Monday, October 31, 2016

Happy Hallowe’en: Son of Frankenstein (“The New Universal,” 1939)

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

I ran Charles the 1939 Son of Frankenstein, number three in the Universal series of Frankenstein films and, at 99 minutes, the longest of Universal’s English-language horror films in their classic period. (The Spanish version of Dracula is about five minutes longer, mainly because — surprisingly — censorship was less stringent in Latin America and they were able to restore quite a lot of the original play that had to be cut from the English version.) With James Whale having left Universal in disgrace (though he would come slinking back the following year for his last completed film, the ridiculous Green Hell), Universal brought in Rowland V. Lee to direct — a semi-major name whose career had been spent elsewhere, mostly at Fox, and who was not known as a horror specialist. They were clearly going for a prestige product here, including contemplating the use of Technicolor (they shot color tests for the film and a reel of them surfaced in the Universal vaults in the 1980’s, only to be stolen from the desk of the Universal executive who had had possession of them; interestingly, one rumor current in the 1970’s was that the film had been shot in Technicolor but the color negative had burned up just before the film was scheduled to be printed and only a black-and-white version remained, so Universal released that — as things turned out Universal wouldn’t make an entire film in the three-strip Technicolor process until Arabian Nights, three years later), hiring a number of the big names in the horror field (Basil Rathbone, Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, Lionel Atwill) and spending a decent-sized budget on quite formidable sets, credited to Universal art department head Jack Otterson but more likely designed by the named “associate,” Richard H. Riedel. Universal ballyhooed them as “psychological sets,” specifically designed to give the viewer a feeling of dread which would only be added to by whatever the actors were doing on them, though watching the Frankenstein movies in sequence one finds oneself wondering why the Castle Frankenstein looks so different than it did in Charles Hall’s sets for Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein. 

Though Willis Cooper (whose first name for some reason is spelled “Wyllis” in’s entry on the film even though “Willis” is the spelling on his credit) got sole credit for the screenplay, it apparently was a collective product among several anonymous scribes on the lot and Cooper’s first draft did not include Lugosi’s character Ygor (that’s how it’s spelled in the credits), who stole bodies (“ … they say,” he explains) and was hanged but survived the noose (though he developed a stiff neck and a hunchback) and, having already been declared legally dead, couldn’t be tried again for anything else he might have done. (The politicians running this town — which, in yet another of the maddening inconsistencies that plague this series, has changed its name from “Goldstadt” to “Frankenstein” before becoming “Vasaria” in later episodes — are a grand bunch of doofuses wearing such ridiculous headgear Charles wondered why the Frankenstein City Council meetings looked like a Shriners’ convention.) The big problem in reviving the Frankenstein monster again and again was figuring out how he had survived whatever cataclysm the screenwriters for the immediately previous film had devised to kill him and what he had been doing in the meantime. Willis Cooper’s solution was to have had the monster survive the blast at the end of Bride, albeit in a weakened state and no longer having the ability to talk (there was a whole message board on coming up with fanciful explanations for why the monster had lost the power of speech, but the most likely one is simply that Boris Karloff, who had objected to the monster speaking in Bride, probably wouldn’t do the film unless they made the character mute again). He’s been befriended by Ygor, who being a Bela Lugosi character has the power to hypnotize over long distances (and who plays a somber-sounding and even more somber-looking metal horn as a means of controlling the monster, sort of like a snake charmer), and is discovered when Henry Frankenstein’s son Wolf (Basil Rathbone, top-billed — of his three movies as the monster Bride was the only one in which Karloff got top billing) returns to his ancestral home with his American (but British-sounding) wife Elsa (Josephine Hutchinson) and son Peter (the disgusting child actor Donnie Dunagan — after Shirley Temple’s great success every child in Hollywood, of either gender, was compelled to imitate her cloying cuteness) to carry on with his own experiments and, of course, he gets bitten by the Frankenstein bug and decides to revivify the monster after working out his own theory of how the creature works. 

The film plods along — it probably could have been 20 minutes shorter — with little of the humanity of the monster in the James Whale movies (the closest we get is when the monster is entranced by a coloring book of fairy stories he’s stolen from little Peter) and none of the dazzling imaginativeness with which Whale and his writers (especially John Balderston) used the Frankenstein story to challenge conventional notions of religion, sexuality and morality. There’s nothing really wrong with Son of Frankenstein — it’s a solid genre piece, tastefully made, richly photographed, generally well acted (though Rathbone can’t do the moral dilemma as well as Colin Clive did, at least he’s sufficiently well schooled in neurotic mania he can pull off that part of his character, and Josephine Hutchinson is simply a blank) and mostly done justice in this DVD transfer (though when Rathbone sees the graffito which has been scrawled on his dad’s coffin — “Maker of Monsters” — and crosses out “Monsters” and writes in “Men” with the burning end of a torch, the transfer is too dark to make out the key word) — except that it’s the follow-up to James Whale’s masterpieces and it suffers from the inevitable comparison. Karloff, who’d objected to the monster speaking in Bride (a real pity; frankly, I wish William Hurlbut and John L. Balderston had taken that even farther and given Karloff some of Mary Shelley’s utterly heartbreaking dialogue from the monster’s narrative in the book), was upset this time around that instead of having him wear the same costume as he had in the first two films, he was dressed this time in a fur tunic that looked like Lugosi’s character had made it up for him out of carpet samples. After Son he gave up playing the monster[1] (when he returned to the series three films later, in House of Frankenstein, he played a mad scientist who was supposedly the brother of Dwight Frye’s character in the first Frankenstein) because he thought the character was being turned into a joke, a gigantic prop with no real sense of development or depth (and he was right), though Glenn Strange, who did play the monster in House, recalled Karloff generously coaching him through the role and in particular giving him pointers on how to do the walk (deliciously imitated by Donnie Dunagan in the one generally entertaining part of his otherwise insufferable performance). — 10/29/07


Charles had expressed interest in watching a classic horror film on Hallowe’en eve, and since he’d recently located an online source for the trailer to the 1939 film Son of Frankenstein ( I thought we might watch the entire movie. We’d last seen Son as part of a special Hallowe’en celebration in 2007 during which we’d shown ourselves the entire Universal Frankenstein cycle — minus the eighth and last, Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, which Universal Home Video hasn’t included in the horror boxes but which we got later as part of Universal’s complete Abbott and Costello boxed set (all 28 films they made for Universal plus a couple of later compilations). When the Laemmle family lost control of Universal in 1936 the people who took it over after them, J. Cheever Cowdin and Charles Rogers, decided horror films were passé and concentrated on musicals with the studio’s newest and biggest star, Deanna Durbin. They ran out the contracts of James Whale (with three “B”’s) and Boris Karloff (with the intriguing drama Night Key) and canceled all future horror projects after the 1936 film Dracula’s Daughter. Then in 1938 an enterprising Los Angeles theatre owner got hold of prints of the original Dracula and Frankenstein and ran them as a double bill, creatively advertising a special rate if you dared to see them after midnight. The showings did so well that Universal released them as a double-bill nationwide and the films did better than they had on the original releases in 1931.

Of course, they also decided to make new ones, starting with Son of Frankenstein, the biggest-budgeted and longest (at 99 minutes) film in the entire Universal Frankenstein cycle. They hired an outside director, Rowland V. Lee, an all-arounder rather than a horror specialist, and they brought in four luminaries to head the cast: Basil Rathbone as the title character, Baron Wolf von Frankenstein, who inherits both the Castle Frankenstein and the monster-making bug from his dad Heinrich (played by Colin Clive in the first two films in the sequence, Frankenstein and The Bride of Frankenstein); Boris Karloff as the Monster; Bela Lugosi as Ygor, a hunchback who survived being hanged because “I stole bodies … they said,” and who’s using the Monster as his instrument to kill all eight jurors who convicted him of whatever it was they said he did; and Lionel Atwill as Inspector Krogh, a police officer whose boyhood ambition to serve in the military was dashed when the Monster literally tore out his arm from the roots (and Atwill’s delivery of his lines when he explains this to Wolf is chillingly effective and authoritative, showing that in his own way he was just as good an actor as the three billed ahead of him even though they were listed above the title and Atwill was below it). Karloff played the Monster in three films, of which this was the last — he was billed fourth in Frankenstein, first in Bride and second here — and not only did Universal plot a long running time for this movie and bring in an outside director, they at least briefly planned to shoot the film in color. A reel of color tests surfaced in the 1980’s but almost as soon as it was found, it disappeared again, stolen from the desk of the Universal executive who had possession of it. Son of Frankenstein is a problematical film because it’s quite good on its own merits but suffers by comparison to the preceding two masterpieces in the cycle, both directed by James Whale — compared to Whale, Lee is just too damned serious; there are very few of the flashes of humanity and sympathy Whale and his writer, John L. Balderston, gave their version of the Monster (about the only one is the Monster’s fascination with a children’s book of fairy tales the Monster steals from Wolf’s son Peter, played by Donnie Dunagan with the disgusting sort of cloying, saccharine cuteness Shirley Temple’s great success had made de rigueur for child actors of both genders in Hollywood in the 1930’s).

