Monday, April 29, 2013

That Hamilton Woman (Korda/United Artists, 1941)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2013 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was That Hamilton Woman, a recent recording from Turner Classic Movies’ “Star of the Month” tribute to Laurence Olivier and Olivier’s third and last film with his second wife, actress Vivien Leigh. It was made in 1941, but sources differ as to exactly where it was shot — lists the location as producer-director Alexander Korda’s studio in Denham, England, while TCM host Robert Osborne says it was filmed in Hollywood (which was believable because when Winston Churchill became prime minister he closed down the British film industry altogether for two years on the ground that it was wasting strategic materials needed for war production; later he relented, possibly inspired by the example of the U.S.-made but British-set war film Mrs. Miniver, which he publicly declared was “propaganda worth a thousand battleships”). It is known that when the film was made Olivier had already enlisted in the Royal Air Force and Churchill personally authorized his being put on leave to play Lord Horatio Nelson in this film (later Olivier washed out of the RAF because his poor eyesight made him a lousy pilot). It’s a rather awkward movie but also a quite stirring one even though the junctures between the two plot lines — Nelson’s heroic service to the Crown in the war against Napoleon’s France, and the scandalous love affair between him and Lady Emma Hamilton (Vivien Leigh) — often jar, and let’s face, under the watchful eyes of the British Board of Film Censors and the U.S. Production Code Administration, it was almost insuperably difficult to do a drama about an adulterous affair from any position of emotional and dramatic honesty.

One curious thing about That Hamilton Woman is how severely Vivien Leigh had already been “typed” — after her star-making turn in Gone with the Wind, in which she played the female lead in a doomed romance set against the backdrop of a major war, she was assigned to the 1940 Waterloo Bridge, in which she played the female lead in a doomed romance set against the backdrop of a major war, and now here she was again playing the female lead in a doomed romance set against the backdrop of a major war. What’s more, Emma Hamilton’s character arc as depicted in the script by Walter Reisch and R. C. Sherriff is quite similar to Scarlett O’Hara’s: she begins as a flirtatious flibbertigibbet but soon decides to use her charms to advance her country’s war effort, and by the end of the film she’s an heroic and ultimately a tragic figure. The film actually opens with Emma homeless and living a hand-to-mouth existence on the streets of Paris (adding irony to the insult: not only did she lose all her money and social standing after Nelson was killed at Trafalgar but she ended up in the country that was the enemy Nelson fought so bravely!), getting busted for stealing a wine bottle from a tavern and being put in a cell with a prostitute who, as luck (or authorial fiat) would have it, is also British, which means that Lady Hamilton can narrate her whole story in English. (The opening scene is actually in French — a rarity in U.S. or British movies set in France — but it quickly switches to a spectacular scene of Leigh chewing out the cops arresting her in English, and them responding in kind.)

She recalls how she was first engaged to the nephew of Sir William Hamilton (Alan Mowbray), the British ambassador to the Kingdom of Naples (remember this was well before either Italy or Germany became unified countries!), and when the nephew wrote her a letter jilting her Sir William offered to marry her himself, less out of love than out of his collectors’ instinct: he’s assembled a major collection of classical and medieval art and both she and we get the distinct impression he considers her just another bauble in his collection. It’s already been established that she started out poor and had a succession of affairs with rich men that gave her at least a toe-hold in society — early on Sir William says that he’ll give her all the perks of marriage to a nobleman except a presentation at court (though later she gets that one, too). Emma and her mother, Mrs. Cadogan-Lyon (Sara Allgood), live a superficial existence at the ambassador’s villa, but Emma befriends the Queen of Naples and, when Nelson shows up and it’s love (or at least lust) at first sight between them, he needs 10,000 Neapolitan soldiers to bolster the forces of the Brits battling Napoleon. Sir William can’t get a meeting with the King in time for the reinforcements to do Nelson any good, but his wife can: she gets the Queen to introduce him to the King, and the King signs the order sending his forces into battle as Nelson’s allies. The film tells the story of Nelson’s various triumphs in Italy and Egypt, for which he’s given medals and honors by the British government, but his warnings that there can be no lasting peace in Europe while Napoleon is still in power and the only way to deal with dictators is to defeat them utterly are ignored. During these speeches the 1801 = 1941 parallel the writers were going for is really hammered home with anti-dramatic obviousness — ironically writers like Howard W. Koch at Warner Bros. in the U.S. in films like The Sea Hawk were making these points a good deal more subtly — and at times Olivier sounds like Winston Churchill in a period costume and a hotter bod. According to a “trivia” poster on, the reason these speeches sound like Churchill wrote them is because he did; supposedly he actually composed two speeches for Nelson that got inserted into the script by Korda.

The film goes on like this for more than two hours of running time, with Nelson alternately romancing Lady Hamilton and getting impatient with the British government putting him on display in elaborate parades when he’d rather be off fighting Napoleon. When Sir William Hamilton dies, Nelson buys Emma a house of her own and pays her bills while still remaining married to his wife Frances (Gladys Cooper), who doesn’t love him anymore but won’t divorce him, and they’re reasonably happy until Napoleon breaks the fragile peace treaty the Brits had signed with him (the script’s parallels to Chamberlain, Hitler and Munich really get forced and too blatantly obvious to serve the propagandistic intent) and Nelson has to go to Trafalgar to confront the recently rebuilt French navy, bolstered by the Spanish one. (Napoleon had occupied Spain and requisitioned its ships; in World War II Churchill was so fearful that the same thing would happen with the French navy — that its ships would be commandeered by Hitler and bolster the German naval forces — that he laid plans for an attack that would sink the French ships, though in the end most of the French ships were either sunk by the French themselves or sailed to French colonial ports that were outside German control.) Alas, for someone so savvy in many things, Emma Hamilton proves too utterly naïve in matters of finance for her own good: she’s already let her late husband’s fortune get away (his heir is the scapegrace nephew that deserted her at the start of the film!) and Nelson’s attempts to provide for her are broken by his family and the British government, and in keeping with the careful romanticization of the whole piece Emma, back in the French jail she was in at the start of the film, refuses to say just how she fell so far so fast. “There is no ‘then,’ there is no ‘after,’” she tells the English whore she’s talking to, and the film fades out.

That Hamilton Woman — released in the U.K. with the less blatantly scandal-mongering title Lady Hamilton (on the assumption that British moviegoers would know who Lady Hamilton was but U.S. ones wouldn’t) — is a curious mixture of romantic drama and war movie that doesn’t really come off as either; though Laurence Olivier had responded well to directors like William Wyler in Wuthering Heights and Alfred Hitchcock in Rebecca who toned down his stage-bound affectations and got him to act more subtly for film (indeed Hitchcock did such a good job at this that producer David O. Selznick sent him memos saying Olivier was being too understated!), Alexander Korda either couldn’t or wouldn’t exert the same control, and as a result Olivier’s performance as Nelson comes off as strong but also way too overwrought for the film medium, the sort of thing that would work if he were acting it this way on stage but is just “too much” for the cameras. Korda reportedly cast Olivier and Leigh because he saw an obvious parallel between the Nelson/Hamilton relationship and the actors’ own: they too had both fallen in love with each other while already married to other people, and had had to go through messy divorces in order to get together. (They had just married when That Hamilton Woman was filmed, and while they would work together again on stage — notably when Olivier directed Leigh in the 1950 British premiere of A Streetcar Named Desire, a sort of warm-up for her part in the film a year later — they would never again make a movie together. Their plans to follow up his film of Richard III with a Macbeth with them as the Macbeths fell apart when Korda died in 1956 and no other producer was willing to take up the project.) That Hamilton Woman is a good movie — the behind-the-camera talent includes Rudolph Maté as the cinematographer and Miklós Rósza contributing a musical score overwrought even by his standards — but it falls just short of the greatness at which it was obviously aiming, mainly because the story seems contrived and the junctures between Nelson in love and Nelson at war clash instead of adding to the story’s depth.

Sunday, April 28, 2013

A Sister’s Revenge (Capital Productions 8 [SV], Reel One Films 3, 2013)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2013 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I watched a Lifetime movie that was having its so-called “world premiere” last night: A Sister’s Revenge, a pretty standard-issue bad-girl thriller for the Lifetime channel that shows how much Christine Conradt has set the format for these things and essentially become Lifetime’s auteur, to the point where a film that she had nothing to do with (this one had someone named John Serge as the writer and Curtis James Crawford —though leaves out his middle name — as the director) nonetheless hits all the major points of her formula. It begins with a woman in a light SUV running down another woman riding a bicycle; we don’t know who either of these two people are yet but the woman in the SUV runs down the woman on the bike and she ends up … well, we presume she’s badly injured and is going to be laid up for quite a while. Then the scene cuts to a restaurant called Michael’s Bar and Grill, which despite the unassuming exterior and the proletarian name is really a pretty upscale place once Crawford’s camera dollies us inside. The proprietor is Michael Miller (Tim Rozon, not exactly drop-dead gorgeous but a good deal handsomer than a lot of Lifetime leading men), who’s happily married to a woman named Catherine (Ashley Jones), though she’s getting restive because their son Evan was just born and Michael has insisted that Catherine take the first year of Evan’s life off work and mother him. Unfortunately, Michael needs to hire a new hostess because his previous one was in an unexpected accident and is going to be laid up for a while (and if you’re a veteran Lifetime movie-watcher you don’t need two guesses to figure out how that happened), and after turning down the first applicant (she tells him, “I can bench 250 pounds,” which makes me think she’d have been a good candidate for the job: with that amount of strength, she could be both a hostess and a bouncer) he hires Suzanne Dunne (Brooke Burns), a blonde who walked in on the job without bothering to turn in an application first but because she’s flirting with him (just because he’s married doesn’t mean he can’t look!) and his gonads are in play he hires her anyway.

