Friday February 26, 2021
Sacha Baron Cohen: 'This handful of people has the power of emperors'
“When I did bump into people from Silicon Valley at Hollywood parties—because, yeah, billionaires want to go to Hollywood parties and meet celebrities—I would try to get them in a corner and say, 'Listen, this is going on, and it's going to lead to the end of democracy.' I'd give them my whole schpiel, and they were ultimately, 'Oh, I thought you were going to be a bit funnier.'
”So at one point I had quite a heated discussion with one of them at an art gallery thing in San Francisco about Holocaust deniers, just asking why they were allowing Holocaust denying, and he said, 'No, we're not, we've sorted all that out.' And I pulled up their website and said 'What about this?' And it was a [link to a] website saying that six million was a lie; it was a Holocaust denial site. And he said, 'No, that just really shows both sides of the argument.' And I said, 'What — what argument??? There's an argument about whether the Holocaust existed?'
“You have this fundamental realization that a lot of these people, they're incredibly smart in a tiny area, but they should not be given the reins of power. I mean, it's so mad that this handful of people has the power of emperors. This period will be looked on as absurd: that government did not intervene earlier; that these people are allowed to profit off of spreading lies that lead to mass death.
”When Mark Zuckerberg says he is a defender of free speech, he is lying. The U.S. Constitution says that Congress—not companies, Congress—shall make no law abridging free speech. So that does not apply to private businesses like Twitter and Facebook. If they want to ban violent rhetoric and harassment, they have every right to do so. And the analogy I made at the ADL [speech in 2019] was that if a neo-Nazi comes goose-stepping into a restaurant and starts threatening customers and says he wants to kill Jews, the resturant owner has every legal right, and actually a moral obligation, to kick that Nazi out. And so do the internet companies. The idea that they were the defenders of free speech is ludicrous. I mean, they make editorial decisions continually. They don't allow nipples but they did allow Nazis.
“It's a lie. It's a lie that they're using to make money.”
-- Sacha Baron Cohen, “Sacha Baron Cohen Has a Message for Mark Zuckerberg,” on The New York Times website. Worth listening to.
Thursday February 25, 2021
Movie Review: The Bee Gees: How Can You Mend a Broken Heart (2020)
Wait, where was “Sgt. Pepper”?
That’s what I asked my wife the day after we watched “The Bee Gees: How Can You Mend a Broken Heart” on HBO—a doc we both enjoyed. She gave me a tight smile and laughed a note for what she assumed was a feeble joke.
No no, not the album, I said. Or not the Beatles album. The movie.
The movie starring the Bee Gees and Peter Frampton? With the Bee Gees as the Hendersons and Peter Frampton as Billy Shears in an all-star musical of Beatles’ songs? Came out in the summer of ’78. The doc didn’t mention it at all.
That’s a real thing? she asked incredulously.
A huge bomb. I looked up some of the details. The Bee Gees were filming it in the fall of ’77—right as “How Deep Is Your Love?” was climbing the charts, and months before “Saturday Night Fever” was even released. I’d always assumed they were cast in “Pepper” because of the success of “Fever” but it was before then. It was a Robert Stigwood production, as was “Fever,” and Stigwood was their manager, so I guess that’s why. But it seems worth a mention.
And yes, I get it, you can’t put everything into a 90-minute doc. At the same time, it’s the only feature film the Bee Gees starred in, it was the music of the Beatles, whom they idolized and wanted to be, and it was supposed to be a kind of passing of the torch even if it wasn’t nearly. The release of “Pepper” also adds to the group’s late ’70s oversaturation, which led to the inevitable backlash against them. Which is so much of this story.
It is fascinating how the Bee Gees and their younger brother Andy Gibb were always being played on the radio, and then how they were never being played on the radio. But to paraphrase “All the President’s Men,” “Don’t tell me you think that all of this was the work of little Stevie Dahl.”
The doc, written by Mark Monroe (“The Cove,” “The Beatles: Eight Days a Week”) and directed by longtime producer Frank Marshall (Bogdanovich, Spielberg), implies as much. We get a great juxtaposition of the Bee Gees playing to sold-out stadiums in the summer of ’79, safe in their bubble, while over in Chicago, Dahl, a tubby, white radio shock jock in army helmet, organized Disco Demolition Night at Comiskey Park: a White Sox twi-night double-header would cost just 99 cents if you brought a disco record that would get blown up at second base in-between games. It was a fiasco, led to a riot, and the White Sox had to forfeit the second game. A Black usher who was there says he pointed out that a lot of the records being added to the pile weren’t disco at all but R&B—Isaac Hayes and Stevie Wonder albums are shown—adding to the idea that the disco backlash was racist and homophobic in nature. Maybe. Or maybe these stupid white kids grabbed what they could to get into the park. (BTW: Did anyone really destroy “Songs in the Key of Life” for a ChiSox game? Talk about your dumbshit moves.)
There are other cultural touchstones the filmmakers could’ve added besides Dahl. This is a longshot, but I was hoping they’d quote the stream-of consciousness, cultural flotsam thoughts of middle-aged Toyota dealer Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom in “Rabbit Is Rich,” John Updike’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, published in 1981. It's the summer of 1979, Rabbit is driving around in his red metallic Toyota Corona and listening to the radio:
The disco music shifts to the Bee Gees, white men who have done this wonderful thing of making themselves sound like black women. “Stayin’ Alive” comes on with all that amplified throbbleo and a strange nasal whining underneath: the John Travolta theme song. Rabbit still thinks of him as one of the Sweathogs from Mr. Kotter’s class but for a while back there last summer the U.S.A. was one hundred percent his, every twat under 15 wanting to be humped by a former Sweathog in the back seat of a car parked in Brooklyn.
(One can imagine Updike getting canceled today for that second sentence.)
By the end of the novel it’s January 1980, and Rabbit is listening to the radio in a grape-blue Toyota Celica Supra: “Though he moves the dial from left to right and back again,” Updike writes, “he can’t find Donna Summer, she went out with the Seventies.”
When I first read that sentence, decades ago, I found it reductive. But is it? Disco was fucking everywhere in 1979: “Le Freak,” “I Will Survive,” “Knock on Wood” and “Ring My Bell” all topped the charts. Donna Summer had three #1s in 1979 and never another. The Bee Gees had three #1s in 1979 and never another. Maybe we do flip switches that quickly.
And how much of the anti sentiment (of Blacks, disco, gays, sex and Bee Gees) was part of the general rising tide of conservatism that swept the U.K. and U.S. in that period? When the Bee Gees released “Spirits Having Flown” and it went to No. 1 on the album charts in the U.S., U.K., Australia, Germany, Sweden and New Zealand, it was Feb. 1979: gas lines hadn’t begun forming, hostages hadn’t been taken, and Afghanistan hadn’t been invaded. When they released their next album, “Living Eyes,” it was Oct. 1981, Reagan and Thatcher were in power, every dumbfuck around every corner was chanting “USA! USA!” and the album just died. All over the world. In the U.S. and U.K. it peaked at #41 and #73, respectively. Ouch. No wonder Barry Gibb seems so desperate and pissed off when he faces a camera on an early ’80s TV show and says ‘Does anybody mind if we exist in the ’80s? Thank you.” He and his brothers went from everywhere to nowhere. They went out, as Updike wrote, with the Seventies.
“The Bee Gees: How Can You Mend a Broken Heart” is fun, poignant and brought back a lot of memories. I began listening to the radio with regularity, and American Top 40 religiously, in 1975 when “Jive Talkin’” hit the charts. I never sought them out but I enjoyed a lot of their pre-“Saturday Night Fever” singles: “Nights on Broadway, “Fanny (Be Tender with My Love”) (which I’d completely forgotten), and “Love So Right.” I liked all that; I was a sappy kid. I also liked a lot of the “Fever” stuff, to be honest: “Stayin’ Alive,” “Night Fever,” “You Should Be Dancing.” I just disliked their ubiquity, and the fact that they clogged the top 5 singles charts like no band since the Beatles. That felt like blasphemy to me. Plus I hated “How Deep Is Your Love?” I could never understand why it was so big. Drove me nuts. I remember getting into an argument with my best friend, Peter, at the time. He kept talking up the Bee Gees, I dismissed them, he said who do you like, I said Paul Simon, we mocked each other’s tastes and then didn’t speak for months. Ninth grade.
I do wish Marshall and Monroe had gone a bit deeper and paid greater attention to chronology. Rick Dees’ “Disco Duck” is played as an example of the schlock that followed the Bee Gees’ huge success in 1978, which got people got tired of disco, but it was actually released two years earlier. That matters. Chronology matters.
The broken heart of the title refers to Barry, the band’s leader and only surviving member. Maurice died in 2003, Robin in 2012, while Andy, a huge pop sensation in the 1970s, struggled with drug addiction and died in 1988, age 30. Anyone’s heart would break. “I’d rather have them all back here,” Barry says at the end, “and no hits at all.”
