erik lundegaard

Monday June 14, 2021

My Taiwan Movie

You know those company ice-breakers where you‘re supposed to go around the room and tell colleagues something about yourself they don’t know? I usually go with this one: “I was in a 1988 Taiwanese kung-fu comedy. It was called ‘Wan nung yuandong yuen’ and I played a hui waiguoren, or bad foreigner. In a bar fight, I get a bottle broken over my head by Hu Gua, the Johnny Carson of Taiwan TV.”

With a good crowd, it usually gets follow-ups:

  • No, I don't know kung fu or any martial art. I'm almost defenseless, really.
  • My Chinese is so-so. It was better then. 
  • The bottle was a breakaway, not a real one, but yes it hurt a little. 
  • No, the movie wasn't a big hit. Most Taiwanese probably haven't heard of it. Most Taiwanese at the time probably never heard of it. 

As for how I got involved? I had a lot of foreign friends—meaning western friends—at National Taiwan Normal University, or Shi Da, and someone at the school was contacted by someone at the movie studio, asking for foreigners, and I was invited along for the ride. I think we did all the filming over two nights, 9 PM to 5 AM or something. We had a few westerners—or maybe just one?—who knew martial arts, but he injured his foot during filming. As for why I had the honor of getting the bottle broken over my head by Hu Gua? Earlier, I was asked to do a scene where I got punched and I was supposed to fall backwards and I went all in, slamming myself against the ground. So much so they were momentarily worried about me. After that, they probably thought, “This idiot would probably be good for the bottle-breaking scene.” 

Basic premise: An international sports competition takes place in 1920s China, and we‘re the pushy foreign athletes who invade a local bar one night. I show up about 18 seconds in on the left side of the screen. Hu Gua is the guy in the Boy Scout outfit who tries to keep the two sides from fighting by, among other things, quoting Confucius: <<有朋自远方来, 不亦乐乎?>> Translation: “When friends come from far away, it is indeed a pleasure.” I heard that quote a lot, actually. The Chinese were always saying it to make sure you never picked up a check.

When I returned from Tawain in 1988, I brought a VHS copy of the film to show family and friends. A few years ago, along with some other analog items, I brought it to a digital transfer station in Queen Anne so they could make a DVD of it.  Then I posted that scene to YouTube

OK, drumroll... 

Yeah, the subtitles needed work.

For some reason, IMDb calls the film “Kung Fu Kids Part V” but it's definitely not No. 5 of anything. Its Chinese title translates to “Almighty Athletes” or literally: “10,000 Able to Do Exercises People.” No five anywhere. 

Oh, and the Chinese misfits won the international sports competition. 當然。

Here are some photos from back in the day.


  • I vaguely remember waiting outside Shi Da with the others and being driven (in a van?) to the movie studio on the outskirts of Taipei at about 11 PM. The above—an older period piece, a western—was being filmed as we arrived. There was no “Quiet on the set!” because they shot without sound and dubbed later.

  • The young Chinese guy tries to hit on the western girls until the big guy on the right objects. His name is Bobby, to which the Chinese guy says “Bo pi? Wo ye yo.” “Foreskin? I also have.” It was that kind of “Benny Hill” humor.

  • Here's the western kid who knew his stuff. He looks morose because he'd just injured his foot. The career that got sidetracked.

  • The peace sign is a gesture Chinese girls often made. It didn't mean peace; it was just something cute to do. 

  • Getting the run-through for my 15 seconds of fame. 

  • Here's the grainy video version before the bottle is broken. We had to do it twice because the first time the bottle didn't break properly on the first swing. So Hu Gua actually hit me in the head with a bottle three times.

  • Hu Gua clowning around on set. Nice to hear he's still doing well. 

  • A common sight: western soft drinks being sold with images of western stars. Wonder who the western stars would be today? Probably K-Pop stars. 

  • Near the end of a long night. 

  • I have such a vivid memory of this: Being dropped off on the streets of Taipei at about 5 AM as everything was waking up. These were outside a store waiting to be brought in. 

  • And here it is. The guy with the elongated arms, Bong Cha Cha, was my favorite. He had a Joe E. Brown quality to him.

I miss all that. I miss not knowing where life is going to take you.

