Thursday, April 21, 2016

Lucky Devils (RKO, 1933)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2016 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Charles and I wound up watching a “B” movie from RKO in 1933 I’d recorded off Turner Classic Movies when I could still record TV shows before Cox’s accursed “all-digital” conversion made that impossible: Lucky Devils, a quirky story that begins with a brilliant and surprisingly violent sequence that’s oddly brutal for a 1933 movie, even one made during the relatively loose “pre-Code” era. It’s a bank robbery, but one in which both the robbers themselves and the people in the bank they’re robbing — especially the bank’s security people — seem to be more interested in inflicting the maximum death toll on each other than the priorities that usually apply in a situation like this. (Usually bank robbers want to do as little mayhem as possible — their objective is loot, not carnage — and bank employees are told to stay calm, go along with the robbers, wait until they’ve got away and it’s safe, and then call the police.) In the middle of a lot of spectacular action, we get a pull-back and find that this is taking place on a movie set and what we’ve seen is a bank-robbery sequence being shot for a film. Then we’re introduced to our principals, stunt people Skipper Clark (William Boyd — the one who later played Hopalong Cassidy, not the William “Stage” Boyd whose scandalous antics got the other William Boyd fired by RKO under the morals clause in his contract, seemingly ruining his career until Paramount signed him to do the Hoppy movies and Boyd insisted on the TV rights to them, which made him a fortune when they were reissued to TV in the early 1950’s) and Bob Hughes (William Gargan). After work ends for the day Skipper and Bob hang out at a bar that seems to cater mostly to stunt people (“A stunt person’s bar?” Charles asked incredulously), though one of the other patrons is Fran Whitley (Dorothy Wilson), who’s run out of money after an attempt to crack Hollywood as an aspiring actress and is about to commit suicide when Skipper and Bob realize what’s happening and rescue her. (A sign reading “HOLLYWOOD” is blinking in the background as she prepares to jump off the building’s balcony into the Hollywood canyon below, and both I and an contributor thought the scene might have been inspired by the then-recent suicide of minor actress Peg Entwistle, who’d killed herself by jumping off the Hollywood sign following a similarly failed attempt to make it as an actress — though she did get at least one credit in RKO’s abysmal Thirteen Women, a movie so bad a lot of jokesters in Hollywood said that anybody who’d been in it would have been so embarrassed it wasn’t surprising at all that one would kill herself.) They let her stay with them, and of course there’s a romantic-triangle rivalry in which Fran thinks Skipper is taking her out just to warn her away from Bob, but in fact Skipper wants her for himself. This leads him to break one of the cardinal rules of stunt person-dom: don’t get married, because if you do you’ll have another person (or two or more, quite likely, especially given the penchant of women in movies to get pregnant the very first time they have sex) in your life to care about and you’ll lose your edge, get worried, get careless and die.

We’ve actually seen this happen to Slugger Jones (William Bakewell, playing a minor role just two years after he was billed ahead of Clark Gable in the 1931 MGM film Dance, Fools, Dance with Joan Crawford) — yes, this is one of those bizarre movies in which the writers (Casey Robinson and real-life stunt person Bob Rose, “original” story; Agnes Christine Johnson and Ben Markson, screenplay) give the male characters silly nicknames like Skipper, Slugger and Happy to indicate how butch they are — in the bar scene, in which Slugger introduces his pals to the woman he’s about to marry, Doris (Julie Haydon), and we just know that as soon as they get married Slugger is going to screw up a stunt and it’s going to kill him and leave her an instant widow — a pregnant instant widow, this being a movie (and one produced, ironically, by David O. Selznick, who later in a memo during the preparation of Gone with the Wind lampooned “these infallible pregnancies at single contacts”). The stunt is a scene in a gangster movie in which he’s supposed to be driving a car in a chase scene and sideswipe a lamp-post; instead, on the first take he misses the lamp-post altogether and the second one he crashes the car into the lamp-post, sending it through a plate-glass window in a storefront set and killing himself. (In 1933 a “glass” window on an outdoor set, especially if it were supposed to break as part of the action, was usually made of spun sugar precisely so anyone crashing through it wouldn’t get hurt by shards of glass.) This example doesn’t stop Skipper and Fran from tying the knot, though the film dramatizes another stunt people’s superstition — if one of the stunt people breaks a bottle the night before, it means someone will get killed on the set the next day. Skipper and Fran accidentally break a bottle the night before their friend Happy (Bruce Cabot) is supposed to do a difficult stunt — he’s playing a firefighter who’s supposed to swing over to the building on the other side of the backlot “street” and rescue a police officer (played by Bob) from the building before it collapses (and there’s a marvelous shot from director Ralph Ince showing that the “buildings” are just false fronts — it’s well-known now that movie sets are built that way but not many moviegoers realized that in 1933).

Once again, as with the earlier scene, it appears that a lot of the dodges real-life moviemakers used in 1933 to minimize the potential damage to life and limb from doing a scene like this aren’t being used in the film-within-a-film, “Right Living” by director Hacket (Alan Roscoe), depicted as an unfeeling bastard who doesn’t care how many lives he has to sacrifice to get the big action scenes he wants). Hacket has his effects people actually set fire to the building that’s supposed to burn (wouldn’t it have been safer to do it with a model and patch it in with a process screen? Maybe not, given how awful the process work is throughout this movie; though ace cinematographer Vernon Walker is credited with the special effects — and that, not “trick shots,” is the actual term used on his credit — the process shots look incredibly phony and it’s hard to believe this movie was being shot on the same lot at the same time as the magnificent and still convincing effects film King Kong) and Happy’s gloves stick on the rope he’s supposed to be swinging from and he dies. Hacket insists on shooting the scene again the next day and hires Skipper to take Happy’s place — only Fran, who wants her husband to get out of stunt work because it’s too risky, picks exactly the wrong time to make her point. She crashes the set just when Skipper is about to do the stunt, and her presence jars off his timing and he does the swing too late to catch Bob, who takes a plunge into the fire. Fortunately Bob survives with only minor injuries, but Skipper is now considered unemployable as a stunt person and, in a grim montage sequence that looks more like something from a Warner Bros. film than anything we expect from RKO (though if Warners had been making this, James Cagney would have been playing Skipper and Pat O’Brien would have been playing Bob!), he’s unable to find any other sort of work either. Eventually he lands a job on the labor gang (i.e., the carpenters who build sets) for another Hacket picture, this one set against a waterfall and featuring a climactic stunt sequence involving a person taking a boat over the waterfall and hopefully surviving. Hacket offers $100 to whoever will do this stunt, his assistant director ups the ante to $200, but there are no takers … until Skipper receives a telegram from Dr. Leith, the $25 medical man he hired to take care of his pregnant wife Fran and deliver her baby (is it that big a surprise that he knocked her up as soon as he had sex with her?), that complications have set in and he needs $200 to put Fran in a hospital.

If you’ve seen more than about six movies in your life you’ll know what happens next: Skipper talks Hacket into letting him do the supposedly lethal stunt, survives it, then he and Bob get into Skipper’s car and race down the mountain from the location to the city so they can get the money to Fran’s doctor so she can have her baby in a hospital. Only they (or the real stunt people who were doubling for William Boyd and William Gargan playing stunt people!) crash the car halfway down the mountain and Gargan tricks one of the motorcycle cops who were chasing them and that allows Boyd to steal the cop’s motorcycle (the nameplate “Harley-Davidson” is clearly visible on its gas tank, by the way) and use it to ride the rest of the way into town. Lucky Devils is a good movie on its own terms — Ince stages the action well and the characterizations are breezily entertaining in a way you didn’t often get in similar RKO attempts to poach on Warners’ territory — and the only defect in it is how relentlessly predictable it is. Throughout the film you seem to be about a reel or two ahead of the writers (for Robinson and Rose to take credit for an “original” story seems even more of a perversion of language than usual!), and every time you think, “I know where this is going,” it duly goes there. No wonder Robinson later on got so persnickety about not taking credit for any scripts except the ones he wrote entirely by himself — even though that cost him a share of the Academy Award for Casablanca, for which he wrote the love scenes between Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman but didn’t qualify to share the award because he’d declined credit.

Sunday, April 17, 2016

The Outer Limits: “The Zanti Misfits,” “Demon with a Glass Hand,” “The Inheritors” (Daystar Productions, Villa Di Stefano, United Artists Television, 1962-63)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2016 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night I went to the “Vintage Sci-Fi” monthly film screening in Golden Hill, where they were showing three episodes from the surprisingly compelling early-1960’s science-fiction anthology TV series The Outer Limits. The show had a great introduction I still remember from my childhood (though I really wasn’t old enough when it first aired to appreciate the show itself): an announcer called the “Control Voice” told us that for the next hour “we” would be taking control of our TV set, and we shouldn’t attempt to adjust the horizontal or vertical controls (younger readers will have no idea that back in the 1960’s you had horizontal or vertical controls on TV’s and you frequently had to adjust them to prevent the picture from jumping uncontrollably) because they were going to control what we saw until the hour was up, whereupon the same voice announced, “We now return control of your television set to you.” For the first season the show-runner of The Outer Limits was Joseph Stefano, who at the time had just done the screenplay (based on Robert Bloch’s novel) for Alfred Hitchcock’s film Psycho. It was Stefano who made one of the crucial decisions in the success of that movie; instead of making the killer a middle-aged nerd (anyone who reads Bloch’s Psycho will probably come to the conclusion that he was basing Norman Bates at least in part on his good friend H. P. Lovecraft) he would be a young, attractive man who would have a surface charm and be a psycho killer only underneath. Stefano wrote and produced the first episode shown last night, “The Zanti Misfits.”

