Movie Reviews - 1940s postsMonday December 02, 2019
Movie Review: Blood on the Sun (1945)
A tough American man (with a hint of the gangster) and a beautiful woman (foreign, exotic) are trapped in an Axis country before America’s entry into World War II. The bad guys are closing in but our heroes are about to get away. Then at the last minute he tells her to go on without him. As she objects, he looks deeply into her eyes and says the following:
We’ve got jobs to do. Nobody gave them to us but they’ve got to be done. You’re my girl, aren’t you? All right then, you’re gonna do what I want you to do. I know it’s tough. Tougher to go than it is to stay. But you can’t hold ’em and I think I can.
Yeah, not exactly Bogart to Bergman in “Casablanca.”
Instead, it’s James Cagney to Sylvia Sidney in “Blood on the Sun,” a movie filmed in 1944 for Cagney’s nascent production company, but not released, via United Artists, until April 26, 1945—four days before Adolf Hitler killed himself. “Blood” is a movie set before the war but released just as the war was ending. (It still did well at the box office.)
Cagney, of course, was never Bogart in the romance department. The brilliance of Bogart was he was the toughest guy in the room but a woman could still break his heart. The brilliance of Cagney was he was the toughest guy in the room but a woman could ... shaddap.
Some of my best friends
Cagney plays Nick Condon, crusading managing editor of The Tokyo Chronicle, which, as the movie opens, prints a story about one of Japan’s leaders:
TANAKA PLANS ATTACK ON UNITED STATES
Apparently this was a real thing—or a real hoax. News stories about the “Tanaka Memorial”—plans to take over the world after attacking China and the U.S.—were first published in the late 1920s, got an English translation in the early ’30s, and treated by the U.S. government throughout World War II as the Japanese version of Mein Kampf, but most scholars today think it never existed. Even in the movie, Condon isn’t sure—a bit odd, given his headline—so he spends the rest of the movie chasing down leads to a story he’s already written. Not exactly Journalism 101.
Indeed, one of the movie’s villains, Joe Cassell (Rhys Williams), an American reporter in league with the Japanese, turns out to be more correct than our hero. He and Condon are introduced at an expat bar and discuss Condon’s story:
Cassell: Of course there’s not a grain of truth in it. You know that.
Condon: I don’t know anything. Do you?
Cassell: Quite a bit. Our Chinese cousins are trying desperately to shape public opinion against Japan.
Apparently he was right. Not bad for the bad guy. But here's the dialogue that made me do a double take:
Cassell: Not that I haven’t a tremendous admiration for the Chinese people.
Condon: I see. [Smiles] Some of my best friends are Chinese, huh?
Wow. So how long has that line been around? Not just people using the line, but using it ironically.
The New York Times archive isn’t that helpful. Its first “Some of my best friends are...” reference came in 1944, when this movie was being filmed, but it was in a review of a homefront novel playing off that phrase: “Some of My Best Friends are Soldiers.” It wasn’t until Russell Baker used it in a 1964 humorous op-ed about a Triborough bridge protest that we got the first ironic usage in the paper. Speaking in the voice of a commuter, Baker writes, “Some of my best friends are city dwellers but I don’t want to have them living across my fastest right-of-way.” By 1970, the Times will have eight such references, a year later it’s the title of a movie about a Greenwich Village gay bar, and we’re off to the races.
Thanks to Rick Santorum, though, we know it started much earlier than that. In the 2011 presidential election, CNN’s Don Lemon asked him if he had any gay friends, Santorum used a vague version of the line, and Bradford Plumer, in The New Republic, did a deep dive into the term. According to Plumer, it was used without irony in the first few decades of the 20th century by, among others:
- Democratic VP nominee John Worth Kern in 1908 (“...Republicans”)
- Baptist preacher John Roach Straton, objecting to Al Smith’s 1928 presidential run (“...Catholics)
- Hugo Black, 1937 nominee for the U.S. Supreme Court, on his KKK past (“...Jews”)
Such forthright usage among the powerful (and racist) surely led to its ironic usage among the marginalized. Robert Gessner’s 1936 history of anti-Semitism was called “Some of My Best Friends are Jews,” for example. Either way, “Blood” seems ahead of its time here.
The movie is also ahead of its time in its treatment of martials arts. For the film, Cagney, a one-time boxer, trained under a judo master and kept going with the sport long after filming was over. He treated it seriously, and so does the film.
Anyway, shortly after Condon’s tete-a-tete with Cassell, one of Condon’s reporters, Ollie Miller (Wallace Ford), shows up at the bar flashing cash. He pays off old debts, buys new rounds, says sayonara to his colleagues. Where did he get the dough? He refuses to say. So does his wife, Edith (Rosemary DeCamp), whom Condon visits; she’s just happy they’re finally leaving Japan. Ever the friend, Condon shows up at the ship with a bottle of champagne but finds her dead, seemingly strangled, and him missing.
Later, Miller shows up at Condon’s place, shot, dying, with the Tanaka plan in his hand and the Japanese on his tail. Condon has to move fast—but where to hide it? Here, that Golden-Age Hollywood conceit that people keep framed photos of world figures on the wall comes in handy. (It was just a conceit, wasn’t it?) Condon is so international, it seems, he not only has a photo of Pres. Hoover in his bedroom but Emperor Hirohito, and he hides the Tanaka plan behind the latter, assuming the Japanese won’t disturb it. They don’t. They bow to it.