The screenwriter was Willis Cooper (for some reason gives his first name as “Wyllis,” but I’ve never seen him billed that way in any actual credits), and though he’s the only one credited the script certainly seems as if it was written by a committee. According to, Cooper’s first draft did not include the character of Ygor, and he was added largely because someone at Universal realized the cash-poor Lugosi would be willing to take a role at the low-ball salary of $500 per week — and when director Lee heard how little Lugosi was getting, he ordered Cooper to write more scenes for him so Lugosi could at least be making that $500 per week a bit longer. Another odd change Universal made was that, even though the bulk of the film supposedly takes place in the same Castle Frankenstein as the first two films, by this time Charles Hall had been replaced as head of Universal’s set design department by Jack Otterson, and he and his associate Richard Riedel (more likely, given the way these credits were usually apportioned, the “associate” actually did all or most of the set design) threw out all Hall’s sets for the castle and instead went for a starker, more Cabinet of Dr. Caligari-esque look which Otterson, in an interview he gave at the time, called “psychological sets,” meant to instill a feeling of terror and fear in the audience regardless of what the actors were doing within them. Scenarist Cooper also changed the name of the town in which the Frankensteins lived from “Goldstadt” (in Mary Shelley’s original novel, which fixed the national setting as Switzerland and used real Swiss place names, it was “Ingolstadt”) to “Frankenstein” (in later films in the cycle it was “Vasaria,” though it’s possible the Frankenstein City Council, accepting Wolf’s deed of the castle and the Frankenstein properties to them at the end of this film, decided to change the name to end the town’s horrific associations with Frankenstein and his creation). Son of Frankenstein is a well-produced movie, though as part of the cycle it pales by comparison to Frankenstein and especially Bride; on its own it’s a bit better even though Basil Rathbone, an excellent and authoritative actor, seems a bit too reserved to portray a scientist who goes mad as he exults over the power of his dad’s creation; towards the end, all he can do is raise the pitch of his voice to a level that makes it sound like he sucked helium before each take. Rathbone was best as Sherlock Holmes and in fully rational villain roles like Sir Guy of Gisbourne in the Errol Flynn Robin Hood.

Karloff resented the fact that his costume was changed from the first two films — he was dressed in a fur tunic that made him look like Lugosi’s character had found a carpet sample somewhere and draped it over him — and he agreed to do the film only after Cooper assured him that the Monster would be non-verbal this time (for some reason Karloff felt that giving the Monster the ability to speak in Bride had weakened the appeal of the character — I think quite the opposite was true; one of the great cultural tragedies is no one thought to record an audio book of Mary Shelley’s novel with Karloff reading it; one aches to hear what that great voice could have done with it, especially the chapters the Monster narrates!) — and he acquits himself well but he quit the part after Son because he realized the Monster was being turned into a giant animate prop and any possible sympathy for the character was being written out of the scripts. Lugosi’s character is haunting — when he plays that weird instrument to summon the Monster I couldn’t help but remember that in 1939 Rathbone also made The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, which also features an obsessed madman who plays a weird horn — but he was more effective when his characters had a façade of nobility to them (Dracula, Dr. Mirakle in Murders in the Rue Morgue, Murder Legendre in White Zombie, Bill Chandler a.k.a Chandu in The Return of Chandu, and his marvelous comic performance as General Petronovich in International House). Son of Frankenstein is the sort of movie that makes you want to pat the filmmakers on the back and say, “Nice try” — it’s entertaining, even though too long for its own good (there’s a reason the New Universal went back to a 67-minute running time for the next film in the cycle, The Ghost of Frankenstein) and a bit too stately to be as frightening as they intended. Still, aided by George Robinson’s vividly chiaroscuro cinematography and Frank Skinner’s score (though bolstered by some recycling of the themes Franz Waxman had composed for the even more awesome score for Bride!), Son of Frankenstein creates an appropriately sinister mood and is far better than the awful gore-fests that pass for “horror” these days! — 10/31/16

[1] — At least in feature films; an “Trivia” commentator wrote, “In August of 1940, he appeared as the Monster in a celebrity baseball game, with Jack Pierce in attendance (Pierce was a coach for an amateur baseball team, and played semi-pro when he was younger). In the next Frankenstein film Karloff appeared in, House of Frankenstein (1944), he played Dr. Gustav Niemann. In the Allied Artists film Frankenstein — 1970 (1958), he was an elderly Baron Frankenstein— but the twist ending was the revelation that the Baron had re-created the Monster’s face in his own image (i.e., the face of Karloff). The last time Karloff donned the Jack Pierce-style monster makeup was in the ‘Lizards’ Leg and Owlet Wing’ episode of ‘Route 66’ [in which Lon Chaney, Jr. appeared playing his father’s trademark role of the Hunchback of Notre Dame]. Thus, he played the ‘Monster’ six times in his career.

Sunday, October 30, 2016

The Legend of Tarzan (Warner Bros., Village Roadshow, Dark Horse Entertainment, Beagle Pug Films, Jerry Weintraub Productions, RatPac-Dune Entertainment, Riche Productions, 2016)

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

The film was The Legend of Tarzan, a 2016 production by a dizzying array of production companies, including Warner Bros., Village Roadshow, Dark Horse Entertainment, Beagle Pug Films, Jerry Weintraub Productions (Weintraub died during the making of this film and it is dedicated to him as his last production), RatPac-Dune Entertainment and Riche Productions. It was filmed entirely in England except for some location footage at the spectacular national park in Gabon, Africa (here standing in for the late-19th Century Congo, where the story takes place), and was directed by David Yates from a story and script by Adam Cozad and Craig Brewer. The plot follows reality up to a point — in 1884-1885 the major Western European powers (Austria-Hungary, Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Portugal, Russia, Spain, Sweden — which then ruled Norway — and Britain) plus the United States and the Ottoman Empire got together for the Congress of Berlin, also known as the Congo Conference, to divide up Africa between them for imperialist purposes. The Congress resulted in the 1885 Treaty of Berlin, which gave the Congo Basin — the richest (in terms of mineral wealth) and most hotly contested part of the entire Congo region — to King Leopold II of Belgium, not as an official colony of the Belgian state but as Leopold’s personal property. The treaty contained a pro forma ban on slavery in Africa but in Leopold’s Congo that ban was honored far more in the breach than the observance. Cozad and Brewer took that slice of real-life history and used it as the basis for a wild fantasy in which Tarzan — a.k.a. John Clayton III, fifth Earl of Greystoke — is ensconced in his family’s ancestral mansion in Britain with his wife, Jane Porter Clayton, at his side, when he’s summoned back to Africa by what appears to be an imperial invitation from King Leopold II himself. It seems that in his efforts to occupy the Congo and grab its mineral wealth, Leopold has overextended the Belgian treasury and is now deeply in debt, and he can regain solvency only if his minions in the Congo can find the legendary Diamonds of Opar. These are guarded by a fierce tribe who ride into battle with grey paint all over them (either that or we’re supposed to believe they’re an entirely separate tribe of Africans whose skin is naturally grey instead of black or white — which isn’t entirely out of bounds because we are supposed to believe that the grey gorillas we see menacing, or in some cases making nice to, Tarzan aren’t really gorillas but another species of great ape, “Mangani,” which Tarzan’s creator, Edgar Rice Burroughs, made up) and prove surprisingly effective at mounting resistance to the Belgian troops commanded by Leopold’s man on the ground, Leon Rom (all-purpose villain Christoph Waltz). It turns out that the chief of this tribe blames Tarzan for the death of his son, and will give Rom the famous diamonds if Rom will deliver Tarzan to him so the chief can give him a slow, painful execution.

When he’s first approached to go on this mission — with no particular idea, but perhaps a good instinct, that it will lead to his death — Tarzan is reluctant, begging off a return to his African roots because “it’s hot.” But of course he goes anyway, and so does his wife Jane — even though the invitation made it clear that it was supposed to be stag — and a character named George Washington Williams (Samuel L. Jackson, reuniting him and Waltz from the cast of Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds), an African-American anti-slavery activist anxious to get evidence that King Leopold and his minions in the Congo are enslaving the native Blacks despite their pledge not to at the Berlin conference. This isn’t exactly a bad premise for a modern-day Tarzan adventure, but this film (at least for me) went wrong on virtually every turn, thanks largely to the maddening arbitrariness of director Yates. Most of the “trivia” comments on the film on relate to the incredible difficulty the Tarzan, Alexander Skarsgård, had to train himself physically for the role. He not only had to work out enough to get the “eight-pack abs” Yates wanted him to have, he also had to subsist on such a limited diet that after the shoot he was presented with a dessert pie at the wrap party — and ate the whole thing, then had to slim down and work out again when he was called back for retakes. He’s quoted as saying that if there’s a sequel (which there probably won’t be because The Legend of Tarzan was a box-office flop), he wants to approach the role very differently: “We have an outline already in which Tarzan gains weight. Tarzan remains hairy and does not have eight-pack abs. It has no action and Tarzan eats cake, lots of cake. I wrote it.” Frankly, I thought Yates and Skarsgård’s trainer, Magnus Lygdback, overdid it on the eight-pack abs; I was perfectly happy with the great Tarzans of old — Johnny Weissmuller, Buster Crabbe, Bruce Bennett — having in-shape athletic physiques that did not look like relief maps of a river delta.