It takes place in the California desert and deals with aliens from the planet Zanti, who have decided that since they cannot execute their most dastardly criminals — their moral sense prevents it — and they’re running out of room to incarcerate them on their home planet, they’ve decided to land some of them on Earth and set up a Zantian penal colony in an abandoned ghost town called “Morgue.” A scientist named Dr. Stephen Grave (Michael Tolan) is assigned to work with the military in general, and General Maximillian R. Hart (Robert F. Simon) and Major Robert Hill (Claude Woolman) in particular, to clear out a space for the Zanti to set up their extra-planetary prison and have the absolute privacy they want, unencumbered by any pesky human looky-loos. Unfortunately, two pesky human looky-loos crash through the security gate and run down the soldier who was supposed to be patrolling it, killing him. The two are escaped criminal Ben Garth (a young and barely recognizable Bruce Dern — who, like Stefano, was also Hitchcock-connected: he had a small but crucial role in the flashback sequence that ends Marnie and he would star in Hitchcock’s last film, Family Plot) and his girlfriend Lisa Lawrence (Olive Deering), who left her husband to run away with Ben because she thought a run on the wild side would be fun and exciting. Instead she’s lost in the middle of the desert in an overheated car that can’t be used because all its radiator water has boiled away and there’s nowhere to get any more, and as if that isn’t bad enough she’s forced to clamber around the desert rocks (“played” by the Vasquez Rocks north of Los Angeles, site of a million “B” Westerns and sci-fi films) in high-heeled shoes, which she quickly removes à la Marlene Dietrich at the end of Morocco. Ben tries to escape and is cornered by one of the Zantians, who turn out to be nine-inch long insects that seem to be the result of a cross between a tarantula and a wingless bee; they’re crudely manufactured (it looks like the prop department made them out of pipe cleaners and Styrofoam) and with risible heads that are supposed to look sinister. They’re a good deal more frightening when we see them in silhouette than when they’re shown full-face — suggesting that Stefano and his director, Leonard Horn, might have been better off going the Val Lewton route, never showing the beasties full-on and using shadows and sound effect to hint at their sinister presence.

Instead one of the Zantians, flush with having killed Ben, turns on Lisa — and Dr. Grave, who volunteered to go out to the desert and try to re-establish communication with the Zantians (they cut off ties to the Earthlings when Ben and Lisa showed up and they figured Earth’s military was reneging on its promise to leave them alone), bashes the Zantian to death with a convenient boulder. It turns out that the one he killed was the “Regent,” the Zantian commander responsible for keeping order among the prisoners — and without him the Zantian cons are ready to make their escape. They fly the Zantian spaceship out of the protected zone and the military people realize it’s now out of range for them to be able to destroy it — their fallback plan in case anything went wrong. Instead the Zantians escape en masse and the U.S. crew have to kill them by any means available — shooting them, clubbing them, ultimately massacring them with flamethrowers. Then there’s a tag line containing the sort of surprise twist not only this but virtually every sci-fi TV series in the early days, including Tales of Tomorrow and The Twilight Zone, insisted on: the Earth base personnel get a message from Zanti (automatically translated into English, like the previous messages from the Zantian ship, from the Zantian language by their big mainframe computer) explaining that the death of all the Zantian convicts at the Earthlings’ hands was exactly the result the Zantians in charge back home wanted. It seems they’d studied Earth’s history and realized what efficient killers of our own species we are, and so they figured they’d send their own “misfits,” including a so-called “Regent” who was getting a bit too drunk with power for the Zantians to feel safe having him around their own planet, and we’d provoke a quarrel with them that would end up with us knocking them off en masse and therefore eliminating them in a way the Zantians themselves couldn’t (or wouldn’t) do. It’s a neat, if rather obvious, little moral to wrap up a quite well-written and suspenseful show, even though some of Lisa Lawrence’s dialogue was pretty preposterous (particularly when she says, “I’m not afraid to die”), and while others at the screening were criticizing her for overacting, I said, “It’s not that — it’s that Joseph Stefano didn’t have Alfred Hitchcock around to tell him he was over-writing!” 

The other two (or three, since one of them, “The Inheritors,” was a two-part show and both parts were shown) episodes of The Outer Limits shown last night were both from the second season, in which Ben Brady replaced Joseph Stefano (who’d feuded with the honchos at ABC, where the show aired — and whose programs were so chronically poorly rated that later in the 1960’s a joke around Hollywood went, “You know how to end the Viet Nam war? Just put it on ABC and it’ll be canceled in 13 weeks!”) as producer and show runner (under Leslie Stevens, a quirky director who is credited for creating the show’s concept and who made a number of oddball independent films, one of which was the terrible Incubus, starring William Shatner in a tale of demonic possession filmed entirely in Esperanto — ineptly pronounced Esperanto at that) and Harry Lubin replacing Dominic Frontiere as composer. The first second-season episode shown was “Demon with a Glass Hand,” which has more réclame than most of the Outer Limits shows because Harlan Ellison wrote the script and Byron Haskin (the 1953 War of the Worlds and 1964’s Robinson Crusoe on Mars) directed. Ellison won the first of his four Writers’ Guild best-screenplay awards for this and he later sued James Cameron because he claimed the original 1984 film The Terminator had been ripped off of this and another Outer Limits script he’d written called “Soldier.” He also bitched about how “Demon with a Glass Hand” was rewritten; at a Star Trek convention he told one contributor, “Imagine: creatures from a far-future century fist-fighting and shooting at each other with pistols! Gimme a break!” (He was similarly bitchy towards the version of his acclaimed Star Trek script “The City on the Edge of Forever” that aired; at the Star Trek convention at which I heard Ellison he said that when he gave his draft screenplay to William Shatner, Shatner meticulously and carefully counted both his and Leonard Nimoy’s lines to make sure he had more than Nimoy, and when Ellison asked why, Shatner said, “I’ve got to have more lines than he does! I can’t compete with those ears!”)

Whatever Ellison’s complaints (and he’s a notorious complainer about virtually everything — when he harnesses that into his stories it actually helps him be a great writer!) about it, “Demon with a Glass Hand” is an effective suspense tale about a man named Trent (Robert Culp) who comes to consciousness on Earth with no memory of his identity or his past, sort of like Robert Ludlum’s Jason Bourne. He has a black-gloved hand which, when he peels back the glove, turns out to be made of glass; he has a thumb and a little finger which are components of a super-computer that apparently contains all of Earth’s knowledge, or at least what he needs to complete his assignment, though he’s not too clear about what that assignment is. It turns out that a thousand years later Earth was conquered by a race from another planet called the Kyben, who were so far ahead of us technologically they kicked our butts in just 19 days — only just as the Kyben were about to occupy Earth and enslave its inhabitants, all 70 million Earthlings disappeared overnight and neither the Kyben nor Trent had any idea what happened to them. The Kyben keep sending emissaries back into time to kill Trent before he can reassemble the missing fingers of his gloved-hand computer, and to do this they wear gold medallions and use a giant computer they’ve hidden somewhere in a derelict office building (“played” by the Bradbury Building in Los Angeles, so familiar a location from films noir one expects Philip Marlowe to have his office in it) currently occupied only by a ladies’ garment distributor and a passport photo studio.

Trent runs into Consuelo Biros (Arlene Martel, later Spock’s fiancée in the “Amok Time” episode of Star Trek), who’s been running the ladies’ garment business since her husband died, and the two become collaborators — she’s attracted to him but he insists he can’t love anyone for reasons he keeps mysterious. Eventually he gets back the missing fingers of his computer-hand, and with the information it provides him he locates the Kyben’s time mirror — it’s concealed in the passport-photo office — and destroys it and the remaining Kyben that are after him. But at the end it turns out that he isn’t a real human being; he’s a robot, and the reason he was picked for the mission of returning to Earth’s past and protecting the humans (whose essences were uploaded to a piece of wire that was embedded inside Trent — when it explains this to him the computer says that in the modern day we’re able to store sound and pictures on magnetic media, and in the future humans will be able to store the code of their own life forms similarly) was because he could not be permanently killed; in one scene he was shot by the Kyben but, working from his instructions, Consuelo restored him to full life and health … or at least functionality. The show ends with a bittersweet Third Man-style rejection scene in which Consuelo walks out on him because she’s lost all romantic interest in him now that she knows he isn’t human (I couldn’t help but joke, “But I’m still a good lover! The people who made me gave me very big … uh, hands!”), and the narrator (who doubles as the “Control Voice” that gives that chilling intro about how “we” have taken control of your TV) explains that Trent is really a tragic figure because he will live forever but without experiencing human emotions, including love. It’s not all that fresh a science-fiction story (and I suspect it may have been influenced by Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, the source for Blade Runner), but it’s what Ellison, Haskin and Culp do with it that makes it special — and it’s easy to see why Culp acquitted himself so well as an action figure that his next assignment was to play a secret agent in the TV series I Spy!

