The Oscars and Box Office: This Again, Again
If you‘re a best picture nominee that did well at the box office, you used to have a good shot at winning. No longer.
I’ve been busy since the Oscars—mostly being sick with the neverending crud—but I did want to post on this phenomenon since it's still holding true.
For the 20 years before 2009, when the Academy widened its best picture nominees from five to 10, the eventual Oscar winner was almost always the first- or second-biggest box-office draw among the nominees:
|1990||2||3||17||23||26||Dances with Wolves|
|1991||3||4||16||17||25||Silence of the Lambs|
|1996||4||19||41||67||108||The English Patient|
|1998||1||18||35||59||65||Shakespeare in Love|
|2001||2||11||43||59||68||A Beautiful Mind|
|2003||1||17||31||33||67||The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King|
|2004||22||24||37||40||61||Million Dollar Baby|
|2007||15||36||50||55||66||No Country for Old Men|
Since the Academy expanded to 10 nominees in 2009 (and then up to 10 starting in 2011), and implemented the preferential ballot in 2009, the winner is never from the top three box-office draws among the nominees. At best, it's fourth; it could be as low as eighth:
|2009||1||5||8||25||27||38||65||116||132||145||The Hurt Locker|
|2010||1||6||13||18||25||32||35||114||119||143||The King's Speech|
|2013||6||17||28||32||62||80||95||100||117||12 Years a Slave|
|2017||14||15||39||46||51||52||56||105||112||The Shape of Water|
What to make of this? Some guesses:
- Under the old rules, the top three nominees in terms of box office would never have been nominated in the first place: Movies like “Black Panther,” “Bohemian Rhapsody,” “Get Out,” “The Martian,” “Toy Story 3,” “Inception,” etc. So they‘re certainly not going to win. You can dismiss those three columns entirely. It’s all a show.
- Follow up: Mostly true. But I think movies like “Avatar” (top draw in 2009) and “Gravity” (tops in 2013) would‘ve gotten nominated under the old rules; certainly “Lincoln” (top draw in 2012). All of those movies were also presumed to be best picture winners. They were frontrunners. Then poof.
- Merely nominating the boffo box office pictures frees Academy members to choose the picture they actually like rather than the one that’s popular. It's like [wiping hands], “Well, we‘ve done our duty.”
- In the past, once a movie won best picture, moviegoers flocked to it to see what the hubub was about; now they don’t. Now, at best, they wait for it to be available for home viewing.
- It's a fluke.
Not sure how the preferential ballot factors into all of this. It supposedly pushes concensus choices to the top, like “Green Book,” but this has been one of our artier decades in terms of best picture winners.
Speaking of: “Green Book” has been doing OK business since the Oscars but it still won't gross more than $100 million. This will be the sixth year in a row without a $100-million best picture winner. This used to be a regular thing (every bp winner between 1997 and 2004 grossed north of $100 mil) and now it's a nowhere thing. The 1980s had five best pictures that grossed more than $100 million—and that's unadjusted. This decade, with one year to go, has two: “The King's Speech” and “Argo.”
A quick tabulation of $100-million best picture winners, via Box Office Mojo:
- 1980s: 5
- 1990s: 7
- 2000s: 7
- 2010s: 2
Again: that's unadjusted.
I don't see how this trend will change, either. The Academy wants to be a distinguished body, honoring prestigious work, but they‘re living in a country that’s more and more infantilized—often, ironically, by the work of its own industry.
Taylor wasn't the target.
The original 1968 “Planet of the Apes” movie was co-written by Michael Wilson, who also wrote “A Place in the Sun,” “Bridge on the River Kwai” and “Lawrence of Arabia,” and who had been blacklisted during the 1950s, so he didn't get initial proper credit for the original “Bridge” or even “Lawrence.” Born and raised in Oklahoma, Wilson was a U.S. Marine during World War II. After HUAC declared him an unfriendly witness, he moved with his family to France. About the nicest fallback position you could imagine.
I didn't know any of this until I began reading “Hide in Plain Sight: The Hollywood Blacklistees in Film and Television, 1950-2002.” In the beginning of that book, authors Paul Buhle and Dave Wagner argue that, in “Planet,” Dr. Zaius cross-examining the chimpanzee scientists Cornelius and Zira is a kind of HUAC moment. Cornelius finds the ancient human civilization, Zira determines there's no physiological reason for humans to be mute, and Zaius wants these discoveries discredited. Taylor (Heston) is his excuse to do so. His target isn't Taylor, in other words, but the scientists and science generally.
“Your case was preordained,” he says to Taylor. “You made it possible for me to expose” the chimpanzees.
This is the part that really knocked me for a loop:
In Wilson's inner narrative, then, there was another warning accompanying the larger one against nuclear war contained in Serling's famous ending, when Taylor finds the ruins of the Statue of Liberty. The inner warning was addressed to the liberals of the Cold War: you may think they are after Communists, but in fact they are after you.
I'd always thought liberals like Edward G. Robinson getting entrapped and having to beg for redemption from the likes of Ward Bond, and often not finding it, was a bug of HUAC and the blacklisting system; according to this insight, it was a feature. That road, discredited though it was by the 1960s, eventually led to the “liberal Hollywood” attacks of today. The Breitbarts of the world don't need the communist cover anymore.
Movie Review: Creed II (2018)
It’s really more like “Rocky III,” isn’t it?
Yes, “Rocky IV”’s Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren) returns with a chip on his shoulder and a superpowerful son, Viktor (newcomer Florian Munteanu, hunky), who grew up in the hardscrabble streets of Ukraine, knowing only fighting. But with the help of an African-American promoter who greases gears only to slip back into the shadows—so not exactly Don King—they challenge the new heavyweight champion of the world, Adonis Creed (Michael B. Jordan), the son of the man Ivan killed in the ring, to a title match. That’s the external drama. It’s “sins of the fathers.” And it’s all about “Rocky IV.”
The internal drama, which is most of the movie, is cut exactly from “Rocky III.” They don’t use the phrase—which has become a cliché and was silly to begin with—but Adonis loses the eye of the tiger. Meaning his motivations for the fight are muddy; his head isn’t right.
Which is weird in itself. Motivation? How about revenge, motherfucker?
I was surprised to see the film wasn’t directed by Ryan Coogler but Steven Caple, Jr., who has one feature film to his credit: “The Land,” a 2016 indie. Maybe that’s why the movie doesn’t work. Also Sylvester Stallone has a writing credit?
Actually, who are the writers? The story is by Sasha Penn, who’s mostly a producer with no feature-film writing credits, and Cheo Hodari Coker, who is also first-listed on IMDb as a producer but at least wrote some “Luke Cage” episodes. Screenplay is by Stallone and someone named Juel Taylor—his first. Most of his credits are in Sound: editor, mixer, boom operator.
So it’s mostly non-writers writing this thing. And it shows.
Another reason why it doesn’t work? It brings an indie aesthetic to a genre film. You can do this successfully—as Coogler did with “Creed,” where I wrote, “Coogler opens the windows on this universe without knocking anything over; he just lets the fresh air in.” Well, Caple and company close it again. The movie feels muted to me, and stale.
It begins with our hero winning the title. He’s successful, feted, in love. The small stuff that worked in “Creed”—the back and forth between Adonis and Bianca (Tessa Thompson)—is dullsville here. He proposes, awkwardly, and they visit his mom-but-not-mom, Mary Anne Creed (Phylicia Raschad), who figures out Bianca is pregnant before Bianca does. There’s a lot of this parents-know-best stuff in the movie. Then they worry the baby will be deaf like the mother but should they worry because isn’t she great? Plus Bianca has her music career that nobody watching gives a shit about. That’s a truly painful subplot—never more so than before the final fight in Russia when Bianca precedes the Creed contingent by live-singing a lukewarm melody. I couldn’t even watch; I was embarrassed for everybody involved. I was embarrassed for my country. We rule the world in pop culture and this is what you bring?
Hey does the movie ever give a good explanation why Adonis’ reaction to the Drago challenge is so nothing? Why isn’t he angry? Because he didn’t know his father? Because he resented his father? Because in a short span he’s become too comfortable? The fight arrives 45 minutes in, so we know Adonis will lose. He does and doesn’t. He’s crushed in three rounds, with broken ribs and internal bleeding, but the final blow comes after he’s been knocked down, a violation, so he retains the title. Sure. But all of it is very Clubber Lang in “Rocky III.”
