Monday, January 27, 2014

56th Annual Grammy Awards (National Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences/CBS, 1/26/14)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2014 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The 56th Annual Grammy Awards were the usual preposterous mix of genuinely moving music and insane spectacle — sometimes simultaneously; I love Pink’s music (I think she’s a genuinely powerful, emotional singer) but I don’t really need the Cirque du Soleil stuff she feels she has to do as part of her act. What’s more, it was obvious that during her main song, “Get Up and Try” (on a lot of these numbers I’m just guessing at the titles), she was so busy maintaining her balance on that acrobatic swing that she wasn’t actually singing but just miming to her record. The show suffered from the usual pyrotechnics (actual as well as figurative) and enough dry ice to have kept your average disco in business for a decade, though ironically the most emotionally powerful performances came early on and were the least “produced.” Lorde, a singer from New Zealand, did her hit song “Royals” (an ironic title since the piece is about twenty-somethings with either no jobs or nothing jobs, aimless lives and — advancement opportunities? Are you kidding?) dressed in a black pantsuit and a wig that made her look like the actress Carolyn Jones (she was perched midway between Jones’ “beatnik” roles in 1950’s movies and her Morticia Addams in the 1960’s TV series The Addams Family), and both her restrained performance and the song itself added her to that quirky list of female singer-songwriters I especially like: Melanie, Sinéad O’Connor, Tori Amos and Neko Case. (She won Song of the Year for “Royals” even though she wasn’t even nominated for either Record or Album of the Year — and I was taken aback at her lack of a songwriting credit on “Royals” until she came up to accept the award along with her male partner — whom I suspect is her boyfriend as well — and I realized that, like Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf and the later Elvis Costello, she’d taken her songwriting credit under her real name.)

Right after her Hunter Hayes did an anti-bullying anthem called “Invisible” and, though the song was a bit too carefully crafted (it made me think he wrote it for an It Gets Better video), he sang it with real righteous emotion and white-boy soul. The show went downhill from there but still had its moments; the opening song was by Beyoncé and her current husband Jay-Z (a real Beauty and the Beast pairing there!) and was from her new album, released too late to be eligible (which means we’ll probably be hearing — and seeing — more of it next year) and later there was a pairing of Robin Thicke (yet another white soul wanna-be!) with the aging jazz-rock band Chicago on three of Chicago’s nostalgia-inducing hits (“Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is?,” “Beginnings” and “Saturday in the Park”) and something called (I think) “Good Girl” that must have been Thicke’s own song. Keith Urban did a nice country song about meeting his girlfriend in the back of a cop car when they’d both been arrested, John Legend did an O.K. pop-soul number, Taylor Swift turned in a surprisingly impassioned performance on something I suspect was called “All Too Well,” and after Pink’s solo number in which she was whirled around in space she came off the swing for a duet with Nate Roose of the band fun. (lower-case and with the period at the end) in which she was clearly singing live and acquitting herself better than she’d done during her acrobatic act.

The show included a semi-tribute to the Beatles — the two surviving ones, Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr, both came on; Ringo did his 1973 hit “Photograph” (behind him on stage they projected, you guessed it, photographs of the Beatles during their glory years), though he only sang, not drummed; and later he joined Paul not for a remake of a Beatles classic but a new song off Paul’s current album, “Queenie Eye” from New. After “Photograph” rapper Kendrick Lamar — who lost the rap categories to Macklemore and Ryan Lewis, a white duo from Seattle who made it with a song called “Same Love” that endorsed same-sex marriage (how nice, for a change, to hear a rap song about Gays getting married instead of Gays getting Queer-bashed!!!!!) — joined a band called Imagine Dragons for yet another one of those annoying “Grammy moment” pairings (I’d probably like Imagine Dragons’ song if I didn’t have to hear it with a typical “street” rap called “Duck” — Lamar is from Compton and his song, if you can call it that, is solidly in the N.W.A. tradition about street violence, though at least it’s more about surviving it than committing it) and then Kacey Musgraves, the surprise winner in the country awards, doing a song called “Follow Your Arrow” that was about doing what you want — including kissing a member of your own gender “if that’s what you’re into” — and actually had more of a traditional country sound, complete with a pedal steel guitar, than most of the “country” out there today. (The morning of the Grammy Awards the Los Angeles Times Art & Music section ran a tendentious article suggesting that rock is dead because so few guitar-driven songs are making the charts these days, and maybe it’s time to put it out of its misery — I’ve got news for that writer: rock isn’t dead, it’s just taken on a Southern accent and is masquerading as “country.” Most of the “country” nominees were what in the 1970’s we used to call “Southern rock” and owe more to Lynyrd Skynyrd or the Allman Brothers than Hank Williams or Johnny Cash.) One of the big “tribute” numbers combined recent “country” star Blake Shelton to some of the surviving 1970’s “Outlaws” — Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson and Merle Haggard — on a medley of “Highwayman,” “Okie from Muskogee” (a song I can remember being “fighting words” in 1969 — ironically Haggard himself has retreated from its Right-wing politics; his recent works have featured songs about safer sex as well as blasts against talk radio and Bush’s war in Iraq) and “Mama, Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys.”

Then there came a number by Daft Punk, who despite their name have nothing to do with punk as the term has ever been defined; rather, they’re an electronic-dance duo from France who perform in robot costumes, complete with high-tech helmets that look like something an NFL contractee is going to come up with any day now to try to minimize concussion injuries from football. With their white helmets and their white suits, I got the impression they called themselves “Daft Punk” only because “Crash Test Dummies” was already taken. For their most recent album, Random Access Memories (a neat pun on nostalgia and computerese), they dragged in some old-line producers like Nile Rodgers and rented time in studios from the 1970’s to achieve a nostalgic glow on their album, so it would sound more “crafted” that the dance-music records people spit out on computers these days. Since the people in the robot suits don’t talk (and since we can’t see their mouths it’s anybody’s guess whether they actually sing or, like Milli Vanilli — remember them? — they have professional “ghost singers” doing that for them), their spokesperson was their main producer, Pharrell Williams, dressed in a dorky-looking costume that was apparently supposed to make him look like a Mountie. Their performance last night of their big hit, “Get Lucky,” featured a guest appearance by Stevie Wonder, of all people, playing a chiclet-sized electronic keyboard and probably thinking, “Gee, I could write a much better song than this!” Then there was a performance by classical pianist Lang Lang — the one the American Record Guide once derisively called “Bang Bang” (I mentioned that to Charles and he quoted Liberace’s line, “I cry all the way to the bank” — appropriate because Lang Lang’s act last night was something I could readily have imagined Liberace doing) — sitting in with Metallica for a song called “One,” and Lang Lang’s heavy-metal pseudo-classical piano fit right in with Metallica’s lite-metal.

The Metallica guitarist was wearing a T-shirt of Lou Reed’s Transformer LP cover — the only references last night to Lou Reed’s passing was that and a reading by Jared Leto (an Academy Award nominee for playing a drag queen in Dallas Buyers’ Club) of the first verse of “Walk on the Wild Side.” I’d have appreciated a musical tribute to this monumental rock genius (but if they’d done one, it would probably have been a pachydermous tribute with a lot of unsuitable artists coming up and each doing a chorus of “Wild Side,” a great song but hardly representative of Reed’s best — indeed, despite the way critics savaged it at the time, including one reviewer who called Reed a “nasal-voiced sickie,” I think Reed’s album right after Transformer, Berlin, is his greatest work). Just before the Metallica number (and Metallica had a Lou Reed connection — they were his backup band on his last album, a two-CD rock opera based on Frank Wedekind’s Lulu plays), there was an intriguing duet between Carole King and Sara Bareilles — King doing “Beautiful” and Bareilles doing “Brave” — and the show closed with an Everly Brothers tribute from Miranda Lambert and Billie Joe Armstrong (Charles savored the idea of a man who hit it big with a song about masturbation doing a tribute to an act which made rock sound “safe” for adult listeners!) and an ensemble performance by Queens of the Stone Age, Nine Inch Nails, Lindsay Buckingham and Dave Grohl (who’d been onstage with Paul McCartney earlier in the evening, accepting an award for the song he and Macca recorded with Krist Novoselic and Pat Smear — as I noted the last time this came up, who’d have thought that the artist who would take Kurt Cobain’s place in a Nirvana reunion would be, of all people, Paul McCartney?) on two forgettable songs from the Queens and Nails repertoires. 