The last Outer Limits on last night’s “Vintage Sci-Fi” program was “The Inheritors,” which despite the absence of any major science-fiction “names” on either the writing (Ed Adamson, Sam Neuman and Seeleg Lester) or directing (James Goldstone) credits, proved a quite compelling story with a surprise twist that made me wish Steven Spielberg had grabbed the remake rights and done it as a feature film. The star here is yet another actor who, like Bruce Dern and Robert Culp, went on to biggers and betters: Robert Duvall, playing a scientific investigator for the “Federal Bureau of Security” named Adam Ballard, who’s investigating the mysterious fates of four U.S. military men who were wounded in a war — it’s not clear what war but the fact that both the enemies and the U.S.’s principal allies are Asian and there’s a reference to the enemies coming from the North makes it seem like an early skirmish in Viet Nam. They were all shot in the head with a special bullet made from a meteorite; the components are those of a normal bullet — iron and lead — but they’ve been stacked together molecularly in a way totally beyond normal Earth technology. The four men who’ve been wounded by these peculiar bullets are Lt. Philip Minns (Steve Ihnat), Sgt. James Conover (Ivan Dixon, an African-American at a time when people of color generally and Black people in particular almost never appeared in science-fiction shows), private first class Francis Hadley (Dee Pollock) and private Robert Renaldo (James Frawley). When they’re in hospital photos of their brain waves reveal two sets of brain waves — an alien brain has superimposed its impulses on their own and taken them over, forcing them to develop super-intelligent powers and use them to manufacture a spaceship. Conover becomes a superb metallurgist who devises (or discovers) an alloy far beyond anything Earth knows and a way to fasten parts made of it together by electromagnetic impulses so they don’t need rivets or any of the other comparatively clumsy ways Earthlings make things out of metal. Hadley researches gases to fuel the ship and sets up a factory in Wichita, Kansas and uses his mental powers to force the owner to sell it to him at the price they negotiated but which the man tried to renege on; he wills the owner to hold a gun to his own head and says his choice is either sign the paper and let the factory go at the previously arranged price or shoot himself. Renaldo researches the propulsion principle, which works on an anti-gravity system similarly beyond modern Earth technology, and Mimms becomes a Wall Street speculator, works a nest egg of $500 into a $405,000 fortune and sends wire transfers to the other three to fund their activities.

The story plays out as an odd combination of This Island Earth and Village of the Damned as the Fantastic Four suddenly develop an interest in certain Earth children — all of whom seem to be blind, deaf, crippled or otherwise disabled, and all have been bounced around between foster homes because the system has had trouble finding foster parents who can handle what are today euphemistically called “special needs.” In the climax, the spaceship gets built and is readied to take the children back to the aliens’ home planet —and [surprise!], in the plot twist that made me think this would have been a good story for the Spielberg of the 1980’s, the aliens, whom both Adam and we have been assuming all story had sinister, malevolent intentions, turn out to be on the side of good. It seems that the kids can be cured of their disabilities if they’re exposed to the aliens’ sort of atmosphere, but will instantly gain them back once they’re taken out of it and put back into normal Earth air. Eventually Adam and the U.S. military men let the spaceship fly to wherever with the kids and the four soldiers who built it inside. It’s an ending at least one reviewer denounced as unbearably sappy — “A group of children are targeted. They have a plethora of disabilities. One is blind; one can’t walk; etc. They are gathered up by the brains of the outfit as Duvall yells superlatives. It is so unrealistic that it is laughable. There are connections here at home that would have made this such a breach of simple decency. The writers never took into account the realities of the world, despite the relative unfairness of them. Sludge!” — and yet I found the ending both believable (within the conventions of science fiction) and genuinely moving, a good though unexpected capstone to a quite intense suspense tale, effectively directed by Goldstone and acted, especially by Duvall, Dixon and Frawley (the latter two being the ones among the four who had twinges of conscience about what the aliens were making them do, with Dixon’s character taking refuge in religion and Frawley’s in alcohol).

Saturday, April 16, 2016

Hosre Feathers (Paramount, 1932)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2016 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Two nights ago Charles and I screened the fourth of the five Marx Brothers films at Paramount, Horse Feathers, made in 1932 (while Laurel and Hardy, W. C. Fields and the other great comics of the 1930’s churned out two, three or more films per year the Marxes never made more than one a year) and dealing — though Charles and I hadn’t realized this when we first watched it together — with real-life scandals surrounding college football and how schools interested in the prestige and money (both from ticket sales at games and alumni and other public contributions) accruing from a top-tier football program often hired out-and-out professionals, gave them phony admissions as college students, and put them on their football teams to win. As Charles and I watched films like College Coach (1933), The Big Game (1936), and Saturday’s Heroes (1937) when they came up on Turner Classic Movies’ schedule, it became apparent that these films were dealing seriously with the same scandals the Marx Brothers made fun of, particularly the way pro players traveled the country and appeared at one college after another as “students.” The Marx Brothers and their writers — Bert Kalmar and Harry Ruby (best known as a songwriting team — Ruby wrote music, Kalmar wrote lyrics — but surprisingly effective as screenwriters both here and in the Marx Brothers’ next — and most audacious — film, Duck Soup), S. J. Perelman, Will B. Johnstone and an uncredited Arthur Sheekman (a gag writer, specializing in snappy comebacks, who was a friend of Groucho’s and frequently brought into Marx Brothers’ projects to beef up Groucho’s parts) — turned the real-life football scandals of the 1930’s into a wild, frantic and screamingly funny movie in whose opening scene the assembled faculty and students of Huxley College (named after the 19th century British naturalist Julian Huxley, sometime collaborator and sometime rival of Charles Darwin) are to meet their newly appointed president, Professor Quincy Adams Wagstaff (Groucho Marx). When he’s told that the faculty members and administrators have some suggestions to make about how the college should be governed, Wagstaff snaps, “The faculty members know what they can do with their suggestions,” and launches into a song, “I’m Against It,” which heard today seems to sum up the attitude of Congressional Republicans towards President Obama: “I don’t care what they have to say/It makes no difference anyway/Whatever it is, I’m against it.” Then he segues into another song, “I Always Get My Man,” and does some of the comic dancing that livened up many a Marx Brothers movie. When he stops singing, Wagstaff explains, “I came to this college to get my son out of it.” His son is Frank Wagstaff (Zeppo Marx), and Frank explains to his dad that Huxley has had a different president every year since 1888, “and that’s the last time we won a football game.”

Frank tells his dad that two pro football players, Mullen (James Pierce) and MacHardie (Nat Pendleton — so we were watching another Nat Pendleton movie just one day after we’d seen him in Abbott and Costello’s Buck Privates Come Home), hang out at a local speakeasy and would be willing to play for Huxley … at a price. Unfortunately, by the time Wagstaff gets there, Jennings (David Landau), a gambler who has big money placed on arch-rival Darwin College to win the big game between it and Huxley, has already talked to Mullen and MacHardie and signed them up to play for Darwin. So the two people Wagstaff ends up recruiting are ice man Baravelli (Chico Marx) and dogcatcher Pinky (Harpo Marx), about the unlikeliest football recruits you can imagine. Of course the Marxes stop this plot, such as it is, along the way several times so they can insert anarchic comedy sequences, including Wagstaff’s attempts to gain admission to the speakeasy without knowing the password — a scene that in today’s world of computer passwords is, if anything, even funnier now than it no doubt was in 1932 — while Pinky, who like most of Harpo’s characters in the early days managed to make not being able to speak seem like an advantage instead of a handicap, gets in by illustrating the password, “swordfish,” by taking a dead fish and sticking a sword in its mouth. Harpo then whirls through the speakeasy, tearing off a button from his famous overcoat (the one that was built with secret panels inside so he could conceal various items in it — in his introduction a homeless man comes up to him and says, “Can you help me get a cup of coffee?,” and Harpo reaches into his coat and pulls out a steaming hot cup of coffee — discomfiting the homeless man, who like his confrères then and now was most likely hoping for a handout with which he could buy booze; and later on, in a class Wagstaff is teaching, he is solemnly warned, “Young man, as you grow older you’ll find that you can’t burn the candle at both ends,” whereupon Harpo pulls out of his coat a candle burning at both ends), inserting it into a slot machine and winning a jackpot, after which he puts a coin (or a slug, or another button, or whatever) into a pay telephone and wins a jackpot from that, too. (As much as I admire Groucho’s wisecracks and the illustrious writers who came up with them for him, this time around I found myself laughing harder at Harpo than at Groucho!)

