Monday August 31, 2020
The simple truth is Donald Trump failed to protect America. So now, he’s trying to scare America.— Joe Biden (@JoeBiden) August 31, 2020
Monday August 31, 2020
'Telling Lies in Front of Flags'
“The main theme of the convention seemed to be: telling lies in front of flags. Because it was four days of a full-throated denial of objective reality.”
-- John Oliver, on last week's Republican National Convention
Monday August 31, 2020
Movie Review: 13 Rue Madeleine (1947)
“Tattaglia is a pimp. He never could have outfought Santino. But I didn't know until this day that it was Barzini all along.” – Don Vito Corleone.
James Cagney is a little smarter than Don Corleone. He figured out fast that it was Barzini—or actor Richard Conte, who plays Barzini in “The Godfather” and Bill O’Connell here: a Nazi spy amid the U.S. Secret Intelligence service during World War II. One wonders if this wasn’t inspiration for Francis Ford Coppola’s casting or if Conte was commonly cast as the turncoat in ’40s and ’50s movie. Or if it was just a coincidence.
It’s supposed to be O.S.S., and Cagney’s character, Bob Sharkey, is supposed to be “Wild” Bill Donovan, but apparently neither Donovan nor the O.S.S. liked the storyline. I don’t blame them. The U.S. Secret Intelligence service doesn’t come off very intelligent. That’s why the filmmakers chose the lookalike “O77,” which stands for Operation 77, since this is the 77th operation the service has engaged in since the war began. I know that’s the letter “o” not the number zero, but I couldn’t help notice the James Bond connotation: oh double-seven instead of double-oh seven. The first Bond novel was published five years later, so one wonders if this wasn’t some kind of inspiration for Ian Fleming. Or if it was just a coincidence.
Anyway, to firmer ground.
Where have you gone, Lefty Merrill?
“13 Rue Madeleine” is the second Henry Hathaway-directed movie in as many years with a street address for a title (“The House on 92 Street”), a plot revolving around a Nazi double agent, and what the AFI site calls a “documentary-like” feel (the stentorian voice of wartime narrator Reed Hadley is used for exposition). The movie begins on the rainy streets of Washington D.C., and then we get a shot of the National Archives. Beneath a statue of “the future” is a phrase from Shakespeare’s “The Tempest.” And our stentorian narration begins:
“What is past is prologue. Yes, here in the National Archives in Washington D.C., past is prologue. For this is the final resting place of the histories and records of tens of thousands of illustrious Americans. World War II has come to a victorious conclusion, and now new names and new records are being added to the list. For the nation and the world are for the first time learning of silent and significant deeds performed in foreign lands by a legion of anonymous men and women—the Army of Secret Intelligence.”
He keeps going. How long? We’re six and a half minutes in before we get the first snippet of dialogue. Then imore narration. I guess it's one way to go. Probably beats dialogue like: “Hi, I’m Bob--” “No need to introduce yourself, Mr. Sharkey, your reputation proceeds you. Master of five languages. Expert in judo. You grew up in St. Paul, Minnesota, right?” “Yeah, that’s right. [smiles] Should’ve known Secret Intelligence would have some intelligence on me.”
As Cagney’s previous film, “Blood on the Sun,” was sloppy seconds to “Casablanca” (pre-war romance with exotic beauty in exotic land), so this is sloppy seconds to Alan Ladd’s “O.S.S.,” which was released almost a year earlier (May 1946 to January 1947) and obviously received Donovan’s imprimatur. And just as “Blood” contained its echo of Bogart’s “hill of beans” speech, so this contains an echo of “O.S.S.”’s speech about how the spy biz is antithetical to the American character.
“Americans aren’t brought up to fight the way the enemy fights. We can learn to become intelligence agents and saboteurs if we have to. But we’re too sentimental, too trusting, too easy-going...”
“Now the average American is a good sport—plays by the rules. But this war is no game, and no secret agent is a hero or a good sport. That is—no living agent. You’re going to be taught to kill, to cheat, to rob, to lie. And everything you learn is moving you toward one objective—just one, that’s all: the success of your mission. Fair play? That’s out. Years of decency and honest living? Forget all about them or turn in your suits.”
It’s funny hearing Cagney talk about how Americans play by the rules when his spent his entire career cast as gangsters like Tom Powers and grifters like Lefty Merrill. There’s some truth to his speech, I suppose, but there’s more truth in Lefty’s line: “I'm telling you, Mac, the public is like a cow, bellowing, bellowing to be milked.” Or maybe the above speeches were how a postwar America was bellowing? After all that, it wanted to be told it was still innocent.
At the training grounds in England, Sharkey's superior, Charles Gibson (Walter Abel), tells him that one of the recruits is a spy and it’s up to Sharkey to figure it out. The narrator has already helpfully introduced us to three possibilities:
- Suzanne de Beaumont (Annabella): a French citizen whose husband is MIA
- Jeff Lassiter (Frank Latimore), educated in Geneva, Oxford and UCLA and All-American-looking
- Bill O’Connell (Conte), Rutgers
Since O’Connell graduates at the top of his class—passing tests that were designed for failure—Sharkey knows it’s him.
Then the first mistake. Rather than arrest him, the service decides to feed him false intel. The big question at this point in the war is where the U.S. is going to open a second front, so they send O’Connell, Lassister and de Beaumont on a mission to Holland, where, they imply, the second front will be opened. Then they make a bigger mistake: They let Lassiter in on it. They tell him his pal, with whom he trained, joked and played backgammon, is a Nazi spy, and the kid can’t deal. On the flight over, O’Connell makes small talk but Lassiter can barely look at him. Immediately O’Connell figures his cover his blown and Holland is a lie, and he takes swift action. Before the jump, he cuts Lassiter’s parachute cord and Lassiter plunges to his death, while “O’Connell” (real name: Kuncel) slips back to Gestapo headquarters in Le Havre: the 13 Rue Madeleine of the title.
Up to this point, our main characters have been Lassiter, O’Connell and the narration, and we’ve basically just lost all of them. So who fills the gap? Cagney, of course. Sharkey decides he’s the one who should continue the mission—capturing a man named Duclois (Marcel Rousseau), who built a factory in Le Havre at which the Germans are manufacturing V-2 rockets. Some of the intrigue isn’t bad. He parachutes in, is met silently by a French farm family who bury his parachute and whose little girl points him to the safe house. It’s run by a severe, older French woman (Blanche Yurka), who’s great. She talks to Sharkey sternly, tells him he needs to move on at first light, betrays nothing of her allegiances. Lassiter should’ve had such a game face.
Sharkey goes by the undercover name Chavat and runs into a lot of luck. He asks the town’s mayor (Sam Jaffe) about Duclois, and the mayor turns out to be Free French. They work together to pull German guards from Duclois so they can snatch him; but Sharkey is captured by O’Connell/Kuncel and brought to the titular house, where, we’re told, he’ll suffer “the cruelest tortures the Germans can devise.” Cut to Germans sipping coffee while we hear whipping noises from the other room. Painful, sure, but hardly devised by the Germans.
The ending is interesting for two reasons. One, it prefigures Cagney's famous end in “White Heat.“ Cagney's in the torture room, sweating, bloodied, eyeing Kuncel, when the Allied planes go overhead. He knows the Allies will blow up the V-2 factory and 13 Rue Madeleine, thus ending his pain and Kuncel’s chance to find out about the second front. Which is what happens, and he laughs. And that's how he dies: Laughing in a fiery explosion, laughing. Top of the world.
All at once
But this isn’t the end-end. We actually return to Washington, D.C., the National Archives buidling, and the quote: “What is past is prologue.” The camera lingers on it to remind us of ... what? If this is the past, then the prologue is … the Soviets? I got a real Cold War vibe from that. Concurrently, but oddly, IMDb lists Julie and Ethel Rosenberg among the cast:
It's odd because the Rosenbergs weren't arrested for espionage until the summer of 1950. So was the footagae from an earlier arrest? Was Roseneberg footage adde to the film upon a re-release in the 1950s? Or is IMDb mistaken?
“Rue” is the only movie Cagney made between 1943 and 1948 (his second Warner-less period) that was a true studio film (20th Century Fox). It’s also the movie where he really begins to show his age. Just three years earlier, in “Johnny Come Lately,” he looked youthful. Here, he’s put on weight, his face is blockier, his lips have turned inward. Was it the war? The time off? The farm work? I guess this is how it happens: Bit by bit, then all at once.
But he’s still Cagney. I like this exchange before Sharkey parachutes into occupied France.
Gibson: You won’t come back.
Sharkey: I’ve just discovered something about you.
Sharkey: You’re a worrier.
It’s a nice bit—particularly Cagney’s eyes darting over Gibson’s face. It’s the eyes of an actor listening as well as talking.
Newspaper ad, 1947. ”Wanna go see the new Cagney picture?“ ”Well, as long as Little Lulu is playing."
Sunday August 30, 2020
Quote of the Day
Any reporter who thought it was important to point out that most Americans don't know or care about the Hatch Act are in a different profession from the one I've been in.— adamdavidson (@adamdavidson) August 30, 2020
Our core job is to report on things people don't know they should care about. And to make them care.
I'm worried about this election. Everyone do what you can.
Saturday August 29, 2020
Jamison Foser brought this up on Twitter. Last Saturday, August 22, The New York Times ran a piece by Michael M. Grynbaum and Annie Karni on the preparations for Donald Trump's upcoming Republican National Convention. Here's the hed/sub:
Republicans Rush to Finalize Convention ('Apprentice' Producers Are Helping)
The party is promising a more traditional in-person spectacle with President Trump speaking every night. Coming into this weekend, major TV networks had only a foggy idea of what to expect.
Most of the article plays out like that. The convention was going to be in Jacksonville and Charlotte, but Covid, and this is the “Apprentice” producer, and this is what's wrong with the convention the Democrats just had, and wow there was anxiety but now we think we've got it together. A lot of Trump's relatives will speak. There will be a Black speaker, too. And here's more of what's wrong with the Democrats, and our convention will be better.
And then this in paragraph 21:
All of the sites are controlled by the federal government, which some ethics experts say would violate the Hatch Act, a Depression-era law that bans the use of public spaces for political activities. Trump aides said that the White House venues being used are considered part of the residence, and therefore are authorized for political use. Some of Mr. Trump's aides privately scoff at the Hatch Act and say they take pride in violating its regulations.
Oh yes, by the way, the Repubicans might be breaking the law. But they're fine with breaking the law—they take pride in it. They scoff at the law.
Does anyone believe for one goddamn second that if Hillary Clinton was president and John Posesta and Jen Palmieri were bragging about breaking the law, the New York Times would bury that in paragraph 21 and headline some irrelevant volunteer?