After a short judo battle, Condon is jailed (Cagney gets his usual down-and-out scruff), traduced (accused of drunken partying: “Find Nicholas Condon with two girls,” says Police Chief Yamada, tsking), but the Tanaka plan behind Hirohito’s picture has gone missing. Next thing we know, Condon is being forced to leave the country. Then he’s introduced, by Cassell, to Iris Hilliard (Sylvia Sidney), a half-Chinese woman who seems to be doing the bidding of the Japanese, and who may have been involved in the murder of the Millers.
Up to this point, the movie isn’t a bad espionage thriller. But the romance really doesn’t work. Are Cagney and Sidney too old for it? He’s still light on his feet but has that growing heaviness in his face and gut. She’s just returning from a four-year film hiatus, during which she had a child. It begins well enough. She's interested, he's suspicious of that interest—like Michael Caine in “Funeral in Berlin”:
Iris: Perhaps I like your looks.
Condon: Uh-uh. [Circles his face] Not with this.
Iris: There are maybe things about that I like.
Condon: Yeah? What?
Iris: I’ve always liked red hair.
Condon: Well, I grew it for you.
Iris: And the ears.
Condon: Two of those.
Iris: Isn’t that good?
Condon: More would be vulgar.
But our boy quickly gets dull. He drops doubt for randy come-ons and lame double entendres:
Iris: You know what this chase has done for me? Developed a ravenous appetite.
Condon [gives her the once over]: I’ve developed a few myself.
Iris [after saying she’s there to help Japanese women]: Why not? I’m a woman.
Condon [once over]: I’ve been aware of that for some time.
Oddly, once they become a couple—and it’s revealed that, yes, she was working with the Japanese, but as a kind of double agent, evidenced by the fact that she stole the Tanaka plan—Condon immediately seems past any love, or lust, and treats her with a kind of brisk paternalism: forehead kisses and cheek pats. There’s no heat whatsoever.
The scroll of the poet
The screenplay was written by Lester Cole (one of his last), with additional scenes by Nathaniel Curtis (his first), and again we get some not-bad moments. There’s a good back-and-forth, for example, between Prince Tatsugi (Frank Puglia), who is counseling a more peaceful path, and Premier Tanaka (John Emery), who isn’t. “I’m the scroll of the poet behind which samurai swords are being sharpened,” Tatsugi says. Good line.
If the Japanese aren’t all bad—interesting in itself in a WWII movie—none of them are Japanese. It's the usual Caucasian actors in yellowface. Besides Emery and Puglia, Robert Armstrong of “King Kong” fame plays Col. Tojo; John Halloran, an LA cop and judo expert, plays Condon’s nemesis Capt. Oshima; while Marvin Miller is the super-annoying, tsking Capt. Yamada. Miller is good at it. Cf., Kwon in “Peking Express.”
“Blood on the Sun” tries for the big finish. After his “Casablanca”ish goodbye to Sylvia Sidney, Condon battles Oshima (a judo challenge issued in the first act will go off in the third), wins, is chased down the wharf, and makes his way to the U.S. embassy. Then he’s shot. Dead? Nah. U.S. diplomat Johnny Clarke (a young Hugh Beaumont) takes him past the entreaties of Yamada, and Cagney delivers the film’s final line for an audience still at war: “Sure, forgive your enemies. But first, get even.” Pan back, welling music, THE END.
Doesn’t resonate. Wasn't the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
Movie Review: The Masked Marvel (1943)
In many of the ur-superhero movie serials of the 1930s and ’40s, specifically “The Spider’s Web,” “The Shadow” and “The Green Hornet,” the true identity of the masked villain is unknown, and the likely suspects, a group of nondescript business leaders meeting regularly around a table, keep dropping like flies until we get the Big Reveal in the final chapter. Ah. Him. Sure.
“The Masked Marvel” reverses this conceit. It was 1943 so we knew who the villain was: Japan, here in the form of Mura Sakima (Johnny Arthur in yellowface), who, according to a helpful radio announcer in the first chapter, is “formerly Tokyo representative of the Worldwide Insurance Company, and secretly head of the Japanese espionage service...”
(Wait: Secretly? It’s on the radio. How secret can it be?)
What we don’t know is who the hero is. We’re told the Masked Marvel is one of four “ace investigators” for the same insurance company, all of whom are about the same size, with the same wide-shouldered gray suits, gray fedoras and gray personalities. But only one of them periodically puts on a black rubber face mask to fight crime as the Masked Marvel. But which one?
Here’s the burden of the home entertainment age: I actually tried to figure it out—pausing and rewinding, comparing and contrasting. I thought: “Well, that one’s got personality ... but is that to throw us off the track? Besides, his face isn’t lean enough. How about the one with the Southern accent? Or the stiff one with the Brooklyn accent? He’s the least likely, so ... maybe the most likely?”
Anyway, in the final chapter, we find out it’s the one with personality, Bob Barton (David Bacon). Ah. Him. Sure.
Except, in truth, the Masked Marvel was none of the above. He’d always been stuntman Tom Steele, nee Thomas Skeoch, born in Scotland in 1909, who was such a staple at Republic Pictures that some serial stars were chosen because of their resemblance to him, the stunt man, rather than vice versa. IMDb lists 440 stunt credits for him: from the Zane Grey-based “Lone Star Ranger” in 1930 to “The Blues Brothers,” “Scarface” and “Tough Guys” in the 1980s. Helluva career. He also has 219 acting credits, bit parts mostly. You might know him as the man who falls off the chair when Sheriff Black Bart rides into town in “Blazing Saddles.” Yeah, that’s the Masked Marvel. Tell your friends.
