Monday, March 31, 2014

The First Auto (Warner Bros./Vitaphone, 1927)

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

I put on TCM last night and Charles and I watched their “Silent Sunday Showcase” presentation of a film that technically wasn’t a silent: The First Auto, made by Warner Brothers (back when they were still spelling out “Brothers” instead of abbreviating it “Bros.” — take that, Clive Hirschhorn!) in 1927 and outfitted with a Vitaphone soundtrack conducted by Herman Heller (he gets a credit) that included not only a typical silent-film accompaniment (complete with easily recognizable, at least to 1927 audiences, songs about early motoring, like “In My Merry Oldsmobile” and “Get Out and Get Under,” as well as other tunes familiar to moviegoers of the period, including “For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow,” “In the Good Old Summertime,” the “Skaters’ Waltz” — one of those melodies you’re likely to recognize even if you have no idea what it’s called — and “How Dry I Am”) but also some sound effects and even bits of human voices. The voices were almost all “wild,” recorded separately from the picture and dubbed in more or less where they belonged, but there wasn’t an attempt this early actually to have people talking to each other on screen (that would happen later in 1927, with The Jazz Singer). The First Auto was the headline attraction on the sixth Vitaphone bill, which played in a handful of theatres in the big cities — including the Colony Theatre in New York, where Vitaphone had premiered in 1926 with the John Barrymore Don Juan and a program of musical shorts that all used sound more creatively than these features did — indeed, as Alexander Walker noted in his book The Shattered Silents, many big-city audiences regarded these “canned” musical scores as a decided comedown from the live orchestral accompaniments they were used to when a major film was shown in a first-run house. (Allan Dwan, who directed the 1922 Robin Hood with Douglas Fairbanks, Sr., recalled going from city to city and rehearsing the orchestra the day before the film opened to make sure they played the specially composed music in synch with the film and supplied all the required sound effects on cue.)

The First Auto is an odd little movie whose poignant depiction of technological change rings true today — adding to the irony that a film about the traumas people go through adjusting to a new technology was itself released in a process that was going to put a lot of people in the movie business (and in the movie audience as well) through a similar set of traumas as they adjusted to the technological change. It’s a film that remains moving even as the sheer rate of technological changes to which people have to adjust has sped up frantically — when Steve Jobs of Apple died one commentator noted that innovations in the computer products business happen so rapidly that within two years of Jobs’ death there would no longer be a market for any product with which he had been personally involved — whereas The First Auto takes place over a period of about a decade, opening in 1895 (we get the cue from an opening title that says the film is set “before anybody heard of Bryan”) in Maple City, Indiana. Unlike most movies of the classic era, especially ones set in small towns, the script for The First Auto (story by Darryl Francis Zanuck — a credit which startled Charles, who hadn’t realized what the “F.” stood for before — and script by Zanuck’s frequent collaborator in the early days, Anthony Coldewey) is quite specific in its geography. The principal character is Hank Armstrong (Russell Simpson), who owns the biggest and most prestigious livery stable in Maple City in 1895 and is also its leading breeder of thoroughbreds; his current star horse, “Sloe Eyes,” wins every race it enters (and is the fourth generation of her family Hank has owned). The races are trotting races, in which the jockeys ride sulkies (essentially miniature crosses between carriages and chariots, made to be as light as possible and made of metal frames to which two wheels and a seat are attached) and the horses are forbidden to gallop (if the horse breaks out of a fast trot it and its rider are disqualified) — one remembers Meredith Willson’s The Music Man, in which as part of his indictment of modern decadence in the song “Ya Got Trouble” con man Prof. Howard Hill says that current horse racing is “not a wholesome trotting race, no, but a race where they set down right on the horse!” Worse changes are in store for Hank Armstrong when inventor Elmer Hays (E. H. Calvert) comes to Maple City and, at a dinner presented by the town’s mayor, he gives a speech about the upcoming new invention, the automobile, which his factory is manufacturing at the rate of three autos a day. (As part of his presentation he shows some magic-lantern slides — the 1895 equivalent of a PowerPoint — and the last one, showing the front of his factory with his workers and their products, is shown upside down and encounters some unwelcome diversion when a cat walks across the screen.)

Squire Stebbins (Douglas Gerrard), the richest man in Maple City, buys its first auto, and there’s a marvelous scene which reveals that both Zanuck and director Roy Del Ruth started out doing gags for Mack Sennett; Stebbins finally gets his car started, only it periodically emits explosions and even when it’s working right Stebbins is unable to control it and ultimately drives it off a cliff into a convenient lake — no one is hurt but the car is, as we’d say today, “totaled.” Nonetheless, progress takes its toll on Maple City in general and Armstrong’s livery business in particular — Armstrong takes it as a personal insult when a long-time customer and friend decides against buying a new horse and, at the urging of his family, decides to do something “modern” and purchase an auto instead. It gets even worse for Armstrong when his son Bob (Charles Emmett Mack) goes over to the other side; he moves to the nearby city of Detroit and takes a job with Henry Ford, helping to develop the famous 1903 racing car which, driven by Barney Oldfield (America’s first star racing driver, who was hired as a technical advisor for the film and ended up playing himself in it — and the car we see is an exact replica of the original), promoted cars in general and Ford’s products in particular nationwide. Meanwhile, Armstrong’s streak of horse-racing wins has come to an abrupt end when “Sloe Eyes” dies in childbirth (which is our one clue that she’s a she) giving birth to another mare, “Bright Eyes,” but since horse racing is fading in popularity and the racetrack in Maple City is now hosting, you guessed it, auto races, there’s little or nothing Armstrong can do with Bright Eyes (aside from waiting three decades for Shirley Temple’s producers to appropriate her name — joke). The First Auto is listed on as a “comedy,” but it’s as much a drama as a comedy and it gets considerably darker and more serious as it progresses and Hank Armstrong loses his business, has the ignominy of having all his possessions (including Bright Eyes) sold at auction (and just to twist the knife in, the buyer of Bright Eyes turns her into a beast of burden and beats her unmercifully, leading Armstrong to attack him and the horse to escape and flee back to what’s left of Armstrong’s stable), and ultimately sets his own livery stable and barn on fire.

Then one of his few remaining friends in town tells him of an exhibition auto race scheduled for Maple City, and the two of them decide that if they sabotage one of the cars by pouring sulfur in its gas tank (incidentally in 1895 the cars were depicted as running on kerosene but by the 1904 scenes the fuel is being referred to as “gas,” meaning the gasoline almost all cars have run on ever since), it will explode in the middle of the race and no one in Maple City will ever want to buy an auto again. Only — wouldn’t ya know it? — the car he sabotages is the one his own son was planning to drive in the race, having come down from Detroit to Maple City to race, pick up where he left off with his girlfriend Rose Robbins (the mayor’s daughter, who while Bob was out of town went on a date with another guy but then walked out on him when he put the moves on her, and an ironic title says that she was the first girl to walk home from a car ride when the man driving her got “fresh”) and see if he can reconcile with his dad. Realizing that he’s sabotaged his son’s car, Hank races to the track in a carriage drawn by Bright Eyes but doesn’t get there in time to keep Bob’s engine from catching fire (Hank sadly tells Bright Eyes, “Even you let me down!”), though Bob is able to get out of the car before it blows up and there’s a final scene that establishes he’ll recover, he and Rose will pair off, and the film ends with a montage depicting the changing car models from 1904 to 1927 followed by a title, “End of the Trail … ,” and a horse silhouetted against the sunset. The First Auto is a fascinating movie, managing to balance its comic and dramatic aspects better than a lot of far more prestigious productions that have tried the same mix, and certainly its theme of the emotional impact of technological change on the people who have to live it is as current as the latest announcement from Silicon Valley. There’s also a macabre irony in that Charles Emmett Mack was killed in, you guessed it, a car accident just as he was heading for the location where the big race was to be filmed (though doesn’t specify how Warner Brothers handled the death of a leading actor and what scenes had to be doubled or faked to complete the film), essentially making him the Paul Walker of the 1920’s.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Jack Lemmon: America’s Everyman (Gene Feldman & Suzette Winter, 1996)

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

The film I watched on KPBS last night was Jack Lemmon: America’s Everyman, a 1996 TV documentary on the long-lived actor which benefited immeasurably from the fact that he and a lot of his closest associates, including director Billy Wilder and frequent co-star Walter Matthau, were still alive and willing to be interviewed. The profilees also included actress Betty Garrett (who made the 1955 musical version of My Sister Eileen with Lemmon while he was on his way up and she was on her way down) and actors Gregory Peck (who recalled being the on-air presenter when Lemmon won his Best Actor award for the 1973 film Save the Tiger, which I remember as a quite lovely film about an alienated middle-aged businessman even though I suspect it would seem dated if I saw it again now) and Kevin Spacey (who appeared with Lemmon in the 1992 film of David Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross, though oddly the movie wasn’t mentioned in this documentary, nor was a clip of it shown) along with Maureen Stapleton and Charles Durning. The most interesting person shown, aside from Lemmon himself, was Garson Kanin, who wrote the script for what became Lemmon’s first film, It Should Happen to You, and who was on the soundstage when director George Cukor shot Lemmon’s big scene over and over again, every time telling him, “Less, Jack, less.” Lemmon himself recalls that he finally blew up at Cukor — the first and only time he ever yelled back at a director — and said, “If I give you any less, George, I won’t be acting at all!” “That’s right, Jack, that’s right,” Cukor said, and Lemmon was man enough to admit that that was the best piece of advice he ever got from any director. Lemmon was a fascinating actor in that he was virtually born to be a comedian — that mobile, rather chiseled face, not particularly attractive by conventional movie-star standards but still readily believable as the demon seducer he played in a surprising number of movies, and that inherently wisecracky voice — and yet he was certainly able to play serious parts in films like Days of Wine and Roses, Save the Tiger, The China Syndrome (a film Lemmon, a staunch environmentalist, particularly wanted to do because of its message against nuclear power) and Glengarry Glen Ross.

