Movie Reviews - 1940s postsTuesday March 25, 2014
Movie Review: Captain America (1944)
Captain America was born fighting the Nazis. Literally.
On the cover of Captain America #1, artist Jack Kirby, not yet “Jolly Jack,” and truthfully never really “Jolly Jack,” drew Cap infiltrating Nazi headquarters. On the wall there’s a “television” showing a man blowing up a U.S. Munitions Works. On a nearby table, we see a map of the U.S.A. along with “sabotage plans” for same. And front and center, there’s Cap, in all of his red-white-and-blue glory, and with bullets zinging off his then-badge-shaped shield, decking Adolf Hitler. It was March 1941. Pearl Harbor was nine months away. Captain America was fighting the Nazis almost a year before America was fighting the Nazis.
The Republic Pictures serial “Captain America” was filmed and released in the midst of World War II (1943 and Feb. 1944, respectively), so you’d think you’d see him decking a few Nazis, if not Hitler himself, but neither is seen in this thing. Captain America isn’t in Europe, he isn’t a soldier, he isn’t even Steve Rogers. He’s Grant Gardner, district attorney (Dick Purcell), fighting the Scarab (Lionel Atwill), a typical movie serial villain. There’s no Bucky, no shield, and no origin, either. The movie begins with Captain America a known figure, but there’s nothing particularly super about him. He’s not stronger than 10 men. He sometimes loses fights with one. He relies on a gun. Basically he’s a dumpy, middle-aged D.A., who, in the midst of a bumbling investigation into multiple murders, takes off his suit to reveal a red-white-and-blue outfit, with which he goes forth to engage in prolonged fistfights with two (always two) henchmen in a barn or a factory or a garage or a cave. If we didn’t know the tropes of superhero movie serials, we would think him insane.
Of fistfights and vibrators
Why watch the 1944 movie serial “Captain America”? For the history of it, I suppose. We get to see how far we’ve come. We get to see what fascinated kids—or what movie executives think fascinated kids—70 years ago.
So what fascinated kids 70 years ago?
A masked superhero? Check. Although feel free to put quote marks around “super.”
Mystical, exotic locations? Check. A group of scientists have recently returned from excavating an ancient Mayan ruins, from which they’ve discovered the usual: plant extracts that allow you to hypnotize people and make them do whatever you want, etc. Plus a lost city.
The magic gizmos of science? Check. Has anyone tabulated these, by the way? The inventions that scientists created in movie serials of the ’30s and ’40s? I think it would be worth a study. (Someone else’s study.) In this 15-chapter serial alone we get the following:
- A thermodynamic vibration engine: it can destroy buildings.
- A portable electronic firebolt: it cuts through safes.
- A robot-controlled truck.
- A radio dictograph: a bug, basically.
- A perpetual life machine: it can bring people back from the dead.
I’ll talk more about the last one, introduced in chapter 11, later. It’s the first one, though, introduced in the first chapter, that had me snickering like Beavis and/or Butthead. Because it led to lines like this:
- “I want to know more about the vibrator!”
- “We’re not the only ones who know the secret of Lyman’s dynamic vibrator!”
- “Mr. Merritt and Mr. Norton are here to witness your demonstration of the vibrator! ... I know the secret of this machine and it’s a heavy responsibility.”
The Scarab is really Dr. Cyrus Maldor, who was a participant in the recent scientific expedition to the ancient Mayan ruins. Now, behind the bland facade of the Drummond Museum of Arts and Sciences, with its suspicious-looking shoeshine boy out front, he’s killing off all the other members of the expedition. Why? We don’t find out until Chapter 13. It has to do with two halves of a map to the fabled Lost City of Zada, where riches beyond anyone’s imagination can be found.
So ... money. Always money.
The problem with the radio dictograph
Look, I know the deal. I know these serials were made quickly, with little budget, a long time ago, and designed to keep viewers coming back next week. I guess I just want them to sense within their own framework.
Maldor? The Scarab? He can hypnotize people. So if the end game is the other part of the map, why not hypnotize people into revealing who has it? Why not hypnotize them into finding out where it is. They can do your work for you. Instead, he has them commit suicide. Then he goes after Prof. Lyman’s vibrator. Why? I’m not sure. The next chapter it’s the firebolt. So he can crack safes. What does that have to do with the Lost City of Zada? And why doesn’t he just hypnotize guards or bank managers to get into the safes? Seriously, the man needs to focus. But focus has never been big in movie serials.
My favorite nonsense bit is from Chapter 14 when the Scarab finally captures G.F. Hillman (John Hamilton, Perry White from the “Adventures of Superman” TV series), the man who has the other half of the map. Hillman is taken to a secluded farm, where Maldor reveals himself to be the Scarab. Then he says the movie-villain line: “You are very headstrong. But there are ways of making you talk.”
Ah, back to the hypnosis, I suppose.
Nope. “Tie him to that chandelier!” he says. Then he whips him.
Did he forget he could hypnotize people into telling the truth? Is he a sadist? Did he just need the exercise?
Neither of our principals is exactly Einstein. By Chapter Six, Maldor suspects Gardner is Captain America. That’s why they bug his place. But when Gardner returns home, his assistant, Gail Richards (Lorna Gray), reaches him on the phone and mentions in passing that his line has been busy. This clues Gardner in. Someone has been in his apartment! And he finds the radio dictograph. Now he has the upper hand! He knows, but they don’t know he knows. So what does he do?