Except Steele was only the body of the Masked Marvel. His stentorian voice actually belonged to Gayne Whitman, nee Alfred Vosburgh, born in Chicago in 1890, who started out in silent movies, often fourth-billed, went on to minor, uncredited roles in ’30s talkies, then became a longtime radio announcer—voicing Chandu the Magician among others. I find this fascinating. Think about it: He had success in the silents, where he was seen but not heard; and on the radio, where he was heard but not seen; but less success in the talkies when you put the two together. He died in 1958. His New York Times obit is a paragraph long.
So we begin the serial trying to figure out which of four men is the Masked Marvel, and it turns out, on the production side, he’s three men. And the third, Bob Barton/David Bacon, is the most fascinating of all. And the most tragic.
Maguffins and traitors
Thanks to that helpful radio announcer, we learn a lot in the first few minutes of the serial. He lets us know about Sakima; then he lets us know that the Masked Marvel, a Republic Pictures invention, is already a legendary figure “who smashed the greatest crime ring the world has ever seen.”
Then he’s maybe a little too helpful.
He announces that the president of the Worldwide Insurance Company, Warren Hamilton (Howard Hickman), will deliver documents to the Masked Marvel with info that will lead to Sakima’s capture. Of course, Sakima is listening in. (Sakima is always listening in.) And Sakima sends his goons, including Killer Mace (Anthony Warde), to retrieve the documents. For good measure, they kill Hamilton in front of his daughter, Alice (Louise Currie), who cries out “Dad! Dad!” but seems to get over it pretty fast. In the aftermath, Martin Crane (William Forrest, top-billed), becomes the new president of the insurance company; the Masked Marvel shows up at the Hamilton place to keep “photostatic reproductions” from Mace; four same-sized investigators arrive to help protect Alice and the company; and the Masked Marvel returns to reveal his secret identity to Alice—but not to us.
Crane, by the way, is really working for Sakima. Which means the top-billed guy is the villain. And a traitor to America.
That’s always bugged me about these World War II-era serials with Japanese villains and American henchmen. It’s not like they’re doing dirty work for the usual masked underworld figure. They’re helping their country’s enemy defeat their country. Are they that dumb? Greedy? Short-sighted? I know it’s asking a lot of slap-dash serials, but you’d think someone would raise the issue at some point—like in Chapter 3 when Mace says it’s impossible to ambush a bullet-proof car and Sakima replies, “Nothing is impossible for the Japanese!” Or in Chapter 4 when they steal diamonds and Sakima says, “How unfortunate we cannot get these to Japan. They would be so useful to my people.” No second glances, Mace? No epiphany? No “Hey, wait a minute...”
As usual with serials, each episode has a new maguffin added, necessitating the good guys and bad guys converge, clash and cliffhang. In one chapter, they fight over a newly designed periscope; in another, precision parts for U.S. bombers. They tussle at an airplane factory, a seaside café, the rooftop of the Super-X Products Co., and at the Ferndale train depot.
Meanwhile, our insurance investigators get winnowed down. At the end of Chapter 8, it looks like the Masked Marvel is pushed from a rooftop but it’s really Jim Arnold, who isn’t the Masked Marvel. In Chapter 10, Frank Jeffers discovers Crane is in league with Sakima but is shot trying to get away. My favorite bit is when he radios ahead to Alice:
“Alice, tell the others ... they’re planning to blow up the train ... with the bomber parts ... just outside ... Ferndale. The man behind all this is ... uhhh ...”
I can just see 10-year-old boys in matinees across the country slapping their foreheads over that one
For completists, here are the cliffhangers:
|1||The Masked Crusader||MM is punched from a rooftop into a flaming truck, which blows up||He wakes up and runs away before the explosion|
|2||Death Takes the Helm||He fights a bad guy on a boat laden with explosives||Jumps out in time|
|3||Dive to Doom||Killer Mace punches MM down elevator shaft||The elevator is 10 feet below|
|4||Suspense at Midnight||Villain announces the identity of MM||He's wrong|
|5||Murder Meter||A bomb goes off in an aeroplane factory tunnel||MM escapes|
|6||Exit to Eternity||A truck, driving straight at MM, crashes through a wall||MM sidesteps it|
|7||Doorway to Destruction||Killer Mace shoots a rifle through a door and MM falls||He's not hit|
|8||Destined to Die||MM falls from a rooftop||It was Jim Arnold|
|9||Danger Express||MM is trapped in truck that goes over ravine||Elaborate! MM ties a rope to the truck's door and then around a passing tree, so the door is ripped off, allowing him to escape|
|10||Suicide Sacrifice||MM's car collides with train||He'd already jumped out|
|11||The Fatal Mistake||A live hand grenade drops on a boat with an unconscious Alice||She wakes up and dives off|
|12||The Man Behind the Mask||n/a||n/a|
The fight scenes aren’t bad. Amusingly, no one’s hat ever goes flying off—I guess that was a Tom Steele trademark. I particularly like the Frank Jeffers fight in the basement of Crane’s place in Chapter 10, although the double for Sakima is too big. I also like how Crane’s desk chair lowers into Sakima’s lair like a precursor to the Adam West batpole.