In that movie, Rocky had to get back his tiger-eye by leaving his expensive mansion and training with black fighters in the mean streets of LA. This time, it’s the LA gyms that are too comfortable. So Rocky, who refused to train Adonis for the first fight, drives him into the desert, where they train with ... Mexicans, I guess? Illegals? Who knows? Where is this odd training ground in the middle of nothing? Is it based on anything beyond some weirdo macho fantasy? It’s also close to cultural appropriation: We need your anger over everything you’ve never had so we can battle someone who never had anything.
The fight scenes are done well, with Adonis slipping in and out of Drago’s punches. I also like Ivan’s story. They give him a kind of dignity and humanity he never had in the cartoonish “IV.” My favorite scene is probably when he shows up at Adrian’s—which is juxtaposed with Adonis learning of the Drago challenge via TV—and he’s subtly threatening. “Because of you, I lose everything. Country. Respect. [Pause] Wife.” It’s a ghost returning with bad thoughts. It’s scary. Good god, who knew Dolph Lundgren could act?
I particularly like him noting all the memorabilia on the wall:
Ivan: Nice pictures.
Rocky: Yeah, they’re okay.
Ivan: No pictures of me.
Rocky: No. There’s no pictures of that.
For Rocky, they’re reminders of tragedy. To Ivan, it’s just another example of him being erased from history.
Main character wanted, preferably single
Most of the rest is sadly dull. Bianca is ... who cares. But this is the bigger problem: Who is Adonis? What is he like? Who are his friends? He has no posse here, no bodyguards, no one beyond Rocky, Bianca and Mrs. Huxtable. Yes, he wants to box—determinedly—then he wants to marry. And beyond that?
Think of the personalities in the “Rocky” series. Start with Rocky, a garrulous nice guy from the neighborhood—too nice to even be a small-time thumb breaker for a local mob boss—so nice and talkative he even tries to give life lessons to teenage girls and gets “Screw you, creepo!” for his troubles. Or how about Apollo in the bigger-than-life mold of Muhammad Ali—talking in rhyme (“Be a thinker, not a stinker”), and taking care of business both in and out of the ring. How about Paulie—sleazy Paulie? Or Mick? Or Duke?
Who is Adonis? What is Creed’s creed—beyond trying to prove himself in the shadow of his famous father? It’s nothing. There’s nothing there.
“Twenty years ago, if you saw something on TV that offended you and you wanted to let someone know, you would‘ve had to get a pen and paper and write, ’Dear BBC, I'm bothered.' But you didn't do it because it was too much trouble. Now with Twitter, you can just go, ‘[Expletive] you!’ to a comedian who's offended you. Then a journalist will see that and say, ‘So-and-so said a thing and people are furious.’ No. The rest of us don't give a [expletive] and wouldn't have heard about it if it hadn't been made a headline. Everything is exaggerated. But everything's also an illusion. No one would talk to you in the street like they do on Twitter. They'd never come up and say, ‘Your articles stink.’ They'd never do that because they‘re normal, but they’re not normal on Twitter because there's no nuance, no irony, no conversation there. ...
”It's like going into a toilet stall and arguing with graffiti.“
Ricky Gervais, ”Ricky Gervais on Provocation, Picking Targets and Outrage Culture," by David Marchese, in The New York Times
The RNC Deputy Finance Chairman who's under investigation for money laundering is a different guy from the RNC Deputy Finance Chairman who pleaded guilty in a federal fraud case and they‘re both different from the RNC Finance Chairman who’s accused of rape and sexual misconduct.— Kevin M. Kruse (@KevinMKruse) March 18, 2019
Nunes So Blind
“Rep. Devin Nunes, who is bringing a $250 million suit against Twitter because he has been the subject of mean tweets, is not an obscure kook. He is a famous and highly influential kook who chairs the House Intelligence Committee. ...
”Nunes provides almost no arguments to support his demand, which would overturn decades of well-settled legal precedent. In place of the extremely novel Constitutional case he needs to make, his lawsuit asserts that the existence of very mean tweets ‘runs contrary to every tenet of American Democracy, including the guarantees of both the First Amendment and Article I, § 12 of the Virginia Constitution. In the words of the late United States Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., “If there is any principle of the Constitution that more imperatively calls for attachment than any other, it is the principle of free thought – not free thought for those who agree with us but freedom for the thought that we hate.”’ ...
“You don't have to be a lawyer to understand that this quote—defending the existence of speech from those we hate—supports the exact opposite position from Nunes.”
Jonathan Chait, “Devin Nunes Files Bonkers $250 Million Lawsuit Over Mean Tweets,” New York Magazine
Movie Review: Captain Marvel (2019)
I hope this gets more people to watch “The Right Stuff.” Then they’ll get the Pancho’s reference. Real heroes, kids, not the super kind. But still the super kind.
I have to admit, when I collected (1973-79), I was never a fan of Captain Marvel—either version. The character started out male, wearing a green suit and fighting in outer space, or the astral plane or some shit, and none of it resonated with me. Give me New York. Give me terra firma. Then he went red and blue and shared the Negative Zone with Rick Jones or something. Clang! Oh, and about the time the Equal Rights Amendment seemed on the verge of becoming a constitutional amendment (in a better America), we got a female version, Ms. Marvel, sporting a blonde bob and not much else: bare legs, bare midriff. Created by dudes, of course—Gerry Conway (my Spidey buddy) and Sal Buscema (my Captain America buddy)—but as part of that legit effort to diversify the ’70s Marvel lineup. I remember little about her origin, so I don’t have much skin in this game. That probably helps.
It also helps that I went in with low expectations. The buzz was OK but only that. It felt like a shrug of a movie. I thought Brie Larson all wrong for the role, too. A puny human. Hardly Gal Gadot, who, besides being an actual Israeli soldier, seems like a foot taller. (IMDb lists a mere three-inch difference: 5’7” vs. 5’10”.) Or maybe Jennifer Lawrence? She seems solid. Brie is a wisp. She’s your babysitter not an intergalactic superhero. But I was wrong; she’s good.
And the movie? I liked it. Enough. Again, I went in with low expectations so I don’t want to raise yours.
It starts slowly, disjointedly, and ends by hooking up with the most recent MCU developments. It takes us full circle: from the intro of the Avengers Initiative (working title: Protectors Imitative) to its most recent incarnation, with half the universe gone. Question: Why did Carol Danvers need a Nick Fury SOS to warn her of that? Surely wherever she was it was the same. Poof. Bye bye. Whatever else he is, Thanos is EOE.
Our hero, called Vers, I guess, is a Starforce member living on the planet Hala in the middle of the Kree Empire (yawn), and she begins the movie with bad dreams: a plane crash, Annette Bening nearby, a Skrull approaching with weapon drawn. Fun fact: I still own the issue—one of the few comics I still own—where the Skrulls (“from Outer Space!”) were introduced: Fantastic Four #2. I bought it for $10 at a Minneapolis comic convention circa 1974. I bargained down from $15. And no, it’s not worth much today. It was dog-eared then and it’s so dog-eared now dogs look at it and go “That’s some dog-eared shit.” But it’s fun to own.
Vers’ commander, Yan-Rogg (Jude Law, with arms like oaks), just wants her to train. We see them going at it, martial arts style, exchanging banter (and sexual chemistry?). She’s insouciant, a taunter, while he’s superserious, which makes her taunt him all the more. He has to admonish her over and over not to use her powers. Which is so like the patriarchy.
Initially, Vers doesn’t impress. There’s a Starforce mission—I didn’t get the gist of it—but it turns out to be a Skrull ambush, which everyone figures out except her. She’s captured, hung upside down, her memories, such as they are, sifted through. Then she breaks free, kicks ass, and winds up on Planet C-54 or something. It’s Earth, circa 1994, and this is when the fun begins. She lands in a Blockbuster Video, where she obliterates the Arnold Schwarzenegger half of a “True Lies” display, then picks up a copy of “The Right Stuff.” Which, seriously, everyone should see. Real heroes, kids.
