Thursday, July 24, 2014

Real Pulp Fiction: ARGOSY, JULY 22, 1939

It was presumably the height of prestige for a pulp writer to get a serial published and cover-featured in Argosy. You can imagine writers paying their dues for years before earning such an honor. Yet for the third time in 1939, the venerable weekly gave its cover to a serial that is its author's debut in its pages. Unlike William Grey Beyer (Minions of the Moon) and the one-and-done John Stromberg (Wild River), Charles Rice McDowell wasn't exactly a nobody. "Argonotes" gives us a one-page biography of the author, who happened to be a law professor at Washington and Lee University. When he passed away in 1978, McDowell was described as the most beloved professor on that school's law faculty. A biographer of one of his students wrote that McDowell "talked like Will Rogers but was better looking." McDowell's serial, The Ringer, has nothing to do with law, however. Its hero is no crusading prosecutor or wily defense attorney. Instead, the story's based partly on McDowell's experiences as an athletic coach in the 1910s. It will follow its hillbilly hero from his late return to high school through a diploma-mill military academy into big-time college sports. Ringer is a semi-satirical expose of the academic corruption that promotes unqualified students and makes them star athletes. It shapes up as a less idealized sports story than we might expect from the pulps, and that reflects Argosy's obvious ambition for a higher literary level, even as it offers more likely crowd-pleasing stuff elsewhere this issue. The opening installment is entertaining enough, though, and it promises to pull no punches, though McDowell himself compares his attitude toward college sports to that of Robert E. Lee toward the slaveholding South: its institutions are certainly peculiar, but he can't help loving it.

The real highlight of this issue is Ralph R. Perry's "Shark Master." Perry wrote raw pulp: packed with action, blood, thunder and rage. He worked in many genres and settings but seemed at his best in the South Seas and with tough seamen like his series character Bellow Bill Williams. In this story a man comes to a mysterious island to dive for pearls and avenge his brother, also a pearl diver, who was reported killed by sharks while attempting to harvest the treasures on the ocean floor. Our hero suspects that his brother was murdered, like several eminent pearl divers before him, by the trader who rules the island, its people, and the sharks offshore. The trader claims mastery over sharks: they swim and strike where and when he commands. That gives him extra power over the inevitably superstitious natives. "When they see me make the sharks obey, these blacks obey me like Hitler," the villain boasts in the story's nearest approach to contemporary relevance. This gives our hero two big mysteries to solve: how can the trader control sharks, and how might he have killed the hero's brother, whose specialized shark cage should have protected him from the sea predators? The revenge plot sets up several intense confrontations, most notably an early showdown as the drunken men exhume the brother's corpse in the middle of the night. There's a fury to Perry's writing and an inventiveness to the gimmickry with which he resolves the mysteries. It's great to see Argosy publishing old-school pulp like this at a time when it so often seems to chase vainly after prestige and relevance.

Robert Carse's second novelet in as many weeks is "Volcano," set during the last days before the famous eruption of Mt. Pelee. Like in last week's "Maximilian's Men," Carse imposes a romantic triangle on his period adventure. A ship's mate and his escaped prisoner, an engineer with Jor-El-like foreknowledge of the imminent disaster, become rivals for the affections of an aristocratic lady. Inevitably one will renounce love and life in favor of the other. Like last week's story it's entertaining enough but leaves a feeling that Carse is trying to force his pulp muse into a shape more appealing to Hollywood or the slicks with the romance angle.

The other stand-alones this week include William Edward Hayes's exciting "Comet on Wheels," in which one man struggles to prevent an out-of-control fuel car from colliding with a crowded passenger train; D. L. Champion's "Kiss the Gloves Goodbye," a curt, grim boxing story in which an old fighter's inspiring comeback proves less than met the eye; and Arthur Lawson's "Epitaph in Red," an Argosy Oddity in which an old-west codger reveals the secret behind his bushy beard and a secret about a young man's grandfather. This issue wraps up the reprint of A. Merritt's Seven Footprints to Satan and continues W. C. Tuttle's Thirty Days for Henry. The former is a classic of its kind, I suppose, and the latter is what it is, if you like that sort of thing.

Next week starts a serial by Theodore Roscoe, brings back once more Bretwalda the magic axe, and introduces us to western author C. K. Shaw, whose name carries a secret!

