erik lundegaard

Movie Reviews - 1940s posts

Monday July 29, 2019

Movie Review: The Fighting 69th (1940)

WARNING: SPOILERS 

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.

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Posted at 10:34 AM on Jul 29, 2019 in category Movie Reviews - 1940s   |   Permalink  
Friday July 26, 2019

Movie Review: Adventures of Captain Marvel (1941)

review of the 1941 movie serial The Adventures of Captain Marvel

WARNING: SPOILERS

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:

  1. A bridge collapses with Betty’s car on it
  2. Captain Marvel is electrocuted and knocked unconscious on a conveyor belt heading toward a guillotine (classic!)
  3. Billy is flying a plane with a bomb aboard
  4. Betty is unconscious in a runaway car
  5. Captain Marvel is trapped by molten lava
  6. Captain Marvel is electrocuted (again)
  7. Betty and Billy (gagged) are in a shack about to be bombed
  8. Billy is unconscious in a car with a bomb in it
  9. Billy and Betty, trying to open a safe, are in the sites of a machine gun
  10. Billy and Betty are on a sinking ship off the coast of Siam
  11. Volcano/lava

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?
Bang!
Lang: Uhhhh....

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:

  • Fisher
  • Carlyle
  • Lang
  • Bentley
  • Malcolm
  • 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.

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Posted at 07:04 AM on Jul 26, 2019 in category Movie Reviews - 1940s   |   Permalink  
Sunday March 10, 2019

Movie Review: Phantom of Chinatown (1940)

WARNING: SPOILERS

“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 of Chinatown movie review“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.

Phantom of Chinatown: Keye Luke

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.

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Posted at 07:42 AM on Mar 10, 2019 in category Movie Reviews - 1940s   |   Permalink  
Wednesday March 06, 2019

Movie Review: The Shanghai Gesture (1941)

WARNING: SPOILERS

I assumed they were trying to do “Casablanca” in Asia: desperate refugees in a lawless, international city, with one eponymous establishment at the center, where the roulette wheel spins constantly and the winner is announced by a French croupier. And this guy looked exactly like the croupier in “Casablanca.” Because, oops, he was: Marcel Dalio, the Jean Renoir staple who fled Nazi-occupied Europe for bit parts in Hollywood.

As with Rick in “Casablanca,” we keep hearing about the owner, Madam Gin Sling, before seeing her. Unlike with Rick, it’s a bit of a disappointment. She’s another white actress (Ona Munson of Portland, Oregon) in Oriental makeup; a bland Dragon Lady. Like Rick, she confronts a past love who abandoned her. Unlike Rick, her feelings are unambiguous and thus uninteresting. She’s just out for revenge. We see her constantly corrupt the innocent rather than, as with Rick, rescuing them against his better judgment. If anything, with her victims, we get whiffs of director Josef von Sternberg’s earlier great film “The Blue Angel”: that paralysis when you’ve sunk so far you can never get out.

She never gets in a good line, either. No “Of all the gin joints...” or “I remember every detail: The Germans wore gray, you wore blue” or “I was misinformed” or “I never plan that far ahead” or “There are certain sections of New York, Major, that I wouldn’t advise you to try to invade,” or ...

Stop me any time.

Two plotlines converged in a Hollywood
The Shanghai gesture movie review CasablancaMine isn’t exactly an original thought, by the way. Many see parallels between the films:

  • “...like Casablanca on drugs”
  • “...like a twisted version of...”
  • “...like the evil twin of...”

But my initial assumption was wrong: “The Shanghai Gesture” wasn’t copying “Casablanca” because it predates “Casablanca” by a year—Jan. 1942 vs. Jan. ’43 release—while its successful stage version in 1926 predates the unproduced “Everybody Comes to Rick’s” by a decade and a half.

Which makes me wonder if “Casablanca” was an attempt to remake “Shanghai Gesture.”

Instead of fighting to flee to Lisbon, everyone here is fighting to stay in Shanghai. The first one we see doing this is Dixie, the chorus girl (Idaho’s Phyllis Brooks, laying on a thick Brooklyn accent and attitude), who’s being rousted by cops until Mother Gin Sling’s right-hand man, Dr. Omar (Victor Mature), greases palms. After that, we never see her outside of Madame Gin Sling’s. In a world less controlled by Joseph Breen, her new profession, the oldest, would’ve been obvious, but here it’s fudged. Plus she never seems worse for wear. She never loses her gum-cracking ways. 

