Thursday May 11, 2023
A War Memorial For a War That's Not a Memory
The Big Three (shitty version)
6-25 and 7-27 are just dates in the U.S., but in South Korea they resound with as much meaning as December 7th or November 11th. Or, yes, 9/11. They are the dates the Korean War began and ended—and ended, I should add, with an armistice that the South didn't even sign since it didn't agree with it. Both dates are all over the War Memorial of Korea, a museum in Seoul that isn't just dedicated to the Korean War but to the history of all Korean wars—to, in a way, the creation of the country through war. Befitting a country technically still at war, its tone isn't just somber but semi-martial.
The third day of our trip, Patricia and I walked there from our hotel in the north (no double meaning intended by that) and kind of came in by the back door (ditto), so we missed the grandeur of a proper entrance. We missed most of the huge armaments out front. We saw them in the end. They are stunning and sad.
Inside, even though there's an exhaustive amount of history there, for a time, we had difficulty finding that, too. (I'm beginning to think it's us.) I guess we were distracted by the tiger tanks and suspended fighter planes—as well as Syngman Rhee's Cadillac—on the basement level. But eventually we found it: on the other side, along the wings.
I have to admit: Museums can be a grind. You're walking at a slow pace, trying to absorb a wealth of information. It shouldn't be exhausting but it is. We spent a lot of time reading about the Three Kingdoms period: Silla, Goguryeo and Baekje, which, in the early part of the first Millennium, lived in peace—until they didn't. Has a movie been made about the end of this period—when Silla, backed against the wall, alllied itself with the Tang Dynasty of China, and wound up defeating the others; and then, when the Tang tried to take the peninsula, re-allied with its fallen enemies to beat back China? All of it felt very cinematic to me. Not to mention relevant. History keeps repeating itself.
Once we got all the clashes of the second Millennium, I allowed myself to slip through a bit faster. One millennium at a time, Erik.
Other thoughts as we made the rounds:
- Almost all the big moments that happened in the Korean War happened in the second half of 1950.
- Gen. Douglas Macarthur comes off better here than he tends to do in the States. Maybe my memory is faulty, but in the U.S., the late 1950 push beyond the 38th Parallel toward China is viewed as a Macarthur error that gave the Chinese an excuse to enter the war. Here, it's credited to Rhee with the additional implication that the Chinese would've entered anyway. It was necessary, the Koreans are saying, even if it didn't work.
- There's a display for the medical personnel of the Korean War but not even a glimmer of a mention of “M*A*S*H,” one of the most popular TV shows in American history, a show that lasted three times longer than the fighting itself. The ommission feels purposeful. I doubt the show was even broadcast in Korea. Much of it was Americans complaining about the futility of war, about the futility of that war (a stand-in for Vietnam in many ways), all of which would be like telling South Koreans in the 1970s that their lives don't matter.
- As Vietnam War veterans had the MIA issue, South Koreans have the kidnapping of 80k people (intellectuals, technicians, etc.) when the North occupied Seoul in the early part of the war. There are several displays about this. It's a huge emotional issue and I didn't even know it was a thing.
The rest of our day wasn't as good as the War Memorial. It's a recommended stop for anyone visiting Seoul.
We signed the armistice then forgot 7/27; they didn't and didn't.
Monday May 08, 2023
Twins Win! Twins Win! In Seoul
A burly Asian bear bats against the hairiest man in all of Korea.
“Your wife is a saint.”
That was my sister's reaction when she found out that our first full day in Seoul, South Korea, I took my wife to a KBO League baseball game at Jamsil Stadium. In my defense: Patricia was more than on board. After my initial suggestion, she kept pushing for it. And even after no one seemed able to help us get tickets online, and even though we didn't know enough about the subway system to navigate our way there, and even when the cab rider seemed totally confused about where he was taking us, and why, she was game.
So how does Korean baseball differ from American baseball?
- Teams aren't associated with cities or states—not even sure how you'd do that in a country this small—but with corporations. In the game we saw Sunday afternoon, the Doosan Bears hosted the LG Twins. I don't know Doosan or LG but they're big here. The corporations, I mean.
- Fans sit in sections associated with rooting interests—like in high school football. That's because the stadium is actually the home stadium for both teams. I guess they just take turns as to who's the home team? When we bought tickets an hour before game time, the ticket-seller told us that the only seats available were in the left- or right-field bleachers. I said that was fine—either one. She looked confused, then asked which team we liked. Being from Minnesota, I went with the Twins, which is how we wound up in the left-field bleachers. Pretty much all the left side of the field was for the “visiting” fans.
- Both teams have cheerleaders! The Bears' cheerleaders were dressed like variations of Goldilocks. Or maybe they were anime characters? Or K-Pop stars? The Twins cheerleaders were dressed like cheerleaders, though they made a costume change midway through to another variation of cheerleader: gold outfit to black outfit, I believe. They had more to cheer about, too, it turned out.
- The fans know the cheers. They sing songs for their players and their team throughout the game. I mean, every inning. Several times an inning. In unison. With hand gestures. It's amazing.
- There doesn't seem to be much disparagement of the other side, just encouragement for your side. We were sitting with a couple from Belgium, and that's what the man, Marcelo, noticed immediately. Because it was so unlike European futbol. And he's right. It was all positivity. Nary a boo. This may sound odd coming from the “Yankee suck” guy, but I really, really loved it. It also felt very Korean.
- You're kind of stuck in your section. We went into the left field gate entrance and then were pretty much blocked from going anywhere else. Which meant there was only one place to buy refreshments, and there was no place to buy memorabilia. I wanted to get a Twins jersey, maybe their No. 51, but had no opportunity to do so. For teams literally owned by corporations, they don't do a great job at maximizing profit.