Wednesday February 24, 2021
Rascally Roy Defends Stan the Man
“That Stan Lee was the co-creator, and not the sole creator, of the key Marvel heroes from the Fantastic Four and Spider-Man through Daredevil and the Silver Surfer can hardly be in dispute at this late stage. I myself, back in the '80s when I wasn't working for him, had a friendly argument with him on that score over lunch. I soon realized that, as much as he respected the talents and contributions of artists ... such as Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko to the characters introduced in the 1960s, he could never really bring himself, in his own mind, to think of them as 'co-creators.' The two of us had to agree to disagree, and I never saw any use in bringing it up again.
”If I can judge from Riesman's writings, and from other sources over the years, I'm sure I'd have encountered the same kind of blinders-on stubbornness in Jack Kirby (oft-quoted in this book), who saw Stan as little more than the guy who scribbled a few words of dialogue and rode to unearned glory on his back.
“Both men were, I think, wrong, and that's why Riesman is so ill-advised to use nearly every opportunity he gets to weight things in Jack's favor and against Stan.”
-- Rascally Roy Thomas, the first Marvel Comics editor-in-chief after Stan Lee, in a guest column for The Hollywood Reporter: “Roy Thomas, Former Marvel Editor, Pushes Back on New Stan Lee Biography.” The biography is “True Believer” by Abraham Reisman, and based on Roy's column I won't be reading it, but it's worth reading this. I particularly like the early draft Stan wrote for FF#1 and how it differed from what we finally read. (Sue couldn't turn visible again? Ben had a thing for her? No pun intended.) What always goes unmentioned in these Stan v. Jack arguments, too, is what amounted to the real Marvel Comics breakthrough: treating superheroes as normal people with problems. I don't think there's any dispute that the idea came from Stan. Plus the whole tongue-in-cheek braggadaccio thing that was part of Marvel's charm? That was Stan's charm. 'Nuff said.
Tuesday February 23, 2021
Never Be Anyone Else But You
How did you decide to use Ricky Nelson [for “Rio Bravo”]?
I saw Ricky Nelson on a number of TV shows, so I asked his father to send me some of his very latest stuff. I liked it and sent him a script. His father said he liked the script and that was it. We just put him in.
You gave him [Montgomery] Clift's old mannerism from Red River of rubbing the nose with his index finger.
We did anything we could to help him. For two or three days I even shot scenes I didn't need.
Just to relax him?
Yes. And after a few days I thought he did quite well. I imagine it added about a million and a half to the picture's gross. Over in Japan, Ricky Nelson's picture in the ads was in the middle—Wayne and Martin were smaller on the side. We happened to catch him just at the height of his popularity. When we went to a bullfight in Tucson during the shooting, they paid very little attention to Wayne—they just watched Rick Nelson. I think he's OK.
Not exactly Montgomery Clift, but ...
Oh, my God, no, but you can't find those around every corner.
-- Howard Hawks and Peter Bogdanovich in “Who the Devil Made It: Conversations with Legendary Film Directors.”
Monday February 22, 2021
Movie Review: Run for Cover (1955)
This was James Cagney’s second western. His first, The Oklahoma Kid in 1939, caused laughter in some quarters for two reasons: Cagney was so obviously a city kid (except at heart) and he wasn’t exactly John Wayne in stature. Even co-star Humphrey Bogart took a potshot. Cagney in his 10-gallon hat, he said, looked like a mushroom.
Fifteen years later, no one said boo because now it worked: Cagney's face was craggy, his body beefy. He looked like someone who spent a great deal of time outdoors—which he had, as a gentleman farmer in Martha’s Vineyard. Maybe to a fault? His 18-month hiatus between A Lion Is In the Streets and this movie is his longest time away from the screen since becoming a star in 1931, and he’d developed a bit of a paunch.
Cagney was drawn to the project by the director (Nicholas Ray), the script (Winston Miller and the team of Harriet Frank, Jr. and Irving Ravetch), and the location shooting (Silverton, Colorado, amid the Rockies). He had high hopes. They were dashed.
We had tried to make as offbeat a Western as possible, but whoever cut the film was evidently revolted by anything but clichés. As a consequence, little things that the director, Nick Ray (a good man), and the actors put in to give the story extra dimension were excised very proficiently. The result was just another programmer.
Yet Run for Cover isn’t bad. It begins well, sags in the middle, then includes a kind of Mexican-standoff ending that surprises and delights.
Alright, so it begins cheesy. Over the opening credits announcing VistaVision! and Technicolor, we hear a happy, all-male chorus singing the movie’s title song:
Head for the hills hit the trail
When trouble’s on the run
(Run for cover)
Don’t find yourself locked in jail
For something you ain’t done
(Run for cover)
(Run for cover)
(Run for cover)
Yeah. Not good.
At this point, we see great Technicolor shots of Colorado and eventually a dusty Matt Dow (Cagney) riding his beautiful pinto horse to a mountain stream, where he’s set to wash his face and fill his canteen. Then he spins, gun drawn, eyes flashing, as Davey Bishop (John Derek) rides into the clearing. It leads to an odd standoff. With the gun drawn on him, Davey is calm and smiling; as soon as it’s holstered his face crumbles into a pout. Even after Matt apologizes, Davey keeps complaining, and they only get past the moment when Matt defuses the situation with a Billy the Kid reference. All that should’ve been a warning.
Going in the same direction, they ride together, and await a passing train by taking shots at a hawk circling overhead. Two men on the train misinterpret their actions and panic. They’d been robbed the month before—one man still wears a bandage around his head—and thinking the gunshots are signals, and wanting no part of a second robbery, they toss out the town’s payroll bag. Matt, who’d just spent six years in prison for a case of mistaken identity, immediately knows they’re screwed, but he and Davey ride toward town to give the money back. Halfway there, they’re ambushed by the sheriff and his posse, who are about to lynch Matt when a wounded Davey is recognized and tempers subside. They send Davey to a nearby farm while they bring Matt back to the sheriff’s office to face his accusers. I like how Cagney immediately reclaims moral authority here. “What did you tell these people?” he demands of the payroll men. “Let me hear what said to them!” These guys reveal themselves to be boobs, as does the sheriff, and Matt storms off to the Swenson farm to see if Davey is OK.
Let’s pause a moment to consider his actions here. Why go to the Swenson farm? He’s been with Davey a few hours at best. They got off on the wrong foot, then stumbled into disaster. Why not keep riding? Particularly since Matt was riding toward the town to see if it was a place worth settling in, and his near-lynching gave him the answer.
Bit by bit, though, we find out the following: 1) Matt feels guilty because he told Davey to ride first, maybe knowing he’d be shot first; and 2) Matt lost a son who would’ve been about Davey’s age. Is that reason enough? Meh. The bonus is Helga Swenson (Viveca Lindfors), your typical beautiful Swede working the farm with her taciturn father (Jean Hersholt, of the humanitarian award, in his final film role), and with nary a suitor nearby. Matt isn’t even one, initially. He’s more worried about Davey than interested in pursuing Helga, which might be why she’s attracted to him. Either way, she does most of the heavy lifting, while Matt frets and carps over Davey: “What kind of doctor are you? Can’t even fix a broken leg!” he says at one point. “What makes you so sure now? You were wrong once before!” he says later.
Davey survives but with a lifelong limp, and Matt spends the rest of the movie propping him up. When Matt becomes sheriff, he makes Davey his deputy. When the townspeople ignore Davey to lynch a bank robber, and Davey pouts and turns in his badge, Matt gives it back. Then he lets Davey take the second bank robber, Morgan (Ernest Borgnine), to the next county seat, but Davey can’t do this, either. Morgan gets away. Chance after chance Davey gets, and he always blows it. It gets old. Derek’s pout really gets old.
Then on Easter Sunday the robbers return in force, led by Gentry (Grant Withers), who, it turns out, was Matt’s cellmate back in the day. This is how the townspeople find out about Matt’s past, so even as Matt gathers a posse to catch Gentry and his men, they remain suspicious. But at the last moment, Davey rides up, announcing, with bravado, “Looks like you could use a deputy.” We think: Hey, is this when Davey redeems himself? Once they reach Comanche territory, the townsfolk balk and return to safety, while Matt keeps going with Davey. We think: Hey, is this when Davey redeems himself?
Nope. Riding through a windstorm, Davey shoots Matt. In the process, Davey is spilled from his horse, and Matt, winged, kicks his gun away.
Matt: Why did you do that? Tell me why?
Davey: You wouldn’t quit. There was no other way of stopping you.
Matt: Stop me from what?
Davey: From catching Gentry … finding out I was in on it.
Matt: You … with THEM?
First, I love the reading Cagney gives that top line. There’s no anger, just bewilderment. But yes, the little shit’s a traitor. Morgan never overpowered him; that’s when Davey joinedthe gang. He even gave them the idea of Easter Sunday, when all the townsfolk would be in church. Matt adds: “All except Pa Swenson,” who was killed while the men were fleeing. But even here, even with blood on his hands, Davey’s a little shit about it. “What was I supposed to do: Hobble up and down a hardware counter for the rest of my life? For $8.00 a week?”