This is how democracy dies: Not with a bang but with the lede bured in paragraph 21.
Saturday August 29, 2020
Chadwick Boseman (1977-2020)
I assumed he was going to play every historical Black figure ever. In a four-year stretch, from 2013 to 2017, he played Jackie Robinson, James Brown and Thurgood Marshall, and then topped it off by becoming the world's first Black superhero, T'Challa, the Black Panther. It was an African-American-written and -directed film, with a mostly African-American cast that was mostly set in Africa, and it shocked the world by blowing up at the box office. It opened with more than $200 million on opening weekend, unheard of for a February release, and kept rolling. It was seen as a prelude to the all-star “Avengers: Infinity War” but it did better than that one. It was the No. 1 box-office hit of the year and just the third film to break the $700 million domestic barrier—after “Avatar” and “Star Wars—the Force Awakens.” It broke through like nothing broke through.
That was just two years ago, believe it or not.
I got the news last night. He was trending on Twitter and at first the words didn't even make sense. There was something about Chadwick Boseman and something about someone who had died and ... Well, obviously not that Chadwick Boseman, because ... Wait, what? No. At 43? Covid-related? No. Colon cancer. After a four-year battle. He'd had it all through the Avengers/Black Panther run and still embodied that strength.
I knew so little about him. These lines from the New York Times obit:
A statement posted on his Instagram account said he learned in 2016 that he had Stage 3 colon cancer and that it had progressed to Stage 4. It said he died in his home with his wife and family by his side, though it did not say where he lived.
“A true fighter, Chadwick persevered through it all, and brought you many of the films you have come to love so much,” the statement said. “From 'Marshall' to 'Da 5 Bloods,' August Wilson's 'Ma Rainey's Black Bottom' and several more, all were filmed during and between countless surgeries and chemotherapy.”
I thought he was younger. I would've assumed early to mid 30s. I thought we were going to have 40 more years of him.
I kept underestimating him. From the trailers to “42,” he seemed too passive to play the fiery Jackie but he wound up embodying that fire. Then I assumed he was too stolid to play the outre James Brown, but he nailed it. By the time he was as Thurgood Marshall, which my wife and I saw in a nearly empty theater on a weekday night, I was like “Just do 'em all, man, do 'em all.” And what weight he must have been carrying for every one of these roles. It's as if, in a four-year stretch, an Italian-American had Joe DiMaggio, Frank Sinatra and Antonin Scalia. But no, even that, it's not close to his weight. Jackie was the first, Thurgood was the first. These were the first major biopics about them. It's not the same. Times it by four. To the power of two.
He had finished August Wilson's “Ma Rainey's Black Bottom” opposite Viola Davis. He was scheduled to play the title role in “Yasuke,” about a 16th-century samurai of African origin.
Friday August 28, 2020
Jim Gaffigan is a standup comic who makes me laugh but isn't, you know, my favorite. He's doesn't push boundaries and his routines don't make me reflect. But he makes me laugh and that's why I follow him on Twitter. We all need a laugh these days. Last night, he gave me more than that. He gave me an absolute burst of truth at the tail-end of four days of lies known as the Republican National Convention.
Know this: Gaffigan is a practicing Catholic and a clean comic—he doesn't swear. He also doesn't come near politics. He also has a lot of red-state fans. That's why what happened last night is so powerful.
Was there any intimation it might come? I guess the night before, Wednesday night, he tweeted simply: “Maybe tomorrow will be better but ...” Just that. Who knows. He could've been talking about dinner. And mostly, in this Covid era, he's been tweeting his kids and his wife, and raising money for a shelter in NYC, and the like. But there it was, Wednesday night: “Maybe tomorrow will be better but ...”
After Trump spoke last night, it was just this:
RIP Truth— Jim Gaffigan (@JimGaffigan) August 28, 2020
Then nothing for an hour.
And then he went off. Both guns. Blazing.
- excuse me while I treat myself to confronting some asshole trolls...
- Look Trumpers I get it. As a kid I was a cubs fan and I know you stick by your team no matter what but he's a traitor and a con man who doesn't care about you. Deep down you know it. I'm sure you enjoy pissing people off but you know Trump is a liar and a criminal.
- By the way you can't be against Cancel Culture and tell people to stay out of politics. You know that time you did a job and didn't get paid? That's trump and you know it.
- I know you hate snobs and elites I get it but look at Ivana and that douche bag Jerod. Think they are on your side? Do you think they've ever done a real days work in their lives. Wake up
- to those of you who think Im destroying my career wake up. if trump gets elected, the economy will never come back.
- You know he lies. Constantly. Yet you dont care? What because he insults people that make you and me feel dumb?
- Fuck Lou Holtz. Biden is Catholic in name only? Compared to who? How many abortions did trump pay for? How many women has he raped? How many times did pull the shit he did in Ukraine. Wake up. He's a crook and a con man.
- can we stop with this HOLLYWOOD shit. I'm not from Hollywood and Hollywood is just a town. Please say coastal elites (which Trump, Jared and Ivana are) Maybe people on the east and west coasts have different values from yours but they dont like liars and con men like trump.
- Please dont buy that socialist crap either. Obviously Obama wasn't a socialist. This is all lies to scare you and you know it. Biden is not radical. Are you serious?
- Remember everything Trump accuses the Democrats of he's guilt of. Dont let the socialist name calling distract you from the fact he is a fascist who has no belief in law.
- You know Trump just creates enemies. You know you can't trust him. You know he been incompetent during this crisis. You know all those people didn't need to die. Trump talks about the Space Program and you can't safely go to a movie. Wake up
- Trump budding up with dictators is RADICAL. Trump having interfering with the justice department is RADICAL. Trump pandering to the police and army (I gave 3 raises) is RADICAL.
- I dont give a fuck if anyone thinks this is virtue signaling or whatever. We need to wake up. We need to call trump the con man and thief that he is.
- Trump derangement syndrome is part of the con. Wake up. you know Fox News is biased and full of loons. it's how they gaslight and silence criticism. Do you think any of those congressional republicans really believe in Trump or do they fear him dont want to end up like Flake.
- Trump literally ran Paul Ryan out of politics. Why? Paul Ryan knew Trump was poison. So does Romney. Trump is not a conservative or even a Republican. You know that. You know Barr is dirty. You know if Trump gets re-elected it's over. How many books have to be written?
- Heading to bed but remember
- If you want to sound crazy please tell me about THE DEEP STATE.
- To sound stupid please be against CANCEL CULTURE but then accuse anyone with an opinion of Virtue signaling.
- Trump Derangement Syndrome is meant to distract from the con of Don
I followed it all in real time. I retweeted it, liked it, loved it, encouraged everyone to follow him. It was just joyous. It gave me hope.
The part I like best? The assumption that the people he's arguing with know that Trump is dangerous. Gaffigan doesn't give them an out. He doesn't assume they're too dumb or too racist. He tells them right to their faces that they know. He uses the phrase “You know...” 16 times. You know Trump lies, you know you can't trust him, you know Barr is dirty, you know Fox News is biased and full of loons.
God, it made me so happy.
For a moment. And then I read about the left-wing mob picking on elderly Trump supporters in D.C. And today I got into it with other lefties—including friends—who excuse or possibly encourage the destruction of property in the wake of police killings. I.e., Because this guy got shot in the back, then I get to loot that drug store or burn down that restaurant. That'll show 'em. All of that just made me sad. It's the one pathway to a Trump reelection, and the kids, all white, don't seem to care. It's the new form of white privilege.
But for a moment, last night, Gaffigan killed. Thank you, Jim.
Friday August 28, 2020
A Tale of Two Tweets
This is Joe Biden last Oct. 25, warning us that actions taken by the Trump administration have made us hugely vulnerable to a pandemic. He called it—three months before it began, five months before Trump even bothered to pretend to take it seriously.
This is Donald Trump on the same fucking day:
It would be laughable if it weren't already tragic: 5.8 million Americans infected, more than 180,000 dead.
Nobody give me this “They're both the same” bullshit. Vote. Vote as if your life depends on it. Because it does.
Wednesday August 26, 2020
What a Mug
I found this in The New York Daily News, Nov. 8, 1925, pg. 44. The theater page.
Other news on the page:
- The longest-running Broadway play is “Abie's Irish Rose,” 1,478 performances in, which also makes it the long-running play in Broadway history up to that point. Its record (eventually more than 2,000 performances) will be usurped by “Tocacco Road” in the 1930s, which will be usurped by “Life with Father” in the '40s, which apparently won't be usurped until “Fiddler on the Roof” in the '70s. The Broadway touring show stars George Brent, who will co-star with Cagney in “The Fighting 69th” in 1940.
- Also playing is “Is Zat So?” starring James Gleason and Robert Armstrong. The latter will later star in “King Kong,” and play Cagney's truculent boss in “G-Men.”
- A 1921 comedy by A.A. Milne, “The Dover Road,” is opening. The following year, Milne will publish a children's book about a bear and his friends that will be a mild hit.
- Buster Keaton's comedy “Go West” is playing at Loew's State & Metropolitan Theater.
- An actress wearing trousers instead of a short skirt, in Ibsen's “The Master Builder,” gets prominent notice.
Cagney's partner in red-haired thatchery, Charles Bickford, also carved out a successful career in the movies, with more than 100 credits on IMDb, and three Academy Award nominations for supporting actor: “The Song of Bernadette,” “The Farmer's Daughter,” “Johnny Belinda.” I don't think he ever acted with Cagney on screen.
From Cagney By Cagney:
But there was relief the following year, and it came because of my hair. Maxwell Anderson had written a play, Outside Looking in, based on the autobiography of writer-hobo Jim Tully. One of the leading characters was “Little Red,” and because there were virtually only two actors in New York with red hair, Alan Bunce and myself, there wasn’t much competition. I assume I got the part because my hair was redder than Alan’s. The show opened at the Greenwich Village Theatre on Seventh Avenue in September 1925. One of the producers was Eugene O’Neill, and he came backstage one night, looked at me, and said nothing. I suspect that was because he had nothing to say. In any case, the play got fine notices (Charles Bickford played the lead), and from the tiny 299-seat house in the Village we moved uptown to the capacious Thirty-ninth Street Theatre, where I had no trouble projecting my voice because of my ample vaudeville experience. After the first act in the new theatre, Maxwell Anderson came backstage and said, “Gather around, boys, gather around.” We gathered. “Now I want everybody here to speak twice as loud and twice as fast. You hear?” Then, seeing me, he said, “Everybody, that is, except you.”