The main person fighting to stay is Madame Gin Sling herself. Her casino is in the international area where the money is, but a British developer, Sir Guy Charteris (Walter Huston), has purchased a large swath of it so she’s getting the boot to the Chinese side. Determined to stay, she asks her subordinates to find out more about Sir Guy.

That’s one plotline. The other involves a young woman named Poppy (Gene Tierney, stunning), who shows up at Gin Sling’s, becomes enamored of Dr. Omar and the delicious evil she feels in the place, then becomes corrupted. One minute she says she can stop gambling whenever she wants, the next she’s losing everything at the roulette wheel. She descends down into it like it’s the ninth circle of hell. It's filmed that way, too.

The two plotlines converge, sadly. Poppy turns out to be the daughter of Sir Guy. Oh, and Sir Guy is also the former lover of both Dixie and Madame Gin Sling. The Madame says 20 years earlier he abandoned her and stole from her and broke her heart; he made her the hardhearted creature she is today. Except he says he didn’t do these things. The money is still there, he says.

Oh, and Poppy, whom she corrupted, isn’t just his daughter; she’s hers, too.  

How does Madame Gin Sling react to this? Does she feel remorse? For herself and the daughter she never knew? Got me. Hollywood keeps her inscrutable. To go with all the “likees” bandied about in the film—mostly by foreigners.

Shanghaied by Breen
So why, given the cast and the director and the “Casablanca”-like storyline, does it all fall flat? It’s not just the crossing plotlines. It’s that nobody feels anything. They’re all dead-eyed. There’s no tragedy here because we don’t see or feel what was lost. 

Not even with Poppy. She begins the film a glossy girl enamored of bad things, and she ends it supposedly totally corrupted. Except instead of projecting the horror of it all (see Emil Jannings, “Blue Angel”), she simply seems a brat. It’s kind of absurd. And it gets more so when, in the great confrontation scene, Sir Guy more or less throws up his hands and lets Madame Gin Sling handle Poppy. Which she does for about 30 seconds. Then she shoots Poppy dead. Yes, you read that right. From outside, Sir Guy hears and senses this brutal act. At which point, Madame’s “Coolie” (Mike Mazurki) asks him, “You likee Chinese New Year?” And that’s the end.

Nothing. 

Supposedly the Code of Conduct boys demanded more than 20 changes to the script before they’d give their stamp of approval: Originally, according to Wiki:

  • the story was set in a brothel
  • “Mother Gin-Sling” was named “Mother Goddamn”
  • instead of European finishing schools, Poppy was raised in mom’s whorehouse

Which means Gin Sling knew about the daughter, etc. Who knows what the movie might’ve been in less prudish times.

Final thought: The word “Shanghai” was a hugely popular title trope in Hollywood in the 1930s. From a brief IMDb search: The Ship from Shanghai (1930), East of Shanghai (1931), Shanghai Express (1932), Shanghai Madness (1933), Shanghai (1935), Charlie Chan in Shanghai (1935), Daughter of Shanghai (1937), West of Shanghai (1937), Exiled to Shanghai (1937), Shadows Over Shanghai (1938), Incident in Shanghai (1938), and North of Shanghai (1939). Apparently we likeed.

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Posted at 10:39 AM on Mar 06, 2019 in category Movie Reviews - 1940s   |   Permalink  
Wednesday November 28, 2018

Movie Review: The Shadow (1940)

WARNING: SPOILERS

How many movies give their superhero’s superpower to the supervillain?

The Shadow 1940 reviewIn the pulps, and on the radio, the Shadow could “cloak men’s minds” as to appear invisible. Here, that power belongs to the Black Tiger, a man intent on bringing the city’s industrial leaders to their collective knees. Oddly, he only displays this power before his flunkies. In an elaborate and oft-repeated sequence, he appears silhouetted in the hallway outside their hideout with a light emanating from above. (In this shot, he has puffy blonde hair parted in the middle and seems less villain than Paul Williams circa 1978.) Then he pulls a switch, there’s a hum, and ... he’s gone! Now invisible, he walks into the hideout, always trailed by this beam of light, sits at his desk, turns on a few gadgets, and, with a plaster black tiger head on the desk flashing its eyes and emanating smoke from its mouth, he berates his men in a tremulous, high-pitched and highly annoying voice.