At this point, the Scarab is blackmailing an oilman, J.C. Henley (Tom Chatterton), for a million dollars. So Gardner tells Henley, within range of the bug, that they’re including a “radioactive cell” in the briefcase full of money. “By means of triangulation,” he says, “we can locate the case wherever it is taken.” But it’s a lie. They’re not bugging it at all. The oilman is confused. So are we. How does this help? They’re letting the bad guys know they can locate them when they really can’t. Gotcha! Or ... would .... if we knew where you were. Really, the whole thing is just an excuse to leave the briefcase in the hills atop Los Angeles, so there can be a fight in a nearby cave, during which Captain America will fall down a mineshaft and ...
And we start over again.
The radio dictograph? Forgotten in the next episode. The briefcase full of money? Taken. But Gardner does plant a story in the press about how the bills were all marked, so they’re useless to the Scarab. Ha ha. Except all this does is refocus the Scarab’s anger on Henley. “I was a fool to take your advice” Henley says to our hero. Totally. Plus you’re out a million bucks. That money ain’t coming back.
At least Henley lives. More than you can say for others under Gardner’s protection. Prof. Lyman (Frank Reicher), he of the dynamic vibrator, dies in Chapter 1. The inventor of the electronic firebolt, Prof. Dodge (Hugh Sothern), lasts a few chapters before getting it in Chapter 5. Then Lyman’s brother, Dr. Clinton Lyman (Robert Frazer), comes onto the scene with the greatest invention of all: He can reanimate the dead! Wow. This may be the greatest invention of all time. And what does he get for his trouble? Dead. Somehow this ineptitude is spun into heroic deeds for Gardner and Captain America. At one point, the Scarab, still intent on revenge on Henley, sends two men to blow up his Gas Works plant. Captain America battles them but can’t turn off the pressure gauges. Kablooey! The report on the radio the next morning? Only one of the buildings blew up “... thanks to the timely arrival of Captain America!” Some press agent he’s got.
The greatest insult may be how often Captain America gets a bead on the two henchmen in the remote location but for nothing. It works this way. They’re planning something nefarious. He shows up with gun drawn. One of them throws something at him and knocks the gun loose. Then there’s a fistfight. Then he is imperiled and ...
See you next week.
The final death
Interestingly, for all its faults, the serial has been praised by fans of the genre. They say it’s Lionel Atwill’s best work—and he’s not bad in it. They say the fight scenes are among the best—and they’re athletic and well-choreographed. But it’s still a dance whose outcome we know. It’s still painful to watch.
This doesn’t help: Did the strain of making the serial contribute to actor Dick Purcell’s death by heart attack at the age of 36, just a few months after filming? He’s often called the first actor to play Captain America; but he’s also the first actor who died suddenly after playing a superhero. We call it the Superman curse but maybe it should be the superhero curse.
Captain America was only the fourth comic-book-based, live-action superhero to show up on our movie screens—after Captain Marvel (1941), Batman (1943), and The Phantom (1943)—but he wouldn’t return for another 35 years, and even then it was on the small screen in an abysmal 1979 TV movie starring Reb Brown. Eleven years later they tried again, with Matt Salinger, and with worse results. (Jack Kirby fought to get his name on the movie; after its premiere, he wanted to get his name off the movie.) Meanwhile, Superman and Batman movies are being made again and again. Then X-Men movies and Spider-Man movies and the Fantastic Four and even freakin’ Ghost Rider starring Nic Cage. But Cap? Bupkis.
It wasn’t until 2011, 67 years after this one, that Cap finally became the subject of a theatrical movie that got released in the U.S., “Captain America: The First Avenger,” starring Chris Evans. They got it right, too. They had him fighting Nazis.
Captain America was born fighting the Nazis. The first issue came out in March 1941, nine months before the U.S. entered the war, a time when Hollywood was still timid about making anti-Nazi movies. But Joe Simon and Jack Kirby, in a nascent industry with fewer rules, had no problem at all drawing Cap decking Hitler on their first cover.
Yet this is Cap when he finally turns up in the movies. Where are his wings? His shield? Bucky? None of them made the transfer to the silver screen.
He isn't even Steve Rogers. He's Grant Gardner, district attorney. And he doesn't even fight the Nazis.
He fights this guy.
With a gun.
He does have this hot number as an assistant. She seems to know Grant is Cap. She also sends the final clue that will make the D.A. (or C.A.) realize who the villain is. She saves the day.
But for most of the serial, she's reduced to this.
Or she's being hypnotized into doing whatever the Scarab wants. (Pity every boy in America watching this in 1944, with better imaginations.)
Then back to this.
There is some cool stuff in the 15 chapters: Cap riding a motorcyle ...
... a few shots that impress.
And it's kinda cool when he changes into Cap ...
Some of the time.
But it is what it is. The title cards, which are supposed to get us up-to-date at the beginning of each episode, also demonstrate Cap's complete incompetence throughout the serial.
Captain America tries ...
... and he tries ...
But he keeps failing.
It's like it's all a bad dream.
Movie Review: Superman (1948)
The 1948 movie serial, “Superman,” the first live-action cinematic recreation of the Man of Steel, becomes, in the latter stages of its 15 chapters, a battle between two groups intent on avoiding the cops. The first group is led by the villainous Spider Lady (Carol Forman), queen of the underworld, who circumnavigates the law for obvious reasons. The second group is led by Perry White (Pierre Watkin), editor of The Daily Planet, who, along with his reporters, Lois Lane (Noel Neill), Jimmy Olsen (Tommy Bond) and Clark Kent (Kirk Alyn), just wants a scoop.
