Monday August 08, 2022
Vin Scully (1927-2022)
I had a bad reaction to the shingles vaccine last Tuesday night—fever, literal teeth-chattering shakes—and spent much of Wednesday recovering in bed, but it was a good-news day so that helped. Alex Jones was getting his ass handed to him in a Texas courtroom for truly abominable behavior toward the Sandy Hook families; the Yankees and Gerrit Cole had their asses handed to them by the Seattle Mariners in a getaway game in the Bronx, 7-3; and Vin Scully died.
Obviously Vin Scully dying isn't good news, but it did mean I got to sit in bed and listen to him broadcast baseball games. Everyone was posting their favorite clips: the final inning of Sandy Koufax's perfect game; Hank Aaron's 715th; Game 6 of the '86 World Series; and Kirk Gibson's “Natural” moment off of Dennis Eckersley. A Twins fan posted Vin's radio call from the final at-bat of Game 7 of the 1991 World Series, and wrote, “Saddened by the passing of Vin Scully ... he was the master of describing the moment & then letting it breathe,” and I responded, “'Letting it breathe' is exactly right. He had all the right words, and then he stopped talking so we could bask in the moment, and then he had all the right words again.”
His death severed a rather remarkable connection. One of the first games he broadcast for the Dodgers, when he was a mere stripling of 23 in 1950, was an exhibition game against the Philadelphia A's, managed, in his final year, by Connie Mack, who had been born in 1862, just after the Battle of Fredericksburg. So just those two men connected the U.S. Civil War to the present. Remarkable. If you want to put it in baseball terms: Connie Mack began playing professional baseball in 1886, and managed professional baseball from 1894 to 1950, at which point, at that exhibition game, you can imagine him tagging off to Vin Scully, who broadcast professional baseball games another 66 years. So it's 1886 to 2016. That's the entirety of the sport, really. That's 130 years of baseball between two men.
I don't know if I had a favorite Vin Scully call—maybe Aaron's 715th—but I do love this quote of his that I read in Joe Posnanski's encomium. Joe wrote that we loved Vin for what he said and what he didn't say (letting it breathe), and as examples of the former he includes these lines:
- “Bob Gibson pitches like he's double-parked.”
- “Football is to baseball like blackjack is to bridge. One is the quick jolt; the other the deliberate, slow-paced game of skill.”
But the line I love is actually earlier, when Vin Scully is comparing Willie Mays and Hank Aaron:
“Now Willie ran with his hat flying off and joy just coming off him like sparks. But Henry, there was something regal about Henry, opposite of Willie, who was a sandlot kid playing with all of us. And, understand Willie did play stickball in the streets of New York, as I did when I was a kid. Henry was just a little bit apart. He was just a regal player from the first time I saw him.”
I like all that but I just love “joy just coming off him like sparks.” How beautiful is that?
Sunday August 07, 2022
Nothing Guys from Nowhere Clobber M's 7-1
Bernardino’s stat line: How could a guy come in for 1/3 of an inning, give up a hit and a walk but no earned runs, and still lose?
A viral video made the rounds last week of a young New York construction guy complaining about the Yankees latest loss—which included Gerrit Cole giving up six run in the first inning—to, of all teams, the Seattle Mariners. It was the way he said it that was the chef’s kiss. He said it like it was preposterous. This podunk team, these nothing guys from nowhere, beating his team, the mighty New York Yankees, and raising his blood pressure. The Seattle Mariners. We all had a good laugh as the M’s took a series in the Bronx for the first time since 2016. It was a sign we were going places.
Last night at the Mariners game, I felt a bit like that guy. We get clobbered 7-1 ... to the Anaheim Angels???
To be fair (to me), if we’d lost 7-1 and Shohei Ohtani had hit two homeruns, well, god bless. But Ohtani went 0-3 with a walk and a sac fly and didn’t look good at the plate. At all. So not only did the Mariners not win but we didn’t get to see a historic player doing historic things.
Instead we saw guys who don’t walk (Jared Walsh, 20 BBs against 117 Ks) walking on five pitches. We saw guys without hits (Mickey Moniak, 2 for 11) hitting the ball all over the place (he went 2-4 with a homerun). None of their 5-9 guys had OBPs over .300, a few had OPSes in the .400s, and their clean-up hitter, with the World War II-ready name Max Stassi, had a SLG in the .300s. Those stats reminded me of the bottomless futility of the early 2010s Mariners team, pre-Cano, when we were at the bottom of every important offensive stat in the Majors. Our 30-30-30 years. And yet these nothing guys from nowhere cleaned our clocks. Their 5-through-7 guys went 5-for-11 with 4 runs scored and 4 RBIs.
Meanwhile, the usually sure-handed J.P. Crawford kept letting things slip past him. We’ll give him the infield dribbler that he couldn’t barehand, even though it led to the Angels’ first run. But then he botches a relay? And in the 9th he bobbles a sure double play for an error? By then we were down 6-1, so it didn’t really matter, but it mattered for its pile-on effect. The thing didn’t happen cleanly and smartly. It was just … this again.
And just when we thought we were done with “this again.”
That accounts for some aspect of my frustration: I expect something from the Mariners now. Each game matters. It’s been a while.
I was also more laser-focused on the game because I went by myself. It was the second half of a “day-night doubleheader,” meaning two games played on the same day with separate admissions, and so, on my Mariners calendar printout, where normally I have a big circle around the date so I can tell at a glance which games I’m going to, this one had a smaller, tighter circle around the second game. And I never noticed. It wasn’t until Friday night, when MLB sent me a reminder that my tickets were now available in its Ballpark app that I went “Oh shit,” and tried to drum up business. To no avail. First Sat. night in August. Everyone was busy. So I went solo. As a result, I could focus on the Angels’ hitters horrific stats. And I could wonder over why Adam Frazier, a lefty, was leading off against lefty Reid Detmers. And I could wonder whether the scoreboard crew had screwed up yet again when it flashed M’s relief pitcher Brennan Bernardino’s stats:
0.1 IP, 1 HIT, 1 WALK, .500 BAA, 0.00 ERA, 0-1
I mulled over that one for a while. How could a guy come in for 1/3 of an inning, give up a hit and a walk but no earned runs, and still lose? If he’d let inherited runners score, it wouldn’t be his loss. I was guessing errors and unearned runs, but the answer was simpler if dumber. Bernardino game in for the 10th inning of a game against Houston and let the ghost runner score. Not an earned run but a loss. The ghost runner. Rob Manfred strikes again.
Mitch Haniger got a nice round of applause in his first game back, and went 1-3 with a walk—the one hit being a two-out, nobody-on double in the 8th. Eugenio Suarez followed with an HBP (why are they always hitting our batters?), and Carlos Santana strode to the plate. A homerun would make it 5-4 and we would be back in it. Instead a fly out to right and the fat lady cleared her throat.