They never explain how he can do this. It seems a trick of cameras and lighting—a Hollywood trick, you could say—but in that last episode they don’t go into it. Last episodes in serials are rarely for exposition. It might get in the way of the thousandth fistfight.

Since the Black Tiger has invisibility, what superpower does the Shadow have? None. He’s just a dude in a cape and scarf with a maniacal laugh who’s good at fistfights. His signature laugh actually works against him here. In the radio series, it announced his presence but nobody knew where it came from, which is why it was terrifying. It was like he was everywhere. It was like he knew what evil lurked in their hearts! Here, it merely allows the villains to get the drop on him.

That said, Victor Jory makes a pretty good Shadow.

Invisibility > Fisticuffs
Some background. I began collecting comics in the summer of 1973 and a few months later The Shadow made his return in Batman #253. (Batman: “That laugh ... coming from everywhere ... and nowhere!”) He was new to me but a legend to the caped crusader. As they shake hands in the end, Batman even admits, with a nod toward the pulp origins of superheroes, “I’ve never told anyone this ... but you were my biggest inspiration.”

I was inspired as well. My friend Dan and I were busy creating our own series of comic books, Rory Comics, that were mostly derivative of Marvel. Their Falcon became our Eagle (“Rory’s first black superhero!”); their Dr. Strange became our Magus (“Last of the Maji”). And because of Batman #253, as well as the resurrection of “The Shadow” radio series Sunday nights after “American Top 40,” we introduced/stole The Shadow as well. He appeared as the villain in “James Steele: Master Detective” and then was given his own comic:

The Shadow in Rory Comics

My Rory Comics ripoff, circa 1977.

Why was I drawn to him—rather than, say, the Lone Ranger, whose radio series was also resurrected Sunday evenings? Was it the Shadow’s invisibility? (E.L. Doctorow is quite good on this.) His ability to see into hearts? To see deeply while remaining unseen? Who wouldn’t want that power?

The Shadow didn’t even start out as a character. He began as the narrator of an early 1930s CBS radio show, “Detective Story,” which was a series of unrelated pulp mysteries held them together by this mysterious narrator. As Raymond W. Stedman writes in his book, “The Serials: Suspense and Drama by Installment”:

The piercing voice, the macabre laugh, the ironic tones brought fan mail that reflected considerably less interest in the story than in the mysterious “Shadow” who told them. Almost overnight two things happened. The radio program evolved into the eerie dramas in which The Shadow was not narrator but principal participant, and Street and Smith introduced this fascinating new character in The Shadow magazine.

So why did Columbia Pictures take away his powers? Apparently they thought kids wanted action they could see. In the minds of the decision-makers, fisticuffs > invisibility.

By this point, the formula for ur-superhero serials was well-established:

  • The villain issues orders from behind a desk
  • His henchmen go into the world to implement them
  • The hero confronts them, is endangered (cliffhanger), but survives and foils the plan
  • Repeat

But “The Shadow” also steals from “The Spider’s Web,” a well-regarded Columbia serial from 1938:

  • The villain’s identity is hidden
  • His scheme is to disrupt big business
  • He turns out to be one of the city’s big businessmen

In both serials, the hero has three identities: himself, the masked hero, and a shady underworld figure who learns key info from the bad guys (Blinky McQuade for The Spider; Lin Chang for The Shadow). Both heroes have teams: an assistant (Jackson/Harry Vincent); an exotic assistant (Ram Singh/Wu); and a girl (Nita Van Sloan/Margot Lane).

In both, too, the “next episode” trailer doesn’t exactly milk the cliffhanger. Instead, it gives us next week’s cliffhanger. At the end of Chapter 7, for example, after The Shadow gets into a gunfight behind barrels marked “ACID,” there’s a fire and everyone gets out except The Shadow. He’s standing in the middle of the room when there’s an explosion and the roof caves in. How will he survive?