TO BE CONTINUED

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Pre-Code Parade: HARD TO HANDLE (1933)

James Cagney had been absent from first-run screens for seven months when Mervyn LeRoy's comedy opened in January 1933. Back when studios churned out features assembly-line style, that was a noteworthy layoff. Fans knew that Cagney had had a contract dispute with Warner Bros. and had walked off the lot. Hard to Handle was his first film under a new deal befitting his stardom. To some extent, it's also an essay on Cagney's star quality. What makes him a "red-headed sex menace," in the ad's words? It may have been his masterful virility and cocky courage, but in this picture Cagney spends a lot of time running from angry people, when he's not exiting a scene babbling like a madman. He's as much huckster as hustler as Lefty Merrill, introduced as the co-promoter of a dance marathon. Pre-Code cinema in a nutshell: what later generations portrayed as tragic exploitation, as literature would do this same decade -- The novel They Shoot Horses, Don't They? was published in 1935 -- Hard to Handle treats as a joke. Allan Jenkins is the master of ceremonies, regrettably present only in this sequence, and yet you can imagine the same patter coming out of Gig Young's mouth in the They Shoot Horses movie from 1969. Lefty's girlfriend Ruth (Mary Brian) is dancing in one of the two surviving couples while Jenkins introduces her mother Lil (Ruth Donnelly) as a brave but pitiful widow, while Lil leads the applause for herself, striking a boxer's victory pose even before Ruth and her partner prevail. That's a thousand-dollar payday, only Lefty's partner has run off with all the proceeds, leaving Lefty to flee an enraged mob of temp employees expecting their pay, not to mention Lil expecting hers. Ruth feels differently, though, and their feelings toward Lefty reflect their conflicts with each other. Lil can't stand Lefty if he isn't successful; she'd rather match Ruth with society photographer John Hayden (an uncredited Gavin "Lord Byron" Gordon from Bride of Frankenstein). Whenever Lefty's fortunes change for the better, Lil practically pushes Ruth back into his arms while giving poor Hayden the brush-off. Yet a successful Lefty seems to repel Ruth, and not just because that's what Lil wants for her. She likes the scrappy energy he displays as an underdog; a successful, established Lefty might be boring by comparison.

Ruth doesn't have too much to worry about on that score. Hard to Handle consists of a succession of Lefty's get-rich quick schemes, all essentially hare-brained but some more successful than others. The most catastrophic is his plan to stage a treasure hunt at an amusement pier, with $1,000 in bills hid among the concessions. "THERE IS NO DEPRESSION" at the pier, his ads proclaim, but as a mob demolishes everything in sight Lefty's partners reveal that they've only planted two five-dollar bills in the entire place. Soon enough, Lefty's on the run again, but his gift of gab gets him back in the game soon enough. Ruth's frustration with ill-made cold cream gives him an idea; seeing her exert herself in vain rubbing it into her skin, he realizes that the slop would make a great reducing cream simply because people would work so hard rubbing it on themselves. "It won't rub in! It won't rub in!" he screams maniacally as he dashes off in search of fresh fortune. After some hard bargaining to win a society maven's endorsement, Lefty becomes a successful public-relations man and the apple of Lil's eye, if not Ruth's. But if Lefty is still basically a con man, he's not the biggest or the canniest of the lot. He's soon bamboozled by a father-daughter team into promoting Grapefruit Acres, a tract of land in Florida, little realizing that there's no way anyone can make the money the promoters promise growing grapefruit. By the time this sinks in for our hero, his clients have skedaddled to Rio and he's left holding the bag. But by one of those coincidences that are the stuff of popular cinema, who should share his cell but his erstwhile partner from the dance marathon. After greeting him with a punch in the jaw -- his only act of real violence in the picture -- Lefty chats him up as if nothing serious had happened ("So how are you?") and notices his slimmer figure. How did he get that way? Why, it was a grapefruit diet! Cue the maniacal laughter again as Lefty figures out how to make good on Grapefruit Acres -- but after his crowning success he needs to pull off one more con to win Ruth, ever unimpressed by success, for good.