The other big news was that the independent white Seattle rap duo Macklemore and Ryan Lewis not only won in the rap category over the usual creeps — Los Angeles Times critic Mikael (i hate that spelling of his first name!) Wood predictably sniffed at their win, calling them “distressingly sanctimonious” and saying the award should have gone to Kendrick Lamar, Kanye West (what is this between the L. A. Times music critics and Kanye West? Before Robert Hilburn retired, his praise of West was so fulsome that I wrote a letter to the editor, which they did not print, saying that any day now I expected to see an article in which Hilburn said he had personally witnessed Kanye West walk on water) or Drake. Well, I for one am glad that the rap award went to someone with a positive message who actually likes Queer people and thinks we ought to be able to marry each other, instead of the racist, sexist, Queer-hating, capitalism-loving reactionary “gangsta” crap that still dominates the rap (or “hip-hop," the euphemism you use for rap if you like it) genre. Macklemore and Lewis got to present their pro-marriage equality rap song in the context of a special event that was weird even by Grammy standards: they were introduced by Queen Latifah and performed as part of a grandiose spectacle that included Latifah, Trombone Shorty and a full horn section, Madonna (making her amends to the Queer community after the years she was married to anti-Queer British film director Guy Ritchie and, according to her Gay brother Christopher Ciccone, turned her back on us to please the new man in her life) — and a mass wedding of 33 couples, mostly male-female but quite a few male-male (I didn’t spot any female-female couples even though most of the stats on same-sex marriage show that Lesbian couples tying the knot outnumber Gay male ones 2 to 1) officiated by Queen Latifah herself. Charles joked that he would have liked to have had Queen Latifah officiate at our wedding, though I reminded him that the person we had (Rev. Gerald Green of the Unity Fellowship Church in San Diego) was at least an African-American who can sing.

Between the mass wedding, the endorsement of Macklemore’s and Kacey Musgraves’ pro-Queer songs with major awards and Hunter Hayes’ remarkably soulful performance (even though his song sounded more sanctimonious than Macklemore’s and Lewis’s did!), this was an awards show that definitely communicated a pro-Queer, anti-bashing, anti-bullying message and probably left any Right-wing Middle Americans watching it with yet more “evidence” that American culture is in decline because its culture artists are in headlong flight from “real American values.” Overall, this year’s Grammy Awards were the typical lumbering spectacle, but there were enough nice moments to make the whole show worthwhile — and I could definitely see myself buying Lorde’s, Hunter Hayes’ and Kacey Musgraves’ CD’s on the basis of what I heard last night!

Friday, January 24, 2014

NOVA: Zeppelin Terror Attack (PBS, 2014)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2014 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Charles and I watched another video last night after Guilty Conscience (we were going to watch the latest episode of the American modern-dress Sherlock Holmes pastiche, Elementary — a first-rate show we both like better than the more intellectually regarded British Sherlock — but it turned out to be a rerun of an episode we’d already seen, centered around an Edward Snowden-like figure): an episode of the PBS series NOVA I’d recently recorded called “Zeppelin Terror Attack.” It had a bit of “first-itis” at the outset, suggesting that the people of London and the other British cities that were bombed by Zeppelin dirigibles during World War I were not only the first victims of bombing attacks by aircraft (which they were) but the first civilian targets of war, period — which they weren’t: the ancients had bombarded each other’s cities with giant catapults and in the 19th century both the Germans and French had developed ultra-long-range cannon with which they could attack urban centers and their civilian populations. Nonetheless, it was an interesting program, split as is the NOVA style between actual footage of the attacks (and, in one rather quirky scene, a clip from Howard Hughes’ 1930 film Hell’s Angels showing the gondola suspended under the Zeppelin which contained observers who scanned the ground looking for targets — they needed this because the Zeppelins flew above the clouds and they needed “eyes” below the clouds to tell them where to bomb) and their aftermath, and modern-day re-creations led by a researcher named Hugh Hunt.

Hunt’s brief was to figure out not only how the Zeppelin bombs had been able to inflict so much damage (they were incendiary devices ignited by thermite with benzene that started the conflagration, and a tar-soaked rope tied around the metal case so the fire would keep burning long enough to start the hoped-for firestorm) but also why the British found them so hard to shoot down even though (especially since when most people hear the word “Zeppelin” today they think of the Hindenburg and its fiery end over Lakehurst, New Jersey in 1937) the Zeppelins were basically giant bags filled with highly flammable hydrogen. They also found out what the bags were made of — cow intestines (the same stuff used to wrap sausages — which meant that, since it took so many cows to make enough intestines for one Zeppelin, Germans had to do without sausages for the duration of the war), which were not only flexible but could easily be glued together and tightly sealed just by moistening them. The way the British finally realized they could counter-attack the Zeppelins was by developing two new sorts of bullets — an incendiary bullet and an explosive one — putting them in machine-gun rounds so they would alternate, and getting a plane to fire these bullets at one spot on the Zeppelin until they punctured the bags containing the hydrogen and set it on fire. (The show repeats the old idea that the Hindenburg was brought down by a leaking bag that released hydrogen, which was set afire by a spark of electricity in the air; an earlier PBS documentary said the Hindenburg accident was caused by a change in the Zeppelin company’s recipe for the outer covering of their aircraft, which inadvertently mixed together the two main ingredients of gunpowder — thus, when a small flash of lightning hit the outside of the Hindenburg, it exploded the shell and that’s what set the hydrogen on fire and led to the disaster.) One thing I hadn’t realized until I saw this show was that the Zeppelin company is still a going concern in Germany — Hugh Hunt was shown going for a ride in one of their modern-day craft, a white blimp (they don’t build rigid airships anymore, but then nobody else does either) — and he’s also seen in a simulator which duplicated the thin atmosphere experienced by Zeppelin crews flying at 21,000 feet in an era before aircraft manufacturers had invented the pressurized cabin. It’s a wonder they could even think up there, let alone aim a bomb!

Guilty Conscience (Levinson-Link Productions, Papazian Productions, 1985)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2014 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Guilty Conscience is a 1985 TV-movie produced by Robert Papazian, directed by David Greene and written by Richard Levinson and William Link. Papazian’s and Greene’s names meant nothing to me before but Levinson’s and Link’s certainly did; in the 1970’s they were in charge of Universal’s long-form TV mystery series (the shows ran in 90-minute time slots and rotated each week) and were particularly famous for having created the character of Columbo, the raincoat-clad, Peugeot-driving detective played by Peter Falk whose whole strategy seemed to be annoying the murderers into confessing. Though neither Columbo nor any other official police officers appear in this one, the plot is certainly the sort of crime he might have investigated. Guilty Conscience is basically a blend of Diabolique and Sleuth: famous criminal defense attorney Arthur Jamison (Anthony Hopkins) wants to dump his wife Louise (Blythe Danner) but doesn’t want to divorce her because her alimony demands would impoverish him instantly. He’s been having an ongoing affair with a mistress, Jackie Willis (Swoosie Kurtz — I joked to Charles, “In the 1930’s and 1940’s that was the sort of name that got changed,” and he joked back, “And in the 1970’s and 1980’s that was the sort of name people changed to!”), but he’s cheating on her, too, with an art dealer and Canadian immigrant we never actually see.

All this takes place in San Francisco, with an opening scene at the Fairmont Hotel where we see Arthur lecturing to a legal conference and giving a highly jaundiced view of the court system and a defense attorney’s role in it — though we later learn this is just a fantasy sequence envisioning a way Arthur is thinking of killing his wife. Supposedly he arranged for this conference to take place within a 15-minute drive from his home so he could slip out of it, kill his wife, fake it to look like a burglary (we see him jimmying the lock and breaking into his own home) and slip back into the conference without anyone there having noticed he was gone. Arthur also has an imaginary alter ego (Donegan Smith) who questions him about his various schemes for killing his wife and pokes holes in each of them. Meanwhile, Louise and Jackie have met each other and, realizing that they’re both being screwed (literally and figuratively) by Arthur, have hatched a plot to kill him, and we see fantasy flash-forwards about how they might kill him and how their plans to cover for themselves might get undone by a hot-shot attorney like … Arthur Jamison. Guilty Conscience isn’t much plot-wise (I suppose I should add the original version of Unfaithfully Yours as an influence because it, too, is about a rich man fantasizing various ways of killing his wife) but it’s saved by the deliciously perverse writing of Levinson and Link, some surprisingly creative direction by Greene — in a film that’s so talky, and that never leaves the living room of Jamison’s home after that opening scene at the conference (which made me wonder if Levinson and Link had originally written it as a stage play and only later decided to convert it to a film) Greene’s offbeat angling and heavy use of the camera crane keep the film flowing and make it cinematically interesting instead of just “canned theatre” — and, above all, the first-rate cast.

