Monday March 29, 2021
Movie Review: One, Two, Three (1961)
There are so many James Cagney homages here it’s as if they knew it would be his last movie. Among them:
- The Uncle Sam cuckoo clock in the West Berlin office of Coca-Cola executive C.R. MacNamara (Cagney) that plays “Yankee Doodle Dandy.”
- The grapefruit in the face with which MacNamara threatens young communist Otto Ludwig Piffl (Horst Buchholz).
- MP Red Buttons’ imitation when confronted by MacNamara’s shoulder jerking tough talk: “Oh, OK, buster.” He does Cagney to Cagney.
Then there's Cagney doing fellow Warners gangster Edward G. Robinson. When MacNamara finds out the boss’ daughter in his charge is schwanger, he cries “Mother of mercy, is this the end of little Rico?” I about died when he said that—though they did get it slightly wrong. There’s no “little” in the original.
All of that is fun, and “One, Two, Three” should be fun—a wacky, hell-bent, Cold War comedy full of Coca-Cola and piffle. Its current numbers certainly look good: 91% from critics on Rotten Tomatoes, a 7.9 rating from IMDb users. But to me it’s an overload—too fast and furious. Near the end, you just want peace and quiet.
“Did you ever tell Cagney that he was yelling?” Cameron Crowe asked director Billy Wilder in his book Conversations with Wilder. “Because he’s so loud sometimes.” Wilder passes the buck:
We had to go with Cagney, because Cagney was the picture. He really had the rhythm, and that was very good. It was not funny. But just the speed was funny. The speed was very good, how Cagney figured it out. The general idea was, let’s make the fastest picture in the world, and give the actors, in order to make it seem fast, some slower scenes, too.
Yeah, no. According to Cagney, he warned Wilder about the frantic pace. He’d been there before—with producer Hal Wallis in the 1938 screwball comedy “Boy Meets Girl.” He knew you needed moments of rest but Wallis insisted on taking it faster and faster until leaving the dailies one day Cagney asked Ralph Bellamy: “Would you tell me what I just said? I couldn’t understand a word.”
In the “One, Two, Three” commentary track, film historian Michael Schlesinger says the pacing came from Wilder, who wanted the picture to be molto furioso: “100 miles per hour on the curves and 140 on the straightaway.” His goal was to make a movie faster than “His Girl Friday,” and maybe he did, but he didn’t make a better one. That should’ve been the goal. Plus Wilder’s line about having to go with Cagney? Not sure what he means. Cagney was a legend, sure, but hardly boffo box office at this point. An early poster not only didn’t show Cagney, or Buchholz, or the girls, it showed Wilder, forlorn, sitting on a step ladder and holding balloons. (Mouse over the poster above to see it.) Has that ever been done before? Ignoring stars for the director on a movie poster? You kind of get it. Wilder was coming off as great a run as any director, having made, in the previous 10 years, “Sunset Blvd.,” “Ace in the Hole,” “Stalag 17,” “The Seven Year Itch,” “Witness for the Prosecution,” “Some Like It Hot” and “The Apartment.” But all of it belies the idea that Wilder had to go with Cagney.
A shame. If Wilder had slowed the tempo, and Cagney’s and Buchholz’s characters weren’t yelling at each other for the final third, the movie might’ve been the classic some folks think it is.
The pause that could've refreshed
I'll give it this: The movie is constructed beautifully. A man spends months machinating to get the thing he wants, and the successful result of his machinations ensures that he doesn't get the thing he wants.
At the start, C.R. MacNamara wants two things: to schtup his blonde secretary, Fraulein Ingeborg (Liselotte Pulver), while his wife and kids are on vacation; and to be assigned the London office, the head of European affairs for Coke, which he feels is his due. Then the boss in Atlanta asks him to look after his 17-year-old daughter, Scarlett Hazeltine (Pamela Tiffin), while she’s in Berlin. That puts a kibosh on the first wish—he needs his wife in town for that—but he hopes it’ll lead to London. (I love how every time MacNamara talks up London, Cagney is nonchalantly wielding a very British umbrella over his shoulder.)
Scarlett turns out to be a boy-crazy handful and winds up staying for months, but things seem to quiet down: she’s going to museums, learning about culture. Then the day before Mr. and Mrs. Hazeltine (Howard St. John and Lois Bolton) are to arrive, MacNamara discovers that Scarlett has been: 1) spending nights in East Berlin, where she’s 2) being indoctrinated into communism by Piffl, to whom she’s 3) married.
Thus the machinations begin. MacNamara plants pro-American propaganda on Piffl’s motorbike (Russki Go Home balloon, Yankee Doodle clock, Wall Street Journal) so he’ll be picked up by the East German police; then he has evidence of the marriage removed from official files. Done and done.
Which is when he finds out that Scarlett is schwanger: pregnant. His machinations have essentially made the boss’ daughter an unwed mother. So now he has to un-machinate everything he machinated. With the help of a triumvirate of comic Russians (reprised from Wilder’s “Ninotchka”?), he gets Piffl released from East German police and the marriage reinstated, but that puts him back at square one: how to make this scruffy, strident communist presentable to Mr. and Mrs. Coca-Cola? It involves manicures, haircuts, bespoke suits and buying an aristocratic name from the penniless Count von Droste Schattenburg (Hubert von Meyerinck, voiced by Sig Ruman). Piffl fights him at every step, which is where we get all that yelling, but once the parents arrive he acts the proper capitalist. More, he acts like MacNamara, forever snapping his fingers to get things done, and Hazeltine is so impressed he gives Piffl the London job. MacNamara is forced to return—with his family!—to the home office in Atlanta. Cue Pepsi joke and Cagney’s final shout at the screen: Schlemm-ahhhh!
Again, all that’s brilliant.
And yet the pacing. And the shouting.
Apparently Wilder first wanted Cary Grant—another fast talker—for MacNamara, and I could see that working better, since fast-paced Grant is generally funnier than fast-paced Cagney. Buchholz would still be a problem—he’s not funny at all—but maybe he would’ve worked better with Grant? I don’t know how he felt about Cagney but Cagney hated him. From John McCabe’s biography:
The role of the young Communist is played by Horst Buchholz, who has the unique distinction of being the only actor James Cagney actively disliked in all of his professional career. Said Cagney: “I got riled at S. Z. Sakall in Yankee Doodle Dandy for trying to steal a scene, but he was an incorrigible old ham who was quietly and respectfully put in his place by Mike Curtiz. No harm in the old boy. But this Horst Buchholz character I truly loathed. Had he kept on with his little scene-stealing didoes, I would have been forced to knock him on his ass, which I would have very much enjoyed doing.”
That animosity comes through, probably too much, cutting off potential laughs.
Feel the hatred? Three decades after Mae Clarke, Cagney threatens to do it to Horst Buchholz, who actually deserved it.
The women are great. Cagney singled out Pamela Tiffin for some serious high praise—comparing her comedic talents to Carole Lombard, Kay Kendall and Lucille Ball. Pulver is also great, with her smarts, chewing gum, knowing indifference. I like how she pulls her skirt back down over her knees when MacNamara’s wife phones.
My favorite is Arlene Francis as MacNamara’s wife, Phyllis, punctuating each scene with a sardonic rejoinder, and deflating her husband with a droll “Yes, mein fuhrer.” Her pacing gives the movie its necessary pauses. (She’s the pause that refreshes.) She also gets off some of the best lines. Early on, when MacNamara is wheeling Scarlett away from a French pilot, the pilot turns to Francis and says, “Madame, I appeal to you as a woman …” She, with a smile and flirtatious wave: “As a matter of fact, you do. Au revoir!” A shame she didn’t act more.
The supporting men are good, too: Hanns Lothar as MacNamara’s heel-clicking secretary Schlemmer; Leon Askin, the future Gen. Burkhalter of “Hogan’s Heroes,” as Peripetchikoff, one of the Russians. Wilder and his screenwriting partner I.A.L. Diamond have to thread through a lot of problematic stuff (Nazi past, Cold War present, sexual politics future) to find comedy, and they don’t do a poor job of it. The heel-clicking is good; the German office workers standing at attention every time MacNamara enters the room is good. But the “What did you do during the war, Schlemmer” conversations? That’s a little iffy. Love Piffl’s name. Just the name. I also love Scarlett blowing up “Yankee Go Home” balloons:
MacNamara: You been helping this guy spread anti-American propaganda?
Scarlett: It's not anti-American, it’s anti-Yankee. Where I come from, everybody’s against the Yankees.