I remember watching Wilder’s 1948 film A Foreign Affair — set in postwar Berlin and featuring Marlene Dietrich as the former mistress of a Nazi bigwig and current affair partner of an American servicemember (John Lund) being investigated by a visiting Congressmember (Jean Arthur) — and reflecting how Lund’s woodenness hampered what was otherwise a quite interesting movie … and realizing how he really needed Lemmon in the part even though Lemmon was still an aspiring stage and radio actor who wouldn’t make his on-camera debut until 1949 (in “Pride’s Castle,” an episode of The Philco-Goodyear Television Playhouse) and he and Wilder wouldn’t work together until Some Like It Hot in 1959. The point was that Wilder was writing “Jack Lemmon roles” well before Lemmon was around to play them — roles with a particularly bittersweet meeting of comedy and drama Wilder increasingly relied on to soften his cynical films about human nature, a contradiction Lemmon was particularly good at. The documentary also featured an interview with Lemmon’s acting teacher, Uta Hagen (who also played Martha in the world premiere production of Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? in 1962 — and as good as Liz Taylor was in the movie it’s a pity no film of that performance exists), and though it has little to say about just how she coached him, it is clear that by hooking up with Hagen he got first-rate training without being sucked into the maw of Lee Strasberg and the “Method” that essentially ruined a couple of generations of actors who tried to be Marlon Brando or James Dean without the chops for it. It also mentioned Lemmon’s first job in New York — not as an actor, but as a piano player and MC at the Old Knickerbocker Theatre, run by silent-film maven Paul Killiam (one of the key people, along with Kevin Brownlow, who helped revive interest in silent films in the 1950’s and 1960’s after they had been virtually forgotten for many years), which at least gave him a chance to study the work of the great silent comedians, notably Charlie Chaplin — well, if you’re going to make your career playing bittersweet comedy, it’s certainly going to help if you go to the master of it as a role model!

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Jóvenes y Rebeldes (Producciones Sotomayor, 1961)

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

Last night Charles and I watched a truly odd movie Jóvenes y Rebeldes (“Youth and Rebels”), the third of the films I’d ordered from the Video Beat Web site and quite a bit different from the other two. First, it was a 1962 Mexican production (at least that’s the date Video Beat gives; says 1961) and, though Bill Haley and the Comets are in it, they only do two songs and the rest of the movie is in Spanish — and the Video Beat release (obviously from an amateur VHS tape from a Mexican commercial station, since there was a logo in the upper right-hand corner throughout the movie — a clapboard design with the word “Pélicula” — and noticeable stutters where the commercials had been edited out) is not subtitled, though the plot wasn’t difficult to follow and Charles was able to help me out, mainly by explaining the jokes. Second, the film really isn’t a rock ’n’ roll musical the way Haley’s U.S. film appearances had been; we get a few Spanish-language songs but only one of them is original (ostensibly sung by the film’s heroine, Lorena Velásquez, though the voice is different enough from her speaking voice my guess would be she had a double). It’s actually a vehicle for a Jerry Lewis-style Mexican comedian named Adalberto Martínez (gee, with a first name like that he could open a taco shop in San Diego!) who, like Cantinflas, billed himself with both his character name, “Resortes,” and his own. In the opening scene, “Resortes” and two J.D. friends are driving in a quite nice convertible when they attempt to run a nice young man and woman off the road — the two cars are both relatively new, fancy and quite similar-looking, a difference from American J.D. movies in which the J.D.’s usually drove either piece-of-shit clunkers or hot rods and seemed to be picking on their victims as much out of class envy as anything else — and the other driver crashes and the three J.D.’s flee. Later they stick up a candy store, and the police finally catch “Resortes” holed up in a room, arrest him and — to the strains of a jarringly bouncy and upbeat stock music cue quite different from the dire stuff we’ve been hearing earlier — take him to prison. Then the opening credits come up.

When the film resumes, Resortes has finished his three-year sentence and been released, and it becomes clear he’s going to be torn between returning to criminal life and going straight. Helping him take the latter course is a coffee-shop owner (back when a “coffee shop” meant a cheap restaurant and not what’s now known as a coffeehouse), Don Celso (Francisco Reguiera, who played the title role in the unfinished Orson Welles film of Don Quixote), who like the coffee-shop owner in the 1940’s PRC J.D. movie I Accuse My Parents seems to combine the morals of Gandhi and the psychological perceptions of Freud. Don Celso warns Resortes against a group of young people sitting at a table trying to pass themselves off as “students” but who are really there to shake him down in a protection racket straight out of a 1930’s Warners film. One of the “students,” Betty (Lorena Velásquez), really is a student at the Universidad Autonomo in Mexico City, and she latches on to Resortes intending to study him for a student project. She even gets him into the university, only when it turns out he never got past the third grade he’s bounced down to an elementary school classroom, where in a routine that would probably have been pretty funny if I knew Spanish instead of having Charles explain it to me, he gets the names and numbers of the continents garbled. This surprisingly long (90 minutes) film lurches to a close when the two guys who were in the gang with Resortes in the opening sequence before he went to prison meet up with him at the coffee shop and blackmail him into helping with what he thinks is going to be a burglary at the home of Betty’s parents (Carlos Riquelme and Emma Arvizu) but what is really going to be a kidnapping. At the end, Resortes’ friends from the coffee shop rescue Betty from the older thugs, including the rather seedy-looking mastermind of the outfit, and he and Betty have a bittersweet parting in which, contrary to movie expectations, she’s willing to have a serious relationship but he rejects her and does a tearful Third Man-esque walkout from her life.

Given the auspices under which we obtained our copy, Charles and I had both expected this to be a Mexican version of a 1950’s rock ’n’ roll musical, with lots of acts performing Rock en Español before it was called that, but all we got in the way of songs were two performances by Bill Haley and His Comets, ostensibly playing at a dance Betty and her student buddies were putting on at the UNAM campus; one original, in which Lorena Velásquez or her voice double does a surprisingly twitchy scat-vocal anticipating Yoko Ono, Lena Lovich and Kate Pierson (of the B-52’s); and engaging Spanish-language covers of “Sing, Sing, Sing” (of all songs!) and “Fever” (with a drum-and-bass backing indicating the performer learned it from Peggy Lee’s version rather than the Little Willie John original — not that that’s necessarily a bad thing; unlike most of the white artists who covered Black songs in the 1950’s, Peggy Lee was genuinely creative and put her own “spin” on the songs instead of just cranking out pale imitations). Indeed, in the “genre” section of the page on Jóvenes y Rebeldes the film is listed as “Comedy | Crime | Drama” but not as a musical. One of the remarkable things about Jóvenes y Rebeldes is that it’s photographed quite creatively; instead of the dull grey tones the cheap U.S. studios like American International were bringing to stories like this, cinematographer Raul Martínez Solares shoots most of this as full-dress noir, creating an atmospheric chiaroscuro visual “look” that makes up for a lot of the lameness of the script by José María Fernández and Afredo, Varela, Jr. and the slovenly direction by Julián Soler. As for the Bill Haley songs, he does “Shake, Rattle and Roll” and “See You Later, Alligator,” both mimed to records made well before the film was shot — “Shake, Rattle and Roll” in 1960 (and actually a better version than the one he did in 1955, I thought; it’s slower, funkier and restores at least one of the original lyrics — “I can look at you, see you ain’t no child no more” — Haley had bowdlerized in his original — and since his ace sax man Rudy Pompilli had left the band by then, the instrumentation sounds more like later rock than it did on Haley’s record) and “See You Later, Alligator” from 1955 (probably the same track as the Decca release, since Pompilli is audible on it even though no sax player is seen on screen), and aside from being the only parts of the film in English, the Haley tracks are fascinating and energetic.