Hopkins is utterly marvelous in his role even though he seems to be channeling Richard Burton more than usual (is it just coincidence that his performance is so Burton-esque when this was filmed one year after the real Burton died?); Danner and Kurtz are equally good (and well differentiated) as the two women (at least the two we actually see) in his life; and though part of me wishes they would have cast Hopkins himself as his alter ego (they probably didn’t because the trick photography needed to show Anthony Hopkins cross-examining Anthony Hopkins would have blown the TV-movie budget), Donegan Smith is excellent in the role, appropriately hectoring as he picks apart every flaw in every elaborate murder scenario Arthur concocts, including the attempts to cover it up after he actually does kill his wife in a struggle in which They Both Reach for the Gun (Maurine Watkins, your plagiarism attorney is calling from Aruba to thank you for financing his trip) — or does he? This film is probably more full of sequences that we think are real events in the story but which turn out later to be the fantasies of the various characters than just about anything ever made, but Levinson and Link are good enough writers that they play fair with this device (a lot of other people who’ve used it haven’t), and though it’s a minor work Guilty Conscience is a delightful 90 minutes ( gives the running time as 105 minutes but the version we watched was considerably shorter, mastered on a rather tacky DVD that started immediately on insertion into the player and might be a bootleg copy rather than the official release) spent with four fine actors and a script that gives them quite a lot to chew on and is fully worthy of them.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Salinger (Story Factory, Weinstein Company, PBS, 2013)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2014 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Charles and I watched the PBS premiere of the documentary Salinger, directed by Shane Salerno (a screenwriter of growing repute who was at least an online contact of my former roommate/client John!) and a portrayal of the long, successful but apparently not too happy life of the writer J. D. Salinger. He was born in 1919 and died in 2010 at the age of 91, and though he had a pretty normal background for an American writer of his time and place — he was born in New York City, the son of a Jewish cheese merchant and a Catholic mother; he realized from an early age that what he wanted to do was write; he gradually worked his way up the ladder of publications as a short-story writer and aimed at the most prestigious outlet in the field, The New Yorker — his life changed dramatically when he enlisted in the U.S. Army (the documentary made it seem like he volunteered, though his Wikipedia page said he was drafted). He began his service in 1942 but didn’t see combat until 1944; he participated in the D-Day invasions and also was part of the company that liberated Dachau. Apparently that experience sent him into a nervous breakdown (what probably would be called post-traumatic stress disorder today), though even before he went into the service he had started to explore teen alienation and had created the character of Holden Caulfield, the protagonist of Salinger’s most famous work (and only completed full-length novel!), The Catcher in the Rye. After years of trying to crack The New Yorker he had actually got them to accept his first story about Holden Caulfield when the Pearl Harbor attack occurred and the New Yorker editors decided a story about youthful alienation at home no longer suited the national Zeitgeist. So Salinger’s words didn’t see the hallowed pages of The New Yorker until, after two years’ worth of revisions, they finally agreed to publish the grim story “A Perfect Day for Bananafish,” in which a 30-year-old man named Seymour Glass picks up an underage girl on a beach, walks with her, has a long philosophical talk, then goes to his hotel room and, for motives only barely hinted at in the story but described at length by Salinger in his later works about Seymour Glass and his family, kills himself. The story was printed in 1948 and became a sensation; Salinger followed it up with other stories in The New Yorker, Collier’s, Cosmopolitan (back when it was a serious literary publication and not a women’s sex rag) and elsewhere, and built enough of a reputation that movie producer Sam Goldwyn bought the screen rights to the story “Uncle Wiggly in Connecticut” and turned it into a big, blowsy, soap-opera movie called My Foolish Heart. 

Salinger was so infuriated with the results that he decided he would never again allow any of his stories to be filmed — a ban he perpetuated beyond his lifetime by including it in his will — which didn’t stop him from having a sensational literary success in 1951 with The Catcher in the Rye, which not only attracted attention among the literati but got named a Book-of-the-Month Club featured selection and continued to sell for years — in 2004 it moved 250,000 copies, an astonishing number for a 53-year-old novel about such a transitory topic as teen alienation. (Teen alienation may repeat itself generation after generation, but it’s hard to imagine the specific forms of it Salinger experienced in his own teen years and put into his novel having much relevance to alienated teens in 2004.) One thing the Salinger documentary did was dramatize that Salinger not only became famous from The Catcher in the Rye, he became famous in a particularly maddening way; apparently his book spoke to the deepest traumas of so many of its readers that they got the impression that its author knew them better than they knew themselves, and if they could just talk to him, he could give them some sage words of advice that would enable them to solve all their personal problems. There’s more than one story in this film of Salinger in the last 59 years of his life being confronted again and again with people approaching him with their deepest problems, and him responding, “I’m not a therapist! I’m just a fiction writer!” The film also dealt with Salinger’s love life — such as it was; he seems to have been the sort of person so wrapped up in himself and his work that he wasn’t about to let anyone in — and the documentary claims that the great love of Salinger’s life was Oona O’Neill, whom he met in New York in 1941 when she was 16 and dated for two years. Then she went out to Hollywood, auditioned for a movie called Shadow and Substance, and while the film was never made she attracted the attention of its 53-year-old writer-director, Charlie Chaplin, and married him. Salinger realized that she had been drawn to Chaplin because he was already not only a success but a legend, beloved by both the mass audience and the intellectuals, and though Salerno’s film didn’t spell this out I got the impression that in his later years, when Salinger himself was in his 50’s and he was the legendary intellectual with a mass audience, he used that same star attraction to write to teenage girls and lure them to his home and, often, his bed.

Salinger was married three times, the first to a German woman he met in counterintelligence after World War II; the second to Claire Douglas, the mother of his two children; and the third to a young woman who’s barely mentioned in the film — just a brief picture of her and a title under it giving her name and saying, “Salinger’s third wife,” but nothing about her beyond that. The film is more than half over before Salinger writes and publishes Catcher, and the rest of the show describes his reclusive — though not quite hermit-like — existence in the home he bought for himself in Cornish, New Hampshire, where he obtained the isolation he wanted not only from the star-fuckers but from anyone else he didn’t want to see — including a growing enemies’ list since, as described here, he would break with long-time friends at the slightest provocation and without giving them any chance to apologize or explain. Salinger was so determined to maintain his anonymity he ordered his photo taken off The Catcher in the Rye when the book went into its second edition — he simply didn’t want anyone to know what he looked like so they could besiege him with questions and demands that he say the magic words that would solve their problems for them — and the pictures of Salinger that do exist show a man who, though dark-haired instead of blond, otherwise bears a striking resemblance to bandleader Stan Kenton: tall, thin, with a rather craggy face but still openly attractive and charismatic. Salinger never published a full-length novel after Catcher and what little work he released to the public came out in dribs and drabs: two more New Yorker stories in 1955, “Franny” and “Zooey” (these are about two of Seymour Glass’s sisters — the entire Glass family consists of seven intellectually brilliant kids and their parents, who exploited them by getting them on a radio quiz show), plus “Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters” in 1957, “Seymour: An Introduction” (which is supposedly a work of spiritual philosophy composed by Seymour Glass at age seven) in 1959, and his final publication during his lifetime, “Hapworth 16, 1924” (an extended letter, also full of philosophical and spiritual ideas usually considered beyond the ken of a boy whose age is still in single digits, supposedly written by Seymour to his parents from a summer camp) in 1965. All but “Hapworth” were eventually reprinted as books — and the reviews got more derisory each time; one critic commented that reading about the Glass family was like having dinner with seven J. D. Salingers.

I must admit that I’ve never particularly been a J. D. Salinger fan; in high school my most progressive English teacher read aloud to our class “A Perfect Day for Bananafish” and an excerpt from Catcher in which Holden Caulfield loses a set of foils he’s supposed to be carrying for his school’s fencing class (like the real Salinger, Holden went to military school after washing out of several civilian high schools, and hated it). I was impressed but never read any more Salinger until in 1981, at age 27 (probably a decade too old to appreciate it fully), and after Mark David Chapman had told the world that anyone who wanted to know why he had shot and killed John Lennon should read Catcher, I finally cracked it open. I couldn’t believe how weak it seemed, how dull and clichéd (though to his credit it was Salinger who probably created so many of these now-clichéd descriptions of youthful alienation); as I was plowing through page after page of mediocre prose by a writer obviously trying (and failing) to dumb himself down to present his character, I couldn’t believe this work was still considered an edgy literary masterpiece. “Is this the book that launched teen alienation as a literary genre?” I kept asking myself. “Is this the book that millions of teenagers read and said to themselves, ‘That’s me!’” (I’ve sometimes had the interesting experience of reading a book I had avoided getting “taught” in class — my lifelong disinterest in Charles Dickens probably stems from having to plow through Great Expectations as a high-school sophomore and finding Dickens’ style, aside from a few exciting scenes, ponderous and dull — and coming to it later in life. When I finally read Herman Melville’s Moby Dick I had a quite different reaction to it than I did to Catcher — it seemed structurally messy and suffered from Melville’s attempt to write three books in one, an adventure story, an explanation of how whaling worked and a spiritual quest, but it was also legitimately powerful and moved me in ways I hadn’t expected; “Yes,” I thought as I finished it, “this book is as great as everybody says it is.”) The show went into some detail — not surprisingly, given that it was being directed by a Hollywood screenwriter — on how many filmmakers, including Elia Kazan, Billy Wilder, Jerry Lewis (!) and Steven Spielberg, sought the film rights to Catcher and were all turned down — indeed, according to this program it’s in Salinger’s will that Catcher is never to be filmed; though quite frankly, once director Nicholas Ray, writer Stewart Stern and star James Dean came together to film Rebel Without a Cause, a movie of Catcher became totally superfluous. Rebel remains the ultimate movie about 1950’s teen alienation and a work that succeeds where Catcher fails because its alienated protagonist at least admits his need for love and affection from other people, both his parents and his age-peers — and also, quite frankly, when James Dean died the world lost the one actor who might have — not could have, but might have — made Holden Caulfield believable on screen (with one possible exception: the young Sean Penn).