What’s more, even though to my mind the whole reason I’d want to sit through a Tarzan film is to see a hot young man wearing nothing but a loincloth swinging through a jungle (real or artificial, I don’t care) on vines, Yates didn’t have Skarsgård so much as take his shirt off for the first hour and 10 minutes of this 1 hour and 50-minute movie, and even then he kept him in long-john underwear below the waist — and quotes the film’s makeup director, Fae Hammond, as saying she didn’t give Tarzan the usual jungle tan because it “made his body too distracting and in your face”, making him look like he was “going to pose on a bodybuilding stage” or “be a Gay icon.” (As a Gay man whose main interest in a Tarzan movie is to see some hot masculine eye candy, I resent that!) Yates also staged surprisingly little action, and what action there is in this movie is staged pretty ineptly and unexcitingly — there are tons of real-live stunt people and tons of CGI technicians credited, but to paraphrase Winston Churchill, rarely have so many given so much for so little. The Legend of Tarzan is one of those maddening movies that takes an iconic character (Tarzan is one of only three fictional characters that were profiled on the old Arts & Entertainment Biography series — the others were Sherlock Holmes and James Bond) whom the filmmakers have decided is “out of date” and tries to bring him into the modern era, managing only to wreck him. It’s an odd part of modern filmmaking that characters originally introduced in comic books seem to be able to make the transition and serve as the basis for modern-day hits — perhaps because comic-book publishers are used to taking popular characters and doing “reboots” to keep them fresh — but iconic characters from other media like Sherlock Holmes, The Lone Ranger, The Green Hornet and Tarzan seem to resist this sort of transformation and have become the subjects of some of the biggest bombs of our age. (The Sherlock Holmes features with Robert Downey, Jr. — not an inherently bad choice — actually did fairly well, enough that they made two of them, but I wasn’t interested in them because they kept the Victorian British setting of the original stories but turned Holmes into an action hero; Holmes was treated better in the British TV series Sherlock and the U.S. TV series Elementary, both of which moved him into the present day, and though Sherlock is a critical favorite and made Benedict Cumberbatch a star, both Charles and I have definitely preferred Elementary.)

The Legend of Tarzan isn’t an actively bad film; it’s just mediocre, a 110-minute waste of time with some spectacular African scenery (all the scenes involving human actors were filmed in England and the Gabon National Park was just processed in behind them — though while watching the film you wish the actors would get out of the way and let you enjoy the beautiful African landscapes and fauna —unusually, the second unit that went to Gabon was headed by Henry Braham, who was director of photography for the studio sequences as well and volunteered to shoot the Gabon scenes because he fell in love with the scenery) and some pretty boring human doings in front of it, and a mashup of just about everything from Burroughs’ Tarzan to Heart of Darkness (particularly in the long scenes in which Rom is taking Jane up the river and ordinarily has her chained to the railing of the boat, but occasionally lets her go so she can have dinner with him and threatens to drown her African friend by throwing him overboard in a cage if she turns him down — I’m not making this up, you know!). Charles liked the movie better than I did — I had trouble staying awake for the first hour and even when I snapped to, I still found the results dull — he said he hadn’t realized the similarities between Burroughs’ source novel Tarzan of the Apes and Robert A. Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land before, but since I’ve never read either I’ll have to take his word on that — but I didn’t see much in The Legend of Tarzan either to keep my interest or to entertain me.

Saturday, October 29, 2016

Kraft Theatre: “Keep Our Honor Bright” (J. Walter Thompson/NBC-TV, aired October 14, 1953)

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

The “feature” I picked last night was a 54-minute (one-hour time slot less commercials — and it’s indicative of the descent of commercial TV that in the 1950’s an hour-long show contained six minutes of commercials and now it contains 18 minutes of commercials) show that was the next in sequence in the James Dean Lost Television Legacy boxed set. It was a Kraft Television Theatre show called “Keep Our Honor Bright” and was surprisingly deep and rich as drama, thanks largely to its writer, George Roy Hill. You’ve probably heard of him mostly as a director — his most famous credits are the two Paul Newman-Robert Redford teamings, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and The Sting — but in his early days he worked in the TV salt mines (he’d get the chance to make his directorial debut in 1956 on another Kraft episode, “A Night to Remember,” which he both wrote and directed based on Walter Lord’s famous nonfiction book about the sinking of the Titanic (though for some reason listed it as a “novel”). The show begins with a giant “K” — “It’s sponsored by potassium!” Charles joked (the chemical symbol for potassium is “K”), though to me it looked like the bastard love-child of the “K” atop the front gate to Charles Foster Kane’s Xanadu and the Superman logo — and at the time the Kraft company was running two separate drama series each week on two different networks (this one is from NBC). Charles was surprised at the level of control sponsors had that they could get away with that (and the page for this show indicates the J. Walter Thompson advertising agency as the producing studio!).

“Keep Our Honor Bright” was a marvelous drama about college cheating, though it was clear writer Hill and producer/director Maury Holland were using cheating as a metaphor for a lot of other evils TV creators dared not name in 1953 (this show was aired live October 14, 1953). Matt Matthewson (Michael Higgins) is a college senior who’s about to graduate and takes the opportunity to propose to his girlfriend, Sally (Joan Potter), who’s being congratulated that she passed all her finals, even in her weakest subject, biology. Only Matt is also the chair of the college’s “honor committee,” a group of students who are supposed to investigate allegations of cheating and report them to the school administration, which will decide what to do about them. A student named Jim Cooper (James Dean, looking as usual like he beamed in from another planet — though he’s dressed in the same preppie shirts, slacks and tie as everyone else in school, his halting speech patterns and dancer-like movements emphasize his alienation from his fellow students; as I’ve argued elsewhere, though Dean didn’t live to see the 1960’s he seems to have anticipated them, and many of his films and TV shows, including Rebel Without a Cause, present him as a sort of prototypical 1960’s figure stuck in the 1950’s and forced to deal with its ethical compromises) comes to the honor committee and confesses that he cheated on the biology final. He says he was in the professor’s office and just happened to see the first draft of the exam in the trash can; he started reading it, realized what it was, and took it to his dorm room. Jim pleads with the committee to be allowed to take another test so he can still graduate without being expelled — he says his parents are coming in to watch his commencement within a week and they’ll be crushed if they learn he’s been expelled and will not be graduating — but they’re unmoved as long as he says that he was the only one who looked at the test in advance and thereby got an unfair advantage. At the last minute he says he showed the test papers to other students, hoping that if he names them the honor committee will let him take a retest instead of recommending to the school dean (Addison Richards) that he be thrown out. In a humiliating ritual I’m sure George Roy Hill meant to be seen as a metaphor for what the victims of the Hollywood blacklist were forced to go through — be blackballed from the industry altogether or be forced to feed the inquisition the names of other victims to be allowed to work again themselves — Jim writes down the names on a pad and gives it to Matt.

The honor committee votes 4-1 to recommend Jim’s expulsion anyway — the only dissenter is Ed (Don Dubbins) — and the case next goes to the dean and his own committee of administrators. The dean is at first inclined to let the cheating students take a retest, and in a scene that really reveals Hill’s agenda of showing how routine various forms of cheating have become, the dean exposes the other people on his staff as having cheated themselves, sneaking collectibles into the country to avoid taxation or being less than totally honest and above-board in their business dealings. Then the last member of the committee comes in with a petition signed by 1,000 students urging the administration to expel the miscreants and show them no mercy — and, faced with the prospect of a student strike at the graduation ceremony if they don’t do what the students want, the administrators cave. Needless to say, one of the cheaters was Matt’s girlfriend Sally — and Matt tries to protect her by erasing her name from Jim’s list — but at the end, and much to the discomfiture of his local businessman father (Larry Fletcher) who was hoping Matt would continue in the proud tradition of himself and his own father and graduate with honors before taking their place as local businesspeople, Matt has a public display of conscience. He breaks off his commencement speech to confess that he tried to protect Sally from expulsion by erasing her name from the list of cheaters, and therefore he’s just as culpable as she, Jim and the other people who actually cheated are. At the end Matt and Sally decide to stay together and remain in the small town where all this happened rather than relocate to a big city where they could start over and no one would know about their shame. Ironically, one of the college deans is played by David White, who as Larry Tate on the TV show Bewitched (he was Darrin Stephens’ boss) showed an infuriating and thoroughly disgusting lack of integrity in sucking up to whatever his ad agency’s clients wanted!

