiting this movie horizontally — and because he can’t see he mistakes Smiley for Luke and allows Smiley to lock him in with a pair of tiger cubs he likes to play with, while Smiley goes on with his plan to avenge himself against Luke by locking him in the cage with Nebo and letting the lion killed him. (Though it’s likely it was a stunt person, it really does look as if Nebo is mauling a genuine, live human and I wondered how they got this scene in the can without long-term damage to the homo sapiens involved.)

Luke is rescued just in the nick of time but Nebo escapes, hides out in a taxicab (there’s a nice comic scene in which a couple of would-be passengers flee the cab in horror while the driver, who has no idea a lion is in his back seat, wonders what’s going on) and ultimately shows up at the big charity benefit at the Casino, forcing everyone to flee. Meanwhile, the gangsters, headed by Nick Sarno (Harold Huber — who else?), have kidnapped Rick because they were worried he would spill the beans about their plot — eventually he escapes, but when he shows up at the Casino, disheveled and homeless-looking, the cops don’t believe him, and ultimately they’re convinced both he and Dot are part of the plot. The gangsters make off with the satchel containing the money and Rick chases them; ultimately the bad guys crash their car near where Charlie, who’s been suspended for allowing Smiley into the zoo and letting the lion escape, is resting. Charlie goes over to the crash site and Nick shoots him, but he lasts long enough to clear Rick and receive his badge back — though in the meantime there’s been a grim scene at the jail in which Dot lies and says she no longer loves Rick in the hope that the police will let him go even as they hold her for the crime. Eventually the zookeepers trap the lion, Smiley is apprehended and Dot and Rick are exonerated, and the dawn breaks over Central Park in a close copy of the opening montage sequence.

Central Park is an exciting, fast-paced film, moving quickly enough that we don’t doubt the logic of Ward Morehouse’s and Earl Baldwin’s script, and it’s surprisingly creatively directed by John G. Adolfi. I’d previously assumed he was just the guy who got his name on George Arliss’s films while Arliss actually made them himself, but on the basis of this movie Adolfi emerges as a genuinely creative filmmaker with a flair for unusual camera angles (when a Warners movie has this many overhead shots, usually it’s a Busby Berkeley musical!) and quite atmospheric cinematography (Sid Hickox was his director of photography), and he also gets good performances from his leads — Blondell was a reliable commodity who was virtually director-proof as an actress, but Ford seems credible as a beaten-down but still heroic man instead of the offensively whiny schtick he usually played. It’s a quite good movie, one of those diamonds in the rough that stick out among the usual products of the studio system.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Stand-In (Walter Wanger Productions/United Artists, 1937)

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

“What story?” asks a fictional preview customer in his response card for the Colossal Studios production, “Sex and Satan,” in the 1937 movie Stand-In, which I ran this morning. It not only inspired one of the catch-phrases I remember from my childhood — “Attaboy, Atterbury!” (spoken by insufferably phony press agent Jack Carson to Leslie Howard, who plays a banker named Atterbury Dodd, hired to take over a failing movie studio) — it also holds up as a surprisingly literate and irreverent comedy about Hollywood and its pretensions, engagingly off-cast: Joan Blondell as a former child star turned stand-in for an insufferably phony and pretentious leading lady, Humphrey Bogart as a studio production head and Alan Mowbray, with phony Russian accent, as a Von Stroheim-like director who wants to delay production on a film until real edelweiss arrives from Switzerland for a ski scene at St. Moritz, to replace the paper edelweiss concocted by the prop department.

I found this movie as good as it’s ever been, largely due to the performers, high-spirited direction by Tay Garnett and a solid (and wisecrack-filled) script by Gene Towne and Graham Baker which manages to put a fresh spin on some of the hoariest of Hollywood clichés: the stuffy young banker and the down-to-earth woman who humanizes him; the drunken producer who redeems himself at the last by weaning himself off the bottle long enough to finish the production (a perfectly ghastly and “artistic” movie redeemed in the cutting room by making the gorilla the star); the aged bank owner (Tully Marshall) who wants to unload the studio and the corrupt arbitrageur who wants to buy it (this part of the story seemed relevant to today!); and the mismatched relationship at the center of the story (Blondell is especially good in her role, looking luminous in powerful close-ups that showcase her offbeat appearance and manage to make her appealing in a down-to-earth sort of way). — 1/8/95

I ran Charles the 1937 movie Stand-In. It was on my old tape from December 1994 right after The Goldwyn Follies, and it’s one old movie that Charles actually saw before we started dating. He remembered the obnoxious press agent played by Jack Carson and the way the film’s heroes — Leslie Howard as an efficiency expert sent by an Eastern bank (headed by von Stroheim stalwart Tully Marshall) to evaluate whether or not to sell a fading movie studio, Colossal Pictures; and Humphrey Bogart as the alcoholic studio head — figure out how to salvage Colossal’s latest production, Sex and Satan, by cutting out its (human) star, Thelma Cheri, and making a gorilla the center of the film.

It remains a delightful comedy, indifferently directed by Tay Garnett but blessed with a witty and well-constructed script by Gene Towne and Graham Baker (they were the house writers for Walter Wanger’s setup at United Artists and the same year wrote Frank Borzage’s romantic melodrama History Is Made at Night — the film I’ve cited as the key antecedent for the current version of Titanic — and Fritz Lang’s gritty crime drama You Only Live Once) and impeccable acting by Howard (his milquetoast style is much more suited for a comic film like this than a serious drama), Joan Blondell (playing, as usual for her, the voice of sanity in the hurly-burly of showbiz — this time she’s the title character, a child actress turned stand-in for the temperamental Ms. Cheri) and Alan Mowbray as a Stroheim-esque director named Koslowski who (in a scene I’d mentioned to Charles before) announces he is willing to hold up production until the paper edelweiss on the set of a Swiss snow scene is replaced with real edelweiss. “We’ll have to send to Switzerland!” says a production assistant — to which Our Director replies by sitting down and saying, “I’ll vait.” (I wonder what Tully Marshall, who’d made The Merry Widow and Queen Kelly with the real von Stroheim, thought of this scene.) — 4/1/98


Stand-In is a movie that has a peculiar link to my childhood — the leading character, played by Leslie Howard, is called Atterbury Dodd, a representative of a bank that holds a mortgage on a failing movie studio who’s sent to Hollywood to see if the bank should accept the offer of a bottom-feeding financier, Ivor Nassau (C. Henry Gordon at his repulsive best), to take it off their hands for $5 million, about half what the property is really worth. Tom Potts (Jack Carson), the studio’s repulsive publicity man, immediately grabs hold of his first name and starts calling him “Attaboy, Atterbury!,” which of course irritates him no end. For some reason my mother and stepfather remembered the call “Attaboy, Atterbury!” and continually used it during my childhood — so I grew up hearing that phrase without having any idea where it was from until I went out of my way to catch this movie on TV in the 1970’s, at the height of my fascination with all things Bogart (Humphrey Bogart wangled a loan-out from Warners to Walter Wanger Productions — as did Joan Blondell, the female lead — and while Blondell was playing pretty much the level-headed voice of reason she generally portrayed at her home studio, Bogart played alcoholic studio head Douglas Quintain and relished the chance to get away from the gangster roles he said were so much alike he could write all his lines on 3” x 5” cards because he said the same things in every movie and all that varied was the order in which he had to speak the clichéd gangster lines) and instantly was flashed back to my childhood when I heard Jack Carson screaming, “Attaboy, Atterbury!” throughout the film.