In another scene, in which Groucho is attempting to enroll Chico and Harpo into the college, he takes them to an anatomy class in which a bored (and boring) professor (Robert Grieg) is giving a lecture, Groucho challenges him, asking, “Is this on the level or are you making all this stuff up?” When the official professor is driven from the class, Groucho takes over the lecture with lines like, “The blood rushes from the head to the feet, gets a look at those feet and rushes back to the head again,” and “Beyond the Alps lie more Alps, and the Lord Alps those who Alp themselves” (a line they self-plagiarized from the Marx Brothers’ first Broadway show, the revue I’ll Say She Is), and when Harpo and Chico pelt him with pea-shooters, Groucho whips out one of his own and fires back. There’s also the subplot of the so-called “college widow,” Connie Bailey (Thelma Todd, in the second and last of her films with the Marx Brothers — she was under contract to Hal Roach but he loaned her out a lot, including to Warners for the first version of The Maltese Falcon in 1931, in which she played Iva Archer, widow of Sam Spade’s slain partner — the part played by Gladys George in the 1941 version with Bogart — and also tried to turn her into a comedy star in her own right until her mysterious death in 1935). An “trivia” poster defines a “college widow” as “a young woman who remains near a college year after year to associate with male students” and was thereby considered “easy.” Connie is attracted to Zeppo — indeed, one reason Wagstaff wants to get his son out of Huxley is he’s dating her (“Twelve years at one college?” Wagstaff tells him. “When I was your age I went to three colleges and fooled around with three college widows. A college widow stood for something in those days. In fact, she stood for plenty!”) — though the other three Marxes also take their crack at her, while she’s actually the girlfriend of Jennings (ya remember Jennings?), the corrupt gambler who’s trying to “fix” the big game so he can win his bets on Darwin.

There’s a bizarre sequence in which all four Marx Brothers visit Connie’s apartment — and when Jennings shows up Baravelli poses as her music teacher when he and Pinky aren’t busy delivering large blocks of ice they throw out of the window after Connie says she doesn’t want them — and for some reason in the version we were watching this scene was photographically inferior to the rest of the movie, with long scratches down the image and bits of dialogue lost through splices, the sort of thing you expect from a public-domain DVD or download rather than a major film still owned by a major studio (though not the one that produced it initially; Paramount sold off virtually all their 1930’s and 1940’s films to MCA-TV in the 1950’s, and when MCA took over Universal in 1962 they were reissued with Universal logos). TCM is promising to show a new digital restoration of Horse Feathers on their next film festival, and hopefully it will include a longer version of the scene in Connie Bailey’s apartment that I’ve read about but never actually seen. Apparently this was censored when the film, originally made during the so-called “pre-Code” period of loose Production Code enforcement, was reissued after things had tightened up — though it survived in the theatrical prints shown in Britain and British film critic Allen Eyles described it in his book on the Marx Brothers. (Eyles seems to be the only person among the many authors who’ve written books about the Marx Brothers who’s actually seen this scene; U.S. writer Joe Adamson described it in his book about the Marxes but admitted in his footnotes that he hadn’t seen the sequence himself and was relying on Eyles’ description.) Be that as it may, the version we got (a boxed set from Universal Home Video of all five of the Marx Brothers’ Paramount movies) not only contained the censored version of this scene, but a splice- and scratch-ridden version of the censored scene at that. There’s also a bizarre scene in which Groucho is meeting with two grey-bearded professors (Groucho himself seems to be the only male on the Huxley faculty or staff who shaves) and debating what to do since the college doesn’t seem to be able to afford both football and education: “Tomorrow we start tearing down the college.” When the professors agree, Groucho says he was just testing them — “The problem is there’s too much football and not enough education” — and when they agree with him again, he changes his mind again and insists he’s going to tear down the college. “But, Professor, where will the students sleep?” “Where they always sleep: in the classroom!” Groucho fires back.

Horse Feathers builds to a bizarre climax in which Wagstaff assigns Baravelli and Pinky to kidnap Mullen and MacHardie — who kidnap them instead — leaving them to break out by sawing through the floor of the room where they’re being held and ending up landing on top of a bridge table being used by four elderly women who are predictably shocked at the disruption to their card game — and, stripped down to their underwear (Chico is wearing long johns and Harpo a T-shirt and shorts), they commandeer a horse-drawn garbage truck (the garbage collector picks up the garbage, puts it in a can mounted on top of a wheeled carriage, and the horse pulls the garbage around, presumably until the can is full and can be dumped) and ride it to the football stadium like a chariot in what I suspect was a deliberate parody of the silent Ben-Hur. Of course, they save the game for Huxley in a delicious sequence that makes total hash of the ordinary rules of football — after Huxley scores a touchdown and the Marxes line up to kick the extra point (they each kick each other in turn until the last one kicks the ball), Darwin kicks off to Huxley instead of vice versa; and Harpo scores the winning touchdown riding to the goal line in his garbage-can chariot (and scores again and again and again as Chico keeps feeding him one football after another and he makes the “touchdown” gesture with each one), while in an even weirder tag scene Connie Bailey ends up at the altar and Groucho, Chico and Harpo all marry her at once, then pile on at once for the wedding night. (Zeppo is hidden behind her as this happens, and one suspects the writers knew who the really important Marx Brothers were.) Horse Feathers is a brilliant movie, though Kalmar and Ruby (along with Arthur Sheekman and another recruit, Nat Perrin, who ultimately went on to produce the TV series The Addams Family in the 1960’s) pushed the plot points even farther in the Marxes’ next film, Duck Soup — as if they were in the writers’ room saying to each other, “Hey, what can we do that’s more outrageous than making Groucho the president of a college? We’ll make him the president of a whole country! And instead of the bad guy and the bad girl conspiring to steal the secret football signals, we’ll have them conspire to steal the secret plans of war! And instead of a football game, we’ll end it with a war!”

Joe Adamson said of Horse Feathers that its stars seemed more at home in Animal Crackers (the Marxes’ second film, based on their last Broadway show, and their most commercially successful film until A Night at the Opera), director Norman Z. McLeod more at home with the immediately preceding Marx film Monkey Business (which he also helmed), and the writers more at home with Duck Soup, and he lamented the way many of the scenes in Horse Feathers ended in perfunctory fade-outs instead of the punchy comic finishes the writers had actually written (but then much of Adamson’s book consists of quotes from rejected scenes that never made it before the cameras, but if they had would have made these marvelously funny movies even funnier!). Horse Feathers was made at a time when professional players were recruited by colleges for supposedly “amateur” student athletics, and while the strategies by which colleges compensate student athletes have become subtler (the 1977 film One on One, which cast Robby Benson as a high-school basketball phenomenon recruited to a major college on an athletic scholarship and given a sinecure job consisting of watching the automatic sprinklers on the college grounds turn themselves on and off, is a more current example), the clash between sports and education dramatized in this movie (and exposed by Left-wing college student turned author Reed Harris in a 1932 book called King Football: The Vulgarization of the American College; he’d been expelled from Columbia for writing a magazine article he eventually expanded into the book, and though he was reinstated and graduated, and ultimately worked as a journalist and government official, in 1953 he was forced out of his job with the Voice of America when Senator Joseph McCarthy cited King Football as evidence that its author was a Communist with an agenda to destroy American values) is still very much a part of the American scene. People are still pointing to college-sports powerhouses like Ohio State, Michigan, Alabama, Stanford, Notre Dame and USC and asking if they are colleges with sports programs or sports programs with colleges barely attached.

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Jackie Robinson (Florentine Films, WETA, PBS, 2016)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2016 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

On Monday and Tuesday nights Charles and I watched a compelling two-part PBS documentary called Jackie Robinson, made by Ken Burns, Sarah Burns and David McMahon and an obvious outgrowth of Ken Burns’ 1994 miniseries Baseball. It’s yet another take on the story of Jackie Robinson, the first African-American in the 20th century to play major league baseball (apparently some early teams in the 19th century had been integrated before Reconstruction finally ended and Jim Crow segregation hardened into racist orthodoxy and put strict limits, social as well as legal, on the ability of U.S. whites and Blacks to do just about anything together), which has already generated two narrative features: The Jackie Robinson Story (1950), in which Robinson played himself (surprisingly well for a non-professional actor — he certainly acquitted himself better than the wretched Joe Louis in his biopic Spirit of Youth in 1937!) and the young Ruby Dee played his wife Rachel, and 42, Brian Helgeland’s great biopic from 2013 which cast the little-known Chadwick Boseman as Robinson and Nicole Beharie as Rachel. (42 ended up on my short list of baseball movies that are also great films, along with The Pride of the Yankees, Eight Men Out and Moneyball.) The first half of Jackie Robinson tells the story most people who’ve heard of Jackie Robinson at all know: he was born to tenant farmers in Georgia, named Jack Roosevelt Robinson after Theodore Roosevelt (certainly a more illustrious presidential namesake than McKinley Morganfield, a.k.a. Muddy Waters; or Chester Alan Arthur Burnett, a.k.a. Howlin’ Wolf!), and abandoned by his dad at age one.