“Keep Our Honor Bright” is one of those interesting souvenirs of what people who actually lived in the 1950’s thought of the cult of “success” that surrounded it, and which is usually cited uncritically by Right-wingers and others who regard the 1950’s as America’s ideal decade before those pesky Blacks, women and Queers started demanding their rights (though most Right-wingers of today want to take the country even farther back — either to the 1880’s, the age of the “robber barons” in which corporations literally ran the country and politicians were just their well-paid stooges — or in some cases all the way back to the 1820’s, when only white males who owned land were allowed to vote). Nonfiction books like The Lonely Crowd, novels like The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit and movies like Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? (a brilliantly funny and mordant satire not only of “success” but also celebrity culture that rings true today!) showed that authors and filmmakers in the 1950’s held a far more measured and cynical view of “success” and what people were willing to do to achieve it — and “Keep Our Honor Bright” is a shining example of how thoughtful people in the 1950’s really felt about the win-at-all-costs mentality and the hypocrisy of telling young people they had to maintain an “honor code” and avoid cheating when their parents were “cheating” in various ways all the time! The show is also quite well acted — James Dean stands out but not as much as you’d think, and Don Dubbins as the one student who refuses to join the kangaroo-court mentality demanding that the errant students be expelled is also quite effective — and well staged, within the inevitable limits of live TV, by producer-director Maury Holland. (At one point there’s even a TV-show-within-the-TV-show, a newscast hosted by a reporter played by George Roy Hill himself, interviewing various students all of whom are demanding the expulsion of the cheaters.)

Though it really doesn’t deserve a separate comment, Charles and I watched the next episode in sequence in the James Dean Lost Television Legacy box, the seven surviving minutes of a Campbell’s Summer Soundstage [sic — it was really aired October 16, 1953, just two days after “Keep Our Honor Bright”] episode called “Life Sentence” in which Dean plays Hank Bradon, a convict who is about to be released in two weeks. He accosts a woman (played, I presume, by Georgann Johnson — at least that’s the only name on the page for this episode that looks female) who’s living on the prison grounds and is married to someone else. He pushes his way into her face and grabs her arm, pleading with her to leave with him as soon as he’s released, and while it’s not that original a concept it’s remarkable what Dean does with it. Once again, he’s considerably more limber in his body and more mobile than most actors of the time, and his overall approach shows what Dean was talking about when he told a friend, “There’s Montgomery Clift saying, ‘Help me! Help me!,” and there’s Marlon Brando saying, ‘Fuck you! Fuck you!,’ and somewhere in the middle there is James Dean.”

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

The Contenders: Geraldine Ferraro & Sarah Palin (OZY Media/PBS, 2016)

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

I watched the latest episode of The Contenders: 16 for ‘16, a surprisingly fascinating documentary series on recent Presidential contenders — Charles, who hadn’t been home for any of the previous episodes, wondered if they’d gone back in history but I said that Barry Goldwater’s 1964 campaign was as far back as they’d gone: they wanted recent history in the film and TV age. This one was a bit different in that they focused on two failed vice-presidential candidates, both women: Geraldine Ferraro in 1984 and Sarah Palin in 2008. The obvious news hook for this show was the fact that a woman is a Presidential nominee this year — and at the moment, at least according to the polls, it looks like she’s going to win (though I just read Michael Moore’s interview in the Los Angeles Times about his new movie TrumpLand — actually a film of a one-person live show he did about Donald Trump — and it contained his warning not to believe the polls; he’s convinced there’s a much greater reservoir of support for Trump in Midwest and Rust Belt states like his native Michigan than is showing up in the polls), meaning we’ll have a woman President before we’ve ever had a woman vice-president. The interesting parallel the show made about Ferraro and Palin is that both were seen as fresh faces on the national scene and both immediately boosted the campaigns of the presidential candidates who picked them — Walter Mondale and John McCain, respectively — and then both got bogged down. Ferraro got caught in a scandal over her and her husband’s tax returns — she said she’d release hers but not his, and that she’d delay filing her financial disclosure statements (the ones that are required by Federal elections law, and which Donald Trump has said should suffice instead of tax returns) until the end of the legal 90-day deadline. It created the impression that her husband, John Zaccaro, had some degree of corruption in his dealings as a New York real-estate developer — which he didn’t, though the delay also turned the national media against Ferraro and she was subjected to a two-hour press conference, the longest ever held by anyone to that time (and possibly to this day as well!). The questions pretty much neutralized any value she might have brought to Mondale’s foredoomed attempt to unseat Ronald Reagan, whose media people sold the U.S. voters a bill of goods that it was “Morning in America” and the great heroic figure of Reagan had vanquished all the doubts of the Carter years and — dare I say it? — made America great again.

Sarah Palin was a fresh face — she’d been elected governor of Alaska just two years before McCain picked her — and I was surprised this documentary did not mention that McCain had actually wanted Connecticut Senator Joe Lieberman as his running mate. To McCain, Lieberman was a valued Senate colleague who, after being rejected by liberal Democratic primary voters, had kept his seat by running as a non-partisan candidate and winning. To all too many people in the Republican base, Lieberman was still seen as a Democrat — and as Al Gore’s running mate in 2000, to boot (and Gore’s selection of the Right-wing Lieberman was one of the main reasons I voted for Ralph Nader instead of him) — and McCain was told in no uncertain terms that if he went with Lieberman he’d face an open revolt in the party. So, needing a ground-breaking choice in a hurry, he picked Palin because she’d solidify his backing in the Republican base (especially since on the big social issue, abortion, she was staunchly anti-choice) and hopefully peel off Democrats who’d voted for Hillary Clinton in the 2008 primaries and would be grateful for a second chance to vote for a woman. That didn’t work — the Democratic electorate quickly united behind Barack Obama and there were “women for Obama” marches in which liberal and pro-choice women took to the streets to say Palin didn’t represent them. But Palin’s selection energized McCain’s campaign even though she, like Ferraro, was sandbagged by the national media — in Palin’s case not over her or her husband’s financial dealings but over a combination of enthusiasm and ignorance that came across as ill-prepared ditziness and made a lot of voters wonder if this was really the person they wanted one 72-year-old cancer survivor’s heartbeat away from the White House. The show included a clip of Sarah Palin saying that there were parts of Alaska from which you could see parts of Russia (which I suppose is true if you’re into hiking up the north of the state to the edge of the Bering Strait) and Tina Fey playing Palin on Saturday Night Live saying, “I can see Russia from my living room!” — a line almost universally attributed, then and since, to Palin herself. (Then again, this year the Saturday Night Live parodies have had a hard time keeping up with the absurdity of the election itself; just one day after the show parodied the first Hillary Clinton-Donald Trump debate, with Clinton accusing Trump of thinking human-caused climate change was a hoax cooked up by China, Alec Baldwin as the SNL Trump said, “It’s pronounced Ghina,” the real Trump told a crowd of Nevadans that their state’s name should be pronounced “Neh-VAAH-duh” instead of “Neh-VAA-duh.”)

Palin gave a series of interviews to major media people in which she had no idea what the “Bush Doctrine” was — one Republican spokesperson on the show said she was ill-served by her handlers who didn’t brief her for these interviews, though given what we know about Palin it seems that she didn’t want to hold still for this sort of preparation — which makes it fitting that she was one of the first national Republicans to endorse Trump in the primaries this year: they both seem to delight in their ability to “wing it” through speeches, interviews and debates and end up saying things that so convolutedly twist and turn around each other it’s sometimes hard to figure out just what they mean by what they say. Nonetheless, McCain was actually gaining steadily on Obama in the polls until September 15, 2008, when Lehman Brothers declared bankruptcy and averting the impending collapse of the American economy suddenly became issue number one in the campaign — and as the “out” party and therefore the one most obviously blame-worthy, the Republicans were fatally handicapped and Obama became the first Presidential candidate since George H. W. Bush to win an absolute majority of the popular vote. It’s interesting, given what’s happened since, that McCain’s big moves in the campaign — choosing Palin as his running mate and invoking “Joe the Plumber” (who turned out to be Sam the plumber’s assistant) in one of the debates with Obama — were both big-time plays for the white working-class vote which had once been part of the Democrats’ New Deal coalition but had shifted decisively Right in the 1960’s and is now the bulwark of the Republican Party (and one big reason Trump is this year’s Republican nominee is that, though born to wealth, he managed to speak the language of working-class America better than anyone else in either major party — though it’s interesting that states like Michigan and Wisconsin, with their large numbers of industrial workers displaced by foreign competition and America’s shocking deindustrialization, were states whose remaining Democratic voters went strongly for Bernie Sanders over Hillary Clinton as well).

