Movie Reviews - 1940s postsWednesday March 09, 2016
Movie Review: Mission to Moscow (1943)
If I’d been a member of HUAC back in 1947, this is the movie I would’ve focused on. Screw the others. Seriously, someone saying “Share and share alike” in a Ginger Rogers movie? Gregory Peck and Paul Muni portraying allied soldiers as heroes? Russian peasants smiling? You look small just bringing it up. You look like bullies. Which you were.
But “Mission to Moscow”? Good god, is there a movie more wrong in the history of Hollywood?
At the same time, I don’t think Hollywood is to blame for it.
Stalin: for all mankind
Some background: In 1941, Simon & Schuster published a book, “Mission to Moscow,” by Joseph E. Davies, about his experience as U.S. ambassador to the Soviet Union from 1936 to 1938. Once the U.S. entered World War II, according to Jack Warner, Pres. Roosevelt urged him to make a movie out of it, which Warner Bros. studios did, with Walter Huston, Abe Lincoln himself, as Davies. The real Davies not only introduces the movie (in ponderous fashion), he had creative control over the script. And when he didn’t like the original draft, Jack Warner tapped Howard Koch to do the rewrite. Four years later, as a friendly witness before HUAC, Jack Warner denounced Koch as a communist sympathizer for that work, and he was later blacklisted.
Politically, Koch was definitely on the left, stumping for Henry Wallace in 1948, for example, but that’s only a crime to the Breitbarts of the world. One of the original “Hollywood 19” called before HUAC, he was also the first to break ranks with their ultimately unsuccessful legal strategy. In an open letter in The Hollywood Reporter in November 1947, he went his own way. Meanwhile, scapegoated and fired by Warner, he freelanced for a few years (“Letter from an Unknown Woman” for Max Ophuls) before work mysteriously dried up; so in 1950 he moved to England, where he continued to write under a pseudonym. He eventually returned to the U.S. and settled in Woodstock, NY, wrote several forgettable screenplays in the 1960s, published his memoir, “As Time Goes By,” in 1979, hocked his Oscar to pay for his granddaughter’s law school in 1994, and died in 1995 at the age of 93. (Heather Heckman, a Ph.D. student at Madison, goes deep into Koch’s story here.)
That Oscar, by the way, was for writing “Casablanca.” He also wrote “Sergeant York.” That’s your communist sympathizer. Sergeant York. Only in America.
The director of “Mission,” meanwhile, was Michael Curtiz, whose previous films had been “Casablanca” and “Yankee Doodle Dandy,” and who went on to make “This is the Army,” starring Ronald Reagan, among others. Another obvious com-symp.
So how did we get this apology for Stalinism? The problem, I assume, is Davies. The dude was just wrong about everything.
In some respects, “Mission” is a typical, corny, Hollywood movie. As it opens, Davies, a lawyer, is about to go on a long-delayed lake vacation with his wife and daughter (Ann Harding and Eleanor Parker), when he’s pursued in a boat by his chauffeur Freddie (George Tobias, Abner Kravitz of “Bewitched”), with news of a phone call. “I don’t care if it’s the president of the United States!” Davies cries. Setting up the obvious punchline and titular mission. FDR wants him to suss out both Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia in terms of the looming war.
When he arrives in Germany? Awful! Davies looks with disgust as Hitler Youth march near the Hamburg train station. When he arrives in Russia? Great! Davies looks with delight as Soviet troops train near the Moscow train station.
How good are things in the Soviet Union? Very good! Caviar is plentiful, gender discrimination nonexistent, workers happy. The Soviet leaders, meanwhile, are down-to-earth and open-minded. “I believe in individualism as it’s practiced in America,” Davies declares upon arriving. “All we want is that you see all that you can before you arrive at your conclusion,” Soviet leaders respond sagely.
He visits a factory and is amazed by its output. His wife visits a department store (run by Mrs. Molotov) and is amazed by its luxury items. He’s told that the harder the people work, the more money they make. “The greatest good for the greatest number of people,” he’s told. “Not a bad principle,” he responds. “We believe in it, too!”