It seems that Sasser, the plantation owner for whom Robinson, Sr. worked, yielded to Robinson’s entreaties to become a sharecropper instead of just a tenant farmer (it’s an indication of just how miserable the position of rural Southern Blacks was at the turn of the last century that he’d actually regard becoming a sharecropper as an improvement!), only once he started making more money Robinson père started hanging out on “the wrong side of town” and soon abandoned his family. Robinson’s mom Maddie decided to move herself, Robinson and his three older siblings (including fellow athlete Mac, who made the U.S. Olympic team in 1936 and silver-medaled in the 200-meter dash — the gold medalist was fellow African-American Jesse Owens — only to find when he got back that the only work he could get was as a street cleaner) to Los Angeles in the hope that there’d be more opportunities there. She was wrong in one way — the only work she could find was as a maid — but right in the sense that she was able to save enough money to buy a house in Pasadena (and, of course, have to deal with the usual racist shit from her neighbors) and send her kids to college. Jackie went to a community college and then to UCLA, where he lettered in four sports — baseball, football, basketball and track — until the war intervened. Jackie trained with an all-Black Army unit (the U.S. military wasn’t integrated until Harry Truman did it by executive order in 1948) but didn’t see combat because he got into an altercation with a white bus driver who wanted him to sit in the back of the bus where he “belonged.” He was actually court-martialed for this and, while he was acquitted, he was hurt enough by the experience that he asked for his discharge, and got it. In 1945 he signed to play professional baseball for the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro Leagues, a team which so dominated Black baseball they were nicknamed “the Black Yankees,” but he only lasted there one season because — after he and two other Black players were auditioned by the Boston Red Sox, though none were signed and they really hadn’t expected to be — he was scouted by the Brooklyn Dodgers.

The Dodgers were then run by club president Branch Rickey, who wanted Black players partly because he saw them as an unexploited talent pool that could bring him victories on the field, and partly because he thought the Dodgers could sell more tickets to Blacks if there were a few people who looked like them on the team. Oddly, the Burnses and McMahon don’t include the famous exchange between Robinson and Rickey that’s depicted in both The Jackie Robinson Story and 42 — in which Rickey explains that no matter how much Robinson is taunted, he’s not to retaliate; and when Robinson asks, “You mean you want someone without the guts to fight back,” Rickey says, “No, I want someone with the guts not to fight back!” In 1946 Robinson played for the Montreal Royals, the Dodgers’ minor-league farm club, and was well treated by the audiences in Montreal but got the full-bore racist treatment when he played on the road, especially in the U.S. South. The crap was all too predictable — hotel managers who suddenly discovered the reservations the team had made couldn’t be honored because they were full up; bus drivers and companies who were suddenly too busy to take the team’s business; restaurants who wouldn’t serve them — sometimes not even on a take-out basis; and gas stations who wouldn’t let Robinson use their restroom. Robinson also had to cope with racist threats from the Ku Klux Klan and free-lance vigilantes, and he also had to deal with the racism of his teammates, especially when he was called up by the Dodgers for his first major-league season in 1947. A number of the Dodgers’ white stars, including Duke Snider and Pee Wee Reese, were native Southerners and brought all the racist prejudices they’d grown up with — at one point the Dodgers decided to give Reese a birthday celebration on the field, and in honor of his heritage they flew a Confederate flag, which predictably sent Robinson ballistic — and Snider demanded at the start of 1947 to be traded to another team rather than play with a Black teammate. Rickey handled him brilliantly; he told Snider that if he still felt that way by the deadline to make mid-season trades he would trade him, but by then Snider had seen what Robinson was doing to the Dodgers on the field and he didn’t want to leave a team that seemed headed for only its second pennant in its history. (Before Jackie Robinson joined the Dodgers had made the World Series only once, in 1947; during the 10 years he was on the roster the Dodgers won the pennant six times and the Series once, in 1955.)

The first part of Jackie Robinson ends where the two fiction films about him do — in triumph at the end of the 1947 season — and the second part tells a deeper, richer and in some ways considerably sadder story. Robinson was sub-par for 1948 — overweight and, we get the impression, worn down by the racist taunting and still in the second year of his two-year promise to Branch Rickey to play the good-boy “credit to his race” and not fight back or make any public statements supporting civil rights — but rallied and in 1949 had the best year of his major-league career and was named Most Valuable Player in the National League — significant not only for the honor itself but because it was voted by sportswriters, many of whom had editorialized against Blacks in the major leagues. (One reason it took so long to integrate major-league baseball was the open, unabashed racism of the first Commissioner of Baseball, retired judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis, who’d been appointed to the job in the wake of the Black Sox scandal of 1919; after his death in 1944 the next Commissioner was moderate former governor Happy Chandler — and, though this isn’t mentioned in the movie, his willingness to preside over the integration of baseball cost him the chance to run for vice-president in 1968 as George Wallace’s running mate.) Robinson’s remaining career was plagued by illness (notably the diabetes and heart trouble that plagued him the rest of his life) and the loss of the speed that had made him one of the all-time base stealers in baseball history (he stole home plate 19 times and the show mentioned that he frequently used his speed to score runs without ever actually hitting the ball himself — he would get to first base on balls, largely because racist pitchers would throw at him instead of over the plate and so he’d walk; then he’d get himself into scoring position by stealing second and another Dodger would send him home on a base hit).

In 1957 the Dodgers dumped him in a trade onto their hated cross-town rivals, the New York Giants, and Robinson decided to hang it up and accepted an executive position with the Chock Full O’Nuts coffee company. By this time he was also taking more of an open role with the nascent civil rights movement and working with the NAACP (interestingly this show is one of the few modern sources that actually acknowledges what that name stands for — National Association for the Advancement of Colored People), though in 1960 he endorsed Richard Nixon for President over John F. Kennedy, apparently out of a personal affection for Nixon as well as the conviction that African-Americans should be part of both major U.S. political parties instead of diminishing their bargaining power by aligning themselves with just one. Indeed, historically African-Americans had voted overwhelmingly Republican when they were allowed to vote at all — their ancestral memories were of the Republicans as “the party of Lincoln” and the Democrats as the party of secession, “states’ rights,” segregation and the Klan — only that began to change. In 1960 Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., whom Robinson regarded as a personal friend, was arrested and sentenced to four months on a chain gang — the assumption among civil-rights supporters was that he would not be allowed to leave that chain gang alive — and Nixon declined to call his wife Coretta on the ground that “that would be grandstanding.” Kennedy not only called Coretta, he sent Robert Kennedy to negotiate and get King’s sentence canceled — and Nixon later acknowledged that as one of the turning points of the 1960 campaign that had cost him the election. By 1964 the Democrats, under Kennedy’s successor Lyndon Johnson, had passed through the sweeping 1964 Civil Rights Act — and Republican Barry Goldwater had won his party’s nomination (against Robinson’s preferred candidate, Nelson Rockefeller) and voted against the Civil Rights Act.

Robinson’s last years — he died relatively young, in 1972 at age 53 — were full of turmoil; he lost his column in the New York Post newspaper (they’d published it in their sports section but he’d covered mainstream politics and civil rights as well) over his endorsement of Nixon in 1960; he was attacked by young Black militants, including Malcolm X, as a sell-out and an “Uncle Tom”; and he had to deal with trauma at home, particularly his oldest son, Jackie Robinson, Jr., who was a young, undisciplined teen rebel, then joined the Army in hopes it would teach him discipline; then got sent to Viet Nam and suffered a major case of post-traumatic stress disorder when he was wounded on patrol and the two other servicemembers with him were killed; became addicted to marijuana and opium while “in country” and heroin when he returned home; finally cleaned up at the Daytop rehab center; went to work for Daytop after he completed his program — and was killed in 1971 in a car accident. (The toxicology report on his autopsy showed no signs of drugs in his system.) Jackie Robinson’s life story — all of it — is an inspiring one but also a saddening one, and the people the Burnses and McMahon chose to interview included his widow Rachel (though given her apparent age in the clips I think Rachel’s interview was done by Ken Burns for his 1994 project Baseball rather than more recently); their surviving kids Sharon and David; President Barack Obama and his wife Michelle (who, by coincidence, was born with the last name “Robinson”!); and various African-American writers, including Gerald Early (who stood out for the crispness and good sense of what he had to say about Robinson and his odd but important role in the civil-rights movement). Jackie Robinson is a fascinating program, and any doubts I might have had as to whether there was enough drama in Robinson’s life to merit a four-hour treatment were quickly dispelled — and fortunately the only person with whom the Burnses and McMahon used their standard approach of having actors read the words of a now-deceased person as soundtrack voiceovers was Robinson himself, who was voiced by Jamie Foxx (quite movingly, too). And yet like most biographies of prominent African-Americans of Robinson’s generation, it’s inspiring in depicting how far we’ve come and depressing in terms of its dramatization of the persistence of racism and how far we still have to go!