The Video Beat followed up the movie with about a half-hour’s worth of clips from Haley’s concert performances in the mid-1950’s, including one in Germany that ended in a riot (which may have been provoked by the German police’s attempt to keep anybody from dancing in the aisles — this was only about a decade after the Nazis fell and a lot of the German cops look like extras playing Nazis in a World War II movie), and though one of the songs — “Birth of the Boogie,” which itself makes clear that Haley’s music wasn’t as much of a departure from the swing popular in the late 1930’s and 1940’s than it’s usually portrayed as in the history books — is dubbed in from one of Haley’s recordings, most of the tracks have live sound shot at the same time as the visuals. There was one clip from one of the Columbia rock movies Haley filmed in the mid-1950’s which showed him pretty much out of it — obviously the practice of miming to one of his recordings bored him — but the live videos that were shot with synch sound, as Charles pointed out, gave the impression of how much energy Haley had “live” and what a thrill it must have been to be there. (Haley died in 1981 at age 55, living long enough to make it back to the stage on the oldies circuit but not long enough for a real comeback.) The “official” history of rock ’n’ roll basically portrays Haley as the John the Baptist of white rock, heralding the coming of Elvis, but these clips show he was a dynamite performer in his own right even though he was awkward, overweight and not much of a mover on stage. They also show that rock instrumentation was hardly as fixed in those early days as it would become later; Haley’s band includes a pedal steel guitar (a country rather than a rock instrument), an accordion and an upright bass, whose player wrestles it as much as he plays it — though by the end of the 1950’s the louder, smaller bass guitar had replaced it as the standard rock bass instrument, many rockabilly bands did spectacular things with the bull fiddle, and some of them are shown here. Haley’s bass player wrestles his instrument, twirls it around on its spike like a giant top, pulls it to the ground and rides it like a horse, keeping up the bass line all the while. The videos also give us some good looks at Rudy Pompilli, Haley’s tenor sax player, who may have had as much to do with the band’s popularity as Haley himself; he may have been the first white sax player to “honk” and he certainly had all the moves of the Black honkers down — and as can be seen by comparing the bonus footage to the Haley songs in Jóvenes y Rebeldes, made after he left, he definitely added quite a lot to the excitement level of Haley’s act. Though Haley certainly owed much of his career to the pioneering Black R&B artists (one of his two biggest hits was his cover of Big Joe Turner’s “Shake, Rattle and Roll” and on the clips he’s shown doing another Turner song, “Corrine, Corrina,” obviously hoping lightning would strike twice), his country influences and dual musical identity (in the early 1950’s he had two bands, the Saddlemen who played country and the Comets who played rock — but they were the same people) helped set the tone for the first decade of white rock.

Salt Water Daffy (Warner Bros./Vitaphone, 1933)

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

This morning I watched a short film on TCM called Salt Water Daffy, a 1933 Warner Bros./Vitaphone production (Warners was still using “Vitaphone” as a trade name for their shorts even though they’d stopped using the Vitaphone sound-on-disc recording process in 1931 and gone over to sound-on-film like everyone else) that’s an odd forerunner of the Abbott and Costello military movies from 1941 and 1942 — and even features one of the same actors, Shemp Howard (brother of Moe and Curly Howard of the Three Stooges and later a Stooge himself). Elmer Wagonbottom (Jack Haley, top-billed) and Wilbur (Shemp Howard) are two pickpockets who steal the watch of a Navy captain and get chased by police into what turns out to be a Navy recruiting office. Realizing what’s happened to them, they try to fake medical disabilities but they’re caught, and they end up in basic training with the great Lionel Stander as their drill sergeant — and later their immediate superior in the Navy itself. The base where they’re stationed is visited by Count Fille du Pax (Jules Epailly) from the Sylvanian navy (were they seeking U.S. help in their war against Freedonia?), and also by an impostor (Charles Judels), a spy who’s impersonating the count to take photos of the Navy’s fortifications. There are a lot of slapstick scenes — of which probably the best is, told to give a haircut and shave to anyone who comes into the office and then put them in the fumigation room, they do that to the fake Count and give him what looks like a punk haircut as well as significantly shortening his Russian-style beard (the fact that he was wearing a Russian beard, claiming to be Sylvanian and speaking French should have alerted someone to his imposture!) — some engaging reversals and Laurel-and-Hardyish by-play between the two leads, who end up first rewarded for catching the spy and then imprisoned for stealing the captain’s watch (which has a distinctive set of ship’s-bell chimes that sound on the hour). Given that the director was Ray McCarey — whose far more prestigious brother Leo had first teamed Laurel and Hardy back at Hal Roach Studios in 1926 — the L&H influences are not surprising, but they’re well done enough that the film is amusing and genuinely entertaining instead of oppressive the way some of the other L&H knockoffs from the period were.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Thor: The Dark World (Marvel, Disney, Buena Vista, 2013)

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

Last night Charles and I watched a DVD of one of the latest Marvel movies: Thor: The Dark World, a sequel of sorts to the 2011 Thor film that I regarded as one of the better big-budget action blockbusters made recently. It had a committee-written script (five writers were credited, not including the three who came up with the concept of the Thor comic book back in the 1960’s) but fustian direction by Kenneth Branagh (the over-the-top approach that had annoyed me in Branagh’s Shakespeare films and his adaptation of Frankenstein actually served him well in a superhero movie) and genuinely good acting from the principals: Chris Hemsworth as Thor (the fact that he has a body to die for — and a personal trainer helping him keep it — didn’t hurt either!), Tom Hiddleston as Loki (more recently he’s gone onto Branagh’s turf by playing Henry V in the BBC-TV miniseries The Hollow Crown and done quite a good job, steering his performance on a middle ground between the openly heroic ones of Laurence Olivier and Robert Hardy and the cynical, manipulative one of Branagh), Natalie Portman and Jaimie Alexander as Thor’s main squeezes (Portman as the Earth girl he falls in love with but can’t stay with because he has to hot-foot it back to Asgard and blow up Bifrost, the Rainbow Bridge that links it to Earth; and Alexander as his goddess-girlfriend), Anthony Hopkins as Odin and Renée Russo as his wife, Frigga. All those people returned this time around — as did Kat Dennings as Darcy, assistant and generally obnoxious sidekick (though quite a bit less obnoxious in this one) to the Portman character, Jane Foster (who’s supposed to be a nuclear physicist as well as a drop-dead gorgeous set ornament) — but the spirit didn’t. Thor: The Dark World is an odd movie because it almost totally lacks the depth of the first one — virtually all of it takes place in Asgard and therefore there isn’t the poignancy of Thor as a protagonist literally torn between two worlds — and the acting simply isn’t as good either (Hopkins in particular looks so bored with the role of Odin I’m surprised there weren’t stagehands with spears poking him to wake him up when he fell asleep during takes) — yet it’s still a nice piece of comic-book entertainment.

The villain this time is Malekith (Christopher Eccleston, who played John Lennon in that rather odd BBC-TV biopic Lennon Naked, focused on the two years in Lennon’s life between the breakup of the Beatles and his move from England to the U.S. in 1972), leader of the Dark Elves — which, I joked to Charles, is going to be a jolt to anyone whose idea of elves was conditioned by The Lord of the Rings (though he pointed out to me that there are “dark” elves in Tolkien, too!) — who apparently pre-existed the gods and ruled the universe (or at least the nine planets linked by Yggdrasil, which in this version of the Norse myths isn’t a giant ash tree but a series of wormholes in space) with the help of a force called the Aether that’s depicted as a bunch of giant red tendrils going in and out of various people’s (or entities’) bodies. Malekith seemed to have so much trouble harnessing the Aether that I couldn’t help but joke, “Wouldn’t stealing the gold from the Rhinemaidens have been easier?” In any event, once the gods emerged there was some sort of fight to the finish between Malekith and the Dark Elves on one side and Odin and the gods on the other, and Odin extracted the Aether and had it buried on Earth. “Just wait; someone’s going to frack it,” I joked — and the movie’s actual plot (from another writing committee: Don Payne, who died of bone cancer shortly after coming up with his contribution and to whom the movie is dedicated, and Robert Rodat came up with the story, and Christopher Yost and Christopher Markus & Stephen McFeely wrote the script) is almost as silly: Jane Foster and her research team discover an odd part of London (after the tongue-twisting names of the realms of the gods, the frost giants and the other legendary creatures of Nordic myth, seeing a subtitle reading “London” in the same font is a bit of a jolt — “London? I’ve heard of that place!”) that contains a field where gravity has essentially ceased to exist, and it turns out that the Aether was buried there and works itself free, implanting itself into Jane’s body.

The rest of the story is a series of wars, rumors of wars and more or less exciting battle sequences as various races encounter each other on the battlefield — fighting with a rather odd mix of medieval and sci-fi weapons — with Thor and Loki ultimately having to join forces and commandeer a space plane (apparently Malekith had not only invented mechanical flight but had perfected it to the technological level of the “tie-fighter” spacecraft in Star Wars) and fly it to Earth to defeat Malekith and return the Aether to what it should have remained in the first place, one of six energy crystals — only one of the post-credits sequences that have become a trademark in Marvel films shows a character called “The Collector” who’s seeking unimaginable power by collecting them all. There’s also a comic-relief character called Erik Selvig (Stellan Skarsgård), a nuclear physicist who goes dottily crazy in the manner of British mad scientists and is arrested for lecturing at Stonehenge … in the nude (memo to the honchos at Marvel: the next time you do a nude scene in one of your movies do it with one of the many cast members who are genuinely hot!), and is next shown giving a lecture in an asylum and taking a white and a black shoe to demonstrate the conversion of the nine planets linked by Yggdrasil that’s about to happen and give Malekith his chance to regain his power. “Can I have my shoe back?,” drawls one of the patients — played by Marvel co-founder Stan Lee in his usual cameo. It seems that Malekith can regain the Aether and take over the universe if he can do so during the convergence — but he only has a one-minute time window, sort of like applying to be a firefighter in Los Angeles.