I miss Julio. The Mariners miss him more.
Saturday August 06, 2022
Nichelle Nichols (1932-2022)
Here’s a story about the influence of Nichelle Nichols’ Lt. Uhura character.
After the first season of “Star Trek,” she was thinking of quitting because there often wasn’t much to the role beyond “Hailing frequencies open, Captain.” Apparently she’d already submitted her resignation to creator Gene Roddenberry, who told her to think it over. During that thinking-it-over period, she attended a NAACP fundraiser, where she was told someone wanted to meet her:
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Turns out he was a fan. “Star Trek” was one of the few shows he and Coretta let the kids watch. Per Nichols’ New York Times obit:
“He said, ‘We admire you greatly, you know,’” Ms. Nichols said, and she thanked him and told him that she was about to leave the show. “He said, ‘You cannot. You cannot.’”
Dr. King told her that her role as a dignified, authoritative figure in a popular show was too important to the cause of civil rights for her to forgo. As Ms. Nichols recalled it, he said, “For the first time, we will be seen on television the way we should be seen every day.”
On Monday morning, she returned to Roddenberry’s office and told him what had happened.
“And I said, ‘If you still want me to stay, I’ll stay. I have to.’”
Such was her influence that when Roddenberry rebooted the series two decades later with Picard, Riker, et al., a major movie star said she wanted in. That’s why Whoopi Goldberg’s Guinan began showing up in the second season. “Nichelle was the first Black person I’d ever seen who made it to the future … the one beacon that said, ‘Yes, we’ll be there,’” Goldberg said this week, in tribute.
Lt. Uhura was the main woman on the show, wasn’t she? I’d never really thought about that before. Roddenberry’s original conception was even more progressive, with a female second-in-command (Majel Barrett) in the pilot episode “The Cage,” but of course the network had notes. Basically: lose the woman and the guy with the ears. Roddenberry had to pick his battles and went with Spock. Of the other recurring female characters, Yeoman Rand was just first season, Nurse Chapel (Barrett again) only began with the second season, and both were kind of lovelorn—the former making eyes at Kirk, the latter making plomeek soup for Spock. Lt. Uhura had a job.
What else did we know about Uhura? She liked to sing. She could speak Swahili. She liked small furry things. Sometimes she was frightened. I remember reading, decades ago, fan supposition that she had a thing for Kirk, or Kirk for her, since in the episode “Plato’s Stepchildren,” the Platonians chose Chapel for Spock, knowing their history, but why Uhura for Kirk unless something was there? Sure. Or maybe because there was nothing there? “Trek” fans have long claimed this was the first interracial kiss on television, though there’s plenty of evidence of predecessors, but I’m pretty sure it was the first interracial kiss between TV series regulars. Anyway there’s a better argument that it was Sulu, rather than Kirk, who had a thing for Uhura. Cf., “Fair maiden” in “Naked Time” and rapacious ways in “Mirror Mirror.”
An even better argument: We all had a thing for her. I sure did. I had a poster of Lt. Uhura on my wall as a kid. This was in the mid-1970s when I watched “Star Trek” on reruns at 6 PM on Channel 11 (MetroMedia Television), at first haphazardly, then regularly, and then I fell hard: memorizing titles, their production order, their air dates. And up Uhura went, next to Cheryl Ladd. Even with that, it wasn’t until I was an adult and saw some TOS episodes again that I realized how absolutely freaking gorgeous she was. Just stunning. I look at photos today and I’m still stunned.
Shame I didn’t see her in more stuff, but onscreen roles were skimpy back then even for stunning Black women. She was hired by Duke Ellington as a dancer for his orchestra in the 1950s, and per IMDb, she was an uncredited dancer in the 1958 Otto Preminger “Porgy and Bess” movie. Pre-“Trek,” she played a mother preparing to send her kids to a newly integrated school in a 1964 TV movie, and was a guest star on an episode of Gene Roddenberry’s “The Lieutenant” TV series that went unaired because it was too controversial (read: mildly progressive). Mostly she was in the background: uncredited as a nurse on “Peyton Place,” uncredited in a 1966 Ann-Margret movie, a dice player in a 1966 James Garner movie. She also played “Ruana” in two episodes of the 1966 “Tarzan” TV series. Dare we? Probably not. Then she was in space. Then she was in the future.
After “Trek” there’s not much, either. She kept returning to Uhura: in the animated series, in the movies. She has 69 credits on IMDb and 16 of them are for Uhura, who finally got a first name, Nyota, in, I guess, “Star Trek VI”? Tim would know. Uhura also led to Nichols’ work with NASA, beginning in 1977, to help recruit women and people of color. The role she was ready to shed was the one she never did, and it made all the difference. Chalk one up to Dr. King.
Friday August 05, 2022
Movie Review: The Northman (2022)
I’ll take “Hamlet.”
Not that I don’t admire what Robert Eggers has done here. Our culture is way too now-focused and future-focused, and if the movies create anything historical it’s usually from the author or auteur’s youth, and tinged with nostalgia, it’s not from, you know, before the Magna Carta. I might have even made this exact comment when reviewing a movie from China. (Which I can't find, of course.) The Chinese have way more legends from pre-1,000 A.D., so they’re that much more likely to make movies from those periods, while Hollywood, nah, it doesn’t give a shit. Well, Eggers does. As does Alexander Skarsgård.
Apparently Skarsgård, the hunky vampire of “True Blood,” as well as our most recent big-movie Tarzan, has wanted to make his Viking movie for a while now. He’s Swedish born-and-bred, son of Stellan, brother to an unending host of Skarsgård siblings, and he wanted to go full Scandinavian. Good for him. (BTW: Did he ever try out for “Thor”? Just checked: he did. And Marvel went Australia instead. How rude.)
Apparently Eggers was also interested in making a true-life Viking movie. But whose story? Erik the Red? Fran Tarkenton? They wound up going with the tale of Amleth.
Yes, it’s the tale that inspired Shakespeare’s “Hamlet.” So instead of an action hero, they went with the West’s most famous inaction hero.
Slings and arrows
Is “Hamlet” also one of our most famous revenge stories? I don’t think of it that way, but I guess that’s what it is. If revenge is a dish best served cold, Hamlet serves it up not just cold but dumped in the trash in the back alley.
Amleth is also big on the delaying tactic, but there are big differences between the stories. Amleth is a child when his father is murdered (not a young adult), he witnesses his uncle Fjölnir doing it (as opposed to second-hand info from his father’s ghost), he sees his mother being carried away to be ravaged (Hamlet just imagines that one), and Amleth goes into exile (no similar exile for Hamlet). This is what young Amleth says, over and over, as he rows away:
I will avenge you, Father. I will save you, Mother. I will kill you, Fjölnir.
It’s his Inigo Montoya line.