Posted at 06:53 AM on Monday June 14, 2021 in category Personal Pieces   |   Permalink  

Sunday June 13, 2021

Lancelot Links is Still Worried About Our Democracy

Just trying to remind myself of all the horror that went on and is still going on.

  • Trump-inspired death threats are terrorizing election workers, says Reuters. Not last November or this January but this April, when it was long over except for the bullshit. Just read the lede of the piece. On April 5, the wife of Georgia secretary of state Brad Raffensperger received a text saying she “going to have a very unfortunate incident.” Mid-April it was: “We plan for the death of you and your family every day.” End of April: “You and your family will be killed very slowly.” It has to stop, Gabriel Sterling said of the Georgia situation last December. It hasn't. Trump and company make it worse every day. They're a shithole country unto themselves. 
  • Ambassador Kurt Volker may have perjured himself as a GOP witness during the first impeachment trial (over Ukraine) of Donald Trump, says the Washington Post. He said there was no quid pro quo, and “Vice President Biden was never a topic of conversation” in the texts he turned over. But Volker was party to a July 2019 phone call between Rudy Giuliani and a top Ukranian official in which the president's lawyer said: “All we need from the President [Volodymyr Zelensky] is to say, 'I'm going to put an honest prosecutor in charge, he's gonna investigate and dig up the evidence that presently exists, and is there any other evidence about involvement of the 2016 election, and then the Biden thing has to be run out' ... Somebody in Ukraine's got to take that seriously.” So split hairs—it's not a text. But he knew what he knew, withheld evidence, and is obviously a dangerously partisan actor. Let that be his obit.
  • This seems the biggest Trump-era news story of the past week: Trump's DOJ sought the phone records of Democratic congressional leaders and their families, says the Wall Street Journal. Among those targeted: Rep. Adam Schiff and Rep. Eric Swalwell. 
  • Oh, Trump's White House counsel Don McGahn was targeted, too, along with his wife, says the New York Times. Apple Inc. says it turned over their phone records to the FBI in 2018. The why of it remains unknown. “... the disclosure that agents secretly collected data of a sitting White House counsel is striking as it comes amid a political backlash to revelations about Trump-era seizures of data of reporters and Democrats in Congress for leak investigations.”
  • Common refrain among Dems is that history will judge Trump and his stooges poorly. Maybe. Or maybe they'll write the history the way they want it. This week The New Yorker has a piece on how maybe Roman emperor Nero wasn't as bad as we think. He just had bad PR.

“And it's still going on, Danny. In today's newspaper, it's still going on. Right outside the door of this house it's going on.” — Paul Isaacson to his son Daniel in E.L. Doctorow's “The Book of Daniel.” 

Posted at 02:17 PM on Sunday June 13, 2021 in category Lancelot Links   |   Permalink  

Sunday June 13, 2021

The Democratic Party Needs to Listen to Marc Maron More Often

“It is Memorial Day. I do want to put my heart out there for people who have lost people, in all fights. And I do again want to stress my gratitude to the people that have had the courage to get vaccinated like fucking adults: the people that had the courage to take a hit for the herd, and move forward, believing in science; and with the belief that we can somehow push this virus back. We did it. Those are the people that fought for our freedom this year—the people that got vaccinated. Not the belligerent babies who didn't get vaccinated for whatever reason. I mean, I do have some empathy and understanding for people who have health issues and don't want to get vaccinated. But all of those people who fought against the fight to stop the spread of the virus, because of what they saw as 'the fight for their personal freedom,' can go fuck themselves, on this Memorial Day.”

-- Marc Maron on his WTF podcast on May 31, 2021. This is the way the Dems need to frame the argument. The other side has usurped the freedom label but it's really ours. We fought to make us all more free; so that we can go to restaurants and ball games and visit family again. They fought for their own freedom to be dicks and douches. Just be upfront about it. The other side is crazy and getting crazier, and you don't stop them with kindness.

Posted at 09:03 AM on Sunday June 13, 2021 in category Politics   |   Permalink  

Saturday June 12, 2021

Movie Review: Employees' Entrance (1933)

WARNING: SPOILERS

I’ve seen a lot of pre-code movies, so I know the score, but “Employees’ Entrance” still shocked me.