Here’s what they say about the next chapter:

“Tonight, the Limited [a train] with all aboard will be destroyed. The Shadow tries to prevent the disaster. He reaches the switch, he’s diverting the train, when he’s attacked by the Black Tiger’s Men! He fights them off, throws the switch, and then he’s knocked unconscious in the path of the roaring express. See THE SHADOW RIDES THE RAILS, next week’s brilliant episode of The Shadow!”

They just jump ahead. They assume he survives. Kind of defeats the purpose of the cliffhanger, doesn’t it?

There’s such absurdities throughout. In the second episode, Cranston and Vincent (Roger Moore) follow the bad guys to their hideout outside the A1 Garage Office. Inside, we hear this conversation:

Hood 1: Hey, whaddaya doing?
Hood 2: Wearing masks from now on.
Hood 1: Well, what’s the big idea?
Hood 2: Orders from the Black Tiger. Get ’em on. 

Cranston then knocks out a hood and enters the lair with his mask. Five minutes later, after the Black Tiger finds out he's been duped, he tells his flunky, Flint (Jack Ingram), “From now on, no more masks!” Consider it the shortest management innovation in history.

That said, the dumbest guy in the serial has to be Commissioner Weston (Frank LaRue). In the first chapter, he has Cranston drive to his office to show him a card from one of the Black Tiger’s men that says “Cranston Labs, 2:00” on it. What time does he do this? About five minutes before 2:00. Not much time to prepare. He also thinks The Shadow and the Black Tiger are the same person—“without evidence” as we say today. And when Cranston correctly suggests someone close to the business group is the Black Tiger, he waves it away. “We’ve developed something that indicates just the contrary,” he says. The police commissioner is such an idiot that one businessman, Turner (John Paul Jones), actually suspects the commissioner.

Turner is part of one of my favorite goofs in the serial. In chapter 7, the useless, harrumphing businessmen meet again at the Cobalt Club. Two of their own, Prescott and Marshall, have just been kidnapped, but the rest don’t know that. One of them declares, “But what on earth could’ve happened to Prescott and Marshall?” As he's saying it, look across the table at Turner. He’ actually mouthing the line.

I’ve never seen that in a movie before.

As for the identity of the Black Tiger? It’s Marshall. Not that that helps much. The businessmen are all so generic, it’s like “Which one is he again? Oh right. ... I guess.” Shame they didn’t make it more of a whodunit. But that would’ve required time and money. And maybe more talent. 

Who knows what evil ... nah, forget it
Beyond the missteps, what did I like? Jory, as mentioned, is good, with a piercing gaze, and physically correct for the role. Philip Ahn provides some quiet dignity as Wu—30 years before he’d do the same as Master Kan on “Kung Fu.” Roger Moore’s Vincent gets in some jokes. Margot Lane is played brusquely by Veda Ann Borg, but she has little-to-no chemistry with Jory. It’s a shocker to find out they’re supposed to be a couple.

By the way: You know what we never hear? 

Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men? The Shadow knows!

This thing is five hours long, it’s one of the most famous lines in pulpdom, and yet they never use it. That’s pretty much all you need to know about “The Shadow.”

SHADOW SLIDESHOW


  • Thanks to Columbia, The Shadow doesn't turn invisible and he doesn't say “Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men?” It's like Superman being grounded and James Bond not saying “Bond. James Bond.”  

  • Superhero/villain ephemera were big back then. Everyone had to have a calling card.

  • Is it the villainous Black Tiger ... or Paul Williams in concert circa 1978?

  • Jack Ingram acting with nothing. 

  • Lamont Cranston and Commissioner Weston confer on the case. Weston is about to make his 99th incorrect assumption. 

  • Cranston as Lin Chang; at right is Philip Ahn, better known as the kindly Master Kan on “Kung Fu”—a series that needs to be resurrected. 现在。  

  • Cranston and Margot Lane displaying their usual sexual chemistry.

  • The businessmen of the Cobalt Club displaying their usual smarts. 

  • The Shadow phones! It's not “Who know what evil...” but it'll have to do. *FIN*
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Posted at 08:21 AM on Nov 28, 2018 in category Movie Reviews - 1940s   |   Permalink  
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