The next time we see him he’s Skarsgardian strong, dirty and brooding with a massive back, and attacking and pillaging with a berserker tribe of Vikings. When he hears that some of their latest victims, Slavs, are being sent as tribute to the now-deposed King Fjölnir, living in his own exile in Iceland with Queen Gudrun (Nicole Kidman) and their children, he doesn’t think, “Well, I guess Harald of Norway did my work for me. Guess I can get on with my life.” The revenge is his life. So he sneaks aboard the boat to be part of the tribute. Only Olga of the Birch Forest (Anya Taylor-Joy) notices. Will she give him away? Will they get together?
Yes. It's a serious, indie movie that goes for verisimilitude as much as possible, and with deep historical research into the period involved. But some tropes die hard, such as, “Hey, the two best-looking actors are going to shack up. How nice for them.” Eggers also includes mysticism and witchcraft as an almost daily part of life. Because we’re getting the POV of the people involved and they believe that it’s happening? Or maybe Eggers himself believes in that shit? Who knows? The asides to the mystical took away from the story for me, to be honest. What’s Willem Dafoe’s head doing here? Is that sword his dead father’s or just a sword?
In Iceland, Fjölnir’s eldest son, Thorir (Gustav Lindh), dismisses the new group of slaves as unworthy. He somehow misses the tall, hulking man among them until Amleth all but roars. Thus begins his rise. A game of knattleikr is played against another farm, the point of which seems to be to throw a ball and hit an opposing post, but the point quickly becomes survival as players maim or kill one another. In the end, it’s just Amleth and Thorfinnr, played by Hafpor Julius Bjornsson, the Icelandic strongman champion who played “The Mountain” on “Game of Thrones.” Which is when Fjölnir’s youngest son Gunnar (Elliott Rose) joins the action, stealing the ball, and is about to be killed by Thorfinnr. Amleth saves him and kills the Mountain.
Yes, Amleth is doing the opposite of what he promised to do. He’s actually saving Fjölnir’s kids. But such saving means rising further and getting closer to his target. Is that part of the plan or mere happenstance? Privileges are given, including Olga, and there’s more nighttime mysticism.
At some point Amleth kills some of Fjölnir’s men and nails them to a wall. To what end? Then he reveals himself to his mother to a not-good end. Turns out his beloved mother was originally chattel for his father, King Aurvandil War-Raven (Ethan Hawke); she was the spoils of war, and Amleth was the result of a rape. She was actually part of the coup. As a child, when he saw Fjölnir carrying her away? She wasn’t screaming, she was laughing. I’m like, “Wait, did she know Fjölnir wanted to kill Amleth?” She did. She didn’t care. She was good with it.
You’d think at this point Amleth would kill her, too, but, sure, I guess it’s tough to switch gears like that. But it means he’s lost his advantage—his identity has been revealed. So he splits. Then when Fjölnir is about to kill Olga, he shows up on a hillside with Thorir’s heart in a sack, offering a swap: her life for the boy’s heart. Fjölnir takes the deal and then tortures Amleth. Somehow, by raven, Valkyrie or Olga, he escapes; and even though Olga is pregnant with his children (twins), and they’re on a boat away from Iceland, he can’t leave his oath undone. He swims back to shore.
He still doesn’t act much. In the village, his mother attacks him so he kills her (through the heart—she thanks him, a good bit); then Gunnar attacks him so he kills him, too. Then he and Fjölnir meet at the Gates of Hel, which I took to mean more mysticism, but apparently it’s Hekla, a volcanic mountain in Iceland. And in the heat and the dark, nude or near-nude, they battle, and Fjölnir is beheaded after mortally wounding Amleth. And there’s no Fortinbras or Horatio to offer benedictions.
I got bored. Sorry. The story never quite catches, and Amleth’s inaction is never interesting, or resonant, or poetic.
What’s inside him? Hamlet spilled his guts constantly, and poetically, while Amleth keeps spilling guts literally, and it’s usually the wrong guts. I recently rewatched Michael Mann’s “Thief” and a cool thing in the final siege is that our hero kills the head bad guy first, then fights subordinates on the way out. The trope is usually the opposite—building to the big confrontation—which is what Eggers does. For all of his 9th-century verisimilitude, it’s another Hollywood trope he buys into.
Tuesday August 02, 2022
I did a quick search on IMDb the other day and got this:
I'll give them the rap band, particularly since I left off the definite article. It's the titles below I wonder over. How can a search for the 1931 James Cagney classic lead to: 1) a 1996 straight-to-video “Ma Barker” biopic starring Theresa Russell and directed by Mark L. Lester of “Truck Stop Women” fame; 2) a Belgian TV show; 3) a Korean movie.
I mean, just crunch the numbers IMDb supposedly cares about:
|Title||IMDb User Rating||# of IMDb Ratings||Awards|
|Public Enemies (1996)||4.4||1.2k||0|
|Public Enemy (TV) (2016)||7.5||1k||0|
|Public Enemy (2002)||7.1||2.3k||Best Actor, Blue Dragon (S. Korea)|
|The Public Enemy (1931)||7.6||21k||
AA nomination for screenplay; National Film Preservation Board
Even better is an area of IMDb called “Connections,” where users have tabulated which other movies or TV shows you might've seen a reference to this movie (or TV show). It indicates both cultural cachet and user engagement. The 1931 Cagney movie, for example, has been referenced in 85 other movies, featured in 44, spoofed in 14. The Ma Barker? Zero, zero, and zero. Same with the others. Goose eggs. Because they don't matter.
So is it all about the definite article? Does IMDb do this if you leave off the “The” in other titles? I tried “Godfather” instead of “The Godfather,” and the first result was for the '72 Coppola movie, thank god; and I tried “Exorcist” rather than “The Exorcist” and the first result was for the '73 Friedkin movie, thank god. So sometimes it works. Particularly if your title is the definite article plus one noun.
But if there's more than one word following the definite article, IMDb can't seem to fathom what you're talking about.
This is what you get with “Dark Knight” (which, not for nothing, is No. 3 on the IMDb Top 250 Movies list):
And here's my absolute favorite:
Imagine that's a conversation you're having with an actual person:
You: So the other day Jim told me that the scene in “Wizard of Oz” when the flying monkeys—
Actual Person: “Wizard of Oz”? You mean the 1985 video game? Or maybe the episode of “30-Second Bunny Theater” from 2004?
You: Bunny theater?
Actual Person: How about that episode of the 1990s news program “Time & Again” with Jane Pauley?
You: Dude, I'm talking about the movie. With Judy Garland? Scarecrow, Tin Man, Cowardly Lion? “Over the Rainbow”?
Actual Person: Sorry. Nothing.
You: You don't know “The Wizard of Oz.”
Actual Person: Ohhhhh, “THE Wizard of Oz.” Well, that's completely different then. I gotcha now. Please continue.
