Movie Reviews - 1940s posts
Friday July 26, 2019
Movie Review: Adventures of Captain Marvel (1941)
This is it. The breakthrough.
Yes, we’d had John Carter, Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers. We’d seen Tarzan swinging, Zorro dueling, and Robin Hood splitting arrows. The Shadow laughed, The Lone Ranger rode, The Spider swooped, and The Green Hornet ... did whatever The Green Hornet does. We’d come close but “Adventures of Captain Marvel” is the first true live-action superhero movie ever made.
And for its time, it ain’t bad.
Captain Marvel’s flying is actually decades ahead of its time. The flying here looks better than the flying in any of the live-action Superman serials or TV shows of the ’40s and ’50s, or even the “Shazam!” TV series in the mid-1970s, all of which relied on animation, window jumps, or early green-screen effects to simulate human flight.
“Captain Marvel” uses a bit of this, but its more common technique is to send a mannequin zipping along an invisible wire. If that sounds lame, it isn’t.
Bolts of lightning
The plot borrows from ur-superhero serials but improves upon it. A half-dozen civic leaders sitting around a table are periodically menaced by a cloaked figure named for an animal—the Scorpion here rather than the Octopus (“The Spider’s Web”) or the Black Tiger (“The Shadow”)—and whose secret identity is in fact one of the men sitting around the table. But which one? Show up next week at your neighborhood theater!
So where’s the improvement? The Scorpion actually has a specific reason—rather than general greed/evil—to eliminate everyone. All the men, plus, of course, Billy Batson (Frank Coghlan, Jr.), were part of an archeological expedition in Siam, which ... Here. I’ll just quote the opening title:
In a remote section of Siam, near the Burmese border, lies a desolate volcanic land which for centuries has been taboo to white men—the Valley of the Tombs! To this realm of mystery, jealously guarded by native tribes unconquered since the dawn of time, has come the Malcolm Archelogloical expedition to find the lost secret of the Scorpion Dynasty.
I love the assumptions in “taboo” and “jealously guarded”—not to mention “unconquered.” Those tribes just haven’t learned their place yet.
In the tomb, the archeologists find a golden scorpion idol, with adjustable legs, like some Mattel toy from the 1960s. And once the lenses in the claws are properly aligned, all hell breaks loose. It can cause earthquakes or turn any base metal into gold. Later in the serial, the Scorpion will bring up its “atom smashing” ability, by which point the whole gold-making thing will be sadly forgotten.
But it’s the making of gold in Chapter 1 that causes the leader of the expedition, John Malcolm (Robert Strange), to suggest divvying up the lenses so the device can never be used except for the good of all. Which is why each civic leader has a lens. And why the Scorpion is after them. He wants gold. Gold.
Now that I think about it, isn’t this a bit like Thanos with the infinity stones? Did this influence that? Or is placing half a dozen smaller objects into a bigger object to achieve ultimate power a more common plot device than I realize?
I’m also surprised I never made the Captain Marvel/Thor connection before. For each:
- a civilian stumbles upon something (a word, a stick) that transforms him into a superpowered being
- this superpowered being is a god (Thor) or has the power of the gods (Solomon, Hercules, et al.)
- this superpowered being is basically a completely different person
For a moment I also thought both were disabled, but in the Captain Marvel universe that's Freddie Freeman/Captain Marvel Jr., not Billy Batson, who walks fine and sells newspapers on the streets. Here, Billy isn’t a teenage newsboy but a twentysomething radio news operator. Why is he on the Malcolm expedition? For the news? Whatever the reason, once the golden scorpion causes an earthquake in the Valley of Tombs, a secret tomb is revealed and Billy is greeted by an old man with a long beard who trills his Rs in the fashion of turn-of-the-century ham actors. In this case, it’s Nigel De Brulier, who began acting in the silents in 1914 and tended to play regal types, including Cardinal Richelieu four times. He tells young Billy about the powers of Captain Marvel (Solomon, Hercules, Atlas, Zeus, Achilles, Mercury), how to call upon them (acronym), but adds this warning: “You must never call upon this power except in the service of rrrright. To do so, would bring the Scorpion’s curse upon your own head.”
You know what’s odd? Besides all of it? How quickly the Scorpion appears. Think of it. The Scorpion is one of the men on the archeology team, and the very night after the Golden Scorpion’s power is revealed he shows up in camp, robed and cloaked, with an image of a scorpion on his hood, chest and back. Was that the plan all along? If not, where did he get the costume? Who brought along the sewing kit?
Initially I was worried we’d be stuck in the jungle for all 12 chapters, but thankfully by the second chapter we’re back in the city. Then I remembered, “Right, that can be dullsville, too.“
This is the first time movie serials had to deal with a truly superpowered being as protagonist. It’s not an ordinary dude in a mask; it’s a god. And how can gods be imperiled enough to have cliffhangers? Answer: The cliffhangers are mostly about imperiled civilians: chiefly, John Malcolm’s secretary, Betty (Louise Currie), or Billy when he's unconscious or gagged. That said, they do knock out Captain Marvel (Tom Tyler) several times via electrocution. That's right. They decided that a being who is transformed into a god by a bolt of lightning can be electrocuted.
For the scholarly types, here are the cliffhangers:
- A bridge collapses with Betty’s car on it
- Captain Marvel is electrocuted and knocked unconscious on a conveyor belt heading toward a guillotine (classic!)
- Billy is flying a plane with a bomb aboard
- Betty is unconscious in a runaway car
- Captain Marvel is trapped by molten lava
- Captain Marvel is electrocuted (again)
- Betty and Billy (gagged) are in a shack about to be bombed
- Billy is unconscious in a car with a bomb in it
- Billy and Betty, trying to open a safe, are in the sites of a machine gun
- Billy and Betty are on a sinking ship off the coast of Siam
Is this the first time we’ve seen a movie character whom bullets bounce off of? They display that power quite a bit—it’s probably the cheapest to film—and always in the same fashion. Bad guys shoot, bullet ping off his chest, and Captain Marvel, maybe after looking down, smiles and slowly walks forward. It would become a staple/cliché of the early superhero genre (bullets pinging, slow walk forward) and I’m curious if this is where it began. Anyone?
But the problem with a superhero battling non-superheroes is that he can’t be too smart or it’s over like that. So Captain Marvel is always turning back into Billy at the wrong time. In chapter 2, for example, Betty has to deliver a lens as ransom and Billy agrees to follow her—but he takes his friend, Whitey (William Benedict), too? Why? So he can’t say “Shazam”?
My favorite script idiocy is in Chapter 9, “Dead Man’s Trap.” The Scorpion has taken Dr. Lang (George Pembroke) hostage but Captain Marvel shows up and frees him. The Scorpion escapes through a sliding bookcase in his den and into a series of tunnels and caves below. There, somehow, he manages to elude a superpowered being and returns to the den—where Lang is making a phone call to Betty. By this point, the Scorpion is unmasked, so Dr. Lang sees who he is. (We don‘t.) And what does he say with Betty on the other line? A name, maybe? Of course not.
Lang: You’re the Scorpion?
When Captain Marvel finally makes it back to the den, however, Lang is still alive. And with his dying breath, he tells Captain Marvel the true identity of the Scorpion. Kidding. He talks about his safe, and the “death trap” (a machine gun) there, but not the name that would end the whole thing. Of course not. We’re still in Chapter 9.
At times, this stupidity seems to extend to the production staff:
Freedom, equality and justice
This Captain Marvel definitely has his dark side. In the first chapter, he scatters natives machine-gunning the archeologists and then trains the machine gun back on them; he slaughters them, basically. Then there’s Chapter 5, where he just picks up a dude and throws him off a roof.
”Captain Marvel" does hold our interest more than most serials of its day. During Chapter 11, I noted the following about our list of potential suspects:
- Chai Tochali
I’d long suspected Malcolm, the expedition leader, who divvied up the lenses in the first place. Chai Tochali is the native loyal to the expedition but often filmed in shifty-eyed menacing angles. Given both, I figured the Scorpion had to be the nondescript Bentley, who, in Chapter 6, had his lens stolen but survived. A bit of a giveaway, when you think about it. Everyone else whose lens was stolen died during the robbery.
For the final chapters we return to Siam, where, beneath Mount Scorpio, all the lenses are brought together and the golden scorpion’s atom-smashing ability is demonstrated on a native, who is incinerated. Next up: Betty. Except now it’s the Scorpion’s turn to get stupid. He suspects a connection between Billy Batson and Captain Marvel and wants to know the secret. So he removes Billy's gag, Billy shouts SHAZAM!, and ... Etc. As Billy is revealed to be Captain Marvel, so the Scorpion is revealed to be Bentley—a false prophet. His right-hand man, Rahman Bar (Reed Hadley), thus atomizes him with the golden scorpion.
In the real world (or a sequel-crazy one), Rahman Bar would then try to use the golden scorpion to bring power and wealth to his unconquered peoples, but here he just gives it back while Captain Marvel makes a speech:
This scorpion is a symbol of power that could’ve helped to build a world beyond man’s greatest hopes: a world of freedom, equality and justice for all men. But in the greedy hands of men like Bentley, it would’ve become a symbol of death and destruction. Then until such time when there’s a better understanding among men, may the fiery lava of [Mount] Scorpio burn the memory of this from their minds.
Then he tosses it into the lava. Off-stage, we hear a voice (not Billy’s) say “Shazam!” and Captain Marvel is gone. He’s no longer needed in a world without a golden scorpion. Just men like Bentley. Not to mention Hitler.
I’m curious if Republic Pictures ever thought about a sequel. They made four Dick Tracy serials, four Zorros, two Lone Rangers, but just one Captain Marvel. Because it was so expensive? Because the good Captain was tied up in IP litigation with DC Comics for most of the ’40s? Because Frank Coghlan, Jr. joined the miltary and left show biz for 20 years? I don’t know. But 30 years later, “Shazam!” became the first live-action series I would watch regularly—Saturday mornings. No throwing guys off roofs by then; instead, long hair, moral lessons and winnebagos. In one episode, Frank Coghlan, Jr. guest-starred as a guard. It’s his last acting credit.
Sunday March 10, 2019
Movie Review: Phantom of Chinatown (1940)
“Phantom of Chinatown,” a wholly unremarkable film, is remarkable for casting a Chinese-American actor, Seattle's own Keye Luke, as its Chinese-American detective. At the time, that may have been unprecedented.
Most such roles, of course, went to white actors who put on yellowface: Warner Oland for 16 “Charlie Chan” movies, Sidney Toler for 22 more, and Roland Winters for six more after that. Peter Lorre starred in eight “Mr. Moto” movies in the late 1930s while Boris Karloff played U.S. Treasury detective James Lee Wong for five movies during the same time. Prestige pictures engaged in this practice as well: Paul Muni and Luise Rainier in “The Good Earth,” Katherine Hepburn in “Dragon Seed,” Marlon Brando in “Teahouse of the August Moon,” and up to the present day—if you want to call “Aloha” or “Dr. Strange” prestige pictures.
“Phantom” is another James Lee Wong flick—the last one. Apparently Karloff’s contract was up and apparently someone at “poverty row” Monogram Pictures decided to save on makeup by hiring Luke, who had already appeared as Charlie Chan’s No. 1 son, Lee Chan, in maybe a dozen Charlie Chan movies, as well as originating Kato in the “Green Hornet” movie serial that same year. Since he’s younger than Karloff, and since we see him introduced to Capt. Street, his nominal partner in the other movies, this one is essentially a prequel.
George Washington was disinterred here
Luke isn’t just the lead in the movie but the lead detective in a murder case—despite not being a detective himself and spending most of his screen time with a real detective, Capt. Street (Grant Withers), who, despite the title, is almost comic relief here. He grouses his way through the entire movie and seems to have zero ideas how to solve the crime. I enjoyed him immensely.
The movie opens, inauspiciously, with a lecture. Dr. John Benton, an archeologist, has recently returned from the Gobi Desert in southern Mongolia, where he and his team uncovered the tomb of ... wait for it ... a Ming Dynasty Emperor! What was the tomb of an emperor of the Ming Dynasty, which was based in Beijing and Nanjing, doing in Mongolia? Yeah.
Dr. Benton quickly introduces us to several of our supporting players and future suspects:
- his pretty daughter, Louise Benton (Virginia Carpenter), who winds up mattering not at all
- her fiancee, the handsome pilot, Tommy Dean (Robert Kellard), who ... ditto
- Benton's camerman, Charles Frasier (John Dilson)
- his secretary, Win Len (Lotus Long, alliteratively ready to be Superman’s girlfriend)
In the excavation, Dr. Benton found a scroll in the tomb but hid it in his jacket. Did he also unearth a curse? Fierce winds came up, and one of his party, the co-pilot, Mason (John Holland), went missing and was presumed dead.
At this point in the lecture, to quote a little e.e. cummings, “He spoke. And drank rapidly a glass of water.” Then, extending beyond cummings, he clutched his throat and died.
That’s when Jimmy Wong shows up, along with Capt. Street, forever griping. A day later, Jimmy figures out the water was poisoned, and there may be clues on the film Frasier was showing. Frasier is attacked in his home; Win Len, tied up in the closet, seems to be playing her own game, and the bad guys, rather than making a clean getaway, keep lurking in the shadows.
There’s not much of a phantom—not even the “Scooby Doo” kind. The title character is Mason, who never died, despite the best efforts of the two-timing Frasier, and who’s holed up in Chinatown until he gets his revenge and the scroll. As for the scroll’s secret? Coordinates to “an eternal flame,” which Wong realizes means a giant oil deposit. As for Win Len's secret? She’s working for the Chinese government to make sure the scroll, and the oil, remain China’s. As to which Chinese government she’s working for—Mao’s or Chiang’s—that goes unasked.
But she gets it. In the end, Wong delivers the ancient scroll to Win Len. “This is part of China,” he says. “I think we can trust you to see that it remains so.”
Most of the movie is a big nothing, but one scene is so ahead of its time it makes the movie worth writing about. Halfway through, Wong and Street show up at the Benton house, where they are greeted by the snooty French butler, Jonas (Willy Castello), and a few workers moving a coffin.