The play ran awhile and got good notices. In Life magaine, drama critic Robert Benchley wrote: “Wherever Mr. MacGowan found two red-heads like Charles Bickford and James Cagney, who were evidently born to play Oklahoma Red and Little Red, he was guided by the Casting God. Mr. Bickford's characterization is the first most important one of the year ... while Mr. Cagney, in a less spectacular role, makes a ten-minute silence during his mock-trial scene something that many a more established actor might watch with profit.”
Tuesday August 25, 2020
The 'Hoax' Hoax
From the column “Trump's Favorite Four-Letter Word” by Brian Stelter in The New York Times.
Donald Trump has shouted “hoax” hundreds of times, about everything from climate change to Supreme Court rulings to impeachment. At this point, his copious claims about hoaxes add up to a hoax. And through the history of his use of this single word, we can see how he has fooled his biggest fans but failed to persuade almost everyone else.
During his 2016 campaign, Mr. Trump didn't rely on the word “hoax.” He didn't even say “fake news.” He called the news media “sick” and biased, but he didn't seriously start to deny its legitimacy until January 2017, when he was confronted by evidence that the Russian government aided his election. That's when he truly needed the news to be fake.
Looking back, Mr. Trump's exploitation of the term “fake news” to smear journalists was the single most consequential thing he did during the transition period. He built the scaffolding for his supporters to reject any and all information that wasn't Trump-approved. ...
In the first year of his presidency, Mr. Trump cried “Hoax!” 18 times; in 2018, 63 times; and in 2019, a whopping 345 times...
The scaffolding line is killer. I assume the article is an excerpt from Stelter's book, “Hoax: Donald Trump, Fox News, and the Dangerous Distortion of Truth,” which I might have to read even though I'm sick of anything Trumpian. But the book also condemns Fox, which will be around, fucking things up, after Trump is gone. With no Fox, no Trump. It's all about Fox. We're the henhouse.
Read to the end of Stelter's column.
Monday August 24, 2020
Movie Review: Boy Meets Girl (1938)
“You may think this is heresy, Jim, but I’ve always thought of you as essentially a comedian.”
The line comes from Margaret Hamilton—yes, the Wicked Witch of the West—during the filming of “Johnny Come Lately” with James Cagney in 1943. Cagney’s response? “I told Margaret that it was not only not heresy, it was gospel. My gospel.” He thought all of his roles contained comedic elements. “I have too much of Frank Fay and Lowell Sherman in me,” he told biographer John McCabe, “not to have a comedic attitude at the base of my acting.”
Sure. And you can see elements of that attitude in “Blonde Crazy,” “Hard to Handle,” and “Lady Killer,” among others. But here? In this comedy/farce? Nope. Everything’s big and theatrical. Nothing lands.
Not just for him, either. Apparently during the making of “Boy Meets Girl”—a send-up of the movie industry based on the 1935 hit Broadway play by the husband-wife team of Bella and Sam Spewack—producer Hal Wallis kept demanding a quicker pace and ordered director Lloyd Bacon to reshoot some scenes. From McCabe:
Both Cagney and [Pat] O’Brien knew that the unremittingly swift pace Wallis had imposed on their director was too much, and that, in farce, as in everything else, one had to grant moments of rest. Jim was in special need of caution because of his natural tendency to talk fast. He never watched dailies as a rule but did one day in Ralph Bellamy’s company. As they came out of the projection room, Jim turned to his friend and said, “Would you tell me what I just said? I couldn’t understand a word.”
Too true. But there’s a bigger problem with “Boy Meets Girl.” Its leads are privileged assholes.
Braves and sagamores
Benson and Law (O’Brien and Cagney) are the most successful screenwriting team on the Royal Studios lot, and their huge, cluttered office includes giant Barrel-o-Monkeys hanging from the ceiling, a phonograph of a typewriter tapping away (to throw others off the scent while they play), and movie posters based on their scripts hanging on the walls. Spot the theme:
- There’s Love Ahead
- The Love Express
- Love Handicap
- Love Is Where You Find It
- Love, Honor and Behave
That theme is the reason they’re wealthy ($1500 a week each during the Depression) and it’s the bane of their existence. They’re smart men who write pablum: boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl. “It’s the great American fairy tale,” Law says. And it’s killing them inside.
So how do they deal with it? Pranks, antics, madcap behavior. They join a dance line on another set, run circles around producer C. Elliott Friday (Ralph Bellamy), instigate a revolt on Indian extras, and mock cowboy movie star Larry Toms (B-western star Dick Foran). They have an anarchic spirit like the Marx Brothers but aren’t nearly as anarchic and definitely not as funny. The white collars don’t help. I actually got whiffs of the 1970s Harvard Lampoon boys: white men with the power to change things who are content to mock the system while swinging a golf club. I never much liked those guys.
The Indian revolt is particularly problematic. Friday is forever receiving calls about what he never ordered for his movies—or what he ordered and forgot—and for a time it’s a busload of Native Americans. Outside Friday’s office, Law riles them up:
Law [theatrically]: Men, I say to you: protest. Mr. Friday asked you to come to work. And now he won’t give you any work. Think of your forefathers. What did they ever get from the paleface—a handful of beads. They took your rivers, your mountains, your plains; and they taught you instead of putting corn in the ground, you could put it in a jug. And today, what do they give you for your great Indian trails? Signboards and trailer camps.
Indians: How, how!
Benson: And how!
Law [more theatrically]: Arise, braves and sagamores! Beat your drums of war in protest! Wait! [Picks up rock] I’m going to make your protest heard ’round the world! Forward, men! To victory!
Then he tosses the rock through Friday’s window, and the Indians are never heard from again. The whole thing is a joke to Benson and Law but it’s never funny—to the Indian extras least of all, one imagines.
(It is, nonetheless, an improvement. Four years earlier, in “Lady Killer,” another send-up of the Hollywood system, it’s Cagney and other white extras who are spraypainted and fitted with headdresses in assembly-line fashion. At least here Native Americans get to play themselves.*)
As the movie opens, Benson and Law are stuck writing a comeback movie for Larry Toms, who hovers nearby with his agent, Rosetti (Frank McHugh), demanding action. It’s not until a half-hour in, when a waitress, Susie (Marie Wilson), brings a mostly ignored platter of food for Friday, then faints because she’s pregnant, that they glom onto something. A baby! Her baby! Who’ll be named Happy. They’ll put Happy in Larry’s movies and make him a star!
And they do just that. The montage of Happy being put through the star-making machine (movie magazines, etc.) may be my favorite part of this thing.
On the other side of the montage, all seems well. Susie is going back to high school to get her diploma, and Benson and Law, who have power of attorney over Happy, are in the catbird seat. Until they’re not. It’s a little odd how it happens. For the first half of the movie, they ignore work in favor of escapades; in the second half of the movie, they ignore Susie (whom they like) in favor of work. They’re too busy writing screenplays for Happy, her son, to talk to her. As a result, when they let the POA lapse, Rosetti swoops in, sweet-talks Susie, and takes over.
Their scheme to get back what they lost involves the boy-meets-girl subplot. Before giving birth, Susie hit it off with a British extra, Rodney Bowman (Bruce Lester), who was in Friday’s office to get approval for the Buckingham Palace guard uniform he was wearing for a film called “Young England.” Friday, who puts on airs, dismissing Kipling in favor of Proust, for example, objects to the hat but is fine with everything else. Rodney politely informs him that the hat is the only authentic part of the uniform. For that, he’s fired. But B&L’s scheme is a little desperate. At the premiere of a new Errol Flynn picture (“The White Rajah”), as Susie is being interviewed for radio by a young Ronald Reagan (only his sixth credited picture), Law pushes Rodney towards her so he can claim to be the father of Happy. A scandal ensues.
Back at the studio, B&L lock up Rodney, he escapes, tells Friday that B&L orchestrated the whole thing, and they’re canned. As is Happy: washed up at eight months old. Benson and Law have long disparaged what they do, with Law in particular talking about leaving Hollywood to write the Great American Novel in Vermont, but maybe inside they both know this is what they’re best at. So they scheme to get back the soul-killing but high-paying job: They get a British friend to send a telegram to Friday offering to buy the studio as long as Happy is still under contract.
This scheme, too, is eventually uncovered, but by then B&L have their old jobs back. It’s also uncovered that Rodney is really the son of a British lord, he asks Susie to marry him, and the two decide to raise Happy in Europe, away from the Hollywood hubbub. The end.
Me: Right, except it’s 1938. Europe isn’t such a happy place—or a place for Happy. And it’s about to get much, much worse.
In like Flynn
It’s a little ironic that the best part of a movie that mocks “boy meets girl” storylines is the boy and the girl. Lester as Rodney is quiet, understated and intelligent. He knows he’s in a clown shop but seems too polite to mention it. I’d never seen Marie Wilson before but she’s got a Judy Holliday thing about her. In his memoir, Cagney calls her savvy and “very adept at giving an impression of naivete.” Reagan is also good in a small role. He’s young, thin, oh-so handsome, and flummoxed when his radio interview goes complete awry.
Cagney? I think I’ve said it before, but it’s so odd that his gangsters are often more likeable than his civilians. That’s the case here, too. He does have his moments, though. During one of the many farcical meetings in Friday’s office, he does a little dance number by himself that’s admired by Pat O’Brien. Earlier, goofing about love love love, he lays on a chaise while doing a dancer’s stretch that’s pretty incredible. He gets his leg way back there. At nearly 40.
I like some of the insidery stuff. Apparently Benson and Law are based on Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur, while Friday is Darryl Zanuck, but I haven’t seen corroboration on this. Dick Powell gets lauded and the Barrymore larynx is mentioned. It’s a Warners movie—Cagney’s first back with the studio after two pictures with Grand National—so of course the studio pimps some of its product, particularly Errol Flynn, who is mentioned three times as the star the ladies are all now crazy about. According to TCM, they also took him down a notch. The Flynn movie being premiered, “The White Rajah,” is fictional, but apparently that was the title of a script Flynn wrote and pushed on Warners that was summarily rejected. I do love the title. So of the era. They should make it today. As a farce.
Sunday August 23, 2020
The Past is Prologue—or Donald Don't Learn
From Michael McFaul, former ambassador to Russia, via NBC News:
Some of the most egregious practices from the 2016 presidential campaign documented by the Senate investigation are repeating themselves in the 2020 presidential campaign. Once again, Putin wants Trump to win and appears to be seeking to undermine the legitimacy of our election. Just like in 2016, Putin has deployed his conventional media, his social media operations and his intelligence assets to pursue these objectives.
Most shockingly, Trump and his allies have decided to — again — play right along. ...