In Chapter 11, for example, “Superman’s Dilemma,” the Spider Lady needs “mono chromite” to complete her work on “the reducer ray,” so she sends several tough guys over to Frederick Larkin, chemical engineer. Larkin tells them it’ll take awhile to get the stuff ready. Then he goes to his card files and reads the following under “mono chromite”:
DEVELOPED BY DR. ARNOLD GRAHAM
IF ASKED FOR WITHOUT CREDENTIALS,
NOTIFY PROPER AUTHORITIES
So he calls the cops. Actually, no. He calls Perry White. And he calls the cops. Actually, no. He sends Clark Kent over to get the story. Except Lois tricks Clark into being arrested so she can get the scoop. But that doesn’t happen, either. Instead, Lois nearly suffocates in a safe, Jimmy Olsen is nearly shot to death in a crate, and, in the end, Perry White, the man who never called the cops, chastises them all for not getting the scoop. Meanwhile, the fate of the world hangs in the balance.
Do the police get any respect here? In Chapter 13, Superman captures one of the Spider Lady’s goons, Anton (Jack Ingram), and flies him to the police station. Actually, no. He flies him to The Daily Planet and delivers him to Perry White. In Chapter 14, the Spider Lady sends her minion, Dr. Hackett, into the Metropolis streets to be arrested so he can communicate with Anton in prison. Who captures him? Lois. Who convinces the cops to put Hackett in Anton’s cell? Lois. It isn’t until the final chapter, “The Payoff,” that the Spider Lady finally, finally, contacts the police via shortwave radio. What does she say? “I want you to send a message to Perry White.”
They do her bidding. Apparently they know who the proper authorities are, too.
I know, I know. A cheap shot for a cheap, 65-year-old Columbia serial.
Except “Superman” wasn’t cheap. According to Glen Weldon in his book, “Superman: The Unauthorized Biography,” it was the most expensive serial ever made, with a budget of $350,000. It just looks cheap, even for the time. Six years earlier, in the 12-chapter serial “Adventures of Captain Marvel,” Republic Pictures did a pretty good job of making Tom Tyler, the star, appear to be flying (with a mannequin, a stuntman, etc.), but Columbia couldn’t be bothered. So they rely on animation. Superman takes a step, a feint into the air, and turns into a cartoon. Think of it as early CGI.
The first chapter, “Superman Comes to Earth,” is probably the most interesting. For the first time we get to see Krypton, which, in outdoor shots, looks like the parts of southern California where they shot the Gorn episode of “Star Trek,” and whose cityscape could be a 1920s “Amazing Stories” magazine cover. As always, the Kryptonian Science Council is full of assholes, who, in their resistance to scientific reasoning, resemble nothing so much as the modern GOP; but Jor-El (Nelson Leigh), a caped scientist, hardly helps his cause when he’s asked to provide facts. “We must be guided by my knowledge,” he responds, finger in the air, “which this august body has always respected.” Dude, a pie chart might’ve helped.
Who names Clark Superman? Pa Kent (Ed Cassidy). “Your unique abilities make you … a kind of super man,” he says.Who designs his costume? Ma Kent (Virginia Carroll). “Here’s a uniform I made for you out of the blankets you were wrapped in when we found you,” she says. How does Kal-El learn about Krypton? From a Prof. Leeds, who shows him “a fragment from the planet Krypton, which exploded many years ago.” How does Leeds know about Krypton? How does he know it was called Krypton? Silence. When the fragment causes Clark to faint, Leeds immediately makes the connection between Clark and Superman. Actually, no. But Clark tells him anyway:
For years I suspected that I came to Earth from the planet Krypton. And now this meteorite seems to prove that. It takes away all my powers that make me superior to Earth men.
In truth, this is why you watch 65-year-old serials like “Superman.” For the historic record. To see how we interpreted the Man of Steel back then. To see what we valued.
The modern Superman would never call himself superior to anyone, let alone “Earth men,” but this Superman, only 10 years removed from Action Comics #1, was still a bit of a roughneck, and he still acquires his powers, not from the yellow sun, but from a civilization so far advanced it “boasted a race of super men and women.”
In this way the serial is an odd mix of pre- and post-WWII attitudes. A genetically superior race? Sounds like Nazi-era eugenics. At the same time, the lessons of the gas chambers are apparent in the peptalk Pa Kent gives young Clark about what he must do with his great powers. He must use them, he says, to fight for “truth, tolerance, and justice.”
Interestingly, all of the above attitudes, both pre- and post-WWII, would soon be gone from the Superman mythos. Yellow-sun mythology replaced genetic superiority, while “tolerance” never again turned up as something Superman fought for. It was replaced, famously, or infamously, by “the American way,” for the TV series, “The Adventures of Superman,” which debuted in 1952: the coldest part of the Cold War. We were a less-tolerant society by then. Tolerance had a small window.