Stand-In was made shortly after the 1937 A Star Is Born and also after the blockbuster success of Frank Capra’s Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, which was based on “Opera Hat,” a story by Clarence Budington Kelland, who also provided the source story for “Stand-In” as a serial in the Saturday Evening Post from February 13 through March 20, 1937. (This time, at least, the filmmakers used Kelland’s original title.) Atterbury Dodd (Leslie Howard) plays a banker’s representative who’s sent to Hollywood to try to convince his bank’s CEO, Fowler Pettypacker (a wheelchair-bound Tully Marshall — playing a standard-issue irascible old-man performance a far cry from his personification of sexual decadence and moral decay in his two films for Erich von Stroheim, The Merry Widow and Queen Kelly!), not to sell the Colossal Pictures studio to Nassau. Nassau is in league with Colossal star Thelma Cheri (Marla Shelton) and her director, Ivan Koslofski (Alan Mowbray), who have collaborated on a ludicrous would-be epic called Sex and Satan on which Colossal already spent $250,000 on 11 rewrites even before the cameras started rolling.

The idea is that by running the studio into the ground — Cheri’s contract, given to her by Quintain because he was in love with her, gave her approval of story, script, director and cast — they can help Nassau make a ton of money when Colossal is sold and Cheri and Koslofski will get contracts with whatever studio ultimately absorbs it. Dodd comes into this stew of events as the classic movie fish-out-of-water, so naïve and unknowledgeable he doesn’t even know who Shirley Temple and Clark Gable are, but fortunately he latches on to Lester Plum (Joan Blondell) — a girl named Lester? — who was a child star in the 1920’s but now that she’s grown has been reduced to Cheri’s stand-in. Dodd escapes the expensive and overdecorated suite Potts has arranged for him and moves in next door to Miss Plum at Mrs. Mack’s Boarding House, all of whose residents are either movie wanna-bes or movie has-beens (there’s a nice bit of pathos as a middle-aged woman is offered extra work in the remake of a film in which she starred 20 years before), including a trained seal and a penguin which, because they’re real or potential film performers, Mrs. Mack (Esther Howard) allows in spite of her usual no-pets policy.

Miss Plum talks herself into a job as Dodd’s secretary and also attempts to get him interested in her as a woman — usually Leslie Howard’s roles at this time were either the devastatingly romantic seducer (which he apparently was in real life as well — he was the sort of man whose long-suffering wife accepted his affairs because she knew he’d be back) or the masochistic sufferer he’d played in his films with Bette Davis, Of Human Bondage and The Petrified Forest (they’d make a third together, a backstage comedy called It’s Love I’m After which cast them as a feuding husband-and-wife stage acting team à la Lunt and Fontanne), so casting him as a comic milquetoast in a Clarence Budington Kelland story was as much as a departure as it had been for Gary Cooper in Mr. Deeds. He’s utterly oblivious to her charms — he finds her physically attractive but it’s a dispassionate fact-based analysis rather than any discernible attraction — and when she tries to get him to loosen up by teaching him to dance (he analyzes the rhythm of the song mathematically and fills the rug on his office floor with markings indicating where his feet should be on each beat), he announces that he will indeed go dancing that night … with Cheri, who’s invited him to a party at Koslofski’s home (which, he discovers, is furnished with props stolen from the studio) and who’s trying to vamp him as part of Nassau’s plot.

Eventually Sex and Satan finishes shooting and is previewed, first on the lot and then before an audience — a preview card comes back in which the writer has answered the question, “How did you like the story?,” with, “What story?” — and Dodd fires Quintain after a drunken binge, then has to rehire him when Miss Plum convinces him that he’s the only person who can save the picture and the studio along with it. Quintain proposes to salvage the film by cutting down Cheri’s part and turning it into a Tarzan-style jungle picture with the gorilla as the leading character — only because of Cheri’s contract, the only way he can do that is if Dodd can seduce her and involve her in a scandal, which will then give him the excuse he needs to fire her under her morals clause. Dodd takes her for a round of drinking at all Hollywood’s most prestigious, and some not-so-prestigious, nightclubs, until she passes out and he deliberately lies down on the barroom floor next to her — only, after the resulting photos make the papers in New York, Pettypacker decides to sell the studio after all. Dodd gets the idea from a radio broadcast of a sit-down strike: he’ll ask the workers to occupy the studio for two days, long enough to do the retakes on Sex and Satan, and in the end the studio is saved, the workers’ jobs are saved and Dodd, whose to-do list contains the notation, “Propose to Miss Plum,” does exactly that, bluntly telling her, “Miss Plum, will you marry me?” “What, no buildup?” she asks, then accepts.

Stand-In isn’t exactly laugh-a-minute comedy, and to the extent there’s a political subtext it’s as muddled as usual in Walter Wanger’s works (at one point Dodd is appealing to worker solidarity by claiming to be one of them, and just a few seconds later he’s making Mitt Romney-style arguments that the Colossal corporation is really a person because it’s owned by individual shareholders who will lose their investments if Nassau takes over and liquidates it), but it’s a nice movie, amusing and entertaining, as well as the second testament (after The Petrified Forest) to the friendship of Leslie Howard and Humphrey Bogart; Bogart never forgot that Howard, who had acted with him in The Petrified Forest on the Broadway stage, had lobbied with Warner Bros. to hire him to repeat his role for the film (though the Ann Sperber-Eric Lax biography of Bogart suggested denser studio politics as the reason Bogart got the role instead of the studio’s first choice, Edward G. Robinson: Jack Warner was still incensed that the first collaboration between Howard and Bette Davis, Of Human Bondage, had been made for another studio, RKO, and he wanted a Howard-Davis vehicle under the Warner Bros. banner — and he couldn’t co-star Howard and Davis in a film with Robinson because Robinson’s contract guaranteed him star billing), and even after Howard’s death Bogart memorialized him by naming his daughter Leslie after him. — 8/25/11

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Peter Pan (Paramount, 1924)

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

The film featured at last night’s Balboa Park Organ Pavilion “Movie Night” showing — their annual event of a silent movie projected with live organ accompaniment — was the first film version of Peter Pan, made in 1924 by Paramount Pictures and delayed for nine months, according to an interview star Betty Bronson gave years ago to Films in Review, because the author of Peter Pan, Sir James M. Barrie, had it in his contract that he would have approval over the actress who played Peter (and yes, it was going to be an actress, not an actor; Barrie had stipulated that the lead be played by a woman and Nana, the Darling family dog, be played by an actor in a singularly obvious dog-suit) — and it took the studio nine months to come up with a star Barrie signed off on.

The woman they signed was the young Betty Bronson, who would become a major star on the basis of this film (she’d make the transition to sound successfully — indeed, she would play the “good girl” in Al Jolson’s The Singing Fool, the first talkie blockbuster and the biggest hit film of all time until Gone With the Wind — but in that Films in Review interview she said the only films she’d made of which she was truly proud were Peter Pan and another Barrie-based fairy tale story, A Kiss for Cinderella) and who is truly remarkable, showing a wide range of emotions and seemingly able to turn on a dime between the assertive Lost Boy who never wants to grow up and the figure of pathos who once returned to his mother’s home to find the door locked and the windows barred.