Street: What's all this?
Jonas: The sarcophagus from the Chinese tomb, sir, that once contained the body of a Ming emperor.
Wong: They tell me a Chinese archaeological expedition is digging up the body of George Washington in exchange.
Jonas (affronted): Sir?
Wong (offhand): Well, it gives you a rough idea. Is Win Len home?
Luke’s line reading on “rough idea” is perfect. Makes you wonder what might’ve been in a more enlightened movie industry.
China about to get its oil back. Its Ming emperor? Probably not.
Little mentioned but maybe long remembered?
How did Monogram get enlightened enough in 1940 to cast a Chinese-American in a Chinese-American role? Who knows? Maybe if you were a “poverty row” studio, you were allowed a more enlightened racial viewpoint than the majors. What did you have to lose? Cf., Philip Ahn, “Great Guy,” Grand National. Others?
A film noir website does say that the Wong series—based on 20 short stories by Hugh Wiley that appeared in Colliers magazine between 1934 and 1940—ended with this one because of Luke: “Rather depressingly, the substitution of Luke for Karloff persuaded many cinema managers, especially in the South, to ditch the series.” Their source on this? Unmentioned.
The unprecedented casting and breakthrough role goes unmentioned in Keye Luke’s New York Times obit as well. In an interview Luke did with Heidi Chang as part of a Seattle Chinese oral history project just before his death, he's asked about high points in his early career and mentions “Oil for the Lamps of China,” a 1935 Warner Bros. picture starring Pat O’Brien, in which he plays a Chinese communist officer who helps drive Standard Oil out of China. He also mentions playing the patriach in “Flower Drum Song” for three years on Broadway in 1950s. Of “Phantom”? 没有了. Gone like a ghost.
Wednesday March 06, 2019
Movie Review: The Shanghai Gesture (1941)
I assumed they were trying to do “Casablanca” in Asia: desperate refugees in a lawless, international city, with one eponymous establishment at the center, where the roulette wheel spins constantly and the winner is announced by a French croupier. And this guy looked exactly like the croupier in “Casablanca.” Because, oops, he was: Marcel Dalio, the Jean Renoir staple who fled Nazi-occupied Europe for bit parts in Hollywood.
As with Rick in “Casablanca,” we keep hearing about the owner, Madam Gin Sling, before seeing her. Unlike with Rick, it’s a bit of a disappointment. She’s another white actress (Ona Munson of Portland, Oregon) in Oriental makeup; a bland Dragon Lady. Like Rick, she confronts a past love who abandoned her. Unlike Rick, her feelings are unambiguous and thus uninteresting. She’s just out for revenge. We see her constantly corrupt the innocent rather than, as with Rick, rescuing them against his better judgment. If anything, with her victims, we get whiffs of director Josef von Sternberg’s earlier great film “The Blue Angel”: that paralysis when you’ve sunk so far you can never get out.
She never gets in a good line, either. No “Of all the gin joints...” or “I remember every detail: The Germans wore gray, you wore blue” or “I was misinformed” or “I never plan that far ahead” or “There are certain sections of New York, Major, that I wouldn’t advise you to try to invade,” or ...
Stop me any time.
Two plotlines converged in a Hollywood
Mine isn’t exactly an original thought, by the way. Many see parallels between the films:
- “...like Casablanca on drugs”
- “...like a twisted version of...”
- “...like the evil twin of...”
But my initial assumption was wrong: “The Shanghai Gesture” wasn’t copying “Casablanca” because it predates “Casablanca” by a year—Jan. 1942 vs. Jan. ’43 release—while its successful stage version in 1926 predates the unproduced “Everybody Comes to Rick’s” by a decade and a half.
Which makes me wonder if “Casablanca” was an attempt to remake “Shanghai Gesture.”
Instead of fighting to flee to Lisbon, everyone here is fighting to stay in Shanghai. The first one we see doing this is Dixie, the chorus girl (Idaho’s Phyllis Brooks, laying on a thick Brooklyn accent and attitude), who’s being rousted by cops until Mother Gin Sling’s right-hand man, Dr. Omar (Victor Mature), greases palms. After that, we never see her outside of Madame Gin Sling’s. In a world less controlled by Joseph Breen, her new profession, the oldest, would’ve been obvious, but here it’s fudged. Plus she never seems worse for wear. She never loses her gum-cracking ways.
The main person fighting to stay is Madame Gin Sling herself. Her casino is in the international area where the money is, but a British developer, Sir Guy Charteris (Walter Huston), has purchased a large swath of it so she’s getting the boot to the Chinese side. Determined to stay, she asks her subordinates to find out more about Sir Guy.
That’s one plotline. The other involves a young woman named Poppy (Gene Tierney, stunning), who shows up at Gin Sling’s, becomes enamored of Dr. Omar and the delicious evil she feels in the place, then becomes corrupted. One minute she says she can stop gambling whenever she wants, the next she’s losing everything at the roulette wheel. She descends down into it like it’s the ninth circle of hell. It's filmed that way, too.
The two plotlines converge, sadly. Poppy turns out to be the daughter of Sir Guy. Oh, and Sir Guy is also the former lover of both Dixie and Madame Gin Sling. The Madame says 20 years earlier he abandoned her and stole from her and broke her heart; he made her the hardhearted creature she is today. Except he says he didn’t do these things. The money is still there, he says.
Oh, and Poppy, whom she corrupted, isn’t just his daughter; she’s hers, too.
How does Madame Gin Sling react to this? Does she feel remorse? For herself and the daughter she never knew? Got me. Hollywood keeps her inscrutable. To go with all the “likees” bandied about in the film—mostly by foreigners.
Shanghaied by Breen
So why, given the cast and the director and the “Casablanca”-like storyline, does it all fall flat? It’s not just the crossing plotlines. It’s that nobody feels anything. They’re all dead-eyed. There’s no tragedy here because we don’t see or feel what was lost.
Not even with Poppy. She begins the film a glossy girl enamored of bad things, and she ends it supposedly totally corrupted. Except instead of projecting the horror of it all (see Emil Jannings, “Blue Angel”), she simply seems a brat. It’s kind of absurd. And it gets more so when, in the great confrontation scene, Sir Guy more or less throws up his hands and lets Madame Gin Sling handle Poppy. Which she does for about 30 seconds. Then she shoots Poppy dead. Yes, you read that right. From outside, Sir Guy hears and senses this brutal act. At which point, Madame’s “Coolie” (Mike Mazurki) asks him, “You likee Chinese New Year?” And that’s the end.
Supposedly the Code of Conduct boys demanded more than 20 changes to the script before they’d give their stamp of approval: Originally, according to Wiki:
- the story was set in a brothel
- “Mother Gin-Sling” was named “Mother Goddamn”
- instead of European finishing schools, Poppy was raised in mom’s whorehouse
Which means Gin Sling knew about the daughter, etc. Who knows what the movie might’ve been in less prudish times.
Final thought: The word “Shanghai” was a hugely popular title trope in Hollywood in the 1930s. From a brief IMDb search: The Ship from Shanghai (1930), East of Shanghai (1931), Shanghai Express (1932), Shanghai Madness (1933), Shanghai (1935), Charlie Chan in Shanghai (1935), Daughter of Shanghai (1937), West of Shanghai (1937), Exiled to Shanghai (1937), Shadows Over Shanghai (1938), Incident in Shanghai (1938), and North of Shanghai (1939). Apparently we likeed.
Wednesday November 28, 2018
Movie Review: The Shadow (1940)
How many movies give their superhero’s superpower to the supervillain?
In the pulps, and on the radio, the Shadow could “cloak men’s minds” as to appear invisible. Here, that power belongs to the Black Tiger, a man intent on bringing the city’s industrial leaders to their collective knees. Oddly, he only displays this power before his flunkies. In an elaborate and oft-repeated sequence, he appears silhouetted in the hallway outside their hideout with a light emanating from above. (In this shot, he has puffy blonde hair parted in the middle and seems less villain than Paul Williams circa 1978.) Then he pulls a switch, there’s a hum, and ... he’s gone! Now invisible, he walks into the hideout, always trailed by this beam of light, sits at his desk, turns on a few gadgets, and, with a plaster black tiger head on the desk flashing its eyes and emanating smoke from its mouth, he berates his men in a tremulous, high-pitched and highly annoying voice.
They never explain how he can do this. It seems a trick of cameras and lighting—a Hollywood trick, you could say—but in that last episode they don’t go into it. Last episodes in serials are rarely for exposition. It might get in the way of the thousandth fistfight.
Since the Black Tiger has invisibility, what superpower does the Shadow have? None. He’s just a dude in a cape and scarf with a maniacal laugh who’s good at fistfights. His signature laugh actually works against him here. In the radio series, it announced his presence but nobody knew where it came from, which is why it was terrifying. It was like he was everywhere. It was like he knew what evil lurked in their hearts! Here, it merely allows the villains to get the drop on him.
That said, Victor Jory makes a pretty good Shadow.
Invisibility > Fisticuffs
Some background. I began collecting comics in the summer of 1973 and a few months later The Shadow made his return in Batman #253. (Batman: “That laugh ... coming from everywhere ... and nowhere!”) He was new to me but a legend to the caped crusader. As they shake hands in the end, Batman even admits, with a nod toward the pulp origins of superheroes, “I’ve never told anyone this ... but you were my biggest inspiration.”
I was inspired as well. My friend Dan and I were busy creating our own series of comic books, Rory Comics, that were mostly derivative of Marvel. Their Falcon became our Eagle (“Rory’s first black superhero!”); their Dr. Strange became our Magus (“Last of the Maji”). And because of Batman #253, as well as the resurrection of “The Shadow” radio series Sunday nights after “American Top 40,” we introduced/stole The Shadow as well. He appeared as the villain in “James Steele: Master Detective” and then was given his own comic:
My Rory Comics ripoff, circa 1977.
Why was I drawn to him—rather than, say, the Lone Ranger, whose radio series was also resurrected Sunday evenings? Was it the Shadow’s invisibility? (E.L. Doctorow is quite good on this.) His ability to see into hearts? To see deeply while remaining unseen? Who wouldn’t want that power?
The Shadow didn’t even start out as a character. He began as the narrator of an early 1930s CBS radio show, “Detective Story,” which was a series of unrelated pulp mysteries held them together by this mysterious narrator. As Raymond W. Stedman writes in his book, “The Serials: Suspense and Drama by Installment”:
The piercing voice, the macabre laugh, the ironic tones brought fan mail that reflected considerably less interest in the story than in the mysterious “Shadow” who told them. Almost overnight two things happened. The radio program evolved into the eerie dramas in which The Shadow was not narrator but principal participant, and Street and Smith introduced this fascinating new character in The Shadow magazine.
So why did Columbia Pictures take away his powers? Apparently they thought kids wanted action they could see. In the minds of the decision-makers, fisticuffs > invisibility.
By this point, the formula for ur-superhero serials was well-established:
- The villain issues orders from behind a desk
- His henchmen go into the world to implement them
- The hero confronts them, is endangered (cliffhanger), but survives and foils the plan
But “The Shadow” also steals from “The Spider’s Web,” a well-regarded Columbia serial from 1938:
- The villain’s identity is hidden
- His scheme is to disrupt big business
- He turns out to be one of the city’s big businessmen
In both serials, the hero has three identities: himself, the masked hero, and a shady underworld figure who learns key info from the bad guys (Blinky McQuade for The Spider; Lin Chang for The Shadow). Both heroes have teams: an assistant (Jackson/Harry Vincent); an exotic assistant (Ram Singh/Wu); and a girl (Nita Van Sloan/Margot Lane).
In both, too, the “next episode” trailer doesn’t exactly milk the cliffhanger. Instead, it gives us next week’s cliffhanger. At the end of Chapter 7, for example, after The Shadow gets into a gunfight behind barrels marked “ACID,” there’s a fire and everyone gets out except The Shadow. He’s standing in the middle of the room when there’s an explosion and the roof caves in. How will he survive?
Here’s what they say about the next chapter:
“Tonight, the Limited [a train] with all aboard will be destroyed. The Shadow tries to prevent the disaster. He reaches the switch, he’s diverting the train, when he’s attacked by the Black Tiger’s Men! He fights them off, throws the switch, and then he’s knocked unconscious in the path of the roaring express. See THE SHADOW RIDES THE RAILS, next week’s brilliant episode of The Shadow!”
They just jump ahead. They assume he survives. Kind of defeats the purpose of the cliffhanger, doesn’t it?
There’s such absurdities throughout. In the second episode, Cranston and Vincent (Roger Moore) follow the bad guys to their hideout outside the A1 Garage Office. Inside, we hear this conversation:
Hood 1: Hey, whaddaya doing?
Hood 2: Wearing masks from now on.
Hood 1: Well, what’s the big idea?
Hood 2: Orders from the Black Tiger. Get ’em on.
Cranston then knocks out a hood and enters the lair with his mask. Five minutes later, after the Black Tiger finds out he's been duped, he tells his flunky, Flint (Jack Ingram), “From now on, no more masks!” Consider it the shortest management innovation in history.
That said, the dumbest guy in the serial has to be Commissioner Weston (Frank LaRue). In the first chapter, he has Cranston drive to his office to show him a card from one of the Black Tiger’s men that says “Cranston Labs, 2:00” on it. What time does he do this? About five minutes before 2:00. Not much time to prepare. He also thinks The Shadow and the Black Tiger are the same person—“without evidence” as we say today. And when Cranston correctly suggests someone close to the business group is the Black Tiger, he waves it away. “We’ve developed something that indicates just the contrary,” he says. The police commissioner is such an idiot that one businessman, Turner (John Paul Jones), actually suspects the commissioner.
Turner is part of one of my favorite goofs in the serial. In chapter 7, the useless, harrumphing businessmen meet again at the Cobalt Club. Two of their own, Prescott and Marshall, have just been kidnapped, but the rest don’t know that. One of them declares, “But what on earth could’ve happened to Prescott and Marshall?” As he's saying it, look across the table at Turner. He’ actually mouthing the line.
I’ve never seen that in a movie before.