The mysterious reducer ray
The plot is typical of the serial genre. The Spider Lady, who never once leaves her mountainside lair with its electrified spider-web in the background, wants the mysterious reducer ray, “a force more powerful even than the atomic bomb.” Basically it’s a big ray gun. You feed it coordinates and it can destroy a target thousands of miles away. Why does the Spider Lady want it? Probably to rule the world. How is she going to get past Superman to get it? She has a chunk of kryptonite. Why is it called the reducer ray when it doesn’t reduce anything? Uh…
First she tries to steal it. No go. Then she employs Dr. Hackett, “a brilliant scientist with a warped mind,” who invents a kind of kryptonite gun. That doesn’t work, either. Then she kidnaps Dr. Graham, the original inventor of the reducer ray, and forces him to create a second reducer ray. He refuses. After he’s tortured, he complies. But he needs mono chromite. It takes a few chapters to get that. At which point he refuses again. So he’s hypnotized into complying. But now he needs an “activator tube” from Metropolis U. That takes a while. By Chapter 14, the reducer ray finally works. The Spider Lady’s first target? Her own men in jail. Her second target? The Daily Planet building. At 3:00. By then, though, everyone converges on her lair: Jimmy, Lois and eventually Superman, weakened by kryptonite. But not! Up he pops with a big smile.
Spider Lady: Superman, you didn’t succumb to the kryptonite!
Superman: I expected you to have it handy so I’m wearing a protective lining of lead under my uniform. What you thought was my weakness turned out to be your undoing! Spider Lady, you’re finished!
And she is. When she tries to run away, she’s electrocuted by her own spiderweb. Crime don’t pay, kids.
As for Clark? Why, he’s asleep at the Daily Planet.
Clark: Oh, I was just having a wonderful dream.
Lois: You weren’t dreaming by any chance that you were Superman?
Clark: That’s exactly right, Lois. And I was flying through the air.
Lois: That wasn’t a dream, Kent. As far as I’m concerned, that’s a nightmare.
And everyone laughs. The end.
In truth, this is why you watch 65-year-old serials like “Superman.” To see what passed for entertainment back then.
Superman, Lois and Jimmy watching the Spider Lady fry.
I have to admit, I liked, well enough, Alyn’s performance. He’s got a dancer’s lightness to him and a perpetual gee-whiz expression on his face, as if he too is amazed by the things he can do. He also has an early version of the spitcurl. Yes, at times, particularly employing his x-ray vision, he looks slightly crazed. Plus he’s undone, certainly to modern eyes, by the lack of special effects. His big stunt is taking two crooks and bonking their heads together. He can never win a fight as Clark Kent, either, and it hardly seems a matter of protecting his secret identity. No, he just can’t fight. He gets knocked down and has to shake the cobwebs from his head. It’s as if he’s not super until he removes his suit and tie.
Another positive: In the 1940s Batman serials, the cliffhangers tend to involve the heroes caught in some predicament, which means they have to get in some predicament, which means, in almost every episode, they have to lose a fight. Some dynamic duo. In “Superman,” most of the cliffhangers involve Superman’s friends: Lois, Jimmy, Perry. Each cliffhanger is less about Superman than a job for Superman. Alyn says the line throughout the serial, too, following the Bud Collyer model from the radio show by deepening his voice on the final words: “This looks like a job … FOR SUPERMAN!” It’s a conceit that continued into the 1960s.
Lois? Forever involved in machinations to prevent Clark from scooping her, even though these machinations invariably imperil herself, Jimmy, Clark, and, since we’re talking the reducer ray, the entire planet. This is not a good Lois. She’s pouty and unclever and sexless. She’s like a Shirley Temple character who grew into her late 20s less cute than she used to be, less clever than she used to be, more annoying than she used to be. And could you give us a smile? Apparently this was obvious even back then. Two years later, for the 1950 sequel, “Atom Man vs. Superman,” Neill’s Lois smiles so much she seems like a Miss America contestant.
Jimmy? Unfunny comic relief. The Jughead of the crew. Perry? Never leaves his office. He’s like the Spider Lady in this regard. The entire serial could be seen as a battle between these two stationary entities who send their forces into the world to do battle.
That world is Metropolis but it seems more small town than big city. The local jail is like Andy Griffith’s, and they’re never too far away from a mine or a cave. When we finally see a map of Metropolis, hanging in the Daily Planet office, it’s an upside-down dog. That’s a clue, by the way.
Superman (Kirk Alyn) using his x-ray vision
So whatever happened to…?
The Spider Lady, meanwhile, has no spiders, wears a long black dress, and for a time, and for no discernible reason, a mask. What’s the source of her power? Who knows? She’s not strong, she’s not smart, she doesn’t use sex as a weapon. Her henchmen are lugs from central casting.
Basically she’s a ripoff of another Forman villainess, Sombra, the Black Widow, from the 1947 Republic serial “The Black Widow.” Was she typecast? A year after “Superman,” Forman played Nila, an Abistahnian criminal going up against Inspector David Worth (Alyn again), in “Federal Agents vs. Underworld, Inc.” Two years after that, in the Columbia serial “Blackhawk,” she played Laska, leader of an underground gang, who is foiled by … wait for it … Kirk Alyn. If TV hadn’t killed serials, these two might have kept going in perpetuity.
As it was, Forman was basically done by ’52, Alyn didn’t last much longer, and Tommy Bond moved over into the prop department for TV shows like “Laugh-In” and “Sonny and Cher.” Neill, meanwhile, who played the third-year girl who gripes Gene Kelly’s liver in “An American in Paris,” essentially made a career out of the Superman franchise. She played Lois for most of TV’s “The Adventures of Superman,” had a bit part as Lois’ mom, Ella, in the extended cut of “Superman: The Movie” (1978), shows up in “The Adventures of Superboy,” and even played Gertrude Vanderworth, the wealthy widow bilked of her money by Kevin Spacey’s Lex Luthor in “Superman Returns” (2006).
Might as well. Movie serials may have been dying but superhero films were just beginning to fly.