Girl after my own heart.
Jimmy, we hardly knew ye
“One, Two, Three,” which was based on a 1929 play by Hungarian playwright Ferenc Molnar, did run into some bad luck. It began filming in East and West Berlin in June 1961, premiered five months later in December 1961, and between those two events the Berlin Wall went up. Oops. So not only was the movie already dated but audiences were less likely to laugh at shenanigans in a city that might, you know, cause World War III. It wound up losing money. Wilder bounced back with “Irma La Douce,” but then it was a downhill slog for him. Is there a hidden gem among his last seven movies? Asking not telling.
For Cagney, Buchholz’s unprofessionalism and Wilder’s perfectionism—one scene required 57 takes—made the whole thing such an unpleasant experience that it actually drove him from the profession. Near the end of filming, waiting for an interior setup, he walked out into the sunshine, recalled a photograph he’d just received of friends standing on the deck of the boat he’d lent them, and didn’t want to go back inside. And that was it. He decided to quit the movie industry right there. Save for a bit part in “Ragtime” in 1981, he did.
The final shot of Cagney's career, give or take.
Friday March 26, 2021
Movie Review: Shake Hands with the Devil (1959)
By my calculations, James Cagney died 14 times in the movies, and this is his final fall. He gets it in the hills of Ireland overlooking the ocean, at the hands of the young man he recruited to the cause. Fitting.
Follow-up question: How many of these deaths were by gun? In my memory, Cagney's always getting plugged and staggering along the streets before collapsing and expiring—like in “The Public Enemy.” Except … that happens there, sure, but it’s not what kills him. He winds up in the hospital, Schemer Burns’ gang kidnaps him, then delivers his mummified corpse to his family. I assume he’s plugged at the end of “He Was Her Man,” but that’s off-screen. “Angels with Dirty Faces”? Electric chair. “White Heat”? Explosion. I’ll cut to the chase. In his long, gangster-ridden career, Cagney is killed by guns only four times: “The Roaring Twenties” (by one of Bogie’s men), “Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye” (Barbara Payton, repeating the title line just before pulling the trigger), “A Lion Is In the Streets” (by his sister, Jeanne), and here, at the hands of Don Murray.
Cagney gets star billing but Murray is the leading man, Kerry O’Shea, an Irish-American who slowly gets swept up in the Irish fight for freedom in 1921. Cagney plays Dr. Sean Lenihan, a charming professor at the College of Surgeons, where O’Shea studies, who is secretly a revolutionary. He’s the last man standing in the IRA cause. Top of the world, pa.
Nah, nah, nah, nah … OK
It’s not a bad movie. The black-and-white photography and the framing are striking. Not sure who to credit. Michael Anderson directed, Erwin Hiller was cinematographer, and between them they have one Oscar nomination (Anderson), one BAFTA (Hiller), and not much else. The story, which tends toward melodrama, is from a 1934 novel by Rearden Conner, adapted by Marian Spitzer, while late-era Cagney writers Ivan Goff and Ben Roberts (“White Heat,” “Man of a Thousand Faces”) get writing credits.
It’s another late-era Cagney movie that begins with narration:
Dublin, 1921: a city at war. Often in its turbulent history, the men of Ireland had risen to fight for their freedom—only to be crushed. This was the year of total war. It was also the year of the Black and Tan, the army assembled to replace the English regulars, who had lost their taste for the suppression of men in search of freedom.
At this point, the camera settles onto a cemetery, where O’Shea is laying flowers at the grave of his mother. He nods as a contingent of mourners go by, but then the Black and Tans pull up, their casket is revealed to be full of weapons, and everyone scatters. O’Shea, questioned, has all the right answers—he’s innocent—then covers for a woman he knows is guilty. It was just an instinct, he tells his friend, Paddy Nolan (Ray McAnally).
Earlier I said O’Shea gets slowly swept up in the Irish cause, and boy does he ever. It takes half the movie.
Paddy starts the lobbying. They have expository dialogue about how O’Shea is a World War vet who’s seen enough violence, yadda yadda, but his heart is with Paddy’s cause. “Your heart’s not enough,” Paddy tells. That’s the main thing they talk about—recruiting O’Shea. At a pub, the Black and Tan come in and push people around. Does that turn him? Nah. On the way home, a revolutionary blows up a B&T transport and the street turns into a shooting gallery. That? Nope. O’Shea’s instinct is again to help, Paddy’s is to protect O’Shea, and Paddy is killed in the effort. Surely that? No, keeping going. By this point he’s already associated with the revolutionaries, so Lenihan brings him underground and make an offer: take a boat back to the states or fight. O’Shea, blank-faced: “I’ve done all the killing I intend to do.”
Now they’re off to a farm, where O’Shea is bullied by O’Brien (a young Richard Harris), charmed by Noonan (an excellent Cyril Cusack), and charmed again by Kitty (Glynis Johns), a bar maid and paramour of many of the revolutionaries, whom Lenihan doesn’t trust. The O’Brien scene isn’t bad. He questions O’Shea’s manhood, saying it won’t take more than a breath of wind to blow him over, then feints a blow. O’Shea stands firm, decks O’Brien and continues to declare his pacifism: “When that boat comes, I’ll be on it.” The Noonan scene isn’t bad, either. He’s a poet, whose calm appeals to O’Shea—and us. “Do you think I’m running out?” he wonders aloud. This fence-straddling continues until, because of a boob move by O’Brien, O’Shea is hauled away by the B&Ts, tortured by a Gestapo-looking Col. Smithson (Christopher Rhodes), and rescued by Lenihan. Then he finally joins the cause. To celebrate, he grabs Kitty and makes out with her. As one does.
By this point, the sympathetic Lady Fitzhugh (Sybil Thorndike) has been imprisoned and is on a hunger strike, so, as potential exchange, Lenihan kidnaps the daughter of the adviser to the military governor, Jennifer Curtis (Dana Wynter), who just happens to be young and beautiful, with a long, lovely neck. Of course she and O’Shea are attracted to each other. (Whither Kitty?) All the while, Lenihan is revealing himself to be more and more radical. A chance for peace but without a republic? Never! On the beach he actually chokes Kitty and throws her onto the sand—continuing Cagney’s onscreen violence against women that began with Mae Clarke and a grapefruit 30 years earlier. Then they all go to the dock to assassinate Col. Smithson.
Except Kitty’s there, too. She’s been fingered to the B&T, doesn’t think she’d stand up to torture, and has booked passage to Liverpool. Questioned by the cops, she spots O’Brien and panics; the B&Ts see that, give O’Brien chase, and Lenihan thinks she ratted them out. In the ensuing gun battle, O’Brien, shooting two-fisted and ham-fisted, is killed, Lenihan kills Kitty in cold blood, and O’Shea goes into the drink. Back at the lighthouse, we get one of the oddest transitions I’ve ever seen—like something out of an SNL skit. They’re counting their dead, everyone is somber, and the man standing behind O’Shea says, “Yes, it’s bad,” somberly. Then his face suddenly brightens. “But it’s all over now!” Because of the peace treaty. I burst out laughing.
Even as the General (Michael Redgrave), a Michael Collins figure, heads to London to negotiate, Lenihan fights on. Lady Fitzhugh has died? Well, then he’s doing to kill Jennifer! Rather than shoot her in her room, though, he takes her to a picturesque bluff overlooking the ocean, which of course allows O’Shea to follow, and challenge him and shoot him. Since this is a late ’50s indie movie, we get one more melodramatic flourish: After cradling the head of the man whose life he took, O’Shea, our antiviolent hero, looks at the gun with disgust and chucks it over the cliff. Cut to: a closeup of the gun in the sand as the surf comes in. Fin.
Again, parts aren’t bad. Not sure how you make O’Shea’s fence-sitting more interesting but they don’t manage it. Maybe Murray wasn’t actor enough. Cagney’s lilt tends to leave him when Lenihan is angry, which is most of the second half of the movie, and his sudden fury at all the pretty women is inexplicable. (I kept wondering if he was a closeted homosexual.) Harris is good, if a bit too 1950s Method, while his character is such a fuckup as to be comic: He challenges O’Shea and loses, brings a gun to a stakeout when told not to, and blurts out Lenihan’s identity in front of a hostage, forcing O’Shea to kill the man. He makes no right move. I loved Cyril Cusack. Don’t know how you act calm and wise but he did. I wanted to keep hanging with the guy.