As for the identity of the Black Tiger? It’s Marshall. Not that that helps much. The businessmen are all so generic, it’s like “Which one is he again? Oh right. ... I guess.” Shame they didn’t make it more of a whodunit. But that would’ve required time and money. And maybe more talent.
Who knows what evil ... nah, forget it
Beyond the missteps, what did I like? Jory, as mentioned, is good, with a piercing gaze, and physically correct for the role. Philip Ahn provides some quiet dignity as Wu—30 years before he’d do the same as Master Kan on “Kung Fu.” Roger Moore’s Vincent gets in some jokes. Margot Lane is played brusquely by Veda Ann Borg, but she has little-to-no chemistry with Jory. It’s a shocker to find out they’re supposed to be a couple.
By the way: You know what we never hear?
Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men? The Shadow knows!
This thing is five hours long, it’s one of the most famous lines in pulpdom, and yet they never use it. That’s pretty much all you need to know about “The Shadow.”
Thanks to Columbia, The Shadow doesn't turn invisible and he doesn't say “Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men?” It's like Superman being grounded and James Bond not saying “Bond. James Bond.”
Superhero/villain ephemera were big back then. Everyone had to have a calling card.
Is it the villainous Black Tiger ... or Paul Williams in concert circa 1978?
Jack Ingram acting with nothing.
Lamont Cranston and Commissioner Weston confer on the case. Weston is about to make his 99th incorrect assumption.
Cranston as Lin Chang; at right is Philip Ahn, better known as the kindly Master Kan on “Kung Fu”—a series that needs to be resurrected. 现在。
Cranston and Margot Lane displaying their usual sexual chemistry.
The businessmen of the Cobalt Club displaying their usual smarts.
The Shadow phones! It's not “Who know what evil...” but it'll have to do. *FIN*
Monday November 12, 2018
Movie Review: The Phantom (1943)
I never dug the Phantom. None of my comic book-buying buddies did. Probably because he wasn’t a comic book guy but a comic strip guy—born in those pages in 1936, two years before Action Comics #1 introduced Superman to the world. After I began collecting in 1973, I recall being vaguely intrigued by the Phantom’s daily strip, since, at the time, he was as close to a superhero as you could find in the funnies. But no, he was boring. I kept waiting for him to do something super. I kept waiting for him to return from the jungle until I realized, “Oh, he’s supposed to be there.” He was what we now call a transitional superhero: mask and skintight suit, yes, but everything else spoke to boys adventure stories of the 1910s: the jungle, “magic,” signet rings, subservient natives, a German Shepherd sidekick. He was your grandfather’s superhero and creaked like it.
The 1943 Columbia serial, “The Phantom,” is that turned up to 11.
It’s a movie serial so it’s going to be cut-rate and clumsy; and it’s set in the jungle (Africa, South America, we’re never sure), so it comes loaded with the usual racial landmines. The filmmakers manage to trip them all:
- Natives kowtowing before a white man (our hero), who is proclaimed a god
- Flabby white dudes, wearing leopard-skin diapers, playing the natives
- Flabby white dudes saying things like “Boola boola cahoola” and “Ubba gonga tonga” as examples of the native language
This last is like what “Gilligan’s Island” would be two decades later. I also got a whiff of “Star Wars.” At the end of Chapter 10, “Chamber of Death,” the Phantom falls through a trap door and into a pit, where a metal panel opens revealing ... a rancor! Kidding, it’s a tiger. But it’s still very much like Luke in Jabba’s lair in “Return of the Jedi.” Yet another reminder that these things hugely influenced filmmakers like George Lucas and Steven Spielberg, who hugely influenced everything else. “The Phantom” and other serials are like the ur-texts of what’s playing at your local multiplex.
Boola boola cahoola.
That old cistern
What’s the story here? Glad you asked!
Prof. Davidson (Frank Shannon) and his team, including his spunky niece Diana Palmer (Jeanne Bates), arrive in the town of Sai Pana, on the edge of the jungle, hoping to find the fabled “Lost City of Zoloz” and its various riches.
Meanwhile, a gang of thugs, led by Dr. Max Bremmer (Kenneth MacDonald), needs the area to construct a landing strip in the jungle—for war, one imagines, but the why is never stated—so they try to throw the Professor’s team off the scent. Then they try to keep everyone out of the jungle by riling up the natives. Best way to do that? Kill the Phantom.
The Phantom, you see, is the reason there’s any peace in the jungle at all. He demands it. And he’s revered and kotowed to as a god because he can’t be killed. He’s “The Man Who Never Dies” and “The Ghost Who Walks.” But it’s a trick; he’s just been played by different men through the years—20, as the serial opens.
The first Phantom we see is played by actor Sam Flint, born in 1882, who looks every bit of his 61 years. (I was reminded of Alfred dressing up as Batman in the ’66 TV series.) Thankfully, as he makes an appearance before the natives, sitting in a rising stone throne behind a smokescreen, he’s shot by a poisoned dart blown from one of Bremmer’s men. He knows he’s a goner so sends word to his son, Geoffrey Prescott (Tom Tyler), to take over. Geoffrey, who just happens to be part of Prof. Davidson’s team, arrives just in time to get Phantom 101 lessons and meet the natives on their side: Suba and Moku.
There’s also a treasure in jewels and gold, “a tomb of your ancestors,” an oath, and a signet ring. Like any boys club. Then, when Phantom XX dies, our newer younger version rises in the stone throne behind a smokescreen to make his proclamations.
My thoughts at this point:
- Why wasn’t he trained in sooner? Seems a bit last minute.
- Why a skintight purple suit and black mask? That’s not really ghostly. Nor good camouflage. Not to mention breathable. He is in the jungle, after all.
- Why do Suba and Moku go along with the ruse?
- How come, when the new Phantom emerges, no one says, “Hey, doesn’t he look 30 years younger to you?”
Bigger point: Our hero is someone who uses literal smokescreens to trick the natives. “There’s nothing that so sways the native mind as a few simple tricks and illusions,” Phantom XX tells him. That’s our hero. Did they know back then how bad this sounded? One wonders. In episode 9, the Phantom tells Diana about the ancient legend of the Fire Princess: How she arrived, helped them rule, then disappeared with a promise to return.
Diana: But surely you don’t believe that legend.
Phantom: Heh. Of course not. But the natives do. That’s why whoever calls herself the Fire Princess now can take advantage of them.
Uh, dude? You’re basically describing you. It’s one of the better examples of projection I’ve seen from a so-called hero. One wonders if it wasn’t a wink from the screenwriters.
Speaking of: I expected them to use the “man who never dies,” conceit more than they do. The problem with superheroes and serials is that each chapter has to end with a cliffhanger, and it’s absurd that: 1) the superhero gets into so much trouble, and 2) keeps surviving. “The man who never dies” conceit, at the least, gives a plausible explanation to the other characters for that survival. Except they never use it. Instead we get:
Rocco: Great news, Chief! We knocked over the Phantom!
Bremmer: The Phantom? But Long and Chris told me they took care of him at Rusty’s shack.
Rocco: Well, we’re not responsible for what they say.
Flunky: Hey Doc! We sure got the Phantom in a pocket. He’s trapped in that dead-end tunnel.
Bremmer: I thought he’d drowned in that old cistern.
Flunky: He must’ve gotten out of that somehow, but he’s a sure goner now.
I think at one point Bremmer does wonder if maybe there’s something to “The Man Who Never Dies” legend, but it should’ve been integral throughout the serial. Missed opportunity.
(Sidenote: Daka, the Japanese villain in “Batman,” another Columbia serial from 1943, assumes with Batman what’s actually true with the Phantom. Since Batman keeps surviving, he decides there must be many Batmen, “all members of the same organization,” and if one goes down another takes his place. Probably no coincidence that the serials share two screenwriters: Victor McLeod and Leslie Swabacker.)
For those who care, these are the cliffhangers/escapes:
- The Phantom is stuck in a swamp with an alligator approaching ... but Devil, his German Shepherd, chases the alligator away then pulls Phantom out.
- A lion attacks him ... but is killed by a native’s spear.
- A grenade blows up a hut ... but Phantom had escaped beforehand.
- He’s being gassed to death ... but Devil warns his friend, Rusty, who pulls him to safety
- A rope bridge breaks ... but he survives the fall.
- A booby trapped is rigged ... but Devil saves him.
- The bad guys collapse a well ... but Phantom crawls through a tunnel.
- He falls into a canyon and there’s an explosion ... but survives.
- He seems to succumb to fire-dance flames ... but is pulled to safety by Moku and Devil.
- He falls into a pit and a tiger is released ... so he lights a flare and escapes through the tunnel the tiger emerged from.
- A metal gate portal is brought down ... but he rolls to safety.
- In a pit, he’s forced to fight an ape ... and kills it.
- In a cistern, water is dumped on him ... but he survives.
- An explosion in a cavern ... doesn’t kill him.
How does he survive? Either somebody helps, he did something beforehand we weren’t shown, or he just shakes it off. The best escape is really from the tiger. At least that involved some ingenuity.
Devil (played by Ace the Wonder Dog) is an interesting addition—he certainly beats the boy sidekick—but it creates an added absurdity. He wasn’t Phantom XX’s dog but Geoffrey Prescott’s. I.e., there’s Geoffrey with Devil; then Geoffrey disappears and Devil is suddenly the Phantom’s dog. In Chapter 8, “In Quest of the Keys,” Diana, who’s been wondering over the disappearance of Geoffrey, calls the Phantom on this. She asks: Why do you have Geoffrey’s dog? “I found him wandering in the forest,” he responds.
‘Bring sparkling burgundy!’
Tyler, who also played the first live-action superhero ever (Captain Marvel in 1941), is a good fit for the role. He’s strong-looking, athletic, and dull. As dull as I remember the Phantom being.
This is one of the serials in which we know the villain from the get-go and our hero doesn’t; so we wait for him to catch up. We wait 15 chapters—300 minutes. The villain is good in the sense that he’s infuriating—a liar and a scoundrel—and we can’t wait for the moment of comeuppance. So guess what they do?
They handle it off-screen.
For like the 10th time, Bremmer assumes the Phantom is dead, so he concocts a not-bad scheme to control the natives: He has one of his henchman dress as the Phantom. They do the whole nine yards: smokescreen, stone throne, but now phony Phantom just stands there; it’s Bremmer who does the talking. He’s in the midst of this when one of the natives, the long problematic Chief Chota (Stanley Price), takes this moment to reenact what the bad guys did in the first episode: He shoots a dart at the (phony) Phantom, who goes down. Chota is killed, and then there’s more smoke. When it clears, the real Phantom is standing there with .... Bremmer dead.
How does he die? Who knows? What of the fake Phantom? Got me. But that’s it. Not much of a payoff after five hours of drivel.
Oh, and the treasure from the lost city of Zoloz? The Phantom has it. He’s always had it.
There are many absurdities—snow-capped mountains in chapter 8, for example—but my favorite is the sideplot to the Genghis Khan-like castle of Tartar (Dick Curtis). It’s like the screenwriters ran out of ideas and so went the Khan route. At one point, impressed by the Phantom’s survival skills, Tartar calls for a celebration. “Bring sparkling burgundy!” he cries.
More lines like that might’ve made “The Phantom” worth watching.
Tuesday May 16, 2017
Movie Review: All Through the Night (1942)
By now, it’s more historical/cultural curiosity than anything—a battle between Damon Runyonesque gamblers (led by Humphrey Bogart) and a Nazi fifth column in New York City (led by Conrad Veidt) that’s so light-hearted I assumed it was filmed before we entered World War II. Nope. It was rushed into production after Pearl Harbor, then rushed into theaters a month later.
I watched it because I’m reading Noah Isenberg’s book on the making of “Casablanca,” and he brings up some of the similarities between the two movies. In both, Bogie starts out neutral, then becomes committed; Veidt plays the villain, while Peter Lorre scurries along the edges. Otherwise, there’s no comparison. “Casablanca” is a great movie and this one isn’t. But it’s got, as I said, cultural curiosities.
Bogie’s men, for example, are played by future ‘50s/‘60s sitcom staples: William Demerest, Phil Silvers and Jackie Gleason. Quite the trio. Gleason is the least funny of the lot and has the least to do. Silvers has a good bit where, during a fight, to confirm his opponents are Nazis, he shouts “Heil” at them, and if they respond in kind he clobbers them. Demerest, with the most screen time, is essentially playing the ever-crabby Uncle Charlie character he made memorable in “My Three Sons”: a gambler ironically called Sunshine. At one point, in the dark, Bogie asks, “That you, Sunshine?” He responds: “If it ain't, I've been doing a lot of suffering for the wrong party.”
We also get references to Flash Gordon, Joe DiMaggio, and practically every street in Manhattan. Best of all? Superman. Specifically the radio series, “The Adventures of Superman,” which had begun just two years earlier, on Feb. 12, 1940. Bogie is trying to convince a recalcitrant cop, Forbes (James Burke), that the Nazi hideout is in the auction house he says it is. As they enter the place, we get this conversation:
Bogie: The main office is right down this hall. This’ll open up your eyes.
Forbes: You’re scaring me. Sounds like the next installment of “Superman.” My kids will enjoy this.
I’m curious if Superman was mentioned in the movies before this. Besides via Max Fleischer, of course.
Historically, it’s interesting to see what we knew and didn’t. The femme fatale in the movie is Leda Hamilton (an uninspired Kaaren Verne), who collaborates because the Nazis have kidnapped her father and placed him in a concentration camp. A place called Dachau. So we knew about Dachau; we just didn’t know “concentration” was the wrong word—as evidenced by the fact that the movie has her father dying there “of natural causes.”
The rest is a tangle. A local baker, Miller, whose cheesecake Bogie’s character, “Gloves” Donahue, likes, is murdered. Leda shows up, they track her to a nightclub where she sings two songs, including the title number, and Bogie, enamored, tries to make his moves despite the pesky presence of the murderous Pepi (Lorre). After Bogie leaves, an argument backstage leads to another murder. When Bogie examines the body, he leaves one of his gloves behind, so he’s fingered for the crime. No pun intended.