Anyone who sees this film coming from the Disney version, the musical with Mary Martin or any of the more recent adaptations is going to be in for a real surprise; never having read or seen performed the actual Barrie play, I can’t be absolutely certain that this film is closer than we’re used to to what Barrie actually wrote (though given that he was alive and very much involved in the production, and according to imdb.com virtually all the intertitles in the film were direct quotes from Barrie’s dialogue, I’m pretty sure it is), but the 1924 Peter Pan, adapted by Willis Goldbeck and stunningly directed by Herbert Brenon with utterly amazing special effects (especially for 1924!) by Roy Pomeroy, is an amazing movie. Seeing it now takes away the sentimental sugar Disney stuck all over this story (and just about everything else his studio touched) and takes it back to its roots: a childhood (and childish) fantasy but also one with a great deal of underlying depth “hooking” both childrens’ and parents’ fears of loss and abandonment. Though the film opens with a written foreword (almost certainly Barrie’s) explaining that what we are about to see is a “fairy play” in which all the characters — even the (nominal) adults — are childlike and would be revealed as children under their makeups, much of Peter Pan is genuinely sad and parts are even terrifying.

Brenon and the “suits” at Paramount assembled a magnificent cast, including Bronson as Peter Pan (she’s able just by twitching her face slightly to let us know when she’s playing the wise-guy kid and when she’s playing the scared little boy who’s never got over being abandoned by his mother), Mary Brian as Wendy (who’s less a little girl here and more an adolescent, on the cusp of both emotional and sexual maturity — there’s an understated but unmistakable subplot of Peter and Wendy falling in love and having to deal with adult emotions as well as drives, and when Peter rejects the Darlings at the end and returns to Never Never Land it’s as much or more because he’s scared of his own burgeoning sexuality as it is because he doesn’t want the responsibility of having to go to school and eventually holding a job), the marvelous Anna May Wong as Tiger Lily (which makes it all the more disappointing that scenarist Goldbeck makes so little use of her and the Indians), George Ali’s rendition of the dog (who really dominates the opening scenes until Peter makes his Big Entrance), and villain-specialist Ernest Torrence as a genuinely chilling and un-campy Captain Hook (though Cyril Ritchard’s screaming-queen rendition in the surviving TV version of the musical with Mary Martin is quite good in its own way; indeed, when the tape was rediscovered and re-shown in the early 1990’s I was astonished that all the Gay angles in Ritchard’s performance I had missed when I watched it as a kid were now almost too obvious!).

This movie is an extraordinary work, and we have the George Eastman organ school to thank for its continued existence: the Eastman program actually offered a degree in silent-film accompaniment and had a print of Peter Pan which they used for the students’ final exams. In 1995 the George Eastman House, the film-preservation center attached to the university, got word that students were actually organizing showings of this film — whereas all other prints had disappeared and the film had long been thought lost. Eventually it made it onto DVD courtesy of Kino on Video (which probably took some dodgy negotiations with the Walt Disney company, since Disney had bought the rights to the 1924 film when he did his animated remake in 1953; even though no copies were then known to exist, Disney didn’t want to risk one turning up and someone showing it in place of his version) and Charles and I watched it then — though on the big screen, with full justice being done to James Wong Howe’s magnificent cinematography (even then he was one of the masters of the art, and he would go on making great-looking movies for another five decades; his last credit is Funny Lady from 1975, shot a year before he died, and something of his range can be shown by the four films featured on his imdb.com page: The Thin Man, Yankee Doodle Dandy, Sweet Smell of Success and Hud), it looked even better despite the rather odd decision to set many of the Never Never Land scenes in what looks like an underground grotto (it’s a relief when the Lost Boys are kidnapped by the pirates and taken to their ship — and we get out of that damned grotto and into the open air off Catalina Island, Hollywood’s go-to location then for anything set in the South Pacific).

There’s one other annoyance in this movie, and that’s Goldbeck’s decision to locate the framing scenes in the United States instead of Great Britain; Peter Pan is just too British a fantasy to work as a story about Americans, and aspects like the use of the word “perambulator,” the stiff-upper-lip attitude of the Darlings when their children have disappeared, and the lame-brained aspirations of Captain Hook to follow an etiquette book that purports to teach him how to be an “American Gentleman” (the U.S. didn’t — and still doesn’t — have quite the same cult of the “gentleman” as the U.K. does) — but that’s a minor (and usually ignorable) blemish on an utterly marvelous movie, probably the best film adaptation of Peter Pan ever made — even though there were times I wished it were a talkie, if only because Betty Bronson’s performance is so sensitive to Peter’s changing moods I’m sure she could have found enough different vocal inflections to add power and credibility to the already very good performance she gave as a silent actress. The 1924 Peter Pan is a marvelous movie and deserves to be seen not only by anyone who loves this story but by people who don’t think they do — and also by people who think all silent films were hopelessly primitive from a technical standpoint.

This one is not only sumptuously produced but features vivid and utterly convincing special effects by Roy Pomeroy, who the year before had devised the colored-filter effect by which Moses’ sister Miriam had developed leprosy scars on her arm in real time in Cecil B. DeMille’s 1923 silent version of The Ten Commandments. For this movie he had to create a convincing fairy Tinker Bell (usually represented as a beam of light, the way she was on stage, but also sometimes played on screen as a recognizable humanoid: child actress Virginia Browne Faire), fly the characters convincingly, render Peter’s severed shadow believably and, in one dazzling scene, show Peter sweeping a whole bunch of animate fairies with a broom. If you can take Barrie’s whimsical fantasy at all — and by being deeper and richer than the more recent adaptations, full of complex emotions and overlaid with a hint (though no more than a hint!) of burgeoning sexual attraction between Peter and Wendy, this film makes it a good deal easier to take than a lot of more recent takes on the story — this Peter Pan will not only entertain, but move.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Behind Stone Walls (Action/Mayfair, 1932)

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

The film was an hour-long indie from the Action studio in 1932, released through Mayfair (actually I think Action went out of business while the film was still in release and Mayfair picked it up for the rest of its theatrical run), called Behind Stone Walls (though we wouldn’t have known that from the archive.org download we were watching, one of those times in which whoever uploaded it cut off the opening credits except for a teeny glimpse of the cast list). From the title you’d expect a tough, fast-paced, thrilling, action-packed prison drama — instead, though it’s a crime story, only about a minute or two of the movie takes place in prison (and that scene is in a prison library!) and for the most part it’s a melodrama.

John Clay (Robert Elliott) is the district attorney in a carefully unnamed city in a carefully unnamed state, and is in line to run for governor, when his family gets him into trouble big-time: his wife Esther (Priscilla Dean) is the mistress of playboy Jack Keene (Robert Ellis), who has a wife of his own but is cheating on her with Esther and cheating on Esther with an actress — only Esther still has a key to his apartment, and she lets herself in, confronts him, pulls out his telephone when he tries to call his new girlfriend to tell her not to come since he’s still trying to get rid of his old one, and finally Esther walks to a drawer, opens it, pulls out a gun (one presumes she knew it was there from previous visits) and kills him. Just then Clay’s son Bob (Eddie Nugent) comes over — we know, though he does not, that Esther isn’t his biological mother, who died in childbirth, but someone his dad married six months later in the belief that his son needed a mother — and he tries to rearrange the scene of the crime so it looks like Jack killed himself, but before he can do that he’s witnessed by Keene’s butler Leo Draggett (George Chesboro) and ultimately arrested by the police.