Anyway, it ends (more or less) the way you expect a superhero movie to end, with the good guys triumphant, the bad guys defeated, only there are two, count ’em, two post-credits sequences that make things a bit more ambivalent than that: the one with the Collector and another in which Thor makes a brief appearance back on Earth (now that Bifrost is functional again — it was destroyed at the end of the first movie but was fully operational at the start of this one, with no explanation of how it got fixed) and gets to kiss Natalie Portman for the first time in the series, only a flock of ravens (anyone who knows Wagner’s Ring, especially Götterdämmerung, will remember that ravens are the harbingers of Odin/Wotan) flies by and a monster follows them. Thor: The Dark World got piss-poor reviews but made a ton of money at the box office, and deserved it; it’s not much of a film but it is a fun superhero action romp — and it’s one movie that probably does lose a lot being shrunk from the big theatre screen to a medium-sized TV image, letterboxed, from a DVD. It’s not the movie its predecessor is, but then one really didn’t expect it to be — and at least it’s got a few nice in-jokes, including one in which Loki’s magic turns Thor into his Asgardian girlfriend Sif (and quite frankly, I think she’s a much more interesting character and a better match for him than the Earthling drip Natalie Portman is playing!) and then turns himself into Captain America (blessedly this film’s only reference to The Avengers), in which guise Loki likes the hot look of his codpiece but complains it’s uncomfortably tight — the best example of the wry wit that pervades this film and helps make it watchable.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

War of the Robots (Koala Cinematografica, Nais Film, 1978)

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

I ran Charles a 1978 sci-fi film from Italy (“ConDor never ends!” he joked) called War of the Robots, which I was expecting to be pretty tacky and it was. The star was Antonio Sabato, Sr. (whom Charles had first seen in the 1966 film Grand Prix and was startled at how much he looked like his briefly more famous son), and the film was so confusing it took about 35 minutes for its plot to emerge, but eventually it did. Sabato, who along with leading lady Yanti Somer was one of the few people who actually got billed under the name their parents gave them — this was an Italian production but most of the cast and crew were billed under “Anglicized” versions of their names (director Alfonso Brescia was called “Al Bently” and his co-writer, Aldo Crudo, was “Alan Rawton”) — plays John Boyd, captain of a starship whose base is about to blow up because the nuclear reactor they rely on for power has gone critical, it will melt down in three hours and the only person who knows how to stop it is its inventor, Professor Wilkes (Massimo Righi, a.k.a. “Max Wright”), who’s disappeared. It turns out he’s been abducted by aliens from the planet Anthor (or was it “Amthor”? The lousy sound recording on the English-dubbed soundtrack didn’t help), along with his assistant Lois (Malisa Longo, a.k.a. “Melissa Long”).

So John Boyd takes his spaceship out looking for them and on his way stumbles onto the planet Azar, whose ruler Kuba (Aldo Canti, a.k.a. “Nick Jordan”) initially mistakes the Earthlings for Anthorians and orders them executed because Azar and Anthor have been at war for generations. When Boyd convinces Kuba that they have as much reason to hate Anthorians as the Azarians do, Kuba (who I thought was the sexiest guy in the movie, even with his Lex Luthor/Mr. Clean shaved head, especially since he was introduced in a pair of tight swim trunks and nothing else, though I joked, “It’s just like California! They elect their musclemen as governors!”) goes along on Boyd’s spaceship and they have to deal with robots (it’s not entirely clear where they’re from, who’s controlling them or what they’re after) as well as the professor and Lois, who turn out to have changed sides (it seems like Brescia and Crudo had watched all those Republic serials in which the good-guy scientist’s brain is taken over by the bad guys and he’s forced to build infernal inventions for them); the professor persuaded the Anthorians to elect Lois as their empress when the incumbent died, and he’s planning to … well, it’s not clear what he’s planning to do, but this is the sort of movie that’s basically action porn anyway and it doesn’t really matter who’s who or what side they’re on.

Eventually Lois kills the professor and then dies herself (at least I think that’s what happened) but the good guys find the professor’s memory cards, which tell them how to turn off the reactor that’s threatening to blow up the space station, and all ends more or less happily, with Boyd pairing off with his severely butch first lieutenant Julie (Yanti Somer), whose hair is shorter than his and who looks totally uninterested in men. War of the Robots was apparently made in the wake of the mega-success of the first Star Wars, which re-established science fiction in general and space opera in particular as a salable movie genre, but it’s not really that much of a Star Wars knock-off; the two light-saber duels between humans and robots are the only elements Brescia and Crudo obviously and blatantly ripped off from the George Lucas movie. It actually seems that Brescia and Crudo were more influenced by Star Trek than Star Wars; indeed, one gets the impression that they took five Star Trek TV scripts and mashed them up together, more or less at random. At least there are a lot of nice-looking people of both sexes in this movie, all wearing what look like leather versions of Star Trek costumes — I joked that the producers bought them at Gene Roddenberry’s garage sale but in fact they came from an Italian sportswear company called Trissi, and their logo is shown so often on the suits I suspect the company donated them in return for the product placement.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

First Men in the Moon (Ameran/Columbia, 1964)

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

Charles and I had expected to see the 1964 film First Men in the Moon at Gerry Williams’ showing at the ConDor science-fiction convention, but that proved impossible as the soundtrack was impossibly static-ridden and too distorted to render the dialogue audible. Fortunately, I had a copy at home and we watched it there instead — though, ironically, the circumstances led us to expect a much better movie than the one we got. The film begins in 1964, when a U.S.-Russian-British co-venture has finally landed a crew on the moon — and the film opens with the actual landing, done much like the real moon flights only five years later, with a lunar module detaching itself from the main spacecraft and using retro-rockets to touch down on the moon’s surface. Once there, the astronauts realize that they aren’t the first men on (or in) the moon after all; they find an old, rather dowdy-looking British flag and a note from a previous astronaut claiming the moon as territory of the British Empire under the authority of Queen Victoria. The United Nations Space Administration, which launched the current moon flight, sends a delegation to check out the name of Katherine Callendar (Martha Hyer), who signed the original document. She’s dead, but her former husband Arnold Bedford (Edward Judd) is still alive, living in a nursing home and insisting that he once visited the moon. When the delegates reach him, he tells a story about the first moon flight back in 1899 — and the rest of the film is a nice but overly campy flashback.

Bedford was deeply in debt and living in a rented cottage — though he told Kate he owned it — where he was supposed to write a play that was going to be such a huge hit it would pay off all his creditors. But he abandons that plan when he finds out his next-door neighbor wants to buy the cottage so he can expand his scientific experiments. The man, who’s a “mad scientist” in the charmingly dotty rather than the outright insane sense, is Cavor (Lionel Jeffries), who’s invented Cavorite, a substance that neutralizes gravity: when you paint it on something, as soon as the paint dries the object you’ve painted it on becomes weightless. Fortunately it only works when it’s exposed to light, so the reaction can be controlled by putting blinds over the Cavorite-coated surface and opening or closing them to make the object move in a particular direction. Bedford wants to cheat Cavor out of the rights and exploit it for short-term profit, but Cavor has always wanted to use it to power a spacecraft to the moon. They do so, with Kate stowing away at the last minute to get away from the lawyers hired by the cottage’s real owner, who’s suing her for trying to sell it to someone else, and they bump around space for a while (at one point Bedford screws up the steering so much the spaceship comes dangerously close to the sun) until they finally make a bone-jarring landing on the moon. Once there they find underground caves with pockets of atmosphere — a scientific howler quite a few films about moon travel, including Fritz Lang’s Woman on the Moon (1928) and the awful 1953 film Cat-Women of the Moon, used — and they also discover a race of highly civilized but also malevolent indigenous beings, the Selenites, who are half-humanoid and half-insect and played by actors in ill-fitting, all too baggy costumes.

Special-effects genius Ray Harryhausen worked on this project and his name was used to sell it, but his skills are used in only one sequence — a battle between the 1899 astronauts and three (potentially) man-eating caterpillars — otherwise it’s pretty much an action-porn film in which the astronauts keep getting entrapped by the Selenites and rescued by each other, with a bizarre ending in which Cavor agrees to stay on the moon and try to reason with the Selenites (his big, preachy speech at the end is the part of the film that most reveals the identity of the story’s original author, H. G. Wells) while the other two head back to earth. Flash-forward to 1964 again, and Bedford is frantically warning the United Nations space guys that people have no business being on the moon, that the Selenites are way too dangerous and the crew on the moon need to fly back immediately — only the 1964 astronauts discover that all the Selenites have died and their buildings have crumbled because (in a gimmick obviously borrowed from Wells’ The War of the Worlds, either by Wells himself or the credited screenwriters, Nigel Kneale and Jan Read) Cavor had a common cold and it infected and killed off the Selenites because they had no immunity to it. First Men in the Moon might have been a good movie but it was killed by the “arch” campiness of the approach to the material and the tackiness of the effects — particularly producer Charles H. Schnee’s unwillingness to use Ray Harryhausen more (Schnee worked on a lot of the Harryhausen projects and the two men apparently trusted each other and got along, but this time Schnee screwed Harryhausen over not only by giving him too small a budget for multiple effects scenes but shooting the film in 2.35-1 anamorphic widescreen, which forced Harryhausen to build his stop-motion models in forced perspective so they’d look “right” through the anamorphic decoder lens on the projectors showing the film).e pointed

Le Voyage dans la Lune (Star-Film, 1902)