Otherwise, yes, it's pretty much the same game: three up, three down, nine innings, safe/out, replay challenges. The game went longer than current MLB games are going, so maybe they're not using the pitcher/hitter timers yet. It was also a blowout: 11-1, Twins. I did notice that the Twins' leadoff hitter, No. 51 (in honor of Ichiro? Is he a thing here?), left the game midway—I assume because it was a blowout—and was replaced by a No. 52, who was batting .000 with zeroes everywhere. I assumed a rookie. I did a lot of assuming that afternoon.
The refreshments are mostly the same, though the hot dog I ordered came bunless, with only ketchup as an option, and there were packaged seaweedy things I really should've tried. I got Patricia popcorn, which turned out to be kettle corn, which she liked better than American kettle corn because it was less sweet. Too late I saw a dude eating from an amazing contraption: fries and chicken nuggets in a tray that was the lid to his beer. Everything in one place.
They do the between-inning entertainments like we do. One was a dance-off between kids who couldn't dance. That seemed ... awkward. Another was simply called “Let's Dance!” and encouraged people to do so by putting the camera on them. This when the home-team Bears were down by 9 or 10 and there was little for Bears fans to dance about. Reminded me of '90s-era “Bad Dancing” at the Kingdome. (“And now back to Bad Baseball at the Kingdome.” — Mike Busick.)
There were a lot of foreigners in our area—not just us and the Belgian couple—almost as if it was planned? No idea. But it was fun sitting with the Belgian couple. Neither had seen a baseball game, so once again I tried to explain this insane sport from the ground up. They seemed to get most of it. Even better, the woman totally helped me with my understanding of the Korean language. I assumed it was a pictoral or ideogrammatic language, like Chinese, but Koreans actually use an alphabet for their words; they simply put them in clusters according to syllables. Which is why Duolingo kept foisting the Korean alphabet upon me when mostly I wanted to know how to say 'Hello' and 'Good morning'!“ It felt like they were teaching me the Korean version of bo-po-mo-fo (not really relevant), but they were actually teaching me the ABCs (totally relevant).
All in all, a fun afternoon on our first full day in Seoul. And we navigated the subway home. That was our 11-1 triumph.
Kids still shout for players to throw them the ball; the Korean version of the ”Foam Dome": chicken, fries, and beer all in one.
Wednesday May 03, 2023
Movie Review: Come Fill the Cup (1951)
Talkin' tomato juice. The guy on the left was supposed to be a different color until Jack Warner intervened.
This was James Cagney’s last Warner Bros. film. Well, this or “Starlift,” in which he plays himself in a cameo. The two were filmed concurrently—May to July 1951—but this one was released first. Cagney did make a few films in the 1950s distributed by Warners (“A Lion Is In the Streets,” “Mister Roberts”), but Warners was never the production company. He made movies produced by MGM and Universal, and by a host of independents, but as a freelancer in the ’50s he mostly steered clear of the studio that made him a star, and with whom he had a famously tumultuous relationship.
One wonders if the roommate was the last straw.
“Come Fill the Cup” is based on a 1951 novel by Harlan Ware, a Chicago newspaper man (Cagney couldn’t get away from Chicago newspaper men, could he?); and in the novel, and in the original script by Ben Roberts and Ivan Goff, the guy who helps the protagonist sober up—who saves him, basically—is Black. Per Cagney biographer John McCabe:
Cagney thought this was a particularly striking aspect of the novel; he had personally witnessed and resented ongoing prejudice against black vaudeville performers. When Roberts and Goff turned in a script that retained Dolan’s blackness, Jack Warner was upset. He told Goff, “You think Cagney’s gonna be under the same roof as a nigger?”
So there went that.
At the same time, there is something in the character, Charley Dolan, that feels like how well-meaning white people, and white Hollywood in particular, portrayed Black people back then. It’s not quite Magic Negro stuff, but…
- Dolan seems to have no life outside of the protagonist, Lew Marsh
- Dolan takes on the female role—cooking and maintaining the house—while Marsh works
- He’s the butt of an ongoing comic relief bit: trying to make tomato juice taste like something besides tomato juice
- White people cause his death but he forgives all
So even if the role went to a Black actor, it would still feel a little problematic to modern audiences.
That said, James Gleason does a fine job with it. And Jack Warner is still a schmuck.
“Come Fill the Cup” is not only Cagney’s last starring role with Warners, it’s the last Cagney film I needed to complete the canon. How about that? There’s some side stuff to pick up—that one film he directed, ’50s TV episodes, “Terrible Joe”—and I’ll probably re-do “Angels With Dirty Faces” (my review is nearly a quarter-century old), but every one of his 62 feature films has now been viewed and reviewed. Made it, ma!
“Cup” was last because it was impossible to find—no streaming, no DVD—but it might’ve been near the end anyway. Movies about addiction are tough rows for me. The trajectory is always down, down, down,and the questions are always the same. Does he recover? When does he hit bottom? What does he ruin in the process?
The answers here come quickly but not glibly. Marsh ruins himself and begins recovery in 10-15 minutes of screentime, but the ruin is rough and the recovery haunted. “You’ve an incurable disease,” the doctor at the sanatorium tells him. “Liquor is as poisonous to you as sugar is to the man with diabetes. The only sure treatment is to quit. … The one drink you don’t take is that first one. Forever.”
What made Marsh hit bottom? He was a successful reporter who lost his job, his girl, and any semblance of dignity—begging for a quarter on a weekday morning to get another drink, and then falling into the street in front of an oncoming truck—but none of that was what turned him around. “It was a sound that made me quit,” he tells Charley Dolan. “As I was lying there in the gutter, where you saw me, it kept coming at me like an animal—a whirring sound.”