Warren William plays Kurt Anderson, general manager of Franklin Monroe & Co. department store, who is also the worst aspects of capitalism personified. “My code is smash—or be smashed,” he says. When a clothier, Garfinkle (Frank Reicher), can’t deliver all of an order for an advertised sale, Anderson cancels the order and sues the man for the advertising and estimated loss on the sale—ruining him in the process. When his right-hand man, Higgins (Charles Sellon), offers no new ideas to boost sales, Anderson not only fires him but insults him out the door—calling him old, sick, dead wood. Later, Higgins commits suicide, and while everyone stands around distraught, Anderson offers this eulogy: “When a man outlives his usefulness, he ought to jump out a window!”

Yet somehow this horror show comes off as the hero of the story. Maybe because he’s true to his code? He tells off subordinates and superiors equally. He sneers at softness and praises and promotes ruthlessness. When Denton Ross (Albert Gran), a jolly executive, admires Anderson’s tenacity, Anderson responds, “Beginning to like me, eh? I despise you for that.” When his new right-hand man, Martin (Wallace Ford), storms into Anderson’s office with a bottle of poison, threatening to kill him, Anderson offers the man a gun: “Go ahead—and don’t miss.” When Martin hesitates, Anderson calls him yellow. When Martin merely wings him, Anderson says dismissively, “You can’t even shoot straight, can you?”

All of which is kind of fun. But then there are the rape scenes.

In their place
“Employees’ Entrance” is ostensibly a Depression-era romance between the up-and-coming Martin and the bewitchingly beautiful Madeline (Loretta Young), who models clothes for customers at the store. But every romance needs its complication, and the complication here is Anderson, their boss. 

Martin is an up-and-comer because he has good ideas—putting the men’s briefs near the women’s dept., for example, since wives tend to buy for their husbands—and also because he’s ruthless. Anderson overhears him refusing to pay an artist for subpar work, then dismissing him with contempt, and he’s so impressed he offers him Higgins’ job. Then he peers in close.

Anderson: You’re not married are you? … This is no job for a married man. Where would I be with a wife hanging around my neck?
Martin: Don’t you like women?
Anderson: Sure, I like them. In their place! But there’s no time for wives in this job. Love ’em and leave ’em—get me?

Martin gets him. Except he’s just begun a romance with Madeline; and when they marry, they have to keep it secret from the boss. That’s the complication—or part of it. The bigger part is that earlier in the movie Anderson rapes Madeline.

That’s how we’d view it today anyway. Did Warner Bros. in 1933? Or society at large? Nah. A cursory search of the movie’s 1933 reviews indicates a “both sides” kind of thing: what girls do for a $10-a-week job; how employers take advantage. It's how the movie was marketed: titillation with a wink.

Here’s how it goes down. We open on a pullback shot of a busy department store over which we get its annual sales figures—$20 million in 1920—and then a 10-second vignette of a longtime employee getting fired by the unseen Mr. Anderson. Through the 1920s we go, with the ruthless Anderson raising annual sales to $100 mil by 1929. After the Wall Street Crash, sales dip to $45, and the board meets with concerns of Anderson’s overzealousness, suggesting he get a handler, but Anderson will have none of it. He demands twice the salary and no supervision or he’ll go to their competition. Then he insults all of them, particularly the fatuous owner Mr. Monroe (Hale Hamilton).

William is great in the role. With his angular face, sloe eyes, prominent, dignified nose and moustache, he already has a wolfish aspect, and he makes the most of it. One night, patrolling the store after hours, he hears a piano playing in a “model home” and investigates. It’s Madeline. The conceit is she’s homeless and hungry and needs a job, but at the same time she’s as put-together as a young Loretta Young. And if she's hiding there, why the piano playing? Kind of a giveaway. Anyway, sensing all this, the wolf closes in. He agrees to feed her; he agrees to give her a job. Then when she tries to leave, he closes the door and looms close.

Anderson: You don't have to go, you know.
Madeline: Oh, yes I do.
Anderson: No, you don't.

At which point he kisses her. Kisses? More like mashes his lips against her unresponsive ones. Fade out.

That’s the first instance. The second, which occurs at the annual office party, is even worse. By this time, Martin and Madeline are married and fighting. Off Martin goes to drink and sing “Sweet Adeline” with the boys, while Madeline sits and frets by herself. And the wolf closes in. Anderson plies her with champagne, and when she gets woozy he tells her to go to his room, 1032, to lie down for a bit. He’ll remain at the party, he says. For some reason, she believes him. Five minutes after she goes up, he goes up, finds her asleep on the bed, positioned alluringly, and loosens his tie. Fade out.