The opening credits. Serials were about to die; superhero movies were not.
Charters and Caldicott and the “Night Train to Munich” (1940)
The other night Patricia and I were watching a not-bad film from 1940: Carol Reed's “Night Train to Munich,” starring Margaret Lockwood and Rex Harrison. Not sure why I rented it. Probably Carol Reed.
After the German takeover of Czechoslovakia, the Allies manage to secret out of the country an inventor of a better kind of armour plating, Axel Bomasch (James Harcourt), but his daughter, Anna (Margaret Lockwood), still veddy veddy British, is captured and placed in a concentration camp. There she encounters a dashing freedom fighter, Karl Marsen, played by Paul Henried, who, two years later, would play the most dashing freedom fighter of them all, Victor Laszlo in “Casablanca.” Even so: knowing it was still early in the film, knowing Lockwood's true co-star was Rex Harrison, and seeing that Henried was billed as Paul von Hernried, I thought, “He's a plant. He's a spy. To get to her father.” As he was. As they did: secreting him and daughter back out of Britain and to Germany just before Sept. 1, 1939.
Ah, but intrepid agent, Gus Bennett (Harrison), seen to this point mostly as a boardwalk barker, decides to go to Berlin undercover, as Major Herzoff, monocle and all, to get father and daughter back.
I should add that I'd never seen a youthful Rex Harrison before and was fairly blown away. The movie felt run-of-the-mill until he came onscreen and then: zap! That Henry Higgins persona is already there: distant, faintly amused by it all, protected with a kind of armour plating of his own that still allows his charm-for-charm's-sake to seep through. He has a kind of flirtatiousness with women but it's wrapped in a challenge that's intellectual and dismissive rather than sexual and complimentary. “Do you have any brains at all?” he seems to be saying. “Let's see, shall we?”
At one point Lockwood and Harrison are having a great back-and-forth in her swanky bedroom in Germany, going over the escape plan. It's not much of an escape plan. He'll say he persuaded her to persuade her father to stay and work for the Germans, and while the high command is congratulating themselves they'll all make their escape via airplane in a nearby field.
Anna: But why should the admirality believe you persuaded me?
Gus: I shall indicate that once again you have succumbed to my charms.
Anna (aghast): Once again?
Gus: (pleased with himself) It happened in Prague, I'm afraid.
Anna: And you told them a fantastic story like that?
Gus: Fantastic? It was four years ago, there was a harvest moon, I was younger and more dashing then...
“It happened in Prague, I'm afraid.”
“Night Train to Munich” is amazingly light for a film about Nazis produced as bombs were raining down on London. Stiff upper lip and all that. They make jokes about Nazi propaganda:
“Any day now,” a Nazi officer says at one point, “Poland may provoke us into invading her in self-defense!”
There's an extended piece with two Germans that, between “Heil Hitlers,” is simply wordplay:
Kampenfeldt: It's been reported to me that you've been heard expressing sentiments hostile to the fatherland!
Schwab: What — me, sir?
Kampenfeldt: I warn you, Schwab, this treasonable conduct will lead you to a concentration camp.
Schwab: But, sir, what did I say?
Kampenfeldt: You were distinctly heard to remark, [sarcastic] “This is a fine country to live in.”
Schwab: Oh no, sir. There's some mistake. What I said was, [upbeat] “This is a fine country to live in!”
Kampenfeldt: You sure?
Schwab: Yes, sir.
Kampenfeldt: I see. Well in future don't make remarks that can be taken two ways.
Both Kampenfeldt and Schwab are even less German than Rex Harrison That's part of the fun of watching cinema from other countries. Everyone does it as badly, as myopically, as Hollywood.
Following the titular train to Munich, we see, at a German train station, a man asking for a copy of “Punch,” the British humor magazine. Me to Patricia: “OK. They're not trying to pass that guy off as German, are they?” They're not. The man is British. He's frightfully put off, for example, that the Germans don't carry this week's “Punch,” and both he and his companion seem completely oblivious to the danger they're in as British nationals in Nazi Germany after Sept. 1st. Which is about when the other shoe dropped.
“Wait a minute,” I said to Patricia. “Aren't these guys the same guys from 'The Lady Vanishes'?” A second later: “I think they're playing the same characters.”
Charters and Caldicott: Terribly put out in the midst of this how-do-you do.
I'm probably the last movie critic in America to know this story. Charters and Caldicott are two obtuse, cricket-obsessed British characters, played by Basil Radford (Charters) and Naunton Wayne (Caldicott), who made their first appearance in Hitchcock's “The Lady Vanishes. They proved so popular with British crowds that screenwriter Sidney Gilliat, who had written a good half-dozen screenplays since ”The Lady Vanishes“ in '38, resurrected them for ”Night Train to Munich“ in 1940, then for ”Millions Like Us,“ about a British factory girl, in '43. They were given the lead in ”Crook's Tour“ in '41, but Gilliat wasn't involved in that project.
Apparently the actors had a falling out with Gilliant in '45 when he refused to expand their roles for ”I See a Dark Stranger“ and they walked, both away from Gilliat and the names, but not from each other. In subsequent films they played similarly self-regarding characters with different names: Prendergast and Fotheringham in ”A Girl in a Million“ (1946), Gregg and Straker in ”Passport to Pimlico“ (1949) and Bright and Early in ”It's Not Cricket.“ Radford died in 1952, Wayne in 1970, but the characters returned in a 1979 remake of ”The Lady Vanishes,“ and then on the BBC for a eponymous 1980s television series.