From Caligari to Hitler: German Cinema in the Age of the Masses (LOOKS Film Productions, Arte, ZDF, Kino, TCM, 2014)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2016 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night Charles and I watched a peculiar presentation on Turner Classic Movies, an elaborate 2014 documentary on the films of Weimar-era Germany called From Caligari to Hitler: German Cinema in the Age of the Masses. I had assumed this would be a relatively normal TCM documentary — narrated in English and with a few film clips interspersed with a lot of talking heads — instead it was made by Rüdiger Suchsland (which sounds more like the name of a place than a person — I couldn’t help but think, “Suchsland, Suchsland, über alles”) and the narration was in German (they didn’t do what PBS usually does when they show foreign documentaries and have an English voice-over replace the original). What’s more, the visual content consisted almost exclusively of film clips, not only from the Weimar-era dramatic films but from actual newsreels and amateur footage from the same time, and some of the parallels between what documentarians of the time were recording in the streets of Berlin and Germany’s other major cities and what fiction filmmakers were reproducing in the great German studios (between the two World Wars the German studios were the best-equipped and most technologically advanced in the world outside of Hollywood) were among the most interesting parts of the film. The title came from a controversial 1947 book by Siegfried Kracauer, From Caligari to Hitler, which made the case that the filmmakers of the Weimar era had consciously or unconsciously reproduced the conflicts within Germany, psychological and social as well as political, that ultimately brought the Nazis to power in 1933.

I hadn’t known much about Kracauer personally but I wasn’t surprised when this film noted that he was a member of the so-called “Frankfurt School,” a group of Marxist scholars including Walter Benjamin, Theodor Adorno and Herbert Marcuse, who essentially attempted to update Marxism to include a critique of mass culture and an analysis of how the capitalist ruling class used it to inculcate its values among the masses. I’ve never actually read Kracauer’s book, though I’ve seen a lot of the major movies of the Weimar era and some of their directors — notably Fritz Lang, who if I were forced to pick just one would be my all-time favorite filmmaker, both for the obsessiveness with which he told his story and the sheer range of his approach (though if I had to pick one movie as the greatest film of all time it would probably be Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey — I remember my disappointment when the results of the last Sight and Sound poll of the 10 greatest movies of all time came out and Hitchcock’s Vertigo had surpassed Citizen Kane at the top of the list; I remember thinking that if any movie deserved to chart above Kane it was 2001, and though I love Vertigo I’d rate at least three other Hitchcock films — Shadow of a Doubt, Notorious and Strangers on a Train — ahead of it), as well as the number of genres in which Lang pioneered (he was making “Hitchcock movies” before Hitchcock was and James Bond movies well before Ian Fleming created the character — and, praise by, Suchsland devoted quite a bit of time to Lang’s 1928 film Spies, which pioneered both the Hitchcock and Bond films; no fewer than three 1930’s British Hitchcock films, The 39 Steps, The Secret Agent and Sabotage, rip off key sequences or plot points from Spies, and when I saw the complete Spies from Kino Lorber the film came off as less Hitchcockian and more Bondish than it had in a 90-minute cut version I’d first seen in the 1970’s). Anyway, Kracauer’s analysis was ridiculed by many of the surviving filmmakers who had actually worked in Weimar Germany; in his post-film commentary TCM host Ben Mankiewicz said that Lang had claimed he made his two-part film Die Nibelungen in 1923-24 to exalt the German people instead of criticize them, and in his 1965 autobiography Josef von Sternberg said that Kracauer’s claim that the students who harass their professor in The Blue Angel were the prototypes of the Hitler youth. Sternberg, a native Austrian who made all but two of his films in the U.S., said that when he went to Germany to film The Blue Angel in 1930 he’d never heard of the Nazis, and while he was there he ran into two of their rallies but otherwise had no contact with them. As I mentioned, virtually this entire film was in German with English subtitles — though ironically Fritz Lang was represented by a late-1960’s documentary interview he had filmed in English, and one of the modern-day talking heads, U.S. professor Eric Weitz, was also shown speaking English. (Presumably he was either subtitled or voice-overed in the original German release of this documentary.)

If there’s a point to be made for this documentary, it’s that the cinema of Weimar Germany encompassed far more than the dark, brooding, atmospheric films most movie buffs think of — Wiene’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and The Student of Prague; Lang’s The Spiders, Destiny (whose German title, Der Müde Tod, literally translates as Weary Death), Dr. Mabuse, Die Nibelungen, Metropolis, M and The Testament of Dr. Mabuse, Pabst’s The Joyless Street, Pandora’s Box, Diary of a Lost Girl and The Threepenny Opera, Sternberg’s The Blue Angel — when they think “Weimar German cinema.” It also encompassed light-hearted musicals with titles like Drei von der Tankstelle (literally “Three from the Gas Station”) and The Congress Dances (a musical about the Congress of Vienna, of all things), many of them starring Willy Fritsch and Lillian Harvey, who became a superstar team in early German sound films anticipating Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy in the U.S. (though ironically before sound came in Fritsch had been the juvenile male leads in Lang’s Spies and Woman in the Moon). There was also a strain of socially conscious films that came about during what Suchsland called the “New Sobriety,” the period between the currency reform of 1924 that ended the hyperinflation and the worldwide depression of 1929, in which (at least according to him) German cinema moved away from the Expressionism of the Caligari period and became more realistic. One of the paradigmatic examples was a rarely seen film from 1929 called People on Sunday, made on a shoestring budget and self-financed by its illustrious participants, including Robert and Curt Siodmak, Edgar G. Ulmer, Eugen Schuftan and Billy Wilder. (In his 1969 interview in The Celluloid Muse Wilder — one of the few Celluloid Muse subjects who was still making movies when he was interviewed for it — recalled, “We borrowed the money from the uncle of Robert Siodmak, the director. And Robert was the director for a very simple reason: when kids play football on a meadow the one who owns the football is the captain, and Robert owned the camera.”) It anticipated the French New Wave films of three decades later and was a simple story of two young (straight) couples out and about on a Sunday, and as Suchsland pointed out it began with a deliberate rejection of movie-star culture: two of the protagonists are shown messing up publicity photos of Willy Fritsch and Lillian Harvey.

Suchsland also mentioned that the German Social Democratic Party had its own filmmaking operation, devoted to making movies about working-class people in dire straits due to the financial situation — including one in which an old man commits suicide and the director cuts to a group of 1-percenters who see the story in the newspaper and wonder why today’s workers are so weak-willed that they give up so easily. At least one of the frustrations of a documentary like From Caligari to Hitler is it whets your appetite for long-unavailable or hard-to-find movies — you’ll see clips from an unfamiliar but fascinating-looking film and think, “Gee, I’d love to see that!” In this case, the movie I’d most like to see after watching this one is Nerves, made the same year (1919) as Caligari and apparently even more extreme — and effective — in its stylization. From Caligari to Hitler suffers from the pretentiousness of its theorizing — Siegfried Kracauer was one of the founders of modern-day “critical theory” and you can definitely see its roots here (after From Caligari to Hitler Kracauer wrote another book, Theory of Film, which Pauline Kael ridiculed in her review, saying that Kracauer couldn’t just enjoy watching Fred Astaire dance like the rest of us; he had to construct a theory under which Astaire’s work could be validated in serious intellectual terms) — and certainly a version with an English-language narration would have been more satisfying to a U.S. audience, but it’s still an interesting look at one of the most important eras in any country’s cinematic history even though, if Douglas Sirk’s 1937 film La Habañera is to be believed, the common assumption that the Nazi years were an artistic wasteland and German films didn’t start getting good again until the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, when a new generation of directors like Schlondorff (interviewed here), Herzog, Wenders and Fassbinder emerged and put German cinema back on the international map, is simply not true.

Buck Privates Come Home (Universal-International, 1947)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2016 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

After From Caligari to Hitler I wanted something considerably lighter, and I ended up screening Charles the companion piece to The Time of Their Lives on disc eight of the Universal Home Video 14-DVD boxed set of the complete Abbott and Costello at Universal (which constitutes 28 of their 36 feature-length films): Buck Privates Come Home. As the title suggests, this is a sequel to their star-making hit from 1941, Buck Privates, which was the highest-grossing box-office hit made in the U.S. that year (a considerable accomplishment when you consider that was the year of Citizen Kane, The Maltese Falcon, Sergeant York, How Green Was My Valley, Here Comes Mr. Jordan and quite a few other acknowledged masterpieces). The original Buck Privates had been such a mega-hit largely due to its topicality — it began with newsreel footage of President Franklin Roosevelt signing the draft bill into law in October 1940 (the first time the U.S. had ever had a draft in peacetime) and showed Abbott and Costello as ultra-raw recruits who join the Army by accident and, of course, spend several reels picturesquely screwing up. In this sequel, set in the year it was made — 1947 — Abbott and Costello play the same characters, “Slicker” Smith (Bud Abbott) and Herbie Brown (Lou Costello), who have somehow survived the war in Europe and, after a six-minute prologue of clips from the original Buck Privates (including the famous screwed-up drill sequence that Abbott and Costello largely improvised on set, and which during the war was included in a Japanese propaganda film aimed at their servicemembers to show that ours weren’t so dangerous) we meet them on a troop transport going home.

