Sunday March 07, 2021
The Greatest Invention in the World
“Of course, the great [Production Code] rule was that if there was a kiss, the parties had to keep one foot on the floor. But, in spite of those restrictions, I have a feeling that it was much more erotic, that there was much more an atmosphere of eroticism without the nudity, without the absolute license there is now [in the 1970s]. Now, of course, it's obligatory that everybody be in the nude. ... I think clothes are the greatest invention in the world, and one should be awfully careful who one undresses.”
-- George Cukor in Peter Bogdanovich's “Who the Devil Made It: Conversations with Legendary Film Directors.”
Thursday March 04, 2021
Movie Review: Bullets or Ballots (1936)
There’s a small, startling scene in this code-era Warner Bros. gangster flick that almost makes it worth watching 85 years later.
Edward G. Robinson plays Johnny Blake, a NYC detective demoted to Bronx flatfoot, who roughs up crooks and demands that they tip their cap to him when they pass him on the street. Early on, we see him punch a crook through the glass door of a nightclub and when a passing cop asks him what’s going on, Blake simply says “Put him under arrest for destroying property.” And they do. That's not the startling scene, though.
Basically, he's the original Dirty Harry, who complains about mollycoddling crooks in a manner Clint Eastwood would understand:
I’m no use to them downtown anymore. … They don’t believe in kicking the rats into line any more. Nowadays, you’re supposed to kiss them and tuck them in.
And yet his best friends seem to be Lee Morgan (Joan Blondell), a cabaret manager who runs a lucrative numbers game in Harlem with her former hairdresser, Nellie LaFeleur (Louise Beavers); and Al Kruger (Barton MacLane), the top gangster in town. Blake visits Kruger shortly after the death of Ward Bryant (Henry O’Neill), a crusading newspaper editor who gets it at the hands of “Bugs” Fenner (Humphrey Bogart), Kruger’s trigger-happy No. 2 man—despite Kruger’s warning to leave Bryant alone.
Kruger is the decent gangster, see? He and Blake even reminisce about “the good ol’ days” when Blake would beat confessions out of him in some back alley. Oh, what fun. It’s all so phony it makes me long for the good ol’ days of pre-code Hollywood—just three years previous—when Robinson could play gangsters, men and women could sleep together (Lee and Blake don’t even kiss), and screenwriters like Seton I. Miller didn’t have to strain so much to shoehorn expository dialogue into the story.
At one point, Kruger ticks off reasons Johnny should actually join his gang: he’s being disrespected by the department, he’s poorly paid, and he’ll make more with Kruger in a year than with the force in his lifetime. Smoking his pipe, Blake turns him down, just as he had when Kruger made the offer years earlier. “If I’d gone in with you,” Blake says, of that earlier offer, “I would’ve done it to nail you.”
Which is exactly what happens. That’s the movie laid out in a sentence.
In the wake of the Bryant shooting, Blake’s old friend Captain McLaren (Joe King) is promoted to police commissioner, promising to wipe out the rackets, and he begins by cleaning house. Blake is one of the first cops to go. So Blake takes Kruger up on his offer. When the other gangsters complain about the headbusting cop in their midst, Kruger insists Blake would never double-cross anyone. One wonders how he got such a rep, but that's exactly what he's doing. Halfway through, we find out he's working undercover to destroy the rackets, find Bryant’s murderer, and discover who the real money men are. (Turns out: a respectable banker and other local business leaders.)
It's working, too. The rackets are being destroyed via his inside information. Which is when the others finally convince Kruger that Blake isn't to be trusted. Blake walks into a room full of suspicious, angry faces, but he saves his ass by offering them a more lucrative pipeline: Lee’s numbers racket in Harlem. That means Lee gets squeezed out. Right away, two men show up in her office and tell her and Nellie that they're through.
And that’s when we get to our startling moment.
First, she and Nellie push back—particularly Nellie. “You and no other gunman’s going to tell us what to do,” she says. One of the guys smiles and says they’re not gunmen, they don’t even carry guns, see? At which point Lee suggests they meet Timothy. Nellie smiles, nods, and calls to him as she opens the door: “Timothy!” He’s standing right there, a tall, sturdy Black man in suit and hat. “Throw those gentlemen out on their ears,” she says.
And that's exactly what he does.
It's pretty great. I can’t recall another mainstream 1930s Hollywood movie in which a Black dude beats up two white dudes.