Refusing to give a defense out of the belief that he’s protecting his mother, Bob ends up being prosecuted by his own father and sentenced to life imprisonment — only Draggett, who knows who the real killer is, blackmails Esther with the threat of exposing the love letters she wrote to Keene. She buys back the letters and is in the process of burning them when John shows up and interrupts her; he grabs the letters she hadn’t had the chance to burn, reads them and has a jealous hissy-fit on the spot. She takes out a gun and threatens him, they both reach for it (Maurine Watkins, you’re keeping your plagiarism attorney awfully busy!) and ultimately she gets shot and this time it’s John who gets prosecuted for murder and his son represents him, giving the closing argument and winning his acquittal. The film ends with the two Clays out of politics and attorneys in private practice with each other.

Outrageously melodramatic, and crudely shot by the usually interesting director Frank Strayer from a script by George B. Seitz (usually a director himself) that isn’t based on a stage play but certainly seems like it from the way long sequences are staged in a single room set, this film is nonetheless a melodrama of hallucinatory power, a sort of dream of movie ur-clichés that packs a real punch, from the opening scene (a group of people with too much money and too little sense at a cocktail party mulling over business opportunities created by the Depression — this could be, and probably is, happening now!) to the climax. It’s a fascinating tale of how screwed up a family can get — even a family headed by people with real integrity — and also a cautionary note about the pitfalls of extramarital relationships I’m sure Charles appreciated for just that reason!

Sunday, August 21, 2011

To the Last Man (Paramount, 1933)

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

The film was To the Last Man, a 1933 Paramount release — though it’s acquired a plethora of studio affiliations since then; our print said “Favorite Films, Inc.” at the beginning, had a Columbia logo towards the end (perhaps it was included in one of the repackagings Columbia did of old movies for TV in the 1950’s, leasing films from other studios as well as including some of their own: the most famous were the Shock Theatre and Son of Shock packages of horror films, mostly Universal’s but occasionally Columbia’s own productions like The Devil Commands, and when I started watching old horror films on TV in the early 1970’s they frequently bore Columbia logos on the end as well as Universal logos at the beginning, and as late as the 2000’s Charles and I saw San Diego, I Love You, a Universal comedy from 1944, at the Museum of Photographic Arts in a print with a Columbia logo at the end), and according to the American Film Institute Catalog there was also a “Unity Productions” re-release that changed the title to Law of Vengeance.

The film was part of a series Paramount was making based on the popular Western novels of Zane Grey — indeed, the opening shot shows an old-fashioned hand press printing out a title page that turns out to include the name of the film, its director (Henry Hathaway) and, on a separate card, its writer (Jack Cunningham) and cinematographer (Ben Reynolds) — though Grey had published the novel in 1922 and Paramount had bought the rights then and made a silent film in 1923, with Noah Beery as the principal villain — a role he repeats here. The film opens in 1865 with the news (communicated in a banner headline from a newspaper being printed on that hand press) that Robert E. Lee has just surrendered at Appomattox, and Confederate soldier Mark Hayden (Egon Brecher, who makes a brief reference in his dialogue to “the old country” from which he presumably emigrated, since his accent would be utterly unbelievable as that of a native-born American Southerner) is driving a wagon back to his home in Kentucky, from which he plans to emigrate West in order to avoid the Colbys, a family that has been feuding with the Haydens, presumably for decades (the real-life Hatfields and McCoys were obviously Zane Grey’s inspiration). Since his wife had already died, before he went to war Hayden had left his sons Lynn (Jay Ward — no, not the same one who later produced Rocky and Bullwinkle) and Bill (Cullen Johnston), and daughter Ann (Rosita Butler), in the care of their mother’s parents, Grandpa and Grandma Spelvin (Harlan Knight and Eugenie Besserer — she had previously played Al Jolson’s mother in The Jazz Singer).

Unfortunately, no sooner has he returned home than Jed Colby (Noah Beery) and another man stalk Grandpa Spelvin and shoot him in cold blood, hoping thereby to re-start the feud and get Mark Hayden to respond in kind so the Colbys will have an excuse to massacre the entire Hayden family. Instead Mark does what’s considered, in the twisted mores of this part of Kentucky, the dishonorable thing of complaining to the law; Jed Colby is arrested, tried for murder and sentenced to 15 years. Leaving his older son Lynn in Kentucky to take care of Grandma Spelvin, Mark and his other kids light out for the West and finally settle in Nevada, claim a homestead and build up a thriving cattle ranch — until Colby is released from prison (oddly, Noah Beery is clean-shaven when he gets out — he had a beard when he went in — and the change actually makes him look younger than he did 15 years’ worth of story time earlier!) and decides to go to Nevada himself with his henchman Jim Daggs (Jack LaRue) and his tomboy daughter Ellen (Esther Ralston). By now Bill has grown up to be Buster Crabbe and Ann is Gail Patrick; her last name is now “Stanley” because she’s married, and her husband Neil (Barton MacLane) is living with the Haydens.

Colby sets up next door to the Haydens and mounts a slow campaign of attrition against them, stealing their cattle and doing as much petty sabotage as he can while getting ready for the grand blow that will eliminate the Haydens once and for all. Just then Lynn Hayden — now old enough to be played by Randolph Scott (both he and Buster Crabbe were handsome men but it’s hard to believe in them as brothers!) — comes from Kentucky to rejoin the rest of his family in Nevada, and of course he comes upon Ellen Colby bathing in a lake and it’s love at first sight for both of them — until she finds out who he is and tears into him, saying she wants to see him and all his kinsmen dead for what they’ve done over the years to her family. Eventually, however, love wins out over feuding and Ellen decides to reject the unwelcome attentions of Jim Daggs and tell her dad flat-out that she’s going to marry Lynn Hayden whether he likes it or not. Dad’s response is to organize an en masse invasion of the Hayden spread in which Bill is killed. That’s the last straw for Mark Hayden, who finally decides to join the feud and goes over to the Colby farm to kill Jed — only Jed kills him first. The Haydens organize to ride to the Colby place to get their revenge — only Daggs, unbeknownst to anyone else including Jed, has rigged a mountain with explosives to cause an avalanche, and in the end all the feuding characters are killed except for Daggs, Lynn Hayden and Ellen Colby. (This sounds like Zane Grey’s rather forced attempt to avoid the obvious Romeo and Juliet parallels: it’s as if he were thinking, “Shakespeare killed off the young lovers and left the families alive; I’m going to kill off the families and let the young lovers live!”)