The about-to-be-discharged men are singing a song called “We’re Going Home” — which later gets parodied at various points (the Andrews Sisters, who provided such appealing musical numbers as USO entertainers in the original Buck Privates, are sorely missed here) — only when Abbott and Costello finally get home the only career they have to go back to is their old one of selling bootleg ties on the streets of New York. Alas, their old nemesis as both police officer before the war and drill sergeant during it, Collins (Nat Pendleton, in his final film), got back his old job as a cop and is soon chasing them. The film is mostly a brilliant set of comedy sequences instead of a coherent story, but to the extent the movie has a plot it’s about Abbott’s and Costello’s attempts to keep a French war orphan, Evey LeBrec (Beverly Simmons — they could have come up with a more appealing French character name for her, but Simmons is refreshingly unsentimental and un-Shirley Temple-ish at a time when, though Temple herself had aged out of kid roles, her example had set the template for the depiction of virtually all movie children), in the U.S. rather than let her be deported back to France, where she’d end up in an orphanage because she has no family members left. They’re aided in this by aspiring race-car driver and designer Bill Gregory (the almost terminally dull Tom Brown) and his girlfriend, Lt. Sylvia Hunter (Joan Fulton, a.k.a. Joan Shawlee and a considerably spunkier and more appealing heroine than usually got cast in roles like this), whom Our Heroes met on the boat coming home and who agreed to take charge of Evey until she could be sent back to France.

The big comic scenes include one in which Costello accidentally sets off a booby-trapped grenade (it’s concealed inside a camera) and has to throw it out of a porthole on board ship so it will explode harmlessly in the water; one in which a banquet table that was supposed to be supported by two sawhorses but in fact has only one under it (Costello mistakenly took the other away) is precariously balanced and ends up propelling a cake, slingshot-style, into Nat Pendleton’s face; one in which Costello becomes the target in a game of tug-of-war between Abbott and a jealous man on the other end of a tenement block who accuses Costello of messing with his wife — Costello is on a blanket he suspended from a clothesline to make a D.I.Y. hammock and, after a restful night’s sleep, he awakens and suddenly realizes he’s suspended over an alley several floors below — and a great slapstick chase scene in which Costello is at the wheel of Gregory’s super-car, driving it down city streets, in and out of buildings, and at one point ending up with an advertising billboard around his neck whose broad, flat surface generates enough lift that he at least briefly flies. (The special effects in these scenes are excellent and completely convincing, a far cry from the abysmal process work that marred several similar chase scenes in Laurel and Hardy’s movies at Hal Roach Studios in the early 1930’s.) There’s even a marvelous scene in which Costello gets to enact his heartbreak at being about to lose Evey to the government bureaucracy that insists she has to be sent back — a flash of the sort of pathos that, if they’d pursued it more, would have made Abbott and Costello even greater than they were. Buck Privates Come Home is a sure-fire laugh machine, lacking the richness of The Time of Their Lives (which had been a box-office flop) but at least allowing us to see Abbott and Costello truly work as a team again — apparently they’d settled the feud that had left them refusing to speak together during the production of Little Giant and The Time of Their Lives unless they were acting a scene together, and had forced the writers of those films to accommodate them by giving them as few scenes together as possible!

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

10 Parks That Changed America (WTTV-TV, 2016)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2016 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

First up on KPBS last night was a quirky show called 10 Parks That Changed America, which turned out to be an episode from a series produced by WTTV, PBS’s afflilate in Chicago, called 10 _____ That Changed America (the other entries were “Buildings,” “Homes” and “Towns”). In some ways the most fascinating segment of the show was the first, which depicted James Oglethorpe’s master plan for Savannah, Georgia in 1732. He was hoping that the colony would become a model community, and to that end he made slavery illegal (a decision that, alas, was reversed just 18 years later!), and laid out the city so each block would essentially be its own neighborhood mini-city (and urban planners today think the “city of villages” concept is so new and innovative!), complete with public buildings, residences and a town square in the middle. The other parks profiled — in chronological order, which was nice — were Fairmount Park in Philadelphia (which was actually part of an integrated water supply to keep the residents from getting yellow fever — at the time it wasn’t known that the disease was spread by mosquitoes but the ruling theory that it was spread by “bad air” from stagnant water at least was close enough to the truth the city did some of the right things, including setting up the city so it would get its water from the Schuylkill River and the water would flow continuously, get itself pumped up by steam and then be transported by gravity to its end users); Mt. Auburn Cemetery in Boston; Central Park in New York (of course!), the Neighborhood Parks that dot Chicago (well, the producers of this show had to do something that was in their home town!), the San Antonio River Walk (created in response to a 1921 river flood that wiped out a good part of San Antonio’s downtown and killed 50 people; it was a series of dams and floodgates that would keep the river level within the city limits so businesses could locate on the banks and people could walk from one restaurant or shop to another), Overton Park in Memphis, Tennessee (though the story was less about its original creation than the efforts of residents in 1971 to save it from being bisected by an interstate freeway), Freeway Park in Seattle (where residents had lost a battle against a freeway and decided to make lemonade out of the lemons by building a park on top of the freeway), Gas Works Park (also in Seattle, in which the city took an abandoned gas works, reprocessed the toxic sludge left behind so it could be used for planting, and created a park but with the principal features of the gas works left behind as a sort of memorial to America’s industrial past), and the High Line (the abandoned elevated train tracks in New York City that were also turned into a “found” park!).

Sunday, April 10, 2016

The Cheerleader Murders (Marvista/Covert/Lifetime, 2016)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2016 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

 I turned on the Lifetime “world premiere” movie aired last night, The Cheerleader Murders. Overall it was another case of a genuinely talented Lifetime director (David Jackson) doing the best he could with a teminally silly Lifetime script (by Matt Young). It opens with a powerfully Gothic scene in which Ellie Fuller (Samantha Boscarino, nice-looking and appropriately spunky for the role but with the annoying habit of seemingly changing her hairdo in each scene) tells us via voice-over narration that she feels she is cursed, that she’s under an evil spell and takes it with her everywhere she goes. It all began, she says, when she was a freshman (freshperson?) in high school and her older sister, a senior, broke up with her boyfriend — only her boyfriend wasn’t about to take no for an answer. Instead he came to her family’s home with a shotgun, killed her sister (he pulled aside the shower curtain and cornered her in the shower like Norman Bates in Hitchcock’s Psycho, a scene I would be quite happy never to see a visual quote from again) and for good measure killed their dad when he tried to intervene. Now she and her mom (who for some reason Matt Young never explains were spared the bloodbath) are living in a different city, it’s “Three Years Later” (as a typical Lifetime subtitle tells us), and she’s now a senior herself. She’s also got a hot boyfriend named Nicholas (Austin Lyon, who wouldn’t be bad casting for a biopic of Elvis if anyone really feels a need out there to make another biopic of Elvis), son of the San Vicente High School football team’s coach Dan Reeves (Henderson Wade, considerably less hunky than his on-screen son but at least close enough in appearance we can believe they’re genetically related). Ellie’s mom (Michelle Fuller, who likewise looks enough like an older version of Samantha Boscarino we can believe in them as mother and daughter) encourages her to get out more and in particular to attend a study party given by her friends and fellow San Vicente cheerleaders Morgan (Hannah Kasulka) and Dee (Amanda Leighton), though predictably the three girls do much more gossiping than studying, and when Morgan makes a slighting remark about Ellie not having a (living) father, Ellie gets insulted and leaves for home. It’s a lucky thing for her, too, because the next thing that happens is a mysterious intruder comes to Morgan’s home, kills her (and subsequently severs a head and arm and dumps them in a site where a ditch is being dug — presumably to provide water for a large farm, since this is set in California’s Central Valley and a large orchard is a key setting for two of the action scenes) and kidnaps Dee.

The exact credentials of the law enforcement officials who respond to the murder are unclear, since the sign on the office door says “San Vicente Police Department” but the cars the cops use and the insignia on their uniforms identify them as sheriff’s deputies (which under California law means either San Vicente is unincorporated and directly governed by its county, or it’s a city that contracted with its county’s sheriff for law enforcement services), and to make it even more confusing, sitting in on the investigation led by the local sheriff, police chief or whatever he is (the site is unclear as to who plays this role — it does identify Juan Rodriguez as “Cop” — but he’s the typical avuncular African-American Lifetime’s casting people like in roles like this, though he’s light enough he could be part-Latino) is an FBI agent, Ramon Martinez (David DeSantos), who’s twitchy enough that we at least briefly believe he might be the killer. The filmmakers throw us quite a few red herrings as the story goes on, including unpopular student Ben (Davin Crittenden, who looked reasonably cute to me but whom we were supposed to see as the school’s wallflower — and there’s a great scene in which Ellie goes to his house and his mom is a skinny, slatternly, rude piece of work even more screwed-up than her son), who writes Ellie a threatening note and puts it in her locker but is not responsible for the even more threatening texts she gets; and a homeless guy who comes upon Ellie as she’s mourning at the improvised memorial set up for Morgan where her body (or bits of it, at least) was found, but it’s not hard to figure out that Coach Dan Reeves is really a killer (and after the recent revelations that former House Speaker Dennis Hastert molested at least four male students during his days as a high-school teacher and wrestling coach, it wasn’t hard to believe in a story about a villainous coach). At one point Dan actually frames his son — Ellie’s boyfriend Nicholas — for the crimes, and Nicholas responds by slashing his wrists in his cell and committing suicide once he’s arrested.