Throughout, Matt has tried to impart wisdom to Davey. When Davey learns he’ll never walk right again, Matt says this: “Lots of fellows live and die without ever having to find out how much of a man they are. You could be as good a man as anybody in town.” That's pretty good. And after they find Gentry and the other men killed by Comanches, grab the money, and get ready to return home, Matt tells him this:
There's a lot of people in this world who've had a tougher time than you or me. It comes with the ticket. Nobody guarantees you a free ride. The only difference is: Most people don’t run for cover. They keep right on going, picking up the pieces the best way they can.
There’s our title reference, oddly in the negative. Meaning everything the title song trumpets is the opposite of the way the hero actually thinks. We should really be watching a movie called Don’t Run for Cover.
Amazingly, after all this, Matt still gives Davey another chance. No one in town knows Davey betrayed them and caused the death of Pa Swenson, Matt says, so why not just keep that part quiet and Davey can resume his normal life? Davey just looks at him, stunned. It’s the one moment we identify with him; we’re stunned, too. But before anything else can happen, they hear Comanches nearby, hide until dark, and try to ford a river to safety. “I can’t make it,” Matt says, gasping in the deep water. “Help me back.”
We think: Hey, is this when Davey redeems himself?
Nope. He tries to drown Matt.
You gotta give the filmmakers credit for persistence. They keep playing the same off-key notes of the forgiveness cycle—screw-up, forgiveness, betrayal; screw-up, forgiveness, betrayal—and we keep hoping for a shift near the end, an upbeat note, a moment when the forgiveness actually works.
But here’s the great thing about this movie: Just when we’re not expecting it, the moment we don’t think, “Hey, is this when Davey redeems himself?,” Davey redeems himself.
After the near drowning, Matt clings to a log and floats downriver, then walks back to their camp for the stashed payroll. On his way to town, still wounded, he stumbles upon an old abandoned fort/mission, which turns out to be the gang’s hideout; Davey’s there with Morgan. Matt shoots Morgan, then he and Davey have it out. Davey accuses Matt of preaching and Matt says that a preacher’s “gotta they’re some good about everybody. But there’s no more good in you than in a rattlesnake.” He’s finally done with him. No more forgiveness. I assume he’s going to take him back to town for a trial and a hanging.
Except Morgan’s not dead. And as he crawls to his gun and aims it at Matt, Davey sees, draws and fires. Except Matt thinks Davey is drawing on him, so he shoots Davey. Only after the fact does he realize Davey was saving his life. He kills Davey for saving his life.
And like that, we go from being bored to being floored.
Is there a musical term for this? Playing the same notes forever until you veer off suddenly, unexpectedly? It’s so beautifully done. The one who always betrays proves loyal, while the one who always forgives punishes a moral act.
The movie then does two more things—one right, one sadly wrong. The right thing is they don’t give Davey any dying words. He just stares up, rolls his eyes back, dies. The wrong thing is the happy ending. In this era of the blacklist, no western, it seemed, had townspeople worth a damn. Here, too. They want law but take it into their own hands; they want Matt but never trust him. In the end, when Matt returns, wounded, exhausted, he’s met on the outskirts of town by these same chuckleheads still suspicious of him. Fed up, he tosses them the money, says “Compliments of Davey,” then dismounts and hugs Helga. Then the townspeople ride past and Matt gives them the finger.
Kidding. They ride past, waving, and, as the music wells, Matt waves back. All is well. The End.
Wait, what? Shouldn’t he be throwing his badge in the dirt or something? Or showing remorse? The pain he’ll feel the rest of his life—knowing he took the life of his prodigal son for saving his own?
In the 1950s Cagney worked with some great directors but never on any great movies. Indeed, he often starred in the one before their great one. Mister Roberts began with John Ford at the helm until Ford was kicked off; then Ford went and made The Searchers. Tribute to a Bad Man was directed by Robert Wise, who then directed Somebody Up There Likes Me. As for Nicholas Ray? His next pic was a little something called Rebel Without a Cause.
Hey, can you imagine James Dean as Davey? That might've worked. At the least, it would’ve saved us from John Derek. The rest of the cast is good anyway. Lindfors is a nice mix of Hollywood beauty and maybe, potentially—if you squint hard enough—a hardscrabble frontierwoman. The worst of the townspeople, Larsen, is played by longtime character actor Jack Lambert, who has the deepest of voices and thinnest of eyes. Fun fact: 10 years later, he wound up in an episode of The Andy Griffith Show in a jail cell with Billy Halop of the Dead End Kids, whom Cagney befriended in Angels with Dirty Faces. (I might have to watch that episode.) Grant Withers is another actor with Cagney history. A big name in the early 1930s—he scandalously eloped with a 17-year-old Loretta Young in 1930—he starred in two of the first movies Cagney appeared in: Sinners’ Holiday and Other Men’s Women. While Cagney rose, Withers fell into character acting and hard times. Drink, mostly. He killed himself in 1959, age 54. He’s good here. I like that he plays a man who knew Cagney way back when, since he did.
There's also Borgnine, seventh-billed, who this same year would star in Marty and win the Academy Award for best actor. Among the other nominees? Cagney for Love Me or Leave Me. It’s interesting seeing Cagney chasing and catching Borgnine since he won’t at Oscar time.
With a better producer, and a better actor in the Davey role, Run for Cover might be viewed as a classic today. It might’ve led to a string of ’50s westerns for Cagney. It didn't. But it ain’t bad.
The many moods of future svengali John Derek.
Saturday February 20, 2021
Does Superhero Worship Lead to Fascism?
I'm reading “Who the Devil Made It: Conversations with Legendary Film Directors,” by Peter Bogdanovich, and the Fritz Lang section is pretty fascinating. And this part made me do a double-take. Lang is talking about his first Hollywood movie, “Fury,” from 1936, and a lesson he learned about the difference between America and Germany:
In our original script, the character Spencer Tracy played was a lawyer. I felt that a lawyer could better express his feelings and thoughts than a working man, a laborer. ... We wrote the first 10 pages and gave them to a producer at MGM to read. And this producer said, “No, this is absolutely impossible.” I said, “Why?” And that was the first time I heard the words, Joe Doe, Jane Doe.
He explained to me something I should have known by then, because it's exactly what I forgot to tell you before about comic strips: everything there happens to Joe Doe—meaning to you and me—not to some upperclass man. And he explained to me that in an American picture one would have to have Joe Doe—a man of the people—as a hero. And I thought, “Here is a sign of a democracy.” In Germany, under the influence of military power—I'm not speaking of Hitler, but even before, under the military power of the emperor. There is a phrase you cannot translate, Kadaver gehorsam, which means “Even your cadaver must obey.” Absolute obedience. So because of that influence, and Nietzsche's, the hero in Germany was always a superman. For example, I had made a series about a criminal called Dr. Mabuse—he was a superman. Here in America, Al Capone was not a superman. In a totalitarian state, or in a state governed by a dictator, an emperor or a king, this leader himself is, in a way, a superman; he can't do wrong. At least he couldn't in those days. So over there the hero in a motion picture should be a superman, whereas in a democracy he had to be Joe Doe.
First, I love that Land keeps using Joe Doe for John Doe, and Bogdanovich never corrects him.
Second, Lang's thoughts on comic strips—the funny kind—being about the Joe Does of the world recalls something I've written many times: comedy is who we are, action-adventure is who we want to be. Superhero movies simply take the latter a step further—from John Wayne to Superman.
Third, and most important: Is there a connection between the worship of the superman/superhero and the rise of Fascism? And did all the superhero movies that permeated American culture in the first two decades of this century lead to the rise of Donald Trump? Asking not telling.
Friday February 19, 2021
Rush Limbaugh (1951-2021)
I heard the news via Twitter. Since I don't follow any dittoheads, Foxholes or Qberts, the type of response I saw was mostly versions of the Clarence Darrow line, “I have never killed anyone, but I have read some obituary notices with great satisfaction.” Some even quoted that line. Or misquoted it. Or attributed it to Mark Twain.
One of the first responses I saw was one of the best:
My friend Vinny said something similar: “Don't care how many evil little motherfuckers got born today, the world's a little less poisonous with Rush Limbaugh dead.” People pointed out Rush was “Trending with: Good Riddance; Rot in Hell.” Others pointed out Rush wasn't exactly circumspect about the death of others. The day after Kurt Cobain died, Jim Walsh wrote, Rush called him “a worthless shred of human debris.” Rush daily celebrated the death of gay people from AIDS with bells and horns. He regularly attacked Chelsea Clinton when she was 12. He coined “feminazi.” He mocked Michael J. Fox's Parkinson's Disease. He was a horror show.
Even the Shakespeare Twitter handle got into the act:
I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him.
The evil that men do lives after them,
The good is oft interred with their bones;
So let it be with Caesar.
Rush is a big part of how we got here—with 40% of the voting public thriving on fact-less, looney-tunes vitriol. I remember when he broke big in the 1990s, I couldn't get quite wrap my mind around what was happening. I reveled at Al Franken's great takedown, “Rush Limbaugh Is a Big, Fat Idiot, and Other Observations,” as I reviewed it for The Seattle Times. I thought the takedown would take care of things. I wrote: “I won't feign objectivity here: Rush Limbaugh is to the '90s what Father Coughlin was to the '30s: a blotch upon the decade for future historians to wonder over.” Except few wondered over it and Rush kept going. He moved us away from the Age of Enlightenment and into something darker; he created communities outside of objective reality that continue to grow: from Fox to Breitbart to NewsMax to QAnon. Rush begat that ecosystem.