Some are determined to see this talk of grapefruit as an in-joke on the star of The Public Enemy, but whatever Pre-Code is, I don't think it's as in-jokey as today. In any event, Lefty Merrill is a Cagney virtually free of Public Enemy's thuggishness, more rascal or even mountebank than "menace" of any sort. He's a safer if not necessarily more scrupulous Cagney, with just enough transgressive brazenness to maintain his original appeal. We'll see this Cagney periodically for the rest of his career proper, culminating in his Coca-Cola salesman in Billy Wilder's One Two Three. The depression note of desperation adds to the fun of his mania in Hard to Handle, but I'm not sure if the huckster mode shows Cagney at his best. It does prove him an entertaining if overpowering comic actor -- and I think overpowering was what everyone was looking for.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

On the Big Screen: DR. STRANGELOVE or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964)

The story goes that Peter Sellers was supposed to play four roles in Stanley Kubrick's nuclear-war comedy. The versatile actor was already playing the title character, a German scientist who finds it increasingly difficult to repress his Nazi reflexes as doomsday nears, as well as the President of the United States and an RAF liaison to the renegade general Jack D. Ripper, whose obsession with flouride's threat to his purity of essence triggers Armageddon. Kubrick wanted Sellers in all four major locations of the story and had him slated to play Major Kong, the commander of a bomber deployed by Ripper. Sellers reportedly balked at the fourth role, doubting his ability to do a Texas accent, and finally was replaced after an injury, so that Slim Pickens finally takes the ride down with the bomb, a-whoopin' and a-hollerin' as, in retrospect, only he could. There's no reason to doubt this story, but it's one of those moments when Kubrick's judgment must be questioned, as when he contemplated climaxing the film with a pie fight in the War Room. Sellers simply doesn't belong on board the bomber; his presence would have undermined an effect that I presume was intentional on Kubrick's part. Sellers would have distanced and distracted the audience from the suspense the director quite deliberately develops at two crucial points. The first is when the bomber crew struggles to evade a Russian missile; the second when technical problems resulting from the missile attack imperil the mission to drop an atomic bomb. At these moments Kubrick, aided by composer Laurie Johnson, veers from comic to thriller mode. Johnson's theme for the bomber is "When Johnnie Comes Marching Home," and its initial effect is parodic. But as the missile closes in on the bomber in ten-mile, five-mile and finally one-mile increments, and later as Kong struggles to fix the mechanism to open the bomb-bay door, Johnson finds a rhythmic riff between verses and escalates it. The music sells the tension powerfully, but what are we tense about? It seems that during the missile attack, at least, Kubrick is tempting the audience to root for the bomber crew, despite our knowledge of the terrible consequences should they evade the missile and succeed in their mission. I dare say that Kubrick is showing off his ability to manipulate audiences with every cinematic trick in the book -- and to prove the point, arguably, he does it again at the supreme moment. As the miles to the target are counted down and Kong struggles with the wiring, are we really entirely rooting against him? We should be -- but then again this is a comedy and we wouldn't want to abort a gag. But it would be the wrong type of comedy if it were Peter Sellers sitting on the bomb. Kubrick films the attack on Burpleson Air Force Base to stop General Ripper in a verite style superficially similar to the realism of the bomber scenes, but I doubt whether anyone roots for Ripper, with Sellers as Group Captain Mandrake at his side, to repel the attackers. Ripper is too obviously a lunatic, while the bomber crew, even the clownish-sounding Kong, are ordinary men in a way Sellers would not have been.  Early, Kong lectures his crew about the human emotions they're bound to feel at the prospect of nuclear war. There's something satiric about his talk, since we feel sure at this early point that real human emotions would inspire these men to abort the mission regardless of orders or duty. But if we find ourselves wanting them to survive the missile attack later, it's as if a trap has been sprung implicating us and our human emotions in the doomsday to come. It's as if Kubrick, widely regarded as distant from human emotion, was explaining why that might be so. It'd be funny if he saved something like a statement of principles for his funniest film.

Dr. Strangelove is one of the funniest films ever, perhaps because we needed to laugh at the thought of Doomsday in 1964 and still do now in our age of Preppers. The audacity of Kubrick and Terry Southern's imagination (adapting Peter George's more conventional thriller) has aged well, as does Kubrick's mastery of sound comedy, particularly the comedy of the human voice. This is where Sellers comes in heroically handy, his clipped British tones as Mandrake contrasting wonderfully first with Sterling Hayden's paranoid growl, then with Keenan Wynn's flat laconic idiocy; his President Muffley's adenoidal tones contrasting authoritatively with George C. Scott's redneck bluster, then shifting to diplomatic baby talk on the phone with the Soviet premier; his Strangelove's teutonic drawl clashing with Peter Bull's melodramatic plumminess as the Soviet ambassador and with Sellers himself as the President. I still say Sellers couldn't have substituted for Pickens's authentic physical presence, but in his three roles he is an invaluable asset, while the other actors mentioned are uniformly inspired. Strangelove is playing this week at Albany's house of movie revivals, the Madison Theater, and it's worth seeing on the big screen if only to notice Dr. Strangelove sitting quietly at the War Room round table -- I think it's a double for Sellers with the unmistakable wig -- for at least half an hour, not speaking until spoken too like a good authoritarian, during Sellers' slow-burn colloquy with a manic Scott. Of course, it's worth seeing on a big screen because that's what it was made for, and it's great to have a venue, fifty years after Strangelove opened, where it can be seen at its proper scale.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Real Pulp Fiction: ARGOSY, JULY 15, 1939