Feminists can take pride in the Chapter 3 cliffhanger. At first, it seems like the usual damsel-in-distress deal. Killer Mace and his goons have Alice tied up, crush a barrel beneath an elevator and say the same thing will happen to her if she doesn’t talk. She doesn’t. So she’s put in the elevator pit. “Bring it down ... slowly,” Mace says. Classic cliffhanger. Except that’s not the cliffhanger. The Masked Marvel shows up, stops the elevator, kills the guy operating it, and follows the bad guys to the 5th floor for yet another slugfest. In the meantime, Alice frees herself. The cliffhanger is when Mace punches the Masked Marvel into the elevator shaft. What saves him is ... Alice. She’s taking the elevator up to help him, so he only falls like 10 feet.
Another interesting sidenote. When the Masked Marvel finally catches up with Sakima in Chapter 12, he says this: “Alive or dead, you’re coming with me.” It’s almost word for word the catchphrase for 1987’s Robocop. Did they get it from here? It seems like it would be a common-enough action-hero phrase, yet I haven’t heard it anywhere else.
The lonesome death of Gaspar Griswold Bacon, Jr.
That said, there’s not much here here. The top-billed guy is an American traitor, Louise Currie is not my favorite serial heroine, while our hero is split into the three aforementioned parts: actor, voice, stunt man. Plus he’s not someone we imagined first on the radio or in comic books. He’s not Batman or The Shadow or even Green Hornet; he’s someone Republic Pictures imagined to make a buck. He’s basically a guy who looks like the Spirit but without the Spirit’s cool name or cool extras. Did Will Eisner contemplate a lawsuit? Or were guys in suits, fedoras and facemasks too common back then?
Some background on David Bacon, nee Gaspar Griswold Bacon, Jr., who came from a prominent Boston Brahmins family. His grandfather, Robert Bacon, was a business lieutenant to J.P. Morgan, ambassador to France, and briefly U.S. Secretary of State under Teddy Roosevelt. His father, Gaspar Griswold, Sr., was the president of the Massachusetts Senate in the 1920s and lieutenant governor in the 1930s.
David was educated at Harvard but went into acting—one assumes against family wishes. He became part of a theater troupe that included Jimmy Stewart and Henry Fonda. Two years after Harvard, he moved to LA, and a few years later he was signed to a contract by Howard Hughes, who was thinking of him for Billy the Kid in “The Outlaw.” Instead, David got bit parts before Hughes loaned him out for this. “The Masked Marvel” opened on Nov. 6, 1943, but David wasn’t there to promote it or see it. He’d been dead for two months. Murdered. Literally stabbed in the back.
His death was written up in the Sept. 14, 1943 New York Times under the headline: “D.G. BACON IS SLAIN AS IN MOVIE ROLES”:
Clad in blue denim shorts and returning from a swim, Mr. Bacon lost control of his small, English-built automobile. It bounced over the curb and stopped [in a bean field]. He climbed out and collapsed. He died of a stab wound in the back, gasping his plea to Wayne Powell, a passer-by.
Witnesses said that Mr. Bacon’s car wavered along Washington Boulevard before leaping the curb. One woman said that she saw a black-haired man in the vehicle beside the driver, while a service station attendant a half mile west of the bean field said that a man and a woman, besides the driver, were in the car when it passed his place.
A few days later, the Times printed a UP story about how Bacon wrote a penciled will three months before his death, as if he were anticipating it. He left everything to his wife, Greta Keller, an Austrian concert singer 11 years his senior.
The bigger reveal came years later from his widow: He was gay, she was gay, theirs was a lavender marriage. There were other reveals, too. The cops found a camera in his car with one photo taken—David, on the beach, in the nude. Someone came forward saying David was being blackmailed. His widow thought Howard Hughes was involved. As with any Hollywood death, theories abound. It might make a good movie someday.
As for the Masked Marvel, this was it for him. One and done. Beyond the Green Hornet, masked men in suits and fedoras just didn’t survive into the true superhero age. One wonders if anyone still owns the rights to him.
The title card before every episode. He looks a lot like the Spirit there. One wonders if Will Eisner contemplated a lawsuit.
Here's what he looks like. Remember, kids: Never mixed Nitrolene and lend-lease gasoline.
In the serial's conceit, he's supposed to be one of these guys. (David Bacon is the right-most picture.)
In truth, he was always longtime Republic Pictures stuntman Tom Steele—even during non-stunt scenes.
Our yellowface villain.
Killer Mace, his henchman, who gives no thought to betraying America in its time of need.
Louise Currey as the damset in distress. But in one cliffhanger she‘ll save the day.
Ironically, tragically, two of the four actors who played tine the ace insurance investigators would be murdered within four years of the serial’s release.
The first and last insurance-investigator superhero. *FIN*
Movie Review: The Fighting 69th (1940)
I think that I shall never see/ An odder role for James Cagney.
The movie is certainly unsatisfying if you like your Cagney courageous. It’s 90 minutes long and for 80 of it he’s both loudmouth and coward. This last takes us by surprise. He talks big before the war, and he’s certainly good with his fists, but once he’s in the trenches he panics, lights a flair, and causes the death of comrades. The death of them. “Damn,” I thought, “How does he show his face around the regiment after that?” How? With a smirk, that’s how. He still doesn’t care. And Father Duffy (Pat O’Brien, of course) still thinks there’s good in him and goes above and beyond to prevent him being transferred. He tells the 69th’s commanding officer, Major “Wild Bill” Donovan (George Brent)—yes, the founder of the OSS—that Jerry Plunkett (Cagney) might be that one in a thousand soldier that becomes a better man because of war.