With his men, including an overacting Barney (Frank McHugh), who should be on his honeymoon, Bogie leaps into the investigation himself. At a toy warehouse, Sunshine goes missing; at the auction house next door, Bogie is betrayed by Leda. But our heroes reunite, discover the Nazi connection, and escape with Leda, who's now on their side. There’s a chase in Central Park. Then to the cops? I forget. Basically it’s into and out of trouble for the whole long night, until Bogie and his men show up at a fifth column meeting, where the junior Nazis plan to blow up an American battleship. Our Broadway gamblers break up the ring and thwart the plan. Proving the old adage: “Well, there are certain sections of New York, Major, that I wouldn’t advise you to try to invade.”
In the end, we get a clever call to arms:
Leda: [to reporters] I feel it's about time someone knocked the Axis back on its heels.
Gloves: Excuse me, baby. What she means is it’s about time someone knocked those heels back on their axis.
Except the movie doesn’t end there. In keeping with the jokey tone, it ends with Bogie’s mom (Jane Darwell), who began the whole thing with her “feeling” that something was wrong, reiterating that line. “I’ve got a feeling, son.”
It was January 1942. Nazis wouldn’t be this funny again until “Hogan’s Heroes.”
Wednesday September 14, 2016
Movie Review: The Green Hornet (1940)
Is there a better example of white privilege in the superhero world than the Green Hornet?
He’s got a superfast car ... that Kato built. He’s a got a gas gun ... that Kato invented. He’s got a mask ... that Kato made. What does the Hornet do exactly to earn top billing? Is he good in a fight? Well, at one point we see him trade blows with a 50-year-old dry cleaner, so not really. It’s Kato who has the moves. In one of the earliest depictions of Asian martial arts in Hollywood movies, he sneaks up behind guys, and, with one swift, silent blow, karate-chops them into unconsciousness. It’s so swift it almost feels like a forerunner to (or inspiration for?) Spock’s Vulcan neck pinch.
Each evening, Kato (Seattle’s own Keye Luke) is there to help Britt Reid (Gordon Jones) on with his trenchcoat, mask and hat; then he drives him to the scene of a crime. After the cliffhanger, he’s there with the car to speed the Hornet from inquiry and prison. He’s the gentleman handler of an incompetent.
Did no one see this disparity back then? Were we all that blind?
Not the brightest bulb
The Green Hornet was born on the radio. In 1932, George W. Trendle, a rapacious lawyer, was searching for content for his radio station WXYZ in Detroit, and he thought a cowboy version of Robin Hood/Zorro would work well for Depression-era audiences; so with Fran Striker, a prolific freelance writer, he created The Lone Ranger. The Hornet is their 1936 update—the Ranger, but in a modern, urban setting:
- Tonto --> Kato
- Silver --> The Black Beauty
- Revolver--> gas gun
- The William Tell Overture --> The Flight of the Bumblebee
Instead of leaving behind a silver bullet, the Green Hornet’s calling card is a button reading “The Green Hornet.” (Not clever, but a must-have, I’m sure, for kids in the fan clubs.) Oh, and instead of the hero being thought of as a hero, or even a vigilante, he’s considered just another racketeer by the people in the city.
Battling rackets is actually perfect for the serial form. It allows for progress within the stasis necessary to keep the serial going. The big boss doesn’t get his until the final chapter, but with each episode, and each racket ended, the Hornet gets a little closer.
But it works oddly here. At the beginning of most chapters, in Reid’s office at The Daily Sentinel, someone—the police commissioner, reporter Jasper Jenks (Phillip Trent), Reid’s own bodyguard Mike Axford (played with an over-the-top brogue and vaudevillian befuddlement by Wade Boteler)—will inform him of a racket in town: shoddy equipment at a mine; insurance scam at a flying school; car thieves at a parking lot. And invariably Reid dismisses the idea in either a high-handed or a jokey/fratboy manner:
Mike: I just made an important discovery!
Reid: Don’t tell me you solved perpetual motion!
Mike: No, I ... [saddened] No, it’s about the Mortensen place over at the Westwood Pike.
Reid (still joking): Is it haunted?
This is from Chapter 6, “Highways of Peril,” and it’s not hard for viewers to connect the dots:
- Hey, the Mortensen place is where the syndicate has operated in the past, and...
- Mike says it’s been taken over by the Blue Streak Bus Co., which...
- A rival bus operator has just told Reid is trying to run him out of business!
But it takes further cajoling before Reid finally, sourly relents: “Alright, alright, put Lowry on the story.” Is this obstinacy an act? The way Clark Kent’s meekness is an act? I could never figure it out. Worse, Reid often investigates things himself in a hamhanded manner: He rides one of the buses that’s breaking down; he takes off in one of the airplanes that crashes; his own car gets stolen from a parking lot.
In the very first chapter, after Reid refuses to take a public stand against the rackets, we see, via stock footage, a local dam burst, which is tied to faulty construction. “I tried to give you that story the other day!” Jenks cries. In a later chapter, an old friend of Reid’s phones him with news about a racket in the transportation biz; then he’s cut off, and found dead. Jenks offhandedly refers to his friend’s company as “the Jinx company” because of all of its recent accidents, and Reid expresses surprise. Jenks: “Ever read your own paper?”
You get the feeling that if Britt Reid were simply a better editor, the Green Hornet wouldn’t be necessary at all.
Jenks, Axford, Reid, slightly confused.
That’s a good question, actually: Why does Britt Reid become the Green Hornet? This is an origin story so we should get a definitive answer. We don’t.
As the serial opens, Kato and Reid are in their garage testing a chemical; then we get some painful exposition, including why Kato, with World War II looming, is no longer Japanese, as he was in the radio serial:
Reid: That chemical has a powerful kick! You think the motor will stand it?
Kato: It’s the strongest motor ever built! And the fastest.
Reid: Thanks to your scientific knowledge.
Kato (subservient): I am satisfactory ... as a valet, too?
Reid: Perfectly. It was a lucky day for me when I rescued you from the native in Singapore.
Kato (affronted): He tried to kill me. Because I am a Korean.
Kato then pushes the car horn, Reid says it sounds like the “giant green hornet” they encountered in Africa, and he anticipates springing it on the world. “It’ll prove to that skeptical old dad of mine that I’m not just a playboy!” he says.
As the Green Hornet? Slow down, Sally. Reid hasn’t thought that far ahead. (Which raises the question: What was the superfast car for? To tool around town?) He first gets the germ of the idea later that day, when a judge and police commissioner encourage The Sentinel to look into the rackets:
Reid (ultra serious): The Sentinel will back you, but it won’t take the lead. That’s for you to do. What are you waiting for—a modern Robin Hood to lead you out of the woods?
Comm.: Yes, Reid. That’s just what this city needs: a Robin Hood.
Reid (to secretary, amused): Miss Case, check the want ads and see if there’s a modern Robin Hood looking for a job.
But after they leave, he strokes his chin and muses aloud: “A modern Robin Hood...” So you could say the Green Hornet starts as a joke.
Except he still doesn’t start. First, the local dam bursts; then a foreman named Gorman is about to blow the lid off a tunnel-digging operation. “I’m hoping to get something from Gorman tonight,” Jenks says. (“I doubt if you will,” Reid responds helpfully.) Of course, Gorman is killed, and that turns out to be the last straw for Reid.
No, he still doesn’t become the Hornet. Instead, he writes editorials against corruption in the city—so many editorials, in fact, that the racketeers try to shut him up by buying his newspaper. Reid is suspicious; but when Axford tries to follow a potential buyer, his car is cut off and he’s roughed up by hoodlums.
And that appears to be the final straw. Kato develops the mask and gas gun, and off they go:
Reid: Funny isn’t it, Kato?
Kato: What, Mr. Britt?
Reid: When we built this secret garage to construct our super speedster, we never thought it would become the lair for a modern Robin Hood!
The first superhero?
The most annoying thing in the serial may be the Hornet’s voice. At first, I thought Jones was doing the Bud Collyer/Superman thing—dropping a register to key the transformation—except his superhero voice sounds tremulous, almost desperate. Turns out, it’s not Jones. It’s Al Hodge, who voiced the Hornet on the radio. Apparently, the producers wanted continuity from radio to theatre, even if they couldn’t manage it from scene to scene.
The serial does do a few things well. There’s nice irony in the fact that Axford, Reid’s bodyguard, keeps trying to kill him (as the Hornet). I also like the resolution to the mysterious crime boss. In every episode, in a nondescript office, three crooks gather before a fourth, Curtis Monroe (Cy Kendall), the chief’s right-hand man, who invariably mentions that the chief is about to call. Then he turns on an intercom-like device and they get instructions. The only point to an unseen chief is that he’s one of the other characters. So who could it be? The Judge? Jenks? Kato? Nope. It’s Monroe himself. “Using a phonograph record to conceal from the rest of the gang that you were the chief!” the Green Hornet cries in the final chapter. I liked this twist because I didn’t guess it, but it does make the syndicate seem a bit small? Just these guys? Taking over nearly every industry in the city? From that office?
Another plus: The serial doesn’t overdo the standard cliffhanger resolution, which is to wait for the next chapter and then insert a shot of the hero falling off the thing about to explode before it explodes. Half the time, Reid survives simply because he’s ... thickheaded. He’s in a car that crashes into a gas station (knocked out, but fine), near a car that explodes (blown back, but fine), falls out a second-story window (no biggee), and near a gas tank that explodes (coolio). In a later chapter, a car goes over a cliff with him in it. “These armored cars are built for protection!” he tells Kato the following week.
Question: Was “The Green Hornet” the first modern superhero to hit the big screen? An argument can be made. The ones that came before were in the past (Zorro/Lone Ranger), the future (Flash Gordon), or in the jungle (Tarzan). So why didn’t the Hornet catch on like, say, Batman? The lack of a solid comic-book foundation probably didn’t help. More, I think it’s the white-privilege thing. The Hornet is a mix of cool (mask, car) and lame (everything else), and the lame trumps the cool. The minority does all the work and the rich white guy gets all the credit? For a fantasy, that’s a little too close to reality.
That's right, Kato, you got rooked.
Friday June 17, 2016
Movie Review: The Red Menace (1949)
“The Red Menace,” a 1949 B-picture from Republic Studios, was one of the first anti-communist movies to be released during the post-WWII Red Scare, but from a distance it’s kinda quaint. Sure, there’s a Soviet cell operating in the U.S., but it’s the furthest thing from effective. A better title for the movie might be: “Red ... Menace?”
A tall, broad-shouldered lunkhead, Bill Jones (Robert Rockwell), is pissed that he’s been ripped off in some GI real estate scam and the government won’t do anything about it. Overhearing, a party member invites him to a nearby bar “for discriminating people,” where two broads make a play for him. While the brunette, Yvonne (Betty Lou Gerson), looks on disgruntled, the blonde, Mollie O’Flaherty (Barbra Fuller), takes him back to her place and mixes drinks while he peruses the shelves and ... Hey, what are these books? Marx? Lenin? You’re a commie! Yeah, but a looker. C’mere. Pucker up, baby.
Irish Italian Jewish Negro
The Soviet cell that Bill Jones is slowly indoctrinated into is like one of those WWII movie platoons: someone from every race:
- Henry (Shepard Menken), a nice Jewish poet, cuckolded by Mollie on a weekly basis.
- Mollie, Irish Catholic, whose mother hangs around like a gray cloud, mourning the loss of her daughter’s respectability.
- Sam, the affable Negro front-office worker at The Toilers, the commie newspaper.
- Reachi, the Italian, who wonders if communism is a democracy as they say, why is it called “a dictatorship of the proletariat”?
- Nina, the foreign beauty, who will become The Love Interest.
Things first go south when Reachi is killed in a back alleyway for asking questions. Then Henry gets curious, too, and is kicked out of the party. He quickly turns into a patriot:
At least that [American] flag has three colors in it, not one. Not one bloody one!
But he can’t take the ostracism and throws himself out a window. He leaves a note for Mollie, telling her to return to her mother, which she does; in a church. Sam leaves with his respectable father, while Yvonne, always ratting out others, is picked up by the cops, who, it turns out, know everything. (Because our law enforcement is on the case.) Then she goes mad. (Because that’s what happens to commies.)
That’s it. The filmmakers, I’m sure, wanted to make sure communism didn’t seem attractive, but they were so successful they made it seem hardly a threat at all. Which makes the way the movie is bookended even odder.
‘We can’t suspect everybody’
It opens steeped in paranoia. Nina and Bill flee California, sure that communists are right behind. At an Arizona gas station, the attendant makes small talk—Where are you from? Where are you going?—and Nina freezes:
Nina (whispering): Why’d he say that?
Bill: Just to make conversation probably.
Nina: I don’t believe it. There must be some reason why he’s so curious.
Bill: Take it easy, Nina. We can’t suspect everybody.
After we get the rest of the story in flashback, we see them driving into Talbot, Texas, where Bill suddenly becomes sensible: “I’ve been thinking, Nina. What are we running away from? This is the United States not a police state. Let’s go see that sheriff.” Which they do. And they tell him their tale. (This really should’ve been the spot for the flashback, but the movie screwed up that, too.)
The sheriff’s response to their tale?
You folks have been running away from yourselves, and the fear in your own minds.
The entire movie is an argument against the paranoia of groups like HUAC, presented as an argument in favor of such groups.
Nobody on either side of the political fence saw this. The Daily Worker denounced the movie, while California’s own HUAC, the Fact-Finding Committee on Un-American Activities, honored it, commending “Republic Studios and those persons who have so courageously assisted in this production.”
And then, like most anti-communist movies, it died at the box office. No one went to see it because that stuff's a drag: preachy, heavy-handed. It's called the free market.
Monday March 14, 2016
Movie Review: Intruder in the Dust (1949)
“Intruder in the Dust” was one of several movies produced in the short progressive period between the horror of the Holocaust (when tolerance suddenly seemed like a good idea) and the paranoia of the Red Menace (when fuck it). They were called “message movies” or “problem pictures” and included such films as “Gentleman’s Agreement” and “Crossfire” (anti-Semitism), “Pinky” and “Home of the Brave” (racism).