Then Ellie gets trapped on Dan’s farm — where she’d already gone to try to rescue Dee, and she managed to get her out of there but Dan, clad in a hoodie and face mask that made him unrecognizable, got to her and knifed her as she was trying to get into Ellie’s car — and in the final action scene Dan is about to kill Ellie when her mom, of all people, drives up and accidentally but helpfully runs into him and kills him, saving her daughter’s life and sparing the cops the seemingly onerous task of proving his guilt in court. (Mater ex machina.) There are all too many instances of the normally level-headed Ellie tearing off after the bad guy (or whom she thinks is the bad guy at the moment) in court instead of doing the sensible non-movie thing of reporting her information to the police, and so many gaping plot holes in Matt Young’s construction the movie approaches unbelievability and frequently goes over, but for all his borrowings from Hitchcock (it’s clear from those farm scenes he’s seen North by Northwest) he’s a quite good suspense director and also has a real flair for the Gothic. Much of the movie takes place at night and manages a convincing noir atmosphere despite the color and the outdoor settings — and cinematographer Denis Maloney helps Jackson’s cause by giving us a rich and vibrant palette instead of making everything dirty green or brown. But Jackson’s good work is sabotaged by a silly script whose writer seems more intent on giving Lifetime’s audience the clichés it’s used to instead of telling a coherent and genuinely thrilling and scary story — sort of like that bizarre speech Sarah Palin gave for Donald Trump in Wisconsin, in which she seemed so intent on giving the audience all her and Trump’s talking points she didn’t bother with that annoying task of trying to connect them into a coherent presentation. (At one point she just shouted, “Reagan!,” and got the response she wanted out of an audience of people already conditioned to regard the 40th president as a paragon of intelligence, dedication and virtue.)

The Time of Their Lives (Universal, 1946)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2016 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

After The Cheerleader Murders I kinda-sorta wanted to watch the next movie on Lifetime — a rerun from 2014 called Stalked by My Neighbor (I hadn’t realized from Stalked by My Doctor that it’s part of yet another Lifetime title series, “Stalked by My _____,” to go along with “The Perfect _____,” “The _____ S/he Met Online,” and “_____ at 17”) — but I didn’t really want to subject Charles to it and, when I found that Christine Conradt was not the writer (Stalked by My Neighbor was written by its director, Doug Campbell), I told Charles that we could watch something else if he wanted to. To my surprise, he asked if we could break open the Abbott and Costello boxed set from Universal that contained the 28 feature films they made there between 1940 and 1955 (all but eight of their total output) and pick it up where we’d left off. We’d left off at the 1946 film Little Giant, made during a time when Abbott and Costello were so blatantly feuding with each other they literally would not talk to each other when they weren’t actually doing a scene together — and their writers were accommodating them by giving them scripts that gave them as few scenes together as possible. The next film in their output was The Time of Their Lives, probably the downright weirdest movie in the Abbott and Costello oeuvre, a ghost story (after the sensational successes of the British film Dead of Night and Paramount’s The Uninvited in 1944 ghost stories were hot properties, quite likely because it was late in World War II and wartime always seems to inspire people to believe their dead loved ones still survive in some other plane of existence) which begins in upstate New York in 1780. The prologue, which takes up 23 minutes of this 80-minute movie, is set on the estate of Thomas Danbury (Jess Barker), who is ostensibly an American patriot but secretly is part of the British plot in which Benedict Arnold turned traitor and arranged to surrender the fort at West Point to British major John André. Danbury is engaged to marry Melody Allen (Marjorie Reynolds, borrowed from Paramount), while Danbury’s maid Nora O’Leary (Ann Gillis) is being courted by Danbury’s British-symp manservant Cuthbert Greenway (Bud Abbott) but loves free-lance tinker Horatio Prim (Lou Costello, who for some reason is the only one of these people who actually looks credible in 18th Century drag). In order to get his rival out of the way, Greenway locks Prim in a trunk from which Nora frees him, and Prim proudly boasts that he’s received a letter of commendation from General George Washington saying that his skills as a tinker have been invaluable to the Revolutionary cause.

Then Prim and Melody overhear Danbury and two fellow conspirators talking about Arnold’s plot, and rush to get to Washington and warn him — only Washington and his men learn about the plot from other sources, so when Prim and Melody are being chased by Continental Army soldiers, they assume they’re Brits and fire on them. They’re killed by the Continentals and their bodies are thrown into a well on the Danbury estate, and a curse is put upon them that they must remain on the Danbury grounds “until the crack of doom” unless some evidence comes to light that proves they weren’t traitors. Then the patriots burn down the Danbury mansion and leave the property a burnt-out wreck. The director, Charles Barton, and his writers (Val Burton, who also produced; Walter DeLeon; and Bradford Ropes, a surprising name to see here since his most famous credit is writing the source novel for 42nd Street, with Abbott and Costello writer John Grant given credit for “special material”) gives us a clever montage scene showing various generations of lovers having carved their initials and the dates of their comings-together on trees on what’s left of the Danbury estate, a clever and economical way of moving us up from 1780 to the film’s 1946 present. Antiquarian Sheldon Gage (John Shelton) has bought the Danbury property and rebuilt the old house as close as he could come to what it was like in the old days — though at least he’s installed electric lights and telephones — and he’s collected as much of Danbury’s original furniture as he could (we were told during the prologue that it was looted by the Continental Army before they set fire to the house) and built replicas of the pieces he couldn’t acquire. He’s brought along some houseguests, including his fiancée Mildred Dean (Binnie Barnes), her friend June Prescott (Lynn Baggett), spiritualist medium Emily (Gale Sondergaard) and psychotherapist Dr. Ralph Greenway (Bud Abbott), who’s supposed to be a direct descendant, six generations removed, of Cuthbert Greenway, the manservant who gave Horatio such a hard time way back when. (Though the writers had quite a few possibilities in bringing back actors from the prologue and having them play their descendants in the picture’s modern portions, the only one they did that with was Abbott.)

The film then becomes a clever and amusing spoof of spiritualism, with the modern characters using Thomas Danbury’s published memoirs (in which he apologized for his disloyalty and swore allegiance to the U.S.) and a séance led by Emily, to attract the ghosts and find out the whereabouts of George Washington’s letter to Horatio, the evidence he and Melody need to be able to leave the property and ascend to heaven at long last. It turns out Danbury hid it inside a combination-locked clock, but that piece isn’t in the reconstructed estate — it’s in a New York museum of Revolutionary War artifacts, from which Dr. Greenway, psychologically compelled to atone for the sins of his ancestor, steals it. The Time of Their Lives is a major outlier in the works of Abbott and Costello, not only because over one-fourth of it takes place in the 1780’s but because the gags are more subtle and less out-and-out funny than usual, and for once both Abbott and Costello are given multidimensional characters and actually have to act instead of just standing up and telling jokes. A lot of the jokes center around the ghosts and their oddly assorted powers — they can’t be seen by the living people, nor can they talk to them directly, though they can manipulate physical objects (including tapping the table at which the séance is being held, rapping once for “no” and twice for “yes”), wear clothes (the sight of Marjorie Reynolds wearing one of Binnie Barnes’ dresses and with her unclad parts invisible — done with the same velvet-wrapping technique Universal used in its Invisible Man movies — is one of the film’s funniest and most spectacular gags) and make noises. They can also switch electric lights on and off (when Horatio first encounters electric lights he says, “Amazing... must’ve got it from Benjamin Franklin. He’s always inventing things”), answer phones and turn on radios — and naturally, not having experienced any of these things before, they’re flabbergasted at lights coming on without being set on fire first, voices coming out of gizmos attached to wires, and both voices and gunshots (when they turn on the radio a gangster program is being broadcast) coming out of a cabinet.

Another amazing gag is the scene in which Lou Costello and Marjorie Reynolds run through each other and, being ghosts, aren’t harmed — except each ends up wearing the other’s clothes (no doubt infinitely expansive so hers can blow up to his size and his can shrink to hers), and have to do it again to restore themselves to their proper genders. (“I’m a boy!” Costello whines in his trademark whine, which makes it somewhat a matter of opinion.) There are also clever in-jokes, including Mildred’s remark when she sees Emily, “Didn’t I see you in Rebecca?” (she almost did: Gale Sondergaard was indeed considered for Mrs. Danvers in Rebecca, though Judith Anderson was ultimately cast), and an oddball quote of Lauren Bacall’s famous line, “You know how to whistle, don’t you?,” from To Have and Have Not a year before. The Time of Their Lives is a surprisingly sophisticated comedy, especially considering who the stars are, beautifully directed by Barton — many of the scenes have the Gothic look of a classic Universal horror film (and no doubt some of the sets were recycled from the Universal horror movies) — and a real oddball of a film. It’s also the last Abbott and Costello film that went out under the 1937-1946 star-mobile Universal logo; right after it Universal merged with Sam Spiegel’s International Pictures to form Universal-International, and all the remaining films Abbott and Costello made under their contract went out as Universal-International productions. The Time of Their Lives was a box-office flop (the original trailer, included as a bonus item on the DVD, made it clear how desperate Universal’s marketing department was to sell such a “different” film — they ultimately advertised it as “Something New … from Bud and Lou!,” which it was) and so it’s not surprising that for their next production the “suits” at Universal-International swung for the fences and concocted something called Buck Privates Come Home, a postwar sequel to their 1947 star-making hit.