Nope. During a sneak attack, Plunkett panics again. He starts shouting, which alerts the enemy to their position, and even more men are killed—including Donovan’s adjunct Joyce Kilmer (Jeffrey Lynn). Yes, the “A poem as lovely as a tree” guy. That’s all true, by the way. Kilmer died, July 1918, fighting the Second Battle of the Marne under the command of “Wild Bill” Donovan, with Father Francis P. Duffy—whose statue to this day towers over Times Square—attached to the regiment.
You’d think that would be enough for a movie. These three guys. But they had to make a fictional, cowardly Cagney responsible for the death of Joyce Kilmer.
The rainbow connection
So what finally turns Plunkett? Because at some point he’s going to turn brave, right? This is a Hollywood movie, after all.
Well, after the second panic, he’s court-martialed and awaiting execution when the Germans shell the church where he’s being held, which is also a makeshift hospital. Father Duffy sets him free with two options: flee to safety or help his regiment. He’s about to flee to safety when another shell hits and Duffy is trapped beneath a large beam. Plunkett still considers fleeing but goes back to help the Father. Then he watches as Duffy enters the makeshift hospital and bucks up the lads with the Lord’s Prayer. On “Forgive us our trespasses...” Plunkett joins in, while on “But deliver us from evil...” Duffy pauses and looks meaningfully at Plunkett. So that’s Plunkett does. He delivers them from evil. He finally turns brave.
At the front lines, Plunkett slides into a foxhole with his nemesis, Sgt. “Big Mike” Wynn (Alan Hale), and starts loading mortar after mortar into the Stokes tube and really giving it to Jerry. “Here’s one for the Yonkers and the Bronx!” he shouts. Etc. He makes it look so easy we wonder why it’s supposed to be hard. Then when a grenade is tossed into their foxhole, he smothers it to save Sgt. Wynn. He dies later in a hospital from the wounds. Father Duffy performs last rites. Donovan says, “I once thought this man a coward,” to which Wynn, who lost a kid brother during one of Plunkett’s panic attacks, declares, “A coward, sir? From now on every time I hear the name of Plunkett, I’ll snap to attention and salute.”
It's that kinda crap.
Except the movie keeps going, because it isn’t really about the fictional Plunkett but the real-life Father Duffy. That’s the thing: Cagney isn’t the story; he actually gets in the way of the story. So why have him at all? It’s not like O’Brien couldn’t carry a movie. That same year, he carried “Knute Rockne All American.” It’s just that Cagney carried a movie better. Warners wanted the box office.
At least they come up with a rationale for why the focus on Plunkett: Matthew 18:12-13. Duffy says it once or twice in the film:
If a man have 100 sheep, and one of them goeth astray, doth he not leave the 99, and goeth into the mountains, and seeketh that which is gone astray?
And if it so be that he find it, verily I say unto you, he rejoiceth more for that than of the 99 that did not go astray.
Is then when Warners movies began to turn? They’re still about the Irish, but the grit and chicanery, and celebration of same, have been replaced by God, patriotism and sacrifice. The brogues are thick, the blarney full, and the men can’t march without simultaneously breaking into “Irish Eyes Are Smiling.” I watch and miss the winking Warners of “Picture Snatcher.”
At least Cagney gets to use his Yiddish again. There’s a very Jewish-looking recruit improbably named Mike Murphy, who finally fesses up that he changed it to join the Irish 69th. He dies, of course. Father Duffy is there, and Murphy asks for a prayer. “Wouldn’t ye be wanting one in your own faith?” Duffy asks. “No time,” Murphy whispers. So the Father starts blessing him in the Catholic faith. At the end of it, after a reference to Israel, and about the Lord God being one, Murphy starts praying in Hebrew but can’t go on. So Duffy finishes for him. In Hebrew. Nice scene.
The 69th was part of the 42nd Infantry Division, which was—and is—known as the Rainbow Division. “Every color in the spectrum,” Donovan says, even though he basically means white people. Diversity back then meant different white Christians from different states. Plus a Jew. At one point, Donovan ralllies the troops thus:
Every day more and more are joining us, outfits from all over the country. But they’re not coming here as Easterners or Southerners, or Alaskans or New Englanders. Those men are coming here as Americans—to form an organization that represents every part and section of our country: the Rainbow Division. But there’s no room in this rainbow for sectional feuds. Because we’re all one nation now, one team.
It is nice to know that this was always the American argument: diverse elements uniting. The disagreement is always over which diverse elements to include. Father Duffy actually prefigures one such argument:
Duffy: What if you give Captain Mangan an OK to provide buses to take the Jewish boys to Napier.
Donovan: Sure. I’ll take care of that.
Duffy: You know, it’s a good thing there’s no Mohammedans in the regiment. I’d have no time for the war.
Consider Father Duffy in 1918 more inclusive than the GOP today.
One good inning
“The Fighting 69th” has some not-bad battles, a nice Christmastime scene at a church, and a few good lines, usually spoken by Alan Hale:
Soldier: [referring to Plunkett] Gee, that guy hates himself.
Sgt. Wynn: Well, that makes it unanimous.
But it doesn’t let Cagney be Cagney, Brent as “Wild Bill” is dull, and there's a lot of cornball crap that makes war seem noble or a game. “Don’t worry, boys,” an officer says. “We’ll all get a crack at ’em. I wish I wasn’t CO, I’d like one good inning myself.” The movie is about a soldier realizing how horrible war is; but the movie is like that soldier before the realization.