The posters are abysmal. That odd sketch of Cagney with gun in hand and scarf flying? It’s both cheap and makes him look way older than his 60 years. Can’t imagine the marketing discussions. “Hmm, not quite right. What if we turn him blue and add a photo of Glynis Johns in a bathing suit at his feet? There, perfect.” The movie entered the public domain a while ago so it’s been abused in the usual fashion. The only DVD available is in the wrong aspect ratio and is part of a four-part Shout Factory “Action-Adventure Movie Marathon,” along with a 1970s Roger Corman exploitation flick, a cheap Indian Jones ripoff, and a forgettable early ’80s actioner. Deserves better company.
The title, by the way, is the first part of an old Irish saying: “Shake hands with the devil and you’ll never get it back.” Cagney was excited to do it, his first and only movie in Ireland, and was, by all accounts, his usual self: a charming, down-to-earth raconteur on the set, a faraway fella off it. Others went for pints, he went home. Not counting “Ragtime,” it’s his third-to-last movie. He was a movie-a-year guy by this time. He was sitting in the exit row.
Thursday March 25, 2021
Reading Mark Harris' book on Mike Nichols and can't recommend it enough. Feel like I'm tearing through it but I'm only up to “Carnal Knowledge.” Not just great anecdotes but great life advice throughout. This is when he was directing “The Apple Tree” on Broadway with Alan Alda and Barbara Harris:
As work got under way, Nichols, at first, felt very much back in his element, once again pushing his actors to stay true to life and engaged with one another. “He was an actor's director,” says Alda. “Once when Barbara and I were rehearsing, he said this thing that has aided me all my life. He didn't feel we were connecting to each other, and he said, 'You kids think relating is the icing on the cake. It's not. It's the cake.'”
I wish I'd had this book, or known this story, when I was young and wary of being smart; I might've studied harder.
Tuesday March 23, 2021
In the wake of the mass shooting in a King Soopers grocery store in Boulder, Colorado yesterday, which left 10 dead, and which came a week after the massage-parlor shootings in Georgia, which left eight dead, this tweet from cartoonist Tom Tomorrow:
Thursday March 18, 2021
Oh Right. The Oscars.
I've been focusing on other things this pandemic year besides Oscar hopefuls, which arrived anyway, and as always, late in the season.
Among the eight best picture nominess announced on Monday, I've seen three: “Mank,” “Nomadland,” and “Judas and the Black Messiah,” and of those three, the one with the most nominations, “Mank” with 10, is the one I'd least like to win. So it goes. I'd vote “Nomadland” but would applaud “Judas.” Both are great. Here are the eight:
|Judas the Black Messiah||Promising Young Woman|
|Mank*||Sound of Metal|
|Minari*||Promising Young Woman*|
The asterisks indicate a directing nod as well, usually a prereq to win, but who knows this year. We've got two women nom'ed for directing for the first time ever: Chloe Zhao for “Nomadland” and Emerald Fennell for “Promising Young Woman.” I'd vote for Zhao. I believe Lee Isaac Chung for “Minari” is the first Asian-American directing nod, too. The fifth nomination went to Danish director Thomas Vinterberg for “Another Round,” which my wife watched (she's mad about Mads) but I didn't. Anyway, it's good to see that tightfisted directing group opening up. For most of its history, the winners have been exclusively white American men or white European men. Ang Lee finally broke through in 2005 and Kathryn Bigelow in 2009, and for the past decade it's gone: Brit, French, Taiwanese, Mexican, Mexican, Mexican, American, Mexican, Mexican, Korean. I'm hoping we'll add Chinese to that list, even if China may no longer be enamored of the idea. Well, screw those guys. Or trolls.
The big acting controversy this year isn't of the #OscarSoWhite variety—six of the 10 actor nominees are people of color—but “category fraud,” since the co-leads in “Judas” are both nominated in supporting, meaning, to the Academy, there's no lead actor in “Judas.” I guess I'd need a rundown of screentime but off the top of my head I'd have gone Lakeith Stanfield for lead and Daniel Kaluuya in supporting. Anyway, the Academy has a long history of this. Al Pacino as supporting in “The Godfather” for starters.
Not sure who the favorites are. I'm guessing Chadwick Boseman (R.I.P.) for actor, Kaluuya for supporting (he's amazing), unless he and Lakeith split the vote, in which case ... Sacha Baron Cohen as Abbie Hoffman in “The Trial of the Chicago 7”? I'd go Francis McDormand or Viola Davis for actress but I don't know how that's going to shake out. And does Glenn Close finally get a statuette in supporting?
Oscar telecast is April 25. Maybe my interest will be roused by then.
Wednesday March 17, 2021
Movie Review: Midway (1976)
There’s a great story about the screening of a rough cut of “Star Wars” for close friends of George Lucas in late 1976 or early 1977. It was early enough in the process that footage from World War II movies still substituted for the special effects-laden battle sequences. It didn't go well. Afterwards, there was some polite applause but a great deal of awkwardness. Most assumed the movie would bomb. Some compared it to “At Long Last Love,” which had sunk Peter Bogdanovich’s career the previous year. But one friend spoke up for it. “That movie is going to make a hundred million dollars,” Steven Spielberg said, “and I’ll tell you why: It has a marvelous innocence and naïveté in it, which is George, and people will love it.”
I thought about that story during this film because of the WWII footage. What Lucas used as temporary filler, “Midway” used for its theatrical release. According to IMDb:
- Most the Japanese air raid sequences are from “Tora! Tora! Tora!” (1970)
- Scenes of Doolittle’s Tokyo raid are from “Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo” (1944)
- Most dogfight sequences come from 1942 newsreels
- Several action scenes were taken from “Away All Boats” (1956)
You can tell, too. “Midway” went with an All-Star cast and grainy stock footage.
The movie begins both well and poorly. Hal Holbrook plays Cmdr. Joseph Rochefort, a goofily cheery cryptographer who, at first glance, has a bit too much of the ’70s in him—thickish hair, moustache, bathrobe, like he’s the intelligence version of Hawkeye Pierce—but some of this is accurate. According to Wiki: “ He often wore slippers and a bathrobe with his khaki uniform and sometimes went days without bathing.” There are internal arguments among the U.S. military brass about where Japan will strike next, and Rochefort tells Admiral Nimitz (Henry Fonda) that the chatter his team hears keeps using the code “AF,” which he thinks is Midway. Other military leaders assume the next big attack will be the Aleutian Islands or even the west coast of the U.S., so a test is proposed: they send out a fake message about a water supply failure on Midway. Sure enough, the Japanese radio about water supplies on “AF.” The surprise the Japanese enjoyed at Pearl Harbor will now belong to the Americans.
I like all that. Unfortunately, the movie also includes is a fictional subplot that is the stuff of soap opera. Charlton Heston plays Capt. Matt Garth, the estranged father of fighter pilot Tom Garth (Edward Albert), who is looking to reconnect with his son. The fact that Matt is divorced feels out of time—that was a ’70s conversation, less a ’30s one. And then there’s Tom’s dilemma. He has to tell his old man: 1) his girlfriend, Hakuro (Christina Kokubo), is Japanese; 2) she and her parents are being held as subversives; and 3) can he help free them? When Matt objects, Tom accuses him of racism. Matt, in that Heston way, says he’s not racist, it’s just that his son’s timing is lousy; then he spends most of the rest of the movie trying to free them. I can’t even remember if he does, to be honest, and none of this is helped by the acting from Heston and Kokubo. Oh, and it turns out that her parents object to the union anyway since they don’t want Hakuro marrying outside her race. So who’s the racist now, huh? That’s the vibe.
Most of the U.S.-side of the cast consists of stars from the 1930s (Fonda), ’40s (Robert Mitchum in a cameo as Admiral Halsey),’50s (Heston and Glenn Ford) and the ’60s (James Coburn, Cliff Robertson). Plus a few young bucks who gained fame later: Dabney Coleman, Tom Selleck, Erik Estrada. We also get an uncredited cameo from Miami Dolphins running back Larry Csonka.
For the Japanese side, it’s almost every Japanese-American TV actor of the time: James Shigeta, Pat Morita, John Fujioka, Dale Ishimoto and Robert Ito. Plus the big gun, Toshiro Mifune, as Fleet Admiral Yamamoto. Unlike in “The Gallant Hours,” filmed 16 years earlier, the Japanese are forced to speak English here, but apparently Mifune’s English was so difficult to understand they dubbed him with Paul Frees, who also voiced the Burgermeister Meisterburger in Rankin/Bass’ “Santa Claus is Coming to Town.” They did this to Mifune. Can’t make that stuff up.