Dolan nods. “Angel feathers,” he says. It’s a repeated line.
Dolan is the last guy Marsh tried to bum a quarter off of, and he’s waiting for him when he gets out of the sanitarium. He was an alcoholic, too, and he keeps a bottle of whiskey in the cabinet above the sink less as temptation than reminder. He offers Marsh a place to stay, gets him a job on a construction crew, encourages him to get back into the reporting biz. Then we get a montage of newspaper headlines welcoming the new year: 1946 … 1947 … 1948 … We pick up the story again in 1951, by which point Marsh is a tough but sympathetic city editor at the Sun-Herald who’s hired back several ex-drunks, all of whom are doing well. He seems to be forever rushing forward, trying to stay one step ahead of that first drink.
So what’s the conflict now? Where’s the drama?
Well, the publisher of the newspaper is a bit of an idiot. John Ives is supposed to be a flamboyant rogue, and apparently they wanted Adolphe Menjou but he wasn’t available. Raymond Massey is “a fine actor,” says Cagney, but not exactly flamboyant. Both Cagney and McCabe thought it didn’t work but I’d say it doesn’t not work. Ives comes off as thick—default mode for rich people running things.
Ives’ nephew, Boyd Copeland (Gig Young), is flamboyant. He’s an alcoholic music composer, in the process of ruining his life and marriage to Paula (Phyllis Thaxter), and Ives wants Marsh to set Boyd straight like with the other ex-drunks on staff. Marsh insists it doesn’t work that way, but Ives won’t listen. And Ives keeps not listening. Does he even know Marsh is Paula’s ex? Would he care? Marsh supposedly still has a candle burning for Paula, but I get those late-Cagney vibes of not being particularly interested in that aspect of the story. At best, his passion would exhibit itself in a pat on the cheek and let’s get on with the story, shall we?
Marsh is flown in a private plane to Ives’ estate, where he witnesses various toxic relationships: Boyd’s smothering mother, everyone ignoring the problem. He’s up-front about it. He calls Boyd “Boyd-y,” which Boyd can’t stand, and Boyd calls Marsh “Senor,” which Marsh never mentions. The back-and-forth between the two is good. Boyd is living life with a smiling drunken shrug, while Marsh stands back in that Cagney manner, almost on his toes, ready to take him on. But then Boyd splits, and Ives insists Marsh track him down. “I make you fully responsible!” he thunders. “You owe me this, Lewis!”
Which … no? It’s a bit weird. Marsh could just leave the Sun-Herald and go to another paper, right? But he has his own shrug here—a repeated line: “You pay, and you pay, and you pay.” I.e., for alcoholism. And this is part of that. Even though it isn’t.
You know what their relationship is like? Cagney and Jack Warner. Warner had stupid ideas that Cagney was forced to go along with because he was under contract. One wonders if Cagney wanted Menjou for Ives because Menjou is closer to Warner. Right down to the moustache.
The other stupid idea Jack Warner demanded is the inclusion of a gangster, which wasn’t in the novel, but which he wanted for a Cagney flick. So in the rewrite, Maria (Charlita), the nightclub singer Boyd is seeing, is also moll to local gangster Lennie Garr (Sheldon Leonard). That’s the drama in the second half: saving Boyd not only from alcoholism but Lennie Garr. At one point, Marsh says this:
You get to Lenny Garr. You tell him that the Sun-Herald is personally interested in the welfare of Boyd Copeland. Make it clear to the rat.
I love that Cagney is still saying “rat” in the 1950s. I’m also curious what Sheldon Leonard thought. Aside from playing bartenders like Nick in “It’s a Wonderful Life,” gangsterism was his default role. He’d done it many times before, but never in front of one of cinema’s ur-gangsters. What was that like?
At this point our questions are: Will Paula divorce Boyd and wind up with Marsh? No. But Charley does figure out the ingredient to make tomato juice taste like something else: mustard. Unfortunately, Marsh also sends him to pick up Boyd at the nightclub, and for some reason Boyd drives, and he’s speeding, and it’s raining. The real issue, though, is the brake line: It’s been cut by one of Garr’s men. Boyd survives the crash (“Heaven takes care of drunks and children,” Marsh says later), but not Charley. “I can hear the angel feathers, Lew,” he tells Marsh. “This time, there’s nothing I can do about it.”
Afterwards, we get a remarkable scene. With tears in his eyes, Marsh confronts Boyd. He slaps him, and keeps slapping him, saying this all the while:
You can’t buy your way out of this Boyd-y. You can’t bury your head in Mama’s lap and forget it. Not this time, Boyd-y. Charley’s there and you’re here, and it oughta be the other way around!
He seems lost, unhinged, with Cagney making that ng ng guttural sound he made when he found out his mom had died in “White Heat.” It’s powerful stuff. It’s also the moment Marsh almost falls off the wagon. At work, he sees the bar across the street, turns away, turns back. He goes in, orders a bourbon. He stares at it, raises it. Then our deus ex machina: a colleague races in to tell him about the punctured hole in the brake line. And off they go.
Now it becomes a split film: Boyd drying out and the Sun-Herald taking on the mob with misleading headlines about a fingerprint on the brake line. The final confrontation takes place at Boyd’s high-rise apartment. Marsh wants the missing Maria to talk, she agrees, but then Garr and henchman show up, guns drawn, and in Leonard’s “Guys and Dolls” voice he tells them the whole plan. They’re going to throw Maria out the window and leave Boyd and Marsh drunk with bottles strewn around to take the blame. Of course Marsh gets the upper hand, justice prevails, Paula chooses Boyd, etc.
We do get a nice bookending scene. At the beginning of the movie, Marsh is hanging at the bar across the street when Paula shows up.
Paula: Let me take you home.