“Intruder,” also about racism, only got made because of one man, Clarence Brown, who learned at the feet of Maurice Tourneur, Jacques’ daddy, during the silent era, then became one of the main dudes at MGM during its lush glory days. He was also a member of the right-wing Motion Picture Alliance, and a Southerner, making him an odd choice to push for such a racially progressive picture.
Why did he do it? In Patrick McGilligan’s book, “Film Crazy: Interviews with Hollywood Legends,“ he talks about being in Atlanta during the 1906 race riots when 16 black men were lynched. Three decades later, William Faulkner published his novel about a near lynching, and as Brown recounts:
I didn’t walk, I ran up to the front office at MGM. “I’ve got to make this picture,” I said. “You’re nuts,” said [Louis B.] Mayer, because the hero was a black man. “If you owe me anything, you owe me a chance to make this picture,” I said.
There were battles throughout production—both on location in Oxford, Mississippi (Faulkner’s hometown), and at MGM. Mayer felt the protagonist, Lucas Beauchamp (Juano Hernandez), was “uppity,” and that the picture would lose money. He was right about the latter—did it even play in the South?—but the picture earned critical raves. The National Board of Review included it on its top 10 list, and it finished second to “All the King’s Men” in the New York Film Critics Circle’s best picture category. It received multiple nominations from the WGA, Golden Globes, and British Academy, and won BAFTA’s short-lived “UN Award” (for the film “embodying one or more of the principles of the United Nations Charter”). In The New York Times, Bosley Crowther wrote, “By all our standards of pre-eminence, this is—or will prove—a great film.”
He’s right. At the least, I was startled by how good “Intruder” is. The cinematography is often reminiscent of Dorthea Lange’s Dust Bowl photographs, while Beauchamp (pronounced “Beach-em”) is a type of rich, powerful African-American character that Hollywood, always worried about the Southern market, rarely allowed to be seen on screen.
It also bears a passing resemblance to a later, much-beloved film. Maybe more than a passing resemblance.
Before Atticus, before Superman
Seriously, when “To Kill a Mockingbird” was published in 1960, didn't anyone bring up “Intruder in the Dust”? Let's count it off:
- A black man is jailed for a horrific crime.
- He’s represented by a white lawyer.
- A kid, related to the lawyer, is central to the story—the main character, more or less.
- There’s a standoff on the courthouse steps between an unarmed white person and a white mob, who want to lynch the black man.
- The real criminal is a white relative of the victim.
Yes, there are differences. It’s murder rather than rape. The black man here, Beauchamp, is proud, almost haughty, as opposed to the humble, bland Tom Robinson. Our lawyer, John Gavin Stevens (David Brian), is no Atticus, and starts the case assuming his own client guilty. Rather than the lawyer’s children, Scout and Jem, it’s the lawyer’s teenaged nephew, Chick (Claude Jarman, Jr.), who acts as our eyes and ears. Oh, and Stevens proves Beauchamp innocent even without a trial. Apparently, in 1949 Mississippi, the criminal justice system worked.
The courthouse-steps confrontation not only prefigures “To Kill a Mockingbird” but—indulge me—“Superman vs. The Mole Men,” an hour-long intro to the 1950s TV series, in which the Man of Steel stops a Texas mob from lynching an alien. Of course, being Superman, he’s hardly unarmed, but otherwise the dynamic is the same as in the other two: the stalwart one (without a gun) against the angry many (Southern racists) to protect the defenseless one (black/alien). (Note to readers: If you know of other such scenes in novels/movies, write me.)
Here, the stalwart one is old Southern white lady, Miss Eunice Habersham (Elizabeth Patterson), sitting in a rocking chair and doing her mending. Why her? Calculation on the part of Stevens. The mob, he says:
...would pass even [deputized] Will Legate sooner or later when there's enough of them. But there's one thing that would stop them. Long enough anyhow. And that's somebody without a gun. [Pause] A lady. [Pause] A white lady.
I have to admit, I always found the “Mockingbird” scenario absurd. Atticus thinks one unarmed man can turn back a mob in the middle of the night? Him and his lamp and his book? Really, he’s only saved because Scout and Jem show up, and Scout (a white lady) asks questions of different people in the mob. She humanizes them.
Faulkner’s way is smarter, and Patterson, supposedly handpicked by Faulkner, is a story in herself. Born in Tennessee in 1875, 10 years after the Civil War, she died in 1966, a year after the 1965 Voting Rights Act. She began her career on stage, and became a frequent character actress on Broadway before doing the same in movies. The subhed to her New York Times obituary reads: “Was Said to Have ‘Played Mother of About Every Star in Hollywood.’” Here, she mothers this role into being. She was Atticus before Atticus, Superman before Superman.
Her nemesis in the scene is the perfectly named Nub Gowrie (Charles Kemper), the brother of the deceased, and the man who actually did the killing. He’s a Southern stereotype—fat, ineffectual, unethical—but you also get a sense of a man trapped in his role. As in Orwell’s “Shooting an Elephant,” Nub is propelled along by the expectations of the mob.
There’s already a sleepy, carnival atmosphere in town, as folks gather to watch the lynching, and Gowrie, sitting in his truck, is confronted in by-the-way fashion. A woman with a baby begins it. (Think about that for a moment.) She says, “Well, Mr. Gowrie, when you reckon you gonna get started?” Jokes are made, Nub gets fed up, and after he gets a metal canister overflowing with gasoline, he walks across the street, sloshing things as he goes, to confront Miss Eunice through the screen door. She refuses to budge. So he dumps gas on the floor, and, with a bully’s grin, lights a match.
Miss Eunice: “Could you step out of the light so I can thread my needle?”
And that defuses it. Literally. Nub waves the fire out, puts the match in his shirt pocket (nice touch), and we get the following exchange:
Nub: Miss Habersham, I ain’t gonna touch you now. You’re an old lady but you’re in the wrong. You’re fightin’ the whole county but you gonna get tired. And when you do get tired, we gonna go in.
Miss Habersham: I’m goin’ for 80 and I’m not tired yet.
Then she stands up, goes to the porch, and talks to the crowd. “Go home! Everyone one of you, go on home. You oughta be ashamed!” Trying to shame the crowd. So she was Joseph Welch before Joseph Welch, too.
To be honest, I think the scene should’ve ended with “I’m not tired yet.” But the movie keeps doing this. It keeps pulling back to make grander, progressive points that deflate the power of its smaller scenes. It doesn’t trust its micro and insists upon the macro. It wants pontification.
The worst example is in the movie’s penultimate scene.
Micro > Macro
“Intruder” opens beautifully with the arrival of Beauchamp in the custody of the benevolent sheriff (Will Geer), and his walk through a gauntlet of tense, Southern faces. Beauchamp, unbowed even in handcuffs is almost contemptuous here; and on the courthouse steps, he turns and orders Chick to get his uncle to represent him. Interestingly, though he asks for him, he never confides in the uncle; he confides in Chick, with whom he has a history. Halfway through the movie, Stevens wonders over this. Why didn’t Beauchamp trust him? It’s Miss Habersham who answers: “You’re a white man,” she says. “Worse than that, you’re a grown white man.” Worse than that. From a 1949 movie? Amazing.
Most of the movie’s casting (Miss Eunice, Beauchamp) is perfect, but Brian, I have to say, is all wrong for Stevens. Born and bred in New York, he doesn’t attempt a Southern accent; he just has that bland, post-World War II voice. There’s something unpleasant about him in look and manner, too; something pinched in the eyes. In his obit, from 1993, the Times wrote, “Mr. Brian repeatedly portrayed characters who were ruthless or powerful or both, including some villains in Westerns,” and I can see it. But maybe that’s what makes him right for this? Stevens isn’t an Atticus, after all. He’s supposed to be the hero but he actually gets in the way of justice. Everyone else does the hard work—digging up graves, jumping into quicksand—while he stands around pontificating and sucking on his pipe.
He’s doing the same in the movie’s penultimate scene.
By this point, Nub has been arrested for the murder of his brother, the crowd dispersed, Beauchamp freed. We get some awful dialogue between Chick and Stevens as they watch the crowd disperse (“It’s alright, Chick”/“Is it?”), when silence would’ve spoken volumes. Then a few days later, Beauchamp shows up at Stevens’ office to settle his debts, but Stevens, all paternal benevolence, refuses payment since he didn’t do anything. (He’s right.) Beauchamp insists; Stevens mentions that he did break his pipe, and it cost two dollars to fix. Beauchamp says he’ll pay for that, then pays him with: a bill, two quarters and 50 pennies. “I was aimin’ to take ’em to the bank, but you can save me the trouble,” he says, with a glint in his eye. Then he insists, as in any transaction, that the pennies be counted. Stevens, still with the upper hand, tells him to do it. Which he does. And as he does, we get this exchange:
Stevens: That night in the jail—why didn’t you tell me the truth?
Beauchamp: Would you have believed me?
It seems straightforward enough, this back-and-forth, but there are chasms beneath it. Stevens is acting the great white father here, even though he knows what he knows; and instead of playing along, Beauchamp calls him on it. Beneath the bland words, he’s calling Stevens a racist. And that’s too much for Stevens, our ostensible hero, whose face suddenly darkens and becomes pinched; and he puts up a barrier—a book—between himself and Beauchamp. He expects Beauchamp to leave. But Beauchamp doesn’t leave. He keeps standing there until Stevens testily admonishes him.
Stevens: Now what. What are you waiting for now?
Beauchamp: (Standing taller) My receipt.
Holy crap, that’s good. The movie really should’ve ended there (the novel, in fact, does), or with Beauchamp walking outside, and through the town, and past the people that wanted to lynch him just a few days earlier. But instead we pan back to Stevens and Chick on the balcony, watching Beauchamp. And we get more pontificating:
Chick: They don’t see ‘em—as though it never happened. ... They don’t even know he’s there.
Stevens: But they do—same as I do. They always will as long as he lives. Proud, stubborn, insufferable. But there he goes, the keeper of my conscience.
Chick: Our conscience, Uncle John.
(Music wells up: THE END)
MGM saves the white man in the end by letting him sound profound; by pretending he’s the hero. The story knows different.
INTRO: Lucas Beauchamp (an amazing Juano Hernandez) arrives at the police station, unbowed, despite being charged with the murder of a white man.
The crowd isn't exactly friendly.
It is, however, reminiscent of Dorthea Lange's photography.
John Gavin Stevens: the lawyer Beauchamp asks for but never trusts. Not exactly Atticus Finch.
The movie's villain, the perfectly named Nub, walks with a cannister of gasoline to confront another of the movie's heroes.
Miss Habersham is Atticus before Atticus, Superman before Superman.
The threat is ignited.
And defused. “Could you step out of the light so I can thread ma needle?”
Shaming the crowd that has no shame. She's Joseph Welch before Joseph Welch, too.
The movie ends on this false note, with this false hero.
Faulkner's novel ends on this true note with this true hero: ”My receipt." *FIN*
Wednesday March 09, 2016
Movie Review: Mission to Moscow (1943)
If I’d been a member of HUAC back in 1947, this is the movie I would’ve focused on. Screw the others. Seriously, someone saying “Share and share alike” in a Ginger Rogers movie? Gregory Peck and Paul Muni portraying allied soldiers as heroes? Russian peasants smiling? You look small just bringing it up. You look like bullies. Which you were.
But “Mission to Moscow”? Good god, is there a movie more wrong in the history of Hollywood?
At the same time, I don’t think Hollywood is to blame for it.
Stalin: for all mankind
Some background: In 1941, Simon & Schuster published a book, “Mission to Moscow,” by Joseph E. Davies, about his experience as U.S. ambassador to the Soviet Union from 1936 to 1938. Once the U.S. entered World War II, according to Jack Warner, Pres. Roosevelt urged him to make a movie out of it, which Warner Bros. studios did, with Walter Huston, Abe Lincoln himself, as Davies. The real Davies not only introduces the movie (in ponderous fashion), he had creative control over the script. And when he didn’t like the original draft, Jack Warner tapped Howard Koch to do the rewrite. Four years later, as a friendly witness before HUAC, Jack Warner denounced Koch as a communist sympathizer for that work, and he was later blacklisted.
Politically, Koch was definitely on the left, stumping for Henry Wallace in 1948, for example, but that’s only a crime to the Breitbarts of the world. One of the original “Hollywood 19” called before HUAC, he was also the first to break ranks with their ultimately unsuccessful legal strategy. In an open letter in The Hollywood Reporter in November 1947, he went his own way. Meanwhile, scapegoated and fired by Warner, he freelanced for a few years (“Letter from an Unknown Woman” for Max Ophuls) before work mysteriously dried up; so in 1950 he moved to England, where he continued to write under a pseudonym. He eventually returned to the U.S. and settled in Woodstock, NY, wrote several forgettable screenplays in the 1960s, published his memoir, “As Time Goes By,” in 1979, hocked his Oscar to pay for his granddaughter’s law school in 1994, and died in 1995 at the age of 93. (Heather Heckman, a Ph.D. student at Madison, goes deep into Koch’s story here.)
That Oscar, by the way, was for writing “Casablanca.” He also wrote “Sergeant York.” That’s your communist sympathizer. Sergeant York. Only in America.
The director of “Mission,” meanwhile, was Michael Curtiz, whose previous films had been “Casablanca” and “Yankee Doodle Dandy,” and who went on to make “This is the Army,” starring Ronald Reagan, among others. Another obvious com-symp.
So how did we get this apology for Stalinism? The problem, I assume, is Davies. The dude was just wrong about everything.
In some respects, “Mission” is a typical, corny, Hollywood movie. As it opens, Davies, a lawyer, is about to go on a long-delayed lake vacation with his wife and daughter (Ann Harding and Eleanor Parker), when he’s pursued in a boat by his chauffeur Freddie (George Tobias, Abner Kravitz of “Bewitched”), with news of a phone call. “I don’t care if it’s the president of the United States!” Davies cries. Setting up the obvious punchline and titular mission. FDR wants him to suss out both Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia in terms of the looming war.