It's a conversation with a crazy person. And you'd think that a website as important as IMDb wouldn't want its search results to seem like a conversation with a crazy person. But here we are.
Monday August 01, 2022
Movie Review: Illegal (1955)
Edward G. Robinson plays a district attorney who convicts “Star Trek”’s Dr. McCoy (DeForest Kelley) of murder, then finds evidence he was innocent but is too late to stop the execution. He descends into booze, loses his job to “Get Smart”’s Chief (Edward Platt), loses his girl to “Another World”’s Jim Mathews (Hugh Marlowe), but with the help of his assistant, Grandma Walton (Ellen Corby), takes on the bad guys, including Roger Manning, Space Cadet (Jan Merlin), and saves the day.
You get the idea. “Illegal” was a cheap B picture made at the fulcrum of old movies and new television.
It doesn’t speak much of new television. Or it speaks to something odd in the culture—that the dynamic, ethnic heroes of Warner Bros.’s early talkies (Robinson, whose ethnicity kept shifting; Cagney, whose ethnicity didn’t), were replaced by dull WASPs—that mid-century, “FBI”ish thing. Do we blame Joseph Breen and the PCA for pushing us in this direction or is it what we wanted? Either way, it's Robinson, licking his wounds after HUAC and trying not to fall too far, and the others trying to hold onto their rung of the ladder and possibly ascend. This is where they meet.
“Illegal” is also the debut, or near-debut, of Jayne Mansfield. She’s the moll, but smart, and piano-playing, and the final surprise witness. She’s definitely doing Marilyn but she’s not full-on Jayne Mansfield yet. She seems like she might be a person.
Decking and drinking
Robinson plays Victor Scott, who crawled up from the gutter to become D.A. but then lost it all. It’s not just guilt over the death of “Bones”; it’s that, without prosecution he doesn’t know what to do. He’s not really interested in corporate law and/or the corporate types shun him. It’s not until he winds up in court on a drunk and disorderly and hears a man pleading his innocence that the light bulb goes on: Oh right, I could be a criminal defense attorney. The most obvious path from prosecution.
As such, we see him get clients off by: 1) literally decking a witness, and 2) literally drinking poison, which is Exhibit A in the case. He pretends it’s not poison, but it is, just slow-acting, so when the prosecution asks for a recess to regroup, he goes to get his stomach pumped. But … I don’t know. Destroying evidence? And doesn’t this mean his client was guilty?
The girl he loses early, his former assistant, is Ellen Miles, played by Nina Foch, who played the rich bitch in “An American in Paris.” You know she wasn’t even 30 when that movie came out? Here, she’s the daughter of a judge whom Scott helped raise, and she has a thing for him despite this and the difference in their ages. Scott feels she’s better off elsewhere and pushes her into the arms of his assistant, Ray Borden (Marlowe), who winds up a crum-bum mole for the mob in the D.A.’s office. Plus he's a jerk of a husband. Plus he’s a jerk to Jayne Mansfield.
The second half of the movie is basically: Scott rises as a defense attorney while trying to steer clear of mob boss Frank Garland (Albert Dekker). At the same time, the new D.A., Ralph Ford (Platt), tries to find the leak in his office. Both come to a head when Ellen overhears her husband plotting with Garland, he hears that she overhears, and she has to kill him in self-defense. Sadly, District Attorney Ford is such an idiot he assumes Ellen was the leak, not Ray, and he puts her on trial for murder. So Scott has to defend her without implicating Garland.
That last part is silly, too, and goes away when Garland uses creepy hit man Andy Garth (Merlin) to try to off Scott, who winds up gut-shot but insists on calling surprise witness Angel O’Hara (Mansfield), who can testify that Ray called Garland a lot, including the night of his murder. And he was a jerk besides.
So the prosecution drops its case just in time for Scott to die on the courtroom floor. Mother of mercy, is this the end of Victor Scott? It is.
Stuff dreams are made of
Why “Illegal” as a title? I guess for the pulpiness of it. Probably should’ve had an exclamation point. That’s what the movie feels like. Like it makes up for its lack with SENSATIONALISM!
It was produced on the cheap by Frank Rosenberg, whose upcoming film, “Miracle in the Rain,” can also be spotted here on a movie marquee. What else can be spotted? Believe it or not, the Maltese Falcon—or a Maltese Falcon. It’s on the top shelf in a bookcase in the D.A.’s office. I guess because Warner Bros. needed to fill background? “What do we got in the prop closet?” “Well, it’s this or the letters of transit from 'Casablanca.'” Meanwhile, those Degas and Gauguin originals that Scott admires in Garland’s office are in fact Degas and Gauguin originals. They belonged to Robinson, an art lover, and he lent them to the production. I like that his character says “I’ve always had to content myself with reproductions” when they’re actually his.
Despite the cheapness, there’s still talent in the room. Max Steiner does the music, and the screenplay was co-written by W.R. Burnett, who wrote the original “Little Caesar,” as well as “High Sierra,” “The Asphalt Jungle” and even “The Great Escape.” Robinson is his usual professional self, while Jan Merlin impresses as the porkpie-hat wearing hit man. Something about his character just feels off. Like he could’ve played perverse Richard Widmark-type roles. Maybe he did.
The rest is a lot of bland WASPy stuff that will wind up on television. And Mansfield, the shape of things to come.
Just a knick-knack on the shelf.
Friday July 29, 2022
Movie Review: Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness (2022)
For the longest time superhero creators have insisted, “We’re not schlock, our stuff should be taken seriously,” and the movement has been in this direction—away from its cheesey, strongman-underwear origins and toward darkness and seriousness. It’s worked so well that Marvel is now confident enough to trot out something called “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness,” which, if it had been made in the 1950s, would’ve starred Vincent Price and been presented in Emergo-Vision. It would’ve been schlock.
This isn’t schlock. But is it any good?
Maybe within the multiverse there’s a critic named Erik Lundegaard who likes movies set in the multiverse. I just think Marvel is overdoing it. The bad guy used to be somebody robbing a bank. Now it’s someone shattering the fabric of reality. Again.
Déjà vu all over again
The beginning of the movie, I assumed, was a recap of the multiverse craziness in “Spider-Man: No Way Home.” Then I realized, “No, it’s a different adventure. In media res. Cool.” Except my secondary assumption was that this was some other Doctor Strange adventure, set in that weird Neutral Zone-y realm, and it would soon end and the proper story would begin. But this was the proper story.
Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) and a Latina teenager, America Chavez (Xochitl Gomez), are being pursued by a demon-monster who wants the girl’s power, and they need to reach the Book of Vishanti, which is glowing on a rock in the Neutral Zone-y place, but the demon is too powerful. So Doctor Strange, our hero, says he needs to take the girl’s power himself. And he tries to do this against her wishes. So obviously something is up. Then the demon spears him, the girl is almost torn apart, and he wakes up. Ah, it was just a dream.