Marsh: Don’t you see, Paula? I am home.
The movie’s final scene takes place at the newspaper office.
Ives: Can I drop you at your home?
Marsh: Don’t see you, Mr. Ives? I am home.
That’s not bad for a so-so movie.
This is the period when Cagney always seemed to be a few beats behind: a pre-WWII movie released at the end of World War II; an OSS movie a year after “O.S.S.”; a take on Huey Long four years after “All the King’s Men”; and here, a take on alcoholism six years after “The Lost Weekend.”
“Cup” was directed by Gordon Douglas, who got his start with Hal Roach, went over to RKO, then landed at Warners in 1950. He directed the sci-fi classic “Them!” and a slew of forgettable tough guy flicks (tail-end Sinatra) in the ’60s. His only other Cagney is “Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye,” an underrated gangster movie. Gig Young did get a supporting Oscar nom here, his first of three. And … holy shit, the kid who plays the copy boy, the one who reluctantly cleans out Marsh’s desk at the beginning? Henry Blair, who played George M. Cohan, age 7, in “Yankee Doodle Dandy.” How great is that? The two Cohans even get a scene together.
Monday May 01, 2023
Here's an excerpt from Sam Wasson's “The Big Goodbye: Chinatown and the Last Years of Hollywood.” The scene takes place late summer, 1969, Los Angeles, after the Manson killings. The killers haven't been caught, or even IDed, people are freaking, Robert Towne and his wife Julie Payne live nearby. Julie wants a gun, Towne looks into security, and they consult former cop Tony Silas:
In due time, Tony Silas paid a visit to Hutton Drive and instantly understood why Payne wanted that gun. Their house, up on a hill at the end of a curled driveway, was like the house atop Cielo Drive, distressingly isolated. Should anything happen, there would be no escaping. “Get her the gun,” Silas told Towne. “If anybody came up this driveway,” Silas continued, “forget it. Women shoot to kill.”
Towne got the message. “Where do you work?” he asked the vice cop. “Right now we're working in Chinatown.” “What do you do there?” “Nothing.” “What do you mean, nothing?” “Well, that's pretty much what we're told to do in Chinatown, is nothing. Because with the different tongs, the language and everything else, we can't tell whether we're helping somebody commit a crime or prevent one. So, we just ... we do nothing.”
As little as possible. It's right there. And the circularilty of it is mind-bending. Because of security moves in the aftermath of the Manson killings, Towne gets the germ of what would become “Chinatown” ... which will be directed by the man whose wife and unborn child were killed by the Mansons. It's all taking place in Hollywood, but if this was in a Hollywood movie I wouldn't believe it.
Sunday April 30, 2023
Harry Belafonte (1927-2023)
I believe I first heard about Harry Belatonte from Archie Bunker on an episode of “All in the Family.” I remember the line, I just don't remember what prompted it:
“Harvey Belafonte ain't black. He's just a good lookin' white guy dipped in caramel!”
My mother or father (or both) may have laughed at the line, which I didn't get at all. Who is Harry Belafonte? Why is he not black? Oh, he is black? So why did Archie say it? Why is that funny?
I grew up in the '70s, not Belafonte's heyday, and I didn't see either “Buck and the Preacher” or “Uptown Saturday Night,” so where did I next come across him? Somewhere in the '80s. Through...
- His daughter Shari?
- “Beetlejuice,” featuring “Day-O (The Banana Boat Song)” and (my personal favorite) “Jump in the Line”?
- “Parting the Waters” by Taylor Branch?
That's part of the irony of Archie's line: that good-looking white guy dipped in caramel was all over the Civil Rights Movement. He was a front-line man. He was a race man. In the index to Branch's book, under “Belafonte, Harry,” these are some of the subcategories:
- Albany Movement and
- Atlanta concerts of
- Birmingham campaign and
- Freedom Rides and
- King's imprisonments and
- King's meetings with
- March on Washington and
- 1960 elections and
- R. Kennedy's meeting with
- SNCC and
- voter registration and
Henry Louis Gates Jr.'s great 1996 New Yorker profile of Belafonte begins with that week in Feb. 1968 when Belafonte hosted “The Tonight Show” for the vacationing Johnny Carson. At the time, Gates was a young college student, radicalized, and Belfaonte didn't disappoint. He brought the truth. He talked bluntly about race and power. He welcomed guests such as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Sen. Robert Kennedy. It seem an era of possibilities. And within four months both men were dead of assassin's bullets. One wonders how '68 didn't break him. How do you deal with all that? How do you go on?
From Gates' profile, I learned that in the late 1940s Belafonte was friends and rivals with Sidney Poitier at the American Negro Theatre in Harlem, and the two men were befriended by the already legendary Paul Robeson, and all three would meet a bar on Fifth Avenue off of 125th Street and drink and talk. How is there not a play about that? “One Night in Miami” but in Harlem in the late 1940s. “He was very fond of Harry,” Poitier said of Robeson. “And Harry loved him.”
While Poitier was starring in Hollywood movies by 1950, Belafonte wound up with another path to stardom. Here he is on “The Ed Sullivan Show” in 1956. It's a year after Emmett Till. He's shirtless but for a vest, and gorgeous, and romantic, and one can only imagine how this fucked up the racists of the world—not to mention their wives.
He had six gold albums between 1956 and 1961. He had #1 singles in the UK, the Netherlands, Belgium. He had TV specials and sang with Odetta. And he organized.
I didn't know until recently that the whole “DAAAYYYY-O” thing was about laborers; and I didn't figure out until writing this that “Mr. Tally Man” was just the guy who tallied the bananas that the laborers brought in. I thought it was a spectre of some kind. But it's just another way of saying “accountant.”