The American race
The Battle of Midway is considered a turning point in the war in the Pacific. The Japanese lost four fleet carriers and a heavy cruiser, 248 airplanes and more than 3,000 men. The U.S. lost the carrier Yorktown and a destroyer, 150 aircraft, and 307 men. American morale went way up. Plus our industrial capacity far outstripped theirs. We could replace things; they couldn’t.
As for the soap opera: In battle, Tom Garth gets horribly injured but survives. Heston then steps in for the run at the final fleet carrier, succeeds, but crashes on the flight deck and dies. Glenn Ford closes his eyes in pain for his fictional friend, while Ensign George Gay (Kevin Dobson), the real-life sole survivor of Squadron 8, is pulled from the ocean. Tom, cleaned up and bandaged, is wheeled on a gurney past Hakuro, whose face reveals … who knows? Then Nimitz and Rochefort give us our coda as a large group of people, obviously pulled from some mid-1970s Hawaiian tourist attraction, mingle behind them. Nimitz wonders aloud how they were so successful when the Japanese had so many advantages. “Were we better than the Japanese or just luckier?” he asks. That, too, feels like a ’70s question—something to be pondered after the war is over—rather than spoken aloud in June 1942. Either way it goes unanswered.
Kind of. The movie’s final afterword is a quote from Churchill:
“The annals of war at sea present no more intense, heart-shaking shock than this battle, in which the qualities of the United States Navy and Air Force and the American race shone forth in splendour.”
The American race. Don’t hear that much anymore.
I first saw “Midway” at the Boulevard Theater in Minneapolis when it was released in 1976, and I remember being confused. Wait, there was a time when we were losing World War II? That was news to my 13-year-old self. The huge cast, many of them unfamiliar (I didn’t know from Glenn Ford or Robert Mitchum), as well as the grainy battle scenes didn’t help me find any kind of clarity, either. I guess I was hoping that this second viewing, 45 years later, might reveal some forgotten or hidden charms. Nope.
All-Star cast; extras pulled from the gift shop.
Thursday March 11, 2021
Movie Review: The Gallant Hours (1960)
I’d love to see this on a double-bill with “Here Comes the Navy,” James Cagney’s 1934 flick about a smart-ass riveter who enlists to get back at a by-the-book officer (Pat O’Brien) but eventually becomes a team player aboard the U.S.S. Arizona—a real-life ship that was destined to sink at Pearl Harbor. Those early military Cagneys were always like that. He’s the cocky loner who either learns to fit in (“Navy,” “Devil Dogs of the Air”) or sacrifices himself in the final act (“The Fighting 69th”; “Captains of the Clouds”). Now look at him: in charge of the whole shebang.
He plays Admiral William “Bull” Halsey, who took command of American forces in the South Pacific in Oct. 1942, but I still kept hearing echoes of “Here Comes the Navy.” There's Pearl Harbor, for one. Halsey’s ship, the U.S.S. Enterprise (yes), was scheduled to return to Pearl Harbor on Dec. 6, 1941 but was delayed by storms and thus avoided the fate of the Arizona. There's another by-the book officer, too. Except now he's a subordinate, Capt. Black (Ward Costello), who assumes he’ll be reassigned when he bucks Halsey’s idea to move ground troops without going up the chain of command. Halsey assures him that's not the case: “If we both thought exactly alike, I wouldn’t need you.”
The movie focuses on the five weeks between Halsey taking command and the battle for Guadalcanal. All the battles happen off-screen. It's an indie movie, basically. It's about what makes a great leader: keep your door open, listen to everybody, do what’s necessary, and inspire those in your command.
No great men
You know how some men, as they age, gravitate toward non-fiction and history, particularly military history? Cagney’s career is a bit like that. The first non-fiction character he played was George M. Cohan in 1942, a role he resurrected 13 years later for a cameo in Bob Hope’s “The Seven Little Foys.” But that was it for nearly 60 movies. Until, in his five final flicks, he played two historical men: Lon Chaney in “Man of a Thousand Faces,” and Halsey here.
“Gallant” even feels like non-fiction. It’s a docudrama, sticking to the facts, and heavy on narration. It opens with an all-male chorus, the Roger Wagner Chorale, singing and humming a somber sailors song (“Away, away, away he went/To deep and salty water”), before an official ceremony aboard an aircraft carrier on Nov. 22, 1945. It’s Halsey’s retirement ceremony—as it nearly was Cagney’s. (It’s his second-to-last feature.) Halsey reads the opening of the official letter of his retirement in clipped tones before the narrator, producer-director Robert Montgomery, a longtime Cagney pal, takes over and tells us about Halsey.
He was born in Elizabeth, New Jersey, 62 years ago, this date. Graduated from the United State Naval Academy at Annapolis in 1904. There were 62 men in his class. Scholastically, he stood 43rd. His speech is salty. On his right shoulder there is a tattooed anchor. He once owned a parrot. He wears the wings of a pilot, earned at the age of 52. He is a sailor who has always been welcome on any ship at any time in any ocean.
Some of this leans toward cornball, but it’s effective. Better, Montgomery keeps doing it with secondary characters. Visiting the troops, Halsey chats with a pilot, Capt. Joseph Jacob Foss, who, Montgomery tells us, “destroyed as many planes as Eddie Rickenbacker” in WWI and later became the 20th governor of South Dakota. (Foss feels like a movie himself. He was also the first president of the American Football League and president of the NRA.) We meet Private First Class Eric Lauder who “mans the 50-caliber machine gun that was assaulted early this morning. In 15 minutes, he killed 38 men. He is 19 years of age.” Later, Montgomery adds, “Three men in that squad will survive the battle for Guadalcanal. Private First Class Eric Lauder is not one of them.”
Such narration doesn't leave out the enemy. Halsey’s counterpart, Gen. Isoroku Yamamoto, is “Born of seafaring stock on an island north of Japan, April 4th, 1884. He graduated from the Japanese Naval Academy in 1904. Americans who knew him as a naval attaché in Washington, D.C. remember him as an excellent poker player. He was especially good at bluffing.” Then we watch him taking pictures of a crimson hibiscus with his Leica camera, and trying to outmaneuver Halsey.
In this way the movie reminded me of “Balance of Terror,” the first-season “Star Trek” episode, which is essentially a cat-and-mouse game between two leaders, Capt. Kirk and the unnamed Romulan Commander (Mark Lenard). Here, too. All the Americans may call the Japanese “Japs,” as everyone did, but the tone of the movie is restrained and respectful. The Japanese speak Japanese, often untranslated.
Robert Montgomery is an interesting case himself. He came from money but his family lost it during the Depression and he tried several careers before going into acting. He was tall, genteel, well-dressed, and successful—starring in “Private Lives,” “Mr. and Mrs. Smith” and “Here Comes Mr. Jordan,” among others. He was both staunch Republican and union man—twice leading the Screen Actors Guild. While producing and hosting the long-running TV show “Robert Montgomery Presents” from 1950 to 1957, he became the TV consultant to Pres. Eisenhower—the first such in history. He was, sadly, a friendly witness before HUAC in 1947, but he also served in WWII in both the European and Pacific theaters. Doubt there are many men who were at both Guadalcanal and D-Day as he was. Awarded the Bronze Star, he returned to Hollywood to star in and help direct “They Were Expendable,” a solid war movie. “The Gallant Hours” is the last movie he directed.
We get too many shots of men admiring Halsey after he leaves them, but it’s not awful, and the movie keeps leaning on verisimilitude rather than drama. Guadalcanal gets nightly visits from “Washing Machine Charlie,” a real-life Japanese pilot whose twin-engines were out of synch to make them louder and keep the Americans from sleeping. When Charlie first shows up, Halsey doesn’t think he’s worth getting out of bed for. Then the bombing continues, shaking his bed. For a moment I thought he was going to be one of those crazily brave commanders like Patton or Bill Kilgore in “Apocalypse Now,” acting like they’re invulnerable, shooting at planes from the ground. But no, he joins the others in an air-raid shelter. Or tries to. It's dark, he's told it's full up, and rather than pull rank he runs to another one—also dark. He bums a cigarette and a light, then asks how long the bombing goes on. One to two hours, he’s told. “You’re new,” the soldier states. Halsey pauses. “Yeah. New.” You expect another big reveal—whoa, it’s the Admiral—but it doesn’t come. Instead, the narrator simply tells us about the soldier—a professional ballplayer who gets wounded, never rises higher than Class B, blames the wound. All of this is admirably unsensationalistic for a war film.