Or was it?
That day, after attending the wedding of Dr. Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams), the woman he loves, Strange sees an octopus monster tearing up Midtown and springs into action. And that’s where he meets the Latina girl he dreamed about.
You see, according to the film, our dreams are often (or always?) visions of other versions of the multiverse. I kind of liked that idea. It reminded me of when I lived in Taiwan, hearing a theory that in our dreams we can travel through time, and that déjà vu is simply arriving at a moment in time you’ve already visited in a dream.
Anyway, because he sees some witchcraft markings, Strange goes to see his Avengers pal, Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen), to see if she can't interpret. Turns out, whoops, she’s the one making all this happen. The reveal is lame (she says America’s name even though he hasn’t), but isn’t a hero in one movie becoming the villain in the next kind of unprecedented? Can’t remember that ever happening with such a prominent recurring character before.
She’s the villain in this one because she’s nuts. Her brother Pietro was killed in, I guess, “Avengers: Age of Ultron,” and I think she had to kill the Vision, her love, during the battle with Thanos in “Avengers: Infinity War,” and all of this took a toll and now she has PTSD. On the “WandaVision” TV series this meant she used her powers—apologies, I’m sorting this out as much for me as you—to create various sitcom-like worlds where she and Vision were happy and domestic and raised a family, including two boys, Tommy and Billy (Jetty Klyne and Julian Hilliard). And apparently that fictional life actually exists in one of the universes of the multiverse. And that’s why she wants the Latina girl. America’s power is the ability to traverse the multiverse—though she hasn’t figured out how to control it yet—and Wanda wants the power for herself. So she can go to that universe, kill her other self, and raise a family. Like heroes do.
Oh right, I guess she’s also been corrupted by the “Darkhold,” a book of sorcery, which has turned her into the all-powerful Scarlet Witch.
How all-powerful? Super all-powerful. Doctor Strange teams up with the Sorceror Supreme (Benedict Wong), and all his disciples at a monastery in Nepal, dozens of them, and she blasts through them like they’re Swiss cheese. Strange and America escape into another universe, where that Doctor Strange is dead and a hero—honored in statue form. Except, whoops, we learn, by and by, from a group called the Illumanati (Mordo, Captain America, Captain Marvel, Black Bolt, Mister Fantastic and Prof. X), that that universe’s Doctor Strange used the Darkhold to beat back Thanos but created an “incursion” into another universe, which destroyed it. So he’s actually a destroyer of universes. That’s why he himself was destroyed and the Illuminati created. This Illuminati distrust all Doctor Stranges. They think they’re all bad. Which is an interesting form of prejudice the movie doesn’t delve into. I mean, couldn’t Strange say, “In my universe, Captain America is male, Captain Marvel is white, and Mister Fantastic works at a paper-supply company in a small town in Pennsylvania. Maybe I’m different. Maybe give me a chance.”
Alright, let me delve for a second. Marvel’s multiverse started out as a way to bring together different characters (“Into the Spiderverse”), or different actors who’ve played the same character (“Spider-Man: No Way Home”), and sure, in this one, we finally get Patrick Stewart’s Prof. X in the MCU; but otherwise all the Doctor Stranges look like Bendedict Cumberbatch and all the Wandas like Elizabeth Olsen. Because? Because the Tobey-Garfield-Holland triumverate is unnecessary. Because most Marvel characters don’t have the cinematic legacy of a Spider-Man.
But Marvel also uses the multiverse concept to make itself more multicultural and inclusive without any real heavy lifting: the Captain Marvel we see here is Black (played by Lashana Lynch, or Maria Rambeau), and the Captain America we see here is female (played by Hayley Atwell, or Peggy Carter). But even trying to be inclusive and politically correct, they still fuck it up. When the Illumanati face off against Wanda, landing in a kind of V formation, guess who’s at the front? I mean, if you’re them, wouldn’t you lead with Captain Marvel—one of the most powerful characters in any universe? Nope. They put Silly Putty Man in front. In what universe does that make sense? No universe.
And it goes as poorly as you’d think. He brags on Black Bolt but Wanda removes BB’s mouth and he blows up his own brain. Then she fillets Mr. Fantastic and—pop—there he goes, too. Only then do the women think to spring into action. A bit late, girls.
“Sure, the Black chick is one of the most powerful figures in the universe, but let's lead with Silly-Putty Man.”
If Mr. Fantastic being filleted and Black Bolt losing his mouth sound horrific, well, yes. The horror elements in the movie keep getting stronger until Doctor Strange, in that other universe, “dreamwalks” as the Frankensteinian corpse of another universe’s Doctor Strange in our own. (Don’t try to unpack that.) It’s a nice homage to Cumberbatch’s stage work as The Monster in “Frankenstein,” but a bit unnecessary. Once I realized Sam Raimi directed this, though, it all made sense. That's his bag. Horror homages + a Bruce Campbell comedic cameo: I should’ve realized Raimi was involved sooner.
I do like how they finally defeat Wanda. Not by battling her but by giving her what she wants. In control of her power now, America transports her to that other sacharine universe, where the kids she covets see her as a monster. Which is when she realizes what she’s become. And how she has to close the Darkhold so no one can ever blah blah blah. I think she sacrifices herself, too. At least she’s buried in the rubble she creates. Hey, maybe we should erect a statue to her.
You’d think Marvel would at least give Doctor Strange a shawarma moment at the end but no. We see him fix his broken wristwatch—a metaphor, I believe, for moving past his lost love—then he walks along the street, practically whistling a tune, when he’s struck down in pain … and develops a third eye! Which means … somethingorother. And in the mid-credits sequence, Charlize Theron shows up to take him … somewhere or other.
Give him a rest, Marvel. Give us a rest. In the multiverse, I’m sure there’s an Erik Lundegaard who gives a shit. Just not this one.
Wednesday July 27, 2022
Mariners Beat the Heat, Rangers
For the first time in a long time, I showed up at the park early just to hang out.
At first I thought the magic was back. And then I thought, OK, maybe not. Then it was. Or was it? Umps? Guys? Pause... Pause...
That was the roller-coaster ride at last night's Mariners game, played in the 90-degree heat against Texas.
Reminder: Before the All-Star break, the Mariners, my Seattle Mariners, the only franchise in baseball without a pennant and the professional sports team that has the longest active postseason drought (21 years of fun), had been on a roll, winning 14 in a row and 22 of 25. We'd swept Toronto, we'd swept San Diego. We couldn't be contained.
And then our young, fun superstar, Julio Rodriguez, center field, #44, showed up on the national stage for the Homerun Derby and blew everyone away. He didn't win—he lost in the final round to Juan Soto—but he hit more homeruns than anyone; and he lit up the stage. Everyone was like, “Who's this guy? And where can we get some of that.”