Everyone always talks about lowering the ladder for those coming after you. Belafonte manned the ladder. He built more ladders. He wondered why others weren't manning and building more ladders. He spent a lifetime doing this.
Saturday April 29, 2023
Bad for glass. We're forever behind the detective who's forever behind.
I've seen “Chinatown” about half a dozen times, maybe more. It's the movie I keep returning to these days, as I once kept returning to “The Insider” or “All the President's Men.” Maybe it just resonated more during the Trump era. Forget it, Erik, it's the GOP.
I thought I got it, too. The movie is an updated film noir, except the femme fatale is the victim and the cynical private detective has no idea how awful the world is. Brilliant. I got it.
Then I read this quote from production designer Richard Sylbert in “Hollywood: An Oral History” and realized I wasn't seeing half of “Chinatown”:
You say to yourself, “Okay, Chinatown is about a drought, so all the colors in this picture are going to be related to the idea of a drought. And the only time you're going to see green is when somebody has water for the grass.” ... All the buildings in this picture will be Spanish except one. And they'll all be white. The reason they're white is that the heat bounces off them. And not only will they all be white, they'll be above the eye level of the private eye. Above eye level means, for the private eye, that he has to walk uphill. It is always harder emotionally to walk uphill. You then decide what the colors are going to be and why they're going to be that way and what the range should be, let's say, from burnt grass, which is a terrific color, to white, which you know you're already going to deal with, to umber. Umber is interesting, because it's the color of a shadow. And in a movie like this, the more shadowy the better. You use the layers, the planes, use everything you can. All these things are available to you to structure a movie. Even opaque glass. You know what's interesting about opaque glass in a mystery? You can't quite see who's behind it, and it looks like frozen water. And in a picture where they're talking about water, it's an interesting object to get involved with. And you just keep doing that wherever you can.
How fucking brilliant is all that? Sylbert also worked on “Splendor in the Grass,” “Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?,” “The Graduate,” “Rosemary's Baby,” “Carnal Knowledge,” “Shampoo,” “Reds,” “Frances,” “Breathless,” “Dick Tracy,” and “Carlito's Way.” Not a bad CV.
Friday April 28, 2023
Movie Review: Chinatown Nights (1929)
It begins with one of those old-fashioned traffic signs—the word STOP comes up as the word GO retracts—and intentionally or not (not), it speaks to the movie’s troubled production. “Chinatown Nights” began as a silent film, but morphed into one of the first “all-talking” pictures, mostly through dubbing. And the dubbing is awful—out of synch and nonsensical. In these early traffic scenes, for example, we barely hear traffic. Instead we hear, very loudly, an unseen newsboy shouting “Extra, extra, read all about it!” And then suddenly we don’t hear him at all. We just hear a Chinatown tour bus guide’s schpiel about “sacred joss houses” and “ancient secret orders of the great Tong.” What happened to the newsboy? Where’s the traffic noise? It’s like an odd dreamworld. I felt a little nauseous trying to make sense of it.
Is this the movie that nearly ended Wallace Beery’s career? It was, at least, his first sound production, and sound is why Paramount dropped him. His voice was resonant, but, they felt, too deep and slow. So MGM’s Irving Thalberg picked him up and immediately made him one of the biggest stars of the early 1930s. (MGM also picked up the Marx Brothers after Paramount dropped them. Go know.)
Either way, “Chinatown Nights” did end Florence Vidor’s career, though not for any Lina Lamont reasons. Apparently she loathed what sound did to the moviemaking process, so she didn’t even bother to dub her own voice here; Nella Walker did that. And yes, she was Vidor as in King Vidor, her husband from 1914 to 1926. She did OK on the rebound, though, marrying famed violinist Jascha Heifetz in 1928.
Despite the movie’s troubles, it’s still kind of fascinating. I would love to see a crisp copy on a big screen rather than—as I did—a small muddy copy on my computer. It’s William Wellman, after all, making a gangster flick two years before “The Public Enemy.” How fun is that?
Isn’t it also a kind of gender-reversed “Blue Angel”? The society dame brought low by the gangster. Though with a happy ending, if you can imagine.
Joan Fry (Vidor) is on a bad date with the drunk and handsy Gerald (Freeman Wood) when she becomes intrigued by the Chinatown tour bus. She also figures that, with Gerald, a public bus is safer than a private limo:
Gerald: You know, Chinatown is all a fake.
Joan: Then you should feel right at home.
The tour bus winds up running into a Chinese falldown artist. Except no, he’s actually dead, the victim of a brewing Tong War between Chuck Riley (Beery) and Boston Charley (pre-Charlie Chan Warner Oland, in yellowface). It’s Riley who shows up and orders the tour bus to scram, but Joan’s feisty so she sticks around. Then the cops show up and question her. Love that. There’s a dead body, there’s a known gangster, but wait, who’s this society dame? Maybe she had something to do with it!
After that, it’s late, there are no taxis, and men are being killed on the streets. Riley is the devil she knows. “Where are you taking me?” she asks, worried. “You’re following me,” he responds correctly.
Riley has a room above his nightclub with a giant war map along one wall, and a Chinese assistant, Woo Chung (Tetsu Komai), who doesn’t seem to do much. For her safety, Joan is locked in an adjacent room, from which she: 1) tries to escape; 2) emotes wide-eyed behind one of those speakeasy windows; 3) browses the bookshelf. There she finds a volume of Shakespeare with “C. Riley, Class of 1908” written on the title page. We get a nice scene of dueling quotes. She points out this one to Riley:
Upon what meat doth our Caesar feed
That he is grown so great?