The actor is John Lester Johnson, who appeared in 39 movies, mostly uncredited, from the 1920s to the 1940s. That was his second career. His first career was as a light heavyweight boxer. In 1916, he took on an up-and-comer from the west coast, Jack Dempsey, at the Harlem Sporting Club, and won a 10-round decision, breaking Dempsey’s ribs in the process. Dempsey, of course, went on to the heavyweight championship and became one of the most famous celebrities of the 1920s; Johnson, the victor, got a one-way ticket to Palookaville. For all the obvious reasons, one assumes.
All of which is way more interesting than “Bullets or Ballots.”
Stories to be told
The real-life background to “Bullets or Ballots” is also interesting. Kruger and Fenner are based on Dutch Schultz and Lucky Luciano, who took over the Harlem numbers rackets started by Nellie’s character, Stephanie “Madam Queen” St. Clair. Good god, can you imagine the movie they could make of that today? (UPDATE: I guess that's part of what “The Cotton Club” was all about, as well as a 1997 gangster flick, “Hoodlum,” starring Laurence Fishburne. Might have to revisit “Cotton” and check out “Hoodlum.”)
Blake, meanwhile, was based on a real NYC cop, “Broadway Johnny” Broderick, who was known for beating up crooks—so much so that one of them was freed by the state supreme court in 1937 because he’d been hurt so badly the court felt “this man has more than expiated his crime.” “Broadway Johnny” liked the spotlight but didn't like this movie much—for narrow reasons. “I ought to flatten [Robinson],” he said. “Suppose I had let my kids go see that picture, and they had seen him, playing me, and actually taking a drink and smoking a cigar!”
As for how it ends? The cops close in on the gang as the gang closes in on Blake. Fenner machinates in that bad-guy Bogie manner—turning Lee against Blake, killing Kruger, then shooting Blake on his way to meet the crooked local business leaders. Wounded, Blake kills Fenner, guts out the meeting, and allows the cops to arrest the higher-ups. Outside, he dies in McLaren’s arms. “Keep kicking them into line, Mac,” he gasps as he dies. “I like to think, when those mugs pass a policeman, they’ll keep on tipping their hats.”
Not exactly “Is this the end of Rico?”
“Bullets” is the first of five movies Robinson and Bogart made together. For most, Robinson was the good guy and Bogie would get it. For the last, “Key Largo” in 1948, Bogart was the star, Robinson was resurrecting his ’30s gangster role, and it’s Robinson who gets it.
Both Louise Beavers and John Lester Johnson are interred at Evergreen Cemetery in Los Angeles. An IMDb user created a list of movie people buried there, and since it’s all African Americans I assumed it was a Black cemetery. It’s not. It’s just one of the few in LA that, at the time, allowed Blacks to be buried there. Yet another story to be told.
Wednesday March 03, 2021
'Free, White and 45'
More takes on that early 20th-century catchphrase “Free, White and 21,” which I wrote about in 2009 (“Fugitive from a Chain Gang”) and revisited 10 years later (“What Price Hollywood?”). This spin is from George Cukor's “Dinner at Eight:
The character on the left is Hattie Loomis, whose carping husband, Ed, would rather go to the movies than to the titular event. She's played by Louise Closser Hale, who sadly died before the movie premiered. The character on the right is Millicent Jordan, host of the dinner, at which most everything that can go wrong does. Recognize her? Billie Burke. Six years later she played Glynda the Good Witch of the North in ”The Wizard of Oz.“ Her husband in this movie is played by Lionel Barrymore, who played one of the most horrible men in cinema, Mr. Potter from ”It's a Wonderful Life.“ He's about the only good man in ”Dinner at Eight."
For more on the history of the phrase, check out Andrew Heisel's well-researched 2015 Jezebel article.
Tuesday March 02, 2021
Movie Review: The Roaring Twenties (1939)
There’s a nice musical homage near the beginning of Raoul Walsh’s “The Roaring Twenties” that’s indicative of the place James Cagney held in 1930s cinema as well as the attention to detail of the artists and artisans at Warners Bros. Or it’s just a nice coincidence.