On Aug. 7, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence warned about foreign interference in the 2020 election: “We assess that Russia is using a range of measures to primarily denigrate former Vice President Biden and what it sees as an anti-Russia 'establishment.'” The ODNI report noted that pro-Russia Ukrainian parliamentarian Andriy Derkach is spreading false claims about Joe Biden as part of this effort. “Some Kremlin-linked actors are also seeking to boost President Trump's candidacy on social media and Russian television,” it observed.
Instead of criticizing this behavior, however, Trump and his allies are amplifying and promoting Russian disinformation online. Perhaps most amazingly, Trump is circulating to his 85 million Twitter followers material provided by foreign actors designed to discredit Biden. Derkach — the pro-Russia Ukrainian oligarch — is reportedly providing these slanderous materials to Republicans, including Sen. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin and Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa. ...
It all feels like a replay of Natalia Veselnitskaya's mission to Trump headquarters in the summer of 2016 to provide “dirt” on then-presidential candidate Hillary Clinton — only now, all in the open.
Wednesday August 19, 2020
America: Cannibal-Free Since 2020
!!! Trump is told that QAnon believes he's saving the world from a secret satanic cult of cannibals and pedophiles. He says, “Well, I haven't heard that. But uh, is that supposed to be a bad thing? Or a good thing? If I can help save the world from problems...”— Daniel Dale (@ddale8) August 19, 2020
Monday August 17, 2020
Movie Review: Starlift (1951)
The working title was better: “Operation Starlift.” It was actually a thing, too. According to The San Francisco Examiner, Nov. 22, 1950, it began with gossip columnist Louella Parsons, who organized the transport of Hollywood stars on an Air Force C-47 to Travis Air Force Base north of San Francisco to entertain troops who were wounded in the Korean War or were heading there. It was basically a roving version of Hollywood Canteen.
Hollywood Canteen, for those who don’t know, was a club in LA offering food and entertainment to troops heading overseas during World War II. It was started by Bette Davis and John Garfield in October 1942, and literally hundreds of stars volunteered their services—from Bud Abbott to Vera Zorina. A 1943 New York Times article mentions the canteen as a place where soldiers might dance with Betty Grable, get a cup of coffee from Hedy Lamarr, or chat up Rita Hayworth. The MC might be Bing Crosby or Eddie Cantor, with a band led by Kay Kyser. It lasted throughout the war and closed up shop on Nov. 22, 1945.
And even before the Hollywood Canteen, there was Stage Door Canteen, the New York/Broadway version, which opened in March 1942, led by Nedda Harrigan. A CBS radio series broadcast from the place from 1942 to 1945.
Each of these good-will gestures became movies of their own. Hugely popular movies, it turns out. Per The Hollywood Reporter Book of Box-Office Hits, “Stage Door Canteen,” released by United Artists, was the fifth-biggest movie of 1943, while “Hollywood Canteen,” released by Warner Bros., was the fifth-biggest hit of 1944. Merely mingling with the stars of Hollywood, the purveyors of wish-fulfillment fantasy, had become one of our biggest wish-fulfillment fantasies.
“Starlift” didn't do as well. According to Wiki, via Variety, it grossed $1.9 million in 1951. That’s probably top 20. It was the Korean War, so no longer all hands on deck. The movie is awful, too.
The worst Cagney impression
Sgt. Mike Nolan (the pushy one, played by Dick Wesson) and Cpl. Rick Williams (the passive one, played by Ron Hagerthy) are soldiers hanging out a movie theater next to cardboard cutouts of the stars when Nolan figures out a way to get close to the real ones. Williams is from Youngstown, Ohio, same as Nell Wayne (Janice Rule, one of the few stars playing a character here), so, against Williams’ aw-shucks objections, he claims Williams and Wayne were good friends back in Youngstown (they didn’t know each other), and that the boy is about to head overseas (they just transport others from SF to Hawaii and back again). And it works! Soon the two are back in the hotel room of Doris Day and Ruth Roman shooting the shit. Well, Nolan is shooting. Williams looks like he ate some bad sushi.
Nolan says he saw Doris Day’s first picture 47 times. She’s flattered. Then we find out he was a movie projectionist. Then he does an unfunny re-enactment of a French love scene with Ruth Roman, which is less Jean Gabin than Pepe Le Pew. It’s the whole kissing-up-the-arm gag. (When did that trope begin? When did it end?) Finally, he talks about how one time the projector broke down in the middle of “White Heat,” so he went out on the stage and did the movie from memory. As he does here, imitating James Cagney:
Pardo, I’ve been watching you. So far, you ain’t done anything I can put my finger on. But maybe that’s what bothers me. I don’t know you; and what I don’t know, I don’t trust.
In the middle of this, the real James Cagney walks in carrying a load of … whatever. Gifts? Noshes? Once he hears the guy doing him, he finishes the dialogue for him. Then we get this exchange:
Cagney: Now look here, pal. I don’t like people going on imitating me, you understand? I don’t like it!
Nolan: I… [still imitating] I’m not imitating you. Since when is there against people talking like this?
Cagney: Well, you know, there ought to be? And between us, one of us is very bad.
Nolan: Oh, I don’t know. I think you do it better even than I do.
Cagney: I’ve had more practice.
Cagney is actually being kind: Wesson does a horrible Cagney impression—and both he and the movie seem oblivious to it. How do you miss doing Cagney? How do they not find someone who can do a better Cagney?
Before Cagney leaves, Nolan corrals him again, says he’s noticed that before he hits a guy he hitches up his pants. He shows him. “Why do you do that?” he asks. Cagney opens his jacket: “That’s simple: No belt. So long, son.”
Cagney is the reason I watched this thing, of course, and I knew it was just a cameo (90 seconds of screentime, it turns out), but at least it came early in the movie—not even 15 minutes in. So I didn’t have to watch the rest. But I did. Because you never know.
But we do. The rest of the movie is awful.
The girls take the two soldiers back to Travis Air Force base, visit the wounded, signs some casts, and put on an impromptu show. It’s mostly Doris. She’s got pipes but with a supercheery, asexual delivery that speaks of the sad age. She’s also doing it in front of a fake backdrop—or frontdrop—of soldiers, which means even here they’re not performing for the troops. Meanwhile, Nell goes from being annoyed by the boy from Youngstown to kissing him goodbye. And on the way out, a bland colonel (Richard Webb) blandly and (to me) impertinently suggests the girls get a bunch of their friends to come up for a show.
They do. They're game. And we get a lot of song and dance numbers, and an overlong comedy bit from the team of Noonan and Marshall, which is mostly Noonan. (Marshall was Peter Marshall, straight man, and future “Hollywood Squares” host.) Meanwhile Phil Harris, the voice of Baloo from “The Jungle Book,” and thus beloved by me, tries to teach the boys about gin rummy but gets fleeced instead. Or does he pretend to get fleeced? I’ve already forgotten.
The music numbers are either super straightlaced (Gordon MacRae singing “The Good Green Acres of Home” backed by a military band), leggy but oddly asexual (Patrice Wymore singing and dancing “Liza (All the Clouds’ll Roll Away)”), or leggy, oddly asexual and culturally inappropriate (“Noche Caribe,” danced by Virginia Mayo, who’s dubbed by Bonnie Lou Williams). This last is introduced by Randolph Scott, who asks the men if they saw what they imagined in the tropics, such as “lovely maidens beneath swaying tropical palms.” The men shout NO!, Scott chuckles, and then introduces Mayo, who will “give you her idea of your idea of what you expected to see.” Unpack that. The reality didn’t live up to the sexualized myth, so here’s a white, somewhat asexual version of that. To keep the myth alive. But tamped down. I guess.
Watching all this, you understand why rock ‘n’ roll was invented. To cut through the bullshit.
The final number is a story-song, “Look Out Stranger, I’m a Texas Ranger,” starring an aged Gary Cooper, and playing off the western tropes Hollywood popularized.
Oh, and after being on and off, and on and off, the two Youngstownians make up and share a milkshake as in a Norman Rockwell painting. Then he gets on a plane—I think to war this time—while we hear strains of the Army Air Corps Song: “Off We Go Into the Wild Blue Yonder.” Finally this nod:
“Warner Bros. wishes to express their appreciation and grateful thanks to the Department of Defense, the United States Air Force and the officers and airmen of Travis Air Force Base for their whole-hearted cooperation which made this picture possible.”
Remember when Warners was gritty and left-wing? Jack Warner doesn't.
Huey Long --> MPA
The story and screenplay credit for “Starlift” go to John D. Klorer, who only has 14 such credits to his name, none of them memorable, but he certainly led a memorable life. In the 1920s, he was assistant city editor of the Times-Picayune in his native New Orleans during Huey Long’s rise to power. Then he became editor of the Louisiana Progress, a Huey Long ragsheet, and became part of that rise. He was Long’s secretary in D.C. when the Senator and presidential candidate was assassinated in 1936. After that, Klorer moved on to Hollywood, where he joined the right-wing Motion Picture Alliance, which helped bring the blacklist to Hollywood, ruining countless lives—including Hollywood Canteen co-founder John Garfield's. In July 1951, five months before “Starlift” was released, Klorer was returning home from a golf match at Lakeside Golf Club when he had a heart attack and died. He was 45.
The director was Roy Del Ruth, who directed some of the fun, slapdash, early Cagney pictures, such as “Blonde Crazy,” “Taxi!” and “Lady Killer.” The kind where you don’t know where the story is going; where it just veers suddenly and now it’s about this. I don’t know much about Del Ruth. His directing style has been called “easygoing,” while in the book Backstory: Interviews with Screenwriters of the 1940s and 1950s, screenwriter Dorothy Kingsley credits him as a director who taught her she didn’t have to overwrite for the screen. He’s hardly mentioned in John McCabe’s Cagney bio, other than an incident in which, to Cagney’s quiet consternation, he doesn’t correct Margaret Lindsay’s Britishisms. (It was the other “Roy” director, Mervyn LeRoy, whom Cagney loathed.)
Overall, “Starlift” is indicative of the period. It’s anodyne, asexual, bland. Even Wesson as Nolan is bland. His machinations unintentionally create all this and yet there’s never a mea culpa or epiphany or anything from him. There’s never really anything from him. Whatever type he is has had its most interesting elements leeched away.
By this point in movie history, it seems, all the tropes have been codified and everyone’s bought in. The women are pretty but there is no sex. The men wolf-whistle but make no passes. There’s a war on but there are no battles. Everyone’s ramrod straight and so, so dull. There's not a true moment in here. Well, one. Gene Nelson was a helluva dancer—did the “Everything's Up to Date in Kansas City” number in “Oklahoma”—who wound up directing television, including, believe it or not, the Wrongway Feldman episode of “Gilligan's Island” and the “Gamesters of Triskelion” episode of “Star Trek,” both staples of my childhood. Amazing arc. Anyway, we first see him here, playing himself, and dancing in a number being filmed in Hollywood with Nell/Janice Rule. After it's over, he walks over to the choreographer, LeRoy Prinz (yep, another “Roy”), who went by the nickname “Pappy,” and who staged dances in everything from “Yankee Doodle Dandy” to “South Pacific”; and after this great, athletic dance number, as everyone is drifting away, Nelson asks him, “Got a cigarette, Pappy?” I liked that.