I wonder what he felt in his final moments? Was he fearful? Were there epiphanies? Did scales fall? Whatever there is to know, now he knows.
Thursday February 18, 2021
Frances Farmer by Howard Hawks
How did you find Frances Farmer? She was extraordinary in the movie. [Come and Get It (1936)]
She came in to play the part of a little Swedish girl. She was getting seventy-five bucks a week over at Paramount and I said, “My God, you ought to be playing the lead in this.” She said, “I can play it.” So I had her read a little bit and I began to get enthusiastic about it, and then I said I'd make a test. We started to disagree because she came in all made up and was going to “act,” but I let her go to it and then showed her the test and said, “What do you think?” She said, “I'm horrible.” I said, “OK, where do you live?” and that night I picked her up and we went around to little cafés until we found somebody who acted the way I wanted her to play it: We saw a waitress in this beer joint and I said, “Now, you come in here every night for 10 days. Get picked up. The worst that'll happen to you is you'll get your legs felt.” She was a big husky girl who could take care of herself, you know. “Then we'll make another test.” And at the end of 10 days she came in and made a test—without makeup or anything—with just a change in attitude. Oh, she was marvelous, probably the best actress—outside of Lombard and Rosalind Russell—I've ever worked with.
-- Howard Hawks in Peter Bogdanovich's “Who the Devil Made It: Conversations with Legendary Film Directors.”
Wednesday February 17, 2021
That Yankees Pennant Drought
Over the years I've written a lot about the how, why and when of the New York Yankees sucking. It started with the 61* reasons in The Grand Salami in the early 2000s, and I added more as I learned more: the org's historic racism, treating the KC A's like its farm club, David Cone's faux outrage speech against the Mariners in 1998, more historic racism, Derek Jeter's parting gifts, etc. etc. It should be a book. Maybe it will be.
But it's worth reiterating the No. 1 reason why the Yankees suck: They win. They win all the fucking time. They are the sports symbol of our horribly unequal society—U.S. Steel and Amazon.com all rolled into one. Rooting for them is like rooting for white people. A Yankee pennant or championship is like a Republican tax cut: It benefits the people who need it least.
It's worth reiterating all this now because the Yankees are in the midst of one of their longest pennant droughts.
First, a little history.
The Yankees started out as a shoddy little organization called the Highlanders that didn't have its own ballpark for a few years; they had to make do with the Giants' ballpark. They were one of the last teams to win a pennant—the lucky 13th of the original 16 teams to do so. It took 18 seasons. That is still their longest pennant drought.
Then on Jan. 5, 1920 they purchased Babe Ruth for $125,000. Here are the Yankees pennantless runs since that day.
Just how dominant were the Yankees in their 1920-1964 heyday? For nearly half a century, Yankee fans never had to suffer for four staight years without a pennant. Not once. Put it this way: If, on Jan. 5, 1920, you'd told Yankee fans that for the next 45 years they could win a pennant every other year—every other year for 45 years—or they could let things play out as the fates allowed, I'm sure most would've chosen the former. And they would've shortchanged themselves. In these 45 seasons, the Yankees won 29 pennants and the rest of the AL combined won 16:
Ah, but the fun part. Some combination of new CBS ownership and longstanding racist policies led to their downfall. By 1966, the Yankees were the worst team in the AL. Good times. I like how, immediately after the Yankee Years ended, four Have-Nots stepped up to win pennants: Senators/Twins, Browns/Orioles, Red Sox and Tigers. And the first team to dominate was the team that had the least. Before 1966, the Orioles franchise had been to the World Series just once and lost. That was it. Then, in the next six years, they won four pennants and two titles. Then it was on to another Have-Not, the Oakland A's, which won three pennants and three championships in three years. No team besides the Yankees has ever done that. Then the Sox and their memorable '75 Series. And then, crap, back to the Yankees. Oh well. Fun while it lasted.
Indeed, even after the Yankee Years ended, who has been the most dominant team in baseball? Sadly:
Which is why we need to enjoy the Yankees' current pennant drought. Sure, it doesn't hold a candle to the Mariners' current drought (44 seasons and counting), or the Pirates (41 seasons), Brewers (38), Orioles (37), A's and Reds (30). Hell, almost half the Majors have longer current pennant droughts than the Yankees. But for the Yankees, this is still historically bad territory—their second worst drought since the day they bought Babe Ruth. Enjoy.
Wednesday February 17, 2021
Trump v. McConnell
“You can tell how worried Republicans are that they are now the Trump Party by the contortions of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, who aided Trump almost to the end. Rarely has a politician been more blatant in attempting the impossible feat of running with the foxes and hunting with the hounds.
”Moments after voting to let Trump off — 'on a technicality,' as Democratic Rep. Joaquin Castro of Texas shrewdly observed ... McConnell blistered the inciter in chief in a speech the impeachment managers could have written. His words told the world who won the argument. They also underscored how wrenching it will be for Republican politicians to appease the GOP's Trump-supporting majority while pretending to be another party altogether.“
-- E.J. Dionne, Jr., ”The beginning of the end of Trumpism,“ in The Washington Post.
That was Sunday. Yesterday, Trump attacked back in his usual fashion but via an unusual platform: a press release. Apparently his aides didn't want him going off-script in a public appearance. This was the script: ”Mitch is a dour, sullen, and unsmiling political hack, and if Republican Senators are going to stay with him, they will not win again. He will never do what needs to be done, or what is right for our Country. Where necessary and appropriate, I will back primary rivals who espouse Making America Great Again and our policy of America First.“ Blah blah blah. In the midst, I tweeted: ”So weird to be on the side of one of the worst people in the world: Mitch McConnell. But here we are."
Monday February 15, 2021
Movie Review: The Public Enemy (1931)
After six months in Hollywood, Warner Bros. contract player James Cagney had been assigned the following roles, usually fourth- or fifth-billed:
- A cowardly bootlegger
- An incompetent gangster sidekick
- A pal to a railroad man
- Insurance salesman
Then he was cast as another sidekick in another gangster drama ostensibly called “Beer and Blood”—up-and-comer Edward Woods was tapped to play the lead—and it probably seemed his lot in life. Cagney was short, red-haired, not conventionally handsome, with something feral about him. You could imagine a career of cameos, cowards, sidekicks.
Since success has a thousand fathers, there’s no end of people taking credit for switching the roles and making Cagney the lead gangster in “The Public Enemy,” and thus one of the biggest stars in Hollywood history.
In his autobiography, Warner Bros. chief Jack Warner wrote that he not only bought the unpublished “Beer and Blood” novel by Chicagoans John Bright and Kubec Glasmon but “gambled that Jimmy Cagney, who was a sort of bonus rookie, could deliver when the pressure was on.” Except, if true, there would’ve been no need to switch roles. Cagney would’ve been cast at the outset. He wasn’t. Scratch Warner.
Producer Darryl Zanuck has also claimed credit but in most accounts he actually fought the change. Edwards Woods, you see, was engaged to the daughter of Louella O. Parsons, the powerful Hearst gossip columnist, and Zanuck didn’t want to get on her bad side. It took director William Wellman to prick his ego: “Are you going to let some newspaperwoman run your business?” He wasn’t. But scratch Zanuck.
Most credit Wellman, who was himself a second choice. Archie Mayo, who had directed the gangster drama “The Doorway to Hell,” the year before, was originally tapped. But Mayo didn’t want to be pigeonholed into what most assumed would be a shortlived genre, so he turned it down. That’s why it went to Wellman, known as “Wild Bill” since his days in the Lafayette Escadrille—the air wing of the French Foreign Legion—during the Great War. He was a man’s man who knew tough guys when he saw them. Film historian David Thomson lays out the scene in “Warner Bros.: The Making of an American Movie Studio”:
After a few days, Wellman was looking at the early footage with his cutter and he felt uneasy without knowing why. Then he got it. He realized they had the casting wrong. Edward Woods was too restrained in the lead role, Tom Powers, while Cagney was seething with unused energy as Matt Doyle. Wellman called Zanuck, who was in New York, and explained the dilemma. Zanuck did not believe in doubt: he was devout about immediate decisions. “Make the switch,” he ordered.
You know who else credits Wellman? James Cagney. In a 1954 episode of “This is Your Life,” honoring Wellman, Cagney shows up and says the following:
I was not supposed to be play the first hoodlum in the picture; another fellow was supposed to play it. And after we’d been going a couple of days, Bill said “There’s something cockeyed about this casting.” He said, “Cagney should play that first hoodlum.” Why? I don’t know. Seriously. Well, anyway, the parts were switched. … Bill made quite an issue of it, and he got together with the writers and Darryl Zanuck, the producer, and between them they cooked it up. And that was the first break. And Bill, I’ll always be grateful.
Did you catch it? The mistake? Cagney said Wellman “got together with the writers” to make the switch. Now why would a director need to get together with writers on a casting decision? That’s not how Hollywood works. But if the writers had instigated everything? This, I think, is closer to what happened.