On one level watching Salinger the documentary makes me at least morbidly curious about reading more of Salinger’s work (maybe now Catcher wouldn’t seem so disappointing and I might even be able to appreciate the Glass family, though everything I’ve heard about those later works makes me think Salinger is a prime example of an artist who, by withdrawing from normal humanity, lost his connection with other people that had made him popular and turned inward, creating material that made sense to him but had nothing to offer anyone else; I’ve cited the Stanley Kubrick film Eyes Wide Shut, also the work of a brilliant artist who had lived in seclusion so long that he’d literally forgotten how other people behaved and what they thought and felt, as another example), though I can’t get behind my idea of Salinger as a pathological case, a basket of bizarre experiences and obsessions whose work I’ve lived my life just fine so far without feeling a need to delve into — at times watching this movie seemed like watching a car wreck in slow motion, and I couldn’t help thinking that what James Agee said of D. W. Griffith might also have been true of Salinger: “He lived too long, and that is one of the few things sadder than dying too soon.”

Curtain at Eight (Majestic, 1933)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2014 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was Curtain at Eight, a 1933 production from the better-than-average indie company Majestic, directed (quite creatively, with a lot of moving-camera effects and flashy wipes that take the tedium out of what would otherwise be a dull talking-heads mystery) by E. Mason Hopper from a script by Edward T. Lowe, Jr. based on a story (the American Film Institute Catalog refers to it as a short story, “publication history unknown,” while calls it a novel) by Octavus Roy Cohen. I’d first heard of Cohen as the author of the source story for the 1929 film Why Bring That Up?, starring blackface comedians George Moran and Charlie Mack, and had assumed that he was another Joel Chandler Harris — a white guy who made his living writing stories about Blacks that raided African-American folklore and culture to reinforce white readers’ stereotypes about Blacks — but I’ve seen at least one other film made around this time that was based on a story Cohen wrote about white people. Though he’s killed relatively early on (about 20 minutes into this one-hour movie — lists a 68-minute running time but our print timed out at 60 minutes), the central character and villain of the piece is star actor Wylie Thornton (a surprisingly young-looking Paul Cavanaugh), who is literally irresistible to women.

It’s virtually impossible to keep track of how many women he’s having affairs with — including just about every female member of the cast of his current play (which, judging from the scene of it we see, is an indigestible jungle melodrama set in Hawai’i for which the producers have obtained a chimpanzee, a female called “Geraldine” — and in one of the movie’s nicer gags, even she is shown clutching Wylie’s photo and kissing it, indicating that he’s a lust object for every female in sight regardless of species!), including leading lady Lola Cresmer (Dorothy Mackaill from Safe in Hell and the 1932 Love Affair), her sister Anice (Marion Shilling from Lord Byron of Broadway), Doris Manning (Ruthelma Stevens) and his long-suffering wife Alma (the marvelous Natalie Moorhead, who for once got to play a figure of pathos instead of a villainess and came through magnificently for what’s clearly the best performance in the film). In order to keep her from cramping his style with all the other women in his life, Wylie has told Alma to pass herself off as his “secretary” and answer his phone calls — though, at least as far as we see, we don’t see him telling her to pull the gag of telling someone he’s out when he isn’t. Needless to say, Wylie is murdered and all his rival girlfriends immediately become suspects — as does Doris’s father, Major Manning (Hale Hamilton, who bears a striking resemblance to Paul Whiteman), who hated Wylie because he’d promised to divorce his wife, marry Doris, take her to New York with him and make her a star; and Carey Weldon (Jack Mulhall), the dull upper-class boyfriend Doris had deserted for Wylie. Since this is a 1930’s Hollywood mystery, there’s also a dumb, overbearing cop in charge of the investigation, Martin Gallagher (Sam Hardy), who’s always ready to arrest the most obvious suspect at any given moment; and a cooler head, though this time an investigator from the district attorney’s office rather than a well-meaning Holmesian “consulting detective” or an outright amateur like Philo Vance. His name is Jim Hanvey (though the combination of whatever sound recording equipment Majestic was using and the deterioration of the soundtrack over the years made the name sound like “Handy”) and he’s played by, of all people, C. Aubrey Smith, who usually appeared as the immaculately turned-out representative of British (or, more occasionally, French) imperialism at its best. This must be the most slovenly-dressed of any character Smith ever played, and his overall mien in the role is very Holmesian — albeit a very old Holmes called away from his bee farm in Sussex for one last case.

After the moving finger of suspicion pauses over Major Manning, Carey Weldon, a gangster nicknamed “Lovely” Holmes (Matthew Betz) and Alma Thornton (once it dawns on even Gallagher’s thick skull that a man like Wylie Thornton who’d loved and screwed, literally and figuratively, so many women could well have set himself up to be knocked off in a jealous rage by one of them), Gallagher comes to the conclusion that the ape could have done it — and indeed she could have, since we’ve already seen her figure out how to open her own cage, take a gun and fire it. In the end, the killer turns out to be Lola Cresmer, who hated Wylie Thornton because in an earlier sequence her sister Anice (ya remember Anice?) was found dead in her room, with a suicide note explaining that even though she now knew Wylie was a no-good man who wasn’t worthy of her, she was still so in love with him she didn’t think life was worth living anymore without him. So Lola decided to kill Wylie out of revenge for his having been responsible for her sister’s suicide — and in an ending that, even more than the rest of C. Aubrey Smith’s performance, seems surprisingly Holmesian, Hanvey tells Lola that he knows she killed Wylie but isn’t going to tell the police and will let her go because he feels she was morally justified in doing so (an ending that, even more than the frank portrayal of Wylie’s sexcapades with any number of unbelievably willing women, marks this as a product of the so-called “pre-Code” era), a moving finish for a film that, while nothing special, was at least done with a sense of flair and style. It’s not that different from Green Eyes, also a murder mystery in which the characters are kept together in a relatively confined space (a costume party rather than a theatre), but Curtain at Eight is a much better film, more sensitively directed and considerably better acted (though Sam Hardy is so annoying one wishes the chimp would knock off him), even though neither of these movies quite achieves the status of a nail-biting thriller.

Monday, January 20, 2014

Flowers in the Attic (Cue the Dog Productions, Front Street Pictures, MGM, Lifetime, 2014)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2014 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Our “feature” last night was the Lifetime showing of a 2014 TV-movie based on Flowers in the Attic, a 1979 Southern-gothic novel by one V. C. Andrews, who like Harry Potter author Janice Rowling signed her books with initials and thereby preserved a gender ambiguity about her identity. Andrews was born in 1923 but didn’t take up novel writing until her 50’s (before that she’d been a commercial artist), starting out with a science-fiction book called Gods of Green Mountain which wasn’t published during her lifetime but was made available in electronic form only in 2004. Her second novel was originally called The Obsessed — actually a better title — but a publisher asked her for a rewrite to “spice up” the story, and she did the revisions in one night and sent in the new version under a different title, Flowers in the Attic. The novel, published in 1979, was an instant best-seller and sparked three sequels and a prequel (a structure Andrews used for several other series as well), and though Andrews died in 1986 her publisher decided that the name “V. C. Andrews” was too valuable a property to let expire along with its original owner. So, with the approval of Andrews’ family, they hired Andrew Neiderman to keep cranking out new “V. C. Andrews” novels, some of them based on notes or partially finished manuscripts the real Andrews left behind, some of them entirely Neiderman’s work.

Flowers in the Attic was originally filmed in 1987 — with Louise Fletcher from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest as the crazy grandmother at the heart of the story and Victoria Tennant as the recently widowed mother who takes her four kids to live with grandma in Virginia — and recently remade by Cue the Dog Productions and Front Street Pictures in association with MGM (the familiar “lion” logo was shown in the closing credits) for TV showing on Lifetime. I was interested in watching this partly because the previews for it on Lifetime had shown some quite appealing footage of Mason Dye, the juvenile male lead, going around shirtless — and while young blond boys with no chest hair aren’t exactly my biggest “type” he was aesthetically appealing enough I decided I wouldn’t mind sitting through the whole movie for more glimpses of his partially unclad bod — and partly because on January 18, the day Lifetime was showing this movie for the first time, Los Angeles Times TV critic Mary McNamara published a review ripping it but making it sound like it would be a good-bad camp-fest. “It should come as no surprise that Lifetime’s adaptation of Flowers in the Attic is terrible,” McNamara wrote. “Of course it’s terrible! The book was terrible! Rife with clunky dialogue, ridiculous characters, and ludicrous plot twists, it was so terrible that you could not put it down.” Though McNamara went on to say that the Lifetime adaptation had little or none of the demented appeal of the novel, her review still promised a so-bad-it’s-good camp-fest — and for the most part the film delivered. Like a lot of other Lifetime movies, this one opened with an act or two of blissful, bucolic middle-class suburban happiness that the heroine is about to be wrenched away from — about the only difference between this and most Lifetime films is that this takes place in the late 1950’s (we can tell from the vintage cars we see on the roads and Elvis Presley’s “Teddy Bear,” which the characters listen to on the radio).