William Dieterle's Juarez. the latest of Warner Bros.'s prestigious biopics starring Paul Muni, was released in the spring of 1939. Author Robert Carse and the editors of Argosy must have felt it was a popular enough movie to exploit. Note the prominence of the hero's name in the cover copy advertising a story in which he is mentioned, but never appears. On a superficial level, "Maximilian's Men" is the sort of Foreign Legion story at which Carse specialized. Yet the cover copy strikes an atypical note: this time the Legion is on the wrong side of history, or at least more obviously so than normal. Carse's story is less about the Legion than about one Legionnaire, more antihero than hero for taking the wrong side. In Carse's reading of Mexican history, the Austrian royal Maximilian is well-meaning but no more than a catspaw of Napoleon III, the Emperor of France, who is less interested than Maximilian (or our protagonist) in giving Mexico good government, but really only wants to exploit what wealth and resources the country has. Still, the Legion has been sent to support Maximilian, and our protagonist knows nothing other than duty and loyalty. This puts him at odds with an American operative aiding Juarez and an aristocratic Mexican lady who first sympathizes with Maximilian, but turns against the monarchy once she realizes Napoleon's true intentions -- and falls in love with the American. Carse foregrounds the love triangle in a manner untypical of him; he seems not only inspired by a particular movie, but by the conventions of Hollywood that require more of a romantic angle than he put into his more hard-boiled tales. There's also a note of relevance, the concept with which Argosy grappled throughout this year. As his Legionnaire protagonist finally realizes the error of his misplaced loyalty, so Carse hopes that virtuous soldiers of his own time will put other values before duty.

"You're men who fought for what you believed in, too [the American tells the Legionnaire], but when you go back to Europe you can do something for Tonia and me. Tell the folks there what it means when a lad like Napoleon tries to take a country that doesn't belong to him. That's easy to forget when people have been living in peace for a while, but we can't let them forget. Peace and freedom mean too much."


Not an unworthy sentiment, but I prefer my pulp unburdened with this sort of conscientious relevance. Pure pulp is more hard-boiled and barnstorming than this. Carse writes well, but something is missing -- replaced is more like it. The author may have sacrificed some of his raw pulp spirit to make propaganda or Hollywood bait. But he'll be back next week with something less relevant, though movie-like just the same.

On the serial front, Walter Ripperger wraps up The Man From Madrid by escalating his three-way battle of wits into a four-cornered struggle for control of the stolen Spanish republican treasure. Ripperger started from a point of relevance and acknowledges the defeat of the republic along the way, but the finish is pure thriller and entertaining on that level. In the second installment of Thirty Days for Henry, W. C. Tuttle checks off more items from his serial to-do list. In every story of Henry Harrison Conroy, the unlikely sheriff of Tonto Town, we must pause for Frijole, the ornery cook of Henry's ranch, to tell a story about his eccentric rooster, William Shakespeare. Tuttle gets that out of the way this week, while every week gives us a healthy helping of dialect humor thanks to those moronic Mexican ranch hands, Thunder and Lightning Mendoza. The dumb thing about dialect humor is when you have two Mexicans talking to each other, with no one else around, in their idiotic accented dialect. Wouldn't they talk to each other in Spanish? That wouldn't be as funny, which would be pretty bad considering that Tuttle's stuff isn't that hilarious to start with. As for the actual story, at least Tuttle doesn't insult our intelligence by delaying the revelation that La Mariposa, the saloon singer, is actually the long-lost daughter of King Colt, the saloon owner and local narcotics importer. This allows an apparent villain to show his sentimental side, and here I honestly wonder whether Tuttle has his tongue in cheek or not when writing such scenes. He works on the edge of self-parody, but if some reader always took it straight I'm sure Tuttle didn't complain. And lest I forget, Argosy continues to save money by reprinting another installment of A. Merritt's beloved classic Seven Footprints to Satan.