At first I thought this was going to be another one of Lifetime’s “Perfect” movies, in which the unscrupulous bad girl goes after the good guy’s money and/or his bod and doesn’t let the fact that he’s already married to the good girl stand in her way one bit. Then we get a scene of Suzanne at home with her boyfriend Jimmy (Joe Marques) and it appears that they’re in some kind of plot to scam money out of Michael. Suzanne does everything she can to sabotage both Michael’s restaurant and his life — she sets fire to the kitchen, later she sneaks cockroaches into the place (both of which force him to close down for extended periods; the first time his clientele remains pretty much intact but business nosedives after the roach invasion to the point where he’s on the phone to his friends pleading with them to dine there, and they’re begging off), and one night when Catherine is away in New York on what was supposed to be a romantic vacation with her husband but turned into a solo bid because he had to supervise the reconstruction of the restaurant after the fire (ya remember the fire?), he’s talked by a young couple who work for him to take Suzanne on a night on the town, just the four of them. Suzanne has already planned this out and prepared for it; she’s had Jimmy score her some narcotic pills, which she’s ground into a powder so she can slip them into Michael’s drink, then bring him back to her place and seduce him, all the while filming him. In the film’s most grimly funny scene, he comes to in her bed and finds she’s handcuffed him to her headboard. Fortunately the headboard is cheap enough he’s able to break out by pulling it to pieces, and he goes to a local shop owner he knows to see if he can unlock the handcuffs and free him. The guy has a ring of all the standard handcuff keys and does the job, giving a knowing smile as if this isn’t the first time he’s had to render this service for an S/M practitioner after a scene went horribly wrong. Then Michael tells him he can keep the handcuffs.

Suzanne e-mails Michael a copy of their sex tape and threatens to post the whole thing to the Internet unless he pays her $75,000 in cash — which he does, taking out a home equity loan from his banker friend (played by writer John Serge) and forging his wife’s signature electronically since the house is in both their names and therefore they’re both supposed to sign it. It’s not until about two-thirds of the way through the movie that we finally learn what this is all about: before moving to Philadelphia (where the film takes place), marrying Catherine and building the restaurant, Michael lived in San Francisco and had a relationship with Suzanne’s sister Ariel (Allison Busner). We’ve only seen Ariel on computer videos Suzanne obsessively watches when she’s alone at home, and we weren’t sure who she was — and for that matter we weren’t sure whether these were old tapes or they were Skyping each other in real time (one nice thing about this movie — which hasn’t always been true of Lifetime — is at least the communications technology is up to date; there’ve been films set in high school in the mid-2000’s which asked us to believe that none of the students had a laptop, a smartphone or a Facebook account). Now we find out through some exposition from Suzanne and a few flashbacks (in which Tim Rozon actually does look credibly younger than he does in the main part of the movie) that Ariel took the relationship a lot more seriously than Michael did. When Ariel got pregnant she expected Michael to marry her; instead he rejected her and went to Philadelphia after leaving her the money for an abortion, and instead of having either the baby or the abortion she committed suicide. That is what Suzanne has been bent on having her titular “sister’s revenge” on, and in the film’s most chilling scene Michael pleads with her and asks what he can do, to which she replies, “Suffer.”

Indeed, Suzanne goes as far as to spike Catherine’s iced tea with ethylene glycol, commonly known as antifreeze (earlier she’s taken a wax impression of Michael’s keys so she can come and go in his house at will; she’s also hired herself out as Catherine’s physical trainer so Michael can’t get rid of her even though he’s fired her from his workplace), so she’ll end up in the hospital and it’ll look like Michael tried to murder his wife so he and Suzanne could be together, and Michael is duly arrested and accused of attempted murder. Catherine’s patience has been sufficiently tested that she leaves Michael and moves in with her friend Gwen (Rebecca Amzallag). So how does it all come out? You remember Michael and Catherine have a baby son named Eric? So how much you wanna bet that it’s going to end with Suzanne kidnapping Eric? You guessed it: Suzanne traces Catherine to Gwen’s home, knocks her out at her door and takes the kid, then calls Michael to meet her at the restaurant. Jimmy is with her and expects a payoff but Suzanne wants to kill Michael and set Jimmy up for the crime — and Jimmy understandably rebels but gets a bullet in his shoulder for his pains. Then Michael and Suzanne reach for the gun (Maurine Watkins, your plagiarism attorney is holding on line one) and Suzanne gets it in the gut, so the film ends “six months later” with Jimmy’s testimony exonerating Michael, Suzanne dead and Michael and Catherine reconciled while the restaurant (ya remember the restaurant?) is doing land-office business. A Sister’s Revenge is one of those obsessive Lifetime movies that isn’t terribly good as a movie but is redeemed by a marvelous villainess performance from Brooke Burns, who makes her twisted psyche believable and even a bit understandable (her background is that both she and Ariel were molested as children by their father, and when she saw her dad raping Ariel she killed him and got three years in a mental institution for her pains), but she can’t undo the effects of slovenly writing and by-the-numbers direction that portrays Michael’s Kafkaesque fate in all too matter-of-fact a manner.

Saturday, April 27, 2013

Argo (Warner Bros., GK, Smokehouse, 2012)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2013 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was Argo, this year’s Academy Award Best Picture winner, and both Charles and liked it but I didn’t think it really achieved greatness. It certainly began with one of the most fascinating premises for a movie imaginable: the real-life rescue of six of the personnel from the American Embassy in Tehran, Iran in 1980 after Iranian students loyal to the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini seized the U.S. Embassy and held over 50 people hostage for over a year until they were released the day Ronald Reagan took over from Jimmy Carter as president of the U.S.: an event the hostage crisis had done quite a bit to bring about. The six escaped being held inside the U.S. Embassy by sneaking out the building’s side entrance (ironically, a door that was usually used to accommodate Iranians seeking visas to enter the U.S.!) and into the official residence of the Canadian ambassador, where they remained for over three months. They were even referred to as “house guests” and the Canadians put their own lives and liberties on the line sheltering them. But they couldn’t leave the building without risking being apprehended either by Iranian authorities or the same sorts of mobs that had taken the U.S. embassy in the first place, and the State Department was put in charge of trying to come up with some way to sneak them out of Iran and into a friendly country from which they could make their way back home. The State Department called in agents from the CIA, including an “exfil” expert (“exfil” is short for “exfiltration,” and in the movie one of the people in the Canadian ambassador’s house notes that he’s never heard the word before) named Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck, who also directed). He hears various plans being discussed, including issuing them bicycles (how would they get them to them?) so they could bicycle the 300 miles to the Turkish border; trying to pass them off as Canadian agriculture experts advising Iran’s agriculture department (Tony points out that it’s the dead of winter and no agriculture expert visits a country in the middle of the season where nothing grows); trying to pass them off as teachers at the International School in Tehran (which has been closed for at least eight months); and the scheme Tony finally thinks of on his own and, in the face of skepticism from the State Department, puts into action. It calls for passing off the six American Embassy personnel as members of a Canadian filmmaking team that went to Iran to scout possible locations for a science-fiction movie on the basis that much of the Middle East is desert and therefore suitable to represent what most movie audiences believe other life-bearing planets would look like.

To make it seem credible Tony has to hire a producer — he finds an old, over-the-hill one named Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin, giving a performance that reminded me a good deal of Dann Florek’s police-captain character in Law and Order: Special Victims Unit) — and buy the rights to a script called Argo whose writer intended it as the story of Jason and the Argonauts transposed to outer space. (Lester has never heard of the story of Jason and the Argonauts and therefore, when he’s asked at a press conference, he has no idea what the title of his putative movie means: later he coins the phrase, “Argo, fuck you” and that becomes a recurring motif throughout the film.) The plan calls for Tony to fly into Iran and collect the Americans, then leave with them through the various checkpoints — a relatively easy (he thinks) one at the airport, a tougher one at Iran’s immigration department and a really tough one staffed by Iran’s Revolutionary Guards — as if they’ve only been there for two days. Of course, this being a movie, he pulls it off despite the usual complications — including the pass system Iran introduces at the airport just before his arrival, whereby when you land in Iran the person at the desk who admits you writes two copies of your document, a yellow one you’re supposed to turn in when you leave and a white one they keep so they can match it with yours and make sure you’re who you say you are and you came to Iran when you said you did. Argo came on a DVD with a documentary featurette on the actual rescue — which included one odd fillip which writer Chris Terrio (working from a memoir by the real Tony Mendez and a Wired magazine article about the rescue) left out of his script: even after they finally got on the plane to Zurich, Switzerland, mechanical trouble kept the plane grounded at Tehran for a half-hour and naturally made the escapees even more frightened than they already were. (The script did include the scene in which all the escapees have cocktails once they’re told by the flight attendants that, now that the plane is out of Iranian airspace, alcoholic drinks may once again be served.)

