Sunday, March 31, 2013

Abraham Lincoln (United Artists, 1930)

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

The movie was the tape we’d bought at Horton Plaza the night before: D. W. Griffith’s 1930 film Abraham Lincoln. I’d seen it in the early 1970’s (the time I really first discovered antique Hollywood; so many of my favorite films today are the ones I first saw camped out in my bedroom, watching the little TV on top of my filing cabinet, often until 2 or 3 in the morning) and I’d seen bits and pieces of it more recently on an Arts and Entertainment showing. I remembered being quite impressed by the film back in the 1970’s, and especially being impressed by Walter Huston’s performance as Lincoln — comparing him to the other Lincolns from Hollywood’s classic period, Henry Fonda and Raymond Massey, Huston seemed quite the best: authoritative, properly homely and physically clumsy (though at least some of the clumsiness was due to the elevator shoes Huston had to wear to raise himself to Lincoln’s height) but also convincing both as a frustrated lover (this movie endorses the historical legend that Ann Rutledge, played in an interesting bit of off-casting by Una Merkel, was the great love of Lincoln’s life) and as a war leader.

Later on, Harry Medved and Randy Lowell listed Abraham Lincoln as one of the fifty worst films of all time — in a book that seemed to take great joy in skewering the lesser works of great directors (Eisenstein’s Ivan the Terrible and Hitchcock’s Jamaica Inn also made the cut, right next to truly terrible B-movies like Robot Monster), but the rating of Lincoln — like that of Ivan — is truly unfair to an uneven but remarkable movie. True, Lincoln suffers from an almost unbearable stiffness, stemming partly from the limitations of early sound technique (and Griffith’s clear discomfort with it — one suspects his inability to adapt to sound was as much responsible for Griffith’s inability to make movies after 1931 than the vague sense around Hollywood’s producer community that he was “old-fashioned”) and partly from the deliberately pageant-like style Griffith brought to this movie (as he had to his pro-Southern take on the same historical material in The Birth of a Nation, though the pageant-like approach was less bothersome in a silent movie, with its inevitable breaks in visual continuity for the intertitles). The actors all show off their stage credentials by declaiming their lines, speaking slowly, distinctly and loudly in a way aimed more at being heard in the balconies than being picked up by a microphone; they assume stiff poses that keep them in range of the immobile cameras; and they politely and patiently pause between each other’s lines, just like they did in so many other early talkies. (As I noted to Bob R. when I ran him The Threepenny Opera — the 1930 version — and the 1930 Dracula within days of each other, European producers significantly led American ones in the artful and fluid use of sound and the re-introduction of visual interest in talking films.)

Now for the good news. Huston’s performance as Lincoln is almost as good as I’d remembered it, probably still the best Lincoln on film (though it seems unfortunate that Henry Fonda wasn’t able to repeat his performance as Young Mr. Lincoln in a sequel or two that would have continued Lincoln’s life to the end), and Una Merkel and Kay Hammond as the two women in Lincoln’s life also stand out (it’s clear that David Selznick must have screened this movie before he shot Gone With the Wind, and Vivien Leigh probably did, too; her Scarlett O’Hara is strongly reminiscent of Hammond’s Mary Todd). Within the limits of the style, actually, virtually all the cast members turn in excellent performances, and Stephen Vincent Benét’s script (he was brought in to write the film after Carl Sandburg, Lincoln’s biographer and Griffith’s and producer Joseph Schenck’s first choice, turned it down) makes some embarrassing historical glitches (like misquoting Lincoln’s famous “A house divided against itself cannot stand” speech as “A house divided against itself must fall”) but, for the most part, provides a sensitive framework that limns Lincoln’s life with only a minor amount of dramatic license.

Most notable are two superb visual sequences (evidently shot silent and post-synchronized) that show the kind of filmmaking Griffith still felt most comfortable with. One is the very opening of the film: a dark, rainy, stormy night in the woods of Kentucky, in which a mobile camera threads its way through a dense forest of denuded winter trees to lead us to the log cabin where Lincoln will be born (and his mother, Nancy Hanks, will die in childbirth). The other occurs early on in the Civil War, after the Union defeat in the first Battle of Bull Run led to fears that the Confederate Army would actually conquer Washington. For a few minutes, this film comes vividly to life in a series of well-chosen images, from a trumpet (shot up close with a wide-angle lens) calling the troops together to defend Washington, followed by shots of the Union Army massing, circling in parade formation and ultimately charging to the defense of the beleaguered capital in criss-cross formations across the screen. The ending is also a visually powerful moment; it repeats the traveling shot through the Kentucky forest that began the film — only now the weather is clear (symbolizing the end of the stormy period of American history depicted in the film and the reunification of the country under Lincoln), and when the camera gets to the now-deserted log cabin where Lincoln was born, the scene dissolves to the Lincoln Memorial, with the sun rising over it (an artful mix of actual footage and a model used for the traveling shot through the Memorial to Lincoln’s statue), a beautiful bit of historical myth-making and a visual statement of how far Lincoln came from humble origins to greatness. — 12/11/93

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Charles and I finally got together at around 7 (after I’d left the house, hoping to find a haircut place open, and — unable to do that — took the bus downtown and finished reading the book L.A.’s Secret Police by Mike Rothmiller and Ira Goldman), and we distributed Zenger’s, came back here to eat (at least I ate) and then repaired to his place and ran the video of D. W. Griffith’s Abraham Lincoln. Charles liked the movie, even though he noticed the highly stilted quality of the acting and its overall slowness (partly Griffith’s problem adjusting to sound, partly the limitations of early sound moviemaking in general and partly, I suspect, a stylistic choice on Griffith’s part to make the acting as pageant-like as possible). So much of this movie takes place in Lincoln’s war office as he impatiently waits for telegrams from the front to tell him whether the North is winning or losing the Civil War that Charles said if somebody made a movie of the Bush Presidency in the same style, the depiction of the Gulf War would be Bush sitting in the Oval Office wringing his hands and watching CNN. Walter Huston is a credible Lincoln, even though the six-inch stilts he wore to raise his own medium height to Lincolnesque proportions are pretty obvious throughout the movie (in the one scene in which he doesn’t wear them — a scene in which he’s pacing the White House barefoot in a dressing-gown — Huston is all too obviously six inches shorter than he is in the rest of the movie), and the non-dialogue scenes (particularly the opening tracking shot through the Kentucky forest to the log cabin in which Our Hero will be born, and the magnificent montage scene of the Northern army mobilizing to defend Washington, D.C.) are so much better than the rest of the movie they make it all too clear the kind of moviemaking with which Griffith still felt most at home. — 8/11/96

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For last night’s movie Charles and I watched a version of D. W. Griffith’s first (of only two) sound films, the biopic Abraham Lincoln from 1930, which I thought would be an interesting contrast to the two other films we’ve recently seen about Lincoln and the aftermath of his assassination, Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln (2012) and Robert Redford’s The Conspirator (2010). (I’d also like to break out the Ford at Fox box again and watch the two films John Ford made about Lincoln and the aftermath of the assassination, Young Mr. Lincoln and The Prisoner of Shark Island.) Abraham Lincoln was made at an unhappy juncture in Griffith’s career; as James Agee noted in his 1948 article eulogizing Griffith, technically he was the most advanced filmmaker of the late teens and early 1920’s but thematically he remained rooted in both the moral sentiments and the storytelling devices of the late Victorian era, and as the 1920’s progressed his movies seemed more and more out of touch with what contemporary audiences wanted. In 1925 he lost his independent studio and his berth with United Artists as one of its owner-producers, and he signed a contract with Paramount to work as a studio director. His first assignment there was a novel called The Sorrows of Satan by Marie Corelli — a project originally assigned to Cecil B. DeMille and given to Griffith once DeMille departed for a short-lived attempt at founding his own studio — and he also got socked with projects like Sally of the Sawdust (1926), a weird adaptation of W. C. Fields’ star-making musical Poppy whose stars were Fields, Carol Dempster (Griffith’s girlfriend and later his second wife) and Alfred Lunt, a weird assortment of talents indeed. For the rest of Griffith’s career — until 1931, when he made his last film, an anti-alcoholism drama called The Struggle — he bounced back and forth between Paramount and United Artists, now no longer as a UA part-owner but a contractee of UA production chief Joseph M. Schenck. In 1929 Griffith shoehorned a few talking sequences into a film he’d started as a silent, Lady of the Pavements, and then he and Schenck had a conference and the two of them decided that the way to launch Griffith’s sound career would be to return to the subject of his most commercially successful — and most infamous, then and now — film, The Birth of a Nation: the Civil War and its aftermath.