Our wonderfully happy suburban family consists of father Christopher Dollanganger, Sr. (Chad Willett), mother Corinne Foxworth Dollanganger (Heather Graham) and their four kids: son Christopher, Jr. (Mason Dye), older daughter Cathy (Kiernan Shipka) and fraternal twins Carrie (Ava Telek) and Cory (Maxwell Kovach). They’re celebrating the fact that dad has just got a promotion at work and is now vice-president of sales for the entire East Coast (though we’re never told who he works for or what exactly it is they make — not that anyone seems to care; we’ve come a long way from the time when Arthur Miller got raked over the coals for never telling us, in Death of a Salesman, exactly what product Willy Loman sold) when word suddenly comes that dad has been killed in an accident. Mortgaged up to the hilt and about to lose their home due to foreclosure (a plot twist that seems all too current now), Corinne announces to the kids that as much as she hates her own mother, Olivia Foxworth (Ellen Burstyn, the one “name” actor in this film and the one person who turns in a performance of real authority and power), she sees no alternative but to move back in with Olivia — who owns an estate in Virginia with her husband, Corinne’s father. The gimmick is that Corinne will inherit the Foxworth millions as soon as her seriously ill dad croaks — but he can’t be allowed to find out she has any children because he regards them as “spawn of the devil” and would disinherit her (apparently he’s already disinherited her and she’s launching this whole campaign to get him to re-inherit her again) if he learned of their existence. So Corinne and Olivia tell the kids that they can only be in one bedroom of the house, and if they need to play they can do so in the attic. It’s hard to enjoy Flowers in the Attic without being all too aware of the sheer preposterousness of this plot device — it makes Il Trovatore seem like hard-edged realism by comparison and suggests that maybe instead of having it filmed (again) the Andrews estate should have sold it to someone like Jake Heggie or Mark-Anthony Turnage or Thomas Adès and had them turn it into an opera, in which larger-than-life medium it just might work — though it has its compensations.

Olivia is shown as a black-hearted villain, setting an insane series of rules a concentration-camp commandant might have regarded as too strict and whipping the kids (or threatening to) whenever they step out of line — though the scene in which she whips Christopher made me wonder why he didn’t just grab the belt out of her hand and strangle her with it (he certainly looked physically robust enough to have done it) — but also capable of little kindnesses; and the one hint of any sort of dramatic complexity in this story comes from the character of Corinne, who’s drawn at first as the sympathetic, loving mother but later, under the influence of her own greed, becomes as vicious and nasty to the kids as her own mom — more so at the end, when she’s married her dad’s lawyer (Dylan Bruce), who’s under the impression that their relationship will be “just the two of us” and won’t include four kids, two of them almost grown, and in order to get rid of the inconvenient offspring feeds them doughnuts laced with poison. In the meantime the kids have spent over two years in that damned attic, painting pictures of flowers to make it look more like a real garden (hence the title), and it’s revealed that they’re the product of an incestuous relationship: Corinne’s (first) husband was her father’s half-brother. That’s the explanation for why Corinne’s parents regard them as “spawn of the devil” and why Corinne and Olivia are going to such great lengths to conceal the fact of their existence from their grandfather (Beau Daniels). Flowers in the Attic actually features two incestuous relationships (the same number as in Wagner’s Ring) as Christopher and Cathy start screwing each other for no apparent reason other than sheer proximity — they’re burgeoning into sexual maturity in this absurd environment where they’re literally prevented from meeting anyone else their own age. In the end Cory dies of pneumonia and the other three Dollanganger offspring (that preposterous family name couldn’t help but remind me of British mystery writer Mignon G. Eberhardt, another woman author who adorned her characters with ridiculous names like Kingery and Keate) escape on a train, looking for all the world like a young mom, dad and daughter.

The Wikipedia page for V. C. Andrews tells more about their story, if you’re interested; “Petals on the Wind picks up the story directly after their escape from the attic without one of their siblings. If There Be Thorns and Seeds of Yesterday continue to tell their story, but the focus shifts to Cathy's children Jory and Bart after a mysterious woman and her butler move in next door and start inviting Bart over, turning him into a monster. Garden of Shadows is a prequel that tells the story of the grandparents, Olivia and Malcolm Foxworth.” The Lifetime version of Flowers in the Attic isn’t exactly alive even to the meager possibilities in this story; save for a marvelous sequence when mom and the kids arrive at the Foxworth mansion at 3 a.m., having had to walk from the train station since the promised car to meet them didn’t show up (I joked that they would be met by a carriage driven by remote control by a bat flying alongside it, and Charles caught the hint and started dropping Bela Lugosi impressions), director Deborah Chow supplies almost none of the Gothic atmosphere the story seems to cry out for, and screenwriter Kayla Alpert seems to have spent her entire writing stint looking at Andrews’ novel and holding her nose at the preposterous trash she was being forced to regurgitate. Ellen Burstyn dominates the cast, managing to make Olivia formidably evil without yielding to the omnipresent temptation to chew the scenery, and the actors playing the kids turn in competent victim performances but do little more with the material — still, the half-clad Mason Dye was a lot of fun to look at!

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Green Eyes (Chesterfield, 1934)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2014 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Our “feature” last night was an download of a moderately interesting 1934 mystery from Chesterfield called Green Eyes, based on a 1931 novel called The Murder of Steven Kester by one Harriette Ashbrook and directed by Richard Thorpe (a journeyman director who served out his apprenticeship at Chesterfield, then landed a berth with MGM and stayed there for decades, long enough to do Jailhouse Rock — which puts everyone in this cast one degree of separation from Elvis!). It begins at a costume party at the home of Steven Kester (Claude Gillingwater), who’s been the guardian of his granddaughter Jean (Shirley Grey) since the deaths of her parents, and who is in the middle of a major financial feud with her grandfather, who’s cut off all her income because he doesn’t approve of the man she’s dating, Cliff Miller (William Bakewell, already working his way down the Hollywood food chain after having been billed ahead of Clark Gable in the 1931 MGM Joan Crawford vehicle Dance, Fools, Dance). Miller and Jean had left the party early on their way to elope, but they were caught by the police and brought back after Steven Kester was found dead in a closet, wearing a green-eyed Chinese mask as part of his costume for the party. It seems that everyone’s car had been sabotaged, though Jean’s car only had its distributor wires pulled — everyone else’s had had its ignition wires cut, too — and in addition to the usual incompetent police led by Inspector Crofton (John Wray, who’d played Lon Chaney, Sr.’s old role in the 1932 Paramount remake of The Miracle Man), among the hangers-on at the party is mystery writer Bill Tracy (Charles Starrett, whom we get to see shirtless in one sequence — he’s not that sexy but he’s certainly easy on the eyes), who of course gets in the way and offers to solve the crime.

It seems that the murder had something to do with an old mine in Mexico which Kester had an interest in until he abruptly sold it a couple of days before he died as part of an elaborate scheme to disinherit his granddaughter (which included a new will drawn up by an attorney who tries to probate it anyway even though Kester never actually signed it), but the real villains are the Pritchards (Aiden Chase and the marvelous Dorothy Revier — I should have known she would be in on it since Revier usually played these sorts of reluctant villainesses). He was Steven Kester’s accountant and had been embezzling for years, altering Kester’s books to cover up his thefts, and she had apparently put him up to it — though just how or why was a mystery Ashbrook and screenwriter Andrew Moses kept to themselves. I’ll give director Thorpe credit for trying to keep this excessively talky film moving — his camera is in almost constant motion (Chesterfield had a distribution deal with Universal that allowed them the run of Universal’s studio, and the opening credits even let audiences know that it was “Filmed at Universal City” so they’d be aware it wouldn’t suffer from the cheap-jack production and inferior equipment of a lot of indies, and this probably meant Thorpe had access to Universal’s elaborate camera cranes as well as their sets) — but the dull script defeats him big-time. Indeed, it was odd to watch this shortly after the latest Father Brown episode from BBC Manchester in 2013 because it showed just how firmly set in stone this particular set of mystery conventions was: a parent or guardian killed after a big set-to with a daughter or granddaughter who wants to marry “down,” an intimation of financial skullduggery and a revelation towards the end that the rich family around whom the action centered wasn’t so rich after all — though Green Eyes ends rather surprisingly with the Pritchards committing suicide instead of either being shot while resisting arrest or taken into custody and legally convicted of their crimes.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Detective Kitty O'Day (Monogram, 1944)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2014 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Two nights ago Charles and I screened Detective Kitty O’Day, a 1944 Monogram comedy-thriller that proved surprisingly good, even though William Beaudine’s name on the director credit provoked groans from both of us (“Well, someone had to direct it!” said Charles). It begins in the office of a company owned by Oliver Wentworth (Edward Earle) — well, actually it begins on the street outside the Wentworth building, where Johnny Jones (Peter Cookson), a Wentworth employee, is supposed to be delivering a briefcase containing an incredibly valuable set of negotiable securities to Wentworth — only he leaves it in the car and the cop who was driving has to tell him, “Didn’t you forget something?” After that brief bit of byplay — which lets us know that this is basically going to be a funny movie even though people are going to die in it — we meet Kitty O’Day (Jean Parker) herself. She’s another Wentworth employee and she and Johnny are dating, though their attempts to go out together are systematically being frustrated by Wentworth continually calling her in to work for him at night and having her over to his home — which has understandably led Johnny to think that Wentworth has the hots for Our Kitty himself. It’s established that Mr. and Mrs. Wentworth (she’s played by the marvelously named, and regrettably under-used, Veda Ann Borg) had an unhappy marriage and that she had a boyfriend on the side, Harry Downs (Douglas Fowley, reuniting him and Parker from the cast of PRC’s marvelous vest-pocket thriller Lady in the Death House, made the same year), also that he was planning an out-of-town trip and he told Kitty it was to Boston but his ticket was actually to South America, where he was going to abscond with all those securities — only someone came along and murdered him, and later on killed Harry Downs and the Wentworths’ butler Charles (Olaf Hytten).