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

Made in 1902 at Georges Méliès’ Star-Film studio in Paris (the Star-Film logo actually appears in the movie — Méliès put it there himself in a futile attempt to deter piracy of his movies, an interesting forerunner of the logo watermarks that afflict virtually all TV showings of anything these days), Le Voyage dans la Lune (usually translated as “A Trip to the Moon”) is generally considered the first science-fiction film ever made. It’s based, more or less, on From the Earth to the Moon by Méliès’ countryman, Jules Verne, but about all the two have in common is that the actual trip to the moon is accomplished by firing the space capsule as a shell from a giant cannon (which rather begs the question of how Méliès’ astronauts get back to earth). The plot is as simple as you’d expect from a 10-minute movie: a bearded old professor (played by Méliès himself) lectures a group of disbelieving colleagues on how he plans to fire a cannon shell to the moon. He does so, as a bevy of scantily-clad (at least by 1902 standards) bathing beauties see him and his fellow astronauts off — even that early they realized that sex could sell movies — and they make it to the moon, giving the Man in the Moon a black eye (apparently the moon was also played by Méliès in that sequence) in what’s become the most famous clip from this film. They meet a bunch of menacing Moon creatures, but the moon inhabitants are relatively easy to deal with because if you club them with something, they turn into a puff of smoke and disappear. Eventually the astronauts make a triumphant homecoming (the landing, with the capsule falling into the sea and a parachute opening to slow it down, looks uncannily like the actual splashdowns of the Apollo capsules) and bring a Moon-man back with them. Primitive in some ways — the camera seems to have been nailed to the studio floor, and there’s virtually no editing — Le Voyage dans la Lune is highly sophisticated in others, not only Méliès’ special effects (he’d been a stage magician before he started making films, and it showed) but the fact that virtually every transition is a dissolve, at a time when post-production effects simply didn’t exist: every one of those dissolves had to be done in the camera, first by reducing the exposure to create a “fade to black,” then rewinding the film inside the camera and shooting the next scene with a fade-in done by simply opening the lens wider. The movie also shows the cleverness and whimsicality of Méliès’ work generally, and it’s nice that the first science-fiction film ever made should show this unique sort of Gallic charm, a quite different aura from that the sci-fi genre got used for in too many bad movies over the years!

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Mars Movies at ConDor, 3/21/14

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

Charles and I returned home after the last ConDor science-fiction convention panel before the 6 p.m. dinner hour, raced to put a meal together and then headed back to the ConDor (I think that’s the nomenclature they’re using) for a program by Gerry Williams of short films about the moon and Mars. Charles and I arrived late and missed the first film, a 1910 Thomas A. Edison short called A Trip to Mars that is reportedly the first movie ever made about a journey to the Red Planet, but we walked in (after a comedy of errors getting there — we missed the #6 bus by minutes and rented a Car2Go) and got to see most of what turned out to be the best film on the program, or at least on the portion of it we saw. This was a 1930 Oswald the Rabbit cartoon called Up to Mars, in which Oswald and his sidekick (the typical hefty Bluto-ish type, sort of Hardy to Oswald’s Laurel) hang out in a movie theatre and watch newsreels of prize-winning balloon flights. Naturally they’re inspired to try it out themselves, and they end up on Mars, where an even more Bluto-ish ruler holds forth and their idea of “sport” is firing guns at random (the National Rifle Association’s wet dream!). Oswald the character had a convoluted history; he was originally produced by Walt Disney and designed by Disney’s assistant Ub Iwerks, only a contract dispute with Charles Mintz, the middleman between Disney and the releasing company, Universal, cost Disney control of the character and he ended up in the hands of Walter Lantz, later the creator of Woody Woodpecker. (Having lost the rabbit, Disney had Iwerks create a different character who, though nominally of another species, looked remarkably like Oswald the Rabbit: Mickey Mouse. Still later, Iwerks temporarily left Disney to set up on his own and created a character called Flip the Frog, who looked remarkably like Oswald and Mickey despite the dramatic differences in the real-world appearances of rabbits, mice and frogs.) This was a Lantz-era Oswald from 1930 and was animated with dazzling creativity, far removed from the photo-realism Disney was already insisting on in 1930, and though the ending was a typical it-was-all-a-dream cop-out the film was otherwise quite brilliant and very engaging and funny (and Lantz’s creative use of sound was on a par with Disney’s).

Afterwards they showed Haredevil Hare, a Bugs Bunny cartoon from 1948 with Bugs foiling an attempt by a Martian (who looks like a little green version of a Roman centurion) to use the moon as a base from which to fire a giant ray cannon which will destroy Earth, as well as some other cartoons that put familiar characters in space-travel settings: Popeye: The Ace of Space, Duck Dodgers in the 24 1/2th Century (a Daffy Duck cartoon in which he’s a spectacularly incompetent astronaut continually saved by his young sidekick, Porky Pig) and a truly bizarre 1956 propaganda film from the American Petroleum Institute called Destination Earth. In this one, an astronaut is sent out by Ogg, the absolute ruler of Mars (who’s created a personality cult of such depth and breadth Stalin and Hitler would have blushed), to explore Earth, and he finds that whereas Mars has only one motor vehicle — Ogg’s personal limousine — and it barely moves at all, Earth has millions of them and they’re all powered by gasoline, derived from petroleum, extracted from the earth by hundreds of competing oil companies. The film is as much propaganda for capitalism as it is for petroleum, and even as such it’s a relic; as I’ve noted in these pages before, Ayn Rand had already published The Fountainhead and was writing Atlas Shrugged, and she was (as far as I know) the first intellectual defender of capitalism who did not posit competition as one of its virtues. Given how relentlessly the world’s largest corporations are combining with or acquiring each other, it’s clear that someone making a movie with this agenda today would not be hailing competition — quite the opposite; they’d probably be emphasizing the sheer beauty of size and how the bigger the corporation is, the more effectively it can serve consumers and lower prices. (Of course, the opposite is true; in actually existing capitalism, the more consolidated an industry becomes, the less it innovates, the worse its customer service gets and the higher its prices go.)

Alas, the quality of the films dropped dramatically as it moved from these old cartoons to more recent independent productions (many of them student films) whose view of the future in general and space travel in particular is considerably less benign than the one presented in the oldies; among the movies included are Horses on Mars, which appeared to be a student filmmaker’s attempt to do their own Solaris; and Last Flight, which appeared to be an attempt to do the old lost-in-Death-Valley trope on Mars, with the added kicker that the astronaut (a woman) is not only running out of oxygen but hearing radio reports from Earth that a catastrophe is befalling her home planet and billions of people are dying. The final one — at least the last one we actually saw before Charles and I raced out of the room to catch the last bus home — was Viaje a Marte, an Argentinian film (Spanish, unsubtitled, but not hard to figure out) about a young boy who watches an Argentinian sci-fi series called Viaje a Marte on TV and either dreams his way into a Martian adventure or actually gets driven there by his dad in an old pickup truck — and there was an it-was-all-a-dream ending to this one, too, though the “dream” involved the boy growing up and returning to Mars, checking out the hamburger stand on Mars he’d bought a helmet from on his first trip, and the film ended uncertainly. It was O.K. and a needed lift after the direness of Last Flight but it wasn’t exactly a major “up” either!

Friday, March 21, 2014

Babes in Toyland (Hal Roach/MGM, 1934)

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

Charles and I watched a movie last night: the 1934 version of Victor Herbert’s opera Babes in Toyland, retitled March of the Wooden Soldiers in its early-1960’s TV release to avoid confusion with the Walt Disney remake from 1962 (which I haven’t seen since it was new and my age was still in single digits, though what little I remember of it — mainly the scenes with the laser cannon — indicates it was a really silly movie distinguished only by the presence of Ray Bolger in the cast). This was a Hal Roach production featuring Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy as “Stannie Dum” and “Ollie Dee,” respectively, silly character names but ones which at least allowed them to address each other as “Stan” and “Ollie,” as usual as they fit into (and expanded) the usual comic-relief roles in a turn-of-the-(last)-century operetta. It was also quite handsomely produced — obviously Roach was out to prove to the rest of Hollywood that he could do a lavish production with quite elaborate and beautiful sets, and hundreds of extras, instead of just cheap (but enduringly funny) little slapstick shorts. The edition we were watching was a 77-minute release from MGM Home Video in 2008 that restored a beautiful scene in which the romantic leads, Tom-Tom (Felix Knight) and Bo-Peep (Charlotte Henry, a year after her stunning performance as Lewis Carroll’s Alice in the 1933 Paramount version of Alice in Wonderland), sing a duet in the forest to which they’ve been exiled and ghostly visions of the Sandman and his fairies sprinkle dust in their direction to lull them off to dreamland. What’s most fascinating about Babes in Toyland is how strongly it anticipates The Wizard of Oz, an MGM production from five years later, from the opening establishing shot of Toyland (even though the crane shot at the very start, through which we approach Mother Goose [Virginia Karns] as she sings the famous “Toyland” song, is surprisingly jerky for a 1934 film) to the scenes in the forest, where Our Hero and Heroine are menaced by the monstrous Bogeymen (who look like they were hired to be native villains in the serial The Lost City and made it to the wrong soundstage by mistake).