They concocted a Lincoln biopic and originally approached Carl Sandburg to write the script because he’d already published his epic six-volume biography of Lincoln, two volumes called The Prairie Years and four called The War Years (which would make it one volume per year of the war). Sandburg turned it down, so they next offered the job to Stephen Vincent Benêt, who’d also written about Lincoln before in other media, though the final film credited associate producer John W. Considine with the story and Benêt solo for “adaptation” and also co-credited with Gerrit Lloyd for “continuity and dialogue.” (A lot of early talkies had similarly convoluted writing credits; at one point the conventional wisdom was that just as silent films had had different writers working out the continuity and adding the titles, so sound movies would have different writers working out the continuity and adding the dialogue. That changed when the producers started hiring playwrights like George S. Kaufman, Ben Hecht, Charles McArthur and the Mankiewicz brothers, Herman and Joe, who were used to doing both story structure and dialogue in their plays.) Abraham Lincoln is a much-maligned film — it got listed by Harry Medved and Randy Lowell in their 1970’s book The Fifty Worst Films of All Time (as did Alfred Hitchcock’s Jamaica Inn and Sergei Eisenstein’s Ivan the Terrible, though all three listings seemed to have had more to do with the desire of Medved and Lowell to shock the film cognoscenti by attributing three of the worst films of all time to three of the greatest directors of all time) — and yet, as problematic as it is, it’s also absolutely haunting and does justice to its subject. Let’s deal with the problems first: it’s very slow-moving — despite the relentless compression needed to cram all of Lincoln’s life into 90 minutes of running time (one example: Griffith cuts directly from a scene in which a Northern political boss is approaching Lincoln to run for President in 1860 to one in which Lincoln’s baggage tags are being prepared for a train trip to Washington, D.C. and his wife, Mary Todd, crosses out “Mr.” on the tag and writes in “President” instead) — and pageant-like in the manner of George Arliss’s films from the period, especially his biopics. Griffith was pretty clearly intimidated by the strictures of early-sound moviemaking, especially the difficulty of shooting close-ups (which Griffith, though he hadn’t invented them, had pioneered in his early years!) and the immobility of the cameras — but, as Charles pointed out, he fought back by having the actors move around the set and approach the cameras themselves.

Griffith and Schenck hired a first-rate actor to play Lincoln, Walter Huston, but there was a problem with casting him: he was considerably shorter than the real Lincoln, and given that Lincoln’s unusual height was one of the big things everybody remembered about him (at 6’4” he remains our tallest President ever — if John Kerry had been elected he would have tied Lincoln’s record, and Barack Obama is one inch shorter) they couldn’t just ignore the discrepancy the way Martin Scorsese did when he cast the 5’6” Leonardo DiCaprio as the 6’4” Howard Hughes in The Aviator. Instead they gave Huston six-inch elevator shoes to wear throughout the film — except in the scenes in which he goes barefoot (when Kay Hammond as Mary Todd Lincoln upbraided him for going around barefoot so often, I thought, “I shouldn’t wonder! He wants to get out of those damned elevator shoes!”), and even then he might have been wearing fake feet over his real ones to keep him at the same apparent height he is in the scenes where he’s shod. The film contains a few scenes that were shot silent with sound dubbed in later — notably armies massing and marching off to fight in the Civil War — and those have so much more vitality than the rest of the movie it’s clear this was still the sort of filmmaking that excited Griffith the most. I’ve seen Abraham Lincoln in three different versions: the first was on PBS in the mid-1970’s, when they showed a copy that began with a silent shot of slaves enduring the Middle Passage and then dissolved into a shot of the camera bearing down on the log cabin in Kentucky where Lincoln is about to be born (and his mother, Nancy Hanks Lincoln, is going to die in childbirth). This was hailed as newly discovered footage but no other information was given about the film’s provenance. The next time I saw it, it was in a VHS public-domain pre-record that lacked the slave sequence and had a set of normal 1930 opening credits (the PBS version had had new credits superimposed over the shot of the slaves being shipped to the U.S.) which cut directly to the tracking shot of the camera bearing down on the Lincolns’ cabin (a very tacky-looking table-top model — as is the scene of the Lincoln Memorial at the end; one wonders why a major operation like United Artists couldn’t send a second unit to Washington, D.C. and shoot at the real Lincoln Memorial instead of assembling something representing it that looks like a grade-school student made it for a school project) and ran about 75 minutes instead of the 90- to 96-minute version originally released.

This time it was in a modern restoration that revealed that that mysterious shot of a slave ship in a fierce storm that had baffled me way back when on PBS was part of an elaborate prologue in which both Southerners and Northerners lament about what the other’s region is doing to the country and pray for another George Washington to come along and reunite the Union. Alas, the picture for this survives but the soundtrack does not (a bit odd since the film was originally shot in the Movietone sound-on-film process), so this version ran the footage without sound and had subtitles explaining not only what the actors were supposed to be saying but also what sounds — the slaves singing “Go Down, Moses” (when they were just being imported from Africa and hadn’t yet landed on U.S. soil? I don’t think so!) and the wind and rain from the storm — were supposed to be on the soundtrack. A later restored scene, in which the young, impecunious Lincoln has his horse repossessed from him by a debt collector, was also shown silent with subtitles because the soundtrack was lost. Personally, I wish they’d reconstructed the soundtrack by having modern actors dub the lines and using recordings of the period for the music (there must be a record of “Go Down, Moses” of the proper vintage they could have used); finding a modern-day actor to match Walter Huston’s idiosyncratic intonations as Lincoln might have been a problem, but there are enough of Huston’s family members still alive and working in the film business they could have found someone who could have pulled it off. But without the willingness to budget a dubbing session or two, this is probably the best solution they could have come up with. The opening titles hint at a considerably more sophisticated sound mix than was common for 1930, and there are enough scenes that do survive with the original sound that it’s clear Griffith was pushing the boundaries of what was considered the “proper” use of sound in a film. There are scenes in which music is heard underscoring dialogue (an effect which didn’t become common until 1932), and others in which off-screen choruses sing songs of the period to add richness and context to the visuals and dialogue going on in front of them.

 Lincoln has its problems, including the expected historical mythologizing — the film was made at the height of the “Ann Rutledge legend,” the myth that Lincoln had dated her in his early years in Illinois and had never got over the shock of her early death, and that she had been the great love of his life even though he eventually picked up his career and later married someone else. (This seems to have got started among people who actually knew Lincoln and who though him and Mary Todd so obviously ill-matched they figured there must have been an earlier partner in his history with whom he would have been more compatible.) The film also has such annoying mistakes as opening with a slave ship plying the Atlantic in 1809 (the slave trade had actually ended one year before) and Lincoln’s famous line, “A house divided against itself cannot stand,” inexplicably altered to, “A house divided against itself must fall” — and it ends with Lincoln delivering a speech, a mash-up of the Second Inaugural and the Gettysburg Address, as he takes his seat in the presidential box at Ford’s Theatre before the start of the play during which he will be assassinated. It also has the sort of “good construction” scene beloved of screenwriters of the period, in which we meet John Wilkes Booth — played with the right combination of theatricality and smarminess by Ian Keith (who in 1930 was also one of the actors considered for the title role in Dracula when Universal needed a replacement for Lon Chaney, Sr., who had just died — ultimately, of course, they went with Bela Lugosi, who had played the part on the Broadway stage) — in 1860, cursing Lincoln’s election and saying that the man who killed him would be doing the country a favor. (Apropos of The Conspirator, this film contains a scene which definitely establishes that Booth was part of a conspiracy; we don’t learn who the other people are but we hear one of them say, “Mrs. Surratt is definitely in.”)