Also Cagney saying he didn’t like people imitating him. He didn't.
Great good-will gesture, lousy movie.
Sunday August 16, 2020
How Two 1922 Newspapers Headlined the Same Syndicated Article about Hitler, and the Lesson It Holds for Today's Media
Here are two versions of the same Universal Services syndicated article about a rising star in Weimar Germany that appeared on the same day, Dec. 15, 1922, in The Bulletin of Pomona, Calif. (left) and The San Francisco Examiner (right). I believe they're among the first mentions of Adolf Hitler in a U.S. newspaper.
A good lesson in headline writing that today's newspapers should note. The Bulletin makes Hitler's accusation the headline while the Examiner opts for the mere fact that he accuses—and who he's accusing. I feel like the latter should almost always be used. The former grants way too much power to the accuser. If you're powerful enough to command media attention, you can accuse anyone of anything and the media helps disseminate that accusation. As today's media keeps doing. (I've been railing against this forever and ever.) The drawback to my suggestion is that you'll wind up using the same headline, or nearly the same headline, over and over again (“Trump Attacks Democrats”), but maybe that's good. The repetition indicates that this thing keeps happening. It'll remind everyone that all this guy does is accuse and attack. And it might encourage, I don't know, fewer lies in the accusations, since the lies won't make the headlines.
Other differences/thoughts on the articles:
- The Bulletin put its story on pg. 1, beneath huge headlines about moonshiners battling “The Dry Squad,” as well as (more relevantly) the “Franco-German debt squabble.” The Examiner stuck the story back on pg. 6.
- The Examiner credits the author. More on him here.
- The accusation is also straight out of the longstanding GOP playbook. Even today, especially today, any U.S. policy that leans vaguely left, Republicans will cry “Marxism” and “Socialism.” And many media outlets will make that the headline.
- Hitler made good on his promise in the final graf. More, actually. A century? We won't forget him as long as human beings record and read history.
Saturday August 15, 2020
“I keep sifting the pieces of the relationship through my mind...”
I recently finished Woody Allen's memoir, “Appropos of Nothing,” and, to quote a phrase, I liked the earlier, funnier stuff: about growing up in Brooklyn, how crazy his parents and relatives were, and, despite his later rep as an intellectual filmmaker, what a lousy student he was. He hated school, liked playing baseball, loved jazz, loved going to the movies, yearned to be a sophisticate in a Manhattan movie scene. He did make that happen—without the cocktail, however. He was never a drinker.
I like the details of his rise—so much of it because he was just monumentally funny:
- At 17, making jokes during a lame movie at the local theater, getting laughs, some guy says: “Hey, you should write some of your gags down.”
- He did. Mother: “Why don't you show your wise cracks to Phil Wasserman and get his opinion? He runs always with those Broadway wags.”
- He did. Phil: “You should mail them in to some of the newspaper columnists—Walter Winchell, Earl Wilson, Hy Gardner of the Herald Tribune.”
- He did. Friend: “Hey, you‘re in Nick Kenny’s column!”
Nick Kenny led to Broadway columnist Earl Wilson and then all the columnists were printing his stuff. Then a PR firm contacted him and asked, as Woody puts it: “Would I be interested in coming in each day after school, sitting at one of their unstolen typewriters [his father had stolen one], and knocking out gags for them so the likes of Guy Lombardo, Arthur Murray, Jane Morgan, Sammy Kaye, and others not famous for their wit could fasten their names to my inspirations and claim them as their own? For this, they would pay me forty dollars a week. At that time I delivered meat for a butcher shop, and dry-cleaning for a tailor, for thirty-five cents an hour plus tips.”
While there, Bob Hope's manager contacted him to write jokes for his idol, but that didn't pan out. Relatives then suggested he talk to a distant relative, Abe Burrows, who had coauthored the book for Guys and Dolls, and Woody says the man was kind, complimentary, informative. He helped him get hired for Peter Lind Hayes' radio show. Then he was hired for Arthur Godfrey's radio show. He got ripped off by an agent but kept rising. He wrote for Sid Caesar, Pat Boone, Gary Moore. He just wanted to be a writer, didn't want to be a stand-up comedian, but a subsequent manager pushed him out on stage and he became such a hit that Warren Beatty contacted him about writing a movie. That movie turned out to be “What's New, Pussycat?,” without Beatty, and it was such an awful experience, and his words were so mangled by the director and producers, that it forced Woody into moviemaking. He wanted to control how it sounded. He didn't want the unfunny to fuck it up. As the unfunny always do.
Once he becomes a filmmaker, the book gets a little dull. Maybe because that's all he does, make films, and there's no story to contantly making stories? Of course, he goes over the Mia/Soon-Yi/Dylan stuff, too—repetitively, I think, reminding me a bit of Kafa's Joseph K. Traduced, Woody keeps talking about his case. He keeps saying it doesn't matter, then he dives back into it. He can't leave it alone. This is from near the end of the book:
In writing about this whole affair I‘ve tried to document whatever I could so the facts would not be simply my version but the on-the-record words of the investigators, the experiences Moses had witnessed and Soon-Yi had lived through that corroborated him. I’ve quoted the Yale and New York investigations word for word plus the court-appointed monitors exactly as the appellate judge recorded their testimony. There were appalling incidents attested to by two separate women who worked in Mia's house and witnessed a number of encounters firsthand. They also corroborate Moses.
But even without all of that, I appealed to people's simple common sense. And yet I have no illusions that any of it will change minds. I believe if Dylan and Mia recanted today and said the whole thing was one big practical joke, there would still be many who would cling to the notion that I abused Dylan. ...
And why is it when attacked I rarely spoke out or seemed overly upset? Well, given the malignant chaos of a purposeless universe, what's one little false allegation in the scheme of things? Second, being a misanthropist has its saving grace—people can never disappoint you.
Good line. “Appropos of Nothing” could've used a better editor—it needed a couple more run-throughs by Woody—but it's interesting and poignant and overwhelmingly sad. (I tend to believe him, and Moses, and Soon-Yi rather than Mia, and Dylan, and Ronan.) When I saw “The Dark Knight” back in 2008, I thought this line by Harvey Dent overstated things: “You either die a hero, or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain.” Feels truer every day. Probably for all of us.
Friday August 14, 2020
Kenneth What? Roger Who?
Another newspapers.com find. Never knew I was blurbed in this manner—and between such heavy hitters.
Is my review not up on this site? It isn't. I'll have to fix that. The movie is about a Jewish family escaping Nazi Germany and living out the war in British-held Africa. Kenya, I think. But did I actually say it was “Beautiful!”? Kind of. On the African vistas, I wrote, “...director Caroline Link makes it beautiful without relinquishing its starkness.” No exclamation point but it ain't a lie. It counts. I mean, I didn't think Kenneth and Roger said what they said with exclamation points, either. Never believe exclamation points. They're the province of marketers, bad joke-tellers, and Trump. Sad.
Thursday August 13, 2020
My Talks with Trump II
Wednesday August 12, 2020
Movie Review: He Was Her Man (1934)
You dirty rat.
The line Cagney never spoke is the character he becomes in “He Was Her Man” (working titles: “Without Honor”; “He Was a Man”), a 1934 Lloyd Bacon-directed Warner Bros. quickie. It’s kind of shocking to see. In both the Cagney and Warner Bros. ethos, no one was lower than a rat; yet here was Cagney, Warners’ biggest star, playing one.
Flicker Hayes is a safecracker who just spent three years in the stir, and who, as the movie opens, is in a Turkish bath being offered another gig. First words from the other guys: “It’s a cinch.” I like the bargaining—maybe a sly nod to the back-and-forth between Cagney and Warner Bros. Flicker wants half his cut up front, $15k, but they’re not having it. Eventually they offer $5k. OK, how about 10? At which point he raises his ask to 20. Eventually they settle on the 15 he originally wanted.
Then he rats them out to the cops.
There's a safe full of junk and nose candy at the Empire Wholesale Drug Warehouse. They've hired me to use a can opener. Yeah. Tonight.
Even the cops find this distasteful but they get it. These guys, Dan Curly’s gang, are the reason Flicker spends three years in prison and now it’s payback time. At the scene of the crime, Flicker escapes by window with a laugh, but soon it’s no laughing matter. There’s a shootout, a cop dies, and one of the gang, Red Deering (Ralf Harolde, no childe), will go the chair. So Curly sends J.C. and Monk (Harold Huber and Russell Hopton) to pay back Flicker in kind.
By now he's in San Francisco, goes by the name of Jerry Allen, and seems trapped. A hotel clerk, innocent of all the aforementioned, recognizes him from New York, so Flicker realizes he’s still not safe. Plus he’s run out of continent. He contemplates a slow boat to China but doesn’t have a passport and apparently can’t figure out a crooked way to get one. Seattle? Alaska? Canada? Not a thought. How about at least shaving that pencil-thin moustache? No soap.
For whom the bell tolls
Fate intervenes in the form of Rose Lawrence (Joan Blondell), who enters his hotel room to retrieve, of all things, a wedding dress she left under the mattress when the cops busted her the other night. She’s a prostitute, barely ex, and Nick Gardella (Victory Jory), an Italian fisherman from the small village of Santa Avila 100 miles or so south, has proposed. The wedding is in a few days. A quiet little place, she says. Dead to the world. Doesn’t take Einstein to figure out Flicker’s next move.
Except it gets a little creepy here. He takes the wedding dress from her, hangs it up in the closet, says he’ll get her stuff out of hock and go with her. Then, while she looks resigned, he removes her coat. Fadeout. Eww. Or is the eww on me? I assumed the worst, the last sad sex of the pre-code era, but the rest of the movie indicates otherwise. Either way, Warners should've been more careful with its fadeouts.
Blondell, by the way, is great. I kept coming back to the word ripe. There’s a scene in her room at the Gardella house where Nick is saying good night, or she’s saying we’d better say good night, and it’s just the two of them in profile, staring at each other, the attraction palpable, maybe leaning in a little, until … he says buon night and leaves. But steamy.
Both Rose and Flicker/Jerry are welcomed into the Gardella house by the merry mother (Sarah Padden), with whom Jerry flirts. Jerry also spends a happy day on the boat with Nick. But a Curly associate (Frank Craven), who’d seen them leave SF, finds them in Santa Avila, alerts the gang, and steals Flicker’s gun. The two assassins arrive the day of the wedding.