 Argo turned out to be a quite entertaining movie, well acted (as films directed by actors generally are — as I’ve noted in these pages before, even actor-directors who as actors were heavy-duty hams, like Erich von Stroheim and Orson Welles, managed to get understated performances from their cast members), well staged and benefiting from Affleck’s decision to shoot it on film instead of digital equipment and to use half-frames, blown up 200 percent, to give it a grainy look that would make it look like a late-1970’s movie. He also used the form of the Warner Bros. logo that was in use when the film takes place instead of the return to the classic “shield” version Warners has done since. Argo is a largely understated movie that makes the business of heroism seem just that — a business — Tony Mendez is portrayed as cool and dispassionate (except when he’s trying to talk the State Department bureaucrats out of ideas that don’t work, or when he’s frantically trying to call the U.S. President because the White House has canceled the operation to prepare for the April 1980 attempt to stage a raid to free the Embassy hostages and he needs Presidential intervention to get the op back on again) and the film as a whole is constantly stimulating but rarely exciting. It’s the sort of attempt at a thriller that makes one wish Alfred Hitchcock were still alive — even a relatively minor Hitchcock film like Torn Curtain (a comparison I picked because it’s also about an attempt to smuggle someone out of an unfriendly country) has far more thrills than Argo. What makes Argo fun are the bits of wit in Terrio’s script — especially its mordant observations about Hollywood (when Tony explains the plan to his movie-business contact, makeup artist John Chambers [John Goodman], Chambers says, “So you want to come to Hollywood, act like a big shot, without actually doing anything? You’ll fit right in!”), though even those were done better in the somewhat similarly plotted Wag the Dog, and also its refusal to present the Iranian hostage drama as a straight morality play.

Befitting its origins as a production for George Clooney’s Smokehouse company — Clooney and his producing partner, Grant Heslov, are listed among the six executive producers and Clooney was originally set to play Tony Mendez — Argo takes a refreshingly nuanced view of U.S.-Iranian relations during the last part of the 20th century, beginning a prologue with a voice-over narrator explaining over newsreel footage that the Iranians elected a prime minister named Mohammed Mossadegh in 1950 and three years later he was overthrown by the CIA and its British equivalent because he nationalized the holdings of U.S. and British oil companies in Iran. It also superbly integrates clips of the actual TV news coverage of the hostage situation in 1980 — the joins are seamless precisely because Affleck and his cinematographer, Rodrigo Prieto, did their tricks with grain to make the “new” footage look like late-1970’s material. It also has an unusually appropriate set of music selections, including some of the mainstream pop-rock hits of the time; you get the impression you’re hearing what the characters would actually have listened to. (The soundtrack CD might actually be worth owning even though none of the songs on it, except maybe Dire Straits’ “Sultans of Swing,” are truly great.) Argo simply isn’t all that exciting — and certainly the material had the makings of a nail-biting thriller in it, but screenwriter Terrio managed to get the worst of both worlds, carefully editing the real story to fit it to the usual movie clichés and thereby distorting it a great deal but not enough that it made a viscerally exciting movie. Part of the problem is Ben Affleck’s performance; he’s quite competent (all too often Ben Affleck has turned in performances either so slovenly or so ridiculously over-stylized as to be ludicrous) but he’s covered with a full beard (like Al Pacino in Serpico) and his character is drawn so one-dimensionally about his only big dramatic issue is that because of the demands of his job he’s become separated from his wife and their child — and, natch, they reconcile (at least briefly) at the end.

Director Affleck got a decent performance from actor Affleck but the obscure Allen Coulter got an even better one out of him as George Reeves in Hollywoodland (another highly fictionalized movie based on real events), which to my mind remains Affleck’s best film (of the ones I’ve seen, anyway). Argo is less self-conscious of its own “importance” than Lincoln, its principal rival at the Academy Awards, but though both films are flawed Lincoln seemed to me to live more. Charles said he thought Argo won the Academy Award for Best Picture for much the same reason he thought The King’s Speech did: both movies are literally about the power of acting (the memoir by the real Tony Mendez on which Argo was based was called The Master of Disguise) and the ability of professional entertainers to render themselves and their services invaluable to the continued smooth exercise of government power. There may be something to that, or as I suspect the Academy simply wasn’t comfortable giving a bunch of awards to a film so consciously designed to win Oscars as Lincoln (and the professional jealousy of virtually everyone else in Hollywood towards Steven Spielberg, whom they venomously, enviously hate for having made half of the most popular movies of all time, didn’t help either!), looked for an alternative and made Argo the “safe” alternative to Lincoln the way Crash emerged as the “safe” alternative to Brokeback Mountain a few years ago. One irony is that in 1980 the CIA clamped down on all knowledge of the “Hollywood operation” and gave Tony Mendez an award for it but insisted on keeping it a secret, with the result that when the six freed hostages finally returned to U.S. soil it was the Canadians who got all the credit for their release — and this movie has gone so far in the other direction that it’s made it seem like the Canadians were just people who happened to have a house available and the American secret agents did all the work!

Thursday, April 25, 2013

The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn, part 2 (Summit/Lionsgate, 2012)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2013 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The movie was The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn, part 2, to give it its full (and rather awkward) title, the fifth and final episode in the Twilight cycle — in which Stephenie Meyer’s final book in the series was split into two films, as had already been done with the final Harry Potter novel and is going to be done again with Mockingjay, the last of the three books in the Hunger Games trilogy. I’ve quite liked the Twilight films, though after the surprisingly good first entry in 2008 and the marvelous New Moon the following year (a film I particularly treasure because its director, Christopher Weitz, cheerily ignored all the rules about how you’re supposed to direct a film for the youth audience — instead of quick, choppy jump cuts and a disinclination to hold any scene for longer than three seconds lest teens whose attention spans have been destroyed by music videos and the Internet get bored, Weitz favored long takes and elaborate camera movements, making New Moon look like a 1940’s film — and despite his flouting the rules for making a young people’s movie, he had a blockbuster hit anyway) they’ve gone steadily downhill. It wasn’t until we watched Breaking Dawn, part 2 that I realized why: the original appeal of the Twilight mythos was its combination of adolescent coming-of-age movie and vampire tale, and that worked only when the vampires (and werewolves) lived among, and interacted with, normal humans.

The entire dramatis personae of Breaking Dawn, part 2 is supernatural, except for Bella’s father (Billy Burke), her stepmother and a hiker whom Bella encounters in the woods around Forks, Washington (where the Twilight films have been centered even though some of them have ranged around the rest of the world) and who looks like he’s about to become her first human victim when she manages to restrain herself from consuming either his blood or that of a passing deer, and instead feeds herself on a cougar who was about to kill the deer. (It’s a neatly done scene but it’s also a bit contrived in the way it allows Bella to feed her literal bloodlust on the least likable of the three creatures involved.) The suspense in the first four films in the series was over whether Bella (Kristen Stewart) would accept being “vampirized” so she and her boyfriend (her husband in the two Breaking Dawn movies) Edward Cullen (Robert Pattinson) could live together, literally forever, and be the same (apparent) age. Once that happened — and it was disappointing to me when at the end of the first Breaking Dawn Bella was vampirized not as her own choice but to save her life from some weird infection or wound or the weakness Bella went through after the infallible pregnancy at the first sexual contact between herself and Edward resulted in the birth of Renesmee (played, according to, by 10 different people and an animatronic robot because one of the conceits of the cycle is that vampires’ kids grow unusually rapidly — much the way the title role in the film Babe had to be played by multiple pigs because real-life pigs grow fast and it was important for the concept that the pig appear to be the same size throughout), the half-vampire, half-human daughter of Edward and Bella.