 Abraham Lincoln is a great movie, albeit an uneven one, if you can meet it halfway and accept it for what it is: a pageant-like re-creation of historical events audiences in 1930 knew well and therefore could fill in the gaps — like Lincoln suddenly exclaiming to Mary, I’ve found the man to win this war! His name is … Grant!,” when the existence of a general in the Union Army named Ulysses S. Grant has not been mentioned, or even hinted at, in the film thus far. The film is pageant-like in its acting style as well; Walter Huston delivers his lines with a sort of forced solemnity — at least once past the early scenes in which Lincoln beats a tavern bully at wrestling and otherwise shows us he’s jes’ plain folks — but then Abraham Lincoln is probably the second most difficult part (next to Jesus Christ) for any actor to play and bring a semblance of real, relatable humanity to, and for the same reason: the aura of holiness and sanctity that has accreted onto Lincoln’s image over the decades and changed him from the most polarizing President America has ever had (let’s face it, when 11 states respond to your election by seceding and starting a civil war instead of letting themselves be governed by you, that’s about as polarizing a President as you can imagine!) to the closest thing the U.S. has to an official saint. Any actor who plays Lincoln, from Huston to Henry Fonda, Raymond Massey and on up through Daniel Day-Lewis, is going to have the problem of balancing the human and the saintly sides of Lincoln’s character — and quite frankly, within the limits of early sound filmmaking and the pageant-like approach Griffith and the writers were taking to the drama, Huston did it better than most. (This movie was also an interesting warmup for his role three years later as a fictional U.S. President in an even weirder film, Gabriel Over the White House.) Griffith’s one casting miscalculation is Una Merkel, usually a comic-relief player, as Ann Rutledge; her intonations bear a striking resemblance to Gracie Allen’s and her performance hovers over the thin edge of risibility even though you have to give her points for trying to play the character seriously; she’s annoying enough that, unlike Lincoln, we’re really not that sorry to see her go when she exits permanently one-third of the way through the film.

Few of the other characters have enough screen time to make much of an impression either way — Secretary of War Edwin Stanton is the only member of Lincoln’s actual Cabinet to be shown on screen (and he’s played by a white-haired veteran character actor named Oscar Apfel; the actors who played Stanton in The Conspirator and Lincoln both came closer to the photos of the real Stanton) — though actor E. Alyn Warren manages an interesting feat of playing both Stephen A. Douglas and Ulysses S. Grant (as Grant he’s credited as “Fred Warren”), and there’s a heart-rending silent close-up of Hobart Bosworth as Robert E. Lee when he realizes that the war is lost and he has no realistic option but to surrender. (Griffith, like Lee, was a Virginian and no doubt the pain of his side having lost the war affected him personally even decades later.) Abraham Lincoln is an unjustly neglected film, proof that even past his prime, limited by his own old-fashioned sensibilities and the difficulties of adjusting to sound filmmaking, Griffith was a first-rate director — and one thing that surprised Charles about the film was, especially in its restored form, that it was in no way sympathetic to slavery. But then there are enough examples of Griffith being surprisingly anti-racist — against anti-Indian prejudice in Ramona, against anti-Asian prejudice in Broken Blossoms, against religious prejudice and self-righteous “moralism” in Intolerance — one could make the case that The Birth of a Nation is actually an outlier in his overall career, a film shaped more by the lies Griffith got fed about Reconstruction as a boy growing up in Virginia than by any deep-seated racist prejudices on his part. (Then again, The Birth of a Nation is a preposterously racist movie — something I hadn’t realized for years because the first time I saw it was in a heavily cut version from the 1930’s which edited it so it looked no more racist than Gone with the Wind — which made it all the more shocking when Charles and I watched the full version later!) — 3/31/13

Restless Virgins (Front Street Pictures, 2013)

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

The film was Restless Virgins, a made-for-TV movie premiered on the Lifetime channel a few weeks ago (March 9) which I’d been interested in watching because it promised some good clean dirty fun about a group of upper-class students at the exclusive Sutton prep school (based on the real Milton Academy in Massachusetts, located eight miles south of Boston) who decide that as their annual “legacy hand-off” to the undergraduates who’ll remain there next year after they leave to make a clandestine sex tape, blur out their faces and burn it to DVD. Though not without its flaws — Andy Cochran’s script (based on a book by Abigail Jones and Marissa Miley that’s listed on imdb.com as a “novel” even though the film’s credits say it was a nonfiction book about a real scandal at Milton in 2005) and Jason Lapeyre’s direction occasionally fall into typical Lifetime slovenliness — it’s a powerful tale about the sense of entitlement shared by the children of America’s 1 percent and the way they believe they can literally do anything they want, no matter how many other people suffer in the process, because their money and their family connections will always be available to bail them out of the consequences the rest of the world has to deal with when they commit similar crimes. (We’ve seen that most recently in the announcement by attorney general Eric Holder that none of the big-bank executives who helped bring down the economy in 2008 will be prosecuted, even if some their behavior was genuinely criminal, because if they are it will only shake confidence in the banking and financial system — which led to a lot of bitter joking from members of the 99 percent that “too big to fail” has become “too big to jail.” It was as explicit a statement as any screenwriter would dare to concoct that the people running the economy are literally above the law.) 

There’s also another theme: the tension between the people who get to go to schools like Sutton because they’re part of America’s hereditary ruling class — the principal villain, Dylan Whitman (Charles Carver, whose dark, charismatic handsomeness and whole attitude that the normal rules don’t apply to him nail this role to perfection), is referred to as “the son of a billionaire Senator” — and the ones that have got there through scholarships. Anyone who’s read George Orwell’s essay “Such, Such Were the Days … ” will recall his vivid description of how the scholarship boys at elite schools were always made to feel like they didn’t really deserve to be there, they were being given this incredible education at the sufferance of both the school authorities and the fellow students whose parents could afford the full tuition, and they were never allowed to forget that even though they had been admitted to this elite institution they were still second-class citizens (with the rest of humanity being considered third-class, or even lesser, citizens). The world of Sutton is a microcosm of the American so-called “meritocracy” — quotes intended because “merit” has little or nothing to do with it; it’s really an hereditary aristocracy as hard if not harder to crack than anything Old Europe ever came up with (indeed, modern economic statistics indicate that the U.S. actually has less upward mobility than Western European countries) — in which the class system is overlaid on top of the usual pecking order of a high school, with the popular kids forming cliques and excluding the rest of the student body, while sex and partying are used as ways either to get yourself in with the “in crowd” or to get yourself even more definitively excluded.

The central characters, in terms of people who actually display a sense of idealism that clashes with what they know they have to do to get ahead in this foul world, are Emily (Vanessa Marano), a reporter for the school newspaper who narrates the story, and Lucas (Max Lloyd-Jones), who was briefly attracted to Emily when they were both freshmen (freshpeople?) until he realized that he couldn’t get to the upper-class circle in general and Dylan in particular if he burdened himself with a girlfriend so far down on the pecking order. So instead he started dating Heather (Elise Gatien) and eventually, once he was admitted to Dylan’s residential suite, spread the word that he and Heather were having sex. Heather, furious that he would destroy her reputation just to curry favor among his upper-class “buddies,” broke up with him, and later it turns out that he was lying: he’s never had sex with Heather or anyone else — and neither has Emily (they must be the “restless virgins” alluded to in the title). Emily is worried that she won’t be admitted to an Ivy League college — she’s set her sights on both Harvard and Princeton but gets turned down by both — while Lucas has been accepted to Harvard but worries that he won’t have the money to go there and will have to retreat to his home state, Nebraska, and attend a state school there. Emily’s colleague at the paper, Anya (Rami Kahlon), has got the word that she’s going to Harvard and has qualified for financial aid — and insult is added to injury when Emily’s parents call her and say she’s received a packet from Princeton saying that she’s been rejected but offering her the chance to apply for extension classes there (a kind of academic brush-off that says we’ll allow you to pay us to study here but we won’t give you the cachet of being a “Princeton student”).

While all this is happening Dylan and his friends, including oil heir Cotton (Jedediah Goodacre) — whose masculinity is under suspicion since fellow members of the clique caught him looking at Gay porn on a computer — are plotting to shoot their clandestine sex tape, which involves borrowing a special low-light camera from the journalism school and recruiting Madison (Christie Burke) to be their clandestine “star,” making it with six guys in a gang-bang she, of course, doesn’t know is being filmed. The tape is duly made, and Dylan and friends blur out their own faces so they can’t be identified — though Madison is clearly visible and recognizable — and Dylan makes the rest of his posse swear to secrecy. Only one of them leaks the tape to a friend, and soon it goes viral throughout the school and naturally comes to the attention of the school administration. Lucas was supposed to be at the gang-bang — instead he and Emily slipped out that night to a date, where they were supposed to attend a lecture on Rosa Parks for a class assignment (the fact that they picked Rosa Parks as the subject of a school paper shows they have at least the glint of idealism in their characters). Lucas stranded Emily there when Dylan texted him that they were going to shoot the sex video that night — he palmed her off with cab fare home — but then couldn’t restart his car and was stranded there for three hours while the video gang-bang went on without him. Eventually the tape reaches Emily while, by freak coincidence (or authorial fiat), she happens to be working on an article called “Sex as Currency” about how Sutton students use both sex and the threat of denying sex to get ahead in the school’s pecking order — and, seeing a perfect chance to illustrate her article, she posts the video to the paper’s Web site. For this she gets expelled from Sutton, and so does the poor klutz at the school paper whose only involvement with the video was lending them the special camera with which it was shot.