Eddie Bartlett (Cagney) is returning stateside after WWI, but late, more than a year after the war ended. I'm reminded of Hemingway's short story, “Soldiers Home”: “People seemed to think it was rather ridiculous for Krebs to be getting back so late, years after the war was over.” Both characters were patrolling the Rhine, but the situation is slightly more ridiculous for Eddie because everyone thinks he’s dead: his landlady, his old boss at the garage, his best friend Danny (Frank McHugh). It’s a running gag for a bit. At this point, though, Eddie doesn’t know any of that. He’s fresh off the boat, in fighting trim, garrison cap at a jaunty angle. And just before he walks up the steps to his old brownstone, he smiles as an organ grinder plays “I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles” in the crowded streets outside. That's the same song that played over the opening credits and in the closing scene of “The Public Enemy,” the movie that made Cagney a star eight years earlier.
So: homage or coincidence?
In homage’s favor is the level of detail in the scene. Walsh could’ve just had Cagney walk up the steps but instead we get this great tableau: two boys share an apple, two girls dance with each other to the organ grinder’s song, and a kid in a whoopee cap stares up solemnly at the organ grinder’s monkey. A tall, older well-dressed man enters the shot looking for an address. People keep coming and going. I suppose it represents a return to normalcy. Or the promise of.
The song may recall “Public Enemy” but Eddie Bartlett is no Tom Powers. Start with the fact that Eddie went to war. To Tom, that’s for saps—like his older brother Mike, the ding-ding. Eddie may be tough like Tom, but he’s also a nice guy. He winds up in a foxhole with a bully named George (Humphrey Bogart), and not only stands up to him, but stands up for another soldier, a law grad named Lloyd (Jeffrey Lynn), who, after admitting he’s scared, is taunted by George.
George: He’s one of them guys that cheer the loudest back home, and then when they get over here, and the going gets tough, they fold up.
George: I’m talking to him.
Eddie: And I’m talking to you. I don’t like heels or big mouths. We’re all scared, and why shouldn’t we be? What do you think they’re using in this war—water pistols? [To Lloyd] You’re all right, kid. I like guys who are honest with themselves. Stay that way.
Love that scene. At this point, Eddie is the perfect balance between nice (Lloyd) and nasty (George), a la the split halves of Capt. Kirk in “The Enemy Within,” an early, first-season episode of “Star Trek.” He doesn’t run from trouble but he’s not looking for it, either. Later, in fact, as the boys talk up what they’re going to do when the war is over, Eddie says he just wants his old mechanic’s job back: “All I know is I don’t want any more trouble,” he says. Great, ironic line.
So how did this great guy become a gangster? Blame the times.
This is the only Cagney gangster movie that suggests as much, isn’t it? Tom Powers and Rocky Sullivan were into crime at a young age, and I assume Cody Jarrett, too. They didn’t need Prohibition and the Volstead Act. Eddie does.
Back home, the mechanic’s job isn’t waiting for him, no job is, and Eddie winds up driving/sharing Danny’s cab. Then one night, delivering a package of bootleg booze to Panama Smith (Gladys George), the cops slap the cuffs on him. He’s innocent, Panama isn’t, but he’s the one who gets 60 days. Guess who his lawyer is? Lloyd, forever ineffectual. But Panama pays his fine and introduces him to the world of speakeasies. He and Danny start out in distribution—the cabs are a good way to deliver booze—but when the supplier jacks up the price they get into production as well: bathtub gin. The money comes fast and easy. And Eddie changes.
He doesn’t become mean or violent so much as obsessed with money—and, oddly, workplace efficiency. It's less forever blowing bubbles than forever counting bills. Then he gets really greedy. He tries to make a deal with Nick Brown (Paul Kelly), a bootlegger who has the good stuff; but Brown, a WASP eating spaghetti in an Italian restaurant, can’t be bothered. So Eddie hijacks the stuff off of Brown’s boat, which just happens to be captained by George. That’s how Bogie is reintroduced into the narrative—he becomes Eddie’s right-hand man. Per ’30s Bogie, he's also restless, thin-skinned, and dangerous.
At this point, it become ante-upping in the gangster tradition. For heisting the booze, Brown kills Danny; Eddie kills Brown for killing Danny. George had tipped off Brown, but Eddie doesn’t have proof so he merely delivers a warning to George. Bad move. One of many he makes around this time.