When he arrives in Germany? Awful! Davies looks with disgust as Hitler Youth march near the Hamburg train station. When he arrives in Russia? Great! Davies looks with delight as Soviet troops train near the Moscow train station.
How good are things in the Soviet Union? Very good! Caviar is plentiful, gender discrimination nonexistent, workers happy. The Soviet leaders, meanwhile, are down-to-earth and open-minded. “I believe in individualism as it’s practiced in America,” Davies declares upon arriving. “All we want is that you see all that you can before you arrive at your conclusion,” Soviet leaders respond sagely.
He visits a factory and is amazed by its output. His wife visits a department store (run by Mrs. Molotov) and is amazed by its luxury items. He’s told that the harder the people work, the more money they make. “The greatest good for the greatest number of people,” he’s told. “Not a bad principle,” he responds. “We believe in it, too!”
Ah, but there’s trouble in paradise. Sabotage! Betrayal! And in whose name? Nazi Germany! Thus we get a truncated, laughably incorrect version of the show trials, the Stalinist purges, that led to the death of millions of innocent people. But here, no one’s innocent. Here, they all confess without pressure. “The only pressure came from my own conscience,” says one saboteur stoically. “Based on twenty years of trial practice,” Davies pontificates from the cheap seats, “I’d be inclined to believe these confessions.”
Seriously, you couldn’t create a better dolt if you’d tried. At one point, others in the U.S. embassy are suspicious of the Soviets. Not Davies:
U.S. official: The Kremlin may be recording every word we say.
Davies: Well, perhaps they have a reason. Moscow is a hotbed for foreign agents.
Official: But eavesdropping, sir! Why that is an open affront of international rights!
Davies: I never say anything outside the Kremlin about Russia that I wouldn’t say to Stalin’s face, do you?
Official: Well, that’s putting it rather stiffly sir.
Davies: Then stop gossiping and stop listening to it. We’re here in a sense as guests of the Soviet government. And I’m going to believe they trust the United States as a friend until they prove otherwise.
The kicker is when he meets Stalin himself, and tells him, “I believe, sir, history will record you as a great builder for the benefit of mankind.” Then it’s off to Britain for a meeting with an up-and-comer, Winston Churchill, to tell him how the world really works.
At home, as war approaches, Davies makes excuses for everything Stalin does. The Nazi-Soviet Pact? Stalin had to do that to give himself more time to prepare for war. Attacking Finland? Finland asked Russia to attack it—to protect herself against German aggression.
You can barely watch “Mission to Moscow” for the number of times you facepalm.
Occasionally, we get something good. I like the conversation Davies and his family have on a train bound for Berlin:
German: You Americans have a very good tobacco. Ours is terrible—at the moment. We tend to improve it. Very shortly.
Mrs. Davies: Really? What do you intend to buy?
German: I’m not so sure we’ll have to buy from anyone. Our Fuehrer is a very clever man. He has many ideas. ... We Germans don’t mind a few discomforts now because we know what’s in store for us in the great future life.
Davies’ daughter: You mean on earth or somewhere else?
German: Shall we say, somewhere else on Earth.
That’s nice wordplay, and the scene isn’t overdone. Throughout, Curtiz plays with shadows well, as he always did. He’s a pro, Koch is a pro, it’s a Golden Age Hollywood movie.
And it’s still atrocious.
Even so, I would argue “Mission to Moscow” is less communist propaganda than war-time propaganda. If it stands out, it’s because the rest of our war-time propaganda (portraying Japan and Nazi Germany as cruel regimes), was, if anything, underplayed against the awful reality. There’s no conspiracy here, just stupidity. “Mission” is a tale told by an idiot, but the idiot didn’t come from Hollywood.
Thursday March 27, 2014
Captain America (1944): The Slideshow Review
The first issue of Captain America was published in March 1941, nine months before the U.S. entered World War II. It was a time when Hollywood was still timid about making anti-Nazi movies, but Joe Simon and Jack Kirby were bolder: they drew Cap decking Hitler on the first cover. So what did Hollywood do when they got ahold of Cap three years later?
They turned him into this. Where are his wings? Where is his shield? Where's Bucky?
He isn't even Pvt. Steve Rogers. He's Grant Gardner, district attorney. Worse, he doesn't fight the Nazis.
He fights this guy.
With a gun.
He does have this hot number as an assistant. She seems to know Grant is Cap. She also sends the final clue that will make the D.A. (or C.A.) realize who the villain is.
But for most of the serial, she's reduced to this.
Or she's being hypnotized into doing whatever the Scarab wants. No, he doesn't want that.
There's some cool stuff in the 15 chapters: Cap riding a motorcyle ...
... a few shots that impress.
And it's kinda cool when he changes into Cap ...
Some of the time.
But it is what it is: a 15-chapter movie serial with cliffhangers. The title cards, which are supposed to get us up-to-date at the beginning of each episode, actually demonstrate Cap's complete incompetence.
He tries ...
... and tries ...
But he keeps failing.
It's almost like a bad dream. Full review here. *FIN*
Tuesday March 25, 2014
Movie Review: Captain America (1944)
Captain America was born fighting the Nazis. Literally.
On the cover of Captain America #1, artist Jack Kirby, not yet “Jolly Jack,” and truthfully never really “Jolly Jack,” drew Cap infiltrating Nazi headquarters. On the wall there’s a “television” showing a man blowing up a U.S. Munitions Works. On a nearby table, we see a map of the U.S.A. along with “sabotage plans” for same. And front and center, there’s Cap, in all of his red-white-and-blue glory, and with bullets zinging off his then-badge-shaped shield, decking Adolf Hitler. It was March 1941. Pearl Harbor was nine months away. Captain America was fighting the Nazis almost a year before America was fighting the Nazis.
The Republic Pictures serial “Captain America” was filmed and released in the midst of World War II (1943 and Feb. 1944, respectively), so you’d think you’d see him decking a few Nazis, if not Hitler himself, but neither is seen in this thing. Captain America isn’t in Europe, he isn’t a soldier, he isn’t even Steve Rogers. He’s Grant Gardner, district attorney (Dick Purcell), fighting the Scarab (Lionel Atwill), a typical movie serial villain. There’s no Bucky, no shield, and no origin, either. The movie begins with Captain America a known figure, but there’s nothing particularly super about him. He’s not stronger than 10 men. He sometimes loses fights with one. He relies on a gun. Basically he’s a dumpy, middle-aged D.A., who, in the midst of a bumbling investigation into multiple murders, takes off his suit to reveal a red-white-and-blue outfit, with which he goes forth to engage in prolonged fistfights with two (always two) henchmen in a barn or a factory or a garage or a cave. If we didn’t know the tropes of superhero movie serials, we would think him insane.
Of fistfights and vibrators
Why watch the 1944 movie serial “Captain America”? For the history of it, I suppose. We get to see how far we’ve come. We get to see what fascinated kids—or what movie executives think fascinated kids—70 years ago.
So what fascinated kids 70 years ago?
A masked superhero? Check. Although feel free to put quote marks around “super.”
Mystical, exotic locations? Check. A group of scientists have recently returned from excavating an ancient Mayan ruins, from which they’ve discovered the usual: plant extracts that allow you to hypnotize people and make them do whatever you want, etc. Plus a lost city.
The magic gizmos of science? Check. Has anyone tabulated these, by the way? The inventions that scientists created in movie serials of the ’30s and ’40s? I think it would be worth a study. (Someone else’s study.) In this 15-chapter serial alone we get the following:
- A thermodynamic vibration engine: it can destroy buildings.
- A portable electronic firebolt: it cuts through safes.
- A robot-controlled truck.
- A radio dictograph: a bug, basically.
- A perpetual life machine: it can bring people back from the dead.
I’ll talk more about the last one, introduced in chapter 11, later. It’s the first one, though, introduced in the first chapter, that had me snickering like Beavis and/or Butthead. Because it led to lines like this:
- “I want to know more about the vibrator!”
- “We’re not the only ones who know the secret of Lyman’s dynamic vibrator!”
- “Mr. Merritt and Mr. Norton are here to witness your demonstration of the vibrator! ... I know the secret of this machine and it’s a heavy responsibility.”
The Scarab is really Dr. Cyrus Maldor, who was a participant in the recent scientific expedition to the ancient Mayan ruins. Now, behind the bland facade of the Drummond Museum of Arts and Sciences, with its suspicious-looking shoeshine boy out front, he’s killing off all the other members of the expedition. Why? We don’t find out until Chapter 13. It has to do with two halves of a map to the fabled Lost City of Zada, where riches beyond anyone’s imagination can be found.
So ... money. Always money.
The problem with the radio dictograph
Look, I know the deal. I know these serials were made quickly, with little budget, a long time ago, and designed to keep viewers coming back next week. I guess I just want them to sense within their own framework.
Maldor? The Scarab? He can hypnotize people. So if the end game is the other part of the map, why not hypnotize people into revealing who has it? Why not hypnotize them into finding out where it is. They can do your work for you. Instead, he has them commit suicide. Then he goes after Prof. Lyman’s vibrator. Why? I’m not sure. The next chapter it’s the firebolt. So he can crack safes. What does that have to do with the Lost City of Zada? And why doesn’t he just hypnotize guards or bank managers to get into the safes? Seriously, the man needs to focus. But focus has never been big in movie serials.
My favorite nonsense bit is from Chapter 14 when the Scarab finally captures G.F. Hillman (John Hamilton, Perry White from the “Adventures of Superman” TV series), the man who has the other half of the map. Hillman is taken to a secluded farm, where Maldor reveals himself to be the Scarab. Then he says the movie-villain line: “You are very headstrong. But there are ways of making you talk.”
Ah, back to the hypnosis, I suppose.
Nope. “Tie him to that chandelier!” he says. Then he whips him.
Did he forget he could hypnotize people into telling the truth? Is he a sadist? Did he just need the exercise?
Neither of our principals is exactly Einstein. By Chapter Six, Maldor suspects Gardner is Captain America. That’s why they bug his place. But when Gardner returns home, his assistant, Gail Richards (Lorna Gray), reaches him on the phone and mentions in passing that his line has been busy. This clues Gardner in. Someone has been in his apartment! And he finds the radio dictograph. Now he has the upper hand! He knows, but they don’t know he knows. So what does he do?
At this point, the Scarab is blackmailing an oilman, J.C. Henley (Tom Chatterton), for a million dollars. So Gardner tells Henley, within range of the bug, that they’re including a “radioactive cell” in the briefcase full of money. “By means of triangulation,” he says, “we can locate the case wherever it is taken.” But it’s a lie. They’re not bugging it at all. The oilman is confused. So are we. How does this help? They’re letting the bad guys know they can locate them when they really can’t. Gotcha! Or ... would .... if we knew where you were. Really, the whole thing is just an excuse to leave the briefcase in the hills atop Los Angeles, so there can be a fight in a nearby cave, during which Captain America will fall down a mineshaft and ...
And we start over again.
The radio dictograph? Forgotten in the next episode. The briefcase full of money? Taken. But Gardner does plant a story in the press about how the bills were all marked, so they’re useless to the Scarab. Ha ha. Except all this does is refocus the Scarab’s anger on Henley. “I was a fool to take your advice” Henley says to our hero. Totally. Plus you’re out a million bucks. That money ain’t coming back.
At least Henley lives. More than you can say for others under Gardner’s protection. Prof. Lyman (Frank Reicher), he of the dynamic vibrator, dies in Chapter 1. The inventor of the electronic firebolt, Prof. Dodge (Hugh Sothern), lasts a few chapters before getting it in Chapter 5. Then Lyman’s brother, Dr. Clinton Lyman (Robert Frazer), comes onto the scene with the greatest invention of all: He can reanimate the dead! Wow. This may be the greatest invention of all time. And what does he get for his trouble? Dead. Somehow this ineptitude is spun into heroic deeds for Gardner and Captain America. At one point, the Scarab, still intent on revenge on Henley, sends two men to blow up his Gas Works plant. Captain America battles them but can’t turn off the pressure gauges. Kablooey! The report on the radio the next morning? Only one of the buildings blew up “... thanks to the timely arrival of Captain America!” Some press agent he’s got.
The greatest insult may be how often Captain America gets a bead on the two henchmen in the remote location but for nothing. It works this way. They’re planning something nefarious. He shows up with gun drawn. One of them throws something at him and knocks the gun loose. Then there’s a fistfight. Then he is imperiled and ...
See you next week.
The final death
Interestingly, for all its faults, the serial has been praised by fans of the genre. They say it’s Lionel Atwill’s best work—and he’s not bad in it. They say the fight scenes are among the best—and they’re athletic and well-choreographed. But it’s still a dance whose outcome we know. It’s still painful to watch.
This doesn’t help: Did the strain of making the serial contribute to actor Dick Purcell’s death by heart attack at the age of 36, just a few months after filming? He’s often called the first actor to play Captain America; but he’s also the first actor who died suddenly after playing a superhero. We call it the Superman curse but maybe it should be the superhero curse.
Captain America was only the fourth comic-book-based, live-action superhero to show up on our movie screens—after Captain Marvel (1941), Batman (1943), and The Phantom (1943)—but he wouldn’t return for another 35 years, and even then it was on the small screen in an abysmal 1979 TV movie starring Reb Brown. Eleven years later they tried again, with Matt Salinger, and with worse results. (Jack Kirby fought to get his name on the movie; after its premiere, he wanted to get his name off the movie.) Meanwhile, Superman and Batman movies are being made again and again. Then X-Men movies and Spider-Man movies and the Fantastic Four and even freakin’ Ghost Rider starring Nic Cage. But Cap? Bupkis.
It wasn’t until 2011, 67 years after this one, that Cap finally became the subject of a theatrical movie that got released in the U.S., “Captain America: The First Avenger,” starring Chris Evans. They got it right, too. They had him fighting Nazis.
Captain America was born fighting the Nazis. The first issue came out in March 1941, nine months before the U.S. entered the war, a time when Hollywood was still timid about making anti-Nazi movies. But Joe Simon and Jack Kirby, in a nascent industry with fewer rules, had no problem at all drawing Cap decking Hitler on their first cover.