He counters with “Richard III”:
Teach not they lips such scorn, for they were made
For kissing, lady, not for such contempt
Unlike the handsy Gerald, Riley doesn’t make a play, and in the morning she leaves reluctantly. Later, she returns to check out the Chinese Theater with society friends, who are already worried Joan might “go native.” Yes, they say that. It’s 1929.
By this point, a stuttering reporter, Williams (Jack Oakie), has instigated a meeting at the theater between the two Tong gangsters (cf., the scheming reporters in “The Racket”), Joan and her friends get in the way, men are killed. There’s a great shot of her caught in the mayhem afterwards—pushed along the crowd like someone caught in river rapids. So it’s Riley to the rescue again, even though he sees her as a slumming society dame, “down here looking us over like animals in a zoo.” Cake-eaters like her and her friends would faint if anyone slapped them in the jaw, he says, at which point she dares him to do it. So he does. Hard. And she? She holds her cheek and looks at him with something like love brimming in her eyes.
Yes, they do that. It’s 1929.
After they spend the night together, we get a particularly odd sequence that speaks to the jerryrigged nature of this production, the unknowability of relationships, or some really bad editing. Or all three.
Joan is about to leave for good but in the hallway heading downstairs there’s another society gal whom we’d seen earlier laughing at a Buddha statuette. Here, near the Buddha, she looks back at Joan and intones in a sing-songy voice, “Going … my way?” For some reason, that line causes Riley to burst out laughing, which causes Joan to spin and stare at him with hurt and tears in her eyes. Then the camera is on him. He seems upset that she’s crying. Or stunned? Maybe he’s stunned because in the next shot she’s closing the door from inside and letting her coat drop slinkily, sexily, to the floor. Except in the very next shot, from a completely different angle, with completely different lighting, she’s beatific, eyes cast up, as she intones in a sing-songy way, “I’ve changed my mind, Chuck. I’m going … your way.”
(For oddly slow, sing-songy voices, cf., Harlow in “Public Enemy.”)
But will she? She’s used to getting her own way, and now she’s just a moll. When he attends a potentially dangerous Tong funeral he refuses to bring her along. So she drinks. So she’s a drunk. (It happens that fast.) And when the cops show up to end the Tong war, and Riley refuses to help, she blurts out something he’d previously mentioned to her—that the cops just need to demand papers from all the Chinese and deport those who don’t have them, and that would end things. For that betrayal, Riley throws her out. But to where? “I can’t go back uptown now!” she cries.
As weird as Wellman’s sing-songy molls are, he’s really good with street kids: Darro and Coughlan in “Public Enemy”; the whole bunch in “Wild Boys of the Road”; and Jack McHugh here. He plays “The Shadow”—two years before the creation of the radio character—a street urchin who works for Riley and warns him when danger’s afoot. I kind of flashed on Brandon Cruz a bit. He’s not just loyal but cool. At one point, Riley throws a pot at him and he doesn’t flinch. He’s also empathetic. By now Joan is an alcoholic getting kicked out of Chinatown bars, so he takes her to his basement apartment and sleeps on the floor next to her.
The next day, he tries to get Riley to take her back, and that’s when Riley throws the pot. A second later, the kid is shot on the streets outside, the latest victim of the Tong war Riley won’t end. The kid’s dying words are addressed to him.
“Beat it, Chuck,” he says. “The cops are coming.”
The movie’s not much, but that scene is poignant.
So long Tong
The wrap-up is quick and odd. Boston Charley dumps Joan in front of Riley’s place—alive, with a taunting note about rotting fruit pinned to her—and a doctor, dressed like a milkman, tells Riley the only way she’ll survive is if he takes her away from all this. So he does. Like that. Snap. “We’re going … your way,” he intones. Then it’s back to the tour bus in Chinatown, which Boston Charley now rules, while new cake-eaters mock the proceedings.
And that’s it. No comeuppance for Riley. To be honest, it’s kind of refreshing.
Again, I’d like to see a good-quality version of this. Even better if someone removed the bad dubbing and restored the intertitles. How does it work as the silent film it was meant to be?
Early Hollywood really loved the Tong wars, didn’t they? They’re all over these plots but begin to die off in the 1930s. What happened? I guess the exotic storyline morphed into familiar heroes (Charlie Chan) and villains (Fu Manchu). Would be interesting if a modern filmmaker, Chinese or Chinese-American, took up the mantle. Particularly if we got something historically accurate. If that’s even possible.
Ever had the feeling you wanted to go, but also had the feeling you wanted to stay? Florence Vidor stayed in the movie, then left the movies.
Thursday April 27, 2023
Why Tucker Wasn't Fired
In his SubStack, Judd Legum runs through some reasons why Fox News might have fired their biggest ratings draw, Tucker Carlson, unceremoniously by loudly, earlier this week. Was it Ray Epps (whom Tucker alleged was responsible for Jan. 6) airing dirty linen on “60 Minutes” Sunday night? Was it the lawsuit from Abby Grossman (who alleges a hostile and offensive work environment on Tucker's show)? Was it fallout from the Dominion lawsuit (where, during disovery, it was revealed that Tucker sent disparaging texts about Trump and others in the right-wing biosphere)? Was it D) All of the above? Right now, Fox isn't talking. The one time we want them to say something, they've zipped their pieholes. Would that they kept it up.
Legum adds the following:
More importantly, we know what was not a firing offense for Carlson. He spent years promoting racist, white nationalist conspiracy theories. Not only was Carlson not fired, but top Fox News executives defended his conduct.
Upon finding out the good news, on the two newbie social media sites I'm on, I talked about Tucker as basically a street corner kid: eminently replaceable and there to draw your fire—not to mention ire—as he has done so well. And even though he's gone, someone else will take over that 8 PM slot and they'll be awful, too. That's the role of the 8 PM slot: to be awful. I said it's not O'Reilly or Hannity or Megyn or Tucker, it's the Murdochs. Follow the money.