Weaving throughout all this is a romance that’s awkward, one-sided, and keeps running hot and cold in a way that doesn't feel real. It starts back in France with American girls sending photos to soldiers. George gets one from an unattractive woman—they’re quite cruel to her—while Eddie lucks out with Jean Sherman (Priscilla Lane), a pretty blonde with long hair, beret, and a come-hither look. Back home, he visits her in Mineola on Long Island and it turns out she’s …15 or something. Meaning she was 14 or 13 when she sent the photo? Yikes. The photo came from a high school play (“The Fortune Teller” by Victor Herbert), and Eddie tries to politely excuse himself. She: “Oh, aren’t you going to tell me about the war? And how you suffered?” He: “Honey, you’ll never know how I suffered.”
Years later, a theater manager keeps stiffing him for bootleg booze, so Eddie pays him a visit but becomes distracted by a girl in the chorus line: Jean, of course, now a young adult. In the earlier scene, she was interested in him, he wasn’t in her. Now she can't be bothered with him—at all—while he won't go away. He waits outside the stage door, insists on walking her to the station, then takes the train with her to Mineola. He even walks her to her door at like 2 a.m. (Where did the doll she’s holding come from, by the way? Did we lose a scene?) By now she’s relaxed around him, saying she’s had the best time, even though on the train he seemed a little dickish—mocking her youth and ambitions. He’s also not exactly a gentleman by the door. She says good night, he says “Kind of a quick brushoff, ain’t it?” She suggests the porch, he suggests inside. She’s about to let him inside (good god, girl) when she mentions in passing that her mother died the year before. It's at this moment, when nothing’s stopping him, that Eddie suddenly becomes a gentleman. She re-invites him inside and he's like, “Oh no. As you said, it’s getting late.” I guess the dead mother touches his heart? Anyway he goes to Panama’s place to get Jean a regular singing gig.
Is this the beginning of the divide in Cagney’s cinematic treatment of women? Early in his career, particularly pre-code, he was always checking them out and leering after them and dragging them across the floor by the hair. From the 1940s on, he’s almost paternal with his romantic partners: patting their cheeks and kissing their foreheads. Maybe because he’s so much older by then? He only had seven years on Joan Blondell but 16 on Priscilla Lane, and this gap will just grow: 28 on Barbara Payton (“Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye”), 31 on Anne Francis (“A Lion is in the Streets”) and 35 on Shirley Jones (“Never Steal Anything Small”).
The whole “gangster gets girl a singing gig” is based on the Moe Snyder/Ruth Etting story, which Cagney played for real with Doris Day in 1955, where he was obsessive and cruel. Not here. Around Jean he’s smitten and solicitous. Does he even make one move? Mostly, he sits in the audience, squeezes Panama’s hand, smiles up at Jean singing. Whatever interest Jean had in him, meanwhile, has long vanished—particularly after she meets Lloyd. They start up a relationship which everyone but Eddie can see. George tries to tell him, Panama tries to tell him. No soap. The nightclub owner calls him a sucker and Eddie yanks the dude’s cigar out of his mouth and mashes it back in. It’s the grapefruit scene all over again but with a dude. One wonders if it wasn’t a constant Warners directive: Find something Cagney can mash into someone’s face.
Eddie finally finds out about Jean the night Danny dies. Helluva night: He loses his best friend, his right-hand man, and his girl. No wonder he sidles up to the bar. Up to this point, Eddie’s been a teetotaler, literally drinking milk, but now he orders a bottle of the hootch he’s been peddling. We suspect it’ll lead to his downfall.
Except that’s not what leads to his downfall. What does? Blame the times again.
Throughout, we’ve been getting faux “March of Time” montages—anticipating “Citizen Kane” by a few years, and apparently put together by a young Don Siegel, who was a montage man back in the day. They’re not bad. John Deering’s stentorian voice moves along the action and the years until we reach the stock-market crash:
1929! … Confusion spreads through the canyons of New York's financial district, and men stare wild-eyed at the spectacle of complete ruin. More than 16 and a half million shares change hands in a single day of frenzied selling. The paper fortunes built up over the last few years crumble into nothing …
That’s what does him in. He loses tons of money, and then, to shore up his losing position, he stupidly sells his only tangible assets—the fleet of taxis—to George, the traitor, for a pittance. He panics, George doesn’t, George wins. Then George sticks the knife in. “I’m gonna leave you one [cab],” he says. “Just one. Cause you’re gonna need it, pal.”
Which he does. Another montage of Eddie in increasingly shabby clothes and settings, often with Panama, and when Prohibition ends he’s back to driving the cab George left him. Eddie Bartlett is our representative 1920s figure: He rose with Prohibition and fell with the stock-market crash.