There’s a final confrontation in a barn (which looks like the same standing set on the Paramount lot in which the end of the Marx Brothers’ Monkey Business was filmed) in which Daggs, thinking Lynn has been killed along with everyone else, makes his move on Ellen; Lynn, lying wounded in the barn’s upper loft, tries to intervene but is too weak to hold on to his gun; Daggs and Ellen both reach for the gun — Maurine Watkins, call your plagiarism attorney again! — and eventually Daggs ends up dead, following which we cut to a trick ending repeating the printing-press motif of the opening sequence, only in this case we’re in a photographic darkroom watching a print develop, and it turns out to be Lynn’s and Ellen’s wedding photo. To the Last Man is an odd and rather infuriating movie because so much of it is well done — writer Cunningham and director Hathaway have no problem documenting the utter idiocy of the Hayden/Colby feud, and at two different occasions they give their two leading actresses intensely emotional scenes, but these stand out largely because most of the dialogue is delivered in a slow, monotonal manner that sounds more like a film from 1929 than 1933.

The real star of this movie is Ben Reynolds, who turns in a dazzling job of cinematography; whereas most “B” Westerns, even from major studios, were pretty flatly photographed, this one is full of dappled-light effects that make the most of the gorgeous scenery of the outdoor locations and add atmosphere to the interiors as well. The actors are O.K. and Ralston and Patrick each do justice to their One Big Scene, but for the most part the performances are surprisingly bland — and Henry Hathaway, later known as a model of pacing and action, directs incredibly stiffly and slowly. It doesn’t help that Ralston’s role cries out for Barbara Stanwyck — Ralston is a quite good actress but she can’t achieve the needed combination of nerviness, passion and sincerity Stanwyck regularly commanded, especially at this early stage of her career — or that the other men are so stiff Randolph Scott looks good by comparison (his entrance 23 minutes into this 65-minute film is a breath of fresh air), even though nobody ever accused him of being a great actor — and that “nobody” definitely included Scott himself: there’s that famous anecdote of Scott applying for membership in a country club and being refused because “we don’t admit actors.” “But I’m no actor!” Scott protested. “Just see one of my pictures and you’ll know I’m not an actor!”

Saturday, August 20, 2011

The Adjustment Bureau (Universal Pictures, Media Rights Capital, Gambit Pictures, Electric Shepherd, 2011)

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

The film was The Adjustment Bureau, a 2011 production based on a 1952 short story called “Adjustment Team” by Philip K. Dick — and though there’ve been the usual complaints from sci-fi fandom that the movie borrows little more than a central premise from Dick’s original tale, the film (the first co-produced by Electric Shepherd Productions, a holding company founded by Dick’s daughter to try to re-establish family control over his increasingly valuable literary legacy) turned out to be quite engaging and entertaining. The premise of this story is that human beings only think they have free will: everything that happens to us is rigidly controlled by a set of plans ultimately dictated by “The Chairman” (i.e., God?) and enforced by a team of fedora-hatted men in bad suits called “The Adjustment Bureau.” Though they don’t look exactly alike, they’re reminiscent in their emotion-less affect of the “Mr. Smiths” of The Matrices and their function is to catch anyone who deviates from the Plan and shove their lives back into conformance with it — and, if all else fails, to “reset” them: i.e., to erase their brains completely so they have no memory of simple functions and can’t remember what they were doing earlier.

In the original story the people targeted by the cosmic adjusters were an ordinary suburban couple, but producer-director-writer George Nolfi had more ambitious ideas than that: his Adjustment Bureau victims are U.S. Senate candidate David Norris (Matt Damon) and Cedar Lake company modern dancer/choreographer Elise Sellas (Emily Blunt, with Acacia Schachte of the real Cedar Lake company as her dance double in the long shots). In the opening sequences — which are so media-realistic (down to real media people like Chuck Scarborough and Jon Stewart appearing as themselves) that for about the first 20 minutes or so it would be hard to guess this was a science-fiction story — Norris, a 32-year-old U.S. Senate candidate from New York in the 2006 election, has a double-digit lead until he blows it by “mooning” his old buddies at a college reunion; the New York Post obtains a photo and the scandal destroys him and his opponent comes from behind and scores a sweeping victory. (The opening is reminiscent of the election scandal in Citizen Kane, but it’s harder to believe a scandal like this — especially one that didn’t involve actual sex and whose central figure wasn’t married — would so totally destroy a candidate as it would in the time period of Kane. Then again, after David Weiner’s quick fall from grace, maybe it’s not so far-fetched after all.)

David’s politics are kept pretty ambiguous, though we know he’s a Democrat (because when his defeat is announced, the TV newscast shows his opponent’s name in white letters on a red field, and given how entrenched the Democrats = blue and Republicans = red dichotomy has become, that instantly signals that the winner is a Republican) and after the election (and after he gives a Bulworth-like concession speech exposing all the research and focus-group testing that stipulated such seemingly minor details as the color of his tie) he’s set to go to work for his former campaign consultant in an alternative-energy company. He also meets a mysterious woman in the men’s room of the hotel where he’s having his election-night “do,” and he’s instantly smitten but doesn’t know why. Then he meets her again, this time on the bus on his first day on his new job, and he spills coffee on her lap and manages to get her first name and phone number — only once he gets to the office he’s kidnapped by the Adjustment Bureau and forced to burn the card with her number because the Plan says they’re not supposed to be together.

Three years pass, during which — unbeknownst to him — she has an affair with her company’s lead choreographer and comes close to marrying him but draws back because she still remembers the hot young politician who looked just like Matt Damon, who made a pass at her but never called her again. Eventually it turns out that originally the Plan did call for David and Elise to get together, but it was revised — though enough hints of the original Plan remained in the Adjustment Bureau’s records that they kept getting pulled together despite the best efforts of the Bureau to keep them apart — and thanks to Harry Mitchell (Anthony Mackie), the Adjustment Bureau’s one Black member and the one who’s sympathetic to him, David manages to get hold of part of the plan. Unwilling to erase his mind but also frustrated at the way he and Elise keep getting together, the Adjustment Bureau calls in their boss, Thompson (Terence Stamp), who lays it out for David: the Plan calls for him to win the next U.S. Senate election in 2010 and go on to win two more Senate terms and then two terms as President — only if he and Elise get together none of that will happen and their union will sandbag her career plans: instead of a star dancer and choreographer she’ll end up “teaching dance to six-year-olds.” Thompson also explains that the Plan has controlled all of human history except for two interludes during which they decided to back off and let us make our own decisions — the first time they did that it led to the fall of the Roman Empire and the Dark Ages; the second time was from 1910 to 1962 and it led to the two world wars, the Holocaust, Communism and the near-annihilation of the world during the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Producer/director/writer George Nolfi doesn’t even come close to capturing the hell-bent pacing of a Dick story, nor does he do much to explore the Faustian bargain Thompson is offering David — your girlfriend or the Presidency? — but within the limits of a modern action thriller The Adjustment Bureau is quite compelling, well structured (one imdb.com reviewer compared it to Inception, but I think it’s a far better film than Inception because Nolfi sticks to the rules of his story and doesn’t arbitrarily take it in any direction that momentarily pleases him the way Christopher Nolan did), chilling not only in the whole notion that we only think we make our own history but in the sheer weight of the Adjustment Bureau’s powers (they can make cars crash into each other and, in one especially chilling scene, they have Elise fall during a dance performance and leave it up to David how serious her injury will be — when he agrees, at least for the time being, not to see her again it’s only a sprain rather than something more crippling that would end her career) and the Bureau’s indifference to the desires of the human beings they manipulate in search of a Plan they know very little about themselves because the Chairman doles out information about it on a need-to-know basis. It may be Dick Lite but it’s still a fun movie, even though the story logic does seem to get pretty warped towards the end in order to give the film a feel-good happy ending instead of the darker, nihilistic one I thought it was leading up to in which both David and Elise would have been “reset.”