Father Duffy's statue, erected in the 1930s, when sequels to World Wars weren't anticipated.
Movie Review: Adventures of Captain Marvel (1941)
This is it. The breakthrough.
Yes, we’d had John Carter, Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers. We’d seen Tarzan swinging, Zorro dueling, and Robin Hood splitting arrows. The Shadow laughed, The Lone Ranger rode, The Spider swooped, and The Green Hornet ... did whatever The Green Hornet does. We’d come close but “Adventures of Captain Marvel” is the first true live-action superhero movie ever made.
And for its time, it ain’t bad.
Captain Marvel’s flying is actually decades ahead of its time. The flying here looks better than the flying in any of the live-action Superman serials or TV shows of the ’40s and ’50s, or even the “Shazam!” TV series in the mid-1970s, all of which relied on animation, window jumps, or early green-screen effects to simulate human flight.
“Captain Marvel” uses a bit of this, but its more common technique is to send a mannequin zipping along an invisible wire. If that sounds lame, it isn’t.
Bolts of lightning
The plot borrows from ur-superhero serials but improves upon it. A half-dozen civic leaders sitting around a table are periodically menaced by a cloaked figure named for an animal—the Scorpion here rather than the Octopus (“The Spider’s Web”) or the Black Tiger (“The Shadow”)—and whose secret identity is in fact one of the men sitting around the table. But which one? Show up next week at your neighborhood theater!
So where’s the improvement? The Scorpion actually has a specific reason—rather than general greed/evil—to eliminate everyone. All the men, plus, of course, Billy Batson (Frank Coghlan, Jr.), were part of an archeological expedition in Siam, which ... Here. I’ll just quote the opening title:
In a remote section of Siam, near the Burmese border, lies a desolate volcanic land which for centuries has been taboo to white men—the Valley of the Tombs! To this realm of mystery, jealously guarded by native tribes unconquered since the dawn of time, has come the Malcolm Archelogloical expedition to find the lost secret of the Scorpion Dynasty.
I love the assumptions in “taboo” and “jealously guarded”—not to mention “unconquered.” Those tribes just haven’t learned their place yet.
In the tomb, the archeologists find a golden scorpion idol, with adjustable legs, like some Mattel toy from the 1960s. And once the lenses in the claws are properly aligned, all hell breaks loose. It can cause earthquakes or turn any base metal into gold. Later in the serial, the Scorpion will bring up its “atom smashing” ability, by which point the whole gold-making thing will be sadly forgotten.
But it’s the gold-making in Chapter 1 that causes the leader of the expedition, John Malcolm (Robert Strange), to suggest divvying up the lenses so the device can never be used except for the good of all. Which is why each civic leader has a lens. And why the Scorpion is after them. He wants gold. Gold.
Now that I think about it, isn’t this a bit like Thanos with the infinity stones? Did this influence that? Or is placing half a dozen smaller objects into a bigger object to achieve ultimate power a more common plot device than I realize?
I’m also surprised I never made the Captain Marvel/Thor connection before. For each:
- a civilian stumbles upon something (a word, a stick) that transforms him into a superpowered being
- this superpowered being is a god (Thor) or has the power of the gods (Solomon, Hercules, et al.)
- this superpowered being is basically a completely different person
For a moment I also thought both were disabled, but in the Captain Marvel universe that's Freddie Freeman/Captain Marvel Jr., not Billy Batson, who walks fine and sells newspapers on the streets. Here, Billy isn’t a teenage newsboy but a twentysomething radio news operator. Why is he on the Malcolm expedition? For the news? Whatever the reason, once the golden scorpion causes an earthquake in the Valley of Tombs, a secret tomb is revealed and Billy is greeted by an old man with a long beard who trills his Rs in the fashion of turn-of-the-century ham actors. In this case, it’s Nigel De Brulier, who began acting in the silents in 1914 and tended to play regal types, including Cardinal Richelieu four times. He tells young Billy about the powers of Captain Marvel (Solomon, Hercules, Atlas, Zeus, Achilles, Mercury), how to call upon them (acronym), but adds this warning: “You must never call upon this power except in the service of rrrright. To do so, would bring the Scorpion’s curse upon your own head.”
You know what’s odd? Besides all of it? How quickly the Scorpion appears. Think of it. The Scorpion is one of the men on the archeology team, and the very night after the Golden Scorpion’s power is revealed he shows up in camp, robed and cloaked, with an image of a scorpion on his hood, chest and back. Was that the plan all along? If not, where did he get the costume? Who brought along the sewing kit?
Initially I was worried we’d be stuck in the jungle for all 12 chapters, but thankfully by the second chapter we’re back in the city. Then I remembered, “Right, that can be dullsville, too.“
This is the first time movie serials had to deal with a truly superpowered being as protagonist. It’s not an ordinary dude in a mask; it’s a god. And how can gods be imperiled enough to have cliffhangers? Answer: The cliffhangers are mostly about imperiled civilians: chiefly, John Malcolm’s secretary, Betty (Louise Currie), or Billy when he's unconscious or gagged. That said, they do knock out Captain Marvel (Tom Tyler) several times via electrocution. That's right. They decided that a being who is transformed into a god by a bolt of lightning can be electrocuted.
