Sunday August 09, 2020
James Cagney in 'Bad Boy'
Another ad from the 1932/1933 trades:
I'm interested in the one at the bottom: “Bad Boy” starring James Cagney and Carole Lombard? Yes. It got made but not under that title and not with that co-star. It's “Hard to Handle,” in which Cagney plays a PR rep/grifter, with Mary Brian as his girl and Ruth Donnelly a standout as her mother. I recall liking Brian a lot, thinking she had a Christina Applegate thing about her. Her last movie was “Dragnet” in 1947 (Scotland Yard in NYC, not Jack Webb in LA), and her last TV series was “Meet Corliss Archer” in 1954. She lived until the day before New Year's Eve, 2002.
Saturday August 08, 2020
Trump's Pre-Existing Condition Promise Pre-Exists
I have big problems with The Hill—too often they simply quote the lies of powerful people, mostly Republicans, Trump way too often—but this is a good succinct summary of Trump's idiocy. Sad!, in a word.
#BREAKING: Trump says he's planning executive order requiring insurers to cover pre-existing conditions, something already established in ObamaCare which he's trying to dismantle https://t.co/P2xJwSMhdC pic.twitter.com/F10awcVB6G— The Hill (@thehill) August 8, 2020
What other marvels can we expect from Trump? Will he repeal “Don't Ask, Don't Tell”? Rescue the auto industry? Help pass a stimulus package to get us out of the global financial meltdown? Establish relations with Cuba? Re-kill Osama bin Laden? Pathetic. He so wants want Obama has and will never get it. Start with class. Love the irony here, too: Trump's promise on pre-existing conditions already exists. It's a pre-existing condition.
Saturday August 08, 2020
Richard Dix, Man of Steel
I spotted this poster last month or the month before when I was leafing through past issues of The Motion Picture Herald, a trade publication for the movie industry in the 1930s, '40s, etc. (I've since moved on to newspapers.com: warning.)
I'll have to check out the movie one day. It's the poster I'm fascinated with. Four things:
- The drawing of Dix
- The heavy drop shadow of the title
- The target,symbol on the back
- “Duke Ellis, man of steel”
All of it feels like a template for early Siegel/Shuster Superman. It's ur-Superman stuff and thus ur-superhero stuff. It's laying the groundwork for the next century of wish-fulfillment fantasy.
Yes, I know it's not the template but I'm sure this kind of stuff was around a lot in the 1930s and I'm sure it was influential. And we know Jerry Siegel at least dug this kind of stuff. In Action Comics No. 10, Superman becomes just this, a fugitive from a chain gang, in order to expose a corrupt, sadistic superintendent.
Put it this way: If you were making a movie about Siegel and Shuster and the origins of Superman, a not-bad opening would be the two Cleveland boys coming out of this movie and staring at the poster.
Friday August 07, 2020
Menand on Gehrig
I normally love Louis Menand's writing but his June article on baseball players and celebrity—specifically Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig and PR man Christy Walsh*—was a little meh. Maybe a reader can know too much about a subject. Example: When Menand went into how baseball used to be small ball, a base at a time, before Ruth, I could feel my eyes glazing over. But I still learned a few things—chiefly that Gehrig got the nickname “The Iron Horse” from New York Sun columnist Will Wedge in 1931. I like those details.
(*How interesting that the name of Gehrig's PR man was a mashup of two of the best pitchers in the first decade of the 20th century. ... OK, interesting to me.)
But Menand's ending, about “the speech,” made me tear up:
The announcer told the crowd that Gehrig was too moved to say anything, but a chant went up, and so he walked to the microphone. Eleanor later said that he had written an outline just in case; he clearly had some sentences memorized. Amazingly, only four of those sentences have been recorded and survive. Versions of the whole speech that you read have been pieced together from newspaper stories.
But we do have Gehrig's voice at the start. “For the past two weeks, you've been reading about a bad break,” he says. “Today I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth.” And at the end: “I might have been given a bad break, but I've got an awful lot to live for.” There is nothing self-pitying in the speech, no self-denial, no defiance. He is helping other people get through his pain. This was not colorless or boring. This was a man looking at death. In an age of showmen, in the very House That Ruth Built, it was a transcendent moment of selflessness.
He is helping other people get through his pain. Holy hell that's good.
Thursday August 06, 2020
'He Didn't Come to My Inauguration'
These are the last questions Axios' Jonathan Swan asked Donald Trump in his devastating interview the other day. I have to include them because it's about my man John Lewis. Keep in mind: We're talking about an American hero here.