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Mara Maru (Warner Bros., 1952)

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

The film was Mara Maru, a 1952 Warners actioner that was one of Errol Flynn’s last vehicles under his Warners contract, a black-and-white adventure story casting him as salvage diver Gregory Mason, who’s running a business in partnership with Andy Callahan (Richard Webb) while at the same time not-too-seriously romancing Andy’s wife Stella (Ruth Roman, second-billed). He’s approached by a heavy-set gangster-type named Brock Benedict (Raymond Burr — and yes, it’s jarring every time we hear Burr’s familiar voice call someone else “Mason”!) to find a fortune in diamonds supposedly dropped at the bottom of the sea by a sailor with whom Mason served on a PT boat during World War II. Benedict has a rat-like little man named Steven Ranier (Paul Picerni) as his assistant, and Mason — who actually remembers exactly where the treasure is — is debating whether to go out with Benedict or try to find it on his own. Benedict renders the question academic when he first has Mason’s partner Andy killed and then burns Mason’s boat, so Mason has to ally with him.

There’s a lot of skullduggery and back-and-forth sabotage — Benedict destroys the radiophone aboard his boat, the Mara Maru (hence the title), so Mason can’t use it to call for help, so Mason sabotages the ship’s compass so Benedict and his crew can’t kill him because then who would navigate? The screenplay was written by N. Richard Nash, author of The Rainmaker, from an “original” story by Philip Yordan, Sidney Harmon and Hollister Noble — I say “original” in quotes because the movie is actually a quite obvious reworking of The Maltese Falcon: the lone-wolf operator whose partner is killed early on (and as with the Huston/Bogart version of The Maltese Falcon this means we lose one of the most interesting actors in the piece too soon!), the heavy-set criminal mastermind, his runt-like assistant, the morally ambiguous woman who seems to be playing both the hero and the villain against each other (though at least Messrs. Yordan, Harmon, Noble and Nash spared us the gimmick of having her be the hero’s partner’s murderer, which was a jolting surprise when Dashiell Hammett thought it up but has long since become one of the most irritating mystery clichés — when I saw The Black Dahlia I asked for at least a 10-year moratorium on mystery plots in which the hero’s girlfriend turns out to be the murderer) and even the priceless relic all the fuss is about: the “diamonds” turn out actually to be a diamond-encrusted cross, hidden under a plaster coating, stolen from the church in a Philippine village, and Mason’s native assistant/cabin boy Manuelo (Robert Cabal) wants him to turn it back to the church rather than keep it and make millions off it. Indeed, the fact that the relic turns out to be genuinely valuable was a surprise to me because the film was tracking The Maltese Falcon so closely I expected it to turn out to be a fake.

The best aspect of this film is Robert Burks’ cinematography — the director is Gordon Douglas, an efficient hack, and I suspect some of the off-beat camera setups and overall chiaroscuro atmosphere are Burks’ doing (reflecting the lessons he’d learned shooting Strangers on a Train for Alfred Hitchcock, maybe?) — and the next-best aspect is Ruth Roman’s performance, which though closer to Lauren Bacall than Mary Astor is in the tradition of the noir heroine, decent in the end but certainly believable as someone who could go either way (the writing committee gives her two scenes in rapid succession in which it looks like she’s selling Mason out to Benedict, and then vice versa), and her success at both the moral ambiguity of a noir leading woman and the wisecracking authority of Bacall’s roles in To Have and Have Not and The Big Sleep were a real surprise given her pretty staid performance in Strangers On a Train (which, as good as it is, would be even better with Grace Kelly in the female lead!).

Monday, August 15, 2011

Manhattan Merry-Go-Round (Republic, 1937)

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

The film was Manhattan Merry-Go-Round, a 1937 musical from the fledgling Republic studios, whose CEO, Herbert J. Yates, also then owned the American Recording Company, parent of the Columbia, Brunswick and Vocalion labels. I remembered seeing this in the 1970’s and finding it a quite charming film, evidently intended as a sort of follow-up to the 1934 film Transatlantic Merry-Go-Round (a combination musical, murder mystery and gangster film taking place almost entirely on an ocean liner during a transatlantic crossing; it’s also a particularly favorite film of mine but it’s quite different in mood from this one). I’d despaired of ever seeing Manhattan Merry-Go-Round again until it started surfacing from the public-domain DVD companies and then on archive.org, and it turned out to be as good as I remembered it even though the male lead, Phil Regan, is hardly as charismatic as the script tells us he is.

The gimmick behind this film is that gangster Tony Gordoni (Leo Carrillo, in an engagingly over-the-top camp performance that seems a deliberate spoof of Edward G. Robinson in Little Caesar) is worried about the FBI and, on the advice of his attorney, is buying up legitimate businesses left and right even though he doesn’t know the first thing about running them. One of the businesses he swoops up is the Associated Recording Company (note the similarity between its name and that of the real record company the head of Republic then owned!), which he decides to take over personally, demoting its president, J. Henry Thorne (Selmer Jackson), to manager and taking the advice of Thorne’s secretary, Ann Rogers (Ann Dvorak — and it seems odd TCM didn’t show this in their recent all-day retrospective of Dvorak’s films, since she’s quite good in it as the long-suffering lover), to re-sign singer Jerry Hart (Phil Regan, top-billed), who was Associated’s best-selling record artist until Thorne fired him for getting into a fight with Thorne’s son.

Needless to say, Hart and Ann are in love with each other, but the course of true love is running less than smoothly not only because Ann is understandably jealous of all the other women who throw themselves at Jerry when he performs live (at a club called the Manhattan Merry-Go-Round, whose gimmick is that its floor is on a revolving turntable so he’s literally singing on a merry-go-round!) but because in the second half of the movie Hart is forced to break off his date to marry Ann in order to seduce the great opera singer Charlizzini (Tamara Geva) into recording for Associated. Associated mostly stayed out of classical or operatic music — like the real American Recording Company, which imported a few European classical and opera recordings but made almost none of their own — but Gordoni wants Charlizzini because his mother (Nellie V. Nichols) is pissed at him for not having any “real music” on his label, and in a spooky scene she comes in and smashes a whole stack of Associated records of Cab Calloway, Ted Lewis and other pop acts.

The problem is that Charlizzini is about to give her farewell concert and return to Europe, and what’s more she’s never recorded, sort of like the heroine of Diva — indeed, her contract with her impresario, Martinetti (whose name I suspect screenwriter Harry Sauber intended as a pun on the word “martinet”), has a clause forbidding her to record. Gordoni solves all these problems with typical gangster muscle; he strong-arms Martinetti into letting Charlizzini record and offers, when she resents the idea that she’ll actually be paid for making the record (Jerry has talked her into it by saying it will be a “public service” for her to preserve her voice for future generations), to donate the money to a freshly set up charity. At the same time Charlizzini refuses to record opera — she insists on doing the sort of pop music her new boy-toy Jerry is into and having her record appear on the other side of one of his — and all this screws up Jerry’s romantic prospects with Ann big-time, but in the end Jerry and Ann pair up, as do Gordoni and Charlizzini, and Danny the Duck (James Gleason in a delightful comic-relief part as one of Gordoni’s henchmen) and Kay Thompson (as herself, leading an all-woman group called the Kay Thompson Singers and showing off the style that later influenced Judy Garland, whom Thompson coached at MGM).