The plot isn’t much: Old Widow Peep (Florence Roberts), Bo-Peep’s mother, lives (like the original Old Mother Hubbard) in a giant shoe that’s about to be foreclosed on by the bad guy, Silas Barnaby (played by a German refugee actor named Harry Kleinbach, who later changed his name to Henry Brandon). Stannie and Ollie work in the factory of the Toymaker (William Burress) and hope to get enough of an advance on their salaries to pay off Widow Peep’s mortgage, but instead they get themselves fired because they screwed up an order from Santa Claus (Ferdinand Munier), who wanted 600 toy soldiers, each one foot tall, and instead they built 100 toy soldiers, each six feet tall. The bad guy says he’ll forget about the mortgage if Bo-Peep marries him — and, not wanting to let her mom become homeless, she says yes. Instead, to spare Bo-Peep the Fate Worse Than Death, the good guys play a trick on him and marry him to a heavily veiled Stannie in drag — a joke that no doubt plays quite differently in today’s age of same-sex marriage than it did in 1934! Barnaby responds by kidnapping one of the Three Little Pigs (who are drawn as typically stereotyped movie Blacks, though since their roles are mute this isn’t as offensive as it would have been if they’d spoken) and framing Tom-Tom for the pig’s murder, and when the pig is found alive in Barnaby’s cellar (but not soon enough to save Tom-Tom from exile to Bogeyland, where Bo-Peep joins him) Barnaby decides to get his revenge by mobilizing the Bogeys for an all-out assault on Toyland.

What’s fascinating about this film is it isn’t the light, fey children’s fantasy we’d expect from the opening reel, but a surprisingly dark movie — like the Winged Monkeys in The Wizard of Oz, the Bogeys come off as a genuinely frightening menace, and parts of Babes in Toyland are scary enough to qualify as horror — one wonders if Harry Kleinbach’s real-life experiences of Nazi persecution informed the film’s portrayal of the Bogeys’ march on Toyland, which anticipates all the scenes of Nazis marching into innocent villages we got during World War II-era movies. The Victor Herbert songs are genuinely lovely (especially the sleep duet, which for some reason was cut from the film for years and only restored for this version) and Felix Knight’s high tenor and Charlotte Henry’s serviceable soprano are good voices for them. Henry is also quite winsome in her role; apparently Hollywood was hoping she’d be the next Mary Pickford — an adult actress who could credibly play children — only that got short-circuited by the spectacular mega-success of Shirley Temple, a real child who was just as precocious as Pickford or Henry. Kleinbach’s reading of the villain is weird, speaking not in the Snidely Whiplash voice we expect but in a rather odd cross between George Arliss and Boris Karloff, and though there were times during the movie I wished Roach had got Karloff for the role (they’d worked together before in the 1931 French-language version of Laurel and Hardy’s Pardon Us, now alas lost) he’s certainly credible as a figure of menace. Babes in Toyland is a quite sophisticated movie given its provenance in an operetta for kids, and between the horrific darkness of the Bogeyland scenes and the surprisingly frank gags about Stannie’s marriage to Barnaby, it’s a wonder how this film, released in December 1934, got past the Production Code Administration and got awarded Code Certificate #401 (prominently displayed in the opening credits along with the National Recovery Administration emblem!).

Friday, March 14, 2014

The Shadow Returns (Monogram, 1946)

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

I ran Charles an download of a 1946 thriller (term intended merely as a genre description, not to convey that this film has any sense of excitement or “thrills”!) called The Shadow Returns, part of a short-lived attempt by Monogram Pictures to do a series based on the famous pulp-magazine and radio character The Shadow. The Shadow had originated in 1931 as a radio promotion by the Street and Smith pulp-magazine publishers, and the original idea was simply to have actor James La Curtom read the magazine stories on the air. As the show developed the producers decided to call him “The Shadow,” start dramatizing the stories, and use the catch phrase, “Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men?” Street and Smith realized they had a popular — and potentially profitable — character, so they decided to build a magazine around him and hired writer Walter Gibson (though they credited the stories to a company-owned pseudonym, “Maxwell Grant”) to do a full-length story about him. Gibson came up with a man who’s so mysterious, and affects so many disguises to capture criminals, that pulp historian Ron Goulart said even Gibson himself didn’t seem all too sure of who he really was. They also decided to scrimp on the first issue by using an already existing painting in their files for a cover — only the only picture they had of a person’s shadow showed it falling over the face of a frightened Chinese, and not having written any Chinese characters into his story, Gibson had to go back and insert one. The Shadow magazine was a success, and apparently the character’s film debut was in a series of shorts for Universal starting in 1933, but nobody made a Shadow feature until Edward Alperson’s Colony Pictures, releasing through Grand National, made The Shadow Strikes in 1936. This was a boring, seemingly interminable and all too faithful adaptation of one of Gibson’s pulp stories which cast former silent star Rod La Rocque as the Shadow. Surprisingly, the one follow-up to The Shadow Strikes, International Crime from 1938, was a great movie, a marvelous Thin Man-ish mash-up of murder mystery and screwball comedy, though it ignored the Shadow character as established both in the pulps and on the later radio show (where he was given only one alternate identity — millionaire playboy Lamont Cranston — and the ability to “cloud men’s minds” so that he can be invisible, something he supposedly learned from a yogi while on a trip to the Far East); in International Crime the Shadow is basically a radio host doing a program that’s essentially the 1930’s version of America’s Most Wanted. 

The Shadow then remained fallow as movie material until Monogram decided to take him up in the 1940’s, casting Kane Richmond (frequent hero of Republic serials) as the Shadow and entrusting him to the team that were making Monogram’s Charlie Chan movies: writer George Callahan and directors William Beaudine and Phil Rosen (The Shadow Returns is credited to Rosen exclusively but Beaudine is listed as an uncredited co-director on The name of the producer is a surprise: Lou Brock, who in 1933 was at RKO running the shorts department when he was given the opportunity to make a feature — which was a musical called Flying Down to Rio, less important for its top-billed stars (Gene Raymond, Dolores Del Rio and Raul Roulien) than the supporting players, particularly a couple of dancers named Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. But Brock’s star fell as fast as it rose after he green-lighted a project about some shipwrecked socialites called Down to Their Last Yacht and offered it to RKO production chief Merian C. Cooper as the second Astaire-Rogers movie. It eventually got made in 1935, but sans Fred and Ginger, and was a box-office disappointment. The Shadow Returns was a pretty good movie, though most of it was dull and it didn’t live up to the potential of the character — but then virtually none of the attempts to bring the Shadow to the screen have; while other radio dramas (notably The Lone Ranger) had long and successful transitions to television, the few attempts to do the Shadow as a TV series never got beyond the pilot stage (and it’s difficult, to say the least, to do a story in which the central character is invisible in a visual medium) and the Shadow as presented by Monogram is a rather conventional superhero whose only concessions to “Shadow-ness” are to change from Lamont Cranston’s regular street clothes to a black outfit with a mask and a big black hat and speak in an echoey voice that doesn’t seem to be coming from anywhere in particular.

Though this Shadow doesn’t have the power to cloud men’s minds and therefore render himself invisible, he does seem to get into all sorts of interesting places as he investigates an odd mystery centering around a graveyard, the opening of a coffin to extract some clear pellets that look like contraband jewels, and a succession of people apparently hurling themselves off balconies but actually being murdered by a man with a bullwhip who uses it to pull them off the balconies, so it looks (even to eyewitnesses) like they’ve committed suicide but they’ve actually been murdered. The chemistry between Kane Richmond as the Shadow (a.k.a. Lamont Cranston) and Barbara Read as Margo Lane is O.K. (though hardly at the level of the marvelous love-hate relationship between Rod La Rocque and Astrid Allwyn in International Crime!), and the first victim is a well-to-do man named Michael Hasdon (Frank Reicher). After several of his colleagues have fallen similarly and suspicion has fallen on a mysterious “Joseph Yomans” who was present at the grave-opening at the start of the film, took off his ridiculously obvious fake beard and entered the Hasdon home through a secret doorway (it’s that sort of a movie), Cranston and Margo eventually realize that the pellets aren’t jewels but secret capsules containing a bunch of microfilms containing the formula for making the world’s greatest plastic, which is worth millions and the subject of industrial espionage, and the culprit is Hasdon’s butler Paul Breck (Emmet Vogan), who was the mysterious “Yomans” and didn’t want there to be a legal heir so he could grab the secret and make the millions it’s worth himself. It’s the sort of resolution that pretty much provokes a yawn — as I’ve joked about other movies before, this is less a whodunit than a whocareswhodunit — but The Shadow Returns has some occasional visual atmospherics and a surprisingly good deadpan performance by Tom Dugan as cabdriver and chauffeur Moe Shrevnitz, who in the Shadow’s print stories was yet one more incognito the Shadow used to get closer to the underworld and gather information, but on the radio show (as here) became a separate character, largely used as comic relief.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Barricade (Warner Bros., 1950)

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

Last night Charles and I watched a really quirky movie, a 1950 Warner Bros. Western called Barricade, which was actually a transformation of Jack London’s The Sea Wolf into a land-based Western story. Interviewed by Michael Druxman for the 1978 book Make It Again, Sam, writer William Sackheim recalled being called into the office of Warners’ “B” producer Saul Elkins and being told that his next project would be to adapt The Sea Wolf — Jack London’s grim tale of a crew at sea trapped under the absolute rule of mad captain “Wolf” Larsen — as a Western. They ran Warners’ previous (more or less) come scritto version of The Sea Wolf — the 1940 version with Michael Curtiz directing and Edward G. Robinson and John Garfield starring — “then announced that the project would be called Barricade,” Sackheim recalled. “To this day, I have no idea what that title meant.” The chief problem facing Sackheim (who, oddly, is the only credited writer; the credits don’t mention either The Sea Wolf or London’s name) was the obvious one — to explain why the men under the control of his villain, mine owner and operator “Boss” Kruger (Raymond Massey, oddly using his “Lincoln” voice for a role at the other end of the moral scale), didn’t just leave — which he solved partly by establishing that the mine was located in the middle of what was otherwise desert country and it would therefore be fatal to anyone who tried to escape, and partly by some very convincing writing of the men as suffering from what would now be called the Stockholm syndrome, locked in a love-hate relationship with their tyrannical boss and all too eager to wreak their wrath not on him, but against anyone who tried to free them. The gimmick is that Kruger has recruited his workforce exclusively among outlaws, who can’t complain to the authorities (even if they could get to the authorities) because they’d be arrested themselves. There’s one obvious plot hole; though it’s not clear exactly what Kruger’s mine is producing (the word “ore” gets dropped in the dialogue, so it’s clear it’s metal rather than coal), the mine is so damned isolated there’s no indication of how Kruger ships out whatever it is they’re mining so he can sell it and make money off it.