By this point, Rose has confessed her love for Jerry, and the two of them are thinking of lamming it. They stick around because she feels she owes it to Nick to explain. Except she can’t—Blondell is sadly passive for most of the movie, missing her usual firecracker wit—and so now she’s just waiting for Jerry. Except Jerry has already left. He saw his gat was gone, as well as the Curly associate, and knows what’s coming. He and the assassins even pass each other on the road to/from Santa Avila—unknowingly.
About that: Early on, we’re told it’s 12 miles from the bus depot/café to Santa Avila, but near the end of the movie people seem to make this trip in minutes. One guy, for example, the young driver for the assassins, panics when he hears them talking about roughing up Rose, and he makes it to the café/depot on foot—and in time, with his babble, to clue Flicker in to what’s going on.
So what’s he going to do? He has one foot on the step of a bus heading south, toward anonymity and safety, but then, nah, he takes a cab back to the Gardellas, where no violence or even epiphanies have occurred. There, he says goodbye to Rose and leaves with the assassins. I assumed he had a plan and would escape improbably in the Hollywood manner, but it turns out: no. His plan is to get Rose and the Gardellas away from the danger he put them in. He makes the great sacrifice, smiling, and is killed offscreen, while Rose, with an 11th-hour realization of how much she loves Nick, gets married in the town chapel. The bell tolls in celebration. And sorrow.
That's not bad. The supporting cast, meanwhile, is fun. Jory, who will play Oberon to Cagney’s Bottom in “A Mid-Summer Night’s Dream” from 1935, and who will make an excellent Lamont Cranston/Shadow in the 1940 Columbia serial, makes this happy, nonjudgmental fisherman believable. I like how he’s proud of his work, dismissive of the men who can’t do it, but thinks it’s no life for anyone. John Qualen, Berger in “Casablanca,” is comic relief as the bucktoothed Avila cabbie, while George Chandler (who looks so familiar but can’t place him) is the kid behind the counter at the café. I was particularly impressed with the two assassins. They’re like precursors to Jules and Vincent—forever in disagreement over what to do next. While Monk wants to rough up Rose, J.C. is smarter. He knows she knows nothing and counsels patience and not tipping your hand. There's a stillness to him, which makes him more menacing.
“He Was Her Man” is clunky, not well thought-out, and the title is horrible. But it’s like Flicker: It redeems itself in the end.
Tuesday August 11, 2020
This is great news. The tweet below is nearly a year old, and I'd already been pushing for this ticket for a year before that. And by “pushing,” I mean that when someone asked “Who are you pulling for?” that was my answer.
Here's what Biden needs to do.— Erik Lundegaard (@ErikLundegaard) September 13, 2019
Don't ignore the age thing.
Talk up the extraordinary circumstance with Trump—how he's destroying America and its place in the world. Say that's why he's running. Then pledge to serve only one term.
Pick Kamala as VP. https://t.co/wywPegtk7Y
Tuesday August 11, 2020
Vast Right-Wing Hypocrisy
When 2 died of Ebola they said Obama should resign.— Chip Franklin (@chipfranklin) August 9, 2020
When 4 died in Benghazi they said Hillary should go to jail.
When 162,000 died from the Trump Virus, they said put him on Mount Rushmore.
Monday August 10, 2020
Trump's Gettysburg Address
President Donald Trump said Monday that he will deliver his convention speech accepting the Republican presidential nomination from either the site of the 1863 Battle of Gettysburg in Pennsylvania or the White House in Washington, DC. -- CNN
Many, many years ago, and it was so many, back when America was great—and I was the one who said Make America Great Again, and we will—all those amazing years ago, the founding founders said “all men are created equal.” And that’s a beautiful phrase.
Now we are engaged in a great civil war—people don’t know that but it’s true. And it’s a test. And we’re here on this battlefield, where many men died, many amazing, beautiful men fighting to make America great again, like I said, and it’s a test about the blacks. And no one’s done more for the blacks than I have. I don’t get the credit, but that's fake news, fake news, I never get the credit. I created the greatest economy in history, stopped the China virus, beat the Russia Russia Russia hoax, but never credit from those reporters over there, you know the ones. And that’s why I’m here. I’m here to dedicate, and consecrate, and hallow this ground. Such brave, brave men who died here. Brave. And there were good people on both sides. Will we remember what they did here? I don't know. I really don't know. I don't know. But everyone will remember what I said here.
And so we're living and they're not. But we should honor them by voting for me. Not mail-in ballots because that's fraud, but vote for me, so these beautiful dead, these corpses, these amazing, brilliant corpses, won't have died in vain. And that this nation, under God, the greatest God ever, the one, you know the one, will give us a new birth of freedom—like gun freedom that others are trying to take away from you. So grab your guns and your freedom and make sure government of me, and by me, and for me, won't perish from the earth. Thank you.
Monday August 10, 2020
Movie Review: A Lion Is in the Streets (1953)
A lot of lasts in this one.
It’s the last time Cagney made a movie with Irish Mafia pal Frank McHugh (they did 11 films together), the last time he was directed by Raoul Walsh (their fourth go-round) and the seventh and final film from William Cagney Productions (R.I.P.).
Here’s an obscure one: It’s the last movie Cagney made that’s under 90 minutes long. In the early days, that was all of them. The first Cagney movie that was actually longer was his fourteenth, “Footlight Parade,” and the 32 movies he made in the 1930s averaged only 83 minutes in length. (Warner Bros.: Make ’em quick, see ’em quick.) In the 1940s, in comparison, Cagney’s 12 pictures averaged 101 minutes, and his 15 movies in the ’50s averaged 105. As Hollywood made fewer movies, they padded them out. They made them epic. Brevity was for TV.
You’d think a movie in which a New York actor plays a Bayou peddler who marries a Pennsylvania Quaker and then runs for governor—all of it based on Huey Long—would be a bit of a mess, but “A Lion Is in the Streets” isn’t bad. Cagney’s drawl comes and goes but he’s got energy and charm and hornswoggle. I like some of the dialogue, too—like this from early in the courtship:
She (doubtful): You’re a … peddler?
He (after a pause): Ma’am, I’m Hank Martin. Also I peddle.
Is part of the problem the movie’s length? As in: too short? Or too unfocused? According to Cagney biographer John McCabe, Raoul Walsh cut out the final third of the script, which means this Huey Long never even makes the governor’s mansion, let alone the U.S. Senate, let alone running for president. He doesn’t even win an election, does he? That seems wrong. So it becomes the story of a swamp peddler who champions the people only to betray them and pay the ultimate price. It’s about a man who rose from the swamp all the way to … a few feet from the swamp.
Buzz, Chuck, Willie and Hank
Some background. Adria Locke Langley’s novel was published in 1945 and became a No. 1 bestseller, and the Cagney brothers bought 10-year rights for a then-record $250,000. (Anthony Lane mocks the novel mercilessly in a great 1995 piece on 1945 bestsellers.) Then they dithered while Robert Penn Warren published another Huey Long roman á clef, “All the King’s Men,” which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1947, was adapted into a Robert Rossen movie, and won the Oscar for best picture in 1949. The Cagneys were first to the story but sloppy seconds when it came to putting it on the screen.
For the curious, I count four Huey Long novels from the period: Buzz Windrip in Sinclair Lewis’ “It Can’t Happen Here,” Chuck Crawford in John Dos Passos’ “Number One,” Warren’s Willie Stark and Langley’s Hank Martin. She’s running with heavy hitters here and comes up short. Start with the name. Willie Stark seems like a Southern pol. Hank Martin seems like a backup second baseman for the 1956 Baltimore Orioles.
Langley’s novel is supposedly steamy, her Hank Martin a man of prodigious sexual appetites, but of course 1950s Hollywood tempers this. Or obliterates it. Sure, he’s enamored of the Quaker schoolteacher, Verity Wade (future Perry Mason secretary Barbara Hale), but it feels like love more than lust. He calls her “Sweet Face” and pats her cheeks in the paternal Cagney manner. And sure, he sleeps with the spirited, sexy swamp girl, Flamingo (Anne Francis, 31 years younger than Cagney), but she’s the one who makes all the moves. She literally jumps into his arms upon first meeting, wrapping her legs around his waist. Later she shows up at his campsite and seduces him. Oddly, she’s now wearing a pink sweater and a black beret and looks more Greenwich Village beatnik than swamp girl. Why the change? No word. And where did that sexy swamp girl trope begin anyway? Was it just “Li’l Abner” or was Al Capp playing off it?
We expect the affair with Flamingo to be his downfall, as with politicians since forever, but it’s never even uncovered. He’s running for governor and riding around town with a hot blonde and no one says boo. No, his downfall is all about ambition. He starts out a true believer, has to fight dirty to win—and the higher up he goes the dirtier it gets. That’s not a bad trajectory for a story but Hank and the movie take some odd leaps. Doesn’t help that his true belief turns out to be false. Nor that he secretly has contempt for people. He says this to Verity right after he finagles the locals to help spruce up their honeymoon cabin:
All folks is wonderful. You just have to know the right place to kick 'em in. Sure. It's like learnin' to play a musical instrument by ear. All you gotta know is what place to push to get what note. Then pretty soon, everybody's dancin’ … to your tune.
Then they head for supper at the stately mansion of Jules Bolduc (Warner Anderson), who is renting them the cabin and loaning law books to Hank, and who is pipe-smoking, courtly, and useless until the final act. The other dinner guest that evening is Robert L. Castleberry IV (Larry Keating), who owns the local cotton gins and cheats the sharecroppers. Hank despises him and can’t hide it. That’s his true belief. He tears into Castleberry until the prim businessman cries libel. Eventually there’s a huge confrontation at the local weighing station, with Castleberry’s armed deputies on one side and Hank’s armed sharecroppers on the other. Except the gin managers knew they were coming and switched its crooked weights for real ones; but Hank uncovers the real ones under a floorboard and cries triumph. He also comes up with a great nickname for Castleberry:
You know the birds we got up the swamp? The black skimmer? Always wears black. He lives by skimming over the water and scooping up all the little bugs and fishes without even slowing down. Well, every time, every time I see that black skimmer, scoopin’ and swallowin’, scoopin’ and swallowing’, I just want to take him around the neck and squeeze and squeeze and squeeze until he spews up every little thing that he ate. Now we’ve only begun our squeezing.
And that’s what he calls Castleberry for the rest of the movie: the Black Skimmer. (This is one of the ways Hank reminded me of Trump: His gift for epithet.)