You know what bugged me? The laughs at the expense of the age that brought us to this one. Our hero asks after tech equipment and is pointed toward a Radio Shack. Laughter. The characters are waiting on a download in 1994 time. Laughter. It wasn’t knowing or sympathetic laughter, either, but superior, as if our age were better. Reveled over by people who moved the needle not a whit.
Anyway that’s the set-up: a few shapeshifting Skrulls are on Earth, and Vers chases them as the cops, or S.H.I.E.L.D.—a CGI-youthenized Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson)—chase her. Eventually Fury teams up with her and we get our two big reveals.
She’s not Kree; she’s Carol Danvers, Air Force pilot, who disappeared six years earlier. Seems there was a top secret project led by Dr. Wendy Lawson (Bening) to break the light barrier—just as, in the 1940s, over the Mojave Desert, Chuck Yeager broke the sound barrier, then celebrated at Pancho’s—run by Pancho Barnes, a pioneering female aviator. Oh, and Lawson isn’t human; she’s Kree. BTW: Why bring this technology to us? Because of our long history of peace and good will toward everyone?
The other reveal—shocking to me as a former collector—is that the Skrulls aren’t really the bad guys. They’re refugees searching for a homeland. They’re basically Palestinians. The Kree are the bad guys, led by oak-armed Yan-Rogg, who, in a black-box flashback, is the one who shot down Lawson’s/Danver’s plane and killed Lawson. He also wanted the speed-of-light engine; but Danvers, foiling him, blows it up, and whoops, absorbs its powers.
How powerful is she? More powerful than she knows. It’s similar to the new X-Men trailer we saw before the film, where Prof. X tries to hide Jean Grey’s powers from her, because she’s more powerful than any of them. It’s a theme. It’s Marvel’s #MeToo.
Here, all of it comes to a head at Lawson’s old cloaked space station, where Skrull families, including Talos’ (Ben Mendelsohn, getting to play good), are hiding with the Tesseract/Cosmic Cube. After Yan-Rogg and his team board and capture everyone, Danvers confronts the Kree AI or something (also Bening), then finally realizes her power, or wills herself to that power. She crushes the Kree implant that kept her in check and goes, girl.
Trust me, true believer
A few added thoughts.
Did we need the Kree overlord, or something, Ronan the Accuser (Lee Pace), shooting ballistic missiles at Earth? One, why is he doing it? And two, isn’t it a little 11th-hour? Jude Law should’ve stayed the main villain. Yeah, we get to see Captain Marvel repelling them, which gives us an idea of her true power. Even so.
I also didn’t get much out of her friendship with Maria Rambeau (Lashana Lynch). She actually had more chemistry with Yan-Rogg.
Speaking of: Yan-Rogg’s team seems way too much like the Asgardian warriors in the Thor movies:
- Black leader (Djimon Hounsou/Idris Elba)
- Power chick (Gemma Chan/Jaimie Alexander)
- Red beard (Rune Temte/Ray Stevenson)
These characters add a dash of something but just a dash, and sometimes it’s unwelcome. Chan’s character, for example, reveals herself as the mean office rival to Larson’s temp. Cf., “Isn’t It Romantic.”
Could they have done more with 1994? “Pulp Fiction” with Samuel L. Jackson on a movie marquee somewhere? How about this: The great gap between then and now may not be in download speed—most of the world wasn’t even online then—but in superhero movies. You get a sense of this when, in the well-done train sequence, we get one of Stan “The Man” Lee’s last cameos. He’s playing himself, running lines for his upcoming appearance as himself in Kevin Smith’s “Mallrats.” That’s the type of movie he was in back then. Because you know what superhero movies were out in ’94? “The Shadow” starring Alec Baldwin, and Roger Corman’s “The Fantastic Four”—so infamously awful it was never “out”; it was never released. That’s where the Marvel Comics world was in ’94: So peripheral it barely existed.
Now look. Look on its works, ye mighty, and despair.
Tweet of the Day
Today, Trump retweeted:— Judd Legum (@JuddLegum) March 18, 2019
1. A Pizzagate conspiracy theorist
2. A Qanon conspiracy theorist
3. A conspiracy theorist who believes the New Zealand massacre was a plot to limit gun rights
He's elevating the most unhinged, deranged voices
By tomorrow we'll forget it even happened
Trow on Elvis '56
Re-reading George W.S. Trow. Always worthwhile. In the beginning of “Pilgrim's Progress/Media Studies,” he's ragging on a $3.1 millon study on violence that doesn't take proper context into account. It also ignores what Trow calls “sequence” and what I tend to call “chronology.” He gives a great example of why it matters:
My next note says: “No sense of sequence.” In analyzing violence on television, it was all treated as though it had been ever with us, like sugar use, as if, naturally we‘ve always had sugar in coffee and tea, and how much are we using now, and what does it do to our energy level, and should we cut down on sugar?—like that. No sense of when sugar was invented, no sense of the sequence of it. And the note I made at this point is, “Like analyzing rock-and-roll on TV—a big subject—without looking at Elvis Presley’s appearance on the Dorsey Stage Show in 1956.”
Well, in 1956, in January, Elvis began to appear on television, and his first appearance was on a program called Stage Show with Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey. Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey, who'd been a hit with teenagers twenty years before, were now fifty years old, and the show was corny, and it was corny precisely because we'd been through the experience of the Second World War, which was a very puritanical experience, a military experience, an experience of privation and seriousness. ... The Dorseys presented themselves as something from the hall of fame of popular culture. They had jugglers, they had tap dancers, it was just the standard stuff that adults had grown up on, and Elvis came into that, and anyone who wants to see the moment, and nearly everyone should see the moment, can watch a documentary called Elvis ‘56. Elvis came into it, and you know—I hope you know what Elvis was like when he was twenty-one years old, and he was twenty-one—and he wasn’t dressed like Liberace, he was dressed to kill, and he did kill. He killed Stage Show, and everything it represented, in a moment. This has to do with the quality of unexampled people in life, it has to do with the quality of talent, it has to do with the history of Dionysian energy. Of course, there would have been no point in counting everything that was happening in television in December 1955, because in January of 1956 a human avatar of unparalleled power named Elvis Presley was going to change the whole thing forever, and to leave that kind of truth out of a media discussion is simply to have a discussion—well, worthless is the word that comes to mind.
I‘ve been sick for the past few weeks, and today was sunny, so I walked over to Seattle University and read this in the sun by the fountain where dogs play. Made me want to watch “Elvis ’56” again. Also made me think that Elvis' much-praised comeback special in ‘68 was just a ’68 version of Stage Show with Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey. It was the show for '50s kids who were confused by civil rights, anti-war protesters and hippies.
Anyway pay attention to chronology. I think of this every time the news brings up the U.S.-Chinese trade war without mentioning its obvious Trumpian origins.
Box Office: ‘Captain Marvel’ Keeps Soaring
Last weekend, “Captain Marvel” had the seventh-biggest opening among Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) movies, $152 mil, and this weekend it only fell 54.8% to gross another $69 mil (including my ticket), which brings its 10-day total to $266. Among 10-day grosses, that’s the 19th-best ever.
Where does it stop? One assumes north of $400, putting it in the top rank of MCU movies.
Overall, there have been 21 since “Iron Man” was released in 2008. The lowest grossing is “The Incredible Hulk” with Edward Norton as Bruce Banner: $134. It’s the only MCU movie that never grossed $150.
Let's just do the rundown:
- < $200 million: “Hulk” ($134), “Captain America: The First Avenger” ($176), “Ant-Man” ($180) and “Thor” ($181)
- > $200 million: “Thor: The Dark World ($206), “Ant-Man and the Wasp” ($216), “Dr. Strange” ($232), and “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” ($259)
- > $300: “Iron Man 2,” “Thor: Ragnarok,” “Iron Man,” “Guardians of the Galaxy,” “Spider-Man: Homecoming,” and “Guardians of the Galaxy 2”
- > $400: “Captain America: Civil War,” “Iron Man 3,” and “Avengers: Age of Ultron”
- > $500: n/a
- > $600: “Marvel’s The Avengers” and “Avengers: Infinity War”
- > $700: “Black Panther”
I’ve seen them all. God help me.
My initial guess, for what it’s worth (nothing), is “Captain Marvel” finishes in fifth place in the current MCU: ahead of “Iron Man 3,” behind “Ultron.” We’ll see.