The stand-alone stories are a motley lot. Garnett Radcliffe returns with another tale of India, "Fool of the Regiment," in which a foul-up becomes the favorite of an officer for having the raw strength to save him from a cave-in. Eustace Cockrell contributes a boxing story, "Sweet Talking Man," with a black protagonist. He's a former champ who's lost his fortune because he was a sucker for the title antagonist. Our hero's old manager comes up with a con to win his old charge his money back, disguising him as a nobody and setting up a big-money fight with a contender, hoping that the bad guy will bet a wad on it. In the ring, the strategy is for the old champ to pretend he's broken his hand and lure his foe into a trap; the twist is that our hero wins despite actually breaking his hand. Our fighter talks in politically-incorrect dialect but Cockrell doesn't overdo it compared to some writers, and it's not as if white boxers were ever portrayed as masters of grammar or vocabulary. I can give the dialect a pass this time because Cockrell's subject isn't really "Aren't Black People Funny?" Murray Leinster has another interesting story in "Plague Ship," stranding a crippled captain and a frail missionary on the afflicted title vessel. The twist here is that the missionary, while attempting to convert the captain, undergoes a conversion himself as he must take on the physical responsibilities of making the ship seaworthy again. He doesn't quite save the captain's soul, but he does save his life, and Leinster makes the missionary a better man for his adventure. Finally, Burton W. Peabody's "Red Light -- Green Light" is a literal trainwreck having to do with another romantic triangle. The Leinster story and the conclusion of Man From Madrid are the best things in this issue, but it bears repeating that the Henry serial may well amuse you if you've never read one before.

TO BE CONTINUED

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

DVR Diary: THE TRAIL OF '98 (1928)

How bass-ackwards can Hollywood get? Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer spends a fortune and gets a to-this-day uncertain number of stuntmen killed to make an epic drama of the Klondike gold rush three years after Charlie Chaplin released his burlesque of the Yukon epic. But to be fair, the subject was bigger than either Chaplin or M-G-M; the Klondike was the stuff of pulp fiction practically from the time gold was found there, little more than 30 years before Trail of '98 was made. There were still plenty of stories to tell, and Chaplin could be topped in terms of sheer spectacle. He did some location shooting -- not in the Klondike itself -- but didn't use much of the footage: his style required a more controlled environment. Clarence Brown had second units all over the place, and the payoff is scenes of actors suffering quite convincingly in pretty rugged settings. This was a huge production; Metro promoted it as its next triumph after The Big Parade and Ben-Hur. But it aspires more to do for the North what The Covered Wagon did for the West. Unfortunately, the film only comes to life in its second half, despite many impressive early scenes on location and an almost too convincing "snowslide" scene. Once it comes to life, however, it just about literally catches fire.

The picture gathers a cast of characters from across the country as word spreads via the newspapers of the gold strike. The most important ones are our hero, Larry (Ralph Forbes); the heroine, Berna (Dolores Del Rio), who's travelling with her blind grandfather; Salvation Jim (Tully Marshall), a Bible-spouting Old West-style prospecter; and Lars Petersen (Karl Dane), the stereotypical big Swede. Talking pictures weren't necessary for dialect humor; Lars says "Yumping Yimminy!" several times over on title cards. These and a few others survive the winnowing-out process on the trek through the wastes of Alaska -- a teenaged boy and Berna's old man are among the casualties -- to set up shop in Dawson. There the successful gold-striker Locasto (Harry Carey) lords over all he surveys; he returns from prospecting and orders a half-dozen plates of beans, just so he can leave them while he enjoys a steak. One key to Locasto's success, we learn, is claim jumping; our heroes are among his latest victims.

The first half, the trek to Dawson, has the most awesome and harrowing location shots and special effects, but there's a monotony to the long march that's only relieved when the movie actually grows a plot. Larry and Berna have hooked up but are ready to quit and head back to the U.S. when word of a fresh strike sparks a "stampede" of miners. Larry convinces a reluctant Berna to let him stay on to try his luck once more. Left alone, her resources running out, Berna is befriended by a woman (Doris Lloyd) who says she knows how it feels to be left behind to starve. She invites Berna to move in with her, and Berna's sudden enthusiasm for the idea may raise eyebrows. Her clinging gratitude is excessive, as if her feelings for her new friend involve something besides food. But just as Berna stretches out rapturously on her new bed, her arms spread as if to welcome whoever walks through the door, who should stroll in but Locasto? The woman has lured Berna here for him to rape, and Brown films the scene as if Harry Carey were Dracula; his back covers the fainting Berna and the screen goes dark.