In order to avoid being prosecuted for all this, Dylan makes both Lucas and Emily a deal: he will get a trust fund for life and all the money he needs to attend Harvard, and she will get into Princeton and likewise have all her expenses paid, if they both stick to the story that Lucas was at the orgy and Dylan wasn’t. They agree — earlier, during the date that fatal night, Lucas had told Emily that the way the world works you have to be willing to do anything, no matter how unscrupulous, to get ahead, and you’re a fool to think that will ever change (which is probably true but certainly is depressing) — until Lucas accidentally overturns the automatic carpet-sweeper with which Dylan and company keep the room clean and finds the memory card containing the unaltered version of the video. Unfortunately, either the card was already erased when Lucas found it or it is clandestinely erased by the woman administrator running the hearing — who doesn’t want to incur the wrath of Senator Whitman by finding his son guilty of anything — and it looks like Dylan will get away scot-free when Emily dramatically holds up her smartphone, on which she recorded Dylan offering her the bribe. (After watching the odd film The Good Student, which was made and supposedly took place in 2006 but none of whose high-school students owned either a computer or a cell phone, it was nice to see a film whose writer and director were actually aware of how today’s young people communicate with each other.) Dylan turns to them in a fury and says they’ve both destroyed himself for nothing, since his reputation is already so well protected he’ll never suffer any consequences (one can readily imagine him running for office himself 20 years later and tearing into his opponent for using a stupid high-school prank against him!), and Emily and Lucas face each other and an uncertain future. (My idea of a happy ending is they hook up and she relocates to Nebraska to be with him, forsaking the big bad urban ruling class for the healthier values of the heartland.)

 Restless Virgins is a story that hooks bigger issues than Messrs. Lapeyre and Cochran were aware of, yet their film has a refreshing honesty about just how firm the class barriers are in a so-called “classless society” like ours, and how F. Scott Fitzgerald was right when he said, “The rich are different from you and me” (and as a man who’d earned his way to relative affluence through his writing, and had married someone from a family with hereditary wealth who never let him forget the difference, he knew whereof he spoke when he said that and when he wrote The Great Gatsby) — and how C. Wright Mills documented that the rich are different from you and me because they’re trained to be different from birth: they’re given an education that trains them to rule over the rest of us and they live in a different culture that shapes their sense of what is important both personally and politically. I guess I didn’t think that a Lifetime TV-movie that was sold as a juicy bit of sexploitation would have so much to say about America’s classless pretensions and class realities, but Restless Virgins proved to be a lot more than just the two hours (less commercials) of good clean dirty fun I had expected!

Friday, March 29, 2013

Sweepstakes (RKO-Pathé, 1931)

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

I screened Charles a film I recently recorded from TCM, Sweepstakes, a neat 1931 horse-racing comedy-drama from RKO Pathé. It’s basically Horse Racing Plot #101 — young jockey Buddy Doyle (Eddie Quillan, top-billed and considerably less annoying than usual) gets lured to the Woodlawn Club by singer Babe Elliot (Marian Nixon) and ends up forsaking his training for the upcoming Camden Stakes race to hang out with her and run up a huge tab to the establishment’s owner, Wally Weber (Lew Cody). This so upsets Pop Blake (Fred Barton), owner of the horse Six Shooter whom Buddy was supposed to ride in the big race, that Blake says that if Buddy doesn’t break it off with Babe he’s fired. Blake and Buddy’s combination trainer, manager and keeper “Sleepy” Jones (James Gleason, whose acerbic wit helps this movie a lot) mean this only as a bluff, but Buddy takes it seriously and signs with Wally Weber to ride his horses as long as he doesn’t have to compete directly with Pop’s horse in the Camden. Only Weber tricks Buddy into riding his Camden entry, Rosedawn, and just before the race “Sleepy” tells Buddy that he’s been set up and if Rosedawn wins a lot of corrupt gamblers will make a lot of money. So, running neck-and-neck with his former mount in the big race, Buddy starts saying “Whoop-ti-doo” to the horse — his way of controlling Six Shooter so he doesn’t have to use a whip — and as Six Shooter breaks ahead from the sound of Buddy’s voice, Buddy pulls back on Rosedawn and effectively throws the race. He’s caught doing so by the track stewards and put on indefinite suspension, and at this point Sweepstakes starts to look like a Warner Bros. film as Buddy bums across the country, getting progressively more disheveled. He tries to ride at other racetracks under a series of aliases but keeps getting caught — the last time at a two-bit track at Riverside, California in which he’s exposed by a promoter who wants him to throw his race and fired by the magnificent character villain Clarence Wilson from the W. C. Fields/Alison Skipworth vehicle Tillie and Gus — and he ends up in Mexico as a singing waiter at a café near a racetrack. (The song he sings is “Gee, I Wish I Had a Girl,” later recorded by Al Jolson in his late-1940’s comeback career for Decca.) “Sleepy” comes there to get Buddy to ride again — he can now do so legally since his suspension has expired — and even buys Six Shooter at an auction, hitting up the owners of the café for part of the money. But the reluctant Buddy, still too badly hurt by what’s happened to him before, won’t ride until Babe — who, in an intriguing variation on this story template by writers Lew Lipton (story) and Ralph Murphy (dialogue), wasn’t a conscious part of Wally’s plot but was instead genuinely in love with Buddy — talks him into it. You can guess what happens next: Buddy stages an impressive come-from-behind victory in the big race and he and Babe get into a clinch at the fade-out.

What makes this one special is the insouciance with which the writers approach the plot — they know we don’t take a lick of it seriously and they don’t either — and the marvelous touches it’s full of from the writers and director Albert S. Rogell. At the opening Buddy and his fellow jockeys live in a boardinghouse that’s virtually a combination of a military barracks and a prison, complete with rigidly enforced rules as to when they must go to bed and how they’re allowed (or not) to socialize — Buddy literally has to escape through his second-floor bedroom window to see Babe, and when “Sleepy” catches him he insists that Buddy climb up the building to get back in the same way he went out. The otherwise iron discipline of the place doesn’t stop them from giving Buddy a huge surprise party for his 21st birthday, which happens at the start of the film — and as the jockeys devour plate on plate of food and a large white birthday cake to top it off, I couldn’t help but remember the bizarre chapter in Laura Hillenbrand’s Seabiscuit on how jockeys practically pioneered binging and purging in order to keep themselves down to a light enough weight to be allowed to ride. Director Rogell, usually thought of as a hack, also brings some creative camera angles to this film, including the nice meet-cute in which Buddy and Babe glimpse each other through the round window of the door at the Woodlawn Club separating the kitchen from the dining space, and later he and cinematographer Edward Snyder throw in some intriguing shots from Buddy’s point of view. While it’s hard not to think that Sweepstakes would have been even better if it had been made at Warner Bros. and James Cagney would have played Quillan’s role (did Cagney ever play a jockey? It would seem to have been a natural part for him!), even as it stands it’s a capable foray by RKO-Pathé into Warners’ territory and probably Quillan’s best role in a film, not that that’s saying much for him.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Lincoln (DreamWorks SKG, 20th Century-Fox, Reliance Entertainment, 2012)

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

Last night Charles and I watched the 2012 Steven Spielberg biopic Lincoln, not only because it had just come out on DVD the day before but also I thought it would make an interesting counterpoint to the film The Conspirator from 2010, which we had also just watched. Lincoln is a genuinely moving and historically fascinating film that was obviously aspiring to Greatness with a capital G. As a result, it’s a masterly piece of work but it also feels stiff, more like an historical pageant than a real movie — obviously a major temptation in taking on a subject like Lincoln, who for all the controversy that swirls around him in the film itself has become America’s closest equivalent to a secular saint, prayed to and invoked for all manner of causes, including ones that didn’t exist in his day and for which people really have to reach into the back rooms of Lincolniana in an attempt to define what he would have done about them if he’d been around when they were live issues. As most people know by now, Lincoln takes 2 ½ hours to tell a story that encompasses only the final three months of Lincoln’s life, and particularly his struggle in January 1865 to get the House of Representatives — in which Lincoln’s Republican Party had a majority but lacked the two-thirds needed to get a constitutional amendment through and submitted to the states for ratification — to pass the Thirteenth Amendment, which abolished slavery. If there’s one great and important historical lesson in this film, it is to be reminded of how totally slavery had been woven into the fabric of America’s historical experience as a nation to that time, to the point where even with the Civil War basically won by the Union side (Ulysses S. Grant’s and George Sherman’s 1864 campaigns had essentially broken the Confederate military resistance and it was all over but the bloody mopping-up, much the way World War II in Europe was essentially over when the Allies pulled together and won the Battle of the Bulge, even though the fighting — and the killing, and the dying — continued for a few months after that), the abolition of slavery was still highly controversial and by no means a sure thing.