The (relatively) innocent protagonists are fugitives Bob Peters (Dane Clark, in a surprisingly effective performance even though he hated making the movie — “I’d just come off suspension at the time and the studio assigned me this as punishment,” he told Druxman) and Judith Burns (Ruth Roman), who get caught up in Kruger’s evil empire and, when they steal a covered wagon and try to flee, don’t get far because Kruger has spiked their drinking water with salt. Peters is assigned to be the mine’s explosives expert — he tries to lie his way out of the job by claiming he’s never worked in a mine before, but Kruger sees through that — and at one point he blows up part of the mine in an attempt to kill Kruger, then makes his abortive escape — only to find, when he returns, that Kruger is very much alive and, of course, out for revenge. There are also some fascinating subsidiary characters (thinly disguised equivalents to people in London’s original tale), including a former judge (Morgan Farley) who became an alcoholic and lost everything (and is essentially lynched by the miners when he sobers up and tries to organize them against Kruger) and a philosophical little man, “Tippy” (George Stern), who first tries to talk Peters out of going with Kruger and then helps Kruger forestall any threats to his power. Even London’s gimmick of having Wolf Larsen have a brother, Death Larsen, who’s the only man of whom he’s afraid gets transmuted into this film; in Sackheim’s script, Kruger got the mine in the first place by cheating his brother out of it, then killing him, but his nephew Clay Kruger is out there somewhere threatening to organize a mob of his own and take back the mine by force if he can’t win it back legally — which he’s trying to do by infiltrating his attorney, Aubrey Milburn (Robert Douglas), into Kruger’s workforce to see if he can spot something actionable in Kruger’s operation.

In the end Clay does try to take back the mine, and there’s an exciting shootout in which Clay and all his men are killed, as are virtually all of Kruger’s, though Kruger himself lives long enough for Bob Peters, our nominal hero (though played by Clark with an undertone of hostility that makes it difficult for us to root for him unreservedly but also makes him a more complex character), to shoot him down as the mine burns up (the equivalent of Larsen’s ship sinking at the end of the original Sea Wolf). Like Larsen, Kruger is also an intellectual; his private office is filled with books and adorned with a painting of Richard III, his rather odd role model, standing on top of a mound of corpses (an image whoever made the painting obviously ripped off from the sequence in the 1929 Warners’ all-star film The Show of Shows in which John Barrymore delivers one of Richard III’s speeches while standing on top of a mound of corpses), and as cruel as he is to Milburn it’s obvious that he, like his Londonesque counterpart, likes having a man with brains around so he can sound off philosophically (he comes off sounding rather like an Ayn Rand hero — not surprising since two years earlier Massey had had a key supporting role in the film of The Fountainhead). Barricade is directed by Peter Godfrey — quite the best film of this usually mediocre hack I’ve seen; obviously an action film turned him on a lot more than the melodramas and romcoms Warners was usually giving him — and it features spectacular Technicolor cinematography of the West’s wide-open vistas and an effective contrast between the gorgeous countryside and the claustrophobic environment of Kruger’s mining camp; it’s a surprisingly good film for a “B” Western (even one from a major studio and with the added expense of Technicolor), and the Sea Wolf origins of the story and Sackheim’s clever adaptation of a nautical story into a Western gives this film far more depth and richness than most of the cheap Westerns of the time.

Monday, March 10, 2014

The Little Princess (20th Century-Fox, 1939)

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

Last night I turned on TCM for one of the films in their all-day (well, 15 hours, anyway) tribute to the late Shirley Temple: The Little Princess. This much-filmed story began life in 1888 as a novel by Frances Hodgson Burnett called Sara Crewe: Or, What Happened at Miss Minchin’s. In 1902 she did a stage adaptation called The Little Princess when it debuted in London and A Little Princess when it had its U.S. premiere in New York the following year. In order to flesh out her story as a stage piece she had added new incidents that hadn’t been in her original novel, and playgoers who bought her book afterwards were disappointed that scenes they had remembered from the play weren’t in the novel. So, at the behest of her publisher, she put out a revised version of the book in 1905 called A Little Princess: Being the Whole Story of Sara Crewe. The story was first filmed as a silent in 1917, then remade in 1939 as a Temple vehicle (just as she was just about to descend from the heights of superstardom that had made her the number one box-office star four years in a row, 1935 to 1938), done again in 1943 as Principessina, then revived in the 1970’s and 1980’s for TV series by the BBC and finally remade as a feature film, A Little Princess, in 1995 — though the publicity for that version credited Burnett’s novel as the source but left out that it was a remake of a Shirley Temple movie. The Little Princess — the 1939 version — was also the first film Shirley Temple made in color, and indeed was the first Technicolor film ever to star a child, for an interesting technical reason: up until then the Technicolor company had insisted that one thousand foot-candle lights were needed for an adequate exposure on their film. One thousand foot-candle lights were not only incredibly bright (often actors performing under them would wear sunglasses during camera rehearsals and take them off only during actual shooting) but also dangerously hot, and the consensus around the Fox lot was that a child simply couldn’t withstand that punishing heat. So cinematographer Arthur C. Miller rather gingerly approached the tech people at Technicolor and asked for permission to shoot a series of color tests at lower levels of light to prove to them that he could shoot Technicolor with less light and therefore make a color film with Temple without baking her to death. He got results at 400 and 500 foot-candles that Technicolor declared acceptable, and so The Little Princess got green-lighted as a color film.

Ironically, The Little Princess eventually slipped into the public domain when Fox failed to renew the copyright (back when that still could happen), with the result that when video and later DVD came in the market was flooded with cheap copies from worn and faded prints — and for some reason a few Temple fans came to the conclusion that the film had originally been in black-and-white and been crudely colorized along with some of Temple’s previous films (I remember seeing a clip of a colorized Temple movie in the 1980’s and the colorization was so wretched it looked like Temple had jaundice). Someone started a message board to that effect on and got several responses, including a particularly fascinating one from Sybil Jason, a child actor who’d been in the movie and vividly recalled that yes, damnit, it was in color originally! Oddly, the version TCM was showing did not seem to be restored in any way — usually TCM is conscientious about getting the best available print of everything they show, but sometimes they slip — like one of the versions referenced on that message board, it begins with the black-and-white version of the Technicolor logo, and though the film is quite clearly in color, and much of the color has the vividness, vibrancy and brightness we associate with three-strip Technicolor, quite a few scenes look almost black-and-white and others are sepia-toned. I’m not sure whether this was part of the original color design or a happenstance of fading, but I’m inclined to believe the former because the fluctuating color values seem to mirror the story quite closely; objects that are supposed to be neon-bright — like the toucan that figures prominently in a couple of scenes — look right, Temple’s spectacular dream sequence is a riot of beautifully finished pastels, but sets like the Dickensian attic into which she’s confined at Miss Amanda Minchin’s (Mary Nash, in a superb villainess performance rivaling Margaret Hamilton’s in The Wizard of Oz and Babes in Arms) look like almost pure black-and-white.