How well known are they? I mentioned all this to a friend at a party recently, American but an Anglophile, and when I had trouble coming up with the names he provided them. Is there an American equivalent? Abbot and Costello maybe? But they were stars, known by their own names. Statler and Waldorf maybe? Muppets. Could you do American versions of these characters? They'd probably have to be baseball fans. Football fans seem too Paul Fistinyourface to allow for C&C's dry humor:
Charters: Bought a copy of ”Mein Kampf.“ Appears to me it might shed a spot of light on all this how-do-you-do. Ever read it?
Caldicott (sucking on a pipe): Never had the time.
Charters: I understand they give a copy to all the bridal couples over here.
Caldicott: Why, I don't think it's that sort of book, old man.
Not that sort of book, old man.
In ”Night Train,“ Caldicott recognizes Major Herzoff as Dickie Randall (Gus's real name), who used to play for the Gentlemen, a cricket club, and his questions rouse the suspicions of Karl Marsen, who's already jealous of Herzoff's apparent hold on Anna. Eventually, through the fog of their British obtusness, Charters and Caldicott realize they've put old Dickie in a bit of a spot and come vaguely to his rescue. There's a car chase, then a tramway adventure high in the Alps, but everyone makes it safely to Switzerland, where Dickie falls into Anna's arms, and, one imagines, Bomasch's armour plating helps win the how-do-you-do and Charters and Caldicott finally, finally get their copy of ”Punch."
Review: “Notorious” (1946)
WARNING: KEY SPOILERS
Alfred Hitchcock’s “Notorious” is the greatest love story ever filmed between a cold bastard and a drunken whore.
That’s a joke and it isn’t. There’s the story we watch and there’s the way Hitchcock undercuts the story we watch. He smuggles all sorts of shit in. He gets America, this puritanical country, to care about these less-than-pure people.
The Hays code helped. In the first five minutes we learn that Alicia Huberman (Ingrid Bergman), whose father was recently convicted as a Nazi spy, drinks too much and sleeps around, but we only see her drunk once, and we never see her sleeping around—just flirting with Cary Grant, who, let’s face it, is Cary Grant, the Man from Dream City, etc., so who can blame her. The Hays code, by keeping Alicia’s more notorious activities discreet, keeps her sympathetic. When others bring up her past, it almost seems unfair, as if they were tarnishing her with rumors rather than agreed-upon facts.
As for the cold bastard? We first see Devlin (Grant) as the back of a head and wonder, “Why is Hitchcock filming the back of his head when the front of his head has Cary Grant’s face attached to it?” Answer: This is a man who reveals little. He’s a secret agent, CIA, OSS, or whatever the agency was between World War II and the passage of the National Security Act of 1947. He doesn’t talk much but every third word is sneered. It takes a lot to drain the charm out of Cary Grant but Hitchcock does it masterfully.
The greatest romance of all time!
The linchpin of the film is also masterfully, intricately created. Devlin recruits Alicia, this wanton, daughter-of-a-Nazi-spy, for an assignment in Rio de Janeiro, but before they get the assignment they fall in love. He loosens up and she looks like Ingrid Bergman again. It begins to feel like a traditional Hollywood romance. There’s even a famous two-and-a-half minute kissing scene that, by skirting the Hays’ code’s admonition of kisses longer than three seconds, relies on multiple, nibbling pecks, making it even sexier than if they’d been allowed to slobber all over each other.
Then the assignment arrives. She’s to infiltrate a gang of Nazis by throwing her charms at one of the leaders, Alexander Sebastian (Claude Rains), who once had a crush on her. And by “throwing her charms at,” I mean “sleeping with.” Or “fucking.” All of which is discreetly implied with words like “playmates.” Hays Code to the rescue again.
So Devlin is torn. He’s a professional man but also a man in love. The man in love wants her to say “no” but the professional man knows the job is the job. Which side wins? The side that says nothing. He gets even more tight-lipped. Just when she wants him to talk.
She’s a woman in love but an amateur in this profession, so she goes along with the scheme, one can argue, for Devlin. He wants her to say “no,” but she says “yes” for him. Talk about cross purposes.
That’s how Hitchcock undercuts the traditional Hollywood romance. But “Notorious” is also a thriller, a post-WWII thriller about American agents battling South American Nazis, and the way he undercuts the film’s ostensible patriotism is even more brilliant.
Three scenes stand out.
In the first scene, early in the movie, Devlin recruits Alicia, not by appealing to her patriotism, but by revealing how patriotic she already is. Three months earlier, her father tried to recruit her to the German cause and she’d responded with a speech, straight out of a war-bonds fundraiser, about how much she loves America. Most of us reveal our best face to the world while doing what we do in private. She, apparently, is the opposite.
And how does Devlin remind her how patriotic she is? By playing a recording of that conversation with her father. The very government she’s defending on that recording, in other words, is in fact recording her. It’s spying on her. By showing her that she’s patriotic, he’s also showing her why she shouldn’t be patriotic.
Her secret shame: patriotism.
All of which goes unsaid. The second scene, halfway through the movie, is more overt.
By this point Alicia has infiltrated Sebastian’s sanctum at great risk and personal loss—she loses Devlin—but here she’s about to turn up at agency headquarters, and the man in charge, Capt. Paul Prescott (Louis Calhern), worries. Another one of the higher-ups, Walter Beardsley (Moroni Olsen) adds, “She's had me worried for some time. A woman of that sort.”