Larry, Lars, Jim and a fourth partner have found gold after all. Lars and Jim rush to Dawson to register their claim, only to find out that Locasto has already claimed the land, thanks to some fancy bookkeeping. Lars goes berserk, hauling a clerk through the teller's window before destroying the entire office with his bare hands. With their resources running low at the camp, Larry's remaining partner decides to abandon him, taking their food with him but accidentally leaving behind the matches essential to his survival. He dies fantasizing of his triumphant return to his family with a suitcase full of money and gifts, while Larry retrieves the canned food on his own trip to Dawson. He arrives with a poke of gold dust to find Berna employed as one of Locasto's dance-hall girls. He shows her the gold and she slaps it away, screaming at Larry as the saloon patrons and employees all hit the floor to gather up the dust. It takes awhile for Larry to realize how Berna has reached such a state, and it bears mentioning here that Locasto had kicked Larry's ask quite convincingly earlier in the story. Naturally Larry wants a rematch now, but Brown makes us wait as Locasto arrogantly takes his time getting some valuable furniture, including an oil lamp, out of the way of the imminent mayhem. Harry Carey makes a great badass villain, by the way. Locasto gets in the first punch, but Larry's adventures have toughened him and now he gives as good as he takes. They move on to chair shots, and while these are typical flimsy movie chairs the fighters bleed from the blows as later barroom brawlers rarely would. Finally Larry gains the upper hand until Locasto pulls a pistol and opens fire. He shoots thrice and hits Larry at least once before our hero grabs that oil lamp and lobs it at the gunman, turning Locasto into a human torch. Our villain staggers through a corridor, tumbles off a balcony onto the dance floor and still manages to crawl a little as the crowd flees in terror while the whole building catches fire. Berna manages to drag Larry to safety as a whole block of buildings goes up in flames. They and Jim and Lars survive to earn another fortune at a more reasonable pace, vindicating the virtue of steady work.

In short, Trail of '98's epic aspirations are redeemed by the second half's robust pulp trash. It only comes to life when the protagonists have a compelling human antagonist instead of the impersonal elements. By the last half hour it's a snowball rolling downhill, and you get the impression that Brown and Metro could have made a perfectly fine action movie had they simply started in Dawson, without killing people for real. In sum, the epic pretensions of the first half weigh the film down, so that it's not as great a Yukon saga as Anthony Mann's The Far Country. Still, if you have the perseverance of the film's characters and make it all the way to Dawson, there's two-fisted fun to be had with this picture, if you're into that sort of thing.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

JOURNEY TO THE WEST: CONQUERING THE DEMONS (2013)

If nothing is real, then everything is permitted. Thus reads the sutra of Buddhist comedy, as written by the sage Stephen Chow. His best-known text is Kung Fu Hustle, the global sensation of a decade ago. Journey to the West is only his second film as a director since then; Chow wasted some time developing a cross-cultural team-up with Seth Rogen, The Green Hornet, but the stars' styles apparently differed too strongly. One can presume that Chow's Hornet, which he would have directed and played Kato in, would have been a more fantastical film than the actual Rogen vehicle. Journey reminds us that nothing is too outlandish for Chow if it might be funny or simply amazing. It's his prequel, if not a full reboot, of China's great comic epic, showing how the monk Sanzang (Wen Zhang) put his team of reformed demons together. Chow, who gets a "Written, Directed and Produced by" credit while acknowledging several collaborators, shapes the material to Kung Fu Hustle's zero-to-hero-by-the-grace-of-Buddha formula. More so than Hustle, Journey will strike Americans as an uncomfortable blend of slapstick, sentimentality and death. But if the central message of Buddhism isn't exactly "life and death are a big joke," that's still close enough for Stephen Chow.


Chow keeps us off balance for the opening reels; viewers unfamiliar with his source material will be especially uncertain of who the actual protagonist is. A river village is menaced by a monster that attacks and devours a small girl's father. A demon hunter arrives to subdue the monster; throwing explosives into the river, he brings up a giant ray and declares victory. But a new arrival, Sanzang, warns that the ray is just an animal and the real demon is still in the water. He's proven right in the middle of the villagers' everyone-into-the-river celebration. With the aid of some brave souls and a very fat woman, Sanzang manages to get the demon stranded on land, on which it turns into a person. He then attempts to exorcise the evil spirit by singing from his demon-subduing textbook, the 300 Nursery Rhymes. The demon-man is merely confused by the performance until he's grabbed by yet another interloper and brusquely stuffed into an imprisoning sack. This newcomer is the forceful, tomboyish Miss Duan (Shu Qi), whom the villagers now acclaim as the real demon hunter while Sanzang, crestfallen, retreats to his home city to consult with his homeless master.