The plot of The Little Princess concerns 10-year-old Sara Crewe (Shirley Temple) and her father, Captain Reginald Crewe (Ian Hunter) of the British army, in the year 1899. Sara was born in India and has lived there all her life — until now, when her dad has briefly been recalled to England for redeployment to South Africa to fight the Boers. “Why are they sending so many soldiers, daddy, if it’s only going to be a little war?,” Sara rather sensibly asks her dad as they watch the parade of embarking soldiers together in the opening scene. “To make those stubborn Boers take us seriously this time, my darling,” he replies. “When they realize Her Majesty intends to put a stop to their nonsense, they’ll quiet down.” No doubt these references to soldiers embarking on a supposedly quick war that’s going to turn into a quagmire resonated to audiences, many of whom would have been old enough to remember the similar assurances at the start of World War I and were looking anxiously over their shoulders — this movie was, after all, released less than six months before the start of World War II. Captain Crewe has decided to put Sara in Miss Minchin’s boarding school for the duration of the conflict, and at first the officious Miss Minchin and her more charming and considerably less authoritarian brother Bertie (Arthur Treacher) — who reminds Captain Crewe of a music-hall performer he once saw — turn her down. But when Captain Crewe tells them he owns a fortune in South African diamond mines, they eagerly accept her. At school she gets the full little-princess treatment — getting the coveted position sitting to the right of Miss Minchin in the dining room, and being allowed to keep the personal pony and lavish belongings, including a fancy doll, her dad leaves her — until her dad is reported first missing and then killed at the siege of Mafeking. At the lavish birthday party she’d thrown for Sara in the belief that her dad would send the money to pay for it, Miss Minchin learns not only that Captain Crewe is dead but the Boers confiscated all his South African properties and therefore he died broke. (If he had served so long in India, wouldn’t a lot of his investments have been there, beyond the reach of the Boers?) So she abruptly halts the party, insists that all the gifts (both the ones Sara got for the other students and the ones Sara received herself) be returned and resold, and exiles Sara to that Dickensian attic. At first she’s ready to throw Sara out of school altogether until Bertie (who really was a music-hall performer, which gives Arthur Treacher a chance to do a couple of mini-numbers with Temple) says that would be bad for the school’s image, so Miss Minchin relents but insists that Sara live in the worst room in the place and do chores to earn her education.

The other kids turn against Sara and give her what they consider a well-deserved comeuppance — Lavinia (Marcia Mae Jones), whom Sara aced out of that coveted dining spot next to the headmistress, is particularly brutal towards her (so much so that the real Marcia Mae Jones got threatening letters from Temple fans, essentially saying, “How can you be so mean to Shirley Temple when she was so nice to you in Heidi?”) — and her only remaining friends are Becky (Sybil Jason, in a restrained and quite touching performance that comes close to stealing the movie from Temple — odd from a child actress who three years earlier had been promoted by Warner Bros. as their attempt to create their own Temple!), a lame girl who’s a servant of the Minchins and their even more fearsome kitchen staff (the head cook is even meaner to Sara than Miss Minchin is!); and two of the teachers, riding coach Geoffrey Hamilton (Richard Greene, back when Darryl F. Zanuck was grooming him as a backup to Tyrone Power) and his girlfriend, later his wife, Rose (Anita Louise), who have to sneak around and meet each other clandestinely because Miss Minchin would fire them both summarily if she learned they were dating. Whenever she can get away, Sara visits the local hospital for the wounded war veterans, hoping that her daddy is still alive — and in the end it turns out her daddy is still alive, but delirious, having lost any memory of who he is except that he keeps calling out, “Sara … Sara,” to the utter mystification of the hospital staff, who have no idea who that is. (Wouldn’t someone have made the connection between him calling out “Sara” and the little girl who keeps visiting the hospital? Like the mistaken-identity gimmick in the Astaire-Rogers Top Hat, the misunderstanding would end as soon as anyone involved called anyone else by name.) Sara has one other friend in the dramatis personae: Ram Dass (César Romero), Hindustani manservant of Lord Wickham (Miles Mander), who lives next door to the school; Ram Dass keeps the pet toucan that flies into Sara’s room, giving them a meet-cute, and is astonished that the little white girl speaks his native language. Wickham, who is Geoffrey Hamilton’s grandfather, at first threatens to disown him if he keeps working at the school; then, when Geoffrey quits to join the volunteers preparing to deploy to South Africa to relieve the siege of Mafeking, Wickham relents, reconciles with his son and ends up on Sara’s side.

In a dream sequence that represents the closest thing to a big Shirley Temple Musical Number in the film, the put-upon girl, deliberately deprived of both food and fuel for her room’s teeny fireplace, imagines herself a queen and Miss Minchin as a wicked witch who has unfairly accused Geoffrey of stealing a kiss from Rose; she absolves him, of course, and one Shirley Temple watches from the throne as another Shirley Temple joins a troupe of ballet dancers — and proves that, as precociously talented as the real Temple was, there was something she couldn’t do: the adults in the ballet corps are clearly out-dancing her and the extraordinary agility with which she did pop dancing in her earlier films (Bill “Bojangles” Robinson said she was the best student he ever worked with — he only needed to demonstrate a routine once and she would pick it up immediately — even higher praise when you realize he also taught Sammy Davis, Jr.!) deserts her when she tries ballet. When she wakes up from her dream, with Becky in the room with her, she finds that fine clothes and foods have been laid out for her, there’s a beautiful embroidered cover on her bed, and the fireplace has fuel and a fire going on inside it — all goodies provided by Grandpa Wickham and his servant Ram Dass, but needless to say Miss Minchin insists Sara must have stolen it all, and she flees the school with a police officer (who, luckily, is so inept we might call him the Keystone Bobby) summoned by Miss Minchin pursuing her. The last 20 minutes contain a marvelous suspense sequence, well directed by Walter Lang, as we wonder, “Will Sara reunite with her dad before she’s arrested and/or he’s shipped off to Edinburgh for the super-operation that’s supposed to cure his amnesia?” I had thought it would end with Captain Crewe really being dead (which, according to various posters, is actually how Frances Hodgson Burnett ended the story) and Geoffrey and Rose freeing Sara from Miss Minchin’s clutches by adopting her; but the ending we get is stunning even if it goes so far over-the-top in tear-jerkiness the writers (Ethel Hill and Walter Ferris) literally drag in Queen Victoria herself (played by Beryl Mercer) as a deus ex machina to bring Sara and her dad back together.

What’s most interesting about The Little Princess is the absolute conviction with which this material is played by one and all — writers Hill and Ferris, director Lang and the cast — to the extent that the film is an emotional wrench which moves you to tears (it moves me to tears, anyway) even while you’re aware that the whole point of everyone’s efforts is to move you to tears. Shirley Temple’s acting is at times as rancidly sweet as the collective memory of her — either in her attempts at a young-adult movie career or in her later life, especially in her dips back into the public eye as a Congressional candidate in the 1960’s and a U.S. ambassador in the 1970’s, no one was able to see beyond the cute little girl who sang “On the Good Ship Lollipop” in Bright Eyes and danced on the staircase with Bill “Bojangles” Robinson in The Littlest Rebel (yet another bitter fruit of Hollywood’s bizarre infatuation with the South and its perspective on the Civil War!) — while at other times it displays absolute conviction, and this time around her writers write the tug-of-war between her skills as an actress and the tears her audiences wanted to see her shed into the script. At the beginning of the movie we see her dad tell her to be “a good little soldier” and not to cry, no matter how miserable things get for her, and this becomes a running motif throughout the film as Temple fights to hold back the tears until they get the better of her. The Little Princess was also made at an odd juncture in Temple’s career — the beginning of the end of her child superstardom and the dawn of the 1940’s, the most troubled decade in Temple’s life, which began with her losing her 20th Century-Fox contract after the failure of two movies that were supposed to reposition her as the next Judy Garland: an adaptation of Maurice Maeterlinck’s children’s fantasy The Blue Bird that was supposed to compete with The Wizard of Oz, and a film called Young People that was supposed to be Fox’s answer to Babes in Arms and all the other sensational successes Mickey Rooney had had at MGM (and indeed when Temple finally fell off the top of the perch as the film industry’s biggest box office attractions in 1939, it was Rooney who replaced her!).

Indeed, one might almost see The Little Princess as Darryl Zanuck’s pre-emptive strike against The Wizard of Oz, a threat he knew (or should have known) what was coming ever since his deal to loan Temple to MGM for Wizard in exchange for Clark Gable and Jean Harlow for In Old Chicago fell threw after Harlow’s death. Zanuck had gone ahead and made In Old Chicago with his own people — Tyrone Power in Gable’s role and Alice Faye’s in Harlow’s — and had had both a critically acclaimed movie and a blockbuster box-office hit. The problem was that MGM was going ahead with Wizard with its own people, too — and while Wizard, with its enormous production costs and two scrapped, aborted versions (with Richard Thorpe and George Cukor directing) before the final one with Victor Fleming (and an uncredited King Vidor, the film’s fourth director, shooting the Kansas scenes after Fleming was called away to take over from Cukor on Gone With the Wind) was finished and released, didn’t turn a profit until MGM sold TV rights to CBS for the first of 39 annual TV screenings that became a holiday tradition, it did establish Judy Garland (tremulous, emotional, edgy instead of cute and five years older than Temple) as the new female child star in Hollywood. The dream sequence in The Little Princess seems almost to be a template for The Wizard of Oz, what with its royal court, its stylized characters and even the appearance of Temple’s tormentor in the “realistic” part of the film as literally a wicked witch — and of course the bulk of Wizard was written to be Dorothy’s dream (which it was not in L. Frank Baum’s source novel — and, indeed, the marvelous 1985 sequel Return to Oz directly answered generations of audiences’ qualms about that cop-out with that film’s Dorothy, Fairuza Balk, determined to prove to Uncle Henry, Auntie Em and all and sundry that Oz was an actual place and she had really gone there, ultimately finding a key that was a souvenir she brought back from Oz). It’s as if Darryl Zanuck was saying, “Our Shirley can do a dream sequence set in a fantasy kingdom at least as well as that other girl — oh, what’s her name?” — and his desire to keep up with the Garlands went into hyper-drive with The Blue Bird, made shortly after The Little Princess (only one Temple movie, Susannah of the Mounties, intervened), in which Temple started her pilgrimage in search of the Bluebird of Happiness on — you guessed it — a yellow brick road.