I thought Yamamoto’s history of bluffing—and Halsey’s awareness of same—would come into play more, but if anyone is good at bluffing here it’s Halsey. He has the lesser hand but attacks Japan’s forces when caution dictates retreat. Of his two carriers, he loses the Hornet while the Enterprise is damaged. At this point, his officers suggest an evacuation plan since they’re so vulnerable, but Halsey assumes Japan won’t follow up because they tend not to.
My favorite scene is when Lt. Commander Roy Webb (Richard Jaeckel) wants to resign his commission because he lost nine planes and nine men:
Halsey: You think the job requires a great man. Well, I have news for you. There aren’t any great men. There are just great challenges that ordinary men like you and me are forced by circumstances to meet. Now, you’ve proved you can get the job done. You’re hooked by your own record. In short, you don’t have any choice.
Webb: Sir, I lost nine planes yesterday.
Halsey: I lost the same nine planes, and 17 others to boot. Plus one destroyer, two submarines with all hands, two LSTs, and God know how many ground troops. Do you want me to go on?
Webb: [pauses, the gravity of the situation on his face] No, sir. I guess I … I just had the feeling I was alone.
Halsey: You were. And you will be.
I love every bit of that.
Just great challenges
Cagney got to spend a few hours with Halsey, who died before the movie opened, and noticed he made few extraneous gestures—which he felt true of most great commanders. “They are inevitably very self-contained men, so much depending on their demeanor and body language. They hold it in yet are consummately natural and honest in temperament.” Known for going big, Cagney forced himself to be understated: “I had certain mannerisms, acting mannerisms, that I’d built up through the years playing all those rough characters,” he says in John McCabe’s biography. “So I had to lose those, and I told Bob whenever he even saw the hint of one to stop me and we’d shoot all over again.”
Dennis Weaver provides the movie’s color as Halsey’s aide, Lt. Commander Andy Lowe, a Southerner with charm. We get an interesting “Mister Roberts” echo when Lowe wants to leave Halsey for combat aboard Capt. Bailey’s ship and Halsey says, “Unfortunately, I’m used to you.” A second later he relents and lets him go. There’s a running gag about Halsey’s fear of needles, his swimming prowess is mentioned, his mostly nondescript officers are measured and admiring. We don’t get his salty language—Production Code—nor his pursuit of women, which is apparently how he got his nickname. The few women in the film—less than 30 seconds of screentime, I'd guess—are pursued by Weaver’s character.
Halsey was world-famous during the war—he made the cover of Time in 1942 and 1945—and this carried over into the decades immediately. In “Bridge on the River Kwai,” William Holden makes an Admiral Halsey joke, and on “McHale’s Navy” a character’s catchphrase is “What in the name of Halsey is going on?” He’s a title character in Paul McCartney’s 1971 hit song “Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey” and he’s been played on screen by Cagney, James Whitmore (“Tora! Tora! Tora!”), Robert Mitchum (“Midway” (1976)) and Dennis Quaid (“Midway” (2019)). But I think his legacy has faded for my generation and those after ours. We all know Patton because of the movie but Halsey less. Or maybe Army trumps Navy in Hollywood storytelling? Cheaper, for one. What’s the cost of putting combat troops in a jungle? But you try making an aircraft carrier.
This is a good, measured movie that’s worth watching, but it feels like Halsey needs a Hollywood revisit.
Wednesday March 10, 2021
“In the last years, his drinking had increased while his ability to handle it had shrunk. He already had had a pacemaker for quite a while. I could tell that last time, he was in and out—not quite with me as he always had been: his mind and attention seemed to drift. Both his most loyal assistants, Peggy Robertson and Suzanne Gautier, had left, unable to handle his mood swings and depression. He told me he didn't know why they'd left him. [His wife] Alma's continued incapacitation only made things worse. After we had been talking for a while, Hitch noticed the stains on his jacket and knew I had seen them; this seemed to bring him back again and he began trying to rub off the stains, which didn't totally disappear. He seemed humiliated to have been seen this way and soon excused himself to use the bathroom. After nearly half an hour, I told his new secretary what had happened and she took it as normal. He did that often, she said, and went and knocked on the bathroom door. Hitch called out that he was fine. She left. He called out my name. I called back. He said he was sorry, he couldn't talk anymore; could I ask his chauffeur to come help him. I said I would and thanked him and said I hoped he felt better. He thanked me and asked again for the chauffeur. I said goodbye. He called goodbye. I got the chauffeur, who went in to help. Less than four months later, while I was shooting a scene in New York's Plaza Hotel lobby—a location I chose because of Hitch's use of it in North by Northwest—the assistant director told me that Hitchcock had died ...
”The quality I remember most about Hitch was a sense of his loneliness, his isolation. Since he never saw his films with audiences, I asked him once if he didn't miss hearing them scream. 'No,' he said, 'I can hear them when I'm making the picture.'"
-- Peter Bogdanovich in “Who the Devil Made It: Conversations with Legendary Film Directors.”
Wednesday March 10, 2021
'Cary Grant Represents a Man We Know'
“I asked about North by Northwest and his preference for Cary Grant, who had starred in several Hitchcock pictures. 'I was very amused,' he said smiling, 'when I read the critic for The New Yorker referring to North by Northwest as ”unconsciously funny.“ Well, my dear, the film is sheer fantasy. Our original title, you know, was The Man in Lincoln's Nose. Couldn't use it, though. They also wouldn't let us shoot people on Mount Rushmore. Can't deface a national monument,' he added sarcastically. 'And it's a pity too, because I had a wonderful shot in mind of Cary Grant hiding in Lincoln's nose and having a sneezing fit.' He chuckled happily and went on. 'Cary is marvelous, you see. One doesn't direct Cary Grant, one simply puts him in front of a camera. And, you see, he enables the audience to identify with the main character. I mean by that, Cary Grant represents a man we know. He's not a stranger. If you are walking down a street and you see a man hit by a car and you don't know him, you stop and look for a moment and you say, ”Tut, tut, that's too bad,“ and you pass on. Now if the person hit were your brother, well, there's a different situation altogether. It's the same thing, you see, as Cary Grant in a film versus an unknown actor.' He paused to relight his cigar.”
-- Peter Bogdanovich and Alfred Hitchock in “Who the Devil Made It: Conversations with Legendary Film Directors.”
Tuesday March 09, 2021
Movie Review: Coming 2 America (2021)
If you’d asked anyone back in 1988 who would be the emerging star in the Eddie Murphy comedy “Coming to America,” they might’ve gone with Arsenio Hall, whose talk show was to debut the following year, or maybe Shari Headley, who was 24, lovely, and played romantic lead Lisa McDowell, or just one of those insanely beautiful rose-petal bearers such as Garcelle Beauvais; but the correct answer turned out to be the dude with the crazy eyes who tried to rob McDowell’s restaurant with a shotgun. In a way, Samuel L. Jackson became even bigger than Murphy, who, at this point, was in the midst of a seven-year run on Quigley’s list of the year’s top-10 box-office champs, including four times at No. 2 and once at No. 1. But after “Harlem Nights” bombed the following year he fell off, made it back sporadically, but was never the same. While Sam Jackson became Sam Jackson.
Interest in a “Coming to America” sequel grew, I assume, after the huge success of “Black Panther,” as well as Eddie’s great comeback turn in “Dolemite Is My Name” in 2019. Eddie even tapped “Dolemite” director Craig Brewer to have another go. And at first glance it all seems like a great idea. Then you remember: Yeah, the original wasn’t that funny. Half the film, Murphy’s character, Prince Akeem, is a comic persona—perpetually smiling and naïve—the other half he’s heroic leading man. It’s an odd combo.
And 30+ years is a long time. The first movie had a lot of gratuitous female nudity—like most ’80s comedies—which doesn’t play well in the #MeToo age. Worse, the whole “royal penis is clean” and “bark like a dog” bits leaned into Murphy’s late ’80s misogyny.
So there were problems going in. But then they made it worse. “Coming 2 America” is one of those movies where in the first act the main character is doing X, everyone thinks “Why is he doing X? Shouldn’t he be doing Y?” and the lesson at the end is: Do Y. Great. Thanks.
Prince Akeem's problem is he has no male heir, just three strong daughters; and by Zamundan law they can’t ascend to the throne. Has to be dudes. And it’s feared that once Akeem’s father, Jaffe Joffer (James Earl Jones), dies, the country will become unstable and the strong-arm ruler of Nextdoria, General Izzi (Wesley Snipes), will take over.