And when we returned from the All-Star break, for a weekend series against the Houston Astros, we didn't have any of that. Julio was out. Wrist soreness. From the game last Sunday and probably exacerbated by all those HR swings. And we got swept by the 'Stros: 5-2, 3-1, 8-5.
On Monday, Texas rolled into town and we eked out a victory against them. But no sign of Julio.
Until last night when my friend Jeff and I went to the game. Julio was leading off.
I expected not much. There's talk that the Homerun Derby ruins guys for the second half, it messes with their swing, and besides he'd just missed four games. Well, really, almost 7-8 games. He played a week ago Sunday, did the HR Derby Monday, played a few innings on Tuesday's All-Star Game, and that was it until last night. He'd been out a week. So I assumed rusty.
And in that first at-bat in the bottom of the 1st, he looked rusty. Texas pitcher Dane Dunning got two quick strikes on him, and Julio just seemed off. He worked the count to 2-2, fouled off a pitch, and then rocketed a linedrive homerun into the left-field seats. The magic was back.
The rest of the inning was near magic. With two outs, we drew two walks, the Texas mucky-mucks closed in around Dunning, probably telling him to challenge us, and the Mariners rose to the challenge. Kyle Lewis, our frequently injured 2020 Rookie of the Year, also finally back in the lineup, rocketed a single to left for a run. Then team leader J.P. Crawford rocketed a single to right, but he rocketed it too much and Jesse Winker couldn't score from second. And we left the bases loaded. But we were up 2-0.
And that's how it stayed for six innings. And some part of me kept thinking, “We really should've scored more in the 1st when we had the chance.”
In the 8th it was 3-1, and the game kind of seemed over. We had Paul Sewald on the mound, our kinda closer, who got two quick outs. Then he walked two guys. “Sewald never does good when I'm here,” I warned Jeff. Which is when Adolis Garcia dribbled a ball just inside the bag at 1st and down the right-field line for a WTF 2-run double.
And they weren't done. In the top of the 9th, iit went single, sac, single, and they had the lead. And it felt like the magic had left the room.
Until J.P. Crawford led off the bottom of the 9th with a single, and catcher Cal Raleigh followed with a double in the center-right gap, and J.P., our man J.P., tore around the bases and scored. Then it was our turn to sacrifice. Which brought up Julio again.
“It began with him and maybe it'll end with him,” I said.
Nope. They intentionally walked him. Him and Ty France. “They're walking all of our All-Stars,” I said. That brought up Carlos “Not that Carlos Santana” Santana, who, in a month with the team, has come up with a lot of big hits, and who could hit a deep fly ball in his sleep.
But why did we still have Cal Raleigh at third? That's what I wondered. Didn't we have anyone on the bench faster than our catcher?
“We used our pinch runner in the 8th,” Jeff said.
Yes, in the 8th, after a two-out walk to Winker, we'd brought in Sam Haggerty to pinchrun and Abraham Toro to pinchhit. “Our pinchrunner is hitting 100+ points higher than our pinchhitter,” I said. “That make any sense to you?”
“Maybe it's a lefty-righty thing,” Jeff said.
And now the speed of Cal Raleigh was putting the game on the line.
“If he hits a sac fly,” I said, “I hope it's deep.”
It wasn't. It was midrange, center field. Raleigh began chugging home ... the throw came in ... SAFE! Excitement. Jubilation. Full-throated cries from the people around ... Wait, what was this? ... Why were the Mariners pausing in their celebration? Why were the Rangers not exiting stage right? Why were the umpires conferring? Was there a challenge? Whose? The Rangers were out of challenges.
But there was a challenge. Did someone say Raleigh left early? Did someone say he didn't touch the plate? Or that the throw beat him? Whatever it was, it went for naught. Play stood, Mariners won, and Julio picked up Santana in celebration. I'll take it. I'll take delayed magic rather than none. I suppose Raleigh chugging home was part of the magic. With Haggerty, we wouldn't have been in doubt. With Cal, we had nothing but doubt. It shouldn't have happened but it did. That's what magic is.
I found this interesting: One of the lead stories on ESPN.com is about the game. Except not really. This was the hed: Julio Rodriguez back in Seattle Mariners' lineup, homers in first at-bat. It's been a while since any Seattle Mariner created headlines like that.
Wednesday July 27, 2022
Paul Sorvino (1939-2022)
Question: Why, before I ever saw “Goodfellas,” did I think Paul Sorvino was not right for mob boss Paul Cicero? I mean, I guess I know why. I thought he was too nice. I didn't think he was scary enough. But where did this idea come from? How did I know him? I'm looking over his credits on IMDb and wondering what I ever saw him in as a kid. “Day of the Dolphin”? Just that?
I wouldn't be surprised if it was through commercials. Not like ads for dishwashing detergent or whatever, but commercials for the shows he was on: the Alan Alda-created “We'll Get By,” in which he played a suburban dad and a husband, and which lasted 13 episodes in the summer of '75; and “Bert D'Angelo, Superstar,” in which he played the titular maverick cop, and which lasted 11 episodes in '76. I never watched either but maybe some of it seeped in. Maybe some part of me thought “Bert D'Angelo, superstar, as a mob boss? Whatever, Marty.”
Of course he was great in “Goodfellas”: calm, understated, handy with a razor blade and a piece of garlic. I assume he's closer to the real thing than, say, Brando in “The Godfather.” Don Corleone is what mob guys imagine themselves to be; Paul Cicero is closer to what they are. And even then...
When news broke of his death on Monday at age 83, one thing that was passed around on social media, which I loved seeing, was video from when his daughter Mira won the Oscar for “Mighty Aphrodite:” how she thanked her family, and her parents, and her father “who has taught me everything I know about acting”; and how he, in the audience, already tearing up, just crumpled. Reminds of a series of photographs from, I believe, Life magazine from like the 1940s or '50s: another burly Italian father, walking down the aisle at his daughter's wedding, about to give her away, and breaking down with each step.
We're losing all of our cinematic mob guys all of a sudden: Liotta, Caan, Sorvino. It's like last fall when we kept losing 60-something standup comedians. It's like we're in the middle of a mob war.
Tuesday July 26, 2022
I've been so excited about Twins making the Hall I neglected to talk about Buck O'Neil. Well, why say anything when you've got Joe Posnanski around. As I mentioned yesterday on Twitter, after posting his latest, “One day Joe will write an article about Buck O'Neil that I'll be able to read without tears welling up in my eyes. But not today.” Here's a sample.
Lynn Novick met Buck O'Neil shortly after she started at Florentine Films, working with Ken Burns on “The Civil War” documentary. Ken and Lynn's next project was to tell a different kind of baseball story — one that would show how the game's history and American history intertwine and interweave and mirror each other. This meant telling the story of the Negro leagues as it had never been told before.