Just as Mondale in 1984 was unable to overcome the Reagan “Morning in America” myth (which has proved so historically powerful that Reagan’s 1980 election, in which he actually won just a bare majority of the popular vote — 51 percent — has gone down in history as a landslide), McCain in 2008 was unable to overcome the country’s exhaustion with the George W. Bush administration and the economic collapse that led a lot of voters to decide that the Democrats couldn’t possibly do any worse — though as things turned out the country remained strongly conservative and Republican overall, voting out the Democratic House majority in 2010 (and also putting Republicans in charge of a lot of state governments — especially significant because any election in a year ending in zero determines who will get to draw the district lines for the next decade, and the Republican state governments have used that power to give their party a virtual “lock” on the House majority no matter how the total nationwide vote for House members splits — yet another example of how Germany does democracy better than we do; they apportion their legislature by the national popular vote, which we don’t and, I think, should) and the Democratic Senate majority in 2014. As I’ve argued elsewhere, the so-called “Obama Coalition” has been able to elect exactly one person — Obama himself — otherwise the Obama years have been one political disaster for the Democratic Party after another, and if Hillary Clinton wins this year’s election it will be by default because she isn’t Donald Trump, and the Republicans in Congress will hamstring her the way they have Obama and prevent her from doing much of anything — and count the days until 2020, when Mike Pence or Ted Cruz or whoever comes along as their party’s, and the nation’s, savior.

Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You (PBS, 2016)

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

After The Contenders PBS showed a couple of other documentaries, one an American Masters presentation on TV writer and producer Norman Lear which was an interesting program that could have been a whole lot better if directors Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady had trusted their material more. They had the advantage in that Lear is still alive (at age 92!), still in full possession of his faculties and gave them full cooperation. Alas, they saddled their show with a bizarre set of framing sequences showing Lear getting ready to achieve a lifetime achievement award from somebody or other (one of those the late Billy Wilder once called the “quick before he croaks awards”) from which they cut back and forth to the actual story: Lear, a contemporary and friend of Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner (both of whom appear here as interviewees), served a similar apprenticeship as a TV writer — though he wasn’t involved in the ground-breaking Sid Caesar Your Show of Shows that launched the careers of Reiner, Brooks, Woody Allen, Larry Gelbart and Neil Simon. Lear got his start on the Colgate Comedy Hour when its stars were Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis (I hadn’t realized that Martin and Lewis were on this show before Abbott and Costello were!) and then worked on TV shows hosted by Martha Raye, Tennessee Ernie Ford (the entire montage of his 1950’s and early-1960’s TV work was scored with Ford’s hit record of “Sixteen Tons” playing in the background), George Gobel, Bobby Darin, Andy Williams, Henry Fonda and Danny Kaye (though the last four were only specials, not series).

He also produced a TV show called The Deputy which was unmentioned on this tribute, though according to the summary it was a Western that prefigured the social concerns of Lear’s later comedies: “The Deputy is Clay McCord, a storekeeper in 1880’s Silver City, Arizona Territories, who is an expert shot, but refuses to use his gun because he believes they are the major cause of frontier violence. However, he is persuaded many times to be The Deputy to help keep order when the Chief Marshal Simon Fry is out of town.” Lear rose through the ranks of Hollywood and wrote scripts for Frank Sinatra’s vehicle Come Blow Your Horn and the mordant (though annoyingly sexist) satire Divorce American Style, but his career changed when he saw a British TV sitcom called ’Til Death Do Us Part, written, produced by and starring Johnny Speight in the role of a bigoted proletarian whose layabout son-in-law moves in with them and sparks endless arguments. Lear bought the U.S. rights to this show and wrote a pilot for it called Those Were the Days which ABC turned down; later, after further tweaking — and one important story change; instead of an aimlessly drifting guy with no job or prospects for one, the son-in-law character became a college student, thereby giving him a reason for not working that U.S. audiences would find acceptable — he shot another version, called it All in the Family, and sold it to CBS. The network put it on rather gingerly as a mid-season replacement for something or other and it became an instant sensation, though it also sparked a public debate as to whether putting on a loudmouthed bigot like Archie Bunker (as played definitively by Carroll O’Connor, who shared his character’s origins as a New York Irish-American but not his politics — O’Connor was a liberal and I can still remember the galvanic shock a lot of people went through when he appeared in 1972 in a commercial for George McGovern for President) was encouraging bigotry or fighting it by holding it up to ridicule. The latter was obviously Lear’s intent, though it must have disheartened him when a lot of the mail the show received was from people who agreed with Archie Bunker and were glad one of the “liberal” TV networks had finally put someone like them on the air.

I remember watching the show at the time and generally loving it (and having something of a crush on Rob Reiner, Carl’s son, who played the “meathead” son-in-law and at the time was a big man but not as enormous as he later became — not that different, come to think of it, from my mom’s crush on Orson Welles, whom she didn’t see on screen between The Lady from Shanghai and Touch of Evil, by which time he’d become bloated — even more than he was for real because Welles famously wore body padding for his Touch of Evil role — and my mom remembered leaving the theatre where Touch of Evil was playing and wondering, “What happened to him?”), though one night I was at my father’s when it was about to come on and my half-sister said, in a surprisingly prissy tone of voice for her age (about 10), “Oh, we don’t watch that show. They shout at each other.” Lear had a string of hits after All in the FamilyGood Times (which I hadn’t realized he made before The Jeffersons — indeed, The Jeffersons was a response to the criticism he’d got from a lot of Black people, including Good Times cast members Esther Rolle and John Amos, that he was just feeding the stereotype that all African-Americans were ghetto dwellers, and he decided to answer that by putting on a show about affluent Blacks who had made it in business and lived in “a dee-luxe apartment in the sky”), Sanford and Son (another British TV import whose leads Lear changed from white to Black for the U.S. version), the ferociously brilliant Maude (inevitably this show showcases the famous episode in which Maude gets pregnant at 62 and decides to have an abortion) with Bea Arthur’s performance matching O’Connor’s All in the Family work for sheer rightness for the part, and a wide variety of shows including One Day at a Time (not mentioned here but ground-breaking in its own way as the first TV series about a divorcée), the soap-opera spoof Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman (among other things, the first series to depict an openly Gay character as a “regular”) and its spinoff Fernwood Tonight, and mini-series like a.k.a. Pablo, Sunday Dinner (a show in which Lear wanted to explore religion and how it figured into the lives of 1990’s Americans) and 704 Hauser (famously the address of the Bunkers in All in the Family).

Then, at the end of the 1970’s, Lear abruptly left Hollywood, turned over the reins of his hit shows to Alan Horn (now head of production at Disney) and focused on the activist group People for the American Way, which he started as a direct challenge to Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority and the others in the so-called “Christian Right” who had emerged as a major political force in the late 1970’s and were basically preaching that unless you were a Right-wing anti-choice anti-Queer Republican you couldn’t possibly be a real Christian. Though Lear has done TV work since then (his page lists subsequent credits even though this documentary doesn’t mention them), he’s mostly lived in semiretirement, including writing an autobiography called Even This I Get to Experience and starting a late-in-life family with a second wife and a new set of kids (his first wife, Frances, left him in the late 1970’s because she could no longer stand his workaholism and didn’t want to keep living in L.A.). Lear’s story is a fascinating one, and his success occurred at an historically interesting juncture in American mass entertainment, before the proliferation of cable channels, the Internet and social media, when there were still “water-cooler” shows huge audiences watched one night and talked about the next day — and Lear’s mission was to make shows that would entertain people but also get them thinking about the big social issues of the day and listen to other points of view than their own with the fig-leaf of comedy to make the medicine go down. It’s hard to imagine anything like Lear’s career happening today, not only because the audience is so fragmented but because the down side of so many entertainment choices is that you can (and most people do) watch only shows that reinforce what you already believe, not challenge it. After the Norman Lear American Masters I watched a third show on PBS — a Frontline rerun from June 2015 called Growing Up Trans — which I promise I’ll be commenting on later.

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Abbott and Costello in the Foreign Legion (Universal-International, 1950)

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

Last night Charles and I watched a movie that proved to be surprisingly good: Abbott and Costello in the Foreign Legion, the next in sequence in the Universal boxed set and a considerably better film than Abbott and Costello Go to Mars, the one we’d just seen at one of the public (or semi-public) screenings in Golden Hill. It was the first Abbott and Costello movie directed by Charles Lamont, who would do most of their movies until they left Universal in 1955, and unlike some of the other, more highly regarded horror-comedies A&C made during the period (particularly Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein), it didn’t have the maddening alternation between creatively shadowed Gothic photography in the horror or action scenes and dull, flatly lit work when Abbott and Costello are doing their comedy sequences. This time Universal-International assigned the cinematography to George Robinson, master of atmosphere, who’d shot the 1931 Spanish-language version of the original Dracula (and, for my money, did a much better job than the more highly regarded Karl Freund did with the English version) and the Dracula sequels, Dracula’s Daughter (1936) and the awesome Son of Dracula (1943). Robinson shot the whole thing in glorious half-lit atmospherics, making it look far more like Casablanca than like an Abbott and Costello spoof, and the film gained a great deal from his work.