The rest of the weekend was poorly-reviewed movies doing not-great business. The animated movie “Wonder Park” (30% RT) finished in second place with $16 million from 3,838 theaters, while the latest sick-teens-in-love romance, “Five Feet Apart,” grossed $13 mil in 2,803 theaters.
The near-future, sci-fi flick “Captive State,” about aliens taking over, finished seventh, grossing an abysmal $3 million. It actually finished behind the Mexican comedy “No Manches Frida 2,” despite debuting in 2,548 theaters as opposed to “Manches”’ 472.
Has anyone seen “The Mustang” starring Matthias Schoenaerts? Four theaters, $76k. I’m interested. Redemption songs and horses.
Greatest Banksy Ever
OK, maybe a close second to the one at the end of this 2010 review.
Amid Shrugs, Captain Marvel Blasts Box Office
This past weekend, “Captain Marvel,” the latest Marvel Cinematic Universe flick, opened to $153 million domestic and $455 worldwide.
Domestically and unadjusted, that's the 18th-biggest opening ever, and seventh biggest of the MCU—after the three “Avengers” movies, “Black Panther,” “Iron Man 3” and “Captain America: Civil War” (which is really an Avengers movie). Worldwide, that's the sixth-largest debut ever, and second-biggest of the MCU—after “Infinity War,” which is the all-time record-holder at $640 million.
Worldwide, “Captain Marvel” is already the second-biggest movie of the year, trailing only China's sci-fi flick, “The Wandering Earth,” which made almost all of its money in China. Domestically, it's already the biggest movie of the year.
The big question is what kind of legs it will have. I have yet to see the movie, a kind of prequel set in the 1980s/90s, but friends who have mostly shrug when I ask how it is. They say it's OK. It's got an 80% on Rotten Tomatoes but also an audience score of 58%. For the latter number, one wonders how many misogynistic trolls are involved; for the former, how many thumbs ups are accompanied by hapless shrugs.
Me, I'm old enough to remember when Capt. Marvel meant either Shazam! or the blonde-haired astral figure who shared Neutral Zone time with Rick Jones. I also remember the 1977 debut of Ms. Marvel, with her bare legs and midriff and mid-70s coif. I'm pretty sure I bought the issue. I remembering thinking the promise of the cover—“in the senses-stunning tradition of Spider-Man!”—sounded a bit odd. Senses-stunning? Would you want that? How could you even read the comic?
I also don't remember being too impressed with the storyline, or something, but by then I had one foot out the comic-collecting door. Others seemed to feel the same. Ms. Marvel only lasted 23 issues.
That was 40 years ago. One wonders what failed enterprise aimed at kids/teens today will become a billion-dollar blockbuster in 40 years.
Movie Review: Phantom of Chinatown (1940)
“Phantom of Chinatown,” a wholly unremarkable film, is remarkable for casting a Chinese-American actor, Seattle's own Keye Luke, as its Chinese-American detective. At the time, that may have been unprecedented.
Most such roles, of course, went to white actors who put on yellowface: Warner Oland for 16 “Charlie Chan” movies, Sidney Toler for 22 more, and Roland Winters for six more after that. Peter Lorre starred in eight “Mr. Moto” movies in the late 1930s while Boris Karloff played U.S. Treasury detective James Lee Wong for five movies during the same time. Prestige pictures engaged in this practice as well: Paul Muni and Luise Rainier in “The Good Earth,” Katherine Hepburn in “Dragon Seed,” Marlon Brando in “Teahouse of the August Moon,” and up to the present day—if you want to call “Aloha” or “Dr. Strange” prestige pictures.
“Phantom” is another James Lee Wong flick—the last one. Apparently Karloff’s contract was up and apparently someone at “poverty row” Monogram Pictures decided to save on makeup by hiring Luke, who had already appeared as Charlie Chan’s No. 1 son, Lee Chan, in maybe a dozen Charlie Chan movies, as well as originating Kato in the “Green Hornet” movie serial that same year. Since he’s younger than Karloff, and since we see him introduced to Capt. Street, his nominal partner in the other movies, this one is essentially a prequel.
George Washington was disinterred here
Luke isn’t just the lead in the movie but the lead detective in a murder case—despite not being a detective himself and spending most of his screen time with a real detective, Capt. Street (Grant Withers), who, despite the title, is almost comic relief here. He grouses his way through the entire movie and seems to have zero ideas how to solve the crime. I enjoyed him immensely.
The movie opens, inauspiciously, with a lecture. Dr. John Benton, an archeologist, has recently returned from the Gobi Desert in southern Mongolia, where he and his team uncovered the tomb of ... wait for it ... a Ming Dynasty Emperor! What was the tomb of an emperor of the Ming Dynasty, which was based in Beijing and Nanjing, doing in Mongolia? Yeah.
Dr. Benton quickly introduces us to several of our supporting players and future suspects:
- his pretty daughter, Louise Benton (Virginia Carpenter), who winds up mattering not at all
- her fiancee, the handsome pilot, Tommy Dean (Robert Kellard), who ... ditto
- Benton's camerman, Charles Frasier (John Dilson)
- his secretary, Win Len (Lotus Long, alliteratively ready to be Superman’s girlfriend)
In the excavation, Dr. Benton found a scroll in the tomb but hid it in his jacket. Did he also unearth a curse? Fierce winds came up, and one of his party, the co-pilot, Mason (John Holland), went missing and was presumed dead.
At this point in the lecture, to quote a little e.e. cummings, “He spoke. And drank rapidly a glass of water.” Then, extending beyond cummings, he clutched his throat and died.
That’s when Jimmy Wong shows up, along with Capt. Street, forever griping. A day later, Jimmy figures out the water was poisoned, and there may be clues on the film Frasier was showing. Frasier is attacked in his home; Win Len, tied up in the closet, seems to be playing her own game, and the bad guys, rather than making a clean getaway, keep lurking in the shadows.
There’s not much of a phantom—not even the “Scooby Doo” kind. The title character is Mason, who never died, despite the best efforts of the two-timing Frasier, and who’s holed up in Chinatown until he gets his revenge and the scroll. As for the scroll’s secret? Coordinates to “an eternal flame,” which Wong realizes means a giant oil deposit. As for Win Len's secret? She’s working for the Chinese government to make sure the scroll, and the oil, remain China’s. As to which Chinese government she’s working for—Mao’s or Chiang’s—that goes unasked.
But she gets it. In the end, Wong delivers the ancient scroll to Win Len. “This is part of China,” he says. “I think we can trust you to see that it remains so.”
Most of the movie is a big nothing, but one scene is so ahead of its time it makes the movie worth writing about. Halfway through, Wong and Street show up at the Benton house, where they are greeted by the snooty French butler, Jonas (Willy Castello), and a few workers moving a coffin.
Street: What's all this?
Jonas: The sarcophagus from the Chinese tomb, sir, that once contained the body of a Ming emperor.
Wong: They tell me a Chinese archaeological expedition is digging up the body of George Washington in exchange.
Jonas (affronted): Sir?
Wong (offhand): Well, it gives you a rough idea. Is Win Len home?
Luke’s line reading on “rough idea” is perfect. Makes you wonder what might’ve been in a more enlightened movie industry.
China about to get its oil back. Its Ming emperor? Probably not.
Little mentioned but maybe long remembered?
How did Monogram get enlightened enough in 1940 to cast a Chinese-American in a Chinese-American role? Who knows? Maybe if you were a “poverty row” studio, you were allowed a more enlightened racial viewpoint than the majors. What did you have to lose? Cf., Philip Ahn, “Great Guy,” Grand National. Others?
A film noir website does say that the Wong series—based on 20 short stories by Hugh Wiley that appeared in Colliers magazine between 1934 and 1940—ended with this one because of Luke: “Rather depressingly, the substitution of Luke for Karloff persuaded many cinema managers, especially in the South, to ditch the series.” Their source on this? Unmentioned.
The unprecedented casting and breakthrough role goes unmentioned in Keye Luke’s New York Times obit as well. In an interview Luke did with Heidi Chang as part of a Seattle Chinese oral history project just before his death, he's asked about high points in his early career and mentions “Oil for the Lamps of China,” a 1935 Warner Bros. picture starring Pat O’Brien, in which he plays a Chinese communist officer who helps drive Standard Oil out of China. He also mentions playing the patriach in “Flower Drum Song” for three years on Broadway in 1950s. Of “Phantom”? 没有了. Gone like a ghost.