Don't worry, there’s more downfall. We've got to tie up all the loose ends. One day, outside of a fancy department store at Christmastime, who happens to get into his cab but Jean. She’s excited to see him—chattering away about Lloyd’s work with the D.A.’s office and their four-year-old son—but Eddie’s dead-eyed, flat voiced, and she eventually gets the message and sinks back into her seat. Oddly, he helps take the packages into the house, where he meets her bratty kid (“Come over someday and shoot Indians WITH ME!”), as well as Lloyd, whose D.A. team is going after George’s racket. Eddie warns him that George plays rough, and in the next scene George’s men deliver just that warning to Jean: “If your boyfriend don’t bury [the evidence], your boyfriend will get buried himself.”
So who does she run to? Eddie, of course. By now he’s in a dive bar with Panama, oiled to the gills, trying to douse the torch he still carries for Jean. For all the build-up of him drinking, this is the one time we see him drunk. It’s also the one time he turns down Jean, who wants him to talk to George. “Why should I?” he asks. “Lloyd’ll be killed. … Eddie, please, for my sake.” He still refuses. You know who convinces him? Panama, the one holding a torch for Eddie. I guess? Sorta?
Alright, I’ll say it: A lot of the movie doesn’t make much sense. “Roaring Twenties” is a movie beloved by cineastes, but of Cagney’s four big gangster flicks I think it’s his weakest. It starts strong, is well-made, but the characters serve the needs of the plot rather than themselves. The shift from nice-guy Eddie to greedy Eddie, for example, never feels real, nor does his stock-market panic, while the relationship with Jean is full of starts and stops and odd turns. More, if your hero is going to make a fool of himself over a girl, she needs to be worth it. Jean isn't worth it.
There there’s the final act bit about Eddie telling himself he’ll bounce back? As a gangster? Could no one remind this guy what he was before the Volstead Act? It’s not just that he’s forgotten, I get the feeling the movie’s forgotten. According to Patrick McGilligan’s book, “Cagney: The Actor as Auteur,” the original “Roaring Twenties” screenplay was one of the worst Cagney’s brother and manager William had ever seen, and up to 10 Warners screenwriters tried to improve it. And even then Cagney, McHugh and Bogart wound up improvising a lot of dialogue.
But we do get a good end. At this point, George lives in a mansion with half a dozen gunmen protecting him, and they decide to bring in the soused, disheveled Eddie for a laugh; but George thinks that Eddie, like Lloyd, knows too much. Eddie, who could never read Jean, reads this threat fine, disarms and kills a gunman, then kills George (who, like all Bogie villains, proves a sniveler in the end), then blasts his way out of the joint. He almost makes it, too, but he’s shot running down the street. That sets up our famous ending in the snow. As he stumbles up and back down the church steps, he’s tracing his own rise and fall, before dying, in pieta fashion, in the arms of the ever-loyal Panama. A passing cop asks who he was and what was his business. “This is Eddie Bartlett,” she says. “He used to be a big shot.”
Pullback, rising music, The End.
Interesting footnote: I assumed this movie—whose working title was “The World Moves On”— was eventually called “The Roaring Twenties” because that’s what everyone called the 1920s back then. It was the definitive phrase. Now I’m thinking it’s the definitive phrase because of this movie. According to newspapers.com, which tracks American newspapers through the years, the phrase comes up only 198 times in the 1920s, and in the 1930s it ranges from just six mentions in 1932 to 78 mentions in 1935 and ’37. But the year this movie came out, that number suddenly shot up to 4,164. Maybe “Roaring Twenties” would’ve become definitive anyway, but I like to think Cagney helped.
For all my complaints, the movie is still fun. Gladys George is excellent. Her character, originally called Kansas Smith, is based on Texas Guinan, a one-time actress who ran speakeasies in the ’20s and greeted crowds with the phrase, “Hello, suckers!,” which George does here. Bogie is excellent, too. You begin to understand why he was stuck playing second-rate gangsters with chips on their shoulders for so long: he does it well. There’s that great heist scene at the government facility where he disarms the guard (Joe Sawyer), then realizes who it is: “Well, if it ain’t my old sergeant,” he says, practically licking his lips. “I told ya we’d meet some time when you didn’t have no stripes on your sleeves.” BLAM! This is the last of three movies Cagney made with Bogie, and Bogie’s killed in all of them; it’s the first of four movies Cagney made with Raoul Walsh, and Cagney is killed in three of them.
