Monday, April 30, 2012

YOUNG, VIOLENT, DANGEROUS (Liberi, Armati, Pericolosi, 1976)

Romolo Guerrieri's film from a screenplay by Fernando di Leo is a juvenile-delinquent action picture with a mystery at its heart. They mystery is why? Why do three relatively well-off young men go on a nihilistic robbery and thrill-kill spree in Milan? What gives the film an extra edge is the suggestion that their motives are unfathomable. The girlfriend of one of the kids, an informant turned diffident hostage, rages at a police investigator (Tomas Milian) who wants to know the answer. He'd rather kill them than find out, she protests, because neither he nor society as a whole really wants to know the truth. The cop wants to blame the boys' neglectful parents, but they blow off his chiding. "You're living in another world," they tell him -- but the truth seems to be that the three kids are. Luis, Blondie and Joe denounce themselves without an authority to hear them with their constant invocations -- most of these come from Joe, the craziest of the three -- of commercial slogans and movie titles. Di Leo name-checks at least two of his own past works, his screenplay for A Fistful of Dollars and his directorial effort La Mala Ordina (aka Manhunt or The Italian Connection) -- and it should be noted in this context that "Joe" and "Blondie" are two names for the "Man With No Name."

Products of a cacophanous pop culture, why shouldn't their motives be incoherent? Why else rob a bank and toss a lot of lira out your car windows as you drive through a public marketplace? Why else hook up with another gang to rob a grocery store, only to turn on your new partners and mow them down inside? "Why not?" suggests itself, and that may have to do, because the boys probably don't understand themselves. The girl, Lea (Eleonora Georgi) finally guesses that some subliminal gay feeling between her boyfriend Luis, aka Luigi (Max Delys) and ringleader Mario, aka Blondie (Stefano Patrizi) has something to do with it. But worse than that in her opinion, the boys are already dead inside, and Blondie is "worse than dead." Blondie himself has a hard time figuring out Luigi, the least violent of the three. "You come to destroy the world but you won't run a red light!" he tells his friend. Why does Luigi run with the other two, the more obvious and hopeless mad dogs? Why does Eleonora follow along so passively, as much as she's repelled by the escalating violence, until Luigi finally has to deny her entry into their car before their last ride? It's too easy for juvenile-delinquent films to answer these questions and promise resolution. But unless you take the gay angle more seriously than the filmmakers themselves probably do, you're left with no satisfaction of enlightenment once this film is done.

Oh great, a gun to my head!

No one would mistake two kids screwing in a field for wanted criminals.

By this point in the picture there are fewer opportunities for jokey captions.

But that's okay if you wanted to see a hard-hitting Italian crime movie, because Guerrieri delivers the bloody goods with picturesque panache. Milan is a great place to stage car chases -- with Carlo Lizzani's Bandits in Milan offering the best example -- and Guerrieri makes the most of his locations. He stages decent gunplay on foot as well. Cinematographer Erico Menczer does screencappers like me a favor by keeping characters in focus in the midst of rapid, rushing action -- it certainly helps that the transfer on the Raro Video DVD is crisp and vivid.

Above, an auto graveyard becomes a human graveyard.
Below, Italian police dogs are not playing!

The four young actors in the lead roles capture the desperate inscrutability of their situation that I presume the writer and director intended. Benjamin Lev as Joe goes over the top a bit, but it's not as if we've never seen creeps like him maniacally calling out catchphrases and laughing like jackasses at death. Georgi, Delys and Patrizi need no excuses for their work. Despite the prominence of crime-cinema stalwart Milian on the Raro box cover, Liberi, Armati, Pericolosi (literally, "Free, Armed and Dangerous") is no standard tough-cop movie, as some viewers may discover to their chagrin. It's the sort of film that ends with the cops shrugging in frustration at the futility of their work.

Milian's detective won't learn the answers to the questions he's asking, and neither will the perpetrators learn the truth about themselves, much less face up to it. Whether we can figure it out for ourselves is open to question. We'll get our kicks from the violence or we'll despair for the rootless, hopeless kids, since this film is smartly designed from a commercial standpoint to please different audiences. It won't please everyone and it's definitely open to the charge of exploiting what it denounces, but I think it anticipates and incorporates that criticism by making the kids pop-culture puppets. It's not necessarily a classic of JD cinema, but there's more here than may meet the eye at first glance.

Saturday, April 28, 2012

ELITE SQUAD:THE ENEMY WITHIN (Tropa de Elite 2: O Inimigo Agora e Outro, 2010)

Jose Padilha's sequel to his 2007 Brazilian blockbuster stands in relation to the original somewhat as Magnum Force does to Dirty Harry. Like Don Siegel's Eastwood epic, the original Tropa de Elite was accused of "fascism" in some quarters for its endorsement (if not advocacy) of uncompromising tactics in the war on street crime. Like the second Harry film, Tropa de Elite 2 appears to tell the critics, "this is what fascist cops look like," while stressing that the original hero would fight such people. Back in 2008, in one of my first reviews for this blog, I wrote that whatever its attitude toward police and crime, Elite Squad didn't feel like a fascist film; despite an apparent contempt for leftist opinion, it was too pessimistic, with too much emphasis on the essential thanklessness of the supercops' work and too little emphasis on glory and vindication. If anything, the sequel is more pessimistic, bordering on noir in its emphasis on a flawed hero's strategic error and the ruins of his personal life, while its attitude toward the left is somewhat less adversarial when you subtract personal factors. The main thing, however, is that Elite Squad 2 is a grim, hard-hitting account of a comprehensively corrupt socio-political system that may be more than one man can master.