Lincoln’s own evolution (to use a word from the vocabulary of the current President) on the slavery issue is well known: though he was always morally opposed to slavery at some level, in 1861 he was willing to offer the Southern states a so-called “unamendable amendment” to the U.S. Constitution that would guarantee the “peculiar institution” in the existing slave states forever (as I noted in my comments on The Conspirator, Maryland Senator Reverdy Johnson, who isn’t depicted at all in Lincoln but is a key character in the earlier film, was Lincoln’s choice as what would today be called a back-channel negotiator to offer the South this deal). In August 1862 he wrote his famous letter to Horace Greeley saying that his principal object in fighting the war was to preserve the Union and not to abolish slavery — “If I could preserve the union by freeing all the slaves, I would do that; if I could preserve the union by keeping them in bondage, I would do that; if I could preserve it by freeing some of them and leaving others alone, I would do that” — which has been cited by progressive historians as evidence that Lincoln really didn’t give a damn about slavery. In fact it was a classic bit of disinformation; when Lincoln wrote that letter he had the draft of the Emancipation Proclamation sitting in his desk drawer, and he was only waiting for the Union armies to win a convincing enough victory on the battlefield to give it both military and political credibility — which happened at Antietam Creek in September 1862. The script for Lincoln shows Lincoln recalling his self-questioning over whether he had the power to issue the Emancipation Proclamation and his decision that he did, but that to justify it legally he had to declare that the slaves were “property” and thereby slaves owned by rebel masters were legitimately subject to confiscation for military purposes.

The Lincoln drawn in this movie has clearly by January 1865 decided that abolition of slavery is a bottom-line condition for ending the war, and to that end he has a peace delegation from the Confederacy headed by Confederate vice-president Alexander Stephens (Jackie Earle Haley) secretly stopped at the borders of Washington, partly because Lincoln throughout the war didn’t want to give the Confederacy credibility as a “nation” by negotiating with it, and partly because Lincoln fears a war-weary population will be willing to compromise and let the South keep its slaves in exchange for an end to the war. Lincoln was a disappointment both at the box office and with the Academy — it got 12 nominations, more than any other film of its year, but won just two awards, Best Actor for Daniel Day-Lewis as Lincoln (making him the first male to win three Academy Awards for acting in leading roles; earlier Jack Nicholson had won three but one of his was in the Supporting Actor category) and Best Achievement in Production Design for Rick Carter and set decorator Jim Erickson — and I suspect it was because the film was clearly Trying So Hard. It was largely inspired by Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book Team of Rivals, which was about Lincoln’s clashes with his Cabinet members, most notably Secretary of State William Seward (David Strathairn), who was basically Hillary Clinton to Lincoln’s Barack Obama: in 1860 Seward had been the favorite of the power players in the Republican Party to win the nomination until Lincoln’s insurgent campaign won him the nomination instead — and after he won Lincoln appointed his Establishment rival to the same Cabinet post to which Obama a century and a half later appointed his. Like Franklin Roosevelt, Lincoln didn’t fill his administration with yes-men; he wanted a healthy dose of diverse opinions around him and he didn’t feel threatened when Cabinet members or Presidential staffers disagreed with him. He also had a penchant for interrupting high-powered political discussions with those interminable cracker-barrel anecdotes that for the rest of the 19th and well into the 20th century would be collected into The Wit and Wisdom of Abraham Lincoln books but must have been tiresome for his original audiences to sit through, especially when Lincoln rambled through them and left them at sea as to what relevance he thought they had to the issue at hand: in one of the most powerful moments in the film Secretary of War Edwin Stanton (Bruce McGill) chews him out as he launches into one of his twisted parables and says, “You’re going to tell one of your stories! I can’t stand to hear another one of your stories!”

 Lincoln is a film mainly about the political compromises that had to be made to get the Thirteenth Amendment passed, and in particular the outright corruption involved in securing the 20 Democratic votes needed: Lincoln and Seward hired a man named W. N. Bilbo (James Spader) — apparently a composite of several real historical figures rather than a really existing person of the period — to offer lame-duck Democrats patronage jobs in exchange for their “yes” votes on the Amendment. The offers shade over into outright bribery at times — Lincoln and Seward had given Bilbo and his two associates a kind of nudge-nudge, wink-wink indication that offering cash bribes was not O.K. but offering jobs was — something Lincoln would have been all too familiar with because he got the Republican Presidential nomination in the first place through a similarly corrupt deal. On the first ballot at the 1860 convention Seward placed first, Lincoln second and Simon Cameron third; then Cameron offered to withdraw and throw his votes to Lincoln but only if Lincoln appointed him Secretary of War — and Cameron immediately used the War Department to reward his friends in the business community with fat contracts and ran such a lousy operation that in early 1862 Lincoln fired him and replaced him with Stanton. Stanton did such a great job cleaning house at the War Department and making sure the Union armies actually got the supplies the government was paying for that quite a few people at the time believed that he had been the decisive leader in winning the war — which explains the near-religious fervor with which Congressional Republicans defended him when Andrew Johnson tried to fire him in 1868, leading to Johnson’s impeachment and near-removal from office. The script by Tony Kushner (who as an “out” socialist as well as a Gay man is an intriguing choice for a Lincoln biopic) goes out of its way to showcase the ironic contrast between the nobility of Lincoln’s ends and the sordidness of his means — too much so for some critics, including Thomas Frank, who in the February 2013 issue of Harper’s Magazine (which was founded in 1850 and is therefore one of the few currently existing periodicals that was around during Lincoln’s lifetime) blasted the movie (and the Kearns Goodwin book on which it was at least partially based) in these terms [http://harpers.org/archive/2013/02/team-america/
]:

[T]he movie Spielberg actually made goes well beyond justifying compromise: it justifies corruption. Lincoln and his men, as they are depicted here, do not merely buttonhole and persuade and deceive. They buy votes outright with promises of patronage jobs and (it is strongly suggested) cash bribes. The noblest law imaginable is put over by the most degraded means. As the real-life Thaddeus Stevens, leader of the Radical Republicans in the House of Representatives, is credited with having said after the amendment was finally approved: “The greatest measure of the nineteenth century was passed by corruption, aided and abetted by the purest man in America.”

The movie is fairly hard on crusading reformers like Stevens. The great lesson we are meant to take from his career is that idealists must learn to lie and to keep their mouths shut at critical moments if they wish to be effective. Lobbyists, on the other hand, are a class of people the movie seems at pains to rehabilitate. Spielberg gives us a raffish trio of such men, hired for the occasion by William Seward, and they get the legislative job done by throwing money around, buying off loose votes — the usual. They huddle with the holy Lincoln himself to talk strategy, and in a climactic scene, Spielberg shows us that a worldly lobbyist can work wonders while a public servant dithers about legalisms. Happy banjo-and-fiddle music starts up whenever they are on-screen — drinking, playing cards, dangling lucrative job offers — because, after all, who doesn’t love a boodle-bundling gang of scamps?

The scene Thomas Frank is referring to when he says “the movie is fairly hard on crusading reformers like Stevens” occurs when the Democrats who are fighting the amendment decide that one way to peel off enough votes to kill it is to goad Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones) into an outburst on the House floor in which he will defend full equality for Black people — thereby associating the Amendment with a radical program most Congressmembers, including most Republicans, would be horrified by. At least one Democrat in the Congressional debate uses a slippery-slope argument to say that passage of the Thirteenth Amendment will lead inevitably to Blacks getting the vote, and then (even more horrifying) to women getting the vote — and once again it’s nice to be reminded that ideas we think of as commonplace and part of the status quo were once viciously attacked and regarded as dangerous “fringe” ideas by mainstream opinion-makers. Stevens bites his tongue — the lines that form on Tommy Lee Jones’ face as he registers his discomfort are a marvelous bit of silent acting — and says he’s for “legal equality only” for African-Americans, thereby disappointing the Black people watching the debate in the gallery — including a Black war widow whom, we later find out, is also Stevens’ mistress (and it’s a measure of how much lingering racism there still is in this country that the sight of them in bed together, carefully set up by Spielberg as a surprise, is still discomfiting even 46 years after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the bans on interracial marriage, and even now that the U.S. President is an African-American from a mixed-race relationship). He later explains to his Radical Republican colleagues that he had to make that public compromise in order to ensure passage of the Amendment, without which any level of equality for African-Americans would remain a pipe dream. (Thaddeus Stevens is one of my personal heroes in American history and I wish someone would make a movie about him sometime.)