We expect some kind of comeuppance for all this—isn’t that how movies work?—but that's the shocking part of “Employees' Entrance”: It ever arrives. I don’t even think it departs. When Anderson finds out about the marriage—when he discovers that the woman he’s twice assaulted is married to the right-hand man he considers almost a son—he gets mad at them. “She’s hogtied you, my boy,” he tells Martin. “Turn her loose. A little money’ll do the trick.” The most startling moment is when Anderson blames Madeline for his own sexual assaults when he knows Martin is eavesdropping on the conversation:

“I was all right for you the first night I met you. I was all right for you the night of the party. Let’s see, you were married to Martin then, weren’t you? And that’s what you call love. You women make me sick! Come on, come on, how much?“

Holy shit.

That’s when she slaps him, leaves, drinks poison, is rushed to the hospital. Cue gun scene with Martin.

OK, there’s nearly comeuppance. For some reason, the board is ready to drop him again, but Ross, who is supposed to be Anderson’s handler, now works to get the proxy votes from the globetrotting Monroe to save Anderson. And he does. And at the last minute, they rush to the meeting to save the day. It’s a common movie trope—we’ve seen it a million times—but it’s usually about saving the hero. Here, it’s about saving a ruthless SOB who uses his position to sexually assault women … who, sure, also seems like he's the movie’s hero.

It almost ends there, too, on our victorious hero, back to his ruthless ways. But then we get a final perfunctory scene of the cuckolded Martin visiting the sickly Madeline at the hospital and promising they’ll start over. “It’s been done before,” he says helplessly.

Fade out.

Boop-oop-a-doop
Overall, the film is light comedy, with blackout-like “bits” sprinkled throughout. A Jewish man considers a football for his son until the salesman calls it a “pigskin.” A woman asks where the basement is and a bored saleslady tells her “12th floor.” There are perennial problems with the men’s room, the elevator operator keeps enumerating (in a flat voice) the long list of items available per floor, and the company proudly—and one assumes speciously—reiterates that its founders are descendants of Benjamin Franklin and James Monroe.

“Employees’ Entrance” was directed by Roy Del Ruth—who did some of the better pre-code Cagney flicks: “Blonde Crazy,” “Taxi!” and “Lady Killer”—and heralded the return of Alice White, a late-era silent star who got involved in an early 1930s scandal. Apparently she had an affair with British actor John Warbuton and accused him of beating her so badly she required plastic surgery; allegedly, she and her ex, writer-producer Sy Bartlett, then hired goons to beat up Warburton. All of that hurt her career. For a while, she did comic supporting roles, such as this and “Picture Snatcher,” married actor-writer John Roberts in 1940, then disappeared from the screen. In the 1950s, after a divorce, she went back to secretarial work, which she’d been doing when Charlie Chaplin discovered her in the 1920s. She died in 1983.

Here she plays Polly Dale, another clothes model. She’s great: funny, sassy, brassy. Anderson hires her to seduce the portly Ross, and we see her using her boop-oop-a-doop charms on him but to not much avail. She reports back he only wants to play chess. “Try Post Office,” Anderson tells her.

Big department stores were new things back then, and the trailer for this one promised to tell you the stories behind the scenes, but you don't have to squint much to see the whole thing as a metaphor for a movie studio. Everyone's scrapping to get by in the depths of the Depression, while one man, a near-dictator, a mogul say, ruthlessly cracks the whip and shows them the way—while taking advantage of women on the side. No wonder Warners made Anderson the hero. He’s them.

All in fun in 1933.

Posted at 09:56 AM on Saturday June 12, 2021 in category Movie Reviews - 1930s   |   Permalink  

Wednesday June 09, 2021

Movie Review: Midnight Run (1988)

Robert De Niro plays Jack Walsh, a bounty-hunter who is offered $100,000 by his bail bondsman (Joe Pantoliano) to bring in Jonathan Mardukas (Charles Grodin). Unfortunately Mardukas embezzled $15 million from noted wiseguy Jimmy Serano (Dennis Farina) and is in hiding. Walsh has his own past with Serano, which we learn by and by, but he tracks down Mardukas fairly quickly. The trouble is transporting him from New York to Los Angeles. Mardukas refuses to fly--has a phobia--and after an incident the two board a train. Good thing, too: since the bondsman's phone has been tapped (by the FBI) and his assistant is a fink (for the mob), both the FBI and the mob were waiting for them at LAX. Meanwhile, the bondsman, worried because he hasn't heard from Walsh, sends another bounty hunter after them--John Ashton as the hilariously dimwitted Marvin Dorfler.