Cagney’s in fine form, too. I like the foxhole scene— the steel that goes up in Eddie’s eyes with George, his gentleness toward Lloyd. In the cigar-mashing scene, I like how Eddie is ready to deck the guy but checks himself, calculates, goes for the cigar instead, which may be less paintful but much more humiliating. It's often such little touches that make a movie. In the dive bar near the end, Jean’s left, Panama has made her case and been rebuffed, and Eddie is waiting for Panama to get her coat. As he stumbles through the bar, he passes a man playing a tune on the piano, “My Melancholy Baby," I think, the same song Jean sang on the train to Mineola. Eddie listens with a wistful look on his face. When he helps Panama on with her coat, he finally admits she was right: They had finished out of the money. It’s never stated, but that’s when he decides to confront George. The understated that says so much.
Friday February 26, 2021
Sacha Baron Cohen: 'This handful of people has the power of emperors'
“When I did bump into people from Silicon Valley at Hollywood parties—because, yeah, billionaires want to go to Hollywood parties and meet celebrities—I would try to get them in a corner and say, 'Listen, this is going on, and it's going to lead to the end of democracy.' I'd give them my whole schpiel, and they were ultimately, 'Oh, I thought you were going to be a bit funnier.'
”So at one point I had quite a heated discussion with one of them at an art gallery thing in San Francisco about Holocaust deniers, just asking why they were allowing Holocaust denying, and he said, 'No, we're not, we've sorted all that out.' And I pulled up their website and said 'What about this?' And it was a [link to a] website saying that six million was a lie; it was a Holocaust denial site. And he said, 'No, that just really shows both sides of the argument.' And I said, 'What — what argument??? There's an argument about whether the Holocaust existed?'
“You have this fundamental realization that a lot of these people, they're incredibly smart in a tiny area, but they should not be given the reins of power. I mean, it's so mad that this handful of people has the power of emperors. This period will be looked on as absurd: that government did not intervene earlier; that these people are allowed to profit off of spreading lies that lead to mass death.
”When Mark Zuckerberg says he is a defender of free speech, he is lying. The U.S. Constitution says that Congress—not companies, Congress—shall make no law abridging free speech. So that does not apply to private businesses like Twitter and Facebook. If they want to ban violent rhetoric and harassment, they have every right to do so. And the analogy I made at the ADL [speech in 2019] was that if a neo-Nazi comes goose-stepping into a restaurant and starts threatening customers and says he wants to kill Jews, the resturant owner has every legal right, and actually a moral obligation, to kick that Nazi out. And so do the internet companies. The idea that they were the defenders of free speech is ludicrous. I mean, they make editorial decisions continually. They don't allow nipples but they did allow Nazis.
“It's a lie. It's a lie that they're using to make money.”
-- Sacha Baron Cohen, “Sacha Baron Cohen Has a Message for Mark Zuckerberg,” on The New York Times website. Worth listening to.
Thursday February 25, 2021
Movie Review: The Bee Gees: How Can You Mend a Broken Heart (2020)
Wait, where was “Sgt. Pepper”?
That’s what I asked my wife the day after we watched “The Bee Gees: How Can You Mend a Broken Heart” on HBO—a doc we both enjoyed. She gave me a tight smile and laughed a note for what she assumed was a feeble joke.
No no, not the album, I said. Or not the Beatles album. The movie.
The movie starring the Bee Gees and Peter Frampton? With the Bee Gees as the Hendersons and Peter Frampton as Billy Shears in an all-star musical of Beatles’ songs? Came out in the summer of ’78. The doc didn’t mention it at all.
That’s a real thing? she asked incredulously.
A huge bomb. I looked up some of the details. The Bee Gees were filming it in the fall of ’77—right as “How Deep Is Your Love?” was climbing the charts, and months before “Saturday Night Fever” was even released. I’d always assumed they were cast in “Pepper” because of the success of “Fever” but it was before then. It was a Robert Stigwood production, as was “Fever,” and Stigwood was their manager, so I guess that’s why. But it seems worth a mention.