It’s true that the script (by John Grant, Martin Ragaway and Kenneth Stern from an “original” story by D. D. Beauchamp) seems almost to have been written to a checklist of Middle Eastern clichés — slave auction? Check. Guys accidentally end up in a harem? Check. Swarthy locals throwing daggers at Our Heroes to kill them or scare them off? Check. Gags about oases and mirages? Check (though those are among the funniest scenes in the film, especially when Costello runs into a mirage of a newsboy in the middle of the desert, asks what he’s doing there and is told, “Can I help it if they gave me a lousy corner?”) — plus the boys’ enlistment scene into the French Foreign Legion, which is a virtual cop of their accidental enlistment into the U.S. Army nine years earlier in their star-making film Buck Privates. The film starts in New York City, where Abbott and Costello are small-time wrestling promoters who’ve brought in a wrestler from Algeria named Abdullah (Tor Johnson — who’s actually quite good; though the W. C. Fields/Clyde Bruckman comedy masterpiece The Man on the Flying Trapeze is probably the best film Johnson was ever in, this is probably his best role; he even gets to be an action hero on the side of good in the closing scenes! Continuity goof: In the opening scene, set in New York City, Tor Johnson's character is called Abdullah. Later, when he appears in the Middle East, he is called Abou Ben and the person he is wrestling against, played by Wee Willie Davis, is called Abdullah). The only problem is that Abdullah claims to be the greatest wrestler in the world, and Bud Jones (Bud Abbott — Lou Costello’s character is called “Lou Hotchkiss” and so this film offers us the rare treat of hearing Abbott and Costello at least able to address each other by their real first names) has scripted his latest match so Abdullah will lose. Abdullah walks out on his contract and returns to his native Algeria (Johnson was really Swedish, but once again he was cast on the one-foreign-accent-is-as-good-as-another principle), and Bud and Lou follow him there because the gangsters who put up the money to bring Abdullah to the U.S. in the first place threaten to kill them if they can’t get him back.

So they end up accidentally enlisting in the Foreign Legion and doing some gag scenes recycled from Buck Privates and the other service comedies they did in the early days of both their film careers and the U.S.’s involvement in World War II, as well as some scenes more reminiscent of the Bob Hope-Bing Crosby Road movies than anything we usually associate with Abbott and Costello (notably a fish with false teeth in its mouth — courtesy of an Arab soldier who accidentally dropped his into the oasis water — that spits at Our Heroes when they try to catch him for dinner). There’s also a plot line recycled from American Westerns and incorporated into the Algerian setting: Bud’s and Lou’s immediate commander in the Foreign Legion, Sgt. Axmann (Walter Slezak), is really a bad guy, in cahoots with corrupt desert Sheik Hamud el-Khalid (Douglass Dumbrille, who also played a corrupt sheik in Abbott and Costello’s other Mideast spoof, Lost in a Harem, at MGM in 1944) and a crooked landowner to stage raids along the proposed railroad route so the railroad will have to buy the landowner’s properties instead, pay a lot more money and have to run their trains on a much longer track. And there’s a character from French intelligence, Nicole Dupré (Patricia Medina, Mrs. Joseph Cotten and for some reason a go-to woman for Middle Eastern movies just then; she’s the good girl to Lucille Ball’s bad girl in Lew Landers’ and David Mathews’ wildly improbable but still fun Arab adventure The Magic Carpet from 1951), who’s trying to figure out who the “mole” is inside the Foreign Legion that keeps leaking its plans to Sheik Hamud. There’s nothing really that innovative or brilliant about this movie, but it kept me laughing considerably harder than most of the A&C vehicles around this time, and George Robinson’s cinematography is quite a bit better than the A&C norm and proves (as did the original 1984 Ghostbusters, with its comedy scenes brilliantly set off against a dark, almost dystopian version of New York City) that dark, atmospheric photography can sometimes, instead of taking away from a comedy, make it even funnier by contrast!

Sunday, October 23, 2016

Earth vs. the Flying Saucers (Clover/Columbia, 1956)

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

I ran the videotape of Earth vs. the Flying Saucers, a 1956 sci-fi programmer from Columbia, directed by Fred Sears, dealing with an alien civilization of ancient, decrepit space travelers who have built themselves spacesuits (that make them look like upright, walking, giant-sized minnows) to hold themselves together, and are fleeing to Earth to take over and thus give themselves a home after their own planet has disintegrated. It’s not all that different a plot from Plan Nine from Outer Space, though the overall production values are superior — Ray Harryhausen got a special-effects credit, and his touch is apparent in the final scene, in which the Washington Monument and the Capitol are credibly destroyed by crashing flying saucers. But the saucers themselves have the kids’-model look common in 1950’s sci-fi movies (not until Star Trek and 2001 did any filmmakers put on screen spacecraft that actually looked like they could fly). — 7/4/95


The Vintage Sci-Fi film screening last night in Golden Hill started with Earth vs. the Flying Saucers, a 1956 Columbia production from Sam Katzman’s Clover unit, with Katzman listed as executive producer, Charles H. Schneer as producer, Fred F. Sears (then in the middle of that string of rock ’n’ roll cheapies Katzman’s company was making for Columbia at the same time) as director and Ray Harryhausen in charge of the effects. Charles and I had a VHS tape of this and had watched it ages ago, and my memory was that — like many of Harryhausen’s films — his contributions were the only things that made it worthwhile viewing. The original story was by Curt Siodmak (suggesting that if either he or his brother Robert had directed this could have been a much better movie, with plot portions worthy of Harryhausen’s work) but other, hackier writers like Bernard Gordon (originally billed under a pseudonym, “Raymond T. Marcus,” because he’d been blacklisted, though his true name has been restored on this version) and George Worthing Yates actually turned Siodmak’s potentially interesting story into a script. The plot centers around Project Skyhook, a U.S. Air Force attempt to put 12 artificial satellites in Earth orbit so they can monitor the universe and collect valuable scientific information about the nature of space.

Only the satellites keep disappearing almost as soon as they are launched, and the 12th one doesn’t even get into space at all — the rocket taking it up (a stock shot of an old German V-2) blows up on the launching pad. At the same time flying saucers suddenly start popping up all over the Earth, and the scientist in charge of Skyhook, Dr. Russell Marvin (Hugh Marlowe), deduces that the satellites are being shot down from space by the flying saucers as part of an advance guard for a full-scale invasion of Earth. One of the saucers actually lands on the Skyhook base and uses a death-ray weapon to annihilate everybody on the base except Marvin, Carol (Joan Taylor) — the colleague he had just married when all this started — and General John Hanley (Morris Ankrum), Carol’s father, who got kidnapped and taken to one of the saucers, where the enemy aliens scooped out his own mind and left him a zombie (in the Halperin, not the Romero, sense of the term). The Marvins also end up on board the spaceship, where they find out enough about the aliens’ technology that Russell is able to invent a ray gun of his own that can shoot down the flying saucers — and in a thrilling climax that features the film’s famous shot of a saucer slicing the Capitol dome in half like an errant razor blade-lined Frisbee (about the only part I actually remembered from the time Charles and I had seen it last), the saucers are finally downed and the invasion of Earth is repelled … for now, since there’s always the chance that the invaders (whose origins are carefully unspecified) might come back with bigger numbers and/or better reinforcements. Seeing the Capitol damaged by enemy attack was especially odd given that I’ve been following the recently premiered TV series Designated Survivor, which features the Capitol being blown up by terrorists during the President’s State of the Union address and the resulting annihilation of the entire administration, Congress and the Supreme Court (except for one Cabinet minister who takes over as President, and two Congressmembers).

What I hadn’t realized was that the DVD of Earth vs. the Flying Saucers contains both the original black-and-white version of the film and a colorized version, ballyhooed as supervised by Ray Harryhausen himself (though Charles, when I mentioned the movie to him after I got home, was skeptical: “They probably paid him some money to tell them what colors things were!” he said). The proprietor offered us the chance to see whichever version got a majority vote, and since most people there had already seen the black-and-white original we plumped for the colorized one — which wasn’t bad. One of the ironies of the whole controversy over colorization is that the great movies, the deathless classics like The Maltese Falcon and Casablanca, were colorized first, while the not-so-great films were done later, after they had worked the kinks out of the process and the colors were more convincing (even though I think anyone watching this version of Earth vs. the Flying Saucers would probably guess it had been colorized — there’s just something “off” about the colors, the flesh tones in particular — white flesh tones exclusively since there were no people of color in the dramatis personae; I believe the 1960 Columbia production 12 to the Moon was the first science-fiction film ever made that featured a Black character, and he was a Nigerian rather than an African-American). I especially liked the turquoise-green color of the 1953 Mercury sedan the Marvins drove, though the color really didn’t add that much to the overall effect (nor did it detract — this was not one of those movies carefully crafted to take advantage of the atmospherics of black-and-white that actually suffered aesthetically from colorization). In my last go-round with Earth vs. the Flying Saucers I had basically said that Harryhausen’s scenes were the only parts that made the movie worth watching; this time around I noticed, more than I had before, how much the story ripped off from The War of the Worlds, and especially from the George Pal/Byron Haskin film of it that had been made in 1953 (in color!). The filmmakers even bought a stock shot from Paramount of the scene in The War of the Worlds in which the L.A. City Hall is destroyed by the aliens. (The film’s geography is a bit unclear; though the climax is supposed to take place in Washington, D.C., the landmarks include not only the L.A. City Hall but the George Washington Bridge, which is in New York.)