In his memoir, John Bright says that when Ed Woods, “a young Broadway actor of sensitivity,” had been cast as their swaggering gangster, he and Glasmon were distraught. “In desperation,” he writes, “we took the vital problem to Bill Wellman. ‘Why not Jimmy Cagney, a breezy bouncy Irishman Zanuck had chosen to play a minor part?’”
Cagney scholar Henry Cohen, in his 1981 intro to the original screenplay of “The Public Enemy,” adds a few pertinent details. Apparently Wellman wasn’t even on the set when shooting began; he was finishing another project. “By then Bright and Glasmon were after him to reverse the Cagney and Woods assignments. Wellman saw [the rushes] and agreed…” Author Patrick McGilligan disputes the rushes business, writing in his book “Cagney, Actor as Auteur” that the early shooting was mostly establishing shots, and Bright and Glasmon simply had Cagney read the Tom Powers part to Wellman in person. Bright’s memoir says the same.
I assume this is closer to how it went down: Bright and Glasmon convinced Wellman, who convinced Zanuck. And a star was born.
The birth of modern acting
When I was growing up in the 1970s, you’d see Cagney impressions regularly on TV. He hadn’t acted in movies for 10, 15 years, but there he was again, sandwiched in-between Richard Nixons and John Waynes. Frank Gorshin did him on variety shows, Radar O’Reilly in an episode of “M*A*S*H,” Richard Dawson on “Family Feud.”
“The Public Enemy” is the first time we see anyone doing a Cagney—since it’s the first time a child actor plays a younger version of him—and they nailed it. They cast 13-year-old former circus performer Frankie Darro, who would later star in Wellman’s “Wild Boys of the Road,” as well as the Cagney flick “The Mayor of Hell,” and he’s perfect: the right size, the right sneer. You can see his face becoming Cagney’s.
And then they neglected to switch the kids roles when they switched the adult ones.
Throws me every time. Darro, the short, pugnacious one, grows up to be Ed Woods, while the tall, dark-haired kid (Frank Coughlan Jr., who would play Billy Batson in the 1941 serial “The Adventures of Captain Marvel”) becomes Cagney. It's a crime. Bugs me to this day. We would have to wait seven years, for Frankie Burke’s great imitation in “Angels with Dirty Faces,” before seeing a young Cagney that made sense.
Though cameras in early sound films were often static, Wellman begins with a glorious, extended shot. It's 1909, we're told, and after some archival footage of workers at factories and kids playing in a back-of-the-yards neighborhood, we follow a horse-drawn wagon full of kegs leaving a brewing company and clomping down the street. It goes past a pipe-smoking man with a lunch bucket, who crosses the street and walks by a boy hawking newspapers near a saloon, from which a worker emerges carrying a pole lined with six full tins of beer. He crosses the street in front of yet another saloon, past which a Salvation Army band marches, until the camera settles on the “Family Entrance” of the saloon. From there, carrying their own bucket of beer, Tom and Matt, as kids, emerge. Beautiful.
The boys are tough but different. Tom wants to drink beer, Matt wants to kiss girls. We see them at a department store, running from cops and floorwalkers, and knocking top hats off stuffed shirts. Then it’s girl trouble again. Matt objects to Tom pranking Matt’s sister but Tom does it anyway. For that, and his thievery, he gets in trouble with his father, a formidable figure in suspenders and police helmet, who grabs a belt and gives Tom a licking. This is the only time we see the father in the movie. We don’t even hear what happens to him—he’s just gone, like Tom wished him away. Cagney, generally a cinematic orphan or momma’s boy, wouldn’t have another cinematic father for eight years.
But in the very next scene, he gets a father figure. At the Red Oaks Club, Tom and Matt meet Putty Nose (Murray Kinnell), a fence and low-level crook, who teaches them the ways of the world—in part by ripping them off. They steal watches, he shortchanges them. Six years later, he gives the boys guns and set them on a fur-robbing caper, but it goes awry: a cop is killed, and Putty Nose flees and leaves them unprotected. Tom never forgives him.
By this point, it’s Cagney and Woods, and it’s worth talking about the moment when Cagney shows up. No less an authority than Martin Scorsese calls it “the birth of modern acting.”
“There’s something special when he walks on the screen,” Scorsese says in the documentary “Beer and Blood: Enemies of the Public.” “The command he has. He takes over the picture, in a way. And he has such confidence. It also has a lot to do with the way he moves his body.”
All of that is apparent in his first scenes. We’re outside the Red Oaks Social Club, Matt wipes his hand across his nose—his signature gesture—and Tom spits and pushes his Cockney cap forward on his head. Inside, there’s a bored tough behind a cigar counter, acting as a kind of bouncer. In the original script, Tom is supposed to question this guy “silently with raised eyebrows.” Cagney doesn’t even do that. He just stares at him from under that pushed-forward Cockney cap until the guy gestures toward the backroom. You get everything from that stare.
Cagney keeps doing this—giving us little details that feel true. One of Putty’s men, Miller (Snitz Edwards, in his final role), greets the boys with a grand gesture, and Tom smirks, brings his hand up as if in greeting, then turns it, as if he’s thumbing his nose at him. Later in the movie, when he shakes hands with a nervous brewer, he gives Matt a look, wipes his right hand off with his left and then flicks the left once as if getting rid of excess sweat. None of this stuff is in the script.
Look in the other actor’s camera eye and tell the truth. That’s what acting was to Cagney, and you can see it in the first Paddy Ryan scene. By now it’s 1917. While newsboys shout that the U.S. has entered the war in Europe, Matt and Tom are looking to hock crates of cigars they lifted, which is why they go to Paddy (Robert Emmett O’Connor), a tavern owner and another low-level crook. Paddy’s not a fence but he whispers a name to them; then he gives the “Paddy Ryan’s your friend” speech. After the Putty Nose debacle, Tom is nothing but suspicious: “Why you wanna front for us, we ain’t done nothing for you.” It’s fun watching Cagney watching Paddy, as if trying to divine the truth in his face. To see if he’s a right guy.
Another comparison with the original script is instructive. After Paddy’s speech, this is the line:
Gee, Paddy … that’s swell.
Cornball. But Cagney doesn’t do that. Instead, he smiles, spits, winks, gives that short-armed fist jab—his signature gesture—and says, “That’s swell.” Just that. It’s not really admiring, either. To be honest, you could read it as sarcastic. Tom still isn't showing his cards.
But Paddy isn’t Putty, and once Prohibition kicks in they all make a mint. That’s when the boys hit the big time. They get new clothes, a new car (“That ain’t no Ford, stoop!”), show up at the Black & Tan cafe and get new girls: Mamie and Kitty (Joan Blondell and Mae Clark). Then they reopen Leehman’s brewery and sell bootleg beer with a real gangster, “Nails” Nathan (Leslie Fenton). They’re the muscle. Well, Tom is. Matt is just Matt. “I’m always alone when I’m with Matt,” Tom says several times.
Up to now, Tom’s propensity for violence has been felt but not demonstrated. He punches out the speakeasy window when Putty betrays them, sure, but he also panics during the fur caper and loses a fight to his older brother Mike (Donald Cook). But we feel it, coiled, within him. Now it springs loose.
Three acts of violence stand out for me.
The first is with the speakeasy owner who says he doesn’t want any more kegs because “business is on the bum.” So Tom orders a beer, tastes it’s not theirs, and spits it in the guy’s face. He goes behind the bar and turns on all the taps; when the owner cravenly objects, saying Nails’ rival, Schemer Burns, has threatened him, too, Tom calls him yellow and slaps him once, twice, and upside for the third. He pokes his finger in his face while yelling at him in that rat-a-tat Cagney manner: “If you don't play ball, someone’s gonna drop by and kick your teeth out one at a time. Get me?” It’s startling—the viciousness and energy, but also the workmanlike way he goes about it. Plus there’s that knowing smile before it all goes down. As the owner is making his excuses, Tom leans against the bar, takes in the place, and smiles. Much of Tom’s violence is preceded by that smile.
The second incident is one of the most famous moments in movie history: the grapefruit scene. And like the casting switch, everyone wants credit. Wellman respected Zanuck but was disappointed when Zanuck said it was his idea. Bright respected Wellman but likewise. It’s in the script so Bright has a point.
It’s based on a story about Chicago mobster Hymie Weiss, who threw an omelet at his moll, and the writers switched it to grapefruit to make it less messy. Where Wellman deserves credit is in its ferocity. The script merely says Tom throws half a grapefruit at Kitty’s face, which could mean anything. Does he hit her? Does he miss? Mae Clark probably deserves a kind of credit, too. Filming that day, she told Cagney her nose was sore and could he be gentle? He agreed. Overhearing, Wellman took Cagney aside, told him the scene was important, and he really needed to shove it in her face. And man did he ever. It’s almost like he’s punching her with that grapefruit. It’s both vicious and calculated—his tongue even sticks out a bit, like he’s aiming. And over nothing. She doesn’t want him to drink before breakfast, and when he gets angry, she wonders if maybe he found someone else. That’s it. Ironically, at this point, he hadn’t found anyone else, but in the next scene he does: He picks up Gwen (Jean Harlow), the true female lead, who gets second billing. Mae Clark not only gets the grapefruit, she doesn’t get billed. She just gets movie immortality.