The identity of the murderer wasn’t hard to dope out — once a portly-looking middle-aged man with a moustache entered the action and was introduced as Wentworth’s attorney, Robert Jeffers (Herbert Heyes), I guessed him if only because of Monogram’s casting department’s penchant for casting portly middle-aged men with moustaches as their killers — but the motive was: it seems as if he, Downs and Charles were all part of a plot to steal those securities, only Jeffers decided to knock off his co-conspirators so he wouldn’t have to split the money with them. What’s most interesting about the movie isn’t the murder plot but the sheer joyous ditziness of Parker’s title character — it’s the sort of part one could readily imagine Lucille Ball playing in full “Lucy Ricardo” cry — and the predictable but still entertaining set-tos with the official law-enforcement officers, particularly Inspector Clancy (Tim Ryan) and his sidekick, Joe Kasinski (Fred Roberts). Director Beaudine, working from a script by Ryan and Victor Hammond, actually brings some life to this one and doesn’t just plod along the way he usually did (especially when he wasn’t working with a major star like Mary Pickford, Carole Lombard or W. C. Fields); the film has real energy and drive, and is a lot of fun to watch. Though the plot didn’t seem to leave room for a sequel, Monogram did make one, Adventures of Kitty O’Day, in 1945 — and that would be fun to watch!

Friday, January 17, 2014

Speckled Band, The (Lucky Strike “Your Story Time,” TV, 1949)

Last night Charles and I watched a 1949 episode of the Lucky Strike-sponsored TV show Your Show Time, a half-hour drama anthology series that in this episode adapted (quite well, all things considered) the Sir Arthur Conan Doyle Sherlock Holmes story “The Adventure of the Speckled Band.” This is one of the classic stories from the early days of Holmes (before Conan Doyle’s boredom with the character set in) and pitted Holmes (a surprisingly effective Alan Napier) and his client, Helen Stoner (Evelyn Ankers in one of her typical damsel-in-distress roles), a young woman whose parents died and left her in the dubious care of her stepfather, against said stepfather, Dr. Grimesby Roylott (a quite effective Edgar Barrier). Dr. Roylott retired after his wife died and left him an income, partially for his own support and partially to take care of Helen and her sister Jean (dead two years before our part of the story begins but played in a flashback by Gail Roberts), but with the proviso that once the women got married their part of the estate would be transferred to them and their husbands. Jean got engaged to John Armitage (Richard Fraser, who comes off as simply annoying — one wonders what either of the Stoner girls sees in him, and how producer Val Lewton and director Mark Robson got Fraser to deliver a quietly effective performance in Bedlam when he’s so infuriating in his other roles), only just before they were married she died in a bizarre way, simply collapsing in her bedroom, though before she expired she made it out of her doorway and told Helen, “The speckled band!”

Despite a red herring — a nearby band of gypsies — Holmes deduces that Dr. Roylott somehow murdered Jean and is now targeting Helen (especially since he’s moved her from her old room to the one her sister was using when she died) so he can keep the part of his late wife’s fortune that was supposed to support her daughters after they married, and Helen is now engaged to John Armitage — that’s right, the same man whom Jean was engaged to when she died. As all Holmes mavens will remember, Dr. Roylott had an extensive collection of wildlife from India (screenwriter Walter Doniger and director Sobey Martin have a lot of fun with a chattering monkey that jumps around a lot and at least twice lands on Watson’s shoulder), including a particularly deadly sort of snake called a swamp adder, whose skin makes it look like (you guessed it) a speckled band. Roylott trained the snake to crawl through a ventilator shaft and down a bell-pull (the ventilator shaft doesn’t ventilate and the bell-pull isn’t actually connected to a bell), whereupon it would land on the bed of his intended victim and bite her, injecting her with its venom and killing her. (To make sure she’d be in the right position for the snake to attack, he also bolted the bed to the floor so it could not be moved.) The night Dr. Roylott is going to attack Helen, Holmes and Watson (Melville Cooper, alas playing the part as the comic-relief foil of Nigel Bruce in the Basil Rathbone Holmes movies) decide to stand watch in the murder room (while she sleeps in her old one) and see just how Dr. Roylott plans to attack — and when the snake emerges from the ventilator shaft, Holmes uses a poker to drive it back and thereby inadvertently kills Dr. Roylott, who’s bitten by the snake when it returns from whence he sent it.

I hadn’t realized it before but “The Speckled Band” is a locked-room mystery story (I suspect Doniger’s screenplay makes that even clearer than Conan Doyle’s story did) and Dr. Roylott is a fascinating villain, a simple bully but one whose murder scheme is decidedly imaginative — and this film retains the famous scene from the story in which Roylott tries to warn Holmes off the case by bending a fireplace poker, and, after he’s left, Holmes proves he’s as strong as Roylott by bending the poker back to its original shape. (This scene doesn’t appear in the currently available version of the 1931 movie The Speckied Band, starring Raymond Massey as Holmes, though since the extant print is missing a reel I’m sure it was in the original release.) This 1949 TV version of The Speckled Band is actually quite good technically — it helped that, unlike most TV shows then, it was done on film (at the old Hal Roach studios, with a side trip to RKO since some of the sets were recycled from the 1948 Joan of Arc, with Ingrid Bergman) instead of live, and director Martin keeps the camera moving and does some highly successful suspense and even horror editing (his cinematographer was William Bradford and his editor was Daniel Cahn). It’s also generally well acted, though I could have done without Arthur Shields as the narrator (called “The Bookshop Man” in the credits — apparently the conceit was that he was an old bookseller who would pick out a story and tell it to you after having come across it while browsing in his own shop). Alan Napier is a surprisingly good Holmes — tall, aquiline, authoritative; he’s taken a lot of flack over the years for having starred in The Mole People but he was good enough for Orson Welles to cast him as the “Holy Father” in his film of Macbeth and he made a late-in-life comeback as Alfred the butler in the 1960’s Batman TV series.

Monday, January 13, 2014

The Hollywood Revue of 1929 (MGM, 1929)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2014 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

When I went to see Charles I took along the tape I’d made years ago of the film Hollywood Revue of 1929, a movie that’s basically an historical curiosity today though it’s got some moments that hold up vividly — notably an outrageous acrobatic dance by Buster Keaton in drag as “Neptune’s Daughter” and good song-and-dance numbers by Joan Crawford and Marion Davies. The main problem with it is the horribly uncreative nature of the photography; every ensemble production number is shot from straight-on, with the camera shooting into a proscenium set and (except for a couple of surprising overhead shots) giving us no more than what we could have seen from a good orchestra seat in a live show. One can readily imagine why audiences had grown so tired of musicals that by 1931 Hollywood had virtually stopped making them until the spectacular success of 42nd Street in 1933 brought them back — as Arlene Croce wrote in The Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers Book, “A dull, static musical is no more escapist than a documentary on breadlines.” The Hollywood Revue of 1929 had some moments of genuine charm, though the technical crudity had to be seen to be believed. At one point we see a totally out-of-focus shot of a chorus line — and only later, when Cliff “Ukulele Ike” Edwards steps out to sing a song in front of them and he is in focus, do we see why. Joan Crawford’s “Got a Feeling for You” is a good hot-cha number of the period, but it’s undone by the unfamiliarity of the pre-recording process; in MGM’s previous musical, The Broadway Melody, pre-recording had been inadvertently introduced in the number “The Wedding of the Painted Doll” (production head Irving Thalberg wanted a retake of the number and his brother-in-law Douglas Shearer, who headed MGM’s newly organized sound department, suggested that to save money on the retake instead of recording the whole number over again, they use the same soundtrack record and just redo the visual part), and Hollywood Revue was mostly pre-recorded, but Crawford apparently wasn’t told that she was supposed to move her lips to the recording in order to make it look like she was singing. She got the idea in the first chorus — in which she was just leaning into the curve of a grand piano and singing — but in the second chorus, in which she was supposed to be singing and dancing at the same time, she frequently forgot to move her lips when she was supposed to be singing. (When Fred Astaire came to Hollywood he insisted that he would not be shown singing and dancing at the same time; he would sing the song and then he would dance to it, as he would on stage — he realized that no one would believe he could possibly sing and dance simultaneously without running out of breath.) And there are all too many instances where we see members of a chorus line clapping their hands in time to a song but we don’t hear them doing so!