It was a bit of a downer post, to be honest. I should've reveled more.
“Whatever the reason Fox News cut ties with Tucker Carlson,” Legum writes at the end of his post, “it was not a moral stance. That ship sailed long ago.” Exactamundo.
Wednesday April 26, 2023
GOP To-Don't List
I like David Frum's lede in this Atlantic article, talking about the five things Republicans knew they needed to do to make 2024 viable:
- Replace Donald Trump at the head of the ticket with somebody less obnoxious and impulsive.
- Capitalize on inflation and other economic troubles.
- Offer plausible ideas on drugs, crime, and border enforcement.
- Reassure women worried about the post-Roe future.
- Don't be too obvious about suppressing Democratic votes, because really blatant voter suppression will provoke and mobilize Democrats to vote, not discourage them.
And they haven't done any of them: Trump leads the pack, the GOP's debt-ceiling recklessness is the biggest U.S. economic problem, they have no good ideas for anything, and, as the clickbait goes, “No. 4 is the worst one!”
Frum, or one of his editors, calls the piece “The Coming Biden Blowout,” which I initially thought meant Biden would blow out. Or maybe the Atlantic is hedging its bets. Either way, here's hoping all of this backfires on the GOP. Awful things should happen to awful people for a change.
Monday April 24, 2023
PRISON W. GATE
When Spiro T. Agnew landed on the national scene as the VP nominee for Richard Nixon in 1968, my father thought the name sounded like a fake name in a detective story—an anagram of something else, something that would, per detective stories, reveal all. So he tried to figure out what the anagram was. Which is so him. He loves word games. Still does, age 91. And because he was a reporter at The Minneapolis Tribune, and because columnist Will Jones heard about the effort, and because columnists forever need a new idea for a column, it wound up in the newspaper.
All of this was hardly family lore, by the way. I don't even think my Dad remembered doing it. But a few months back, while I was searching for something else on newspapers.com, I came across the columns. They're amazing.
One of the strongest of the anagrams is TOWERING SAP. There's also PORING SWEAT, which, given Nixon, is spot on. But one anagram is shockingly prescient:
No, Agnew didn't go to prison because of Watergate, it was extortion and tax fraud, and he wound up pleading guilty to one count of tax evasion and resigning office in Oct. 1973. But so many of Nixon's inner circle went to jail because of W. GATE. Hell, just having PRISON is prescient enough. But W. GATE, too? Wow.
And how about those late '60s door prizes? “Laugh-In” and Polanski and bad kids shows and Pigmeat Markham. Amazing. Half of it would be canceled today.
As for the winning entry? That, too, was prescient. It was announced Oct. 5, 1968, five years almost to the day before Agnew resigned office. The most common response was GOP RATES WIN, so Dad went for imaginative from Peter Hepokoski of 1327 SE 7th St. Dad wrote: “I especially liked his 'go 'n' tap wires' (it's constitutional!).”
GO N TAP WIRES
PRISON W. GATE
Apparently we never needed Woodward and Bernstein, just Will Shortz. I'll leave it to others to figure out the tea leaves from DONALD J. TRUMP.
Sunday April 23, 2023
Recognize the guy with Cagney on the set of “Mister Roberts”?
It's fucking Escobar, man. “Chinatown.” The guy who kills Evelyn Mulwray*, allowing her father to put his Grinch-like claws on the granddaughter. It's the guy who unknowingly gives us one of the saddest endings, with one of the greatest last lines, in movie history. The one who didn't listen to the lesson of Chinatown: do as little as possible. He thought he was upholding the law but he was creating injustice because he believed the lies. For a time, I guess, so did Jake.
IMDb's photo gallery for actor Perry Lopez includes only 16 shots from a 40-year career but man are they cool:
- Three from “Chinatown”
- Four from “Mister Roberts,” where he played Rodrigues
- One from the “Shore Leave” episode of “Star Trek,” where he played Rodriguez
- Four hanging out with Natalie Wood and/or James Dean on the set of “Rebel Without a Cause”
From that last, I assumed he played one of the hoods in “Rebel,” but he's not listed, so not sure why he was visiting the set. Was he going out with Wood? Or Dean? Not seeing connections.
Oddly, after “Chinatown,” he doesn't have many credits. He was working working working, then he gets an important role in a great film, and then nothing for five years. Did he return to the stage? After “Chinatown,” he's in four TV episodes (late '70s, early '80s) and four movies (late '80s, early '90s), including a reprise of Escobar in the disappointing “Two Jakes.” And that's it.
Lopez was born in 1929, two years before “The Public Enemy,” so he probably grew up idolizing Cagney. He certainly looks happy in the photo.
* My wife and I just watched the film again, and apologies to Lt. Escobar: He missed. It was fucking Loach that killed her.
Saturday April 22, 2023
Movie Review: Amsterdam (2022)
How many actors have spent an entire movie imitating another actor who has nothing to do with the movie? Kurt Russell doing Clint Eastwood in “Escape from New York” comes to mind. Anyone else? Feels like there’s more but I’m drawing a blank.
In “Amsterdam,” Christian Bale plays Burt Berendsen, a Jewish doctor and wounded Great War veteran who tends to the wounds of other Great War veterans in 1933 New York. His friends include other vets such as Harold Woodman, Esq. (John David Washington) and Milton King (Chris Rock), and initially I was worried this was another example of color-blind casting in a historical setting. Not a fan of that. As if we can just level history. As if we can raise an entire generation thinking the Civil Rights Movement weren’t no big deal since everyone’s been the same forever and ever. Wait, and Zoe Saldana is a coroner, too? And they’re all hanging with … is that Taylor Swift? Wow, this cast. But c’mon.