For all of that, it’s Tom’s third act of violence that is his most terrifying.
The first act of violence.
During the 1930s, Warners was famous for its social-message movies: men aren’t bad, society makes them so. That’s everything from “I Was a Fugitive on a Chain Gang” to “Angels with Dirty Faces.” There are elements of it in “The Public Enemy,” too, but it’s undercut by the fact that Tom was always a rotten kid. And Tom himself kind of undercuts it just before he gets his revenge on Putty Nose.
It’s the night of Matt’s marriage to Mamie, everyone’s celebrating at a ritzy club, when, off at a small table, Tom spies Putty talking with Miller. He hasn’t seen him since Putty fled after the fur heist went bad. After he and Matt follow him home, we get this exchange:
Putty Nose: You ain’t sore are you, Tom? I’ve always been your friend.
Tom: Sure, you taught us how to cheat, steal and kill. And then you lambed out on us.
Matt: Yeah, if it hadn’t been for you, we might have been on the level.
Tom: Sure. We might’ve been ding-dings on a streetcar.
That's great dialogue. Even though Tom and Matt are working together, they’re not really together. I think Matt actually buys the social-message argument, because for him it’s true. If it wasn’t for Putty—and, more, Tom—he would’ve been on the level. Meanwhile, Tom uses the social-message argument like a cudgel. It’s a means at manufacturing an edge against Putty, and when Matt takes it too seriously, Tom undercuts it with his dismissive term for legit work: ding-dings.
The scene still has a Frankenstein vibe: the creation rearing up to kill its creator. Inside, once Putty realizes the seriousness of the situation, he turns to Matt and begs; he knows he’s got no chance with Tom. And he doesn’t. It’s Tom who kicks his legs out from under him, and it’s Tom who follows him over to the piano, where Putty, in desperation, plays and sings the song he used to play and sing at the Red Oaks Club: “Hesitation Blues.” And it’s Tom who pulls out his gun while Putty, with an undercurrent of terror pinching his voice, sings: “Tell me how long do I have to wait?”
It’s worth juxtaposing the two scenes where he sings that song. Both times, this ribald lyric is interrupted:
Lizzy Jones, big and fat
Slipped on the ice and broke her –
In 1909, it’s covered over by a whistle and raucous laughter. In the 1920s, it’s cut short by the gunshot that ends Putty’s life.
Most of the murders in the movie happen off-screen: Tom, Nails, Schemer Burns’ gang, even Rajah the horse. Here, too. As Putty sings, the camera pans over to Matt by the door, who flinches at the gunshot, then stares in horror as we hear a body collapsing over piano keys and dropping to the floor. He’s still horrified when Tom walks into camera frame. We don’t see Tom's face, but he sounds blasé. “Guess I’ll call up Gwen, she oughta be home by now,” he says, as he gives a no-look double-fist jab to Matt. He’s like a working stiff punching the clock at the end of the day.
Critics have often wondered how Cagney could play criminals and sociopaths and still retain our sympathy. That question comes up as early as 1931, in newspapers articles about audience reaction to “The Public Enemy,” and it’s been bandied about by everyone from Orson Welles to Norman Mailer. A part of the answer is simple wish fulfillment. All of us wouldn’t mind slapping around those who lie to us or betray us. Cagney is the “You messed with the wrong guy” guy, and most of us are the other guy—the right ones to mess with. There’s also an honesty in Cagney’s acting that’s appealing. And then there’s this: most of Cagney’s gangsters have a code. Tom spends the entire movie ribbing Matt, but when Matt is killed in a hail of bullets, Tom risks his life—throws it away, really—to get revenge. That’s the code. He’s horrified when he figures out Paddy’s moll seduced him. That’s against the code. And what Putty did after the fur caper? That’s against the code, too, and why Putty had to be punished. What feels like a personal act of revenge becomes, in the aftermath, something blasé and workmanlike. Tom was just doing his job. And now it’s time to call Gwen.
For some reason, most early publicity shots have the gangsters looking frightened rather than frightful.
That was Tom’s rise. His fall is swift, and doesn’t come from excessive greed or violence but happenstance. One day a horse throws Nails Nathan and kills him. That’s it. That's the start. As the boys get revenge on the horse—based on another infamous Chicago gangland incident—Schemer Burns seizes his chance, bombs Paddy’s place, and Nails’ men scatter. Paddy orders the loyal ones to hole up in his safe house while he searches for reinforcements. He even takes away their guns—the mirror image of Putty handing guns to the boys back in ’15. Then two things happen: Putty’s old friend Miller spies Paddy leaving and drops a dime on their hangout (probably as revenge for Putty); and Paddy’s moll seduces Tom. He can’t abide that, or all the waiting, so he leaves. Matt follows and is immediately killed, balletically, by Schemer’s machine guns across the street. Then Tom enacts his revenge in the rain.
His line as he collapses, “I ain’t so tough,” isn’t in the original script and was probably added to placate the Hays Office or local censor boards. Or maybe Warners felt they needed a big finish? Another line like “Is this the end of Rico”? I've heard a lot of praise for it, but it feels false to me. I can’t imagine Tom thinking it, let alone saying it.
But if you’re going to have him say it, it should end the movie. Instead, the movie keeps going along. Or limping along. It loses Cagney’s energy and sharpness—he lies in a hospital bed, mumbling to Mike that he’s sorry, agreeing with Ma that he’s her baby—and the movie is reduced to mea culpas and handwringing.
Critics have pointed out the documentary feel to “Public Enemy”—a straightforward tale of a low-level gangster’s rise and fall, with fade-ins and fade-outs—but there’s a kind of macabre slowness to scenes, too. The scene with the father at the beginning has a dead-man-walking slowness to it, while Harlow’s Gwen talks in a slow, sing-songy voice that almost acts as a narcotic. Then there are the movie’s final moments. The Burns’ gang kidnaps Tom from the hospital and delivers the corpse to the Powers’ doorstep. When Mike opens the door, Tom’s beat-up, mummified body wobbles for a moment before falling forward into the foyer. It’s like a scene from a horror movie. Mike is certainly horrified. Upstairs his mother hums to herself, getting the bed ready for Tom, and Mike knows he needs to tell her. He rises, and walks slowly, like a zombie, toward the camera, while the record playing in the living room, “I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles,” finishes, and the movie ends.
Interesting note: In the original screenplay, Mike doesn’t head for the stairs; he goes directly to his “war closet,” stuffs hand grenades into each pocket, and strides into the night to get revenge. “His brother’s fate has turned him into a killer,” the script reads. For whatever reason, they changed it, but there’s a moment, right before Mike rises, when his face hardens into something fierce, angry and determined, that you can see a flicker of it. Maybe they filmed it both ways? And decided in the editing room? Either way, they made the right choice. I mean, hand grenades? For shell-shocked Mike? Right below Ma’s bedroom? C’mon.
And as powerful as the scene is, I don’t get why Schemer’s gang delivers Tom’s corpse to the Powers family. Aren’t they civilians? Wouldn’t Paddy’s place make more sense?
I do like all the loose ends. The original screenplay tied up some of them. After Matt’s death, for example, Tom returns to Gwen’s place to find a “Dear John” letter. Here, there's no end. He’s with her when Nails dies, then she's out of the picture. That’s the documentary feel again. As is the fact that, despite the title, Tom is never close to being Public Enemy No. 1. He's not a Capone or Dillinger. He’s just a lieutenant in an internecine bootleg war. It’s as if “The Sopranos” was all about Christopher Moltisanti.
Beryl Mercer’s performance as Ma has been criticized but I thought she was fine; I just found the family scenes dull and Donald Cook overwrought and theatrical. O’Connor as Paddy is serviceable, Blondell underused, ditto Mae Clarke, who, for all the attention, only has two short scenes. Loved Kinnell as Putty. The two actors that approach Cagney’s energy and naturalism are Darro—more’s the pity they didn’t switch the kids’ roles—and Leslie Fenton as Nails Nathan. “He’s so dapper, so different from everybody else,” film scholar Robert Sklar says on the commentary track. “I don’t know why it was he went from being an actor to a director but he certainly had a flair and an energy as an actor.” Totally agree. He comes in, snapping his gum, and lights up the room.
As for the man who would be Tom Powers? Edward Woods is great at conveying the horror of Putty Nose’s death but feels thin and reedy as a tough guy. He tries too hard at it. Ironically, for all the behind-the-scenes turmoil about switching roles, The New York Times mistakenly gave Woods top billing in its review (which was negative), while many movie ads featured Woods: a silhouette of Matt’s balletic death. If it was a comfort, it didn’t last. Cagney became a top box-office star for decades and remains a legend nearly 100 years later, while Woods’ movie career was over by 1938. After that, he became a theater director and producer (for Les Schubert), and a PR rep (for 20th Century Fox), then retired to Salt Lake City in 1975. When he died in 1989, his obits weren’t the journalistic kind but the paid kind: one in the Salt Lake Tribune, the other in the LA Times. The Times obit is just two paragraphs long, mentions two of his movies, and gets both titles wrong: “Hot Saturday” is referred to as “Saturday’s Child,” while this one is called “Public Enemy Number 1.” It says he made it with “long-time friend, Jimmy Cagney.” Except Cagney barely mentions Woods in his autobiography and anyway friends didn’t call Cagney “Jimmy”; it was always “Jim.” Like Matt, Woods deserved a better end than this.