Midnight Run (1988)

Written by:
George Gallo

Directed by:
Martin Brest

Starring:
Robert De Niro
Charles Grodin
Yaphet Kotto
John Ashton
Dennis Farina
Joe Pantoliano

Quote:
“Here comes two words for you: shut the fuck up.”

Misadventures multiply. Mardukas keeps initiating dialogue, hoping to get to know Walsh. Walsh, of course, wants part of no conversation, and De Niro and Grodin play off each other hilariously here. One of my favorite moments is Walsh on the phone threatening the bail bondsman. “If I find out you sent (Dorfler) after me I'm going to break Mardukas' neck and throw him in a swamp where no one will ever find him!” Mardukas, next to him, gives a start, but Walsh shakes his head slightly, scrunching his nose. Beautiful.

There's great support, not only from Ashton but Yaphet Kotto as FBI agent Alonzo Mosely, whose badge Walsh has swiped. Kotto plays it straight, as a competent officer who is repeatedly made to look the fool by Walsh. His “slow burn” is one of the best in recent years.

Grodin is the real find: the way he balances the inner-strength of his character with his almost womanly predicament--not to mention the lackadaisical, humming way he pesters Walsh. De Niro is De Niro and gives us--even in a comedy!--another uncomfortable, seat-shifting scene. Penniless and on the lam in Chicago, Walsh is forced to revisit his ex-wife whom he hasn't seen in nine years. While they argue, his daughter shows up, looking thin and vulnerable, very much an adolescent girl. The mother goes to get money and car keys and Walsh and the girl are left to fend for themselves. “So what grade are you in now?” he asks. “Eighth grade,” she tells him. “The eighth grade, really,” he says, nodding, before lapsing into a most uncomfortable silence--interminable for all that is left unsaid.

-- March 26, 1999

Posted at 08:35 AM on Wednesday June 09, 2021 in category Movie Reviews - 1980s   |   Permalink  

Tuesday June 08, 2021

Masked

Quick vignette. The other night, I was rushing to keep an appointment at a restaurant—about the fourth time I'd been to a restaurant since things began opening up—when I realized I'd lost my mask en route. These days, walking around Seattle, I mostly keep my mask around my wrist just in case I need it, and it wasn't there. Could I have dropped it? I looked at the sidewalk behind me. Nothing. I was beginning to head back home, knowing I needed the damn thing to get into the restaurant, and knowing all of this would make me even later than ever, when I finally figured it out: I was wearing it. 

It's the pandemic equivalent of searching for the glasses that are perched atop your head. I guess it means I'm really used to wearing these things. 

Posted at 08:14 AM on Tuesday June 08, 2021 in category Personal Pieces   |   Permalink  

Monday June 07, 2021

Movie Review: Ceiling Zero (1936)

WARNING: SPOILERS

“Ceiling Zero” is both same-old same-old and not. 

It’s the fourth James Cagney-Pat O’Brien picture in two years, their second as pilots, with Cagney once again the hot-dog womanizer who endangers everyone while O’Brien is the firm man in command who teaches him how to be a team player. In “Devil Dogs in the Air” and “The Irish in Us,” Cagney steals O’Brien’s girl; here, he’s already stolen her. He had a relationship with her years before that O’Brien doesn’t know about. For good measure, he also steals aviatrix “Tommy” Thomas (June Travis) away from her fiancé. All of this is familiar.

What’s new is the movie’s pedigree and it informs everything else. The earlier flicks were directed by Lloyd Bacon, a solid journeyman, and this is from Howard Hawks, a famed auteur. But I think the big difference is the screenwriter. Frank Wead was a U.S. Navy pilot and early authority on flying who suffered a freak spinal injury accident in 1926 that left him paralyzed. At that point, along with his sober aviation manuals, he began writing fiction of pilot derring-do for the pulps, some of which were bought by Hollywood. Eventually he began writing directly for the movies: “Air Mail” (1932) and “West Point of the Air” (1935), among them. He became friends with director John Ford, and after Wead’s death in 1947 Ford made “The Wings of Eagles” in 1957, which was based on Wead’s life and writings. John Wayne played Wead.