And yes, I get it, you can’t put everything into a 90-minute doc. At the same time, it’s the only feature film the Bee Gees starred in, it was the music of the Beatles, whom they idolized and wanted to be, and it was supposed to be a kind of passing of the torch even if it wasn’t nearly. The release of “Pepper” also adds to the group’s late ’70s oversaturation, which led to the inevitable backlash against them. Which is so much of this story.
It is fascinating how the Bee Gees and their younger brother Andy Gibb were always being played on the radio, and then how they were never being played on the radio. But to paraphrase “All the President’s Men,” “Don’t tell me you think that all of this was the work of little Stevie Dahl.”
The doc, written by Mark Monroe (“The Cove,” “The Beatles: Eight Days a Week”) and directed by longtime producer Frank Marshall (Bogdanovich, Spielberg), implies as much. We get a great juxtaposition of the Bee Gees playing to sold-out stadiums in the summer of ’79, safe in their bubble, while over in Chicago, Dahl, a tubby, white radio shock jock in army helmet, organized Disco Demolition Night at Comiskey Park: a White Sox twi-night double-header would cost just 99 cents if you brought a disco record that would get blown up at second base in-between games. It was a fiasco, led to a riot, and the White Sox had to forfeit the second game. A Black usher who was there says he pointed out that a lot of the records being added to the pile weren’t disco at all but R&B—Isaac Hayes and Stevie Wonder albums are shown—adding to the idea that the disco backlash was racist and homophobic in nature. Maybe. Or maybe these stupid white kids grabbed what they could to get into the park. (BTW: Did anyone really destroy “Songs in the Key of Life” for a ChiSox game? Talk about your dumbshit moves.)
There are other cultural touchstones the filmmakers could’ve added besides Dahl. This is a longshot, but I was hoping they’d quote the stream-of consciousness, cultural flotsam thoughts of middle-aged Toyota dealer Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom in “Rabbit Is Rich,” John Updike’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, published in 1981. It's the summer of 1979, Rabbit is driving around in his red metallic Toyota Corona and listening to the radio:
The disco music shifts to the Bee Gees, white men who have done this wonderful thing of making themselves sound like black women. “Stayin’ Alive” comes on with all that amplified throbbleo and a strange nasal whining underneath: the John Travolta theme song. Rabbit still thinks of him as one of the Sweathogs from Mr. Kotter’s class but for a while back there last summer the U.S.A. was one hundred percent his, every twat under 15 wanting to be humped by a former Sweathog in the back seat of a car parked in Brooklyn.
(One can imagine Updike getting canceled today for that second sentence.)
By the end of the novel it’s January 1980, and Rabbit is listening to the radio in a grape-blue Toyota Celica Supra: “Though he moves the dial from left to right and back again,” Updike writes, “he can’t find Donna Summer, she went out with the Seventies.”
When I first read that sentence, decades ago, I found it reductive. But is it? Disco was fucking everywhere in 1979: “Le Freak,” “I Will Survive,” “Knock on Wood” and “Ring My Bell” all topped the charts. Donna Summer had three #1s in 1979 and never another. The Bee Gees had three #1s in 1979 and never another. Maybe we do flip switches that quickly.
And how much of the anti sentiment (of Blacks, disco, gays, sex and Bee Gees) was part of the general rising tide of conservatism that swept the U.K. and U.S. in that period? When the Bee Gees released “Spirits Having Flown” and it went to No. 1 on the album charts in the U.S., U.K., Australia, Germany, Sweden and New Zealand, it was Feb. 1979: gas lines hadn’t begun forming, hostages hadn’t been taken, and Afghanistan hadn’t been invaded. When they released their next album, “Living Eyes,” it was Oct. 1981, Reagan and Thatcher were in power, every dumbfuck around every corner was chanting “USA! USA!” and the album just died. All over the world. In the U.S. and U.K. it peaked at #41 and #73, respectively. Ouch. No wonder Barry Gibb seems so desperate and pissed off when he faces a camera on an early ’80s TV show and says ‘Does anybody mind if we exist in the ’80s? Thank you.” He and his brothers went from everywhere to nowhere. They went out, as Updike wrote, with the Seventies.