At the tail end of the confrontation, though, a deputy stalks one of Hank’s men and is shot by sharecropper Jeb Brown (John McIntire), who is sent to jail without trial. Why? Because if Castleberry’s chicanery is mentioned in a court of law, newspapers can write about it without risking libel charges. So Hank teams up with Guy Polli (Onslow Stevens), an all-powerful backroom man, to get the trial going. The day of, though, Jeb is shot by Castleberry’s right-hand man Samuel T. Beach (James Millican), but Hank pulls Jeb into the courtroom and enters the accusation into the record before he dies. And Hank rides this wave into a race for governor. But that’s when his true beliefs are upended.
Turns out the Black Skimmer wasn’t cheating the sharecroppers, Beach was. And in the interim, Castleberry sold the gin mills to … wait for it … Polli, for whom Beach now works. Or was he always working for him? I’m a little unclear on that. Anyway, Hank finds all this out the night before the election. It’s a close race but the forecast calls for torrential rains, which will make it tougher for Hank’s country folk to vote. So Polli agrees to get out the city vote for him. All Hank has to do is sign an affidavit saying Beach was with him at the time of Jeb’s murder. All he has to do is betray everything he’s stood for.
He does. Then he loses anyway. On the radio, initially downtrodden, increasingly angry, he calls fraud and encourages his followers to descend on Dodd City with their guns. (Another Trumpism: the cheater claiming fraud.) The mob is about to do just that when the pipe-smoking Bolduc shows up and suddenly knows everything: that Castleberry didn’t cheat them; that Beach killed Jeb; that Hank is covering for Beach. Nobody believes him until Verity confirms it all. Which is when Jeb’s widow (Jeanne Cagney) turns her shotgun from Bolduc to Hank and pulls the trigger.
Plus ca change
The death scene has good and bad in it. As Hank stumbles around, he confronts Verity: “You told on me, Sweet Face. You told on me.” There’s Cagney menace on either side of the endearment. And what is he saying but basically: You dirty rat.
That’s the good part. The bad part is his final words. The man with contempt for people suddenly offers up this backhand paean to democracy: “Never knew that folks could be so all-fired smart.” Except are they? They were ready to burn down city hall because their fiery populist claimed fraud. And they didn’t believe anything Bolduc said. They believed the lies and dismissed the truth. Bolduc is basically Robert Mueller or Anthony Fauci here, laying out the facts, and getting a shotgun leveled at him for his trouble.
In his mostly positive review in The New York Times, Bosley Crowther sees value in Hank’s quick fall:
[The movie] has avoided the more touchy task of throwing a demagogue on the national scene, which might have more forceful implications but might be resented in some quarters today.
But to me that's the whole problem. The Cagneys bought the rights at the end of World War II but didn’t film it until late 1952, by which time Huey Long was long gone and there was a new demagogue on the scene. But could they attack Joseph McCarthy and get away with it in the heyday of the blacklist? Anyway they didn't. They avoided it all. They mangled the story to accommodate the era. Hank never lusts (because Hays Code), the business owner never cheats the workers (because capitalism is good), and the fiery populist never rises to power (because the people are smart even when they're not). The movie starts in the mud and ends as a muddle. The Cagneys tried to make it clean but it’s a dirty story; and, in case you weren’t paying attention, new chapters are being written every day.
Sunday August 09, 2020
James Cagney in 'Bad Boy'
Another ad from the 1932/1933 trades:
I'm interested in the one at the bottom: “Bad Boy” starring James Cagney and Carole Lombard? Yes. It got made but not under that title and not with that co-star. It's “Hard to Handle,” in which Cagney plays a PR rep/grifter, with Mary Brian as his girl and Ruth Donnelly a standout as her mother. I recall liking Brian a lot, thinking she had a Christina Applegate thing about her. Her last movie was “Dragnet” in 1947 (Scotland Yard in NYC, not Jack Webb in LA), and her last TV series was “Meet Corliss Archer” in 1954. She lived until the day before New Year's Eve, 2002.
Saturday August 08, 2020
Trump's Pre-Existing Condition Promise Pre-Exists
I have big problems with The Hill—too often they simply quote the lies of powerful people, mostly Republicans, Trump way too often—but this is a good succinct summary of Trump's idiocy. Sad!, in a word.
#BREAKING: Trump says he's planning executive order requiring insurers to cover pre-existing conditions, something already established in ObamaCare which he's trying to dismantle https://t.co/P2xJwSMhdC pic.twitter.com/F10awcVB6G— The Hill (@thehill) August 8, 2020
What other marvels can we expect from Trump? Will he repeal “Don't Ask, Don't Tell”? Rescue the auto industry? Help pass a stimulus package to get us out of the global financial meltdown? Establish relations with Cuba? Re-kill Osama bin Laden? Pathetic. He so wants want Obama has and will never get it. Start with class. Love the irony here, too: Trump's promise on pre-existing conditions already exists. It's a pre-existing condition.
Saturday August 08, 2020
Richard Dix, Man of Steel
I spotted this poster last month or the month before when I was leafing through past issues of The Motion Picture Herald, a trade publication for the movie industry in the 1930s, '40s, etc. (I've since moved on to newspapers.com: warning.)
I'll have to check out the movie one day. It's the poster I'm fascinated with. Four things:
- The drawing of Dix
- The heavy drop shadow of the title
- The target,symbol on the back
- “Duke Ellis, man of steel”
All of it feels like a template for early Siegel/Shuster Superman. It's ur-Superman stuff and thus ur-superhero stuff. It's laying the groundwork for the next century of wish-fulfillment fantasy.
Yes, I know it's not the template but I'm sure this kind of stuff was around a lot in the 1930s and I'm sure it was influential. And we know Jerry Siegel at least dug this kind of stuff. In Action Comics No. 10, Superman becomes just this, a fugitive from a chain gang, in order to expose a corrupt, sadistic superintendent.
Put it this way: If you were making a movie about Siegel and Shuster and the origins of Superman, a not-bad opening would be the two Cleveland boys coming out of this movie and staring at the poster.
Friday August 07, 2020
Menand on Gehrig
I normally love Louis Menand's writing but his June article on baseball players and celebrity—specifically Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig and PR man Christy Walsh*—was a little meh. Maybe a reader can know too much about a subject. Example: When Menand went into how baseball used to be small ball, a base at a time, before Ruth, I could feel my eyes glazing over. But I still learned a few things—chiefly that Gehrig got the nickname “The Iron Horse” from New York Sun columnist Will Wedge in 1931. I like those details.
(*How interesting that the name of Gehrig's PR man was a mashup of two of the best pitchers in the first decade of the 20th century. ... OK, interesting to me.)
But Menand's ending, about “the speech,” made me tear up:
The announcer told the crowd that Gehrig was too moved to say anything, but a chant went up, and so he walked to the microphone. Eleanor later said that he had written an outline just in case; he clearly had some sentences memorized. Amazingly, only four of those sentences have been recorded and survive. Versions of the whole speech that you read have been pieced together from newspaper stories.
But we do have Gehrig's voice at the start. “For the past two weeks, you've been reading about a bad break,” he says. “Today I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth.” And at the end: “I might have been given a bad break, but I've got an awful lot to live for.” There is nothing self-pitying in the speech, no self-denial, no defiance. He is helping other people get through his pain. This was not colorless or boring. This was a man looking at death. In an age of showmen, in the very House That Ruth Built, it was a transcendent moment of selflessness.
He is helping other people get through his pain. Holy hell that's good.
Thursday August 06, 2020
'He Didn't Come to My Inauguration'
These are the last questions Axios' Jonathan Swan asked Donald Trump in his devastating interview the other day. I have to include them because it's about my man John Lewis. Keep in mind: We're talking about an American hero here.
Swan: John Lewis is lying in state in the U.S. Capitol. How do you think history will remember John Lewis?
Trump: I don't know. I really don't know. I don't know. I don't know John Lewis. He chose not to come to my inauguration. He chose... I never met John Lewis, actually, I don't believe.
Swan: Do you find him impressive?
Trump: I can't say one or the other. I find a lot of people impressive. I find many people not impressive. But no, but I didn't go-
Swan: Do you find his story impressive?
Trump: He didn't come to my inauguration. He didn't come to my State of the Union speeches, and that's okay. That's his right. And again, nobody has done more for Black Americans than I have.
Swan: I understand.
Trump: He should've come. I think he made a big mistake by not showing up.
Swan: But taking your relationship with him out of it, do you find his story impressive? What he's done for this country?
Trump: He was a person that devoted a lot of energy and a lot of heart to civil rights, but there were many others also.
Swan: There's a petition to rename the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama as the John Lewis Bridge. Would you support that idea?
Trump: I would have no objection to it if they've like to do it.
Swan: Yeah? It's a good idea?
Trump: Would have no objection to it whatsoever.
A few points worth reiterating:
- What does Trump know about John Lewis' achievements? What specifically? In his first response, he says “I don't know” four times and three different ways.
- All he knows is the personal: “He didn't come to my inauguration. He didn't come to my State of the Union speeches.”
- And in the same breath, in which he talks vaguely and dismissively about a man who put his life on the line again and again for civil rights and voting rights, he says, “Nobody has done more for Black Americans than I have.”
Civil rights hero? He didn't honor me. Me, who wouldn't rent to African Americans, took out a full page age calling for the death of the Central Park Five, and came to power via race-baiting? No one's done more for Black Americans.
What I wouldn't give to make this solipsistic horror show see the light for just 60 seconds.
Wednesday August 05, 2020
Today's Republican Party
“I spent decades working to elect Republicans, including Mr. Romney and four other presidential candidates, and I am here to bear reluctant witness that Mr. Trump didn't hijack the Republican Party. He is the logical conclusion of what the party became over the past 50 or so years, a natural product of the seeds of race-baiting, self-deception and anger that now dominate it. Hold Donald Trump up to a mirror and that bulging, scowling orange face is today's Republican Party.”
--GOP political consultant Stuart Stevens in The New York Times
Wednesday August 05, 2020
Movie Review: Man of a Thousand Faces (1957)
There’s a better biopic to be made here. Lon Chaney’s parents were deaf and mute, and growing up he pantomimed for them, and as an adult he pantomimed for the world. It made him world famous. Deservedly so. I’ve only seen a few Chaney movies—“Phantom of the Opera,” “Where East is East”—but the pain and power he exuded hasn’t diminished after 100 years. Then in 1930, at the age of 47, he developed throat cancer. Just as the movies were beginning to speak, he went mute. In his last months, he resorted to signing—as he had with his parents as a child. It’s circle-of-life stuff.
This is what “Man of a Thousand Faces” does with that story.