But how? Many of the greatest Negro leaguers — Paige, Gibson, Charleston, Cool Papa — were gone. ... Someone told Lynn that she might want to talk with Buck O'Neil. She'd never heard of Buck, but she called, and he seemed amenable, so she showed up at his door in Kansas City with a camera crew behind her. She had absolutely no expectations; she just hoped that he would have some interesting memories.
And what followed was an interview unlike any she has had in her entire life.
“It must have been hard playing in the Negro leagues,” she said to him at one point.
He looked at her with amusement.
“No, it wasn't hard,” he said. “It was wonderful.”
It was wonderful. There was Buck O'Neil in three words. Lynn looked at him in astonishment. Buck was the grandson of enslaved people. He was not allowed to attend Sarasota High School. He was never given a chance to see if he was good enough to play in the major leagues — and he was good enough. He was never allowed to manage in the major leagues — and I have no doubt he would have been an extraordinary manager. He drank from separate water fountains and was turned away from white hotels and was forced to eat in the kitchens of restaurants that would even allow him in. He saw crosses burned and children spit at and once walked into a crowd of white sheets when he confused a ballpark with a KKK rally.
“It was wonderful,” he said.
And he talked about all the wonderful things, the wonderful players, the wonderful games. He told her stories, incredible stories, about Satchel Paige, about Josh Gibson, about Cool Papa Bell. He told her about walking into the Streets Hotel in Kansas City or the Evans Hotel in Chicago or the Woodside Hotel in New York and being treated like a star, and running into Cab Calloway or Count Basie or Ella Fitzgerald. ...
When “Baseball” came out, it had any number of eloquent characters, historians, musicians, some of the best ballplayers who ever lived. But all of them were supporting characters to John Jordan “Buck” O'Neil, who in his own distinctive way captured not only the spirit of the Negro leagues, but of baseball, too.
After it came out, Buck's life would change. For years, he had been largely ignored — people had learned that the story of African-American baseball had begun when Jackie Robinson crossed the line, and they weren't interested in hearing any more. But after “Baseball,” people began listening to him. People began asking him to tell more stories. He wrote a book. He appeared on “Letterman.” He traveled the country.
Lynn Novick was with us in Cooperstown this weekend.
So was her son. His name is John Jordan.
Monday July 25, 2022
Now We Are Six: Tony Oliva and Jim Kaat Inducted Into Baseball Hall of Fame
The Minnesota Twins increased its Hall of Fame count by 50% yesterday. We went in with four and came out with six.
Chronologically, it goes like this:
- 1984: Harmon Killebrew (fourth ballot)
- 1991: Rod Carew (first ballot)
- 2001: Kirby Puckett (first ballot)
- 2011: Bert Blyleven (14th ballot)
- July 24, 2022: Jim Kaat (Veteran’s Committee)
- July 24, 2022: Tony Oliva (Veteran’s Committee)
Five of those guys were playing on the 1969-71 team I grew up on. I knew not what I had.
Actually, I kind of did. I knew it was special. And I remember when it went away.
It’s interesting to see how we lost each of them. In mid-August 1973 the Twins placed Jim Kaat on waivers, where he was selected by the Chicago White Sox, for whom, over the next two full seasons he went 21-13 and 20-14, with ERAs around 3.00; he pitched for 10 more years. We released Harmon Killebrew in January 1975 and a week later he signed with the Kansas City Royals for his final season. In June 1976, we traded Bert Blyleven (and shortstop Danny Thompson) to Texas for four guys (Roy Smalley, Mike Cubbage, Bill Singer, Jim Gideon), plus $250k, and he pitched for another, what, 15 years? Including four more with the Twins: 1985-88. His last season was 1992. Wow. Rod Carew became our 1970s superstar, but then owner Calvin Griffith opened his piehole at a Lions Club gathering in the fall of 1978, saying he moved the team from D.C. to Minnesota “when we found out you only had 15,000 blacks here.” Carew asked to make that number 14,999. In January 1979 we traded him to California for Dave Engle, Paul Hartzell, Brad Havens and Kenny Landreaux. He would play another seven seasons and retire with a .328 lifetime batting average.
Oliva never left. He retired after the ’76 season due to knee injuries but stayed with the organization in other roles. As the Star-Tribune mentioned today, he’s a 61-year employee.
I have to say, the new plaques aren’t bad. OK, so maybe Oliva's eyebrows are too thick, while Kaat looks more combative and chin-heavy than he should. He could pass for Thanos' kid brother here. Yet, I don't know, something in the eyes is exactly right. Bronze relief is always an iffy proposition. It’s not a medium that captures likenesses well. Of our six, the Killebrew one is probably best, Carew the worst. Never show them smiling would be my motto. Teeth don’t work well in bronze.
I still find it fascinatingly wrong that the best player on that team, by career bWAR, is Bert Blyleven, and it’s not even close. By career bWAR, Blyleven is the 38th greatest player in baseball history, pitcher or player, sandwiched between Roberto Clemente and Cap Anson, and ahead of, among others, Bob Gibson, George Brett and Ken Griffey Jr. Either we missed a lot or bWAR is.
Here’s how our guys do by other HOF measures. You get points for black ink when you lead the league in a noteworthy category, gray ink when you’re in the top 10.
|PLAYER||WAR||BLACK INK||GRAY INK||HOF MONITOR|
|AVG. HOF player||n/a||27||144||100|
|AVG. HOF pitcher||n/a||40||185||100|
Our two pitchers were guys that lasted, our two most recent position players, Puckett and Oliva, had short careers. They were comets across the sky—Oliva in particular. In a career shortened by knee injuries, he led the league in hits five times, doubles four times, batting average three times, slugging percentage once, total bases once, runs scored once. He dominated American League pitchers in a pitchers' era.
By all those measures, he's a Hall of Famer. Glad he finally got his due. Glad to see he is where he should be.
May I present the latest member of the Baseball Hall of Fame.
Saturday July 23, 2022
Movie Review: The Bitter Tea of General Yen (1932)
What’s startling isn’t the racism (c’mon) but the fact that the movie sometimes moves beyond the racism. I mean, it’s a 1932 love story between a white woman and a Chinese man. And sure, the Chinese man is played by a Scandinavian actor, Nils Asther (born Denmark, raised Sweden), but still: It’s a 1932 love story between a white woman and a Chinese man.
Is there another similar movie from this period? The reverse certainly: Asian woman, white dude. White dudes were making these movies, after all. That's their fantasy. The other is their nightmare.
Although isn’t Valentino’s “The Sheik” similar? A warlord is amused by, then smitten with, a feisty white woman, abducts her, holds her prisoner without forcing himself upon her, and gradually they fall in love. Both movies were based upon novels by women, too: Edith Maude Hull there, Grace Zaring Stone here. One difference: At the end of “The Sheik,” he reveals he’s not really an Arab but British/Spanish; that means the couple can stay together. Here, he is in fact Chinese. That means he has to die.