At the same time I also noticed that this film influenced Edward D. Wood, Jr. when he made Plan Nine from Outer Space; though the aliens’ mission in Plan Nine (to neutralize Earth’s war-making capabilities before they become a threat to the survival of the universe) and Dudley Manlove’s big speech explaining it were clear ripoffs of the 1951 The Day the Earth Stood Still, plenty of elements from Earth vs. the Flying Saucers turned up in Plan Nine, including the narration explaining that Earth was being invaded by flying saucers from outer space, the scenes of saucers buzzing terrestrial aircraft and freaking out their passengers and crew, and the key plot gimmick of a tape recording that sounds like white noise played at normal speed, but when slowed down is revealed as a message from the aliens prior to their attack. Also, the aliens themselves are dressed in all-over black spacesuits which it turns out they need because their home planet had been so devastated by nuclear radiation (or something) that even on their home world they were too weak to survive without protection — a gimmick British writer Sidney Nation later copied for the Daleks on Doctor Who. Earth vs. the Flying Saucers is an O.K. movie, notable not only for Harryhausen’s effects work (even though he was not happy about it; he called it the worst film he ever worked on and said he never again did collapses of buildings with stop-motion animation because it was too difficult and the results weren’t convincing enough to justify the effort — and while the flying saucers are animated effectively, they don’t have the impressive detailing of later movie spacecraft on projects like Star Trek, 2001: A Space Odyssey and Star Wars) but also for a surprisingly effective performance by Hugh Marlowe. He really manages to capture a wide range of emotions, including dedication to his work, love for his wife (though she, reflecting the difficulty 1950’s filmmakers had with independent women, is shown as a helpful colleague in some scenes and a helpless flibbertigibbet in others), genuine sorrow at the loss of his Skyhook colleagues and grim determination to beat back the alien invasion with his scientific know-how. — 10/23/16

Battle in Outer Space (Toho Studios, 1959)

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

After Earth vs. the Flying Saucers the next film on the program was a 1959 Japanese movie called Battle in Outer Space, which basically had all the bad qualities of Earth vs. the Flying Saucers and none of its good ones. The screening proprietor scheduled it because he had much fonder memories of it than it seemed to deserve this go-round, and said it was the first time he had fallen asleep during one of his screenings. It’s directed by Ishirô Honda, the effects person behind most of Toho Studios’ big monsters, from a story by Jôjirô Okami and a script by Shin’ichi Sekizawa, not exactly names that loom large in the history of Japanese film. It’s a thoroughly dull story about alien invaders from the planet Natal, who have taken over the moon and intend to use it as a base from which to attack, conquer and colonize Earth. They also have the power to take over human beings and turn them into their slaves with mind control, though for some reason they either can’t or won’t do this to more than one person at a time. At first the Natalians content themselves with wrecking trains (there’s a nicely chilling sequence straight out of the 1933 The Invisible Man) and wreaking minor-league havoc, but when the nations of the world come together and launch a pair of spaceships to fly to the moon and attack the alien base there, the Natalians take over one of the crew members, Iwamura (Yoshio Tsuchiya) — spells the character name “Iwomura” but it’s “Iwamura” on the subtitles of the Japanese-language print we were watching (as with Earth vs. the Flying Saucers, the proprietor had two versions available, one in Japanese with subtitles and one dubbed into English, but he chose the Japanese version because it was letterboxed and the English wasn’t) — and use him first to disable the ship’s ray guns (needed to defend themselves against both meteors and Natalian fighters) and then, once they make it to the moon, to blow up one of the ships so the astronauts are going to have a hard time getting back even if they defeat the Natalians. Battle in Outer Space is one of the dullest movies ever made — while previous Toho entries in the alien-invasion genre, including The Mysterians (a 1957 production I haven’t seen since the 1970’s but I remember as fun even though it was basically just destruction-porn), had had enough of a budget actually to dramatize a war of the worlds, this one didn’t. Nor were the actors especially appealing — except for Kyôko Ansai, the one woman in the cast and quite capable in the unfortunately minor role of one of the crew members (you’d see her in passing and do a double-take — “There is a woman in this film?”), who alas got married and decided to be a good little Japanese wife instead of continuing her career. (If she’d stayed in films she could certainly have given Yoko Tani — notorious in the early 1960’s as “Japan’s Scream Queen” and undoubtedly the world’s most famous person named “Yoko” until John Lennon took up with Yoko Ono — a run for her money.) Battle in Outer Space might have made a good target for Mystery Science Theatre 3000, but au naturel it’s just an hour-and-a-half waste of time and a cinematic burp, one of those frustrating movies that’s not bad enough to be camp and not good enough to be enjoyable as anything else.

Saturday, October 22, 2016

Abbott and Costello Go to Mars (Universal-International, 1953)

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

Last night’s “Mars movie screening” in Golden Hill consisted of a couple of science-fiction spoofs, made about a decade apart — Abbott and Costello Go to Mars in 1953 and The Three Stooges in Orbit in 1962 — but rooted in a pretty similar Zeitgeist. Abbott and Costello Go to Mars — a misnomer because, while the two actually (inadvertently) hijack a spaceship and fly it to another planet, they go not to Mars but to Venus — doesn’t have much of a reputation in the A&C oeuvre (Leonard Maltin quoted the New York Herald-Tribune’s snarky one-line dismissal — “And about time” — and called the film itself “one of their worst”) but it turned out to be genuinely amusing, though not laugh-out-loud funny. It was based on a story by Howard Christie (who also produced) and D. D. Beauchamp, worked into a screenplay by Christie and John Grant (the wordsmith who wrote “Who’s on First” and many of A&C’s most famous wordplay routines), though oddly in the 1950’s A&C were moving away from dialogue comedy and getting virtually all their laughs from slapstick — usually comedians moved out of slapstick and towards dialogue comedy as they aged, but for some reason A&C did the reverse. The plot of this one concerns a secret U.S. government program headed by Dr. Wilson (Robert Paige, reuniting with Abbott and Costello from their second film and career-establishing hit, Buck Privates, in 1941) that has successfully constructed a nuclear-powered single-stage rocket capable of interplanetary travel. Orville (Lou Costello) is an orphan who has stayed at the Hideaway Orphanage his entire life until he’s reached age 38, and when the film begins he’s flying one of those model airplanes which has a motor on it but is tied to strings to the pilot can control it. He’s challenged to explain the principles of space travel by two glasses-wearing kids (today we’d call them “nerds”) who of course understand it all better than he does. (According to, Harry Shearer of This Is Spinal Tap is one of the kids at the orphanage.) When Orville flies his drone plane through the window of a post office, the cops go after him and he flees by leaping into a truck that’s delivering equipment to the base where the spaceship has been built.

The truck is being driven by Lester (Bud Abbott), the delivery person for the base, and there’s an amusing scene in which Lester becomes convinced Orville is a spy seeking to steal the secrets of the rocket for some sinister foreign power, while one of the scientists who helped design and build the rocket is named Dr. Orvilla (Joe Kirk) and he and Orville are mistaken for each other. The scientists meet in solemn conclave to vote whether to take the rocket to Mars or Venus, but of course that decision is made for them when Abbott and Costello end up hiding inside the thing and accidentally start it off into space. They fly the thing around New York City, including through the Lincoln Tunnel — there’s a neat scene in which an alcoholic stumbles into a bar, swears he’s just seen a spaceship go through the Lincoln Tunnel (where Costello has just been fishing through his spacesuit looking for a quarter to pay the toll) and demands a drink — and the bartender doesn’t believe him until he sees the ship emerge from the Lincoln Tunnel, whereupon the bartender grabs the bottle from the poor guy and takes a swig himself. The ship finally lands in New Orleans in the middle of Mardi Gras, where our accidental astronauts see all the strangely costumed people getting ready for the parade and think they’ve actually flown to Mars. About the only normally dressed people are two convicts who sneak into the ship, steal two spacesuits, hold up a bank using a ray gun that paralyzes people without killing them (much like the gas in Dick Tracy Meets Gruesome six years earlier), and then steal some normal clothes and stow away aboard the spacecraft. Wanted in all 48 states, the two crooks, Mugsy (Horace McMahon) and Harry (Jack Kruschen), demand that A&C take them to another country — only instead A&C screw up the controls instead and the four end up on Venus. (The planet Venus?) Venus turns out to be one of those weirdly sexist fantasy worlds that appeared in a lot of 1950’s movies, including Cat Women on the Moon, Fire Maidens from Outer Space and Queen of Outer Space, in which the entire population is humanoid female — and breathtakingly attractive humanoid female at that, so the filmmakers could cast (and credit!) beauty-contest winners. The queen of Venus is Allura (Mari Blanchard, a nice-looking blonde who a year after this film took Marlene Dietrich’s original role in a remake of Destry Rides Again) and her guards include the young Anita Ekberg (Miss Sweden of 1950 — Abbott & Costello and Fellini, one degree of separation!), Jackie Loughery (Miss U.S.A.), Jeri Miller (Miss Welcome to Long Beach — that’s really her title) and Judy Hatula (Miss Michigan), while Allura’s (the name says it all) handmaidens are Ruth Hampton (Miss New Jersey), Valerie Jackson (Miss Montana), Renate Huy (Miss Germany), Jeanne Thompson (Miss Louisiana) and Elza Edsman (Miss Hawai’i).