It takes about 40 minutes into this film’s running time before the dramatic issue at the center of its plot finally materializes: the Volturi — who were introduced in New Moon as sort of the vampire cult’s Vatican but who in this episode are full-fledged bad guys — have decided that Renesmee must be killed because she’s an “immortal child.” Apparently “immortal children” are people who’ve been vampirized while they’re still human kids, and since vampirization freezes you at whatever age you were at when the transformation occurred, the “immortal children” were total monsters who slaughtered people willy-nilly and killed so many humans that eventually humans reacted and took out most of the vampire cults. Bella, Edward and their friends — including werewolf Jacob Black (Taylor Lautner, who throughout the cycle has done far more for both Charles and I aesthetically than the wimpy Robert Pattinson — if there were such a thing as male neurasthenia Pattinson would be the poster boy for it) and his wolf pack (though Jacob is the only werewolf we see in this film on both sides of the human-to-wolf transition — the others we see only in quite obvious digital animations of large wolves) — have to stage a pitched battle between themselves on one side and the Volturi’s minions on the other. The Volturi are led by Aro (Michael Sheen), a queeny vampire who seems to have wandered into Twilight’s world from the Underworld franchise (which lacked Twilight’s romanticism but was more convincing as action fare; it also centered around a traditional enmity between vampires and werewolves and also involved a cross-bred child, though in the Underworld movies it’s a half-vampire, half-werewolf instead of a half-vampire, half-human), though before they get down to any action they do a lot of talking instead on a snowy mountain location. The effect is reminiscent of Kriemhild’s Revenge, Fritz Lang’s disappointing 1924 sequel to his beautiful Siegfried, in which Kriemhild (equivalent to Gutrune in Wagner’s Ring) marries Attila the Hun after her husband Siegfried is murdered and tries to get him to be the instrument of her revenge — only he’s more interested in sulking and pouting than in doing his Hun-like thing and massacring the members of Kriemhild’s family who killed Siegfried.

The action scenes themselves are triumphs of the modern-day special-effects trade (courtesy mostly of  Hydraulx), with people zooming around unnaturally quickly and showing abilities that run roughshod over the normal laws of physics — apparently the conceit in this film, which was only hinted at in the first four, was that all vampires develop some sort of superpower. Alas, all this zooming around and the fast cuts director Bill Condon (who made two of the greatest movies of the last decade, Gods and Monsters and Dreamgirls, but seems to have approached the Breaking Dawn films as works for hire that would bolster his commercial reputation rather than vehicles for his own vision the way Christopher Weitz approached New Moon) uses makes it difficult to follow the action, let alone root for the good guys over the bad guys — who aren’t really bad guys; after an exciting scene in which Aro is beheaded and then his body is burned (this seems to be the primary way to kill a vampire in this version of the legend — Anne Rice’s vampires could also only be killed by fire, and I believe the first use of fire as the one danger vampires are vulnerable to was by PRC’s hack screenwriter Fred Myton in the 1942 film Dead Men Walk), it turns out that that’s just a fantasy shown by one of the good vampires to Aro as what will happen to him if he persists in his war against the Cullens and their werewolf allies. (It reminded me of the way the 1960’s Superman comics designated some of their issues as “novels” — which allowed them to alter the ruling assumptions behind the characters and their universe, and even as a kid I was impressed by the metafictional quality of playing with an already fictional universe that way: “What will our story be like if we assume this instead of that?”)

Eventually the plot gets resolved, sort of, when it turns out that a Native American vampire from Brazil is actually himself a vampire-human cross-breed, and he hasn’t become one of those fearsome Immortal Children — instead he grew to the size and appearance of a young adult and then stopped, and because he’s both vampire and human he can dine on blood and normal food — so the Volturi slink off, assured that they have nothing to worry about from Renesmee long-term, only there’s a final bit of dialogue from Edward to the effect that the Volturi never forget and if Stephenie Meyer hadn’t been so insistent on saying this is the end of the story I’d suspect they were setting us up for a Twilight VI. Breaking Dawn, part 2 is a perfectly decent entertainment movie, but the series really went downhill after the first two (like the Universal Frankensteins!) and this one had too many beheadings (all shown in that clinical, cartoony way that comes with doing the effects work digitally) and not enough beefcake. We do get a nice scene of Taylor Lautner stripping down to his underpants (baggy grey briefs, in case you were wondering) but that’s about it. What we also don’t get — and my biggest disappointment about the film — is many of the marvelous interactions between the vampire and human worlds that made the first two films in the cycle so special; about the only hint of it is a nice scene in which Bella finds herself unable to tell her father that she’s become a vampire. “Coming out to your dad is always a bitch,” I joked.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Spike Jones and His City Slickers (Arena Stars/Jerry Fairbanks; unsold TV pilot, 1952)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2013 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was an unsold 1952 pilot for a TV show featuring Spike Jones and His City Slickers — indeed, the show is so obscure doesn’t list it, though they do list the three TV series Jones did eventually get to do (summer replacement shows in 1954, 1957 and 1961) — which had some really clever gags but for the most part revealed how dated Jones’ brand of humor is. The weird part is that Spike Jones and His City Slickers were actually a quite capable band — the opening number they do would be a quite pleasant, infectious piece of Dixieland jazz if it weren’t for all the gunshots, horn honks and other “novelty” effects going on during it. Later in the program there’s a spot for a singer named Helen Grayco (costumed in 1952 performance drag even though her number appears in the middle of an Old West spoof) doing “One for My Baby” with some lovely obbligato playing from Jones’s trumpeter. She’s not quite at the level of the touchstone versions of this song — Fred Astaire’s (it was written for him in the 1943 movie The Sky’s the Limit), Frank Sinatra’s or Johnny Mercer’s — but her singing is subtle, eloquent and properly world-weary for Mercer’s last-call lyric. That’s the high point of the program — the Jones humor dates badly but Grayco’s haunting singing is timeless — though there are some clever gags, including an introduction showing a man, his wife and their son sitting in front of a crudely painted mockup of a TV set watching the Spike Jones program. The payoff later on is that Jones, playing a sheriff who comes into a Wild West town to tame it (only he’s riding a toy horse considerably smaller than he is, albeit with a full-sized saddle), offers the villain a drink and then shoots him — and the drink not only spurts out of the villain’s body through the bullet holes (an old gag) but drenches the hapless family supposedly watching all this on TV (a nice variation).

One reviewer loved Helen Grayco as much as I did but added, “I can see why this particular pilot was not sold though. Just awful. Great stereotyping, (not)! This trash should be flushed!” Another one said the show “would have been a breath of fresh air in 1952. I loved the endless rhyming, and the often absurd skits are still funny today. Three Stooges’ fans will recognize Mousie Garner, a former Ted Healy stooge. Too bad this didn’t sell. It would be a cult classic today.” It might at that … to the people who found the abysmal Pee-Wee’s Playhouse funny, which I most assuredly did not. It had that same weird infantilism Pee-Wee Herman tapped more recently (of course in between Spike Jones and Pee-Wee Herman there was Jerry Lewis, and before all of them — and funnier than all of them — there was Harry Langdon!), and when I saw that frame-breaking introduction it did occur to me that this might be where Pee-Wee Herman ripped off that whole disgusting act from. I’ve seen Jones’ comic holocaust (the show itself is called “Music Depreciation”!) before in 1940’s movies — including Variety Girl, where his onslaught on poor, unsuspecting singer Mary Hatcher is actually screamingly funny — and I was a bit disappointed in this show because he was working so hard for such meager laughs. Jones’s closing mini-monologue sounds so much like the oddly mincing voice of Liberace on his then-popular TV show I can’t help but wonder if it was intended as a parody, and it’s odd that this farrago of (mostly) unfunny gags was directed by Eddie Cline, who started as a Keystone Kop and made W. C. Fields’ My Little Chickadee, The Bank Dick and Never Give a Sucker an Even Break at Universal in 1940-41: ah, how the mighty had fallen!

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

The Art of Singing (NVC Arts, 1996)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2013 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I ran Charles a quite interesting documentary called The Art of Singing, compiled by a company called NVC Arts in 1996 and purporting to show the history of opera singing in the 20th century as documented on film —though it really only showed the first two-thirds of the 20th century: it came to a screeching halt in 1964 with Maria Callas and Tito Gobbi in a bit of Act II of Puccini’s Tosca. The film begins with a montage of famous singers’ faces set to Enrico Caruso’s 1907 recording of “Vesti la giubba” from Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci and then shows clips from one of the two feature films Caruso made. I’ve seen it referred to elsewhere simply as My Cousin but the NVC Arts people gave the title as My Italian Cousin, and it cast Caruso in a dual role: as a world-famous Metropolitan Opera tenor and his hayseed cousin from Italy who comes to the U.S. to see him. The finale features Caruso singing “Vesti la giubba” and the original director, Edward José, actually had Caruso lip-synch to his record of the aria as he shot the scene. The distributor, Paramount, instructed theatres to install a phonograph and play Caruso’s record while the scene unreeled so, in 1916 (a decade before the advent of talkies), audiences would get to see and hear the great tenor on screen. Unfortunately, the experiment fell victim to the two obvious problems — the difficulty in synchronizing sound and picture and the even greater difficulty, before electric amplification existed, of making the sound loud enough to fill the theatre. The makers of this documentary chose not to try to synchronize Caruso’s image with his record; instead they had a silent movie-style orchestra play an instrumental version of the aria. The next clip was actually a French short from 1913 using an experimental sound process to synchronize actors lip-synching to one of the recordings of the sextet from Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor that featured Caruso.