Wead also wrote one play, “Ceiling Zero,” about pilots delivering airmail in zero-visibility conditions, which debuted on Broadway in 1935 to mixed reviews. He adapted it himself for the screen, but didn’t adapt it much. Most of the action takes place in a single location: the waiting area/hangar at the Newark branch of Federal Airlines. Pilots come and go, radio operators try to reach them in hazardous conditions, planes crash. The action, and thus the drama, is concentrated, and feels like a filmed play.

Actually, you know what it reminded me of? Those theatrical showcases in the early days of television: Studio One, Good Year Playhouse, Playhouse 90. There’s a close, emotionally heavy, mano a mano sense to scenes. It’s a melodrama, truncated in time and space, and with a low budget. Even the DVD I watched, the French version called “Brumes” (no U.S. version is available for legal reasons), reminded me of kinescopes of early television.

I wish I could—
We don’t see Cagney’s character, Dizzy Davis, until 17 minutes in. I like that. I like it when movies keep the lead offstage but talk him up. With Dizzy, men tend to smile and women tend to frown. Management isn’t too happy, either, when they find out he's been rehired. An early bit of dialogue between Jake (O’Brien) and aviation boss Al Stone (Barton MacLane) is pretty much the movie in a nutshell:

Al: I’m telling you, Jake, Dizzy’s a menace and a liability.
Jake: And the best cockeyed pilot on this airline or any other.

The boss wants college men who are technically expert but we’ve already seen potential problems with them. Eddie Payson (Carlyle Moore, Jr.) is a pilot who checks all the boxes except one: reactions to emergencies. The night before, in the fog, his radio out, Payson panicked and abandoned his plane, and there went $40,000. Surprised Jake doesn’t use this bottom-line argument with Al. Also, what happened to the plane? He was over Pennsylvania. Where did it crash? Did it hurt anyone? Did no one sue anyone during this period? Anyway he gets canned. 

Dizzy’s the opposite. He arrives singing “I can’t give you anything but love, baby,” lands crazily, gets tossed around by his pals, Tex and Doc (Stuart Erwin and Edward Gargan), and lands at the feet of Joe Allen, commerce inspector (Craig Allen). Everyone’s got an eye on Dizzy but he maintains his rascally ways. He immediately makes a play for Tommy, strikes out, then bets the others he can get her to come with all of them to Mama Gini’s—their version of the Happy Bottom Riding Club from “The Right Stuff.” He wins.

Hollywood movies are forever tossing together older actors and young starlets without comment but here they comment. Fifteen years separate Cagney and Travis (37 and 22), and ditto Dizzy and Tommy (34 and 19), and he tries to convince her it’s no barrier. Why when she’s 34, he’ll only be 49. They keep upping the ages, flirting all the while, until this:

She: Do you realize when I’m 49 you’ll be 64?
He: When you’re 49 you’ll be rolling around in a wheelchair. I’ll be out dancing.
She: Oh yeah? With who?
He: How do I know—she hasn’t been born yet.

How the times have change. What would be a feminist punchline on SNL today is a winner here. Both chuckle and Tommy seems to soften. They’re about to kiss when Jake butts in.

For all that, the screenplay isn’t too backward-looking. The women are tough, with male names—Tommy, Lou—while Tommy, the beginner, is as enamored of aviation history as she is of Dizzy. After she ditches him at Mama Gini's, he confronts her the next morning, and they all but reverse gender roles. He feigns the vapors at the humiliation of it all; and when he corrects her when she says he's 35, she tells him not to be too sensitive about his age. She’s also up front about her sexuality. She admits she’s attracted to him but “I finally got a hold of myself and said, ‘Tommy, this is alright, but how does he look in the morning?’” 

Still, he doesn't give up. He offers her flying lessons on the condition she’ll have dinner with him. His Cleveland mail run? Oh, he’ll get Tex to take it. And does—by feigning a bum ticker in the locker room. Think of it: He hasn’t even done one mail run for the outfit and he’s already shirking his duties.

That moment, 40 minutes into a 90-minute movie, sets up the rest.