Demon hunting brings Sanzang and Duan to the same destination, a restaurant of the damned where the specialty is roast pig and the secret ingredient is PEOPLE!!! Together -- but Duan does most of the work with her incredible bracelet -- they defeat but fail to capture the master chef K.L. Hog, whose immobile smiley face hides the visage of a swine. Since a pig-demon is one of the companions in the Journey proper, we know we haven't seen the last of Mr. Hog.



Meanwhile, Duan develops an unlikely crush on Sanzang, given her contempt for his skills and his dedication to celibacy. She sets traps to make him prove his own love for her, but is woefully unskilled in the art of seduction; the only dance she knows is a set of fighting poses. Fortunately, she has a kid sister on her traveling support team who tries to teach her the softer ways. When that looks hopeless Sis resorts to the Obedience Charm, which will allow her to control Duan's movements for the crucial seduction. In a scene like something out of a Bob Hope or Danny Kaye picture, the charm ends up on Sanzang's back unbeknownst to Sis, who goes through the motions of seduction while a shirtless Sanzang is visited by two of Duan's male minions.  Fortunately, K.L. Hog, now in the form of a giant boar, attacks before things get too ugly.

 

Sanzang and Duan's gang are bailed out by three more rival demon hunters, and now we're given to understand that they're all superior to Duan. Hog is still on the loose, however, and Sanzang can only learn how to stop him from the famous Monkey King Sung Wukong (Huang Bo). Now in human form, Sung has spent the last 500 years imprisoned by Buddha for being an asshole. He tries repeatedly to trick Sanzang into removing the wards that confine him to his cave; in the meantime, with help from Duan, they capture Hog and stuff him in a magic bag. Since we cant call a movie Journey to the West without having the Monkey King run amok, Sanzang finally falls for one of his tricks and frees the demon. However, the other three demon hunters are right on the spot, each eager to smack down the rather runty ape-man. They all end up dead. Then Monkey King tears out all of Sanzang's copious hair, leaving him shorn like a true monk, before Duan steps in to rescue her beloved. Monkey King kills her, but not before she elicits the long-desired admission of love from Sanzang. Happily, his hair had nothing do with her attraction to him.

Comedy is different in China. Stephen Chow has just killed off his picture's love interest. Granted, in the actual Journey the monk has no love interest so you have to explain her absence, but still! But let me backtrack a little to further illustrate the different comic sensibility at play here. Back in the river village, you'll recall, a little girl was left fatherless. Chow has paid some attention to her, initially in a macabre way: her father had been playing in the water, pretending to scare her but making her cry until he surfaced to reassure her. She continues giggling while the monster actually attacks and kills her father. In an American movie that little girl might grow up to become an avenging demon-hunter in her own right. In Stephen Chow's movie the little girl is killed by the monster in the next attack, after a lot of slapstick effort to rescue her from the demon's clutches. Then her mother goes into the water to fight the demon -- and she gets killed. I don't think that Chow finds all this funny, but he clearly doesn't think that it's out of place in a comedy, either -- and that sets him apart from American movie comedy, despite all the influence generations of the stuff obviously has had on him. Going back to the present, he's killed the romantic lead. I expect that from a sword-and-sorcery picture where she might come back as an avenging valkyrie, but Chow has a different epiphany in mind.

Throughout the story, Duan has vented her contempt for Sanzang's reliance on the 300 Nursery Rhymes, at one point tearing his precious tome into shreds. Later, she contritely returns the book to him, explaining that she had taken three days to reassemble it, but warning that, since "I don't read so well" it might not really be intact. After her death, the grieving Sanzang turns to her re-edited 300 Nursery Rhymes. By a miracle, the barely-literate Duan had reassembled the book into the Buddha Sutra that had subdued the Monkey King 500 years earlier. Reciting from the sutra, Sanzang becomes invulnerable to the Monkey's attacks. Better still, he summons Buddha himself. In a climax that amplifies the hero's enlightened re-entry from space in Kung Fu Hustle, Buddha appears like a starchild off-planet to lay the smack down on Sung Wukong, who thinks he can win because he's wrecked a mountain in the Buddha's shape. Sung transforms into a giant gorilla to grapple with his old enemy, but you haven't seen a Buddha Palm until you see it here. It keeps coming and coming until you realize that Monkey King isn't even equal to a cell of the Enlightened One. Whatever you may think of his religion, this Buddha kicks ass without even trying. All through the picture we've encountered warriors and demons, each tougher or more powerful than the last, but they're all nothing compared to Buddha. I don't know how seriously Stephen Chow actually takes Buddhism in real life, but his two martial-arts fantasies certainly do proselytize for Buddha quite forcefully. And for what it's worth, Buddhism reconciles Sanzang both to losing the love of his life and to his mission to come, though it may be a concession to modern sensibilities that the hero has to experience romantic love, however briefly, before he can renounce it.