Bright and Glasmon? They became part of the Cagney factory, churning out screenplays for “Smart Money,” “Blonde Crazy,” “Taxi,” and “The Crowd Roars”; but eventually they had a falling out with Warners and then with each other. Bright was the hard-drinking rebel, Glasmon the proper company man. So of course it’s Glasmon who died of a heart attack in 1940, while Bright kept sloshing around for another 40 years.
Wellman kept making great movies: “Wild Boys of the Road,” “A Star is Born,” “Beau Geste,” “The Ox-Bow Incident,” “Battleground.” His last film, “Lafayette Escadrille,” released in 1958, was a personal film, based on his own Great War exploits, and had casting problems similar to “The Public Enemy.” Warners wanted heartthrob Tab Hunter as the lead but Wellman didn’t like his chemistry with the supporting player. Given the power, would he have switched the roles again, as he did with Woods and Cagney? Interesting if he had. The supporting player was Clint Eastwood. Instead, Eastwood got shunted to a smaller role, Warners demanded a happy ending to Wellman’s bittersweet tale, and the movie died artistically and commercially. Wellman said enough of that.
Three years later, Cagney said enough of that, too. Over 31 years, he’d made 63 movies, was nominated best actor three times, and won for “Yankee Doodle Dandy,” but there really is something about his first starring role. I never get tired of it. It’s watching the thing become the thing. It’s that backdrop of macabre slowness, against which Wellman places Cagney, who electrifies.
The thing becoming the thing.
- John Bright. Worms in the Winecup: A Memoir. Lanham, Maryland, and Oxford: The Scarecrow Press, 2002
- James Cagney. Cagney By Cagney. Garden City, New York: Doubleday & Company, 1976
- Henry Cohen. The Public Enemy: Wisconsin/Warner Bros Screenplay Series. The University of Wisconsin Press, 1981
- Mel Gusso. Don’t Say Yes Until I Finish Talking: A Biography of Darryl Zanuck. Garden City, New York: Doubleday & Company, 1971
- John McCabe. Cagney. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1997
- Patrick McGilligan. Cagney, Actor As Auteur. San Diego: A.S. Barnes & Company, 1975
- David Thomson. Warner Bros: The Making of an American Movie Studio. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2017
- Jack Warner: My First Hundred Years in Hollywood. Los Angeles, New York: GrayMalkin Media, 1964
- William A. Wellman. A Short Time for Insanity: An Autobiography. New York: Hawthorn Books, 1974
Sunday February 14, 2021
- Go to Lon Chaney's IMDb page
- Click on The Monster from 1925
- Near top, there is a blue bar urging you to “Watch on Prime Video”; click on it
- You are taken to Amazon Prime's page for the 1975 movie, “The Monster,” starring Joan Collins
- The Lon Chaney movie
I wrote about this phenomenon last May, when IMDb's page for the 1931 George Arliss movie “The Millionaire” took me to the 2015 Russian TV series “The Millonaire.”
A few months ago, I contacted Amazon's customer service about this, hoping they'd fix it, but it was like customer service most places these days: not very service-oriented. For one thing they kept saying they were sorry “about the trouble you are facing,” when I was just trying to alert them to a bug they have. At one point, the rep wrote “I understand while searching in prime video it shows different movies and you like to correct this bug, Am I right, Erik?” I was like “Sure ... don't you?”
Of course, neither bug has been fixed. Probably sev 4s. If they still use such designations. If they still fix bugs.
Wait. Oh, shit, it gets worse. That 1975 Joan Collins movie? It's not even called “The Monster” on IMDb. It's called “Sharon's Baby,” or “I Don't Want to Be Born,” or, in the trivia section, “The Devil Within Her,” but never “The Monster.” Prime, meanwhile, has a separate “The Devil Within Her” listing, which at least gets the IMDb rating correct (4.1); Prime's “The Monster” lists the Chaney movie's IMDb rating (6.2).
Someone should make a movie about a giant tech company that swallows other tech companies, and whose left hand doesn't know what its right hand is doing. They can call it “The Monster.”
Saturday February 13, 2021
Most-Quoted: Calvin and Hobbes
I follow the Calvin and Hobbes twitter feed and they posted this beauty the other day:
I've quoted Hobbes' last line many times over the years—although I guess I've misquoted it. I usually say “Live and don't learn, that's our motto.” This is better. I love the joy on his face as he's saying it, too. Makes me happy. It's like, “What are you gonna do with us? Not much to do but enjoy the day.” So enjoy the day.
Friday February 12, 2021
Quote of Jan. 6
“Well, Kevin, I guess these people are more upset about the election than you are.”
-- Donald Trump to Rep. Kevin McCarthy on Jan. 6, while the latter was under attack at the U.S. Capitol by the former's idiot minions, as revealed today by CNN. Whether this revelation extends impeachment hearings, which I think were set to wrap up, we'll know soon. It should. Witnesses should be called.
Look, it's not just that Trump told his followers the election of Joe Biden was a fraud, then told them when and where to come, and lit the match with a speech, and did nothing while the U.S. Capitol was overrun; he wanted it; he reveled in it. Remember that shot of Mitt Romney, eating crow with Trump in Nov. 2016? How pleased Trump was that someone who had disparaged him was coming hat-in-hand for a favor? That's Trump. He wanted that back again. By any means necessary.
I'll say this, too: We haven't begun to hear the worst he's done. Why I want the hearings to continue.
Thursday February 11, 2021
Where We Are
Let's face it, though. The Fox News rhetoric that the Murdochs get rich and powerful off of is partly responsible for the attack. They began it all. They kept the Big Lie of election fraud alive. They not only gave it air, they gave it lighter fluid and a lit match. But it's good for people to say this stuff out loud. I still need to read Stelter's book on Fox News.
I was busy yesterday but caught bits of the second impeachment hearings: Office Eugene Goodman warning Mitt Romney about the mob, saving his life. We were very close, much closer than I thought, to January 6th being much, much worse. Patricia watched a lot of it. She spent the day enraged.
Sunday February 07, 2021
Billy the Moron
I understand you wanted to make a picture about Billy the Kid.
I would have loved to make a picture about Billy the Kid. You know the original man? In the photos, he looked like a moron, which he probably was. And if I could have had the chance to make the first picture, I would have made a moron out of him. ... But motion pictures have spread the legend, and because an audience is educated, they know from the films that Billy the Kid was a handsome, dashing outlaw, and if somebody would make him today as he really was, it would probably be so much against the grain of an audience that it couldn't be a success.
-- Fritz Lang, talking with Peter Bogdanovich in “Who the Devil Made It: Conversations with Legendary Film Directors.” Actors who have played Billy the Kid include Paul Newman, Kris Kristofferson, and Emilio Estevez. The one who gets closest is probably Michael J. Pollard in “Dirty Little Billy,” which I've never seen. Actually I've seen none of them save Peckinpah's. Would love to have seen Lang's version.
Thursday February 04, 2021
The only thing soggy is the paper.
I've got most Marx Brothers movies all but memorized but not The Cocoanuts, which I only saw once or twice in my heyday with the Marx Brotherhood. Just didn't care for it. I put it with Room Service or Love Happy as the disappointments. Yes, it was a big Broadway hit and their first Hollywood movie, but it's so unevenly paced. Paramount put two directors on it and the Brothers didn't think much of either. “One of them didn't understand English,” Groucho said, “and the other one didn't understand comedy.”
Anyway I watched it the other day and it still isn't good but it has its moments. Harpo shines. The auction scene is great. Plus, of course, “Why a duck.” But I missed this great pun right before the “Why a duck?” bit. Groucho is about to auction off lots in the Florida land boom and he wants Chico to bid up the price, and he's explaining to him where the lots are.
Groucho: This is the riverfront. And all along the river, those are all levees.
Chico: That's the Jewish neighborhood.
Groucho: [Gives him a look] Well, we'll pass over that.
As a kid in Minnesota, I probably didn't know levees or Levys (not to mention Passover), which may be why the joke never stuck. But man did I laugh the other day.
Something else that stuck this viewing: During this scene, Groucho also says to Chico, “Look, Einstein...” This was in 1929. It made me wonder about the first ironic usage of an “Einstein.” Is there an earlier recorded example? And did Einstein's friends ever use it on him when he got something wrong? “Nice going, Einstein.”
Wednesday February 03, 2021
Walter Bernstein (1919-2021)
“They'll carry me off writing.”
Described in a 2014 Esquire profile as a “human Energizer bunny,” Mr. Bernstein was writing, teaching and generating screenplay ideas well into his 90s. Until recently, he had several projects in development. He created the BBC mystery mini-series “Hidden” in 2011, and he was an adjunct instructor of dramatic writing at New York University's Tisch School of the Arts until he retired in 2017.