“The Bee Gees: How Can You Mend a Broken Heart” is fun, poignant and brought back a lot of memories. I began listening to the radio with regularity, and American Top 40 religiously, in 1975 when “Jive Talkin’” hit the charts. I never sought them out but I enjoyed a lot of their pre-“Saturday Night Fever” singles: “Nights on Broadway, “Fanny (Be Tender with My Love”) (which I’d completely forgotten), and “Love So Right.” I liked all that; I was a sappy kid. I also liked a lot of the “Fever” stuff, to be honest: “Stayin’ Alive,” “Night Fever,” “You Should Be Dancing.” I just disliked their ubiquity, and the fact that they clogged the top 5 singles charts like no band since the Beatles. That felt like blasphemy to me. Plus I hated “How Deep Is Your Love?” I could never understand why it was so big. Drove me nuts. I remember getting into an argument with my best friend, Peter, at the time. He kept talking up the Bee Gees, I dismissed them, he said who do you like, I said Paul Simon, we mocked each other’s tastes and then didn’t speak for months. Ninth grade.
I do wish Marshall and Monroe had gone a bit deeper and paid greater attention to chronology. Rick Dees’ “Disco Duck” is played as an example of the schlock that followed the Bee Gees’ huge success in 1978, which got people got tired of disco, but it was actually released two years earlier. That matters. Chronology matters.
The broken heart of the title refers to Barry, the band’s leader and only surviving member. Maurice died in 2003, Robin in 2012, while Andy, a huge pop sensation in the 1970s, struggled with drug addiction and died in 1988, age 30. Anyone’s heart would break. “I’d rather have them all back here,” Barry says at the end, “and no hits at all.”
Wednesday February 24, 2021
Rascally Roy Defends Stan the Man
“That Stan Lee was the co-creator, and not the sole creator, of the key Marvel heroes from the Fantastic Four and Spider-Man through Daredevil and the Silver Surfer can hardly be in dispute at this late stage. I myself, back in the '80s when I wasn't working for him, had a friendly argument with him on that score over lunch. I soon realized that, as much as he respected the talents and contributions of artists ... such as Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko to the characters introduced in the 1960s, he could never really bring himself, in his own mind, to think of them as 'co-creators.' The two of us had to agree to disagree, and I never saw any use in bringing it up again.
”If I can judge from Riesman's writings, and from other sources over the years, I'm sure I'd have encountered the same kind of blinders-on stubbornness in Jack Kirby (oft-quoted in this book), who saw Stan as little more than the guy who scribbled a few words of dialogue and rode to unearned glory on his back.
“Both men were, I think, wrong, and that's why Riesman is so ill-advised to use nearly every opportunity he gets to weight things in Jack's favor and against Stan.”
-- Rascally Roy Thomas, the first Marvel Comics editor-in-chief after Stan Lee, in a guest column for The Hollywood Reporter: “Roy Thomas, Former Marvel Editor, Pushes Back on New Stan Lee Biography.” The biography is “True Believer” by Abraham Reisman, and based on Roy's column I won't be reading it, but it's worth reading this. I particularly like the early draft Stan wrote for FF#1 and how it differed from what we finally read. (Sue couldn't turn visible again? Ben had a thing for her? No pun intended.) What always goes unmentioned in these Stan v. Jack arguments, too, is what amounted to the real Marvel Comics breakthrough: treating superheroes as normal people with problems. I don't think there's any dispute that the idea came from Stan. Plus the whole tongue-in-cheek braggadaccio thing that was part of Marvel's charm? That was Stan's charm. 'Nuff said.
Tuesday February 23, 2021
Never Be Anyone Else But You
How did you decide to use Ricky Nelson [for “Rio Bravo”]?
I saw Ricky Nelson on a number of TV shows, so I asked his father to send me some of his very latest stuff. I liked it and sent him a script. His father said he liked the script and that was it. We just put him in.
You gave him [Montgomery] Clift's old mannerism from Red River of rubbing the nose with his index finger.
We did anything we could to help him. For two or three days I even shot scenes I didn't need.
Just to relax him?
Yes. And after a few days I thought he did quite well. I imagine it added about a million and a half to the picture's gross. Over in Japan, Ricky Nelson's picture in the ads was in the middle—Wayne and Martin were smaller on the side. We happened to catch him just at the height of his popularity. When we went to a bullfight in Tucson during the shooting, they paid very little attention to Wayne—they just watched Rick Nelson. I think he's OK.
Not exactly Montgomery Clift, but ...
Oh, my God, no, but you can't find those around every corner.
-- Howard Hawks and Peter Bogdanovich in “Who the Devil Made It: Conversations with Legendary Film Directors.”