During this conversation, Devlin had been showing us the back of his head to the room, but Beardsley’s remark literally turns him around. It forces him to reveal his true face:
Devlin: What sort is that, Mr. Beardsley?
Beardsley: Oh, I don't think any of us have any illusions about her character, have we, Devlin?
Devlin: Not at all. Not in the slightest. Miss Huberman is first, last, and always not a lady. She may be risking her life, but when it comes to being a lady, she doesn't hold a candle to your wife, sir, sitting in Washington, playing bridge with three other ladies of great honor and virtue.
Hitchcock, of course, grew up in working-class London and maintained working-class suspicions of the oligarchy. There are people who work and people who don’t. There are soldiers and those who order soldiers into battle. Alicia, at this point, is a soldier. These old men and their wives who look down upon the Alicias of the world? Not. They call into question her character but Hitchcock, through Devlin, calls into question their character, and all they can do in response is be affronted:
Beardsley: I think those remarks about my wife are uncalled for.
Devlin (unapologetic): Withdrawn. Apologized, sir.
The men who do little.
The man who reveals little.
His true face. “Withdrawn. Apologized, sir.”
The third scene, near the end of the film, may be the strongest of the lot.
By this point, Alicia has actually married Sebastian and is living in his mansion with his domineering mother, whom he calls “Mother,” prefiguring Norman Bates by 15 years. At a party to introduce Alicia to Rio society, Alicia and Devlin discover the Nazis secret: ore, most likely uranium ore, hidden in wine bottles in Sebastian’s basement. It’s Hitchcock’s McGuffin, but unlike most McGuffins it’s not harmless. It actually anticipates (in the writing and filming) the A-bomb, which will transform the world.
To discover this, Alicia has to steal the wine-cellar key, a Unica key, from hubby’s keyring. Unfortunately, he notices it’s gone, then notices it’s back, and in the wine cellar he finds jig-is-up evidence of Devlin’s clumsy snooping. “I’m married to an American agent,” he tells Mother. But what to do? Killing an American agent can’t make up for having married her in the first place; that won’t sit well with the other Nazis, who, remember, killed poor Emil Hupka (Eberhard Krumschmidt—his only role in movies!) simply for having a lousy poker face.
So Mother concocts a scheme to slowly poison Alicia. It will seem, to the other Nazis and the rest of the world, as if she had an illness and expired. Alicia figures it out, but too late, when she’s too weak to do anything about it, and she’s led, as if in a nightmare, up to her bedroom, where Mother, with her thick German accent, says, “We’ll take the best care of her,” and Sebastian, feigning concern (and with the camera zooming in tight on Alicia’s helpless, stricken face), tells the butler, “Josef, disconnect the telephone, Madame must have absolute quiet. Take it out of the room.”
Then, in rapid succession, we see:
- Devlin sitting on a park bench, his meeting place with Alicia, looking at his watch.
- Alicia in bed, dying. Mother off to the side, knitting peacefully.
- Devlin, at night, pacing before the same park bench.
In our minds we’re going “Hurry! Hurry!” and finally we get a meeting between Devlin and Prescott. Most such meetings took place in Prescott’s office but this one is in Prescott’s hotel room. It indicates how worried Devlin is. He, like us, can’t wait for tomorrow.
The hotel room also allows Hitchcock to juxtapose Alicia, the solider, with Prescott, the general.
Like Alicia, Prescott is lying in bed. Unlike Alicia, he’s a picture of health. In fact, as Devlin reveals his concerns, and as we’re still shouting “Hurry!” in our minds, Prescott nonchalantly, infuriatingly, butters crackers and stuffs them in his face.
“Five days, eh?” he says, unconcerned. “That must be quite a binge she’s on.” Devlin figured the same—Alicia had lied to him about her sickness—but now he’s having second thoughts. Prescott has none. He even warns against Devlin checking up on her since he doesn’t want anything to jeopardize the mission. Then he picks cracker crumbs off his chest.
“That must be quite a binge she's on.”
How far will you go for love or country? That’s one of the main dilemmas of the film. Love doesn’t do poorly in this equation, since, in the end, Devlin comes through, despite Alicia’s past, despite Alicia’s assignment. But country? Beardlsey represents the country. He thinks poorly of the workers. Prescott represents the country. He can’t be bothered to get out of bed. While Alicia is dying in hers.
There is, in general, great balance in “Notorious.” In one of the first shots, we see the judges and executioners of Alicia’s father framed in a doorway; and in one of the last shots, we see the judges and executioners of Alicia’s husband framed in a doorway. After Alicia is reintroduced to Sebastian, we see Devlin sitting alone at a restaurant on the left side of the screen. In the next shot, we see Alicia sitting alone at a restaurant on the right side of the screen. Balance.
But there is no balance as to our loyalties. The film’s second-most famous shot, after the kissing scene, occurs at the beginning of the party, when the camera, starting from the upper floor, sweeps down to focus on the Unica key in Alicia’s nervous hand. It’s a great shot. One can’t help notice, too, the checkerboard pattern on the floor, and how all of the guests, milling about, look like pieces in a chess game. Which they are. That isn’t a point of contention. Our problem is with the men moving this particular piece. They don't know its value. They see a pawn. We see the queen.