Baba, the witch doctor: He will use the passing of our king as a sign to attack the weak one.
Akeem: The weak one? Am I the weak one?
Jaffe: I spoiled you, my son. You are not strong or ruthless as I am. You will be assassinated.
So Akeem encourages his father to change the backward laws to allow a female heir to take over. The end.
Kidding. Instead, they find out—whoa!—there is a male heir. In 1988, Akeem fathered a son without knowing it when a crazy girl, Mary Junson (Leslie Jones), jumped his bones when he was high. So Jaffe sends Akeem and his right-hand man Semmi (Arsenio) back to America to find this kid and make him next in line to the throne.
The kid, Lavelle (Jermaine Fowler) is 30, going nowhere, and leaps at the chance. There are tests he has to pass in Zamunda, including taking the whisker of “a man-eating lion” (Me: Are there other kinds of lions?), and more machinations from Izzi, who now wants his daughter, Bopoto (Teyana Taylor), to marry Lavelle. But then Lavelle overhears a conversation that makes him think he’s a pawn in Akeem’s game, and he and his entire entourage flee back to Queens—including Mirembe (Nomzamo Mbatha), the royal groomer, whom he wants to marry. Akeem follows them there, finds them at the altar, gives his blessing, then returns to Zamunda where his three strong daughters have already subdued a coup attempt by Gen. Izzi. Which is when he does the thing he should’ve done in the first act. He changes the backward laws to allow a female heir to ascend to the throne.
Never saw it coming.
So that’s one of the movie’s two big problems. The other problem is bigger: It’s just not funny. Wesley Snipes is good, Leslie Jones is great (she gets the “royal privates are clean” bit), and Eddie eventually made me laugh but it took a while. Arsenio, no. Jermaine, no. Tracy Morgan, nah. The barbershop boys are back, and Eddie’s old Jewish man is still killer (“What is this—velvet?”), but they were way old in ’88 and haven’t aged a day so it seems odd. A Morgan Freeman bit, playing off his role as America’s official narrator, falls flat. A joke about child African soldiers should’ve been crumpled up and tossed in the wastebasket.
Three writers worked on this screenplay—the original two and the overworked Kenya Barris (“Black-ish,” “#BlackAF,” “Girls Trip,”etc.)—but they either didn’t work hard enough or there wasn’t enough to play off of. Instead of jokes, we get cameos. Salt n Pepa show up, En Vogue show up, Dikembe Mutombo shows up. SNL’s Colin Jost plays the grandson of Randolph and Mortimer Duke from “Trading Places” to not much effect. Trevor Noah plays a moustached TV journalist on ZNN, allowing James Earl Jones to intone “This … is ZNN,” which wasn’t laugh-out loud but at least it made a smile. Seeing Jones and John Amos alive made me smile.
I just wish there was more life in Eddie. Next movie, he should get a personal trainer to help with that gut and just fucking let it go with the comedy. C'mon. We're rooting for you, man.
Sunday March 07, 2021
The Greatest Invention in the World
“Of course, the great [Production Code] rule was that if there was a kiss, the parties had to keep one foot on the floor. But, in spite of those restrictions, I have a feeling that it was much more erotic, that there was much more an atmosphere of eroticism without the nudity, without the absolute license there is now [in the 1970s]. Now, of course, it's obligatory that everybody be in the nude. ... I think clothes are the greatest invention in the world, and one should be awfully careful who one undresses.”
-- George Cukor in Peter Bogdanovich's “Who the Devil Made It: Conversations with Legendary Film Directors.”
Thursday March 04, 2021
Movie Review: Bullets or Ballots (1936)
There’s a small, startling scene in this code-era Warner Bros. gangster flick that almost makes it worth watching 85 years later.
Edward G. Robinson plays Johnny Blake, a NYC detective demoted to Bronx flatfoot, who roughs up crooks and demands that they tip their cap to him when they pass him on the street. Early on, we see him punch a crook through the glass door of a nightclub and when a passing cop asks him what’s going on, Blake simply says “Put him under arrest for destroying property.” And they do. That's not the startling scene, though.
Basically, he's the original Dirty Harry, who complains about mollycoddling crooks in a manner Clint Eastwood would understand:
I’m no use to them downtown anymore. … They don’t believe in kicking the rats into line any more. Nowadays, you’re supposed to kiss them and tuck them in.
And yet his best friends seem to be Lee Morgan (Joan Blondell), a cabaret manager who runs a lucrative numbers game in Harlem with her former hairdresser, Nellie LaFeleur (Louise Beavers); and Al Kruger (Barton MacLane), the top gangster in town. Blake visits Kruger shortly after the death of Ward Bryant (Henry O’Neill), a crusading newspaper editor who gets it at the hands of “Bugs” Fenner (Humphrey Bogart), Kruger’s trigger-happy No. 2 man—despite Kruger’s warning to leave Bryant alone.
Kruger is the decent gangster, see? He and Blake even reminisce about “the good ol’ days” when Blake would beat confessions out of him in some back alley. Oh, what fun. It’s all so phony it makes me long for the good ol’ days of pre-code Hollywood—just three years previous—when Robinson could play gangsters, men and women could sleep together (Lee and Blake don’t even kiss), and screenwriters like Seton I. Miller didn’t have to strain so much to shoehorn expository dialogue into the story.
At one point, Kruger ticks off reasons Johnny should actually join his gang: he’s being disrespected by the department, he’s poorly paid, and he’ll make more with Kruger in a year than with the force in his lifetime. Smoking his pipe, Blake turns him down, just as he had when Kruger made the offer years earlier. “If I’d gone in with you,” Blake says, of that earlier offer, “I would’ve done it to nail you.”
Which is exactly what happens. That’s the movie laid out in a sentence.
In the wake of the Bryant shooting, Blake’s old friend Captain McLaren (Joe King) is promoted to police commissioner, promising to wipe out the rackets, and he begins by cleaning house. Blake is one of the first cops to go. So Blake takes Kruger up on his offer. When the other gangsters complain about the headbusting cop in their midst, Kruger insists Blake would never double-cross anyone. One wonders how he got such a rep, but that's exactly what he's doing. Halfway through, we find out he's working undercover to destroy the rackets, find Bryant’s murderer, and discover who the real money men are. (Turns out: a respectable banker and other local business leaders.)
It's working, too. The rackets are being destroyed via his inside information. Which is when the others finally convince Kruger that Blake isn't to be trusted. Blake walks into a room full of suspicious, angry faces, but he saves his ass by offering them a more lucrative pipeline: Lee’s numbers racket in Harlem. That means Lee gets squeezed out. Right away, two men show up in her office and tell her and Nellie that they're through.
And that’s when we get to our startling moment.
First, she and Nellie push back—particularly Nellie. “You and no other gunman’s going to tell us what to do,” she says. One of the guys smiles and says they’re not gunmen, they don’t even carry guns, see? At which point Lee suggests they meet Timothy. Nellie smiles, nods, and calls to him as she opens the door: “Timothy!” He’s standing right there, a tall, sturdy Black man in suit and hat. “Throw those gentlemen out on their ears,” she says.
And that's exactly what he does.
It's pretty great. I can’t recall another mainstream 1930s Hollywood movie in which a Black dude beats up two white dudes.
The actor is John Lester Johnson, who appeared in 39 movies, mostly uncredited, from the 1920s to the 1940s. That was his second career. His first career was as a light heavyweight boxer. In 1916, he took on an up-and-comer from the west coast, Jack Dempsey, at the Harlem Sporting Club, and won a 10-round decision, breaking Dempsey’s ribs in the process. Dempsey, of course, went on to the heavyweight championship and became one of the most famous celebrities of the 1920s; Johnson, the victor, got a one-way ticket to Palookaville. For all the obvious reasons, one assumes.
All of which is way more interesting than “Bullets or Ballots.”
Stories to be told
The real-life background to “Bullets or Ballots” is also interesting. Kruger and Fenner are based on Dutch Schultz and Lucky Luciano, who took over the Harlem numbers rackets started by Nellie’s character, Stephanie “Madam Queen” St. Clair. Good god, can you imagine the movie they could make of that today? (UPDATE: I guess that's part of what “The Cotton Club” was all about, as well as a 1997 gangster flick, “Hoodlum,” starring Laurence Fishburne. Might have to revisit “Cotton” and check out “Hoodlum.”)