Thank god Chris Rock says something about the dangers of Black men hanging in a room with a white woman and a dead white body. So not quite color blind. But definitely wishful thinking.
Washington has never done much for me. He’s the son of Denzel, given two dull first names rather than one memorable one, and he’s twice dull rather than once memorable. Sorry. His father had snap; he snapped you to attention. Maybe I’m being too tough on the son. What am I basing it off of? This and Spike Lee’s “BlacKkKlansman.” Maybe I need to see Chris Nolan’s “Tenet.” Top directors seem to dig him.
Anyway, early on I thought, “Oh, Christian Bale is doing a Jewish accent.” But I began to realize he wasn’t doing general Jewish but particular Jewish. He was doing someone. Drove me crazy. I kept flashing on Martin Short as Jiminy Glick doing Larry David to Larry David—and, to be honest, that’s not far off. I’m ashamed to admit I didn’t realize it. Or I did but dismissed it. At one point, he was crouched over, looking up, and I went “Peter Falk? No.” Yes. Bale is doing Peter Falk throughout. And it’s fun but also distracting.
But not as distracting as Zoe Saldana.
The movie’s not much, which is a shame because it should be something. It should’ve resonated hugely.
It’s framed as a mystery. Did someone kill their former platoon leader Gen. Bill Meekins (Ed Begley Jr.), and why, and why kill his daughter (Taylor Swift), too? The dude from “Deadwood” (Timothy Olyphant), with crazy eyes and bad hair, pushes her into traffic, then blames the Jew and the Negro, and mobs being mobs, everyone goes along. So our heroes are on the run during perilous times but their own investigation doesn’t feel sharp; it feels soft and blurry. She says something about Rose? Or Voze? The Vozes are richie riches. But first we get an extended flashback about how our principles know each other.
Woodman and King were both in the All-Black 369th Infantry Regiment fighting in France, but their superior officer is a cracker. So Gen. Meekins, a kindly man, brings in Berendsen, another kindly man, whose gentile in-laws want him dead anyway. Nearly happens. But Woodman saves Berendsen, and Berendsen saves Woodman, and they both become friends with a crazy beautiful nurse, Valerie (Margot Robbie), who makes trinkets out of the torn metal she pulls from soldiers’ bodies. She and Woodman wind up romantically linked, and all three party for a while in Amsterdam, the idyllic place that allows such partying in 1918. But then Berendsen has to return to the States. Something about loving Beatrice (Andrea Riseborough), the awful woman whose upper-crust family is even awful-er. And for some reason Woodman has to return, too. Maybe because that partying in Amsterdam actually looks kind of dull.
At the Voze estate in 1933, guess who they run into? Valerie! She’s a Voze, but suffering medical/mental issues. And yes, she was the one who suggested Taylor Swift seek out Woodman and Berendsen. So that mystery is solved. But what to do now? Valerie’s brother Tom (Rami Malek) suggests they contact the legendary Gen. Gil Dillenbeck (Robert De Niro), who might be helpful in exonerating them. Um, how? But OK? Along the way, they also find out something about the Committee of the Five, or the Committee for the Sound Dollar, that is involved in a kind of eugenics and has a weird symbol—a combo of “C” and “5” that looks like it might be a drunk version of a swastika. Which … yes.
At some point, trying to figure out the plot, I’m thinking, “OK, so is it a bunch of richie riches who don’t like FDR’s New Deal and like what Hitler is doing in Germany, and want to bring Fascism to the U.S.?” Bingo. Better, it’s actually based on a historical incident, the Business Plot or Wall Street Putsch of 1933, in which businessmen apparently wanted Gen. Smedley Butler to take over from FDR as an emergency measure. But he spilled the beans on them—just as Gen. Dillenbeck does here. The question is: Who’s the betrayer? Turns out: Tom. Rami Malek. Shocking. Meekins was going to spill the beans, too, which is why he was killed. His daughter learned of it, which, ditto. Berendsen and Woodman were allowed to live because the Committee wanted Dillenbeck on board, and as decorated war vets they had a better chance of reaching him.
Given Trump, Jan. 6, Proud Boys and Fox News, this should resonate, but it doesn’t. Not close. It’s historic horror overlayed with contemporary feel-good. True, nothing happens to the Committee, as in real life, but Berendsen finally blows off Beatrice for the shockingly gorgeous Irma St. Clair (Saldana), and Woodman and Valerie are reunited, and they all have their own little Amsterdam in 1930s NYC.
Meanwhile, across the ocean…
But what fun seeing Matthias Schoenaerts again! He plays the good cop. I haven’t seen him since “The Mustang” in 2019, which feels like forever ago. Also Michael Shannon as a T-Man. When did I last …? Right, “Knives Out” in 2019. Mike Myers should act more. He has a bit part as undercover MI-6 with a bird fetish, and he’s fun. Zoe Saldana should let us see her face more. She’s a good actress, too. Christian Bale is amazing. All for nothing.
This is David O. Russell’s first movie since “Joy” in 2015, which I never saw, and which came on the heels of “American Hustle” in 2013, which I loved. So I haven’t seen Russell in 10 years. A bad 10 years. I wish he’d had something more profound to say about it than “Amsterdam.”
All previous entries
Baseball's Active Leaders, 2023
What Trump Said When About COVID
Everything Everywhere All at Once (2022)
Black Panther: Wakanda Forever (2022)
Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness (2022)
Spider-Man: No Way Home (2021)
A Midsummer Night's Dream (1935)
Something to Sing About (1937)
Angels with Dirty Faces (1938)
A Lion Is In the Streets (1953)
Man of a Thousand Faces (1957)
Never Steal Anything Small (1959)
Shake Hands With the Devil (1959)