Of course, what the movie leaves out — and what would be a more defensible criticism of it from a progressive point of view than the one Thomas Frank made above — was that the only way the Thirteenth Amendment came even close to passage was as the result of decades of anti-slavery agitation by abolitionists who were murdered, beaten, reviled and subjected to a level of public abuse that makes anything modern-day American Leftists have had to go through seem trivial by comparison. As I wrote when I reviewed the recent PBS-TV series The Abolitionists — which one could argue was essentially the “prequel” to Lincoln, the depiction of how a sufficiently dedicated and perseverant movement for social change rewrites the limits of mainstream thought and thereby changes history:

“[T]he abolitionist movement has provided a template for virtually every social-change movement that has followed it in America. Abolitionism begat first-wave feminism — the movement for women’s suffrage was started by women abolitionists who openly questioned why they were being made second-class participants in a movement that was supposedly about human equality — and it also set the pattern for the subsequent movement for African-American civil rights that percolated throughout the 20th century after the unrepentant Southern states (with the connivance of Northern business interests who wanted cheap cotton and steel for the Industrial Revolution) reversed the gains Blacks had made under Reconstruction and installed the system of segregation. In much the same way the revived African-American civil rights movement of the 1960’s begat the anti-Viet Nam war movement, the movements of other people of color for their equality, the second-wave feminist movement (started by women in the 1960’s who wondered why they were being discriminated against inside the Left just as their 1850’s predecessors had wondered why they were being discriminated against as women within the abolitionist movement) and the Queer rights movement.”

In that light, Lincoln is yet another lesson in how social change cannot be achieved entirely through outside-the-system agitation or inside-the-system deal-making: it takes both. As I’ve been writing tirelessly for decades now, the American Left understood that in the 1860’s, the 1890’s, the 1930’s and the 1960’s but now has virtually forgotten that lesson; Leftists see the choice between electoral politics and direct action as either-or, and it’s the Right that sees them as both-and — and hence the Right keeps cleaning our clock on issue after issue.

Regarding Lincoln as a movie rather than a history lesson or a provoker of debate on just how positive social change (or negative social change, for that matter) gets accomplished, it’s an extraordinarily well-made film. As I’ve written before about Spielberg, there isn’t anyone currently making movies who has as expert a command of the basic grammar of filmmaking — when to hold a scene on screen and when to cut; when to film in long shots and when to move in for close-ups, when to hold the camera steady and when to move it, when to add music to a scene and when to leave it unscored (like most of Spielberg’s films Lincoln has a John Williams score, but the film actually has very little music and much of it is “source” music: the pop songs of the day played by the sorts of ensembles that would have played them then). His great weakness as an artist is his penchant for sentimentality (but given that that was also Charlie Chaplin’s and John Ford’s weakness, he’s at least in good company), which in Lincoln leads him and Kushner to work in a subplot about Lincoln’s son Robert wanting to enlist in the Union army and Lincoln’s horror at the possibility that, having already lost one son (Willie, who died of typhoid fever as a child), he might lose another. I joked, “This has the two big elements Spielberg likes: political significance and cute kids.” The film is shot largely in the past-is-brown mode — it’s hard to expect an historical film made in the U.S. in the early 21st century not to — yet there’s a fascinating difference between its visual appearance and that of The Conspirator. Where The Conspirator’s cinematographer, Newton Thomas Sigel, seemed to be going for the look of the Civil War-era photographs of Alexander Gardner (who’s mentioned briefly in Lincoln as the photographer who shot the plates of slaves Robert Lincoln and his brother Tad study intently), Lincoln’s cinematographer, Janusz Kaminski, seemed to be going for the rich, burnished look of oil paintings of the period. There are shots in this film one could readily imagine Rembrandt or some similarly hallowed Old Master painting, and given how much of this film takes place indoors at a time when the only light sources available besides daylight were candles and oil lamps, the past-is-brown look is at least faintly more credible than it is when stories from the more recent past (especially ones set after the widespread use of electric light) are subjected to it.

Lincoln is magnificently acted; Daniel Day-Lewis’s thin, almost nerdy voice seemed almost risible in the clips from the film shown during the Academy Award ceremonies, but in context and over the length of the entire film one quickly gets used to it. Day-Lewis, who apparently is the first British-born actor ever to play Lincoln on screen (though John Drinkwater played him on the Broadway stage in the 1920’s in a play Drinkwater cobbled together from the speeches of the real Lincoln, and the Canadian — and therefore British Commonwealth member —Raymond Massey likewise played Lincoln on both stage and screen), said he adopted that voice on the basis of the descriptions Lincoln’s contemporaries left of his voice being high, thin and reedy — which suggests that out of all the previous actors who’ve made films playing Lincoln, Henry Fonda was probably the best in that department (and it is a real pity that Young Mr. Lincoln director John Ford didn’t or couldn’t follow it up with two more Lincoln films in which Fonda could have extended his characterization into Lincoln’s Presidency and the Civil War). It’s jarring at first but eventually you get used to it. Sally Field as Mary Todd Lincoln (whom her husband for some reason calls “Molly” throughout the film) was also superb, expertly nailing the hints of her subsequent insanity (the real Mary Todd ended up in an insane asylum and Robert Lincoln had to sign the commitment papers for his mother) and her own skepticism, as a Southerner born and bred, whether abolition was really the best course for post-Civil War America. Lincoln is also a “doubles” movie in that, in addition to Daniel Day-Lewis, it features two actors who previously played Lincoln on film themselves: Hal Holbrook as Preston Blair, the conservative Republican leader (today “conservative Republican” is redundant and it’s a bit of a shocker to see that in its early days — the Republicans were only nine years old as a national party when this film takes place — there was a very wide ideological variety in the party, far more than there was in the Democratic Party of the day) who insists that Lincoln meet with the Confederate delegation as his price for supporting the Amendment and preventing any Republican defections; and David Strathairn as William Seward.

Lincoln is a genuinely powerful movie, slow and talky but also quite compelling, and it offers at least two significant historical lessons: it shows how even at the end of the Civil War abolition remained a highly controversial and “charged” demand (and the anguished protestations of the Thirteenth Amendment’s opponents that if they were freed Black slaves would take white men’s jobs, then demand civil equality, then the right to vote and ultimately the right to marry white people ring oddly to an audience that knows the history: that for the next century African-Americans pretty much remained second-class citizens and it took another wave of activism almost 100 years after the war for them at least to gain full legal equality, let alone truly equal status with whites) and it also shows the lesson that perturbed Thomas Frank so much but that happens to be true: sometimes even the noblest political causes have to be fought for and won with the foulest of means.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

The Phantom (Supreme, Artclass, Action, 1931)

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

Two nights ago Charles and I watched a 1931 film we’d downloaded from archive.org: The Phantom, made by independent studios Supreme Pictures, Artclass Pictures and Action Dramas — which had a spectacular opening but after that turned out to be one of the most useless and boring movies ever made, dull even though it only ran an hour and seeming a good deal longer than that! The exciting opening takes place just outside a prison, where the mysterious criminal “The Phantom” is about to be executed — only he’s worked out an ingenious way to escape: after climbing atop the walls of the prison, he leaps onto a passing train, whereupon a confederate comes by flying an airplane towing a rope ladder, which “The Phantom” grabs and flies away to safety. Alas, the rest of it is a dull, dull, dull would-be melodrama which cuts back and forth between the home of district attorney John Hampton (Wilfred Lucas) and an insane asylum that supposedly is connected to the Hampton home via a secret passage — though the two big living-room interiors look so much the same it’s hard to tell which is which except by which characters inhabit each one. (This was such a low-budget production it probably was the same set!) Hampton has received a threatening note from “The Phantom” saying he’s going to meet him that evening. The note contains an ominous warning not to be involved in setting up a police trap, so needless to say that’s the first thing the D.A. does — despite the jeopardy this puts into not only Hampton himself but also his daughter Ruth (Allene Ray, who had a B-list career in the silent era but didn’t last long after the talkie transition — and one can readily hear why: she has one of those scratchy, annoying little voices Jean Hagen was parodying in Singin’ in the Rain), whose boyfriend Dick Mallory (Guinn “Big Boy” Williams, shorn of the “Big Boy” moniker in the credits but still coming off as what he was: a comic-relief actor inexplicably promoted to a serious romantic lead) also gets involved in the action — as does a mysterious cloaked and hatted figure called “The Thing” (Sheldon Lewis), who we of course assume is The Phantom, skulking around the asylum set menacing the heroine but otherwise not doing much of anything except providing a red herring. There’s also a comic-relief romance between Hampton’s maid Lucy (Violet Knights, desperately trying to channel ZaSu Pitts’ genuinely amusing performances in similar roles) and his chauffeur “Shorty” (Bobby Dunn), as well as a tall, skinny weirdo at the sanitarium who looked so much like the silent comedian Al St. John I thought it was he, but it wasn’t: imdb.com credits one William Jackie with the role.