Blake, meanwhile, was based on a real NYC cop, “Broadway Johnny” Broderick, who was known for beating up crooks—so much so that one of them was freed by the state supreme court in 1937 because he’d been hurt so badly the court felt “this man has more than expiated his crime.” “Broadway Johnny” liked the spotlight but didn't like this movie much—for narrow reasons. “I ought to flatten [Robinson],” he said. “Suppose I had let my kids go see that picture, and they had seen him, playing me, and actually taking a drink and smoking a cigar!”
As for how it ends? The cops close in on the gang as the gang closes in on Blake. Fenner machinates in that bad-guy Bogie manner—turning Lee against Blake, killing Kruger, then shooting Blake on his way to meet the crooked local business leaders. Wounded, Blake kills Fenner, guts out the meeting, and allows the cops to arrest the higher-ups. Outside, he dies in McLaren’s arms. “Keep kicking them into line, Mac,” he gasps as he dies. “I like to think, when those mugs pass a policeman, they’ll keep on tipping their hats.”
Not exactly “Is this the end of Rico?”
“Bullets” is the first of five movies Robinson and Bogart made together. For most, Robinson was the good guy and Bogie would get it. For the last, “Key Largo” in 1948, Bogart was the star, Robinson was resurrecting his ’30s gangster role, and it’s Robinson who gets it.
Both Louise Beavers and John Lester Johnson are interred at Evergreen Cemetery in Los Angeles. An IMDb user created a list of movie people buried there, and since it’s all African Americans I assumed it was a Black cemetery. It’s not. It’s just one of the few in LA that, at the time, allowed Blacks to be buried there. Yet another story to be told.
Wednesday March 03, 2021
'Free, White and 45'
More takes on that early 20th-century catchphrase “Free, White and 21,” which I wrote about in 2009 (“Fugitive from a Chain Gang”) and revisited 10 years later (“What Price Hollywood?”). This spin is from George Cukor's “Dinner at Eight:
The character on the left is Hattie Loomis, whose carping husband, Ed, would rather go to the movies than to the titular event. She's played by Louise Closser Hale, who sadly died before the movie premiered. The character on the right is Millicent Jordan, host of the dinner, at which most everything that can go wrong does. Recognize her? Billie Burke. Six years later she played Glynda the Good Witch of the North in ”The Wizard of Oz.“ Her husband in this movie is played by Lionel Barrymore, who played one of the most horrible men in cinema, Mr. Potter from ”It's a Wonderful Life.“ He's about the only good man in ”Dinner at Eight."
For more on the history of the phrase, check out Andrew Heisel's well-researched 2015 Jezebel article.
Tuesday March 02, 2021
Movie Review: The Roaring Twenties (1939)
There’s a nice musical homage near the beginning of Raoul Walsh’s “The Roaring Twenties” that’s indicative of the place James Cagney held in 1930s cinema as well as the attention to detail of the artists and artisans at Warners Bros. Or it’s just a nice coincidence.
Eddie Bartlett (Cagney) is returning stateside after WWI, but late, more than a year after the war ended. I'm reminded of Hemingway's short story, “Soldiers Home”: “People seemed to think it was rather ridiculous for Krebs to be getting back so late, years after the war was over.” Both characters were patrolling the Rhine, but the situation is slightly more ridiculous for Eddie because everyone thinks he’s dead: his landlady, his old boss at the garage, his best friend Danny (Frank McHugh). It’s a running gag for a bit. At this point, though, Eddie doesn’t know any of that. He’s fresh off the boat, in fighting trim, garrison cap at a jaunty angle. And just before he walks up the steps to his old brownstone, he smiles as an organ grinder plays “I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles” in the crowded streets outside. That's the same song that played over the opening credits and in the closing scene of “The Public Enemy,” the movie that made Cagney a star eight years earlier.
So: homage or coincidence?
In homage’s favor is the level of detail in the scene. Walsh could’ve just had Cagney walk up the steps but instead we get this great tableau: two boys share an apple, two girls dance with each other to the organ grinder’s song, and a kid in a whoopee cap stares up solemnly at the organ grinder’s monkey. A tall, older well-dressed man enters the shot looking for an address. People keep coming and going. I suppose it represents a return to normalcy. Or the promise of.
The song may recall “Public Enemy” but Eddie Bartlett is no Tom Powers. Start with the fact that Eddie went to war. To Tom, that’s for saps—like his older brother Mike, the ding-ding. Eddie may be tough like Tom, but he’s also a nice guy. He winds up in a foxhole with a bully named George (Humphrey Bogart), and not only stands up to him, but stands up for another soldier, a law grad named Lloyd (Jeffrey Lynn), who, after admitting he’s scared, is taunted by George.
George: He’s one of them guys that cheer the loudest back home, and then when they get over here, and the going gets tough, they fold up.
George: I’m talking to him.
Eddie: And I’m talking to you. I don’t like heels or big mouths. We’re all scared, and why shouldn’t we be? What do you think they’re using in this war—water pistols? [To Lloyd] You’re all right, kid. I like guys who are honest with themselves. Stay that way.
Love that scene. At this point, Eddie is the perfect balance between nice (Lloyd) and nasty (George), a la the split halves of Capt. Kirk in “The Enemy Within,” an early, first-season episode of “Star Trek.” He doesn’t run from trouble but he’s not looking for it, either. Later, in fact, as the boys talk up what they’re going to do when the war is over, Eddie says he just wants his old mechanic’s job back: “All I know is I don’t want any more trouble,” he says. Great, ironic line.
So how did this great guy become a gangster? Blame the times.
This is the only Cagney gangster movie that suggests as much, isn’t it? Tom Powers and Rocky Sullivan were into crime at a young age, and I assume Cody Jarrett, too. They didn’t need Prohibition and the Volstead Act. Eddie does.
Back home, the mechanic’s job isn’t waiting for him, no job is, and Eddie winds up driving/sharing Danny’s cab. Then one night, delivering a package of bootleg booze to Panama Smith (Gladys George), the cops slap the cuffs on him. He’s innocent, Panama isn’t, but he’s the one who gets 60 days. Guess who his lawyer is? Lloyd, forever ineffectual. But Panama pays his fine and introduces him to the world of speakeasies. He and Danny start out in distribution—the cabs are a good way to deliver booze—but when the supplier jacks up the price they get into production as well: bathtub gin. The money comes fast and easy. And Eddie changes.
He doesn’t become mean or violent so much as obsessed with money—and, oddly, workplace efficiency. It's less forever blowing bubbles than forever counting bills. Then he gets really greedy. He tries to make a deal with Nick Brown (Paul Kelly), a bootlegger who has the good stuff; but Brown, a WASP eating spaghetti in an Italian restaurant, can’t be bothered. So Eddie hijacks the stuff off of Brown’s boat, which just happens to be captained by George. That’s how Bogie is reintroduced into the narrative—he becomes Eddie’s right-hand man. Per ’30s Bogie, he's also restless, thin-skinned, and dangerous.
At this point, it become ante-upping in the gangster tradition. For heisting the booze, Brown kills Danny; Eddie kills Brown for killing Danny. George had tipped off Brown, but Eddie doesn’t have proof so he merely delivers a warning to George. Bad move. One of many he makes around this time.
Weaving throughout all this is a romance that’s awkward, one-sided, and keeps running hot and cold in a way that doesn't feel real. It starts back in France with American girls sending photos to soldiers. George gets one from an unattractive woman—they’re quite cruel to her—while Eddie lucks out with Jean Sherman (Priscilla Lane), a pretty blonde with long hair, beret, and a come-hither look. Back home, he visits her in Mineola on Long Island and it turns out she’s …15 or something. Meaning she was 14 or 13 when she sent the photo? Yikes. The photo came from a high school play (“The Fortune Teller” by Victor Herbert), and Eddie tries to politely excuse himself. She: “Oh, aren’t you going to tell me about the war? And how you suffered?” He: “Honey, you’ll never know how I suffered.”
Years later, a theater manager keeps stiffing him for bootleg booze, so Eddie pays him a visit but becomes distracted by a girl in the chorus line: Jean, of course, now a young adult. In the earlier scene, she was interested in him, he wasn’t in her. Now she can't be bothered with him—at all—while he won't go away. He waits outside the stage door, insists on walking her to the station, then takes the train with her to Mineola. He even walks her to her door at like 2 a.m. (Where did the doll she’s holding come from, by the way? Did we lose a scene?) By now she’s relaxed around him, saying she’s had the best time, even though on the train he seemed a little dickish—mocking her youth and ambitions. He’s also not exactly a gentleman by the door. She says good night, he says “Kind of a quick brushoff, ain’t it?” She suggests the porch, he suggests inside. She’s about to let him inside (good god, girl) when she mentions in passing that her mother died the year before. It's at this moment, when nothing’s stopping him, that Eddie suddenly becomes a gentleman. She re-invites him inside and he's like, “Oh no. As you said, it’s getting late.” I guess the dead mother touches his heart? Anyway he goes to Panama’s place to get Jean a regular singing gig.