Needless to say, there’s an assortment of musical guest stars, including Calloway (whose song “Mama, I Wanna Make Rhythmint” is the highlight of the movie — even though it’s rather indifferently directed, with the camera kept mostly on Cab himself rather than on his bandsmen; the great and tragically short-lived Leon “Chu” Berry plays a hot tenor saxophone solo on the song but we don’t get to see him!), Lewis (doing a couple of his novelty numbers; without Benny Goodman as his ghost clarinetist the quality of his music took a major nose-dive while Goodman, of course, soared to stardom as the “King of Swing”!) and Louis Prima, who’s oddly ill-used — he’s seen leading the band backing Jerry at the Manhattan Merry-Go-Round but we don’t get to hear him either play trumpet, sing or lead his band in a jazz number. Charles Riesner (former assistant to Charlie Chaplin and father of Dean Riesner, who’s the one degree of separation between Chaplin and Clint Eastwood — as a boy he played the bratty kid in The Pilgrim and almost five decades later he co-wrote the script for Dirty Harry) gets sole directorial credit, though supposedly the scenes with Calloway and Lewis were shot by a second unit in New York directed by John H. Auer and supervised by Harry Grey — Auer doesn’t get screen credit but Grey does as musical director).

There’s also an odd credit that says the film is “introducing that cowboy singing star Gene Autry” even though Autry had been playing starring roles for Republic for two years by then, starting with the 1935 serial The Phantom Empire; maybe they meant this film was “introducing” Autry to mainstream movie-goers who didn’t attend the Saturday morning showings where serials and “B” Westerns dominated the fare. And yet another celebrity, this one with nothing to do with music, appears: Joe DiMaggio shows up as the star of a radio broadcast where Gordoni is looking for talent, and he auditions DiMaggio by mistake thinking he’s a singer. Indeed, many of the film’s most delightful gags involve Gordoni’s cluelessness about what makes good recording talent; in one quite extended scene we see a montage of acrobats, sword-swallowers, fire-eaters and other visual performers whom James Gleason’s character has recruited for auditions — and it takes veteran record man Thorne to point out how useless these people would be on an audio-only medium. There’s also an audacious scene in which Jerry chews out Gleason for having bungled his introduction to Charlizzini and explains that Europeans greet each other by kissing each other’s hands — and he demonstrates by kissing Gleason’s hand … in a crowded hotel lobby with plenty of people looking on, shocked. It’s a gag that would have seemed almost routine in the so-called “pre-Code” era but comes off as quite shocking in a movie made in 1937!

Manhattan Merry-Go-Round isn’t one of the great movies but it comes off as pretty good — certainly as good as I remembered it, even though the gags involving Charlizzini and her “diva” temperament get a bit wearing at times (though there’s one generally funny moment in which one of her dogs — she’s got three, two greyhounds and a lap dog — is shown hiding in a cabinet; even the dog knows to stay out of her way when she’s in full diva cry!).

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Unforgotten Crime, a.k.a. The Affairs of Jimmy Valentine (Republic, 1942)

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

The film I picked out was an archive.org download called Unforgotten Crime, which turned out to be a 54-minute 1950’s TV edit of a 1942 Republic film called Affairs of Jimmy Valentine (itself a remake of a 1936 film called The Return of Jimmy Valentine) and a real charmer, one of the few vest-pocket re-edits of Republic’s own movies that seems frustrating and makes one wish for a chance to see the full-length version (of which, alas, no print seems to survive). It begins with a woman narrator hailing the bucolic beauties of Fernville, where animals are not only pets but actually part of the people’s livelihoods, everybody knows everybody else and there’s virtually no crime (there’s a shot of the town’s police chief using a BB gun to shoot down two-dimensional cut-outs of people on his office shelf) — and then the narrator’s (Gloria Dickson) voice suddenly turns hard and mean as she announces, as part of the radio show she hosts, that former safecracker Jimmy Valentine is living in Fernville and her show’s sponsor, Titus Toothpaste, is offering a $10,000 reward for the first person who locates him.

The announcer, who at the height of her spiel sounds eerily like the beta version of Nancy Grace, is named Cleo Arden and is the girlfriend of reporter Mike Jason (Dennis O’Keefe, top-billed), who sets out for Fernville to earn the reward — and immediately runs into the principled opposition of Tom Forbes (Roman Bohnen), editor of the local paper, who thinks sleeping dogs should be let lie and, when Jason proudly boasts that the contest will “put Fernville on the map!,” Forbes understandably laments that he doesn’t want the little village “put on the map” because that will destroy everything that he and the other 4,000-plus people who live there like about it. It gets complicated when Forbes’ daughter Bonnie (a surprisingly Judy Garland-esque performance by Ruth Terry, who should definitely have gone on to biggers and betters) not only falls for Jason at first sight but sticks up for him against her dad … and ends up being fired from her job at the paper for doing so. Eventually it develops that [spoiler alert!] Tom Forbes actually is Jimmy Valentine, and his entire gang also lives in Fernville, where they’ve stayed quiet, built businesses, started families and remained resolutely law-abiding since they were released from prison after serving their sentences for the crimes they did commit.

The Affairs of Jimmy Valentine is a low-keyed film that sometimes seems to choke on its own quirkiness and the bucolic small-town atmosphere that Republic was good at (given that the studio’s stock-in-trade was its Westerns, it’s not surprising that they relished the ability to depict horse-drawn vehicles still trolling down Main Street even in a film set in the 1942 present!), but for the most part it’s quite charming, vividly acted and well structured (the script is by Olive Cooper and Robert Tasker from a story by Paul Armstrong, Jr.), grafting a murder-mystery plot onto the small-town comedy when Pinky (Harry Shannon), a local with a potential lead on Valentine’s whereabouts. The director is Bernard Vorhaus, not exactly a name to conjure with in cinema history but solid if a bit unimaginative, and the cinematographer is the great John Alton, whose work is actually pretty ordinary during the scenes that take place in daytime but who suddenly comes alive in the night scenes, finding offbeat angles for his camera and marvelous lighting effects (even if he and Vorhaus rather overdo the effect — previously done beautifully and subtlely by John Huston and Arthur Edeson at the end of the 1941 Maltese Falcon — of having vertical cross-rails, symbolizing prison bars, cast shadows across the characters whenever they’re about to be or are in danger of being incarcerated, rightly or wrongly) that hint at what he’d accomplish in some of the great noir films he would shoot later.

Eventually the murderer is revealed to be, not Valentine, but Mousey (George E. Stone), Jason’s assistant, who wanted revenge against Valentine and decided to kill Pinky (and later a teenage manicurist, a friend of Bonnie’s, who came into Jason’s room at the wrong time … ) and frame Valentine for the crime. It ends with Jason and Cleo returning to New York City, Jason winning the $10,000 reward but nobly donating it to a charity to help rehabilitate recently released convicts, and Fernville presumably returning to its bucolic existence with its citizens none the wiser that Valentine and his cohorts dwelled, and still dwell, among them. Unforgotten Crime is a marvelous movie — I really hope the longer version is discovered and reissued some day — and though it’s low-keyed and doesn’t hammer home its points, it has a lot to say about crime, criminals, rehabilitation, the media and a skeptical public that has largely bought into the “once a criminal, always a criminal” line and would be an interesting property for a remake today (with the Valentine character perhaps transmuted into a Sara Jane Olson type, never actually incarcerated or convicted of a long-ago crime, who’s uncovered by a sensationalist TV show and called upon to pay for a crime when, psychologically and even morally, she’s no longer the person who committed it).