Then we finally got into some recordings from the talkie era — which Caruso missed by about five years — including Vitaphone shorts of Giovanni Martinelli singing “Celeste Aïda” and the quasi-operatic pop song “Torna a Surriento.” Oddly, he was way too mincing in the Aïda aria — the fact that his costume made him look like the little teapot short and stout didn’t help, nor did his expansive, hammy hand gestures — but sang “Torna a Surriento” (in a set supposedly representing a gondola in Venice) with visceral power and authority. (If they wanted Martinelli in opera they should have run his first Vitaphone short, an overwhelming performance of — you guessed it — “Vesti la giubba” which was shown at the public debut of Vitaphone in New York on August 6, 1926; when Turner Classic Movies presented their reconstruction of this program I wrote, “Martinelli’s segment is by far the best of the opera scenes; his voice rings out beautifully and it’s clear he has some idea of what he’s doing dramatically — a pity they didn’t give him another aria to fill out his segment to a full reel!”) The next sequence was Martinelli’s great rival at the Met in the 1920’s, Beniamino Gigli (both had been signed after Caruso’s untimely death in 1921 left the Met management scrambling for a superstar tenor to replace him), in a stylish performance of “Ombra mai fu” from Handel’s Serse — the period-instrument fascists would probably have their little hissy-fits about what Gigli did to this piece (the source is probably one of his popular films from the late 1930’s and early 1940’s and the scene represents a radio broadcast; he’s backed by a chamber orchestra and a quite prominent, visually and audibly, organ) but he lavishes his honeyed lyricism on it and for once he’s restrained emotionally (in later opera arias he was great but tended to overact — in 1927 he did a Vitaphone short of the end of Cavalleria Rusticana and tore the music to tatters; 13 years later when he made his complete recording he was much more disciplined, though I suspect that was because composer Pietro Mascagni was conducting the recording himself and read Gigli the riot act.)

Next up was another lyric tenor, Tito Schipa, doing a lovely version of “M’appari” from Flotow’s Martha (a standard repertory opera in the first half of the 20th century before it almost completely disappeared, leaving behind only this aria and Flotow’s lovely setting of the folk song “The Last Rose of Summer). Afterwards we got our first non-tenor, baritone Giuseppe di Luca, in another surprisingly mincing performance of “Largo al factotum” from Rossini’s The Barber of Seville. I suspect the producers were constrained by what actually got filmed — di Luca’s signature role was Rigoletto and I’d much rather we had some of that on film (his records as the jester are overwhelming) — but he seemed miscast as Figaro even though he was in excellent voice and managed the staccato patter of the aria quite well. After di Luca we got a very strange clip that appears to be the only audio-visual record of soprano Luisa Tetrazzini; shot well after her retirement, she’s shown first listening to Caruso’s recording of “M’appari” from Martha and then singing along with it, an odd but quite moving tribute to her deceased colleague. Then there’s a clip from the quite interesting 1934 British musical Evensong, starring Evelyn Laye as a great soprano who makes it big and then stays too long at the top, continuing to sing even after her voice has got quite worn and her name no longer packs the box-office punch it once did. We don’t actually get to hear Laye sing on this compilation (even though she anticipated Jeanette MacDonald in being both a great singer and a quite good on-screen movie actor); instead we see her warming up for a production of Puccini’s La Bohème and having a diva hissy-fit over the fact that the mezzo singing Musetta is being billed right under her with her name in just as big letters. Then we hear the mezzo rehearsing Musetta’s waltz — and she’s the real-life Spanish mezzo Conchita Supervía, two years before her tragic death in childbirth, singing the hell out of the piece and making it clear just what Laye’s character is so worked up about. (When Charles and I watched Evensong complete I found myself wishing that Warner Bros. would have picked up the remake rights and shot a U.S. version; if they had found her a suitable voice double the lead role would have been quite good for Bette Davis.)

Just about everything in the Art of Singing compilation up to this point seems like a warmup once we come to the next two clips, the “Habañera” and “Chanson bohème” from Bizet’s Carmen (annoyingly shown in reverse order) as sung by Rosa Ponselle with piano accompaniment in a 1936 screen test she shot for MGM. One wonders why they didn’t sign her — probably because she was 40 years old, a problematic age to continue a movie career and a virtually impossible one for a woman to start one; also they had Jeanette MacDonald under contract and the year before she had rocketed to superstardom in Naughty Marietta, her first film with baritone Nelson Eddy — because she’s utterly overwhelming on screen. The two bits are separated by an interview with Ponselle in which she says she particularly liked the part of Carmen because she got to be wild, and for the first time in this documentary we’re seeing a singer not only giving her all on screen but showing off the charisma and dramatic power that must have wowed audiences who got to see her live. Since it was only a test (though they got a brilliant cinematographer to shoot it — William Daniels, Garbo’s favorite) Ponselle got the rare privilege of actually being able to sing on camera instead of having to pre-record her vocal and then lip-synch to it on screen. Mad magazine once lampooned the whole idea of pre-recording in their parody of The Sound of Music, which opened with Julie Andrews dancing around the mountaintop and rows of monitor speakers all around her, and the words of her song were, “I’m not singing now, I am pre-recorded/I’m just mouthing words I have sung before/And how does it feel to be singing nothing?/It’s an awful bore.”

There’s a later sequence of Risë Stevens singing “My heart at thy sweet voice” from Saint-Saëns’ opera Samson and Delilah, from the 1941 MGM musical The Chocolate Soldier (in which she was tried out as an alternate partner for Nelson Eddy), and she recalled that though she made the pre-recording at score pitch, on camera she was instructed to sing it an octave lower so the motions of the face while singing wouldn’t contort her looks and she’d be as glamorous as possible — and what the sheer act of singing can do to distort an otherwise good-looking person became all too obvious in a later clip of Leontyne Price performing, what else, “O patria mia” from her signature role, Verdi’s Aïda. After Ponselle’s overwhelming performance we get a clip of Richard Tauber singing Schubert’s “Serenade,” a quite lovely performance (though there’s some distortion in the sound quality) shot to make it look like he was accompanying himself even though he almost certainly wasn’t (he was probably miming to a pre-recording he’d made with a professional pianist). Then there are a couple of clips of Feodor Chaliapin, one from a silent movie he made in Russia based on Rimsky-Korsakov’s opera The Maid of Pskov and one from his film of Don Quixote, made in France in the 1930’s with German expat G. W. Pabst directing and songs specially written for the movie by Jacques Ibert. After that we get to see the (in)famous film clip from the Paramount musical The Big Broadcast of 1938 featuring Kirsten Flagstad on a papier-maché mountain crag, waving a spear around like a baseball bat and singing Brünnhilde’s Battle Cry from Act II of Wagner’s Die Walküre — introduced by, of all people, Bob Hope in his film debut. Flagstad is in absolutely spectacular voice — later she’d have trouble with her upper register, but it was clear and amazing here — but the clip is emblematic of the way opera singers got thrown into popular entertainments then. In some ways that’s better than the way they’re treated now, firmly ghettoized into their own teeny-tiny chunk of the entertainment industry (unless someone like Luciano Pavarotti breaks out of the ghetto and becomes a full-fledged member of the celebriati); at least in the 1930’s the big record companies and movie studios gave enough exposure and publicity to classical music that it communicated the message that if you wanted to be a well-rounded person you should like this!

After the Flagstad clip, Lawrence Tibbett was shown in a clip of the “Toreador Song” from Carmen, taken from his 1935 musical Metropolitan — the first official release from 20th Century-Fox and a box-office disappointment, though the clip is absolutely galvanic and Tibbett looks considerably sexier than he did in Cuban Love Song five years earlier (in which he looked like James Cagney had suddenly developed a first-rate baritone voice). It was the first clip since Ponselle’s that actually gave the experience of the intensity and charisma the performer must have projected on stage, and it makes one wish (I promised Charles I wouldn’t do too many what-if’s in connection with this movie, but here’s one I can’t resist) that some enterprising studio had filmed Carmen complete with Ponselle in the title role, Charles Kullmann as Don José, Tibbett as Escamillo and the fine, underrated soprano Marion Talley as Micaëla. In case you’re wondering why I picked only American singers for my dream cast, it’s because my fantasy includes doing Carmen in the original Opéra-Comique version with spoken dialogue, and persuading the studio “suits” there’d be a market for it by doing it in English translation. “That way it’s just a musical — only with fantastic music!” I can imagine the producer saying to get it green-lighted. After Tibbett’s incredible Toreador Song, there was a short scene from the 1942 MGM short We Must Have Music — which has been shown several times on Turner Classic Movies, mainly because Judy Garland sings its opening song (though that part of it wasn’t included here) — as a lead-in to the clip of Risë Stevens singing the Saint-Saëns Samson et Dalila aria “Mon Coeur s’ouvre à ta voix” and explaining that she was obliged to sing it a full octave down on set when she was synchronizing to her pre-recording of the aria so she would still look glamorous and her face wouldn’t get those contortions that are inevitable when one sings, especially when one sings those thrilling high notes that are one of the big appeals of opera. After that there was another excerpt from an MGM musical, Luxury Liner (1947), with Lauritz Melchior singing “Winterstürme” from Wagner’s Die Walküre to piano accompaniment (and, like the Tauber clip, it was made to look like Melchior was accompanying himself even though he pretty clearly wasn’t), with soprano Marina “Nina” Koshetz looking on — elsewhere in the movie they do the big soprano-tenor duet from Act III of Aïda but it was obvious the makers of The Art of Singing wanted to showcase Melchior’s unparalled chops as a Wagnerian. (This was also noteworthy as the first clip in the entire show that was in color.)