Man, that's the way to do it. They'll carry me off writing.
We bonded last spring. Well, I bonded, he didn't know. I read his book, “Inside Out: A Memoir of the Blacklist,” and it was like finding a long-lost best friend. In the book he has a dry wit, a care for language, and a wise, shrugging sense of the tragedy of life. I keep trying to describe it and can't quite get at it. You should read it. I've been telling people that ever since. I've been buying it for people. Last November, in an email discussion after a Zoom cocktail party, friends were posting books they'd recommended, most of them recent, most topical, and Bernstein was my shrugging offering. “Probably not anyone's wheelhouse but mine, but...”
Last spring I kept posting excerpts from the book. I began with Bernstein's overall thoughts on the blacklist and on his own naivete about HUAC, so much like ours before Trump (“[They] seemed only stupid; I understood their bigotry but not their power), then incuded the origins of Red Channels and the experience of watching silent films during their heyday. That shock when sound came in. I kept finding vignettes, beautifully realized portraits of famous people: photographer Robert Capa, writer Ben Maddow, actors Bette Davis and John Garfield. I could've included a dozen more. The Garfield vignette could be an outline of a movie. Or it can be just what it is.
Bernstein went through war, then came home and went through a worse kind of war, since he was attacked by his own. That war is still going on in a way. It's both toned down (”liberal Hollywood“ rather than ”Red Hollywood“) and exaggerated beyond all meaning (”part of a global pedophile ring“).
Bernstein wrote for Yank during the war (he was the first western correspondent to interview Marshal Tito) and for The New Yorker afterwards. He went to Hollywood at exactly the wrong moment for a young communist and after he was blacklisted he spent the '50s back in New York City scraping a living and working in television pseudonymously, as he depicted in ”The Front,“ still the best movie about the blacklist. He wrote for ”You are There,“ and he was, and ”Danger,“ which he was in. Later he wrote an episode of ”Profiles in Courage,“ and he was that, too. He basically lost his thirties to right-wing paranoia, then flowered in his forties, fifties and sixties. He's the sole credited screenwriter on movies as diverse as ”Fail Safe,“ ”The Money Trap,“ ”The Molly Maguires,“ ”The Front,“ ”Semi-Tough,“ ”Little Miss Marker“ and ”The House on Carroll Street.“ He also directed ”Little Miss Marker,“ and he has a cameo in Woody Allen's ”Annie Hall.“ At the end, when Alvy sees Annie going into a screening of ”The Sorrow and the Pity," Bernstein is her date. He's with Sigourney, she's with Walter. They've each found other versions of each other. Nice work for a 57-year-old.
He missed, just missed, the mathematical beauty of being born in 1919 and leaving us in 2020. But I'm glad he stuck around until Trump ignominiously left office. I hope he was aware. I hope he toasted the moment.
Read the book.
Tuesday February 02, 2021
Open and Shut
“On January 6, 2021, with Vice President Michael Pence presiding, Congress assembled to perform one of its most solemn constitutional responsibilities: the counting of electoral votes for President of the United States. This ritual has marked the peaceful transfer of power in the United States for centuries. Since the dawn of the Republic, no enemy—foreign or domestic—had ever obstructed Congress's counting of the votes. No President had ever refused to accept an election result or defied the lawful processes for resolving electoral disputes. Until President Trump.
”In a grievous betrayal of his Oath of Office, President Trump incited a violent mob to attack the United States Capitol during the Joint Session, thus impeding Congress's confirmation of Joseph R. Biden, Jr. as the winner of the presidential election. As it stormed the Capitol, the mob yelled out 'President Trump Sent Us,' 'Hang Mike Pence,' and 'Traitor Traitor Traitor.' The insurrectionists assaulted police officers with weapons and chemical agents. They seized control of the Senate chamber floor, the Office of the Speaker of the House, and major sections of the Capitol complex. Members and their staffs were trapped and terrorized. Many officials (including the Vice President himself) barely escaped the rioters. The line of succession to the Presidency was endangered. Our seat of government was violated, vandalized, and desecrated. Congress's counting of electoral votes was delayed until nightfall and not completed until 4 AM. Hundreds of people were injured in the assault. Five people—including a Capitol Police officer—died.
“President Trump's responsibility for the events of January 6 is unmistakable. After losing the 2020 election, President Trump refused to accept the will of the American people. He spent months asserting, without evidence, that he won in a 'landslide' and that the election was 'stolen.' He amplified these lies at every turn, seeking to convince supporters that they were victims of a massive electoral conspiracy that threatened the Nation's continued existence. But every single court to consider the President's attacks on the outcome of the election rejected them. And state and federal officials from both parties refused President Trump's increasingly desperate demands that they break the law to keep him in power. With his options running out, President Trump announced a 'Save America Rally' on January 6. He promised it would be 'wild.'
”By the day of the rally, President Trump had spent months using his bully pulpit to insist that the Joint Session of Congress was the final act of a vast plot to destroy America. As a result—and as had been widely reported—the crowd was armed, angry, and dangerous. Before President Trump took the stage, his lawyer called for 'trial by combat.' His son warned Republican legislators against finalizing the election results: 'We're coming for you.' Finally, President Trump appeared behind a podium bearing the presidential seal. Surveying the tense crowd before him, President Trump whipped it into a frenzy, exhorting followers to 'fight like hell [or] you're not going to have a country anymore.' Then he aimed them straight at the Capitol, declaring: 'You'll never take back our country with weakness. You have to show strength, and you have to be strong.'“
-- taken from ”TRIAL MEMORANDUM OF THE UNITED STATES HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES IN THE IMPEACHMENT TRIAL OF PRESIDENT DONALD J. TRUMP," Introduction. Can't imagine a more open-and-shut case for impeachment. I really can't. From months he refused to accept the democratic results, pressured state reps to change vote counts, told his supporters where to come, and when, and filled them with fiery rhetoric before pointing them in the direcition of the U.S. Capitol to upend the election and keep himself in power. Insane. We all saw it but in a horrible way we were used to it. A lot of what he did, his horrendous, me-first behavior, was what the GOP ignored and the legit press downplayed for years. But this time there were consequences. And now there needs to be accountability.
Monday February 01, 2021
Assessing Dustin Pedroia's Hall of Fame Chances, and Subsequent Digressions
When I heard that Dustin Pedroia had announced his retirement from Major League Baseball after several painful seasons trying to recover from a knee injury brought on by a suspect Manny Machado slide, I went to his stats at Baseball Reference, wondering how close he comes to being a Hall of Famer.
Turns out: kinda close by some measures, way off by others.
If your measure is “Hall of Fame Monitor,” a Bill James concoction which focuses on likelihood of entry, with 100 meaning a good possibility and 130 a cinch, Pedroia is a 94. By other Jamesian measures, it's not that close. Black ink indicates how often someone led the league in a offensive/defensive category. An average HOFer is 27; Pedroia was 11. Gray ink is the same but in top 10 rankings. Average HOFer is 144; Pedroia was 70. His bWar is 51.6, below borderline, which is about 70. His percentages are good, particularly for a second baseman (.299/.365/.439), but his counting numbers are low: 1,805 career hits, 394 doubles, 922 runs scored. I do like that he walked almost as much as he struck out: 654 to 624. He was scrappy, tough, beloved.
He also won Rookie of the Year (in 2007) and MVP (in 2008), which made me wonder how often someone's won both trophies and not made the Hall. Here's the answer:
|Willie Mays||1951||1954, 1965||Y|
|Johnny Bench||1968||1970, 1972||Y|
|Cal Ripken Jr.||1982||1983, 1991||Y|
|Albert Pujols||2001||2005, 2008, 2009||n/a|
|Mike Trout||2012||2014, 2016, 2019||n/a|
Of the 14 eligible names, five didn't get in, though Rose would have if not for gambling, and Dick Allen might get in shortly, via the Veterans Committee. Munson died young, tragically, spent 15 years on the ballot, but never topped 10% of the vote. Lynn, with a career bWAR similar to Pedroia's (50.2, and an .845 OPS), lasted two votes before falling off. Canseco, a semi-buffoonish symbol of the early roid years, didn't last that long.
Then I noticed something: Why are there so many more recent combo ROY/MVPs?
In the 50+ years between the first Rookie of the Year award in 1947 and the end of the century, there were only 14 ROY/MVPs. In the 21 years since, there have been nearly as many: 11. One wonders why. Have advanced stats helped pick better players for the ROY, who are then more likely to become later MVPs?
There used to be longer pauses, too, between the two awards. To be exact, there was a 10-year pause: McCovey won in '59 and '69, Rose in '63 and '73, Carew in '67 and '77, Dawson in '77 and '87. Add in close calls (Cepeda, nine years; Allen, eight years), and it seemed most early honorees took a while to come up to the MLB level. Now it's zip-zip. The 21st century honorees average 2.36 years to get there, vs. 5.42 for last century's players. Again, one wonders why. Better training earlier?
Anyway, Ryan Fagan of Sporting News thinks Pedroia could make it, given how early his career ended, and compared with other Hall of Fame second basemen. Wouldn't mind. Always liked him.