The first half is about how horrible Chaney’s first wife is. The second half is about how unforgiving Chaney becomes. The movie wrings its hands over the treatment of Chaney's parents but is as horrified by their state of existence as anyone. It’s mainstream melodrama, ’50s pablum but set earlier in our history. That may be what bugged me most: It reeks of postwar prosperity rather than turn-of-the-century struggle. There’s a sense of safety and cleanliness that feels like a ’50s sitcom rather than an era in which child labor laws hadn’t yet been established. You almost expect the Beav to enter stage left.
James Cagney is also the wrong physical type to play Chaney: that round, pudgy face rather than Chaney’s long, hollow one. He’s also too old. Sorry. Cagney begins the movie in clown makeup—not a bad idea to hide the years—but once he takes it off, well, we’ve got a 50/60-year-old playing twentysomething. And with Dorothy Malone as his wife? In your dreams, gramps.
Chaney’s makeup was better than Cagney’s. That’s sad. It’s in black-and-white but Cinemascope. That’s odd. And the aspect of Chaney’s life that the movie is least interested in? The movies. That’s ... ironic?
Even the movie's transitions are facile.
Mother to a dumb thing
We first see Chaney as a kid—with blonde, floppy hair like me in the 1960s—coming home bruised and bloodied because he’s been defending his parents against the taunts of bullies. His mother (Celia Lovsky, a standout), signs that he should feel sorry for those who don’t understand, then tells him to go wash up. He smiles, hugs her, goes to wash up. The camera focuses on running tap water then cuts to a rainstorm 15-20 years later. Sure.
Lon, dressed like a clown, is being called to see the boss because his wife, Cleva (Dorothy Malone), a not-very talented diva, is late for her curtain. The path from her dressing room to the stage feels like the watery pathway beneath the stage in “Phantom of the Opera,” for no real reason, and on the way she slips, falls in, can’t make the curtain. She’s fired, of course, so he goes on in her place. Performs a pantomime clown number that kills. The boss is excited but Chaney isn’t having it. “You fired her,” he says, “you fired me.” That’s the kind of loyal guy he is, see? So why go on in the first place?
We quickly discover that Cleva: 1) is pregnant, 2) has never met his parents, and 3) thinks it’s because he’s ashamed of her. But we know it’s because he’s ashamed of them. He never told her that his parents are deaf-mutes. So that’s the tension when they return home for a holiday gathering: How is she going to take it?
Not well, it turns out. His siblings are there, joyful and friendly, and then the parents come in and begin signing She stares, horrified, then runs up to the bedroom and throws herself on the bed.
He: Was it that hard to look at them, Cleva?
She: I couldn’t stand it.
Ouch. Yes, some of this is his fault for not mentioning it before, but she’s about the furthest thing from a picnic. “Ask them about my baby,” she cries. “Will it be like them? It’s in your blood, Lon, it can happen again! … I don’t want to have it! I don’t want to have it! I DON’T WANT TO BE MOTHER TO A DUMB THING!”
You’d think that would end it—how can their relationship recover?—but his mother convinces him to do right, so he sticks by her. At this point, the drama becomes: Will the baby be born a deaf-mute? Nope. It cries at birth (so not mute) and cries after Lon claps loudly by its crib (so not deaf). As the parents celebrate, Lon tells the boy, Creighton, who will become horror movie icon Lon Chaney Jr., “That’s the last time anyone will ever scare you.” Ha. Heh. Cough.
Cut to four or five years later and Cleva still doesn’t want the boy. Or she wants a career. Or something. At the Kolb and Dill vaudeville show, where Lon works, she drops off Creighton backstage and the showgirls dote on him like in a G-rated scene from “All That Jazz.” One in particular, Hazel (Dorothy Malone), shows maternal instincts. She’s forever babysitting while Cleva goes off to sing at a cocktail lounge. Cleva has an admirer there, but when he finds out she’s married he abandons her. So Cleva shows up at Lon’s work, walks onstage, and tries to kill herself by drinking mercuric chloride.
That’s actually true, by the way. She did that. It’s also true that they finally divorced—good riddance—but he couldn’t get custody and Creighton became a ward of the state. I don’t know if this is why Lon went into the movies, but that what the movie implies. He needed to make a lot of money quickly to show the judge he could raise Creighton by himself; but no matter how much money he makes in Hollywood, how nice and 1950s-ranch-style his home becomes, the judge won’t budge. Until he marries Hazel. One night, she confesses her love for him and basically proposes. (“Oh, so that’s why you’ve been hanging around for the past 10 years …”) And the two of them get Creighton back. And they get a cabin in the mountains. And the boy signs a greeting to his visiting grandparents. And all is well with the world.
We only get three extended sequences from his Hollywood career—the making of “The Miracle Man” from 1919, “Hunchback” from 1923 and “Phantom” from 1925—and each involves some backstage drama. While filming the whipping scene in “Hunchback,” for example, Hazel, along with Lon’s press agent pal Clarence (Jim Backus), show up, and guess who they merrily bring along? Cleva! Why not, right? She’s contrite but he’s unforgiving. She wants to see her son again but he wants nothing to do with her—in part, because to spare Creighton’s feelings, he told his son she was dead. And that’s the tension for the rest of the movie. Will Creighton find out? How will he take it?
Not well, it turns out. He leaves his father—who is also against him becoming an actor—and goes to live with his mother, who welcomes him with open arms. But she’s a good person now, and convinces him to forgive his father. Which happens just in time for Lon to die.
You know what would’ve made a better story? The truth. Example. In his memoir, Cagney relays what really happened when Creighton went searching for his mother. He got a lead, wound up at a desert ranch, knocked. A woman answered.
“Hello. My name is Creighton Chaney, and I’m looking for Mrs. Cleva Fletcher.”
“What’s the name?”
“Oh, I’m sorry,” she said. “No one here by that name.”
Then a voice came from inside the house. “Who is it, Cleva?”
Why didn’t they use that? “The story,” Cagney wrote, “seemed both crueler and larger than life itself.” Instead we got saccharine and smaller.
Thee may leave now
Cagney came to the Chaney story not because he worked with Lon Jr. in “A Lion Is in the Streets” (my assumption), but via Ralph Wheelwright, who wrote Cagney’s previous film, “These Wilder Years.” On that set, he pitched this. He was apparently a good pitcher. A journalist in the 1910s and ’20s, Wheelwright became a PR man for the likes of William Randolph Hearst and Louis B. Mayer before getting some story credits late in his career. All of his credits are just that—stories, not screenplays. The screenwriters for this are latter-day Cagney staples Ivan Goff and Ben Roberts (“White Heat,” creators of “Charlie’s Angels”) as well as a guy named R. Wright Campbell (“Teenage Caveman”).
Anyway, it doesn’t amount to much. Backus is wasted as nice guy/press agent, Greer is wasted as nice chorus girl/wife, and the four actors playing Creighton become duller versions of the gee-whiz All-American kid. Future producer/studio chief Bob Evans plays past producer/studio chief Irving Thalberg, but not well. Malone, on the other hand, is a knockout. Shame her character’s arc doesn’t ring true. (Because it isn’t true.)
Meanwhile, Lovsky, playing Chaney’s mom, so impressed me I had to look her up. She was born in Vienna, the daughter of a composer, and was a respected actress of the surrealist German stage in the 1930s when she became involved with Peter Lorre. She brought him to the attention of Fritz Lang (for “M”), fled Germany with him (he was Jewish), married him, divorced him, remained friends with him for life. In America, she continued acting, mostly in small character roles. One of those? Vulcan elder T’Pau in the classic “Star Trek” episode “Amok Time.” Yes, she’s the second person ever to do the Vulcan salute. The director of that episode happens to be the director of this movie: Joseph Pevney. “Amok Time” worked anyway.
Tuesday August 04, 2020
There's so many highlights/lowlights in Jonathan Swan's recent interview with Donald Trump that I don't know which to choose. Trump tries to BS his way through another interview with the usual BS—“I stopped the coronavirus from coming in from China when many people were against that”; “We have more cases because we test more”; “I get the biggest crowds ever”—and Swan keeps politely coming at him. At times he even compliments him in Foxian fashion but with a purpose. As here:
I've covered you for a long time. I've gone to your rallies. I've talked to your people. They love you. They listen to you. They listen to every word you say, they hang on your every word. They don't listen to me or the media or Fauci. They think we're fake news. They want to get their advice from you. And so, when they hear you say, everything's under control, don't worry about wearing masks. I mean, these are people, many of them are older people, Mr. President.
That's brilliant. It sounds almost sycophantic but every word is true. Trump's people do love him. They don't like the media or Fauci. And Trump is killing them.
Is this how he got the interview? Because he knew how to handle him? Because he knew how to sound sycophantic without being sycophantic?
He also doesn't let Trump be Trump. Or he expects something out of him. It's interesting. He expects Trump to be better. He's treating him as you would a normal president, and so is kind of shocked when he gets Trump. Maybe that's the way to do it. Maybe that's how you don't normalize him.
This is the first segment I saw on Twitter last night, and it's pretty devastating. Trump keeps insisting our Covid death rates are going down, Swan says they went down to 500 per day but are up again to 1,000 per day.
Trump: Here is one. Well, right here, United States is lowest in numerous categories. We're lower than the world.
Swan: Lower than the world?
Trump: We're lower than Europe.
Swan: What does that mean? In what?
Trump [showing papers with charts]: Look. Take a look. Right there. Here is case death.
Swan [reading]: Oh, you're doing death as a proportion of cases. I'm talking about death as a proportion of population. That's where the U.S. is really bad, much worse than South Korea, Germany, et cetera.
Trump: You can't do that.
Swan: Why can't I do that?
Trump: You have to go by where... look. Here is the United States. You have to go by the cases. The cases are there.
Swan: Why not as a proportion of population?
Trump: What it says is, when you have somebody where there's a case-
Swan: Oh, okay.
Trump: The people that live from those cases.
Swan: Oh. It's surely a relevant statistic to say, if the U.S. has X population and X percentage of death of that population versus South Korea-
Trump: No. Because you have to go by the cases.
Why can't I do that? God, that's good. That's a breath of fresh air. But Trump wants to do death-per-test case because those are the numbers that look better for him.
You have to go by the cases. How much does he sound like a 5-year-old here? It's the spoiled kid who only wants the game played by his rules. I don't know how any Trump supporter can listen to this and not crumble into dust from embarrassment. That's your man right there. That's your man.
You know who else should be embarrassed? The U.S. media, who have let Trump get the best of them. An Aussie showed them the way.
Sunday August 02, 2020
Screenshot of the Day
From “A Lion Is in the Streets” (1953), Cagney's sloppy seconds on the Huey Long story:
No, but he used to be. He used to be a big shot.