Then there was another color clip, from the Sol Hurok biopic Tonight We Sing, featuring Ezio Pinza playing Feodor Chaliapin singing the Coronation Scene from Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov — and, much to my surprise, singing it in the original Russian instead of Italian, the language the Met traditionally gave Boris in ever since Toscanini conducted the U.S. premiere there in 1913. (Pinza’s surviving Met broadcasts of Boris are in Italian, as is his album of excerpts from Boris on Columbia.) Perhaps because he was playing Chaliapin, he learned at least that scene in the original — quite possibly phonetically (according to Irving Kolodin’s book The Opera Omnibus, Pinza never learned to read music; instead he memorized all his parts by ear). Then there came 12 minutes or so of sheer transcendence: Charles Laughton hosting an NBC program called Producer’s Showcase and introducing Renata Tebaldi and Jussi Björling in Act I of Puccini’s La Bohème from “Che gelida manina” on, leaving out the outbursts from the other Bohemians between the two big arias and the final duet but otherwise giving us three of the most emotionally charged “numbers” in all opera with two of the greatest voices of all time. Björling wasn’t much to look at — he was yet another tenor built like a fire hydrant — but once he opened his mouth he created the romantic spell Puccini expected this music to cast, and Tebaldi was every bit his equal, her voice radiant with young love and both of them restraining the music, working their way to the big climaxes instead of starting at 11 and telling the audience, “You see how loud I can belt it out?” The final bars of “O soave fanciulla” were a bit disappointing — NBC’s sound engineers decided to create the diminuendo artificially by putting an echo on Tebaldi’s and Björling’s voices instead of letting the singers do it on their own, which they would have been perfectly capable of doing — but that didn’t lessen the magic. Indeed, this 60-year-old clip (though its date wasn’t specified) not only flashed us back to the days when the major media companies still thought they had a public-service obligation to put something other than tiresome but profitable banality on the air, it also showed (in comparison to the earlier clips from movies) how much visual representations of opera gain when the singers are actually performing in real time instead of lip-synching to pre-recordings.

Just about anything after that extraordinary (and quite long!) Bohème sequence might have seemed an anticlimax, and what did come next was Victoria de los Angeles singing a Spanish song by Manuel de Falla from her BBC-TV debut in 1962. (Ironically, it was de los Angeles, not Tebaldi, who was Björling’s partner on the 1956 complete Bohème, conducted by Sir Thomas Beecham, which is one of my two all-time favorite recordings of this much-recorded opera; the 1974 Karajan version from Vienna with Pavarotti and Freni is the other.) Afterwards came Joan Sutherland in a spectacular rendition of the Queen’s cabaletta “O beau pays” from Meyerbeer’s Les Huguenots — and as uneven as Meyerbeer’s operas (especially his last three, Les Huguenots, Le Prophète and L’Africaine) are, with passages of surpassing beauty alternating with pieces that sound like movie music for Cecil B. DeMille, it still seems a pity that Mendelssohn’s reputation has recovered from Wagner’s anti-Semitic assaults on him while Meyerbeer’s hasn’t. Then came the clip of Leontyne Price singing “O patria mia” from Aïda, which became her signature role because she was the first African-American singer to become a star singing leads (Marian Anderson was a contralto and therefore doomed to supporting parts — and she was more interested in a career as a concert singer anyway — and two quite good Black singers preceded Price in leading soprano roles in mainstream operas, Mattiwilda Dobbs and Gloria Davy, but they never made it to superstardom and Price did) and therefore a lot of opera company directors figured, “She’s Black, Aïda’s Ethiopian, let’s cast Price as Aïda!” (Price got fed up with being typecast that way but she accepted it with enough grace that when she retired from opera in 1985, she chose Aïda for her farewell performance at the Met.) The clip shows off Price’s star quality; I remember seeing her in Richard Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos in San Francisco in 1977 and she dominated the stage even though the staging required her to make her entrance with her back to the audience. That is stardom.

Then there was the next extended performance in the show, a U.S. TV debut for Bulgarian bass Boris Christoff — who must have sorted out his immigration problems by then (because he was from a socialist-bloc country the U.S. immigration authorities had rejected his visa application when Rudolf Bing tried to hire him to sing Philip II in the Met’s 1950 Don Carlosplus ça change, plus ça même chose) — singing the final scene from Boris Godunov with Nicola Moscona as Pimen and, praise be, a real boy instead of a superannuated mezzo in drag playing his pre-pubescent son and heir, Fyodor. I’ve never cared that much for Christoff;  he was a great singer but he way overacted (so did Chaliapin, but he was sui generis — still, my favorite Borises are the subtler ones like Alexander Kipnis, Mark Reizen and Martti Talvela). Next up was Magda Olivero’s “Vissi d’arte” and the Act III duet (with an unidentified tenor) from Puccini’s Tosca — Olivero was interviewed at several points in the program about other singers’ careers as well as her own, but unfortunately the version we were watching contained neither subtitles nor voice-overs for her Italian-language comments; and a narrator in English talking about how remarkable it was that she made her Met debut without giving the non-cognoscenti a hint about just what was so remarkable about it: she made it at age 65 after an up-and-down career in which she had made a big splash in Italy in the late 1930’s, made a few recordings (including singing Liù in the first commercial recording of Puccini’s Turandot), retired in 1941 to get married and came back in 1950 after the death of her husband and at the behest of the composer Francesco Cilèa, who wanted to hear her sing the title role of his opera Adriana Lecouvreur one last time before he died. In the 1950’s she rebuilt her reputation in Europe and by the late 1960’s she was being hailed as the last exemplar of the true verismo singing style; she continued to perform live until 1981 and she’s still alive today at age 103. (In the degrees-of-separation department: Harvey Milk’s last public appearance was at the San Francisco Opera to watch Olivero in Tosca in November, 1978 — two days before Milk was killed. I was at that performance too, and it was a night to remember even without that macabre aftermath.)

The rest of the program was a bit anticlimactic, though it still featured some excellent singing: Fritz Wunderlich singing the “Bildnisarie” from Mozart’s The Magic Flute (he was yet another tenor with a particularly honeyed, lyrical voice, and he was yet another one who died prematurely, at 36, of a household accident when fell down a flight of ill-lit stairs; at the time he was in the middle of recording sessions for Haydn’s The Creation with Herbert von Karajan, and he was so highly regarded that Karajan used everything Wunderlich had recorded for the project and the replacement tenor, Werner Krenn, sang only those parts Wunderlich hadn’t lived to do); Jon Vickers singing “In des Lebens Frühligstagen” from Beethoven’s Fidelio (I’d rather have seen some of Vickers’ Otello, Don José or Peter Grimes; he was a superb musician but the rather pinched, enervated quality of his voice suited him far more for anti-heroes than heroes); Franco Corelli (accompanied by an interview clip of someone recalling how rugged and handsome he looked and how frightened he was — he would be driven to performances in a closed car with his head wrapped in towels and scarves because he was scared of getting an airborne disease and having to cancel) doing the other tenor aria from Turandot, “Non piangere, Liù”; Giuseppe di Stefano doing a haunting and surprisingly lyrical “Vesti la giubba” (his Canio treats the situation more in sorrow than in anger; he doesn’t seem likely to explode in the homicidal rage with which he ends the opera but it’s still a marvelous alternative way of approaching the piece); and the big finale of the singer the makers of The Art of Singing wanted to showcase as the all-time prima donna assoluta, Maria Callas.