For the scholarly types, here are the cliffhangers:
- A bridge collapses with Betty’s car on it
- Captain Marvel is electrocuted and knocked unconscious on a conveyor belt heading toward a guillotine (classic!)
- Billy is flying a plane with a bomb aboard
- Betty is unconscious in a runaway car
- Captain Marvel is trapped by molten lava
- Captain Marvel is electrocuted (again)
- Betty and Billy (gagged) are in a shack about to be bombed
- Billy is unconscious in a car with a bomb in it
- Billy and Betty, trying to open a safe, are in the sites of a machine gun
- Billy and Betty are on a sinking ship off the coast of Siam
Is this the first time we’ve seen a movie character whom bullets bounce off of? They display that power quite a bit—it’s probably the cheapest to film—and always in the same fashion. Bad guys shoot, bullet ping off his chest, and Captain Marvel, maybe after looking down, smiles and slowly walks forward. It would become a staple/cliché of the early superhero genre (bullets pinging, slow walk forward) and I’m curious if this is where it began. Anyone?
But the problem with a superhero battling non-superheroes is that he can’t be too smart or it’s over like that. So Captain Marvel is always turning back into Billy at the wrong time. In chapter 2, for example, Betty has to deliver a lens as ransom and Billy agrees to follow her—but he takes his friend, Whitey (William Benedict), too? Why? So he can’t say “Shazam”?
My favorite script idiocy is in Chapter 9, “Dead Man’s Trap.” The Scorpion has taken Dr. Lang (George Pembroke) hostage but Captain Marvel shows up and frees him. The Scorpion escapes through a sliding bookcase in his den and into a series of tunnels and caves below. There, somehow, he manages to elude a superpowered being and returns to the den—where Lang is making a phone call to Betty. By this point, the Scorpion is unmasked, so Dr. Lang sees who he is. (We don‘t.) And what does he say with Betty on the other line? A name, maybe? Of course not.
Lang: You’re the Scorpion?
When Captain Marvel finally makes it back to the den, however, Lang is still alive. And with his dying breath, he tells Captain Marvel the true identity of the Scorpion. Kidding. He talks about his safe, and the “death trap” (a machine gun) there, but not the name that would end the whole thing. Of course not. We’re still in Chapter 9.
At times, this stupidity seems to extend to the production staff:
Freedom, equality and justice
This Captain Marvel definitely has his dark side. In the first chapter, he scatters natives machine-gunning the archeologists and then trains the machine gun back on them; he slaughters them, basically. Then there’s Chapter 5, where he just picks up a dude and throws him off a roof.
”Captain Marvel" does hold our interest more than most serials of its day. During Chapter 11, I noted the following about our list of potential suspects:
- Chai Tochali
I’d long suspected Malcolm, the expedition leader, who divvied up the lenses in the first place. Chai Tochali is the native loyal to the expedition but often filmed in shifty-eyed menacing angles. Given both, I figured the Scorpion had to be the nondescript Bentley, who, in Chapter 6, had his lens stolen but survived. A bit of a giveaway, when you think about it. Everyone else whose lens was stolen died during the robbery.
For the final chapters we return to Siam, where, beneath Mount Scorpio, all the lenses are brought together and the golden scorpion’s atom-smashing ability is demonstrated on a native, who is incinerated. Next up: Betty. Except now it’s the Scorpion’s turn to get stupid. He suspects a connection between Billy Batson and Captain Marvel and wants to know the secret. So he removes Billy's gag, Billy shouts SHAZAM!, and ... Etc. As Billy is revealed to be Captain Marvel, so the Scorpion is revealed to be Bentley—a false prophet. His right-hand man, Rahman Bar (Reed Hadley), thus atomizes him with the golden scorpion.
In the real world (or a sequel-crazy one), Rahman Bar would then try to use the golden scorpion to bring power and wealth to his unconquered peoples, but here he just gives it back while Captain Marvel makes a speech:
This scorpion is a symbol of power that could’ve helped to build a world beyond man’s greatest hopes: a world of freedom, equality and justice for all men. But in the greedy hands of men like Bentley, it would’ve become a symbol of death and destruction. Then until such time when there’s a better understanding among men, may the fiery lava of [Mount] Scorpio burn the memory of this from their minds.
Then he tosses it into the lava. Off-stage, we hear a voice (not Billy’s) say “Shazam!” and Captain Marvel is gone. He’s no longer needed in a world without a golden scorpion. Just men like Bentley. Not to mention Hitler.
I’m curious if Republic Pictures ever thought about a sequel. They made four Dick Tracy serials, four Zorros, two Lone Rangers, but just one Captain Marvel. Because it was so expensive? Because the good Captain was tied up in IP litigation with DC Comics for most of the ’40s? Because Frank Coughlan, Jr. joined the miltary and left show biz for 20 years? I don’t know. But 30 years later, “Shazam!” became the first live-action series I would watch regularly—Saturday mornings. No throwing guys off roofs by then; instead, long hair, moral lessons and winnebagos. In one episode, Frank Coughlan, Jr. guest-starred as a guard. It’s his last acting credit.
Movie Review: Phantom of Chinatown (1940)
“Phantom of Chinatown,” a wholly unremarkable film, is remarkable for casting a Chinese-American actor, Seattle's own Keye Luke, as its Chinese-American detective. At the time, that may have been unprecedented.