What survives about this film is some good gag sequences — notably the Keaton number, Laurel and Hardy’s bungled magic act and a charming sequence in which the film’s host, a then-unknown comedian named Jack Benny, whom Thalberg pulled out of a nightclub gig, gets his clothes torn off by William Haines (when Haines joked that Benny’s clothes were totally out of fashion, Charles joked, “Listen to him. He’s Gay. He knows about these things”) — and the two sequences in two-strip Technicolor (not the best-preserved two-strip I’ve ever seen, but among the better surviving examples). One is a sequence in which John Gilbert and Norma Shearer perform the balcony scene from Romeo and Juliet, first come scritto and then in 1920’s youth slang — surprisingly, given their later reputations, it is Gilbert who comes off better in this scene, looking natural and speaking with a somewhat stilted but still appealing voice, while Shearer gestures with majestic phoniness and speaks her lines as if she hasn’t a clue as to what they meant. The other is the musical number “Orange Blossom Time” (shot as primitively as all the other big numbers in the film, but given a major lift by being in color — in the original release of this film some theatres actually wafted orange-blossom perfume through their interiors when this film was shown, and audience members with hay fever complained they were allergic to the movie!) and a final reprise of the song “Singin’ in the Rain” (this was the film for which it was originally written!) which featured all the cast members standing and waving to us in front of a painted backdrop ostensibly representing Noah’s ark. (The brief shot of Joan Crawford in this finale was the only color footage of her until 1953, when she made her first color film, Torch Song.[1]) Earlier this great song was performed by Ukulele Ike and the Brox Sisters in front of a really simple stage set, with rain pelting them from all angles — a far cry from the engaging performance of Gene Kelly in the Singin’ in the Rain movie made 23 years later at the same studio! — 7/6/98


Two nights ago Charles and I watched a film we’d recorded from the first night of Turner Classic Movies’ “Star of the Month” tribute to Joan Crawford, the musical The Hollywood Revue of 1929. It was part of an odd cycle of films made in the early days of sound, in which virtually every major studio tried a plotless “revue” movie — “revue,” so spelled, was the name in the 1920’s (and later) for a Broadway show that didn’t have a plot but was simply a succession of musical numbers and comedy scenes alternating with each other. Fox made the Fox Movietone Follies of 1929, Warners made The Show of Shows, Paramount made Paramount on Parade (a film generally considered wittier than the rest of them but one partially lost because the sequences originally shot in two-strip Technicolor no longer exist in any form, either the color originals or black-and-white print-downs), Universal made The King of Jazz — which at least had the unifying element of Paul Whiteman and his orchestra in some of the most dazzling production number ever filmed (it was directed, stunningly, by John Murray Anderson, who as director of most of the Ziegfeld Follies was intimately familiar with the revue format) — and MGM made this one. The Hollywood Revue of 1929 has some other distinguishing features; for the comedy MC (there was also a “straight” MC, actor Conrad Nagel, who as the first important male star who proved he had a recordable voice ended up in so many movies in the early days of sound he once complained that he and his wife could no longer go to the movies for their own entertainment since they couldn’t find a film playing anywhere that he wasn’t in) MGM production chief Irving Thalberg discovered a young nightclub comedian named Jack Benny. The result was an oddly refracted performance in which Benny’s later radio character can be glimpsed in embryo, before his radio writers fused its elements — his cheapness, his self-denigration, his ego, his terrible violin playing (though off-stage, off-screen and off-air Benny was a capable pop violinist — he jammed with jazz great Joe Venuti and Venuti said he had to work hard to keep up with him) — into the devastating and hilarious character that ensured his popularity on radio and TV for decades. The Hollywood Revue of 1929 was also the first musical ever made in which all the songs were pre-recorded before filming; pre-recording had been invented accidentally on MGM’s previous big musical, The Broadway Melody, when Thalberg had decided the number “The Wedding of the Painted Doll” wasn’t good enough and ordered it reshot. Douglas Shearer, head of MGM’s sound department (and, not coincidentally, Thalberg’s brother-in-law), said there was nothing wrong with the soundtrack, so to save money on the retake he suggested they use the same recording and just redo the visual part. (There wasn’t a synchronization problem since the number was simply a dance; there was a singer, but he was off-screen.) So Thalberg ordered all the numbers in The Hollywood Revue of 1929 to be pre-recorded — which threw some of the performers, particularly Joan Crawford. Having established herself as a major star the previous year with the film Our Dancing Daughters, Crawford was quite naturally assigned a number, “Gotta Feelin’ for You,” in which she would both sing and dance. For the first chorus she just sang — and she remembered to move her lips in synch to her pre-recording — but for the second chorus, when she was supposed to be shown singing and dancing, she was concentrating so hard on her dance she forgot to move her lips as she “sang” on the soundtrack.

Like a lot of early musicals, Hollywood Revue is a rather lumbering, uneven piece of entertainment, sometimes spectacular, sometimes almost grueling to watch, and in general the numbers are more fun than the comedy routines. One begins to wonder if the comedy scenes in stage revues were really this dull and produced so few laughs — and then one remembers that among the people who shot to stardom in revues were W. C. Fields, Eddie Cantor and Bert Williams. Alas, aside from Benny (and he, as noted above, hadn’t really created his character yet), no one in this cast was as talented a laugh-maker — except Buster Keaton, and his routine is a wordless dance sequence in which he’s supposed to be playing the beautiful princess, daughter of Poseidon, who emerges from an oyster shell and does a wild dance, supposedly underwater, with a string of sausages (representing a sea serpent). It’s one of the most delightful scenes in the movie! Laurel and Hardy are also in it, doing an incompetent attempt at a magic act — it was interesting to watch this a day after seeing Lost in a Harem, made by the same director (Charles F. Riesner) 15 years later, and showing Abbott and Costello as similarly incompetent stage magicians. One problem with Hollywood Revue is the form in which it’s survived; as late as 1962 Laurel and Hardy’s biographer, John McCabe, reported that all the extant prints had the sound on Vitaphone discs and the film couldn’t be shown until MGM transferred its soundtrack to film. Sometime in the early 1960’s someone did just that — and did as wretched a job with it as Warner Bros. had done with some of their Vitaphone films. The problem was that a film soundtrack took over the left one-ninth of the picture area, and rather than re-center the image or (better yet) letterbox it, whoever slapped a film soundtrack on this simply stuck it over the left one-ninth of the screen, turning what Riesner and cinematographers John Arnold, Maximilian Fabian, Irving Reis and John M. Nickolaus clearly intended as symmetrical compositions into annoyingly off-center ones. What stands out in Hollywood Revue are the Keaton and Laurel and Hardy sequences, the meeting between Jack Benny and Lon Chaney (actually, according to one “trivia” poster, Gus Edwards — famous vaudevillian who toured with a children’s act for years and wrote the song “School Days” to introduce it ­— stood in for Chaney in this scene because Chaney refused to do the movie unless he was paid his full star salary) in which Benny shakes “Chaney’s” hand and ends up holding his disembodied arm, and at least some of the musical numbers.

The song “Singin’ in the Rain” was written for this film as a feature for Cliff “Ukulele Ike” Edwards, the Brox Sisters and the Rounders (a male vocal group), but anyone who associates that song with Gene Kelly and his marvelous solo dance through a rain-drenched street is going to be disappointed by this sequence. It’s just a bunch of people clomping around on a relatively simple set, singing the song as a blatantly artificial downpour drenches them (the one in Kelly’s Singin’ in the Rain routine was artificial, too, but it didn’t look it), and though Ukulele Ike actually swung within the limits of his rather silly act, the Brox Sisters are so dreadfully dull one can’t help this could have been filmed a couple of years later when the Boswell Sisters would have been available. “Singin’ in the Rain” is briefly reprised for a bizarre final shot in which the entire cast is posed in front of a painted backdrop representing Noah’s ark — and among the people visible in the group shot is Joan Crawford, filmed in color for the first time in what was the first of three films she made in which she was shown in color sequences (the other two, both from a decade after this one, were The Women and Ice Follies of 1939) well before her first all-color film, Torch Song (1953). Hollywood Revue contains two big scenes in two-strip Technicolor, including a sequence with Norma Shearer and John Gilbert doing the balcony scene from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, first come scritto and then, after director Lionel Barrymore (playing himself at a time when he was attempting a transition from acting to directing for real) receives a memo from the front office saying they want to rename the film The Neckers and update the dialogue, in up-to-date 1929 slang. Though an “trivia” poster names this as “one of the films cited as contributing to the collapse of John Gilbert’s career after audiences heard his high-pitched speaking voice,” Gilbert actually seems perfectly credible, throwing himself into Shakespeare’s dialogue with surprising gusto (especially since the problem with Gilbert’s subsequent talkies wasn’t that he had a high-pitched voice but he didn’t seem to get the whole concept of acting with one’s voice, of varying one’s inflections to convey emotions) and managing to make the 1920’s slang version (with lines like, “You’re the pansies in my garden, the cream in my mocha and java, the berries in my pie”) genuinely amusing. It suggests that Gilbert might have transitioned to sound just fine if Thalberg had done for him what Sam Goldwyn had done for Ronald Colman — shifted him out of heavy-breathing romantic drama and given him a modern-dress comedy-thriller instead. Certainly Gilbert is a lot better in the Romeo and Juliet sequence than Shearer, who’s even more stylized and more clueless about acting Shakespeare than she was when she filmed the whole role seven years later (also at MGM with her husband Thalberg producing) — she seems bent on gumming every one of the Bard’s lines to death — and spits out the “modern” dialogue as if she’s simply a straight person setting up Gilbert’s gags.