Even removing race from the equation, I found “Bitter Tea” kind of fascinating. At bottom, it’s about a brutal leader who falls in love, follows the woman’s lead toward mercy, and then loses everything as a result. It feels like a lesson: about what women want the world to be; about what the world really is.
Fu Manchu vs. the Masked Marvel
It begins with the chaos of war, with these titles projected on the screen at various intervals:
- BURNING OF CHAPEI
If you don’t know Chapei (I didn’t), it’s a suburb of Shanghai, now spelled Zhabei, and was much in the news in early 1932. (Filming for this began in July of that year.)
Amid the chaos, we get shots of guests arriving in the rain for the wedding of Megan and Bob (Barbara Stanwyck and Gavin Gordon) at the home of Mrs. Jackson (Clara Blandick*). “Everybody in China is here,” the hostess says. “Literally everybody.” Nice to know that people back then didn’t know how to use “literally,” either.
(*If Blandick looks familiar, there’s a good reason: She played Auntie Em in “The Wizard of Oz.” Overall, she has 124 credits—from a 1911 short to a 1951 TV series—and during her career she played an aunt 19 times, including Aunt Polly from “Tom Sawyer” three times in the ’30s alone. She died in 1962, age 85, so maybe had a glimmer that one of the seven movies she made in 1939 was becoming legendary.)
Mrs. Jackson also embodies the casual racism of the time: “They’re all tricky, treacherous and immoral,” she says of the Chinese. “I can’t tell one from another. They’re all Chinamen to me.”
We get something more nuanced, but equally troubling, from Bishop Harkness (Emmett Corrigan):
I’ve spent 50 years in China. And there are times when I think we’re just a lot of persistent ants trying to move a great mountain. Only last month, I learned a terrible lesson. I was telling the story of the crucifixion to some Mongolian tribesmen. Finally, I … I thought I’d touched their hearts. They crept closer to my little platform, their eyes burning with the wonder of their attention. Mongolian bandits, mind you—listening spellbound. But alas, I had misinterpreted their interest in the story. The next caravan of merchants that crossed the Gobi Desert was captured by them and … crucified. [Gasps from his listeners.] That, my friends, is China.
At this point the camera whirls away, almost 180 degrees, and lands on an ancient Chinese face. I suppose you could read this as either “Here’s one of the inscrutable devils!” or “Look at this poor bastard having to listen to this bullshit.” I lean toward the latter. Maybe because the director is Frank Capra, or because the screenplay was written by Edward E. Paramore Jr., who, I believe, leaned left. But mostly because of the way the rest of the movie plays out.
The bride shows up after a rickshaw accident with the titular general, tall and French-speaking, while the groom, a kind of hapless Samaritan, shows up only to say he’s going to leave. He needs to help orphans get out of the line of fire. (A civil war is implied rather than the Japanese one.) To do this he goes to, yes, the titular Gen. Yen, where we get the following exchange:
Bob: I’m sorry to intrude like this, General, but it’s a matter of the utmost importance.
Gen. Yen: Naturally. Everything you do is important.
Such a great, cutting line. And such a nice line-reading from Asther.
Yen, cold-blooded, then dismisses orphans as people without ancestors, and tries to entice the foreigner with “singsong girls”—a new phrase for me, but one which goes back to the 19th century. Basically, they’re Chinese geisha girls. When Yen learns that Bob actually bolted from his wedding for this good deed, the note he writes—which will supposedly help Bob get across nationalist lines—calls him a fool, and the first gang of soldiers he meets mock him accordingly. They laugh at him, steal his car, ogle Megan (she’s with him because: feisty). To get the orphans to safety, they now have to make their way on foot to the train station, where Bob and then Megan are knocked out. When she awakens, she’s in the train car of Gen. Yen, who’s with his concubine Mah-Li (Toshia Mori).
We don’t know it yet, but that’s it for Bob. He lives, but we never see him again. He’s out of the picture.
The rest of the movie is Megan, trying to escape Gen. Yen’s headquarters/estate while slowly succumbing to his charms. At one point, drugged, she has a dream of a rapacious Fu Manchu figure straight out of the pulps, with long claws for fingernails; and then—early superhero alert!—a masked figure appears in the window and beats back the Chinese devil. We assume Yen is Fu Manchu and the hero is Bob, but when the hero takes off his mask it’s Gen. Yen. When Megan wakes up, she’s so, so confused. And intrigued.
Mah-Li, it turns out, has her own lover, and when Megan doesn’t give her away the two become close. Or close-ish. At one point, Mah-Li convinces her to go to a formal dinner, and Megan gets all dolled up for it; then she thinks of kissing Gen. Yen, is shocked by the desire, and takes off the makeup.
At the dinner, we meet Jones (Walter Connolly), Yen’s corrupt but forthright western money man. I love this exchange we get later in the film when Jones realizes Yen is actually interested in Megan.
Jones: Listen, I’ve never interfered in your private affairs before. But don’t forget, this is a white woman.
Gen. Yen: That’s alright. I have no prejudice against the color.
Again: ahead of its time.
The merciful thing Megan convinces Yen to do is to spare Mah-Li even though she betrays him. And so Mah-Li betrays him further, sending out a secret message via temple gong to enemy forces, which leads to a daring railroad raid. And there goes all of Yen’s money and influence and power.
At this point he knows he’s dead, and the rest of the movie is his slow death—suicide by poison or opiate, or a combination therein. This is the bitter tea of the title. It goes on too long, to be honest.
I like that the movie, via Jones, rightly blames Megan for Yen’s death:
Well, Miss Davis, you certainly gummed up the prettiest set-up I ever saw. I had visions of making General Yen the biggest thing in China, but you sure queered that beautifully. I hate your insides, Miss Davis, but you’re an American and we’ve got to stick together now…
What great language from Paramore: gummed up, queered, hate your insides.
Stanwyck barely says anything in response, or really for the last 10 minutes of the film. Maybe because there’s nothing to say? She and Jones are on a slow boat away from China, and Jones keeps jawing away: about Yen, about trees, about reincarnation.
The reception the movie received is interesting. Most of the 1932-33 reviews I’m seeing via newspapers.com are positive (though the phrase “perfumed silence” is so overused I get the feeling the critics were cutting and pasting press-agent copy); and when Radio City Music Hall decided to include feature films with its live stage shows in January 1933, “Bitter Tea” was the first one tapped. But it didn’t last. Disinterest or racist backlash? Stanwyck claimed the latter. Who knows? We do know that when Columbia tried to re-release the film in 1950, the Production Code Administration wanted so many cuts Columbia gave up. A reminder that, politically and culturally, we can take giant steps backwards, too.
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