Yet this is Cap when he finally turns up in the movies. Where are his wings? His shield? Bucky? None of them made the transfer to the silver screen.
He isn't even Steve Rogers. He's Grant Gardner, district attorney. And he doesn't even fight the Nazis.
He fights this guy.
With a gun.
He does have this hot number as an assistant. She seems to know Grant is Cap. She also sends the final clue that will make the D.A. (or C.A.) realize who the villain is. She saves the day.
But for most of the serial, she's reduced to this.
Or she's being hypnotized into doing whatever the Scarab wants. (Pity every boy in America watching this in 1944, with better imaginations.)
Then back to this.
There is some cool stuff in the 15 chapters: Cap riding a motorcyle ...
... a few shots that impress.
And it's kinda cool when he changes into Cap ...
Some of the time.
But it is what it is. The title cards, which are supposed to get us up-to-date at the beginning of each episode, also demonstrate Cap's complete incompetence throughout the serial.
Captain America tries ...
... and he tries ...
But he keeps failing.
It's like it's all a bad dream.
Tuesday June 04, 2013
Movie Review: Superman (1948)
The 1948 movie serial, “Superman,” the first live-action cinematic recreation of the Man of Steel, becomes, in the latter stages of its 15 chapters, a battle between two groups intent on avoiding the cops. The first group is led by the villainous Spider Lady (Carol Forman), queen of the underworld, who circumnavigates the law for obvious reasons. The second group is led by Perry White (Pierre Watkin), editor of The Daily Planet, who, along with his reporters, Lois Lane (Noel Neill), Jimmy Olsen (Tommy Bond) and Clark Kent (Kirk Alyn), just wants a scoop.
In Chapter 11, for example, “Superman’s Dilemma,” the Spider Lady needs “mono chromite” to complete her work on “the reducer ray,” so she sends several tough guys over to Frederick Larkin, chemical engineer. Larkin tells them it’ll take awhile to get the stuff ready. Then he goes to his card files and reads the following under “mono chromite”:
DEVELOPED BY DR. ARNOLD GRAHAM
IF ASKED FOR WITHOUT CREDENTIALS,
NOTIFY PROPER AUTHORITIES
So he calls the cops. Actually, no. He calls Perry White. And he calls the cops. Actually, no. He sends Clark Kent over to get the story. Except Lois tricks Clark into being arrested so she can get the scoop. But that doesn’t happen, either. Instead, Lois nearly suffocates in a safe, Jimmy Olsen is nearly shot to death in a crate, and, in the end, Perry White, the man who never called the cops, chastises them all for not getting the scoop. Meanwhile, the fate of the world hangs in the balance.
Do the police get any respect here? In Chapter 13, Superman captures one of the Spider Lady’s goons, Anton (Jack Ingram), and flies him to the police station. Actually, no. He flies him to The Daily Planet and delivers him to Perry White. In Chapter 14, the Spider Lady sends her minion, Dr. Hackett, into the Metropolis streets to be arrested so he can communicate with Anton in prison. Who captures him? Lois. Who convinces the cops to put Hackett in Anton’s cell? Lois. It isn’t until the final chapter, “The Payoff,” that the Spider Lady finally, finally, contacts the police via shortwave radio. What does she say? “I want you to send a message to Perry White.”
They do her bidding. Apparently they know who the proper authorities are, too.
I know, I know. A cheap shot for a cheap, 65-year-old Columbia serial.
Except “Superman” wasn’t cheap. According to Glen Weldon in his book, “Superman: The Unauthorized Biography,” it was the most expensive serial ever made, with a budget of $350,000. It just looks cheap, even for the time. Six years earlier, in the 12-chapter serial “Adventures of Captain Marvel,” Republic Pictures did a pretty good job of making Tom Tyler, the star, appear to be flying (with a mannequin, a stuntman, etc.), but Columbia couldn’t be bothered. So they rely on animation. Superman takes a step, a feint into the air, and turns into a cartoon. Think of it as early CGI.
The first chapter, “Superman Comes to Earth,” is probably the most interesting. For the first time we get to see Krypton, which, in outdoor shots, looks like the parts of southern California where they shot the Gorn episode of “Star Trek,” and whose cityscape could be a 1920s “Amazing Stories” magazine cover. As always, the Kryptonian Science Council is full of assholes, who, in their resistance to scientific reasoning, resemble nothing so much as the modern GOP; but Jor-El (Nelson Leigh), a caped scientist, hardly helps his cause when he’s asked to provide facts. “We must be guided by my knowledge,” he responds, finger in the air, “which this august body has always respected.” Dude, a pie chart might’ve helped.
Who names Clark Superman? Pa Kent (Ed Cassidy). “Your unique abilities make you … a kind of super man,” he says.Who designs his costume? Ma Kent (Virginia Carroll). “Here’s a uniform I made for you out of the blankets you were wrapped in when we found you,” she says. How does Kal-El learn about Krypton? From a Prof. Leeds, who shows him “a fragment from the planet Krypton, which exploded many years ago.” How does Leeds know about Krypton? How does he know it was called Krypton? Silence. When the fragment causes Clark to faint, Leeds immediately makes the connection between Clark and Superman. Actually, no. But Clark tells him anyway:
For years I suspected that I came to Earth from the planet Krypton. And now this meteorite seems to prove that. It takes away all my powers that make me superior to Earth men.
In truth, this is why you watch 65-year-old serials like “Superman.” For the historic record. To see how we interpreted the Man of Steel back then. To see what we valued.
The modern Superman would never call himself superior to anyone, let alone “Earth men,” but this Superman, only 10 years removed from Action Comics #1, was still a bit of a roughneck, and he still acquires his powers, not from the yellow sun, but from a civilization so far advanced it “boasted a race of super men and women.”
In this way the serial is an odd mix of pre- and post-WWII attitudes. A genetically superior race? Sounds like Nazi-era eugenics. At the same time, the lessons of the gas chambers are apparent in the peptalk Pa Kent gives young Clark about what he must do with his great powers. He must use them, he says, to fight for “truth, tolerance, and justice.”
Interestingly, all of the above attitudes, both pre- and post-WWII, would soon be gone from the Superman mythos. Yellow-sun mythology replaced genetic superiority, while “tolerance” never again turned up as something Superman fought for. It was replaced, famously, or infamously, by “the American way,” for the TV series, “The Adventures of Superman,” which debuted in 1952: the coldest part of the Cold War. We were a less-tolerant society by then. Tolerance had a small window.
The mysterious reducer ray
The plot is typical of the serial genre. The Spider Lady, who never once leaves her mountainside lair with its electrified spider-web in the background, wants the mysterious reducer ray, “a force more powerful even than the atomic bomb.” Basically it’s a big ray gun. You feed it coordinates and it can destroy a target thousands of miles away. Why does the Spider Lady want it? Probably to rule the world. How is she going to get past Superman to get it? She has a chunk of kryptonite. Why is it called the reducer ray when it doesn’t reduce anything? Uh…
First she tries to steal it. No go. Then she employs Dr. Hackett, “a brilliant scientist with a warped mind,” who invents a kind of kryptonite gun. That doesn’t work, either. Then she kidnaps Dr. Graham, the original inventor of the reducer ray, and forces him to create a second reducer ray. He refuses. After he’s tortured, he complies. But he needs mono chromite. It takes a few chapters to get that. At which point he refuses again. So he’s hypnotized into complying. But now he needs an “activator tube” from Metropolis U. That takes a while. By Chapter 14, the reducer ray finally works. The Spider Lady’s first target? Her own men in jail. Her second target? The Daily Planet building. At 3:00. By then, though, everyone converges on her lair: Jimmy, Lois and eventually Superman, weakened by kryptonite. But not! Up he pops with a big smile.
Spider Lady: Superman, you didn’t succumb to the kryptonite!
Superman: I expected you to have it handy so I’m wearing a protective lining of lead under my uniform. What you thought was my weakness turned out to be your undoing! Spider Lady, you’re finished!
And she is. When she tries to run away, she’s electrocuted by her own spiderweb. Crime don’t pay, kids.
As for Clark? Why, he’s asleep at the Daily Planet.
Clark: Oh, I was just having a wonderful dream.
Lois: You weren’t dreaming by any chance that you were Superman?
Clark: That’s exactly right, Lois. And I was flying through the air.
Lois: That wasn’t a dream, Kent. As far as I’m concerned, that’s a nightmare.
And everyone laughs. The end.
In truth, this is why you watch 65-year-old serials like “Superman.” To see what passed for entertainment back then.
Superman, Lois and Jimmy watching the Spider Lady fry.
I have to admit, I liked, well enough, Alyn’s performance. He’s got a dancer’s lightness to him and a perpetual gee-whiz expression on his face, as if he too is amazed by the things he can do. He also has an early version of the spitcurl. Yes, at times, particularly employing his x-ray vision, he looks slightly crazed. Plus he’s undone, certainly to modern eyes, by the lack of special effects. His big stunt is taking two crooks and bonking their heads together. He can never win a fight as Clark Kent, either, and it hardly seems a matter of protecting his secret identity. No, he just can’t fight. He gets knocked down and has to shake the cobwebs from his head. It’s as if he’s not super until he removes his suit and tie.
Another positive: In the 1940s Batman serials, the cliffhangers tend to involve the heroes caught in some predicament, which means they have to get in some predicament, which means, in almost every episode, they have to lose a fight. Some dynamic duo. In “Superman,” most of the cliffhangers involve Superman’s friends: Lois, Jimmy, Perry. Each cliffhanger is less about Superman than a job for Superman. Alyn says the line throughout the serial, too, following the Bud Collyer model from the radio show by deepening his voice on the final words: “This looks like a job … FOR SUPERMAN!” It’s a conceit that continued into the 1960s.
Lois? Forever involved in machinations to prevent Clark from scooping her, even though these machinations invariably imperil herself, Jimmy, Clark, and, since we’re talking the reducer ray, the entire planet. This is not a good Lois. She’s pouty and unclever and sexless. She’s like a Shirley Temple character who grew into her late 20s less cute than she used to be, less clever than she used to be, more annoying than she used to be. And could you give us a smile? Apparently this was obvious even back then. Two years later, for the 1950 sequel, “Atom Man vs. Superman,” Neill’s Lois smiles so much she seems like a Miss America contestant.
Jimmy? Unfunny comic relief. The Jughead of the crew. Perry? Never leaves his office. He’s like the Spider Lady in this regard. The entire serial could be seen as a battle between these two stationary entities who send their forces into the world to do battle.
That world is Metropolis but it seems more small town than big city. The local jail is like Andy Griffith’s, and they’re never too far away from a mine or a cave. When we finally see a map of Metropolis, hanging in the Daily Planet office, it’s an upside-down dog. That’s a clue, by the way.
Superman (Kirk Alyn) using his x-ray vision
So whatever happened to…?
The Spider Lady, meanwhile, has no spiders, wears a long black dress, and for a time, and for no discernible reason, a mask. What’s the source of her power? Who knows? She’s not strong, she’s not smart, she doesn’t use sex as a weapon. Her henchmen are lugs from central casting.
Basically she’s a ripoff of another Forman villainess, Sombra, the Black Widow, from the 1947 Republic serial “The Black Widow.” Was she typecast? A year after “Superman,” Forman played Nila, an Abistahnian criminal going up against Inspector David Worth (Alyn again), in “Federal Agents vs. Underworld, Inc.” Two years after that, in the Columbia serial “Blackhawk,” she played Laska, leader of an underground gang, who is foiled by … wait for it … Kirk Alyn. If TV hadn’t killed serials, these two might have kept going in perpetuity.
As it was, Forman was basically done by ’52, Alyn didn’t last much longer, and Tommy Bond moved over into the prop department for TV shows like “Laugh-In” and “Sonny and Cher.” Neill, meanwhile, who played the third-year girl who gripes Gene Kelly’s liver in “An American in Paris,” essentially made a career out of the Superman franchise. She played Lois for most of TV’s “The Adventures of Superman,” had a bit part as Lois’ mom, Ella, in the extended cut of “Superman: The Movie” (1978), shows up in “The Adventures of Superboy,” and even played Gertrude Vanderworth, the wealthy widow bilked of her money by Kevin Spacey’s Lex Luthor in “Superman Returns” (2006).
Might as well. Movie serials may have been dying but superhero films were just beginning to fly.
The opening credits. Serials were about to die; superhero movies were not.
Friday February 18, 2011
Charters and Caldicott and the “Night Train to Munich” (1940)
The other night Patricia and I were watching a not-bad film from 1940: Carol Reed's “Night Train to Munich,” starring Margaret Lockwood and Rex Harrison. Not sure why I rented it. Probably Carol Reed.
After the German takeover of Czechoslovakia, the Allies manage to secret out of the country an inventor of a better kind of armour plating, Axel Bomasch (James Harcourt), but his daughter, Anna (Margaret Lockwood), still veddy veddy British, is captured and placed in a concentration camp. There she encounters a dashing freedom fighter, Karl Marsen, played by Paul Henried, who, two years later, would play the most dashing freedom fighter of them all, Victor Laszlo in “Casablanca.” Even so: knowing it was still early in the film, knowing Lockwood's true co-star was Rex Harrison, and seeing that Henried was billed as Paul von Hernried, I thought, “He's a plant. He's a spy. To get to her father.” As he was. As they did: secreting him and daughter back out of Britain and to Germany just before Sept. 1, 1939.
Ah, but intrepid agent, Gus Bennett (Harrison), seen to this point mostly as a boardwalk barker, decides to go to Berlin undercover, as Major Herzoff, monocle and all, to get father and daughter back.
I should add that I'd never seen a youthful Rex Harrison before and was fairly blown away. The movie felt run-of-the-mill until he came onscreen and then: zap! That Henry Higgins persona is already there: distant, faintly amused by it all, protected with a kind of armour plating of his own that still allows his charm-for-charm's-sake to seep through. He has a kind of flirtatiousness with women but it's wrapped in a challenge that's intellectual and dismissive rather than sexual and complimentary. “Do you have any brains at all?” he seems to be saying. “Let's see, shall we?”