The movie opens with a description of the term ceiling zero: “... that time when fog, rain or snow completely fills the flying air between sky or ceiling and the earth.” According to Wiki, the service ceiling is the maximum usable altitude of an aircraft, so ceiling zero is when nothing should be in the air. That’s what Tex winds up flying in. Jake observes that even the seagulls are staying on the ground. So the men, behind radio operator Buzz (James Bush), try to talk Tex home.

Not sure when the movie is set—the opening titles indicate it’s a time when airmail pilots “challenged and conquered ceiling zero” but no date is given. I’m assuming the 1920s or early ’30s? Before radar anyway. Tex not only winds up flying in adverse conditions but he loses radio contact. The men on the ground can hear him but he can’t hear them. Earlier, Tex was the cool, calm counterpart to Eddie Payson’s panic, so when panic begins to creep into his voice, it’s startling, and sets up his end: his plane bursts into flame as he cuts through wires trying to land. All because Dizzy shirked his duties.

The rest is Dizzy’s attempt to make good. Dizzy gets Lawson (Henry Wadsworth), Tommy’s fiancé, and the pilot working on the new de-icing protocol, to tell him all about it; then he decks him and takes his place. It’s again ceiling zero weather and he radios back the dope on the de-icers: “Pressure has got to be doubled. And the rear tube has to be moved back at least eight inches, so the ice won’t fall behind it.” Eventually the wings ice up too much and the plane plummets. These are Dizzy’s last words:

Give my love to everybody and pay Mama Gini the four bucks I owe her. So long, baby, don’t be mad at me. I wish I could—

I wish I could. Not bad last words. The last thoughts for most of us, I imagine.

Dizzy and Tex redux
“Ceiling Zero” has a lot of similarities with another Frank Wead-penned Hollywood flick, “Air Mail,” directed by John Ford in 1932. There’s a character named Dizzy, another named Tex, and a member of the ground crew who keeps getting chastised for wearing his cap backward—instead of being chastised for not wearing it at all, per “Zero.” A crash at the beginning necessitates the hire of a reckless ace, “Duke” Talbot (Pat O’Brien, ironically), who has an affair with Dizzy’s wife, and who later saves the life of the stolid man in command, Mike Miller (Ralph Bellamy) during ceiling zero conditions. Most of the action takes place in the waiting area/hangar.

One of the most affective parts of “Zero” is Mike Owens (Garry Owen), a former ace pilot who suffered brain damage in a crash and now does menial work around the place. All this unbeknownst to Dizzy, who is excited when he sees him, calling him “the only guy in the outfit crazier than I was,” and referencing their WWI-era 59th Squad at Kelly Field. “Oh, I remember you,” Mike says slowly. “You were a pilot.” “I still am,” Dizzy responds. The collapse in Cagney’s face, the dawning realization in his eyes, is so well-done. Owen is quite good, too, but sadly never broke out. He has 186 credits between 1933 and 1952, uncredited in 146 of them. He died in 1951, age 49.

I also liked Erwin as Tex, Travis as Tommy and Isabel Jewell as Lou. Early Warner Bros. had some fast talkers—Cagney, Bogart, Bette Davis—but I bet O’Brien could give them all a run. He barks orders here that are impossible to keep up with. Coffee at the studio must’ve been strong.

This was the last Warners movie Cagney made before his mid-1930s break from the studio, and, as mentioned, his second go-round as a pilot. When he returned he would make two more: “The Bride Came C.O.D.” and “Captains of the Clouds.” In both, he's the hot-shot pilot who steals women. Not bad for a guy who was notoriously aerophobic and monogamous.

Posted at 07:25 AM on Monday June 07, 2021 in category Movie Reviews - 1930s   |   Permalink  

Tuesday May 25, 2021

2021 Seattle Mariners Can't Get to First Base

I saw my first in-person no-hitter earlier this month, and even though it was against my team, and thus involved massive mixed feelings, it still felt like an event. First no-hitter! Woooo! Two days later, Wade Miley of the Reds no-hit the Indians. Then during my week in Minneapolis (my first real trip since the Covid pandemic began), there were two more, including another one against the Mariners. That makes six no-hitters this season against three teams: Seattle, Texas, Cleveland. The record for a single season is the seven no-hitters thrown in 1990. We seem destined to smash that mark.

Needless to say, the no-hitter I saw feels less like an event now.