Is this the beginning of the divide in Cagney’s cinematic treatment of women? Early in his career, particularly pre-code, he was always checking them out and leering after them and dragging them across the floor by the hair. From the 1940s on, he’s almost paternal with his romantic partners: patting their cheeks and kissing their foreheads. Maybe because he’s so much older by then? He only had seven years on Joan Blondell but 16 on Priscilla Lane, and this gap will just grow: 28 on Barbara Payton (“Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye”), 31 on Anne Francis (“A Lion is in the Streets”) and 35 on Shirley Jones (“Never Steal Anything Small”).
The whole “gangster gets girl a singing gig” is based on the Moe Snyder/Ruth Etting story, which Cagney played for real with Doris Day in 1955, where he was obsessive and cruel. Not here. Around Jean he’s smitten and solicitous. Does he even make one move? Mostly, he sits in the audience, squeezes Panama’s hand, smiles up at Jean singing. Whatever interest Jean had in him, meanwhile, has long vanished—particularly after she meets Lloyd. They start up a relationship which everyone but Eddie can see. George tries to tell him, Panama tries to tell him. No soap. The nightclub owner calls him a sucker and Eddie yanks the dude’s cigar out of his mouth and mashes it back in. It’s the grapefruit scene all over again but with a dude. One wonders if it wasn’t a constant Warners directive: Find something Cagney can mash into someone’s face.
Eddie finally finds out about Jean the night Danny dies. Helluva night: He loses his best friend, his right-hand man, and his girl. No wonder he sidles up to the bar. Up to this point, Eddie’s been a teetotaler, literally drinking milk, but now he orders a bottle of the hootch he’s been peddling. We suspect it’ll lead to his downfall.
Except that’s not what leads to his downfall. What does? Blame the times again.
Throughout, we’ve been getting faux “March of Time” montages—anticipating “Citizen Kane” by a few years, and apparently put together by a young Don Siegel, who was a montage man back in the day. They’re not bad. John Deering’s stentorian voice moves along the action and the years until we reach the stock-market crash:
1929! … Confusion spreads through the canyons of New York's financial district, and men stare wild-eyed at the spectacle of complete ruin. More than 16 and a half million shares change hands in a single day of frenzied selling. The paper fortunes built up over the last few years crumble into nothing …
That’s what does him in. He loses tons of money, and then, to shore up his losing position, he stupidly sells his only tangible assets—the fleet of taxis—to George, the traitor, for a pittance. He panics, George doesn’t, George wins. Then George sticks the knife in. “I’m gonna leave you one [cab],” he says. “Just one. Cause you’re gonna need it, pal.”
Which he does. Another montage of Eddie in increasingly shabby clothes and settings, often with Panama, and when Prohibition ends he’s back to driving the cab George left him. Eddie Bartlett is our representative 1920s figure: He rose with Prohibition and fell with the stock-market crash.
Don't worry, there’s more downfall. We've got to tie up all the loose ends. One day, outside of a fancy department store at Christmastime, who happens to get into his cab but Jean. She’s excited to see him—chattering away about Lloyd’s work with the D.A.’s office and their four-year-old son—but Eddie’s dead-eyed, flat voiced, and she eventually gets the message and sinks back into her seat. Oddly, he helps take the packages into the house, where he meets her bratty kid (“Come over someday and shoot Indians WITH ME!”), as well as Lloyd, whose D.A. team is going after George’s racket. Eddie warns him that George plays rough, and in the next scene George’s men deliver just that warning to Jean: “If your boyfriend don’t bury [the evidence], your boyfriend will get buried himself.”
So who does she run to? Eddie, of course. By now he’s in a dive bar with Panama, oiled to the gills, trying to douse the torch he still carries for Jean. For all the build-up of him drinking, this is the one time we see him drunk. It’s also the one time he turns down Jean, who wants him to talk to George. “Why should I?” he asks. “Lloyd’ll be killed. … Eddie, please, for my sake.” He still refuses. You know who convinces him? Panama, the one holding a torch for Eddie. I guess? Sorta?
Alright, I’ll say it: A lot of the movie doesn’t make much sense. “Roaring Twenties” is a movie beloved by cineastes, but of Cagney’s four big gangster flicks I think it’s his weakest. It starts strong, is well-made, but the characters serve the needs of the plot rather than themselves. The shift from nice-guy Eddie to greedy Eddie, for example, never feels real, nor does his stock-market panic, while the relationship with Jean is full of starts and stops and odd turns. More, if your hero is going to make a fool of himself over a girl, she needs to be worth it. Jean isn't worth it.
There there’s the final act bit about Eddie telling himself he’ll bounce back? As a gangster? Could no one remind this guy what he was before the Volstead Act? It’s not just that he’s forgotten, I get the feeling the movie’s forgotten. According to Patrick McGilligan’s book, “Cagney: The Actor as Auteur,” the original “Roaring Twenties” screenplay was one of the worst Cagney’s brother and manager William had ever seen, and up to 10 Warners screenwriters tried to improve it. And even then Cagney, McHugh and Bogart wound up improvising a lot of dialogue.
But we do get a good end. At this point, George lives in a mansion with half a dozen gunmen protecting him, and they decide to bring in the soused, disheveled Eddie for a laugh; but George thinks that Eddie, like Lloyd, knows too much. Eddie, who could never read Jean, reads this threat fine, disarms and kills a gunman, then kills George (who, like all Bogie villains, proves a sniveler in the end), then blasts his way out of the joint. He almost makes it, too, but he’s shot running down the street. That sets up our famous ending in the snow. As he stumbles up and back down the church steps, he’s tracing his own rise and fall, before dying, in pieta fashion, in the arms of the ever-loyal Panama. A passing cop asks who he was and what was his business. “This is Eddie Bartlett,” she says. “He used to be a big shot.”
Pullback, rising music, The End.
Interesting footnote: I assumed this movie—whose working title was “The World Moves On”— was eventually called “The Roaring Twenties” because that’s what everyone called the 1920s back then. It was the definitive phrase. Now I’m thinking it’s the definitive phrase because of this movie. According to newspapers.com, which tracks American newspapers through the years, the phrase comes up only 198 times in the 1920s, and in the 1930s it ranges from just six mentions in 1932 to 78 mentions in 1935 and ’37. But the year this movie came out, that number suddenly shot up to 4,164. Maybe “Roaring Twenties” would’ve become definitive anyway, but I like to think Cagney helped.
For all my complaints, the movie is still fun. Gladys George is excellent. Her character, originally called Kansas Smith, is based on Texas Guinan, a one-time actress who ran speakeasies in the ’20s and greeted crowds with the phrase, “Hello, suckers!,” which George does here. Bogie is excellent, too. You begin to understand why he was stuck playing second-rate gangsters with chips on their shoulders for so long: he does it well. There’s that great heist scene at the government facility where he disarms the guard (Joe Sawyer), then realizes who it is: “Well, if it ain’t my old sergeant,” he says, practically licking his lips. “I told ya we’d meet some time when you didn’t have no stripes on your sleeves.” BLAM! This is the last of three movies Cagney made with Bogie, and Bogie’s killed in all of them; it’s the first of four movies Cagney made with Raoul Walsh, and Cagney is killed in three of them.
Cagney’s in fine form, too. I like the foxhole scene— the steel that goes up in Eddie’s eyes with George, his gentleness toward Lloyd. In the cigar-mashing scene, I like how Eddie is ready to deck the guy but checks himself, calculates, goes for the cigar instead, which may be less paintful but much more humiliating. It's often such little touches that make a movie. In the dive bar near the end, Jean’s left, Panama has made her case and been rebuffed, and Eddie is waiting for Panama to get her coat. As he stumbles through the bar, he passes a man playing a tune on the piano, “My Melancholy Baby," I think, the same song Jean sang on the train to Mineola. Eddie listens with a wistful look on his face. When he helps Panama on with her coat, he finally admits she was right: They had finished out of the money. It’s never stated, but that’s when he decides to confront George. The understated that says so much.