Some leftover images from last year—or 110 years ago.
One of the first movies I watched on FilmStruck when I joined in September (two months before its demise) was a short thing from something like ... 1909? I forget and I can't find it now. Anyone know the title?
Anyway, I believe there was a warning about watching it. Contained offensive material, etc.
The focus is an artist, who writes the word “COON” on a big blank piece of paper:
Then he draws this image around that word.
Next, he writes COHEN.
And as you can imagine:
One hundred years ago, this was considered entertainment. It was a laugh. It was clever. I post it as a history lesson. It's less to condemn the past than to remind us of the debt we owe the people who constantly pushed for empathy and reform so we could reach our present moment. Also to remind us that this present moment isn't secure, and never will be. There are still people who would see the above as clever entertainment. Some of them hold high office.
Recognize anyone in the above shot? The movie is “What Price Hollywood?,” a 1932 forerunner to “A Star is Born,” in which the alcoholic mentor and lover roles are divided. Max Carey is the famous director who plucks diner waitress Mary Evans (Constrance Bennett) from obscurity, and then, as she ascends, he descends into alcoholism. Her lover/husband is someone else: Lonny Borden, polo player, above.
It's a good if slight movie—George Cukor's sixth. Constance Bennett, sister of Joan, is lovely in a way that feels contemporary. She was one of the biggest, highest-paid stars in Hollywood at the time, and went on to make “Topper,” etc., and in this I just thought she was gorgeous and combative and sleek and fun.
The guy with her? Lonny Borden, polo player? That's Neil Hamilton. He was Commissioner Gordon in the 1960s Batman TV series and movie.
When young, you kind of assume that the world you came into is the world as it is, was and will be, and maturity is realizing how wrong this is; and while I feel I‘ve become somewhat mature in my 56 years of living, I was still surprised, when I saw this on FilmStruck last fall, that Neil Hamilton, Commissioner Gordon, had once been young and a leading man. Probably because I watched Batman ’66 as a kid. I saw his face and couldn't imagine a past for him. My father's past, my grandparents' past, I came to know in stories and pictures, but Hamilton's Commissioner Gordon had been put away with childish things.
Had I seen him in nothing else? Actually, I had. As a kid, I saw those early Weismuller Tarzan movies, in which Hamilton plays Harry Holt, but I don't remember making a connection between the young face on the screen and the craggy face at the other end of the Bat Phone.
Not only was Neil Hamilton a romantic leading man, I discovered, he was also Hollywood's first Nick Carraway, to Warner Baxter's Gatsby, Lois Wilson's Daisy, and William Powell's George Wilson, in the 1926 silent version of “The Great Gatsby.” Sadly, no prints exist.
Hamilton was born in September 1899 in Lynn, Massachusetts. Here's his IMDb mini-bio:
Neil Hamilton's show business career began when he secured a job as a shirt model in magazine ads. He became interested in acting and joined several stock companies. He got his first film role in 1918, but received his big break from D.W. Griffith in The White Rose (1923).
After performing in several more Griffith films, Hamilton was signed by Paramount in the late 1920s and soon became one of that studio's most popular leading men. His rugged good looks and sophisticated demeanor kept him steadily employed, and he worked for just about every studio in Hollywood, from glittering MGM to rock-bottom PRC. Hamilton worked steadily over the years, and grew gracefully into mature supporting parts. He is probably best known to modern-day audiences, however, as Police Commissioner Gordon in the TV series Batman (1966).
Knowing this history makes me realize, retroactively, just how good he was as Commissioner Gordon. Before, I assumed that's who he was. It's not, of course, and he nailed it. At 67, it must've been fun to play.
His last acting credit, out of 163, came in 1971: the appropriately titled: “Vanished.” That, and no more. He died in 1984.
Boats against the current.
Free, White and 21, Cont.
In “What Price Hollywood?,” an RKO picture from 1932, directed by George Cukor, Constance Bennett plays waitress Mary Evans who is plucked from obscurity by director Max Carey (Lowell Sherman), becomes a star, and gets married to a rich man, Lonny Borden (Neil Hamilton, Commissioner Gordon of TV's “Batman”). It's ur-“Star is Born” since, as she rises, Carey plunges into alcoholic stupor and death, while her marriage to Lonny can't handle her celebrity and breaks apart. Here's the telegram informing her of this.
It's the second line that caught my eye. I first noticed it back in 2009 when watching “I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang,” and, as I wrote back then, “The Worldwide Web isn't much help with the phrase.” Well, that was then. Now the phrase has a Wiktionary entry and an entire Jezebel compilation video of different actors saying it, or mouthing it in silent pictures, over the years. It was such a well-known phrase that it allowed for variation and puns: Not just slight variations like “free, white and 45” (“Dinner at Eight” (1933)), but “married, sunburned and forty-one” (“Foolish Wives” (1922)). Everyone knew it that well, apparently.
What did it mean? It meant master of your domain. It meant what Henry Fonda says after he says the line to Bette Davis in “That Certain Woman” in 1937: “I'm gonna lead my own life.”
Why did it die out? Check out Harry Belafonte's reaction to it in “The World, The Flesh and the Devil” (2:42) and then his follow-up (3:09), and you‘ll get the idea:
A little while ago you said you were free, white and 21. That didn’t mean anything to you—just an expression you‘ve heard for a thousand times. Well, to me it was an arrow in my gut.
Shame Jezebel didn’t end with that one.
It would be nice to say that the phrase died out because white people became a little more race conscious during and after the civil rights movement, and, sure, that's probably part of it. But more, I think it's the assumption of it, tossed out blithely: “Free,” of course; “21” and thus unentangled. And “white”? Because only white people had the opportunity to be free. And after the civil rights movement, that assumption, blithely tossed out or not, didn't feel so freeing.
Movie Review: The Shanghai Gesture (1941)
I assumed they were trying to do “Casablanca” in Asia: desperate refugees in a lawless, international city, with one eponymous establishment at the center, where the roulette wheel spins constantly and the winner is announced by a French croupier. And this guy looked exactly like the croupier in “Casablanca.” Because, oops, he was: Marcel Dalio, the Jean Renoir staple who fled Nazi-occupied Europe for bit parts in Hollywood.
As with Rick in “Casablanca,” we keep hearing about the owner, Madam Gin Sling, before seeing her. Unlike with Rick, it’s a bit of a disappointment. She’s another white actress (Ona Munson of Portland, Oregon) in Oriental makeup; a bland Dragon Lady. Like Rick, she confronts a past love who abandoned her. Unlike Rick, her feelings are unambiguous and thus uninteresting. She’s just out for revenge. We see her constantly corrupt the innocent rather than, as with Rick, rescuing them against his better judgment. If anything, with her victims, we get whiffs of director Josef von Sternberg’s earlier great film “The Blue Angel”: that paralysis when you’ve sunk so far you can never get out.
She never gets in a good line, either. No “Of all the gin joints...” or “I remember every detail: The Germans wore gray, you wore blue” or “I was misinformed” or “I never plan that far ahead” or “There are certain sections of New York, Major, that I wouldn’t advise you to try to invade,” or ...
Stop me any time.
Two plotlines converged in a Hollywood
Mine isn’t exactly an original thought, by the way. Many see parallels between the films:
- “...like Casablanca on drugs”
- “...like a twisted version of...”
- “...like the evil twin of...”
But my initial assumption was wrong: “The Shanghai Gesture” wasn’t copying “Casablanca” because it predates “Casablanca” by a year—Jan. 1942 vs. Jan. ’43 release—while its successful stage version in 1926 predates the unproduced “Everybody Comes to Rick’s” by a decade and a half.
Which makes me wonder if “Casablanca” was an attempt to remake “Shanghai Gesture.”
Instead of fighting to flee to Lisbon, everyone here is fighting to stay in Shanghai. The first one we see doing this is Dixie, the chorus girl (Idaho’s Phyllis Brooks, laying on a thick Brooklyn accent and attitude), who’s being rousted by cops until Mother Gin Sling’s right-hand man, Dr. Omar (Victor Mature), greases palms. After that, we never see her outside of Madame Gin Sling’s. In a world less controlled by Joseph Breen, her new profession, the oldest, would’ve been obvious, but here it’s fudged. Plus she never seems worse for wear. She never loses her gum-cracking ways.