It seems that 400 years previously Allura’s husband ran off with another woman, and rather than allow that to happen again Allura made the royal decision to banish all men from Venus, thereby ensuring that its women could live in peace and harmony with each other and would be eternally youthful and immortal (though this rather begs the question of where, with no men, little Venusians — and we see at least one — come from). Only the other Venusians are so hot to have men around they really don’t care whether they look like Bud Abbott, Lou Costello, Horace McMahon and Jack Kruschen — at least until Allura shows them photos of the Venusian men who got banished, who all look like Charles Atlas models (rather than the major male movie stars of the period) and says that if they’re going to have men around, they should at least be hot-looking musclemen instead of twerps like the four they’ve actually got. Eventually A&C flee Venus — the Venusians have thoughtfully refueled their ship in hopes of stealing it and using it themselves to conquer Earth and put an end to this “man” thing once and for all — and the four astronauts return to Earth and a ticker-tape parade, A&C in an open car and the two crooks, recaptured, in a paddy wagon. Abbott and Costello Go to Mars is a nice, amusing movie — it’s not laugh-out-loud funny except in a few places (notably a neat special-effects scene towards the end in which the spacecraft is heading for the Statue of Liberty — and the statue ducks to get out of its way; also the final tag scene, in which Queen Allura back on Venus sends a flying saucer to Earth just to splat a pie in Costello’s face as he’s in the middle of the parade honoring him) but it has a certain charm even though, especially early on, the ongoing real-life hostility between the two stars (which for a time reached such nasty proportions that they literally didn’t speak to each other unless they were doing a scene together — and their writers accommodated them by giving them as few scenes together as possible) is quite apparent in their on-screen (lack of) chemistry.

The Three Stooges in Orbit (Normandy/Columbia, 1962)

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

After Abbott and Costello Go to Mars we got to see its double-bill partner, The Three Stooges in Orbit, made in 1962 at an odd juncture in the Stooges’ career. They had originally began as the sidekicks of vaudevillian Ted Healy, who in 1930 got to make an early musical for Fox, Soup to Nuts, written by cartoonist Rube Goldberg. Healy ended up under contract at MGM as a contract player and brought the Stooges along for some comic-relief scenes in illustrious movies like Dancing Lady with Joan Crawford, Clark Gable, Fred Astaire and Nelson Eddy (the last two in their film debuts), only in 1934 MGM decided that they’d keep Healy under contract but didn’t need his “stooges” anymore. So Columbia, whose president Harry Cohn always liked it when he could one-up the mighty MGM and make stars out of people MGM’s boss Louis B. Mayer had fired, put the Stooges under contract and set them to making two-reel comedy shorts. At the time the lineup of the Three Stooges was brothers Moe and Curly Howard (Moe was the one who anticipated the Beatles’ pudding-bowl haircuts, Curly the shaved-headed guy who invented the “N’yuk n’yuk” vocal noise that became a Stooges trademark) and Larry Fine, the frizzy-haired one. Amazingly, the Three Stooges’ series of shorts lasted from 1934 to 1957 and proved reliable moneymakers for Columbia; the studio occasionally put them in minor roles in features but mostly kept them in the two-reel salt mines. In 1946 Curly suffered a stroke and was replaced in the team by a third Howard brother, Shemp, who’d previously played important supporting roles in comedies with far more impressive stars, like The Bank Dick with W. C. Fields, Hellzapoppin’ with Broadway sensations Ole Olsen and Chic Johnson, and Buck Privates with Bud Abbott and Lou Costello. When Shemp died in 1955 the Stooges got an unrelated but quite amusing comedian named Joe Besser to replace him, but by that time the advent of television was pretty much killing the market for movie shorts. Columbia let the Stooges’ series die a natural death in 1957, but the following year they started selling the Stooges’ movies to TV — a 20-minute two-reeler was a “natural” for TV because it could be cut up to insert commercial breaks and fit into a half-hour time slot — and they were sensationally successful, especially when stations ran them in the late afternoon so schoolchildren could watch them. Columbia re-signed the Stooges to make feature films, many of them with a science-fiction bent (the first was called Have Rocket, Will Travel), largely the result of director Edward Bernds, who’d cut his teeth on the Stooges’ shorts, but when he stepped up to feature films his career took an odd turn into science fiction.

According to an “Trivia” poster The Three Stooges in Orbit actually started life as an unsold color pilot for a Stooges’ TV series — the first 20 minutes, in which the Stooges get thrown out of a number of hotels for cooking in their rooms (a big bozo no-no in the days of vaudeville — Stan Laurel remembered that when he and Charlie Chaplin roomed together on tour with Fred Karno’s vaudeville troupe before either of them made movies, Laurel would cook their meals over an open gas jet in the room and Chaplin would cover up the sound by practicing his violin), come from their failed TV pilot and are the funniest scenes in the film — before they hook up with mad inventor Professor Danforth (Emil Sitka, who’d been a regular supporting player in the Stooges’ shorts), who invites the Stooges to stay in his mansion. What they don’t realize is that the mansion is haunted, not by the usual ghosts or goblins but by Martians, including Danforth’s butler Williams (Norman Leavitt), a Martian who’s been put through elaborate plastic surgery to look like an Earthling. The Martians au naturel look as close as Columbia’s makeup department could come to the Universal makeup for the Frankenstein monster without Universal suing them for copyright infringement. When Williams fails in his mission to neutralize Danforth’s invention — a peculiar contraption that has tank treads to go on land, electric motors so it can travel under sea as a submarine, and helicopter rotors so it can fly — because the Martians think it’s the only possible craft by which the Earthlings can resist a War of the Worlds-style invasion, the Martians send Ogg (George N. Neise) and Zogg (Rayford Barnes) — one wonders if they knew Yll and Ylla, the bored middle-aged Martian couple who figured prominently at the beginning of Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles — and the movie is basically a series of slapstick sequences as the Stooges try to get the contraption ready for a demonstration Air Force Captain Tom Andrews (Edson Stroll) has arranged, largely out of incredibly blandly depicted love for Danforth’s daughter Carol (Carol Christensen), only they end up loading it with a water-activated atom bomb the Navy was testing as an ultimate depth charge against an enemy’s nuclear submarines. There’s also a straight cop of the gimmick from the 1935 Gene Autry science-fiction musical Western serial The Phantom Empire in which the Stooges have to keep getting back to the local TV station they work for in order to do their show on time or risk getting fired.

The Three Stooges in Orbit is a cute, clever film whose target audience was probably still in single digits; people older than that are likely to notice how old Moe and Larry had got — naturally it’s especially noticeable in their close-ups — and how little they were doing the slapstick that had been their stock-in-trade when they were making the shorts whose renewed popularity on TV had led to the Stooges’ comeback. Part of the problem was the new “third Stooge,” Joe DeRita, who had signed on when Joe Besser quit after the cancellation of the shorts series. The Stooges christened him “Curly-Joe,” but that only underscored how much less funny he was than the original Curly Howard; apparently DeRita was unwilling to do too much pie-in-the-face or finger-in-the-eye stuff (though the funniest scene in this film after the first 20 minutes is when the rotors of Danforth’s craft get caught in a batch of pies and fling them at the Air Force brass there to watch the demonstration — an automatic pie fight!) and his preference for dialogue comedy fit oddly with Moe’s and Larry’s more restrained physical antics. The finale features Danforth’s craft literally splitting in half, with the bottom half killing the Martians who had hijacked it when the bomb explodes (invoking another, far superior Columbia release two years later, I couldn’t help but sing “We’ll meet again, don’t know where, don’t know when” as the bomb went off and a mushroom cloud filled the screen) while the top half delivers the Stooges to their TV studio right when the manager who’s never liked them was about to fire them. They save their career with a new invention, “electronic cartoons,” which basically means the Stooges cover themselves with white makeup and get themselves filmed doing the Twist — the makers of this movie had the idea of digital cartoons decades before computer technology advanced enough to make them a reality — and there’s a clever tag scene in which two surviving Martians see the Martian subtitle communicating the last bits of English dialogue in the film (a reversal since earlier we’ve seen gag subtitles in English purporting to translate what the Martians are saying to each other), and one Martian shoots out all the letters in the subtitle except the ones that read “the end.” (I miss titles that say “The End.” That’s how old-school I am in my movie-watching!)