Swan: John Lewis is lying in state in the U.S. Capitol. How do you think history will remember John Lewis?
Trump: I don't know. I really don't know. I don't know. I don't know John Lewis. He chose not to come to my inauguration. He chose... I never met John Lewis, actually, I don't believe.
Swan: Do you find him impressive?
Trump: I can't say one or the other. I find a lot of people impressive. I find many people not impressive. But no, but I didn't go-
Swan: Do you find his story impressive?
Trump: He didn't come to my inauguration. He didn't come to my State of the Union speeches, and that's okay. That's his right. And again, nobody has done more for Black Americans than I have.
Swan: I understand.
Trump: He should've come. I think he made a big mistake by not showing up.
Swan: But taking your relationship with him out of it, do you find his story impressive? What he's done for this country?
Trump: He was a person that devoted a lot of energy and a lot of heart to civil rights, but there were many others also.
Swan: There's a petition to rename the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama as the John Lewis Bridge. Would you support that idea?
Trump: I would have no objection to it if they've like to do it.
Swan: Yeah? It's a good idea?
Trump: Would have no objection to it whatsoever.
A few points worth reiterating:
- What does Trump know about John Lewis' achievements? What specifically? In his first response, he says “I don't know” four times and three different ways.
- All he knows is the personal: “He didn't come to my inauguration. He didn't come to my State of the Union speeches.”
- And in the same breath, in which he talks vaguely and dismissively about a man who put his life on the line again and again for civil rights and voting rights, he says, “Nobody has done more for Black Americans than I have.”
Civil rights hero? He didn't honor me. Me, who wouldn't rent to African Americans, took out a full page age calling for the death of the Central Park Five, and came to power via race-baiting? No one's done more for Black Americans.
What I wouldn't give to make this solipsistic horror show see the light for just 60 seconds.
Wednesday August 05, 2020
Today's Republican Party
“I spent decades working to elect Republicans, including Mr. Romney and four other presidential candidates, and I am here to bear reluctant witness that Mr. Trump didn't hijack the Republican Party. He is the logical conclusion of what the party became over the past 50 or so years, a natural product of the seeds of race-baiting, self-deception and anger that now dominate it. Hold Donald Trump up to a mirror and that bulging, scowling orange face is today's Republican Party.”
--GOP political consultant Stuart Stevens in The New York Times
Wednesday August 05, 2020
Movie Review: Man of a Thousand Faces (1957)
There’s a better biopic to be made here. Lon Chaney’s parents were deaf and mute, and growing up he pantomimed for them, and as an adult he pantomimed for the world. It made him world famous. Deservedly so. I’ve only seen a few Chaney movies—“Phantom of the Opera,” “Where East is East”—but the pain and power he exuded hasn’t diminished after 100 years. Then in 1930, at the age of 47, he developed throat cancer. Just as the movies were beginning to speak, he went mute. In his last months, he resorted to signing—as he had with his parents as a child. It’s circle-of-life stuff.
This is what “Man of a Thousand Faces” does with that story.
The first half is about how horrible Chaney’s first wife is. The second half is about how unforgiving Chaney becomes. The movie wrings its hands over the treatment of Chaney's parents but is as horrified by their state of existence as anyone. It’s mainstream melodrama, ’50s pablum but set earlier in our history. That may be what bugged me most: It reeks of postwar prosperity rather than turn-of-the-century struggle. There’s a sense of safety and cleanliness that feels like a ’50s sitcom rather than an era in which child labor laws hadn’t yet been established. You almost expect the Beav to enter stage left.
James Cagney is also the wrong physical type to play Chaney: that round, pudgy face rather than Chaney’s long, hollow one. He’s also too old. Sorry. Cagney begins the movie in clown makeup—not a bad idea to hide the years—but once he takes it off, well, we’ve got a 50/60-year-old playing twentysomething. And with Dorothy Malone as his wife? In your dreams, gramps.
Chaney’s makeup was better than Cagney’s. That’s sad. It’s in black-and-white but Cinemascope. That’s odd. And the aspect of Chaney’s life that the movie is least interested in? The movies. That’s ... ironic?
Even the movie's transitions are facile.
Mother to a dumb thing
We first see Chaney as a kid—with blonde, floppy hair like me in the 1960s—coming home bruised and bloodied because he’s been defending his parents against the taunts of bullies. His mother (Celia Lovsky, a standout), signs that he should feel sorry for those who don’t understand, then tells him to go wash up. He smiles, hugs her, goes to wash up. The camera focuses on running tap water then cuts to a rainstorm 15-20 years later. Sure.