The main person fighting to stay is Madame Gin Sling herself. Her casino is in the international area where the money is, but a British developer, Sir Guy Charteris (Walter Huston), has purchased a large swath of it so she’s getting the boot to the Chinese side. Determined to stay, she asks her subordinates to find out more about Sir Guy.
That’s one plotline. The other involves a young woman named Poppy (Gene Tierney, stunning), who shows up at Gin Sling’s, becomes enamored of Dr. Omar and the delicious evil she feels in the place, then becomes corrupted. One minute she says she can stop gambling whenever she wants, the next she’s losing everything at the roulette wheel. She descends down into it like it’s the ninth circle of hell. It's filmed that way, too.
The two plotlines converge, sadly. Poppy turns out to be the daughter of Sir Guy. Oh, and Sir Guy is also the former lover of both Dixie and Madame Gin Sling. The Madame says 20 years earlier he abandoned her and stole from her and broke her heart; he made her the hardhearted creature she is today. Except he says he didn’t do these things. The money is still there, he says.
Oh, and Poppy, whom she corrupted, isn’t just his daughter; she’s hers, too.
How does Madame Gin Sling react to this? Does she feel remorse? For herself and the daughter she never knew? Got me. Hollywood keeps her inscrutable. To go with all the “likees” bandied about in the film—mostly by foreigners.
Shanghaied by Breen
So why, given the cast and the director and the “Casablanca”-like storyline, does it all fall flat? It’s not just the crossing plotlines. It’s that nobody feels anything. They’re all dead-eyed. There’s no tragedy here because we don’t see or feel what was lost.
Not even with Poppy. She begins the film a glossy girl enamored of bad things, and she ends it supposedly totally corrupted. Except instead of projecting the horror of it all (see Emil Jannings, “Blue Angel”), she simply seems a brat. It’s kind of absurd. And it gets more so when, in the great confrontation scene, Sir Guy more or less throws up his hands and lets Madame Gin Sling handle Poppy. Which she does for about 30 seconds. Then she shoots Poppy dead. Yes, you read that right. From outside, Sir Guy hears and senses this brutal act. At which point, Madame’s “Coolie” (Mike Mazurki) asks him, “You likee Chinese New Year?” And that’s the end.
Supposedly the Code of Conduct boys demanded more than 20 changes to the script before they’d give their stamp of approval: Originally, according to Wiki:
- the story was set in a brothel
- “Mother Gin-Sling” was named “Mother Goddamn”
- instead of European finishing schools, Poppy was raised in mom’s whorehouse
Which means Gin Sling knew about the daughter, etc. Who knows what the movie might’ve been in less prudish times.
Final thought: The word “Shanghai” was a hugely popular title trope in Hollywood in the 1930s. From a brief IMDb search: The Ship from Shanghai (1930), East of Shanghai (1931), Shanghai Express (1932), Shanghai Madness (1933), Shanghai (1935), Charlie Chan in Shanghai (1935), Daughter of Shanghai (1937), West of Shanghai (1937), Exiled to Shanghai (1937), Shadows Over Shanghai (1938), Incident in Shanghai (1938), and North of Shanghai (1939). Apparently we likeed.
Where the Gods Live
“A novel is like a mountain. Like Mount Rainier. You ever seen Mount Rainier? It’s like you’re looking at God.”
—Walter Mosley, The Paris Review
I used to think something similar. In the 1990s, I'd be biking along 45th street from Wallingford toward the University district, and I'd be stopped at the stoplight just before the freeway, and if it was a clear day you'd have this great view of Mount Rainier in the distance. It loomed big there for some reason. I'd be hanging and looking at it and just mesmerized. And I'd think, ”If I lived here centuries ago, I'd assume that's where the gods lived."
McCabe on Sessions
Was reading this last night in Andrew McCabe's “The Threat: How the FBI Protects America in the Age of Terror and Trump” (recommended) and thought I'd share some of McCabe's observations about former U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions:
- As time went on, I observed many things about Attorney General Sessions that gave me pause. I observed him to have trouble focusing, particularly when topics of conversation strayed from a small number of issues, none of which directly concerned national security.
- Almost invariably, he asked the same question about the suspect: Where's he from? The vast majority of the suspects are U.S. citizens or legal permanent residents. If we would answer his question, Sir, he's a U.S. citizen, he was born here, Sessions would respond, Where are his parents from?
- He was very interested in narcotics trafficking—an important issue for the country, but not usually central to the kinds of national-security issues that are the focus of the President's Daily Brief. Still, to try to get his attention, the briefers started putting updates about narcotics shipments from Colombia in the book. Someone had told Sessions that even if we knew in advance about every drug shipment destined to leave Colombia by boat or ship, the U.S. wouldn't allocate enough vessels to intercept them. This made Sessions apoplectic. ... Why don't we have more boats down there? Why don't we put more boats in the water? Is that all we need—more boats? This is ridiculous! I‘ll go talk to the White House chief of staff. I’ll get us more boats. Sometimes he went on like this for fifteen minutes. He seemed to think that the FBI had some kind of navy at its disposal, and that this navy was off doing other things. We had to tell him, We don't have the boats in Colombia. We are not able to do that. That's not us.
- Sessions spent a lot of time yelling at us about the death penalty, despite the fact that the FBI plays no role of any kind in whether to seek the death penalty—that's a job for Justice. All the people on Sessions's side of the table would look at their laps.
- You never knew when you’d bump into some distorted perception. On one occasion Sessions launched into a diatribe about whom we were hiring at the FBI. Back in the old days, he said, you all only hired Irishmen. They were drunks, but they could be trusted. Not like all those new people with nose rings and tattoos—who knows what they’re doing?
- In time it became impossible to avoid the overwhelming evidence that the attorney general had little use for serious discussions of national security. And an attorney general can't ignore that conversation. Engaging on counterterrorism is not optional.
I'd say we dodged a bullet but ... it's the St. Valentine's Day Massacre out there.
Movie Review: Great Guy (1936)
A few reasons why “Great Guy,” a mostly forgotten James Cagney film, is notable.
Its protagonist, Johnny Cave (Cagney), works for the Bureau of Weights and Measures. Think on that for a moment. What would the modern equivalent be? A hero from, say, the Food Safety and Inspection Service? The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office? And how cool would this be, by the way, to have such cinematic heroes? C’mon, Hollywood: Not everyone has to be a cop.
It’s also one the movies Cagney made during a contract dispute with Warner Bros. Back in 1930, he’d signed a 40-week deal but somehow, after he became a star, the contract kept going into perpetuity—like the reserve clause in Major League Baseball—which meant he was overpaid for a few weeks and underpaid ever after. In the mid-1930s, he split and made two movies for “poverty row” studio Grand National Pictures. This was the first. Neither did well and they helped sink the studio.
It’s also Cagney’s third and final go-round with Mae Clark. Maybe more notable: no grapefruit in the face (“The Public Enemy”) or dragging her across the floor by her hair (“Lady Killer”). Just a few hat jokes.
It’s just not notable as a movie.
Henry, Henry, Harry or James?
Here’s the plot: After Johnny Cave’s boss, Joel Green (Wallis Clark), is put in the hospital by corrupt ward boss Marty Cavanaugh (Robert Gleckler), Cave becomes the acting head of Weights & Measure. He then shows the ropes to his newest agent, and comic-relief Irishman, Pat Haley (James Burke), by catching chiselers adding weight to chickens and strawberries and the like at a local market. He does the same at a gas station. Then Cavanaugh shows up at Cave’s office and tries to make a deal. He tosses some of Cave’s pennies out the window to make a point, so Cave tosses Cavanaugh’s hat out the window to make the opposite point: Buzz off.