Friday, August 12, 2011

Old Khottabych (Lenfilm, 1958)

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

The movie Charles and I had squeezed in on Monday night after the organ concert in Balboa Park turned out to be quite good, a little gem in its own way: a 1958 Soviet film called Starik Khottabych — “Old Khottabych” — though its official English-language release was titled The Flying Carpet. (We were watching an original Russian-language print with English subtitles.) It’s based on a novel by Lazar Lagin that’s supposedly a classic of Russian literature for children — imdb.com lists Lagin as the original author but doesn’t say who adapted his story and wrote the screenplay (the “Kinoblog: A survey of Central and Eastern European Cinema” page on filmjournal.net identifies Lagin as the screenwriter as well as the author of the source novel) — and it’s basically an offtake of the Aladdin legend in which a blond-haired and slightly but still safely rambunctious Russian kid named Volka (Alyosha Litvinov) finds a magic lamp, opens it and lets out a genie with the almost impossible handle Hassan Abdurrahman ibn Khottab (Nikolai Volkov).

Volka and his friend, Zhenia (Gennadi Khudyakov), manage to go on a spectacular (at least as spectacular as the filmmakers could make it on their budget) journey to the Middle East and/or India — it’s not all that clear whether they thought they were one and the same — and then they crash a circus, where the genie shows up the contrivances of the stage “magician” and then starts doing real magic tricks that the audience finds more entertaining. One interesting quirk in the story is that both Volka and Zhenia — and Gogha (Lev Kovalchuk), who bullies Volka — are all members of the Pioneers, the young Communist group that was midway in ideological seriousness between the Boy Scouts and the Hitler Youth. The Pioneers are, not surprisingly, depicted totally sympathetically here — the genie even says he wants to be a Pioneer himself even though he’s over 2,000 years old and is played by a character actor who is obviously on the dark side of middle age (he was born in 1900 so he was 58 when he made this film, and if anything the makeup job on him makes him look even older!). The film isn’t much of a story — it’s clearly aimed at an audience of people Volka’s age — but it’s a real charmer, and it’s helped a great deal by being filmed in Agfacolor (though by then the Soviets, who had stolen the Agfacolor process from Nazi Germany and claimed it as war booty, were by then calling it “Sovcolor”), and the delicacy and painterly beauty of the colors serve this story in a way the principal processes then available in the West, Technicolor and Eastmancolor, would not have.

Incidentally, according to imdb.com, Nikolai Volkov lived until 1985 and must have been working until the end, because his last three films weren’t released until after he died; while his comic schtick gets a bit wearing towards the end (I guess this is where that Borscht Belt strain of Jewish humor — much of it from Jewish families who had emigrated from Russia to the U.S. to flee the pogroms — came from!), he’s mostly quite charming (as is the whole movie), endearing and funny in a low-brow but not intelligence-insulting way. The best scene — at least for me — was shortly after the genie first appears, when he offers to help coach Volka on a geography test, and gives him answers reflecting the state of human knowledge 2,000 years previously, when the genie was first “bottled” — and Volka repeats everything the genie tells him, which means that he’s arguing in all seriousness that the earth is a flat, round disc bounded by a limitless ocean, and it can’t be a ball because then the water would fall off. Naturally, he not only flunks the test, he’s ridiculed in front of the whole class and Gogha accuses him of sabotaging the test deliberately!

Thor and the Amazon Women (Coronet Film, Italia Film, Dubrava Film, 1963)

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

On Wednesday night we had run a download from archive.org of a movie they listed with the almost incomprehensible title The Mighty Thor Against the Queen of the Amazons, an Italian production from 1963 originally titled Le Gladiatrici (“The Gladiatress”) and released to the U.S. (in a dreadfully-dubbed English version) as Thor and the Amazon Women. This was one of many sword-and-sandal movies Italian producers churned out in the early 1960’s after the enormous U.S. success of Hercules showed that you could make an historical spectacular and earn a ton of money off it without having anything like the production budget of The Ten Commandments or The Robe or Quo Vadis? or Ben-Hur or Cleopatra. I had thought this would be an interesting movie as a counterpoint to the recent Marvelized big-budget adaptation of Thor — which turned out to be surprisingly good, partly because of Kenneth Branagh’s direction and peopling his cast with excellent British actors, partly because the over-the-topness which has marred Branagh’s adaptations of classics like Shakespeare and Frankenstein was actually “right” for this story, partly because of a literate script that deftly (more deftly than the Marvel comic books on which it was based, if I recall them correctly) blended the ancient Norse legends with modern life, and partly also (I’ll admit it!) because the actor playing Thor, Chris Hemsworth, is a drop-dead gorgeous hunk!

Alas, the 1963 Thor and the Amazon Women (to use the simpler version of its English title) has none of those advantages. Its director is someone named Antonio Leonviola, who also co-wrote the script with Fabio Piccioni and Sofia Scandurra (the last-named is the biggest surprise because it’s hard to imagine a woman actually being involved in writing this piece of rancid sexism, which basically treats the Amazons with the same quiet dignity, understanding and respect as D. W. Griffith treated the Blacks in The Birth of a Nation); Leonviola turned out to be utterly incapable of directing a scene with any degree of flair — even the action highlights were surprisingly dull. One wouldn’t think the climax, a tug-of-war between Thor (Joe Robinson, who’s tall, blond and easy enough on the eyes but hardly the hunk to die for we got in Chris Hemsworth!) and 101 gladiatresses (a narrator, uncredited on imdb.com’s Web page for the film, explains that anyone who questions the wisdom or decision-making of the Amazon queen gets sent to the gladiator corps), would be dull, but it was. Thor and the Amazon Women was the sort of bad movie that isn’t even redeemed by being so bad as to work as camp; it’s just dull, dull, dull, and the awful English dubbing and horrible print quality (archive.org’s version seems to have come from a fifth-generation copy of a VHS tape) didn’t help either.

If it matters, the heroine is a tall, blonde gladiatress named Tamar (Suzy Andersen), and though there doesn’t seem to be much if any love interest between her and Thor; and the villain is the Black Queen (Janine Hendy), who has a marvelous villain’s attitude that seems to be the closest anyone gets in this film to anything resembling acting. Though the setting in this is nominal antiquity instead of nominal science-fiction, the film Queen of Outer Space is virtually the same as this one plot-wise and Zsa Zsa Gabor actually emerges as a more believable actress than Suzy Andersen — though it’s hard to judge any of the performances in Thor and the Amazon Women fairly because we’re only seeing the visuals of the credited actors and they can’t be blamed for the god-awful line readings of the (uncredited) people dubbing them — and Queen of Outer Space not only doesn’t hurl the concept’s inherent sexism at us with the force of Thor and the Amazon Women, it’s also a good deal more fun.