The other big Technicolor number is the film’s last major song, “Orange Blossom Time,” a pretentious song set in a garden but featuring the movie’s most spectacular choreography, including at least one overhead shot in which chorus girls arrange themselves in a kaleidoscope-like formation. This is usually associated with Busby Berkeley, but quite a few 1929 movies used this gimmick — including the original Rio Rita, The Cocoanuts (the Marx Brothers’ first film) and MGM’s next big musical, Lord Byron of Broadway — a year before Berkeley came out to Hollywood to do the numbers for Eddie Cantor’s Whoopee. “Orange Blossom Time” is also a precursor to the brief vogue for “smellies” three decades later — Michael Todd, Jr. introduced “Smell-O-Vision” in a film called Scent of Mystery in 1960 and a rival producer tried another scent process, “AromaRama,” in a documentary about China called Behind the Great Wall (it was introduced by newscaster Chet Huntley in a scene in which he was shown cutting open an orange, and orange scent was wafted through the theatre’s air-conditioning system) — some theatre owners wafted orange-blossom perfume through their houses during the “Orange Blossom Time” number and hoped it would add to the atmosphere. It added too much to the atmosphere for patrons with hay fever or sinus allergies, who complained that there was something about that movie that was making them allergic! The Hollywood Revue of 1929 was sufficiently well promoted that there were quite a few contemporary records of its songs — Paul Whiteman recorded “Orange Blossom Time” (with a vocal by Bing Crosby that’s considerably more pleasant than the one by Charles King in the film) and “Your Mother and Mine,” Frank Trumbauer and Leonard Joy both recorded “Gotta Feelin’ for You,” Trumbauer also recorded “Nobody but You” and Cliff Edwards recorded “Singin’ in the Rain” both when the movie came out and again in the 1950’s (the first time with a band behind him, the second time with only his vocal and ukulele). But the vogue for revue movies didn’t last, and when producer Harry Rapf decided to go to the well again with one called The March of Time in 1930, his superiors pulled the plug on it in mid-filming, leaving a brief clip that was used in Broadway to Hollywood (1933) and some elaborate musical numbers that got recycled as shorts like The Devil’s Cabaret (1934) and a “Lock-Step” number, a chorus line set in a prison, that eerily anticipates the title song in Elvis Presley’s 1957 musical Jailhouse Rock but wasn’t seen until That’s Entertainment III in the 1990’s. — 1/13/14

[1] — Not true: she’s also seen in color in two other part-color films, both made in 1939: Ice Follies of 1939 and The Women. (M.G.C., 3/12/07)

Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle: Six More Comedies (Keystone, 1915)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2014 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night Charles and I watched the second leg of Turner Classic Movies’ interesting tribute to Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, consisting of six of the many one- and two-reelers he directed as well as starred in for Mack Sennett’s Keystone studio in 1915. I enjoyed this round much more than I had the ones shown the week before, though I’m not sure whether they were simply better movies or it was because Charles was in the room this time (he’d been working last Sunday night when the first part of the TCM Arbuckle tribute was on) and comedies are generally funnier when the laughter can be shared. (This is why virtually all TV sitcoms are afflicted with horrible laugh tracks — though on quite a few of them the gags and dialogue are so lame that without the laugh track you would have no idea what was supposed to be funny about them.) The six films aired last night were Fatty’s Faithful Fido, Fatty’s New Role, Fatty’s Plucky Pup, Fatty’s Tintype Tangle, Mabel and Fatty’s Married Life and Mabel and Fatty’s Wash Day, and as the titles of at least two of them suggest, they featured prominent roles for a mutt that became so popular that within a year Sennett was billing him as Teddy the Keystone Dog. (And yes, he was male; at least one shot made his anatomy quite obvious.) Teddy was in fact the first canine film star — predating Rin Tin Tin and his predecessor, Strongheart — and some of the scenes shot with him in these films, including one in which he’s biting down on the coattails of Arbuckle’s rival in love and thereby restraining him on a rooftop and another in which Arbuckle is bathing him in the family’s washtub (and, unlike his off-screen counterparts, Teddy seems just fine with the idea), show off how well-trained he was and what an infectious personality he had.

Aside from Mabel Normand — billed with Arbuckle in the last two films and, I suspect, doing an incognito cameo in drag in one of the others (she — if indeed it is she — does a great trajectory gag leaping onto a moving streetcar) — there’s no one else in these movies (at least no other humans) with major talent on their own (last week’s entries had featured a film called The Knockout in which the movie was totally stolen out from Arbuckle by Charlie Chaplin, playing the referee of the boxing match Arbuckle has been tricked into signing up for), but nonetheless there’s quite a lot to enjoy about them, including at least two that challenged and extended the usual Keystone formulae. In Fatty’s New Role Arbuckle plays a disheveled man who lives on a farm and mooches free lunches at bars — instead of his usual appearance, which was clearly as a working-class person but as well turned-out, dressed and groomed as he could afford to be, this time he’s wearing several days’ worth of beard and has his hair disheveled in an early version of Moe Howard’s “do” with the Three Stooges. He looks more like a bulkier version of Red Skelton’s Freddie the Freeloader character than like the Arbuckle we know from most of his films, and the plot of this one — as a joke, the employees of the saloon Arbuckle hit most recently write a fake note to their boss saying that the mysterious “Hungry Hank” is going to blow the place up, and Arbuckle enters with a cheese he’s purchased legitimately and the saloon owner thinks it’s a bomb (and by coincidence a crew working on a nearby street is using explosives, so things are really blowing up in the neighborhood, adding to the owner’s fright) — is stronger than most of the Keystones. At least some of these films betray the technical crudities of the film business this early; in one scene, a three-way chase between Arbuckle and Teddy (who’s leading him to the house where villains have taken his girlfriend and rigged up a gun to fire automatically and kill her at 3 p.m.), the baddies and the Keystone Kops, much of the scene is taking place in front of a painted backdrop mounted on a carousel and revolved behind the actors, while other parts were shot on actual locations — and the jarring quality of the cuts only adds to the quirky devil-may-care appeal of the film.

The other film that was different from the Keystone norm is Mabel and Fatty’s Wash Day, in which for once Normand and Arbuckle aren’t playing a couple (sometimes they were just dating, sometimes they were married, and in one film excerpted in Robert Youngson’s The Golden Age of Comedy they had just got married and Al St. John, playing the man Mabel had jilted to marry Fatty, got his revenge by pulling their house off its foundations and getting it literally to float — and sink — in a lake). He’s married to a nagging wife, she’s married to a layabout husband, they’re neighbors and they meet innocently while both of them are outside their homes doing the family wash. What makes the Keystones hold up as well as they do is not only the fast, precise slapstick but the situations, which have a sort of primal simplicity about them: these films deal with the most basic of human emotions — love, sex, jealousy — in a refreshingly direct and simple way that works for modern audiences because people’s basic natures haven’t changed all that much since 1914 (or since 1600, for that matter, which is why Shakespeare’s plays still work). Indeed, it’s also true that many of the gags themselves have been transmitted, almost like an oral tradition, from 1914 to 2014; in a sequence from one of these films, Fatty hides from a jealous husband in a shower — and the shower gets turned on while he’s in it, fully drenched, and soaks him. How many times have we seen that since? As I noted on the last TCM tribute to Arbuckle, despite the scandal that wrecked his career he still made more money during the silent era than any other comic except Chaplin — and it occurred to me this time around that, in an era in which the major comics occupied specific class statuses (Chaplin the lower-class “Tramp,” Keaton the upper-class twit, Lloyd the middle-class striver), Arbuckle was the working-class comedian, an ordinary guy neither struggling to survive nor in the middle-class rat race but simply trying to get along and stay where he was. This may be why he seems to have been less interested in character consistency than his rivals, but it also probably had a lot to do with his popularity in his own time — and why his career was done in by scandal (the ordinary guy revealed — or at least portrayed in the popular media — as a grinning, amoral sex fiend) whereas Chaplin’s survived his controversial marriage and even more controversial divorce of Lita Grey in the 1920’s.