Ah, but there’s trouble in paradise. Sabotage! Betrayal! And in whose name? Nazi Germany! Thus we get a truncated, laughably incorrect version of the show trials, the Stalinist purges, that led to the death of millions of innocent people. But here, no one’s innocent. Here, they all confess without pressure. “The only pressure came from my own conscience,” says one saboteur stoically. “Based on twenty years of trial practice,” Davies pontificates from the cheap seats, “I’d be inclined to believe these confessions.”
Seriously, you couldn’t create a better dolt if you’d tried. At one point, others in the U.S. embassy are suspicious of the Soviets. Not Davies:
U.S. official: The Kremlin may be recording every word we say.
Davies: Well, perhaps they have a reason. Moscow is a hotbed for foreign agents.
Official: But eavesdropping, sir! Why that is an open affront of international rights!
Davies: I never say anything outside the Kremlin about Russia that I wouldn’t say to Stalin’s face, do you?
Official: Well, that’s putting it rather stiffly sir.
Davies: Then stop gossiping and stop listening to it. We’re here in a sense as guests of the Soviet government. And I’m going to believe they trust the United States as a friend until they prove otherwise.
The kicker is when he meets Stalin himself, and tells him, “I believe, sir, history will record you as a great builder for the benefit of mankind.” Then it’s off to Britain for a meeting with an up-and-comer, Winston Churchill, to tell him how the world really works.
At home, as war approaches, Davies makes excuses for everything Stalin does. The Nazi-Soviet Pact? Stalin had to do that to give himself more time to prepare for war. Attacking Finland? Finland asked Russia to attack it—to protect herself against German aggression.
You can barely watch “Mission to Moscow” for the number of times you facepalm.
Occasionally, we get something good. I like the conversation Davies and his family have on a train bound for Berlin:
German: You Americans have a very good tobacco. Ours is terrible—at the moment. We tend to improve it. Very shortly.
Mrs. Davies: Really? What do you intend to buy?
German: I’m not so sure we’ll have to buy from anyone. Our Fuehrer is a very clever man. He has many ideas. ... We Germans don’t mind a few discomforts now because we know what’s in store for us in the great future life.
Davies’ daughter: You mean on earth or somewhere else?
German: Shall we say, somewhere else on Earth.
That’s nice wordplay, and the scene isn’t overdone. Throughout, Curtiz plays with shadows well, as he always did. He’s a pro, Koch is a pro, it’s a Golden Age Hollywood movie.
And it’s still atrocious.
Even so, I would argue “Mission to Moscow” is less communist propaganda than war-time propaganda. If it stands out, it’s because the rest of our war-time propaganda (portraying Japan and Nazi Germany as cruel regimes), was, if anything, underplayed against the awful reality. There’s no conspiracy here, just stupidity. “Mission” is a tale told by an idiot, but the idiot didn’t come from Hollywood.
Captain America (1944): The Slideshow Review
The first issue of Captain America was published in March 1941, nine months before the U.S. entered World War II. It was a time when Hollywood was still timid about making anti-Nazi movies, but Joe Simon and Jack Kirby were bolder: they drew Cap decking Hitler on the first cover. So what did Hollywood do when they got ahold of Cap three years later?
They turned him into this. Where are his wings? Where is his shield? Where's Bucky?
He isn't even Pvt. Steve Rogers. He's Grant Gardner, district attorney. Worse, he doesn't 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.
But for most of the serial, she's reduced to this.
Or she's being hypnotized into doing whatever the Scarab wants. No, he doesn't want that.
There's 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: a 15-chapter movie serial with cliffhangers. The title cards, which are supposed to get us up-to-date at the beginning of each episode, actually demonstrate Cap's complete incompetence.
He tries ...
... and tries ...
But he keeps failing.
It's almost like a bad dream. Full review here. *FIN*
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."