Lon, dressed like a clown, is being called to see the boss because his wife, Cleva (Dorothy Malone), a not-very talented diva, is late for her curtain. The path from her dressing room to the stage feels like the watery pathway beneath the stage in “Phantom of the Opera,” for no real reason, and on the way she slips, falls in, can’t make the curtain. She’s fired, of course, so he goes on in her place. Performs a pantomime clown number that kills. The boss is excited but Chaney isn’t having it. “You fired her,” he says, “you fired me.” That’s the kind of loyal guy he is, see? So why go on in the first place?
We quickly discover that Cleva: 1) is pregnant, 2) has never met his parents, and 3) thinks it’s because he’s ashamed of her. But we know it’s because he’s ashamed of them. He never told her that his parents are deaf-mutes. So that’s the tension when they return home for a holiday gathering: How is she going to take it?
Not well, it turns out. His siblings are there, joyful and friendly, and then the parents come in and begin signing She stares, horrified, then runs up to the bedroom and throws herself on the bed.
He: Was it that hard to look at them, Cleva?
She: I couldn’t stand it.
Ouch. Yes, some of this is his fault for not mentioning it before, but she’s about the furthest thing from a picnic. “Ask them about my baby,” she cries. “Will it be like them? It’s in your blood, Lon, it can happen again! … I don’t want to have it! I don’t want to have it! I DON’T WANT TO BE MOTHER TO A DUMB THING!”
You’d think that would end it—how can their relationship recover?—but his mother convinces him to do right, so he sticks by her. At this point, the drama becomes: Will the baby be born a deaf-mute? Nope. It cries at birth (so not mute) and cries after Lon claps loudly by its crib (so not deaf). As the parents celebrate, Lon tells the boy, Creighton, who will become horror movie icon Lon Chaney Jr., “That’s the last time anyone will ever scare you.” Ha. Heh. Cough.
Cut to four or five years later and Cleva still doesn’t want the boy. Or she wants a career. Or something. At the Kolb and Dill vaudeville show, where Lon works, she drops off Creighton backstage and the showgirls dote on him like in a G-rated scene from “All That Jazz.” One in particular, Hazel (Dorothy Malone), shows maternal instincts. She’s forever babysitting while Cleva goes off to sing at a cocktail lounge. Cleva has an admirer there, but when he finds out she’s married he abandons her. So Cleva shows up at Lon’s work, walks onstage, and tries to kill herself by drinking mercuric chloride.
That’s actually true, by the way. She did that. It’s also true that they finally divorced—good riddance—but he couldn’t get custody and Creighton became a ward of the state. I don’t know if this is why Lon went into the movies, but that what the movie implies. He needed to make a lot of money quickly to show the judge he could raise Creighton by himself; but no matter how much money he makes in Hollywood, how nice and 1950s-ranch-style his home becomes, the judge won’t budge. Until he marries Hazel. One night, she confesses her love for him and basically proposes. (“Oh, so that’s why you’ve been hanging around for the past 10 years …”) And the two of them get Creighton back. And they get a cabin in the mountains. And the boy signs a greeting to his visiting grandparents. And all is well with the world.
We only get three extended sequences from his Hollywood career—the making of “The Miracle Man” from 1919, “Hunchback” from 1923 and “Phantom” from 1925—and each involves some backstage drama. While filming the whipping scene in “Hunchback,” for example, Hazel, along with Lon’s press agent pal Clarence (Jim Backus), show up, and guess who they merrily bring along? Cleva! Why not, right? She’s contrite but he’s unforgiving. She wants to see her son again but he wants nothing to do with her—in part, because to spare Creighton’s feelings, he told his son she was dead. And that’s the tension for the rest of the movie. Will Creighton find out? How will he take it?
Not well, it turns out. He leaves his father—who is also against him becoming an actor—and goes to live with his mother, who welcomes him with open arms. But she’s a good person now, and convinces him to forgive his father. Which happens just in time for Lon to die.
You know what would’ve made a better story? The truth. Example. In his memoir, Cagney relays what really happened when Creighton went searching for his mother. He got a lead, wound up at a desert ranch, knocked. A woman answered.
“Hello. My name is Creighton Chaney, and I’m looking for Mrs. Cleva Fletcher.”
“What’s the name?”
“Oh, I’m sorry,” she said. “No one here by that name.”
Then a voice came from inside the house. “Who is it, Cleva?”
Why didn’t they use that? “The story,” Cagney wrote, “seemed both crueler and larger than life itself.” Instead we got saccharine and smaller.