Movie Review: The Batman (1943)
The chief problem with this 15-episode serial, the second live-action version of a modern superhero, isn’t the low-budget effects (Columbia serials were notoriously cheap), nor its racism (the chief villain is a Japanese spy during WWII), but the form itself, the serial form, which requires cliffhanger endings for its heroes. Since the lives of Batman and Robin (Lewis Wilson and Douglas Croft) hang by a thread at the end of every episode, and since the serial wasn’t budgeted for a lot of extras, “America’s greatest crimefighter,” as Batman is called in the narrative intro, isn’t that great a crime fighter. Among the cliffhangers:
- Two crooks throw Batman, arms and legs thrashing, off a roof.
- Three crooks toss Batman. arms and legs thrashing, down an elevator shaft.
- A crook throws a stick at Batman’s head, knocking him unconscious.
- A gangplank is dropped on him.
- He drives a car off a bridge.
- He gets trapped by a fire he sets.
We keep seeing Batman getting outpunched by one or two criminals. I’m talking ordinary guys in suits and fedoras. What’s the point of putting on cape and cowl if you can’t take one guy?
Everything but the kitchen sink
The serial begins well enough. The credits play over the famous bat logo (human head on bat body), while the ominous theme music (Wagner’s Rienzi Overture?) prefigures Danny Elfman’s from the 1989 version. Even the first shot of the Bat’s Cave, as it’s called here (it was, in fact, introduced here), is cool. Batman sits brooding behind a desk of finely engraved oak while shadows of bats play against the wall.
Then the cheapness. Once the background narration ends, and the story proper begins, we see a plain black Cadillac pull up to a police phone, and out pop...Batman and Robin! So no Batmobile. Batman phones Capt. Arnold (no Comm. Gordon) and tells him, in a vaguely British tone, “I have a nice little package for you. You’ll find it at the corner of First and Maple.” He leaves the crooks handcuffed to a light pole with bat stickers on their foreheads — his version of Zorro’s “Z” — and then he and Robin drive off, Robin behind the wheel, and the two take off their masks and smile.
The plot? Dr. Tito Daka, a Japanese spy whose headquarters lie through a secret panel in the Japanese Cave of Horrors in deserted Little Tokyo, wants to secure enough radium for an “atom-smasher gun” that will bring America to its knees. In this regard he employs disgraced scientists and various hoodlums to carry out his orders. If they balk (“No amount of torture, conceived by your twisted Oriental brain, can change my mind!” says one scientist), he simply turns them into super-strong zombies. It’s part of the “everything but the kitchen sink” quality that, you imagine, everyone hoped would appeal to 10-year-old boys in 1943. Hey, kids! Not just Batman and Robin but spies and zombies and alligators and invisible messages from Washington, D.C.!
The writers, poor bastards, do manage to display some postmodern wit by commenting upon the very low quality of their product. Two American mechanics, encountering Daka in the Japanese Cave of Horrors, think he’s part of the program. “Pretty good, Saki,” one says. “Your accent’s a bit off but your makeup’s perfect.”
Better, they slip in a comment about the repetitive nature of the genre itself. Daka’s minions keep trying to steal the necessary radium for the atom-smasher gun and Batman and Robin keep foiling them. So the focus becomes less on acquiring radium and more on getting rid of Batman. Because of the cliffhangers, they assume they do at the end of every episode, which leads to conversations like this at the beginning of every episode: “We didn’t do the job, boss, Batman stopped us.” “Batman? He’s still alive?” “Yeah, but we killed him this time for sure!”
Eventually Daka decides that Batman can’t keep escaping death this way; that there must be many Batmen, “all members of the same organization,” he says. It’s not a bad bit.
A wise government
But these days Batman '43 is most compelling as historical document — particularly on the subject of race. In one episode, Bruce Wayne says of a friend, “Why, I haven’t seen Ken in a coon’s age!” In another, we get an Indian full of “Him say...” “Me say...” dialogue.
Daka is played by a Caucasian actor, J. Carrol Naish, nominated for an Academy Award that very year for playing the Italian, Giuseppe, in the Humphrey Bogart vehicle Sahara, and who would, during his career, play every conceivable ethnicity — from Sitting Bull in Sitting Bull (1954) to Charlie Chan in the 1950s TV series “The New Adventures of Charlie Chan” — but he’s hardly brilliant here. Those American mechanics were right about the accent. He sounds like Peter Lorre by way of Brooklyn.
Of course given Pearl Harbor, and Hollywood’s track record with stereotypes before Pearl Harbor, one expects the giggling sadism and the unapologetic “So sorry” comments from Daka. One isn’t particularly surprised when a crook, turning against Daka, tells him, “That’s the kind of answer that fits the color of your skin!” One even laughs when Bruce Wayne’s girlfriend, Linda Page (Shirley Patterson), encounters Daka and yelps, “A Jap!”
The eye-opener is what bookends the serial. In the first episode, when we first visit Little Tokyo, the narrator informs us:
This was part of a foreign land, transplanted bodily to America, and known as Little Tokyo. Since a wise government rounded up the shifty-eyed Japs it’s become virtually a ghost street...
In the last episode, Batman, pinned in Daka’s lair by his zombies, mentions, out of the blue, “I know who you are. We’ve been searching for you ever since you killed those two agents assigned to your deportation!” Thus the entire serial is painted with the wisdom of deportation and internment camps. See what happens when you don’t round up the shifty-eyed Japs? Decades later, the internment of Japanese-Americans became a source of national shame but at its point of origin it was triumphant enough to include in serials for children.
The original VHS release excised these slurs but they’ve been restored for the DVD version. Good. It's important to know where we've been. Otherwise how can we see how far we've come?