At one point Lockwood and Harrison are having a great back-and-forth in her swanky bedroom in Germany, going over the escape plan. It's not much of an escape plan. He'll say he persuaded her to persuade her father to stay and work for the Germans, and while the high command is congratulating themselves they'll all make their escape via airplane in a nearby field.
Anna: But why should the admirality believe you persuaded me?
Gus: I shall indicate that once again you have succumbed to my charms.
Anna (aghast): Once again?
Gus: (pleased with himself) It happened in Prague, I'm afraid.
Anna: And you told them a fantastic story like that?
Gus: Fantastic? It was four years ago, there was a harvest moon, I was younger and more dashing then...
“It happened in Prague, I'm afraid.”
“Night Train to Munich” is amazingly light for a film about Nazis produced as bombs were raining down on London. Stiff upper lip and all that. They make jokes about Nazi propaganda:
“Any day now,” a Nazi officer says at one point, “Poland may provoke us into invading her in self-defense!”
There's an extended piece with two Germans that, between “Heil Hitlers,” is simply wordplay:
Kampenfeldt: It's been reported to me that you've been heard expressing sentiments hostile to the fatherland!
Schwab: What — me, sir?
Kampenfeldt: I warn you, Schwab, this treasonable conduct will lead you to a concentration camp.
Schwab: But, sir, what did I say?
Kampenfeldt: You were distinctly heard to remark, [sarcastic] “This is a fine country to live in.”
Schwab: Oh no, sir. There's some mistake. What I said was, [upbeat] “This is a fine country to live in!”
Kampenfeldt: You sure?
Schwab: Yes, sir.
Kampenfeldt: I see. Well in future don't make remarks that can be taken two ways.
Both Kampenfeldt and Schwab are even less German than Rex Harrison That's part of the fun of watching cinema from other countries. Everyone does it as badly, as myopically, as Hollywood.
Following the titular train to Munich, we see, at a German train station, a man asking for a copy of “Punch,” the British humor magazine. Me to Patricia: “OK. They're not trying to pass that guy off as German, are they?” They're not. The man is British. He's frightfully put off, for example, that the Germans don't carry this week's “Punch,” and both he and his companion seem completely oblivious to the danger they're in as British nationals in Nazi Germany after Sept. 1st. Which is about when the other shoe dropped.
“Wait a minute,” I said to Patricia. “Aren't these guys the same guys from 'The Lady Vanishes'?” A second later: “I think they're playing the same characters.”
Charters and Caldicott: Terribly put out in the midst of this how-do-you do.
I'm probably the last movie critic in America to know this story. Charters and Caldicott are two obtuse, cricket-obsessed British characters, played by Basil Radford (Charters) and Naunton Wayne (Caldicott), who made their first appearance in Hitchcock's “The Lady Vanishes. They proved so popular with British crowds that screenwriter Sidney Gilliat, who had written a good half-dozen screenplays since ”The Lady Vanishes“ in '38, resurrected them for ”Night Train to Munich“ in 1940, then for ”Millions Like Us,“ about a British factory girl, in '43. They were given the lead in ”Crook's Tour“ in '41, but Gilliat wasn't involved in that project.
Apparently the actors had a falling out with Gilliant in '45 when he refused to expand their roles for ”I See a Dark Stranger“ and they walked, both away from Gilliat and the names, but not from each other. In subsequent films they played similarly self-regarding characters with different names: Prendergast and Fotheringham in ”A Girl in a Million“ (1946), Gregg and Straker in ”Passport to Pimlico“ (1949) and Bright and Early in ”It's Not Cricket.“ Radford died in 1952, Wayne in 1970, but the characters returned in a 1979 remake of ”The Lady Vanishes,“ and then on the BBC for a eponymous 1980s television series.
How well known are they? I mentioned all this to a friend at a party recently, American but an Anglophile, and when I had trouble coming up with the names he provided them. Is there an American equivalent? Abbot and Costello maybe? But they were stars, known by their own names. Statler and Waldorf maybe? Muppets. Could you do American versions of these characters? They'd probably have to be baseball fans. Football fans seem too Paul Fistinyourface to allow for C&C's dry humor:
Charters: Bought a copy of ”Mein Kampf.“ Appears to me it might shed a spot of light on all this how-do-you-do. Ever read it?
Caldicott (sucking on a pipe): Never had the time.
Charters: I understand they give a copy to all the bridal couples over here.
Caldicott: Why, I don't think it's that sort of book, old man.
Not that sort of book, old man.
In ”Night Train,“ Caldicott recognizes Major Herzoff as Dickie Randall (Gus's real name), who used to play for the Gentlemen, a cricket club, and his questions rouse the suspicions of Karl Marsen, who's already jealous of Herzoff's apparent hold on Anna. Eventually, through the fog of their British obtusness, Charters and Caldicott realize they've put old Dickie in a bit of a spot and come vaguely to his rescue. There's a car chase, then a tramway adventure high in the Alps, but everyone makes it safely to Switzerland, where Dickie falls into Anna's arms, and, one imagines, Bomasch's armour plating helps win the how-do-you-do and Charters and Caldicott finally, finally get their copy of ”Punch."
Tuesday November 16, 2010
Review: “Notorious” (1946)
WARNING: KEY SPOILERS
Alfred Hitchcock’s “Notorious” is the greatest love story ever filmed between a cold bastard and a drunken whore.
That’s a joke and it isn’t. There’s the story we watch and there’s the way Hitchcock undercuts the story we watch. He smuggles all sorts of shit in. He gets America, this puritanical country, to care about these less-than-pure people.
The Hays code helped. In the first five minutes we learn that Alicia Huberman (Ingrid Bergman), whose father was recently convicted as a Nazi spy, drinks too much and sleeps around, but we only see her drunk once, and we never see her sleeping around—just flirting with Cary Grant, who, let’s face it, is Cary Grant, the Man from Dream City, etc., so who can blame her. The Hays code, by keeping Alicia’s more notorious activities discreet, keeps her sympathetic. When others bring up her past, it almost seems unfair, as if they were tarnishing her with rumors rather than agreed-upon facts.
As for the cold bastard? We first see Devlin (Grant) as the back of a head and wonder, “Why is Hitchcock filming the back of his head when the front of his head has Cary Grant’s face attached to it?” Answer: This is a man who reveals little. He’s a secret agent, CIA, OSS, or whatever the agency was between World War II and the passage of the National Security Act of 1947. He doesn’t talk much but every third word is sneered. It takes a lot to drain the charm out of Cary Grant but Hitchcock does it masterfully.
The greatest romance of all time!
The linchpin of the film is also masterfully, intricately created. Devlin recruits Alicia, this wanton, daughter-of-a-Nazi-spy, for an assignment in Rio de Janeiro, but before they get the assignment they fall in love. He loosens up and she looks like Ingrid Bergman again. It begins to feel like a traditional Hollywood romance. There’s even a famous two-and-a-half minute kissing scene that, by skirting the Hays’ code’s admonition of kisses longer than three seconds, relies on multiple, nibbling pecks, making it even sexier than if they’d been allowed to slobber all over each other.
Then the assignment arrives. She’s to infiltrate a gang of Nazis by throwing her charms at one of the leaders, Alexander Sebastian (Claude Rains), who once had a crush on her. And by “throwing her charms at,” I mean “sleeping with.” Or “fucking.” All of which is discreetly implied with words like “playmates.” Hays Code to the rescue again.
So Devlin is torn. He’s a professional man but also a man in love. The man in love wants her to say “no” but the professional man knows the job is the job. Which side wins? The side that says nothing. He gets even more tight-lipped. Just when she wants him to talk.
She’s a woman in love but an amateur in this profession, so she goes along with the scheme, one can argue, for Devlin. He wants her to say “no,” but she says “yes” for him. Talk about cross purposes.
That’s how Hitchcock undercuts the traditional Hollywood romance. But “Notorious” is also a thriller, a post-WWII thriller about American agents battling South American Nazis, and the way he undercuts the film’s ostensible patriotism is even more brilliant.
Three scenes stand out.
In the first scene, early in the movie, Devlin recruits Alicia, not by appealing to her patriotism, but by revealing how patriotic she already is. Three months earlier, her father tried to recruit her to the German cause and she’d responded with a speech, straight out of a war-bonds fundraiser, about how much she loves America. Most of us reveal our best face to the world while doing what we do in private. She, apparently, is the opposite.
And how does Devlin remind her how patriotic she is? By playing a recording of that conversation with her father. The very government she’s defending on that recording, in other words, is in fact recording her. It’s spying on her. By showing her that she’s patriotic, he’s also showing her why she shouldn’t be patriotic.
Her secret shame: patriotism.
All of which goes unsaid. The second scene, halfway through the movie, is more overt.
By this point Alicia has infiltrated Sebastian’s sanctum at great risk and personal loss—she loses Devlin—but here she’s about to turn up at agency headquarters, and the man in charge, Capt. Paul Prescott (Louis Calhern), worries. Another one of the higher-ups, Walter Beardsley (Moroni Olsen) adds, “She's had me worried for some time. A woman of that sort.”
During this conversation, Devlin had been showing us the back of his head to the room, but Beardsley’s remark literally turns him around. It forces him to reveal his true face:
Devlin: What sort is that, Mr. Beardsley?
Beardsley: Oh, I don't think any of us have any illusions about her character, have we, Devlin?
Devlin: Not at all. Not in the slightest. Miss Huberman is first, last, and always not a lady. She may be risking her life, but when it comes to being a lady, she doesn't hold a candle to your wife, sir, sitting in Washington, playing bridge with three other ladies of great honor and virtue.
Hitchcock, of course, grew up in working-class London and maintained working-class suspicions of the oligarchy. There are people who work and people who don’t. There are soldiers and those who order soldiers into battle. Alicia, at this point, is a soldier. These old men and their wives who look down upon the Alicias of the world? Not. They call into question her character but Hitchcock, through Devlin, calls into question their character, and all they can do in response is be affronted:
Beardsley: I think those remarks about my wife are uncalled for.
Devlin (unapologetic): Withdrawn. Apologized, sir.
The men who do little.
The man who reveals little.
His true face. “Withdrawn. Apologized, sir.”
The third scene, near the end of the film, may be the strongest of the lot.
By this point, Alicia has actually married Sebastian and is living in his mansion with his domineering mother, whom he calls “Mother,” prefiguring Norman Bates by 15 years. At a party to introduce Alicia to Rio society, Alicia and Devlin discover the Nazis secret: ore, most likely uranium ore, hidden in wine bottles in Sebastian’s basement. It’s Hitchcock’s McGuffin, but unlike most McGuffins it’s not harmless. It actually anticipates (in the writing and filming) the A-bomb, which will transform the world.
To discover this, Alicia has to steal the wine-cellar key, a Unica key, from hubby’s keyring. Unfortunately, he notices it’s gone, then notices it’s back, and in the wine cellar he finds jig-is-up evidence of Devlin’s clumsy snooping. “I’m married to an American agent,” he tells Mother. But what to do? Killing an American agent can’t make up for having married her in the first place; that won’t sit well with the other Nazis, who, remember, killed poor Emil Hupka (Eberhard Krumschmidt—his only role in movies!) simply for having a lousy poker face.
So Mother concocts a scheme to slowly poison Alicia. It will seem, to the other Nazis and the rest of the world, as if she had an illness and expired. Alicia figures it out, but too late, when she’s too weak to do anything about it, and she’s led, as if in a nightmare, up to her bedroom, where Mother, with her thick German accent, says, “We’ll take the best care of her,” and Sebastian, feigning concern (and with the camera zooming in tight on Alicia’s helpless, stricken face), tells the butler, “Josef, disconnect the telephone, Madame must have absolute quiet. Take it out of the room.”
Then, in rapid succession, we see:
- Devlin sitting on a park bench, his meeting place with Alicia, looking at his watch.
- Alicia in bed, dying. Mother off to the side, knitting peacefully.
- Devlin, at night, pacing before the same park bench.
In our minds we’re going “Hurry! Hurry!” and finally we get a meeting between Devlin and Prescott. Most such meetings took place in Prescott’s office but this one is in Prescott’s hotel room. It indicates how worried Devlin is. He, like us, can’t wait for tomorrow.
The hotel room also allows Hitchcock to juxtapose Alicia, the solider, with Prescott, the general.
Like Alicia, Prescott is lying in bed. Unlike Alicia, he’s a picture of health. In fact, as Devlin reveals his concerns, and as we’re still shouting “Hurry!” in our minds, Prescott nonchalantly, infuriatingly, butters crackers and stuffs them in his face.
“Five days, eh?” he says, unconcerned. “That must be quite a binge she’s on.” Devlin figured the same—Alicia had lied to him about her sickness—but now he’s having second thoughts. Prescott has none. He even warns against Devlin checking up on her since he doesn’t want anything to jeopardize the mission. Then he picks cracker crumbs off his chest.
“That must be quite a binge she's on.”
How far will you go for love or country? That’s one of the main dilemmas of the film. Love doesn’t do poorly in this equation, since, in the end, Devlin comes through, despite Alicia’s past, despite Alicia’s assignment. But country? Beardlsey represents the country. He thinks poorly of the workers. Prescott represents the country. He can’t be bothered to get out of bed. While Alicia is dying in hers.
There is, in general, great balance in “Notorious.” In one of the first shots, we see the judges and executioners of Alicia’s father framed in a doorway; and in one of the last shots, we see the judges and executioners of Alicia’s husband framed in a doorway. After Alicia is reintroduced to Sebastian, we see Devlin sitting alone at a restaurant on the left side of the screen. In the next shot, we see Alicia sitting alone at a restaurant on the right side of the screen. Balance.
But there is no balance as to our loyalties. The film’s second-most famous shot, after the kissing scene, occurs at the beginning of the party, when the camera, starting from the upper floor, sweeps down to focus on the Unica key in Alicia’s nervous hand. It’s a great shot. One can’t help notice, too, the checkerboard pattern on the floor, and how all of the guests, milling about, look like pieces in a chess game. Which they are. That isn’t a point of contention. Our problem is with the men moving this particular piece. They don't know its value. They see a pawn. We see the queen.
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