I’ll say one thing for The Phantom: it’s photographed (by Lauron Draper) with a good sense of atmosphere and some interesting chiaroscuro effects, but it’s staged by director Alvin J. Neitz (Violet Knights’ brother!) with virtually no close-ups (a hallmark of the true cheapies of classic-era Hollywood; independent producers frequently eschewed close-ups because they took so long to light and shoot) and the cameras seemingly miles away from the action, forcing the actors to register their emotions as best they can over the yawning distances between them and the camera. The writer is credited as Allan James, but he and director Neitz were the same person — and while James a.k.a. Neitz had his directorial credit on some genuinely interesting movies, notably the Ken Maynard Westerns Tombstone Canyon and the awesome Smoking Guns, here he looks like he was directing by remote control and writing in his sleep. At the end James/Neitz/whatever his name was has “The Thing” turn out to be a red herring — a poor fate for Sheldon Lewis, who’d played both the Clutching Hand and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde in the silent era — and “The Phantom” turn out to be [spoiler alert!] Dr. Weldon (William Gould), the person in charge of the asylum, even though it’s impossible to believe the portly Gould could have pulled off the athletic prison escape we saw in the opening sequence. What’s more, in a ridiculously ill-appointed back room that’s supposed to represent a medical laboratory, he’s supposed to be getting ready to perform a sinister brain-transplantation experiment on poor Ruth even though nothing in the movie so far has indicated it’s going to have anything to do with a mad scientist. (One imdb.com reviewer who liked the film considerably better than I did said the only thing missing was a gorilla, and doubtless one would have turned up if the film had gone on for another reel or so.) The Phantom might have been, if not a great movie (greatness was probably too much to hope for on an indie budget — though interestingly this film appears in the American Film Institute Catalog just before The Phantom Broadcast, which really is a great movie even though it was made by an indie, the first iteration of Monogram, in 1933), at least a reasonably entertaining one if it had just been made with a bit more filmmaking élan and a willingness to stretch the budget to include close-ups — though over 50 years later Jim Jarmusch would release his first feature, Stranger Than Paradise (1984), done entirely in master shots without close-ups — and he’d be hailed as a great innovator, thanks largely to a distributor who used his budgetary limit as a selling point and got people (including me) to turn out and see the film just for that reason!

Monday, March 25, 2013

The Conspirator (American Film Company/Wildwood Enterprises/Roadside Attractions/Lionsgate, 2010)

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

Last night’s movie was The Conspirator, the “other” recent movie about Abraham Lincoln, directed by Robert Redford and starring a cast of highly competent actors with little or no drawing power on the marquee (the biggest names associated with this film, at least in front of the camera, are Robin Wright as Mary Surratt and Kevin Kline as Secretary of War Edwin Stanton). It was the debut production of the American Film Company, whose mission was to produce factually accurate movies dramatizing significant but largely forgotten aspects of American history, and it pretty much sank without a trace at the box office. That’s a pity, because it’s quite a good movie, albeit rather old-fashioned and stolid in the manner of most of Redford’s work as a director, though the much-vaunted effort at historical accuracy didn’t stop the imdb.com contributors from riddling the movie’s page with goofs. (One they didn’t spot: an early line of dialogue refers to “when General Lee surrendered to General Grant at Appomattox.” That didn’t happen; when Lee surrendered at Appomattox the Union general who accepted his surrender was George Meade, who 21 months earlier had led the army against him at Gettysburg.) At least part of the problem with this movie is that it’s confusing if you don’t know the historical background behind it: the real-life trial of eight people for allegedly conspiring with John Wilkes Booth (Toby Kebbell) to assassinate not only President Lincoln but also the next two people (then) in line for the presidency, vice-president Andrew Johnson and secretary of state William Seward.

The conspirators were a bunch of Confederate diehards who for two years previously had been hatching a plot to kidnap Lincoln and hold him as hostage until he agreed to sign a peace agreement that would let the Confederate states out of the Union. Unable to do that because Lincoln kept changing his plans and was never in the location from which they expected to kidnap him, after the surrender and especially after Lincoln’s first (and, as it turned out, last) public speech before the war contained a pledge to consider letting at least some African-Americans vote, they decided on this three-pronged conspiracy to decapitate the Union government, plunge the country into chaos and thereby accomplish through political murder what the Confederate armies hadn’t been able to achieve on the battlefield. What went wrong for the conspirators was that, though Lincoln was murdered on schedule, Seward’s assassin, Lewis Payne a.k.a. Lewis Powell (Norman Reedus) attacked him in his sickroom with a knife (Seward was recovering from a carriage accident — a lot of people don’t realize that there were traffic accidents before there were cars) and severed his cheek but failed to kill him, and Johnson’s would-be assassin, George Atzerodt (John Michael Weatherly), lost his nerve and instead of killing the vice-president he went out and got drunk. (It’s ironic that Johnson, a notorious alcoholic who got off to a bad start in his presidency by delivering his first public speech as President clearly under the influence, was spared assassination because his would-be killer also liked the bottle.)

The Conspirator begins during one of the battles of the Civil War, in which the film’s central character, Frederick Aiken (James McAvoy), is badly wounded but tells the medic to attend to the guy lying next to him even though the other guy is in worse shape than he is. Then there’s a title that says, “Two years later,” and two years later the Civil War has just ended and Aiken is in Washington, D.C., assuming he’ll resume both his civilian law practice and his relationship with his girlfriend Sarah Weston (Alexis Bledel) which were interrupted by his Civil War service. Secretary of War Edwin Stanton (Kevin Kline) recruits him for a job in the War Department, but Aiken says he’s worn a uniform for too long and he wants to be back in civilian clothes. Then President Lincoln gets assassinated, Seward gets seriously wounded and Stanton immediately assumes that there’s a major conspiracy behind it. He traces it to the boardinghouse of Mary Surratt (Robin Wright) and determines that virtually all the conspirators were residents of her house — all except Booth, who as a reasonably popular actor (though he was not one of the superstars of the age; his brother, Edwin Booth, was a superstar and quite a few people at the time believed that John Wilkes Booth had shot Lincoln just to do something that would make him more famous than his brother!) was able to stay at a hotel whenever he was in Washington, D.C. to perform at Ford’s Theatre, which was quite often. (Apparently one reason Booth was picked by the conspirators to assassinate Lincoln at the theatre was that as an actor who’d frequently appeared there, his presence backstage and in the hallways would not attract suspicion.) One of the suspected conspirators is Mary’s son John Surratt (Johnny Simmons), but he manages to escape Stanton’s manhunt even though Payne, Atzerodt and five other people are caught. Mary Surratt is arrested for the crime and she and the other seven prisoners are held incommunicado, spending some time inside a monitor-type vessel (where the Civil War photographer Alexander Gardner, who shot more photos of Lincoln than anyone else, took their pictures in a surprisingly artistic manner) and then being moved to the building where they were to be tried by a nine-member military commission.