Since this is exactly what Green warned him about—Cavanaugh trying to bribe him—Cave should be on his toes. He isn’t. Without a struggle, he’s kidnapped by two of Cavanaugh’s men who then frame him for drunk driving and reckless endangerment. After that, he should definitely be on his toes, but no: He gets suckered again. In a back stairwell, a former wrestler, Joe Burton (Joe Sawyer), knocks him out and steals evidence against Abel Canning (Henry Kolker), who’s not only the head man but the boss of Cave’s fiancée, Janet (Clark). Luckily, Burton tries to chisel the chiselers—demanding an extra $5k rather than destroying the evidence. In the end, Cave and the cops finally get the goods on Canning and Cavanaugh. As for the mayor who tried to bribe Cave earlier with a sinecure? Who knows? All we know is Cave pushes the cops out of Burton’s room so he can beat up Cavanaugh. The End.
Yeah, kind of a mess. Kind of episodic. But there’s a reason.
The movie is based on three short stories by James Edward Grant that appeared in The Saturday Evening Post in 1933 and ’34. Each story is self-contained. Each has its specific villain.
- “Full Measure” (June ’33) is the Cavanaugh story. He tries to threaten/bribe Cave, then kidnaps and frames him for armed robbery. At the police station, Cavanaugh tries to strongarm Cave again; except Joel Green is there to tape-record the bribe. Cave then shoves the cops out of the holding area to beat up Cavanaugh.
- “Johnny Cave Goes Subtle” (March’34) is the Joe Burton one. Cave is now acting head of the dept. (Green is in the hospital from health reasons), and the villain is a coal magnate named Anson B. Revell, who hires Burton to steal Cave’s evidence. After getting beat up in the stairwell, Cave fingers Burton in the police mugshot book. Cave then frames Burton with counterfeit dough, Burton confesses, Cave confesses the money wasn’t counterfeit, then he beats up Burton in the police holding area.
- In “Larceny on the Right” (Sept. ’34), Cave is now head of the dept. First, the mayor offers him a sinecure, then there’s a shakedown from Commissioner Hanlon, who frames Cave in the media. “Public sentiment is a funny thing,” he says. “The same people writing you fan letters will be the first to cheer when you get the bounce. It won’t be necessary to prove you have been tipping the till. The accusation will be enough.” Distraught, Cave runs into his former boxing opponent, and onetime bootlegger, Pete “One-Round” Reilly, who’s having a bon voyage party before leaving for England. (In the movie, he appears at the 11th hour.) Eventually, all is made right. I forget if Cave beats anybody up in the end.
That’s the source material, and unfortunately the screenwriters just kind of mashed everything together. They made Hanlon a police captain and a good guy. And they turned Janet’s boss, Canning, into the main bad guy. But it doesn’t cohere. It’s too many villains pursuing our hero in similar ways.
None of these stories are online, by the way. I read them in old, bound editions of The Saturday Evening Post at the downtown Seattle library. I was trying to see if the dialogue I liked came from the stories. Here’s an example: When Cave’s boss makes him acting director, he asks him to keep his fists in his pockets. At the gas station, though, the chiseling attendant starts a fight, and Johnny decks him. Then he looks at his fists, forlorn.
Pat: Did you break your hand?
Johnny: Nah. A promise.
My favorite: Johnny shows up late for lunch with Janet. Even as he’s getting chastised, his eyes keep drifting toward the top of her head. Finally he says the following:
My best friend gets hit by a streetcar and winds up in the hospital, civil war in Spain and earthquakes in Japan, and now you wear that hat.
The writer of the short stories, James Edward Grant, is an interesting case. Shortly after these stories were published he moved to Hollywood, where he quickly became one of John Wayne’s favorite screenwriters. (Among other films, he wrote Wayne’s paean to HUAC, “Big Jim McLain.”) But the lines I liked aren’t in his stories. So they came from one of these guys:
- Henry McCarty, 32 credits, mostly silents, with “The Lodge in the Wilderness” (1926) his most famous by IMDb’s algorithms. This is his second-to-last picture, but he lived another 20 years.
- Henry Johnson, 34 credits, with “$10 Raise” (1935), his most famous. This is his third-to-last picture. He also lived another 20 years.
- Harry Ruskin, 64 credits, all talkies, with “The Postman Always Rings Twice” (1946) his most famous. “Great Guy,” which gives him an “Additional Dialogue” credit, is one of his earlier pictures.
If I had to make a guess, I’d go Ruskin, who also wrote a book called “Comedy is a Serious Business.” It’s out of print now.
Lost in transcription
Because of Grand National’s bankruptcy, “Great Guy” entered the public domain decades ago, so a lot of versions are simply copies of copies. The one I saw via Amazon Prime was almost blurry—with the shittiest subtitles I’ve ever seen. Early, Green tells Cave: “Keep your fists in your pockets.” This is how it got transcribed:
And when Pat Haley is chatting up a pretty girl with his usual blarney, “Do you know I’m the first son of the first son of the first son for 600 years straight down to—” Cagney finishes the thought: “Haile Selassie.” It’s a small joke, going for the Emperor of Ethiopia rather than anyone Irish; but in the transcription they shortened Haile Selassie’s name a bit. To this:
Cagney still has energy and that great disgusted look he gives crooks. He and Mae Clark still have a spark. But “Great Guy” isn’t notable—despite all the notations I've made above.
More Box Office Ho Hum; the Story is Abroad
“Wandering Earth” is the biggest movie worldwide of 2019.
The second weekend of the third “How to Train Your Dragon” movie, which opened bigger than its predecessors ($55 million vs. $43 and $49), dropped 45% but still won the weekend, grossing another $30 million, to bring its 10-day domestic total to $97.
In second place, the ninth Tyler Perry Madea movie, “A Madea Family Funeral,” had the fourth-best opening of that series at $27. Most Madea movies make a little more than twice what they did opening weekend, so expect the same. The eight previous grossed between $47 and $90.
The other big opener, the camp horror film “Greta,” starring Isabelle Hupert and Chloe Moretz, opened with a pittance: $4.5 in 2400 theaters. Eighth place.
The rest of the top 10 were the other non-performers of spring—“Alita,” “LEGO 2,” “Fighting with My Family,” “Isn't It Romantic,” “What Men Want” and “Happy Death Day 2 U”—along with, in fifth place, recent Academy Award winner “Green Book,” which expanded by 1300+ theaters but whose per-theater average was still low: $1.7k.
More ho-hum, in other words.
The real story this spring has been worldwide rather than domestic box office:
|1||Glass||$109||The Wandering Earth||$665|
|2||The Upside||$102||How to Train Your Dragon 3||$375|
|3||How to Train Your Dragon 3||$97||Alita: Battle Angel||$350|
|4||LEGO Movie 2||$91||Glass||$243|
|5||Alita: Battle Angel||$72|
Why is there only four movies under Worldwide? Because Box Office Mojo only lists four 2019 movies among its top 768 all-time.—or any movie that's done better than $200 worldwide. Only four movies in 2019 have done that.
Which ... isn't exactly true. Or it's only true for movies that have opened in the U.S. Because two other Chinese movies (to go with their big one, “Wandering Earth”) have grossed more than $200 in China alone this year—“Crazy Alien” at $321, and “Pegasus” at $246—but neither has played in the U.S. yet. Not sure why Box Office Moho doesn't list them in worldwide. They‘re part of worldwide, after all. Worldwide shouldn’t mean “As long as they‘ve played in America.” And Box Office Mojo knows their numbers since that’s where I got them. Must be a kind of left hand/right hand thing. They should fix that.
The Chinese numbers, by the way, are so far ahead of U.S. numbers because one of China's busiest moviegoing periods, Chinese New Year, already happened. Even so, the difference is starker because domestic b.o. is down 26% from last year. One wonders if maybe this isn't the year China passes the U.S. as the world's largest movie market.
We‘ll see if “Captain Marvel” can come to the rescue. If it’s even a rescue. Maybe it's just a torch passing.
If I had to choose a Great American Novel, it would be either “Huck Finn” (rural, poor, doing the right thing despite mores and one’s own inclinations) or “Gatsby” (urban, rich, remaking oneself to fit a dream). Both speak the American vernacular. Both are in the first person. Maybe the Great American Novel has to be in the first person because we are.
Pick up “Gatsby” and read that first page. It'll be 100 years old in 2025 and it sounds like today.
What's Your Establishing 1938 Newspaper Headline? 1938 Has Its Answer
More on “Angels with Dirty Faces,” which I rewatched last weekend. This has to do with our two-part intro to the lower east side.