Most such roles, of course, went to white actors who put on yellowface: Warner Oland for 16 “Charlie Chan” movies, Sidney Toler for 22 more, and Roland Winters for six more after that. Peter Lorre starred in eight “Mr. Moto” movies in the late 1930s while Boris Karloff played U.S. Treasury detective James Lee Wong for five movies during the same time. Prestige pictures engaged in this practice as well: Paul Muni and Luise Rainier in “The Good Earth,” Katherine Hepburn in “Dragon Seed,” Marlon Brando in “Teahouse of the August Moon,” and up to the present day—if you want to call “Aloha” or “Dr. Strange” prestige pictures.
“Phantom” is another James Lee Wong flick—the last one. Apparently Karloff’s contract was up and apparently someone at “poverty row” Monogram Pictures decided to save on makeup by hiring Luke, who had already appeared as Charlie Chan’s No. 1 son, Lee Chan, in maybe a dozen Charlie Chan movies, as well as originating Kato in the “Green Hornet” movie serial that same year. Since he’s younger than Karloff, and since we see him introduced to Capt. Street, his nominal partner in the other movies, this one is essentially a prequel.
George Washington was disinterred here
Luke isn’t just the lead in the movie but the lead detective in a murder case—despite not being a detective himself and spending most of his screen time with a real detective, Capt. Street (Grant Withers), who, despite the title, is almost comic relief here. He grouses his way through the entire movie and seems to have zero ideas how to solve the crime. I enjoyed him immensely.
The movie opens, inauspiciously, with a lecture. Dr. John Benton, an archeologist, has recently returned from the Gobi Desert in southern Mongolia, where he and his team uncovered the tomb of ... wait for it ... a Ming Dynasty Emperor! What was the tomb of an emperor of the Ming Dynasty, which was based in Beijing and Nanjing, doing in Mongolia? Yeah.
Dr. Benton quickly introduces us to several of our supporting players and future suspects:
- his pretty daughter, Louise Benton (Virginia Carpenter), who winds up mattering not at all
- her fiancee, the handsome pilot, Tommy Dean (Robert Kellard), who ... ditto
- Benton's camerman, Charles Frasier (John Dilson)
- his secretary, Win Len (Lotus Long, alliteratively ready to be Superman’s girlfriend)
In the excavation, Dr. Benton found a scroll in the tomb but hid it in his jacket. Did he also unearth a curse? Fierce winds came up, and one of his party, the co-pilot, Mason (John Holland), went missing and was presumed dead.
At this point in the lecture, to quote a little e.e. cummings, “He spoke. And drank rapidly a glass of water.” Then, extending beyond cummings, he clutched his throat and died.
That’s when Jimmy Wong shows up, along with Capt. Street, forever griping. A day later, Jimmy figures out the water was poisoned, and there may be clues on the film Frasier was showing. Frasier is attacked in his home; Win Len, tied up in the closet, seems to be playing her own game, and the bad guys, rather than making a clean getaway, keep lurking in the shadows.
There’s not much of a phantom—not even the “Scooby Doo” kind. The title character is Mason, who never died, despite the best efforts of the two-timing Frasier, and who’s holed up in Chinatown until he gets his revenge and the scroll. As for the scroll’s secret? Coordinates to “an eternal flame,” which Wong realizes means a giant oil deposit. As for Win Len's secret? She’s working for the Chinese government to make sure the scroll, and the oil, remain China’s. As to which Chinese government she’s working for—Mao’s or Chiang’s—that goes unasked.
But she gets it. In the end, Wong delivers the ancient scroll to Win Len. “This is part of China,” he says. “I think we can trust you to see that it remains so.”
Most of the movie is a big nothing, but one scene is so ahead of its time it makes the movie worth writing about. Halfway through, Wong and Street show up at the Benton house, where they are greeted by the snooty French butler, Jonas (Willy Castello), and a few workers moving a coffin.
Street: What's all this?
Jonas: The sarcophagus from the Chinese tomb, sir, that once contained the body of a Ming emperor.
Wong: They tell me a Chinese archaeological expedition is digging up the body of George Washington in exchange.
Jonas (affronted): Sir?
Wong (offhand): Well, it gives you a rough idea. Is Win Len home?
Luke’s line reading on “rough idea” is perfect. Makes you wonder what might’ve been in a more enlightened movie industry.
China about to get its oil back. Its Ming emperor? Probably not.
Little mentioned but maybe long remembered?
How did Monogram get enlightened enough in 1940 to cast a Chinese-American in a Chinese-American role? Who knows? Maybe if you were a “poverty row” studio, you were allowed a more enlightened racial viewpoint than the majors. What did you have to lose? Cf., Philip Ahn, “Great Guy,” Grand National. Others?
A film noir website does say that the Wong series—based on 20 short stories by Hugh Wiley that appeared in Colliers magazine between 1934 and 1940—ended with this one because of Luke: “Rather depressingly, the substitution of Luke for Karloff persuaded many cinema managers, especially in the South, to ditch the series.” Their source on this? Unmentioned.
The unprecedented casting and breakthrough role goes unmentioned in Keye Luke’s New York Times obit as well. In an interview Luke did with Heidi Chang as part of a Seattle Chinese oral history project just before his death, he's asked about high points in his early career and mentions “Oil for the Lamps of China,” a 1935 Warner Bros. picture starring Pat O’Brien, in which he plays a Chinese communist officer who helps drive Standard Oil out of China. He also mentions playing the patriach in “Flower Drum Song” for three years on Broadway in 1950s. Of “Phantom”? 没有了. Gone like a ghost.