Thee may leave now
Cagney came to the Chaney story not because he worked with Lon Jr. in “A Lion Is in the Streets” (my assumption), but via Ralph Wheelwright, who wrote Cagney’s previous film, “These Wilder Years.” On that set, he pitched this. He was apparently a good pitcher. A journalist in the 1910s and ’20s, Wheelwright became a PR man for the likes of William Randolph Hearst and Louis B. Mayer before getting some story credits late in his career. All of his credits are just that—stories, not screenplays. The screenwriters for this are latter-day Cagney staples Ivan Goff and Ben Roberts (“White Heat,” creators of “Charlie’s Angels”) as well as a guy named R. Wright Campbell (“Teenage Caveman”).
Anyway, it doesn’t amount to much. Backus is wasted as nice guy/press agent, Greer is wasted as nice chorus girl/wife, and the four actors playing Creighton become duller versions of the gee-whiz All-American kid. Future producer/studio chief Bob Evans plays past producer/studio chief Irving Thalberg, but not well. Malone, on the other hand, is a knockout. Shame her character’s arc doesn’t ring true. (Because it isn’t true.)
Meanwhile, Lovsky, playing Chaney’s mom, so impressed me I had to look her up. She was born in Vienna, the daughter of a composer, and was a respected actress of the surrealist German stage in the 1930s when she became involved with Peter Lorre. She brought him to the attention of Fritz Lang (for “M”), fled Germany with him (he was Jewish), married him, divorced him, remained friends with him for life. In America, she continued acting, mostly in small character roles. One of those? Vulcan elder T’Pau in the classic “Star Trek” episode “Amok Time.” Yes, she’s the second person ever to do the Vulcan salute. The director of that episode happens to be the director of this movie: Joseph Pevney. “Amok Time” worked anyway.
Tuesday August 04, 2020
There's so many highlights/lowlights in Jonathan Swan's recent interview with Donald Trump that I don't know which to choose. Trump tries to BS his way through another interview with the usual BS—“I stopped the coronavirus from coming in from China when many people were against that”; “We have more cases because we test more”; “I get the biggest crowds ever”—and Swan keeps politely coming at him. At times he even compliments him in Foxian fashion but with a purpose. As here:
I've covered you for a long time. I've gone to your rallies. I've talked to your people. They love you. They listen to you. They listen to every word you say, they hang on your every word. They don't listen to me or the media or Fauci. They think we're fake news. They want to get their advice from you. And so, when they hear you say, everything's under control, don't worry about wearing masks. I mean, these are people, many of them are older people, Mr. President.
That's brilliant. It sounds almost sycophantic but every word is true. Trump's people do love him. They don't like the media or Fauci. And Trump is killing them.
Is this how he got the interview? Because he knew how to handle him? Because he knew how to sound sycophantic without being sycophantic?
He also doesn't let Trump be Trump. Or he expects something out of him. It's interesting. He expects Trump to be better. He's treating him as you would a normal president, and so is kind of shocked when he gets Trump. Maybe that's the way to do it. Maybe that's how you don't normalize him.
This is the first segment I saw on Twitter last night, and it's pretty devastating. Trump keeps insisting our Covid death rates are going down, Swan says they went down to 500 per day but are up again to 1,000 per day.
Trump: Here is one. Well, right here, United States is lowest in numerous categories. We're lower than the world.
Swan: Lower than the world?
Trump: We're lower than Europe.
Swan: What does that mean? In what?
Trump [showing papers with charts]: Look. Take a look. Right there. Here is case death.
Swan [reading]: Oh, you're doing death as a proportion of cases. I'm talking about death as a proportion of population. That's where the U.S. is really bad, much worse than South Korea, Germany, et cetera.
Trump: You can't do that.
Swan: Why can't I do that?
Trump: You have to go by where... look. Here is the United States. You have to go by the cases. The cases are there.
Swan: Why not as a proportion of population?
Trump: What it says is, when you have somebody where there's a case-
Swan: Oh, okay.
Trump: The people that live from those cases.
Swan: Oh. It's surely a relevant statistic to say, if the U.S. has X population and X percentage of death of that population versus South Korea-
Trump: No. Because you have to go by the cases.
Why can't I do that? God, that's good. That's a breath of fresh air. But Trump wants to do death-per-test case because those are the numbers that look better for him.
You have to go by the cases. How much does he sound like a 5-year-old here? It's the spoiled kid who only wants the game played by his rules. I don't know how any Trump supporter can listen to this and not crumble into dust from embarrassment. That's your man right there. That's your man.
You know who else should be embarrassed? The U.S. media, who have let Trump get the best of them. An Aussie showed them the way.