To American eyes it may seem as if tragedy and comedy clash too often in Journey to the West, but it's arguably wrong to call it tragedy when people simply are killed, or even when characters in whom we've been invited to invest emotional interest are killed. If we call it a moment of pathos when Duan dies we come closer to an older tradition of American comedy, but even then the silent clowns would never let their idolized females die for pathos' sake. There is pathos, I suppose, when Sanzang sees a shimmering golden vision of Duan at the end of the picture, but overall Chow's attitude toward killing characters is like Chuck Jones killing Bugs Bunny in What's Opera, Doc? What did you expect, given the subject matter? The truth is, Journey to the West is more like cartoons than anything else. Astounding violence co-exists with utter clownishness, from the fat woman landing on a plank to send the river demon flying through the air to the squeaky-toy sound effect when the heroes punch out K.L. Hog's minions to the giant Monty Python foot of one of the demon hunters. Cartoons and comedy movies come from a burlesque tradition that allowed trauma to be exaggerated into comedy on the common recognition that none of it is real. It may not be exaggerating too much to suggest that Buddhism's recognition of the transience of all things and the distance it establishes from emotional attachment help explain the affinity of Asian martial-arts cinema for American slapstick comedy, as exemplified by Jackie Chan and, on a more philosophical level, by Stephen Chow. Still, none of this makes Journey to the West a great or even very good film. The character of Duan, while played to the hilt by Shu Qi, never really coheres, and the chemistry Chow insists on between her and Sanzang isn't really there, and some of the demon hunters have no real personality beyond their gimmicks. Despite its weaknesses in characterization and plotting, Chow's Journey is still a wildly imaginative spectacle that has the virtue, increasingly rare in American spectacle, of really looking and feeling different from everything else. For all its faults, vive la difference!

Friday, July 11, 2014

Pre-Code Parade: a note on violence against women

Three years after Alice White and Chester Morris co-starred in Playing Around, they teamed again in King For a Night, a Universal picture directed by Kurt Neumann. I found out about this movie while doing a Google News Archive search for the actors' names to find ad art for Playing Around. That search turned up this bit of publicity for King For a Night:


I'm as big a cheerleader as anyone for the transgressiveness of Pre-Code cinema, but this story took me aback. Hitting women had been Jimmy Cagney's particular gimmick, I'd thought, and something for which Cagney seemed to be forgiven. But this story tells us that hitting women was more than one actor's eccentricity. I actually find it a little disturbing that punching dames was a thing and that people were keeping score. I dare say Nagel v. Tobin in Free Love is no longer famous, but what does it mean that it once was? Free Love turns out to be a 1930 picture and thus nearly three years old when this story was written, yet Nagel's right uppercut was well remembered without the aid of video recording. Iron Man was a 1931 Tod Browning boxing film, again well if not fondly remembered by the author of the article. Meanwhile, what's become of Alice White? Back when Playing Around came out she was a Next Big Thing. By the time of King For a Night she had found a more comfortable level as a comedy character player -- and, apparently, as a cinematic punching bag. I didn't manage to find a news story about her hospitalization for "screen blows," but I did find another cute publicity piece promoting Cagney's Picture Snatcher, in which he asks White which side of her face he should slug and she asks for one side because the other's still sore from the last punch she took. Damn... It looks like the "hospitalization for screen blows" may have been a cover-up for a beating she later blamed on her actor-boyfriend John Warburton, but still. To be objective, all these blows may have been struck for a Pre-Code standard of realism -- men did do this to women, after all -- but the relish with which this anonymous writer reports these movie punch-outs may make a reader slightly queasy.  And all this being said, if TCM evern schedules King For a Night -- a picture, by the way, that reportedly had to go back to the studio for reshoots after early audiences hooted at the original ending -- I'm cranking up the DVR.