They first showed newsreel or TV footage of her arriving in Lisbon in March 1958 to sing the famous “Lisbon Traviata”; then they showed what was described as “newly discovered footage” of the Lisbon Traviata itself (the “Parigi, o cara” sequence, synched to the broadcast recording released in 1980, obviously shot by someone who smuggled a home movie camera into the theatre and did the best s/he could) and finally a clip from the famous complete Act II of Tosca with Callas and Tito Gobbi filmed for the BBC in February 1964. It remains one of the most intense performances of this music ever given — though the narration for The Art of Singing mentions neither Gobbi nor Alfredo Kraus, Callas’s partner in the Lisbon Traviata excerpt (a pity since they too were among the major voices of the 20th century!) — but I’d fault the producers of this film for excerpting “Vissi d’arte” and the dialogue with Scarpia immediately preceding it because the aria shows all too clearly Callas’s vocal weaknesses this late in her career, especially those notoriously wobbly high notes that her detractors seized on and her admirers felt they had to apologize for. Frankly, the high point of this performance (which I have on an EMI DVD release) is the very ending — the final confrontation between Tosca and Scarpia, her murder of him and her contemptuous dismissal, “È avanti lui tremava tutta Roma” (“Before that all Rome trembled”). As I wrote about that film when I screened it “complete,” “Most singers — even Callas on some of her surviving recordings — scream this out like Anna Magnani, who actually played Tosca in a 1948 film, or rather played an opera singer at once singing and living the opera’s plot during the Nazi occupation of Rome in the latter part of World War II; here Callas tosses off the line with a kind of breezy contempt that works better than the usual melodramatics.” That is what we Callas fans (and I definitely count myself as a Callasophile, not a Callasophobe, though that doesn’t stop me from appreciating the lovely, radiant singing Renata Tebaldi did in her clip on this show; just as jazz fans can like both Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald, why can’t opera fans like both Callas and Tebaldi?) love about her: her questing spirit, her willingness to look at every moment of every role afresh and look for the dramatic truth behind the music instead of just singing it the way the divas of a previous generation did (though there were singing actresses of Callas’s stature well before her: to name three of whom we have enough records to support their reputations, Geraldine Farrar — who I’m rather startled to see was not represented here since she became a major star in silent films! — Mary Garden and Rosa Ponselle). It’s a bit disappointing that the show cuts off here in 1964 — though one can readily imagine both how nightmarish and how expensive the negotiations would have been for the rights to include the superstars of the most recent past, including Pavarotti, Domingo and Carreras, whose “Three Tenors” mega-concerts were game-changers in restoring the popular appeal of opera and its practitioners.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Don’t Play with the Martians, a.k.a. Lent in the Month of March (Les Artistes Associés, 1967)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2013 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The “feature” at last night’s Mars movie night was a 1967 French film called Ne jouez pas avec les Martiens, which literally translates as “Don’t Play with the Martians,” though the version we were watching (courtesy of the instant-streaming feature of Netflix) was an English-dubbed one called Lent in the Month of March (the last word being an obvious pun because the French word for the month of March is Mars; next month they’re showing another French movie whose title makes the same pun, Mars et Avril, “March and April” or “Mars and April”). Why they substituted a dumb and difficult to understand title for the genuinely witty one the film bore in its native land is a mystery; the film was produced for Les Artistes Associés, the French branch of United Artists, and the star was Jean Rochefort, the actor who 35 years later caused such grief for Terry Gilliam when he cast him as Don Quixote in a modern-dress version with Johnny Depp as Sancho Panza, which never got finished (in fact it barely got begun) but whose fiasco was the subject of a quite amusing 2002 documentary called Lost in La Mancha. (One of the problems was that just before the shoot began Rochefort, an amateur horseback rider, developed severe hemorrhoids that made it agony for him to sit on a horse — and Gilliam’s script had called for Quixote to be on horseback throughout most of the film.) It was odd seeing Rochefort as a young man and even odder that the film was framed with essentially the same gimmick as Here Comes Trouble, the 1948 Hal Roach “streamliner” we had just seen. Rochefort plays Paris Gazette reporter René Mastier, whose editor can’t fire him because he’s the publisher’s nephew, but he’s become a pariah and made the paper the laughingstock of Paris because he keeps missing stories about war and revolution and writing instead about trivia (he misses the Cultural Revolution in China and writes about Chinese cuisine in Peking; then he misses the military overthrow of the government of Brazil because he’s too busy making time on the Rio beach with the local bunnies and writing about the Carnival).

In today’s dumbed-down news business he’d be right at home, but for revenge his editor sends him to Loqmaria, a fishing village off the coast of Brittany where it’s gloomy all the time and rainy most of the time, to cover a human-interest story about a woman named Christine who’s supposedly about to have quintuplets. He takes along his comic-relief sidekick Paddy (André Valardy), proof that they didn’t break the mold after they made Frank McHugh, and the two of them try to find the young woman who’s supposed to have all those babies. The person they find — about the only one on the island who’s willing to talk to them — is Maryvonne Gueguén (Macha Méril), who works as an assistant to Christine’s pediatrician and from whom they find that Christine isn’t married — which pretty much blows the idea of a big human-interest stories and all the tie-ins with baby-product manufacturers the editor was hoping for. As a joke, Maryvonne types on René’s teletype machine a story that men from Mars have landed on the island — and thanks to a convenient blackout that prevents René from sending a retraction in time, the Paris Gazette prints this as a valid story and causes an influx of the world’s media and curiosity seekers to the island. As things turn out, there is an interplanetary invasion of sorts going on at Loqmaria, though it’s just one flying saucer and it isn’t from Mars but from another planet called Gamma-2. What’s more, it turns out there are six Gammans running around, all of them dressed in skin-tight silver suits (and all of them quite obviously played by female actors even though they are referred to in the movie’s dialogue as male — this would be a good movie for the non-binary crowd and I’d be tempted to add “Transgender” to its key words on … but then again, if this is a Transgender movie so is Lassie, Come Home), and one of them is the babies’ father (and there are six, not five) even though Christine insists that all she did with the alien was kiss him on the lips. It turns out that on Gamma-2 that is all it takes to conceive.

 Don’t Play with the Martians (to use the more sensible and cleverer of its English titles) is one of those annoying movies that’s occasionally amusing but far less clever than its makers (writer/director Henri Lanoë and co-writer Johanna Harwood, working from a novel by Michel Labry called The Sextuplets of Loqmaria) clearly thought, and it also doesn’t help that the part of René calls for the young Cary Grant and gets the young Jean Rochefort. It’s not a bad movie, and it might come off better in a subtitled version (though the dubbing is as good as one can expect from a bastard form; there aren’t any of the hilariously obvious mismatches between the characters’ dialogue and the lip movements that make the Godzilla movies so much fun), but it’s not very interesting either. On the basis of the on-line synopsis Charles compared it to Village of the Damned, but about all the two films have in common is origins in 1960’s Europe and the central plot premise of an alien (or several aliens) from outer space impregnating earth women — and whereas Village of the Damned delivered an ultra-serious thriller based on the sinister powers of the resulting children, the makers of Don’t Play with the Martians couldn’t have seemed less interested in what would happen and what would result when Earthlings and Gammans mated. It’s a sporadically amusing film whose creators obviously thought they were making a laff-riot — they are, after all, from the country that lionized two such profoundly different comedians as Buster Keaton and Jerry Lewis — and it’s the sort of mediocre movie that leaves you neither exhilarated nor infuriated; it’s just sort of there, though at least at 85 minutes it doesn’t overstay its welcome … much.

Friday, April 19, 2013

Lucky Ghost (Dixie National Pictures, 1942)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2013 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was Lucky Ghost, a 1942 “race” production (meaning a cheapie with an all-Black cast aimed at Black-only theatres — usually they pretty slavishly copied the genre conventions of white films, though occasionally, notably the 1947 Transgender comedy Boy! What a Girl, the “race” filmmakers boldly went where writers and directors aiming at white audiences feared to tread because of the Production Code) starring the marvelous comedian Mantan Moreland. He’s teamed here with a taller, lighter-skinned, deeper-voiced straight man named F. E. Miller and billed as “Miller and Mantan” in what was pretty obviously an attempt to create a “race” version of Abbott and Costello. Directed by our old hacky friend William Beaudine (billed as “William X. Crowley” in an apparent attempt to make him sound Black, much the way pioneering white jazz guitarist Eddie Lang was billed as “Blind Willie Dunn” on his duet records with genuinely African-American guitarist Lonnie Johnson) from a script (if you can call it that) by Lex Neal and Vernon Smith, Lucky Ghost is virtually plotless. It’s just a series of sequences of Mantan Moreland shooting craps (with pretty obviously loaded dice) with various unsuspecting victims; it begins with Moreland and Miller (whose characters are called “Washington” and “Jefferson,” respectively — quite a lot of Black comedians were given character names of U.S. Presidents as an attempt at an ironic contrast between the lowly stations their characters occupied and the lofty ambitions of, presumably, their parents in giving them such grandiloquent names — I’m still amazed that the real name of blues legend Howlin’ Wolf was “Chester Alan Arthur Burnett,” and I can’t fathom what his parents were thinking when they named him after one of America’s least renowned and distinguished Presidents) doing a Chaplinesque tramp down a dusty road.