U.S. Senator Reverdy Johnson of Maryland (Tom Wilkinson) first agrees to represent Mary Surratt in the trial, but backs out just before it opens and assigns his friend Frederick Aiken, who in the pattern of innumerable movie protagonists before him is at first reluctant to take on so controversial and seemingly hopeless a case, but ultimately becomes convinced not only that Mary Surratt is innocent — his argument is she was just running a boardinghouse and wasn’t responsible for whatever her tenants might have been plotting — but that the entire trial by military commission, with nine judges all hand-picked by Stanton and ferocious pressure from the Secretary of War to make sure the “right” verdict came in, is an affront to the U.S. Constitution and the values Aiken and his brethren in the Union Army were supposedly fighting for. Aiken’s attempt to win an acquittal for Surratt is hamstrung not only by the rules of the court, which are continually shifting to make sure the verdict is guilty, but by Mary Surratt’s own intransigence on one point: every time Aiken starts to argue that the person who should be punished in Mrs. Surratt’s place is her son John, Mary has a wing-ding of a fit and cuts him off immediately. When The Conspirator came out, most of the critics “read” the film as a parallel to the “war on terror” and the military commissions President George W. Bush had specified as the way to try suspected terrorists. The parallel is unforced but nonetheless there — especially in Stanton’s speeches, which often do sound like Dick Cheney was channeling him — but the publicity surrounding it was probably this movie’s kiss of death at the box office: none of the films about the “war on terror” had done especially well commercially, and Robert Redford was undoubtedly well aware of this because one of the biggest flops had been his own previous film Lions for Lambs. Part of the problem with The Conspirator is the historical background is confusing; frankly, it helped a great deal that Charles and I watched this movie on a two-disc DVD edition in which disc one contained the feature film itself and disc two included a 66-minute made-for-TV documentary, The Conspirator: Mary Surratt and the Plot to Kill Lincoln, which Charles and I watched first: it gave us an historical grounding in the story without which the events in the movie (particularly the fast-moving scenes at the beginning that show the actual assassination of Lincoln) would have been confusing and almost incomprehensible.

Robert Redford’s insistence on casting the almost unknown James McAvoy didn’t help this film’s commercial fate either, I’m sure, yet McAvoy’s performance is excellent even in a rather clichéd Bogart-esque character arc (the writing credits are James Solomon and Gregory Bernstein for the film’s “story” and Solomon solo for the script). But the film is actually quite good, watchable in a quiet, gentle vein typical of Redford’s work as a director; the film plays down the tear-jerking aspects of Mary Surratt’s fate (not only is she being framed for the most heinous crime imaginable but it’s clear that the only way she has of sparing herself the gallows is by turning in her son) and concentrates on the horrendous miscarriage of justice represented by military-commission trials (then and now), the vehemence and thoroughness with which Stanton stacks the deck to ensure not only that the prisoners be found guilty but that Mary Surratt be one of the ones put to death (when his commission votes 5-4 to sentence her to life imprisonment instead of death he reconvenes them until they give him the “right” answer). When Aiken finally finds a judge to issue a writ of habeas corpus to deliver Mary Surratt over to the civilian courts for a normal trial instead of the “military commission” sham, the writ is countermanded by, of all people, President Andrew Johnson, who agrees to Stanton’s demand for a document ordering the execution anyway. (Later Johnson and Stanton would have an epic clash that would result in Johnson’s impeachment and near-removal from the presidency — he escaped U.S. Senate conviction by one vote — after Johnson tried to remove Stanton from office because he wanted the military occupation of the South by government troops either ended or eased.) The Conspirator is full of historically interesting characters — including Reverdy Johnson, who as a Senator from a so-called “border state” (one which allowed slavery but did not secede) was Lincoln’s choice during the months between his election and his inauguration to be his emissary to the Southern states and promise a Constitutional amendment to guarantee that slavery would never be abolished in the states that already had it in exchange for the South remaining in the Union — and the tale itself has quite a few bizarre ironies.

One of the shots in the documentary is of a postcard showing the three Booth brothers — John Wilkes, Edwin Thomas (the true superstar of the family) and Junius Brutus, Jr. — in a production of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar in 1864. No fiction writer would dare make that up — one of the most famous political assassins in history acting in a play about another one of the most famous assassinations in history![1] (To add to the ironies, Edwin Booth saved Lincoln’s son Robert from being crushed to death on a train platform in Jersey City, New Jersey less than a year before John Wilkes Booth killed Lincoln.) The Conspirator is a fine movie, a bit slow at times, but well staged even if it suffers from a severe case of the past-is-brown disease; cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel was quoted as saying he was after the look of sepia-toned photographs of the period, but quite frankly if he and director Redford had really wanted an historically authentic “look” they should have shot it in black-and-white and gone after the finely honed, chiseled look of Alexander Gardner’s non-sepia-tinted photos. It’s beautifully acted — like most actor-directors, Redford is a master at getting his actors to turn in finely honed, understated performances (I’ve noticed that even actor-directors who as actors were unmitigated hams, like Erich von Stroheim and Orson Welles, generally managed to get the other actors they directed to underplay) and James McAvoy would probably be on his way to major stardom right now if this film had got the attention and commercial success it deserved. As for the American Film Company, their Web site (http://www.theamericanfilmcompany.com/films/) lists their second production as Parkland, another movie about the aftermath of a Presidential assassination (this time John F. Kennedy’s), but two other films, Ghosts of the Pacific (about three Navy flyers who crash-landed in the Pacific Ocean in January 1942 and how they survived) and Born in the Badlands (about the young-adulthood of Teddy Roosevelt) are listed as “pre-production” and “in development,” and obviously the commercial disappointment of The Conspirator isn’t going to help those get made.

 The Conspirator is also interesting for the way in which it dramatizes the overwhelming evidence that a conspiracy to kill Lincoln and the U.S.’s top officials at the end of the Civil War did exist and that most of the males accused of being part of it in fact were guilty — there’s still debate over whether Mary Surratt was an active member of the conspiracy, a passive member (i.e., that she saw these people congregating at her boardinghouse and having discussions about crimes, and did nothing to stop them or report them but wasn’t active herself) or totally innocent of what was going on under her roof; and, even if she bore some guilt, whether she was so culpable she deserved to be hanged. (She was the first woman ever hanged by the U.S. federal government, and they didn’t quite know how to do it: as well as tying her arms behind her back, as was customary, they also tied her legs together for fear her dress would go up as she fell and treat the crowd watching the spectacle to a view of her “unmentionables.”) But there can be no rational debate over the existence of a conspiracy and its overriding purpose — to win the war through assassination and subterfuge the Confederacy had been unable to win in battle — just as there can be no rational debate that President John F. Kennedy was killed by a conspiracy: the idea that Lee Harvey Oswald, in that window, with that rifle, shooting that badly, could have brought down JFK on his own and caused all the wounds both Kennedy and Texas Governor John Connally suffered is physically impossible. The successor administrations (both led by former vice-presidents named Johnson!) handled the cases quite differently: Edwin Stanton immediately assumed (correctly) that a conspiracy was involved and mounted a massive manhunt for the conspirators, while from the get-go Lyndon Johnson and Robert Kennedy framed the JFK assassination as the work of one lone nut — yet the result has, ironically, been pretty much the same; generations of schoolchildren have been taught that John Wilkes Booth and Lee Harvey Oswald both acted alone — weirdly fulfilling Stanton’s wish, expressed in the movie in a line the writers copied from accounts of the day, that the conspirators be “buried and forgotten.”

It’s also a pity The Conspirator wasn’t a box-office success because there’s a sequel waiting to be made: the further adventures of John Surratt, who escaped to Europe, became one of the Swiss Guards guarding the Pope in the Vatican (the Pope at the time was Pius IX, the one who published an encyclical declaring democracy anti-Christian and a ruling invalidating the 1857 constitution of Mexico because it didn’t establish Roman Catholicism as the only faith allowed, so the Catholic, pro-Confederate Surratt fils would have fit right in!), was finally located by U.S. authorities and extradited — and in 1867 he was tried in a civilian court (not a military tribunal!), and after the jury hung was set free and lived until 1914. As for Frederick Aiken, the scandal over his to-the-wall-and-then-some representation of Mary Surratt drove him out of polite society (there’s a scene in the movie in which he’s thrown out of his country club) and out of the legal profession, and he ended up as the first city editor of the Washington Post (yet another irony: the movie about the first Washington Post city editor ends up being directed by the man who played one of the two most famous reporters in that paper’s history, Bob Woodward, in All the President’s Men). Watching The Conspirator now, on the eve of the DVD release of Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln biopic (itself focused on the final stages of Lincoln’s life and in particular on his struggles to get the 13th Amendment through Congress), may seem like an appetizer to the more prestigious and more successful (but still not a blockbuster, and a bust with the Academy voters with only two awards despite its 12 nominations) Spielberg film, but it’s a compelling movie in its own right and it deserved a better fate than it got.


[1] — According to Edwin Booth’s Wikipedia page, Edwin played Brutus, Junius played Cassius and John Wilkes played Antony — so the one real-life assassin of the three played the character not involved in killing Caesar.