The first time Rocky and Jerry are kids, and director Michael Curtiz and DP Sol Polito's give us a sweeping shot of the neighborhood: beginning with a man reading a newspaper on a fire escape and slowly panning left to take in the women with their laundry and then all of it. It's supposed to give a sense of the world Rocky and Jerry come from.
It's an establishing shot in two ways, place and time, and the time is provided by the newspaper headline. Here's how they let us know it's 1920:
As for the second headline? The movie was filmed in 1938 and released in late 1938, and it's supposed to be contemporary. So they needed a newspaper headline reflecting that. What would you choose? It's gotta be either 1937 or early 1938. Kristalnacht is out—that's late ‘38. Orson Welles’ “War of the Worlds,” too. From a vantage point 80 years later, I would‘ve gone with the Anschluss: Hitler taking over Austria, which was a prelude to WWII, and which happened in March. But maybe that didn’t sit with the summer locale. Or with the Hays office that did its best not to rankle the Germans.
This is what they chose:
You‘re like, “What?” It’s almost a non-event now but apparently it was a big deal then. More interesting is who the unnamed “Flyer” was: Howard Hughes. Did he go unnamed here because he was a rival to Warners? The last movie he produced before this, “Scarface” in 1932 for United Artists, was as close to a 1930s Warner Bros. picture as there was. Did they not want to give him credit?
Anyway, I found all that interesting.
One wonders what future movies will use as establishing shots—particularly as physical newspapers disappear. YouTube videos? iPhones versions? My great fear is we won't care enough. Chronology, he dead, Mr. Kurtz.
At the bottom of its trivia section for each movie, IMDb includes facts with spoilers. They use this warning:
The trivia items below may give away important plot points.
And sometimes very suspect plot points. This was among the trivia items for “Angels with Dirty Faces”:
For years, viewers have wonder whether or not “Rocky” Sullivan (James Cagney) really turned yellow as he was being strapped into the electric chair. Some have wondered if he was faking it in order to keep his promise to Father Jerry. When asked about the scene years later, Cagney says he chose to play it in such a way so that the audience could make their own decisions as to whether or not he was faking.
I shouldn't slam IMDb alone since others, including film scholars, have said the same. But what idiot watches “Angels with Dirty Faces” and thinks Rocky actually beccomes scared at the sight of the electric chair—that he isn't pretending to turn yellow to help Father Jerry, who wants to make sure the Dead End Kids don't idolize him into death and possibly follow his path (into crime and death). The movie is almost pointless if you think he's actually scared; his sacrifice is the point. He's not only giving up the one thing that matters most to him but the only thing he has left: his honor, his street cred, all of it. That's why Father Jerry looks heavenward with tears in his eyes: He knows the sacrifice his long-time friend has made for him and the kids. Forgive him, Lord, for he knows what he does.
Good god, people, it's not close to ambiguous.
“Angels”' trivia page also includes this: “The film takes place in 1923 and 1936.” It's actually 1920 and 1938. I‘ve submitted a correction to IMDb. We’ll see if it takes. (Reader: It did!)
Walking the last mile. The question is “Will he fake it?” not “Is he faking it?”
Camera Day: Leo Cardenas, 1969
The 1960s Cincinnati Reds always seemed to be trading for pitching. Their most infamous deal was Frank Robinson for Milt Papas, but almost as bad, but a deal for which I’m eternally grateful, was one in Dec. 1964: Cesar Tovar to the Minnesota Twins for pitcher Gerry Arrigo. For the next eight seasons, Tovar led off a dominant Twins offense while accumulating a 25.9 WAR and becoming a fan favorite. Arrigo spent five years, off and on, with the Reds, went 24-27 with a 3.86 ERA a 277-206 K/BB rate, and a WAR totaling 2.2.
That’s a 23.7 WAR discrepancy vs. 26.5 for Robby/Papas (32.3/5.8).
The Reds GM who engineered both of these trades, Bill DeWitt, was gone after ’66, and the man who replaced him, Bob Howsam, pulled off some great ones, acquiring Joe Morgan and George Foster in ’71. But the Twins got a steal from him as well. In Nov. 1968, they acquired shortstop Leo Cardenas for pitcher Jim Merritt.
If you look at the numbers, it seems like a wash. In 1970, Merritt won 20 games and finished fourth in Cy Young voting. He won the second game of the 1970 NLCS, giving up 3 hits in 5 1/3 innings enroute to a Reds sweep. He had a tougher go in the World Series. With the Reds on the brink, he started Game 5. Spotted a 3-run lead, he gave up a 2-run homer to Frank Robinson in the bottom of the 1st, then allowed two runners in the bottom of the 2nd. With two outs, he was pulled and relief pitcher Wayne Granger allowed everyone to score, then fell apart in the next inning and that was the season.
Overall, during four seasons with the Reds, Merritt went 39-32 with a 4.26 ERA and one All-Star berth. Cardenas went three seasons with the Twins, also with one All-Star berth (1971), and his splits were shortstop-like: .263/.325/.394.
A wash, right?
Until you look at WAR:
- Merritt, Reds, four seasons: 2.7.
- Cardenas, Twins, three seasons: 11.1
I loved Leo Cardenas. I was 6, this was my first baseball team, and my favorite players—after Killebrew and Oliva—were the Reds castoffs. Tovar because he was scrappy, played everywhere, and taught me how to lead off first base; Cardenas, I don’t know why I loved him. He was good and he had a pleasant face. He seemed like a nice person. Look at his left hand in the above photo. My father always mentioned it whenever we watched slides. As he’s getting his picture taken with fans before an August 1969 Twins game, he’s picking up trash. A mensch.
What I didn’t know? He was so massively superstititious he could’ve served as a model for Pedro Cerano in “Major League.” The quotes below are from Bob Showers’ oral history/picture book “The Twins at the Met”:
Killebrew: Leo was a worried guy. He was afraid that someone was holding his bat and casting a spell on him.
Carew: He was the most superstitious guy I ever played with. He had a little sack filled with all these different herbs. Supposedly, he’d gone to a witch doctor and she prepared a potion for him. He always kept it in his back pocket during a game, and you dared not touch it.
Every day when Leo came into the locker room, he’d clean out his locker; wipe it down and then spray some stuff in there. Then he’d stand with his back to the locker, take three pennies and throw them over his shoulder: Wherever they landed is where they would stay. Then he’d pack his stuff back in the locker the same way it was.
Though Cardenas was voted the Twins Most Valuable Player in ‘71, that offseason he was traded to the California Angels—for a pitcher, of course, Dave LaRoche, who never did much for us. One wonders why we got rid of him. Did we need pitching that badly? Was it the superstitions?
More, why did the Reds back in ’68 trade him to us? They'd signed Dave Concepcion in ’67 but his ’68 minor-league numbers aren’t exactly Big Red Machine-worthy: a .594 OPS in A ball. Anyway, he didn’t make the team until ’70, so in the meantime the Reds used someone else at short. I laughed when I saw the name: Woody Woodward. As general manager of my Seattle Mariners in the 1990s, he engineered some infuriating trades of his own: Omar Vizquel for Felix Fermin; Tino and Nellie for Russ Davis and Sterling Hitchcock; a minor-league David Ortiz for a few weeks of Dave Hollins. About in ‘99, I did a phone interview with Woody for a Seattle magazine and apparently asked such tough questions the Mariners front office called my editor to complain about being “ambushed.” If I’d only known Woody helped, in some small way, to bring one of my favorite players to the ’69 Twins, I might’ve been more lenient. At the least, I would’ve asked about Leo, who is 80 now and living in Cincinnati.
Final thought: This wasn’t just a Manager's dream card, it was my dream card. Three of my favorites:
Initially, though, it confused me. Chico Cardenas? I think I thought it was his brother at first. When informed it was him, that “Chico” was a nickname, I was still confused. Why didn’t we call him that? More, how could he have been with another team? It was like finding out my brother had been with another family before he decided to hang with us.
Something else about the card: It contains three great Latin players of the 1960s and none of them have their correct given names. Bob was obviously Roberto, but for most of his career the press insisted on anglicizing it. Tony was Pedro, but he had to use his brother Tony’s passport to come from Castro's Cuba. Then Chico/Leo. I feel you could write a play or a novel about this one baseball card.