They come across a white convertible whose owners have sent their chauffeur to buy a 50-gallon drum of gas — they ran out in the middle of the countryside — and Moreland starts shooting craps and takes them for everything they’ve got, not only their car but their clothes as well. Then they come across a so-called “sanitarium and country club” (really a casino, kept in business by bribes to the cops to leave it alone) run by Blake (Maceo B. Sheffield, who played the lead in the first “race” musical Western, Harlem Rides the Range). The moment Mantan lays eyes on the singer at this establishment (she’s played by Florence O’Brien, the cast list identifies her only as “Hostess,” and she’s the first woman we’ve seen in the film — 15 minutes into this hour-long production!) it’s love — or at least lust — at first sight, even though she’s Blake’s girlfriend and he’s so pathologically jealous he’ll literally throw out any man who cruises her. Florence O’Brien sings a weird number called “If Anybody Cares” with a nice band (Lorenzo Flennoy and His Chocolate Drops) that showcases an odd voice that sounds like a Black singer imitating the white “torch singers” of the 1920’s; it’s not bad, but her “flutter” vibrato is really overdone and irritating. Then she and Moreland do a dance number together, and of course that incenses Blake — who somehow ends up in a craps game with Moreland, who takes him for the entire casino and treats everyone to all the food and drink they can consume. Periodically we’ve seen cut-ins to a nearby graveyard in which some of the permanent residents have come back to life as ghosts and are haunting the casino (obviously the writers were thinking of Abbott and Costello’s Hold That Ghost here), and in the end they take the place over (there’s a nicely chilling shot of a skeleton playing a piano that may have been inspired by “That Place Down the Road Apiece,” a truly weird record made by white boogie-woogie pianist Freddie Slack in 1941 in which he ends up in an old roadhouse and is serenaded by a band of the undead) and magically divest Moreland of his ill-gotten gains.

Lucky Ghost isn’t much of a movie, and it’s disappointing that Moreland and Miller don’t get to do one of those bizarre double-talk scenes we’ve seen Moreland do in other movies (the ones in which he and someone else are carrying on a conversation and keep interrupting each other because each knows what the other one is going to say before he says it, so why wait?), but Moreland is still the only reason to watch this movie. Like Eddie “Rochester” Anderson, Moreland was able to wiggle around within the racist stereotype of the stupid Black servant and play streetwise instead of just dumb; indeed in some ways he’s funnier than Lou Costello, whose whiny reaction when he got “taken” by Bud Abbott sometimes gets annoying when it’s clearly meant to be humorous. Some of Moreland’s films are a trial because he wasn’t given good material; this time around he got some nice lines even without a double-talk scene, and it’s also nice to see him dance. (He’d previously been in the 1937 film Shall We Dance with Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers: he’s the man in the ship’s engine room who kicks off the “Slap That Bass” number, and he was a good enough singer and dancer to hold his own as opening act for Fred Astaire.) Incidentally, lists this film not as Lucky Ghost, but under the reissue title, Lady Luck — which sounds a good deal more ordinary and doesn’t give you the key clue as to what it’s really about. There’s also an intriguing gag in the film in which Moreland, unable to write, signs the guest book at the casino with an “X” — which leads Florence O’Brien and everyone else there to call him “Mr. X.” After Malcolm X and the Nation of Islam, this gag “plays” quite differently now than it no doubt did in 1942!

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Here Comes Trouble (Hal Roach, 1948)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2013 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was Here Comes Trouble, a 1948 Hal Roach production that attempted to update the “streamliners” he had made during World War II featuring two oddly matched Army sergeants, big old-school tough guy Ames (Joe Sawyer) and scrawny, bookish Dorian “Dodo” Doubleday (William Tracy, top-billed), in which the gag was that Doubleday’s brains kept triumphing over Ames’ brawn. In this one they’ve been demobbed and Doubleday expects to get back his old job as a copy boy on the Tribune (or, as their Art Deco sign spells it, the Tribvne — sort of like those old Roman inscriptions, or modern attempts to duplicate them, which used “V” for “U” — that’s why the credits for the 1970’s BBC-TV miniseries based on Robert Graves’ I, Claudius listed the title as I, Clavdivs). Only the paper’s editor/publisher, Winfield “Windy” Blake (Emory Parnell), can’t stand Doubleday and wants to fire him. The only thing that’s keeping him from doing that is that Blake’s daughter Penny (Beverly Lloyd) is in love with Doubleday and has talked her dad into promoting him. (With the encyclopedic knowledge of trivia Doubleday has shown in the previous films in the series, it’s surprising Windy hasn’t made him a fact-checker.) At the same time Windy is mounting an editorial crusade against the gangsterism dominating his city, and the result has been the paper’s police reporters keep getting roughed up by the baddies. The fourth such reporter has just quit and Windy hits on the idea of giving Doubleday the job as a way of getting him beaten and inducing him to resign — and also getting his daughter to see Doubleday as a coward and break up with him. Of course, it doesn’t work that way; Doubleday and Ames, a cop since his discharge, team up and bring the gangsters to justice. The central issue the plot revolves around is a notebook owned by burlesque entertainer Bubbles LaRue (Joan Woodbury, great — and wasted — as usual), who at one point Windy had an extramarital affair with (Windy’s wife is played by the silent-screen star Betty Compson, and she too is pretty wasted in the role) and also took up with some of the gangsters and wrote down a diary containing their secrets — and Windy’s. Windy sends Doubleday to the theatre where Bubbles is performing, with instructions to buy the notebook from her; he’s supposed to deliver the money she’s asked for, pick up the notebook and then blackjack her to make it look like she was mugged and the notebook picked up from her by the thief.

Of course, things go wrong: Martin Stafford (Paul Stanton), a staffer at the Tribune (the site identifies him as an attorney but that’s not all that clear in the film itself) and the gangsters’ secret mole on the paper, hears about the plot and goes to the theatre, knocks out the clown on the bill (Eddie Bartell) and disguises himself as the clown so he can get close enough to Bubbles to shoot and kill her. Doubleday finds Bubbles’ body and of course is immediately suspected of the crime, and to make things worse Penny Blake arrives on the scene and is instantly (and wrongly) convinced Doubleday and Bubbles were having an affair. The complexity of this scenario shows the biggest weakness of Here Comes Trouble: it’s so elaborately plotted it’s difficult for writers George Carleton Brown and Edward Seabrook, and director Fred Guiol (a graduate of the Laurel and Hardy films at Roach in the 1930’s who later left Roach for RKO with his immediate boss, director George Stevens, and in the later part of his career was mostly a writer and general assistant on Stevens’ major movies rather than a director of these minor ones), to get enough laughs into this so-called “comedy.” The final sequence is absolutely brilliant, sort of A Night at the Opera meets The 39 Steps (the Hitchcock version, and his own inspiration, Fritz Lang’s Spies), in which the good guys and the bad guys chase each other both on- and off-stage at the burlesque house, and the audience members react to the parts of the chase that take place on stage as if they’re part of the show and find them uproariously funny. Unfortunately you have to sit through a lot of pretty tiresome exposition to get there. Part of the problem with Here Comes Trouble is that William Tracy simply isn’t as funny here as he was in the war films — in which the sheer incongruity of someone so weak and physically un-robust in the military was amusing enough in itself — and it also doesn’t help that he only gets two sequences in which he rattles off the intellectual trivia with which he impressed some people and exasperated others in the earlier films in the series.

In the list of movie comedians who have got laughs by reverting to childhood — playing the incongruity of a child-like character in an adult body — Tracy falls (as he does chronologically) between Harry Langdon and Jerry Lewis, and oddly in Here Comes Trouble (made just a year before the real Lewis would make his screen debut in My Friend Irma) he seems more Langdonesque than Lewisish, trying to play slow, delicate comedy in the atmosphere of a Hal Roach film and working against the instincts of Roach, his son (who produced) and Guiol for rough, fast, knockabout comedy. (Roach’s greatest stars, Laurel and Hardy, could do both rough slapstick and delicate situation humor, but they were the exceptions.) Here Comes Trouble came from Roach’s second attempt to popularize the “streamliner” — a film form he concocted to run about 40-45 minutes, to fall between the length of a two-reeler and a “B” feature — and which he called “streamliner” because the word “streamline” had the same kind of cachet in the 1940’s as “high-tech” had in the 1990’s. The first go-round had been a box-office disappointment, so the second time around Roach decided to sweeten the pot by shooting the films in color — only he didn’t want to spend the money for Technicolor and so he shot in the cheaper Cinécolor process instead. Most of the Roach color films don’t exist that way — they survived only in the black-and-white prints struck in the 1950’s for TV showings (Walt Disney seems to have been the only Hollywood entrepreneur who realized in the 1950’s that even if TV wasn’t in color then, it would be) — but for this one promised us a color version. Alas, much of it was badly faded; some of the sequences (notably the one at the burlesque house just before Bubbles is killed, in which her orange dress and the orange balloon she uses in her act make an electrifying effect) are spectacular, but others are so dim certain sequences, including the opening, look like a black-and-white movie with just a few bits of tinting around the faces. Here Comes Trouble is an O.K. movie, nothing more than a pleasant time-filler (which is probably what 1948 audiences thought of it as well) but with a great, hilarious final sequence that deserved to be prefaced by a better movie!