Hitting, of course, is down across the Majors this season—the league average is in the .230s—but the Mariners are exceptional (or its opposite) in this regard. Our team batting average is .199, the lowest of the low. The Indians are third-lowest at .216. Texas, the third twice no-hit team, is the surprise: They're league average at .235. 

What's astonishing about the M's, though, is just how they're failing. They're still hitting doubles—as of today, they're tied for 9th in the Majors with 74. Homers? Tied for 15th with 54. Extra-base hits per game? 18th. Walks per game? 16th. So where are they going wrong?

With the easiest hit you can get, the one so seemingly unimportant they don't even track it in the stats. The Mariners are abysmal when it comes to hitting singles. 

So far this season we've got 170, while second-worst Cleveland is at 187. Every other team is in the 200s, with the Astros on top with 293. But that doesn't even begin to capture it. Because the M's have also played more games than most teams. So if you break it down on a per-game basis, it's much, much worse:

TEAM
 G
H 2B 3B HR AVG 1B 1B/Game
Houston Astros
47
440
90
5
52
.270
293 6.23
Washington Nationals
43
374
68
3
46
.258
257 5.98
Toronto Blue Jays
46
400
68
4
68
.252
260 5.65
Chicago White Sox
46
381
74
10
45
.254
252 5.48
San Diego Padres
48
382
65
9
48
.242
260 5.42
Los Angeles Dodgers
47
395
76
10
55
.248
254 5.40
Boston Red Sox
48
432
105
3
65
.263
259 5.40
Texas Rangers
49
384
58
6
58
.235
262 5.35
Pittsburgh Pirates
46
352
71
6
30
.229
245 5.33
Cincinnati Reds
45
383
73
4
67
.249
239 5.31
Los Angeles Angels
47
386
70
7
60
.247
249 5.30
Detroit Tigers
47
354
53
10
44
.230
247 5.26
Philadelphia Phillies
48
377
70
6
49
.238
252 5.25
Miami Marlins
47
367
70
10
44
.233
243 5.17
New York Yankees
47
355
52
2
58
.231
243 5.17
Colorado Rockies
48
384
78
13
48
.242
245 5.10
Kansas City Royals
45
341
61
10
41
.235
229 5.09
New York Mets
41
295
51
4
32
.224
208 5.07
Baltimore Orioles
47
368
81
5
47
.235
235 5.00
Minnesota Twins
47
382
79
5
65
0.241
233 4.96
Chicago Cubs
46
357
66
9
55
.237
227 4.93
St. Louis Cardinals
47
357
66
6
55
.232
230 4.89
Tampa Bay Rays
49
397
97
5
62
.235
233 4.76
Arizona Diamondbacks
48
370
80
12
51
.229
227 4.73
Milwaukee Brewers
47
330
61
5
52
.213
212 4.51
San Francisco Giants
47
346
64
6
64
.227
212 4.51
Atlanta Braves
47
363
72
6
78
.236
207 4.40
Oakland Athletics
49
359
74
8
69
.226
208 4.24
Cleveland Indians
45
319
70
8
54
.216
187 4.16
Seattle Mariners
48
301
74
3
54
.199
170 3.54

stats via ESPN.com, after May 24th games

We're half a single per game behind even the 29th-place Indians, and a full single per game behind 24 of the 30 MLB teams. The Astros hit nearly twice as many singles as we do. That's why all of our extra-base hits (18th on a per-game basis) don't add up to runs scored (27th). And that's why the .199 batting average. And that's why the two no-hitters against us. We can't get to first base. We hit them where they are.

The question is why. My friend Tim over at The Grand Salami wrote about this the other day:

The M's as a whole have bought into the Statcast obsession with power hitting. ... There is an unhealthy focus on “launch angles” and home runs and slugging as the basis for hitting a baseball. Contact, working counts, and getting on base are, at best, secondary considerations under this philosophy.

And they've been doing this in a year when the ball itself has been deadened to prevent excessive power hitting. 

So is the M's org trying to pivot at all? One would hope. In a way, it's almost good news. We don't suck across the board. Our offense is fairly average in most categories. We just can't get to first base.

UPDATE: Several hours after I wrote the above, the M's beat the A's 4-3 on 11 hits: two doubles and nine singles. Let's hope it's the start of something.

Posted at 04:42 PM on Tuesday May 25, 2021 in category Baseball   |   Permalink  
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