Beto Nascimento (Wagner Moura) still hopes to master the system. The primary hero of the first film is now a colonel in the BOPE (aka the "Skulls") but is kicked upstairs after a prison riot hostage situation ends in a fiasco of a massacre of convicts. The incident proves a PR disaster because the hostage negotiator called in is Diogo Fraga (Irandhir Santos), a leftist professor with political ambitions who did seem to have the crisis under control before Beto's old colleague Andre Matias (Andre Ramiro)reflexively kills the lead hostage-taker. Fraga flaunts his bloodstained shirt before the TV cameras and denounces the police. For Beto, the most galling thing about the debacle is that Fraga is the stepfather of Beto's son, the husband of his ex-wife. As our representative leftist, however, Fraga is a less cartoonish figure than the student radicals from the first film. Beto's voiceover during a Fraga lecture establishes our hero's contempt for the man's beliefs, but in fact Fraga seemed to be an effective negotiator and he'll later prove Beto's most reliable ally in the struggle with the system. If anything, Beto ends the film closer to Fraga's viewpoint than to any "fascist" opinion -- but he'll always feel that "human rights" are secondary to the need to wipe out crime and corruption. And his attitude toward Fraga will remain clouded by the suspicion that his replacement is teaching his boy to hate him for what he is -- a tough cop.

When is Diogo Fraga in more trouble: when he's held at gunpoint (above)
or when Beto Nascimento is angry at him (below)?

Beto ends up with more authority over the Skulls and uses it to turn the group into a "war machine" that actually makes a major dent in the drug trade in Rio's slums. He knows that chasing the dealers away (or killing them) is only the first step in eliminating corruption. The next -- dealing with corrupt cops -- he expects to be easier.


Beto expects corruption to dry up when the cops no longer have dealers to pay them protection money. This is his big mistake. It turns out that by wiping out the slum drug gangs he had only eliminated the middlemen and opened the door for the corrupt cops themselves, led by the monstrous Major Rocha (Sandro Rocha) -- a minor character in the first movie -- to take over the slums as all-encompassing extortionists. Worse for Beto, Rocha and his "militias" have political cover; they can now deliver votes to the local governor and a political boss who has his own raucous TV talk show. The militias take a cut of everything, from portable cooking fuel to bootleg cable TV. For the film's purposes, they're worse than the gangs that Beto eliminated -- but for the moment (Beto narrates in retrospect, the film starting in typical modern crime-story faction with a present-day burst of violence before flashing back to four years ago) he doesn't realize what's going on.

The bad and the ugly: Major Rocha punishes a slum vendor for not paying (above) while celebrity legislator Fortunato (Andre Mattos) taunts the government on his TV show.

One neighborhood remains to be cleansed. The politicians have saved it so they can keep crime alive as an election issue. Rocha stages a robbery of a police arsenal and blames it on neighborhood gangs in order to justify a BOPE sweep, led by Andres, freshly reinstated after being thrown under the bus over the prison fiasco, but not as reliable as the militia leaders want. When his plastic-bag torture of a gang leader leads Andres to suspect that the gangs didn't do the robbery, Rocha has both Andres and the gang leader killed.


But nosy journalists with connections to Fraga, now a legislator, begin to piece together the truth. Following up on a loose remark by his son, who works in Fraga's office, Beto has Fraga's phone line tapped in time to hear him talk to the journalist, who has discovered evidence not just of the weapons but of the militias' political ties, just as Rocha comes down on her, assuring the writer of a gruesome fate. Having taken her phone, Rocha knows, just as Beto does, that she was talking to Fraga right up to her capture. Beto realizes that not just Fraga but his ex-wife and son are in mortal danger -- and once he makes a move to protect them, his life will also be in jeopardy....

Tropa de Elite 2 is a sweeping portrait of systematic corruption that transcends political labels. If anything, Beto's escalating confrontation with "the system" at all its levels reveals Padilha's agenda as radical rather than "fascist." The issue in either film has never been what sort of political system Brazil needs but the pressing need for root-and-branch reform. To the extent that the sequel makes that more clear and gradually sets aside the first film's superficial anti-leftist rhetoric as Beto overcomes his personal animosity and tentatively joins forces with Fraga, it's a dramatic improvement on the first Elite Squad. The fact that both Wagner Moura and Irandhir Santos give great performances, supported by a range of seedy types worthy of an American, Italian or Japanese crime saga, certainly enriches the sequel, which should be an enrichment of the original story. Beto may be an obnoxious narrator for some viewers early on, but as his misadventures open his eyes and ours Elite Squad 2 becomes a riveting thriller that renews the original's promise of a Brazilian or South American crime or cop genre to rival the benchmark work of the U.S., Japan and Italy. Here's hoping for more where that came from.

Friday, April 27, 2012

Now Playing: APRIL 27-8, 1962

This was a slow week for new product fifty years ago. Last weekend's big Easter attraction State Fair still dominates most towns, with The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence occupying plenty of territory as well. The lack of new material doesn't stop exhibitors from creatively packaging old product, and as we move into warmer weather and schools are letting out we're getting more multiple bills all over the place. Here's a celebration of school letting out in Portsmouth:

What caught my attention here was the announcement of a serial chapter in the kiddie program. The last American serial had been released back in 1956, but here's proof that the chapterplays were still in circulation long afterward.
Meanwhile, here's an all-peplum program in Albany NY:

I've seen the two "Goliath" films -- they're AIP repackagings of other Italian heroes -- but Seige of the Gladiators is an unknown quantity to me. Even spelling "siege" right draws a blank on Google. Even IMDB has nothing under that name. What is this movie???

While we wait for an answer, Miami has a horror double-feature that manages to exploit Tennessee Williams in the advertising. You'll probably have no better hint at how popular Williams was at this time.

The Horror Chamber of Dr. Faustus, the film that earned the Williamsesque plaudit, is none other than Georges Franju's legendary French horror Eyes Without a Face. Under its new title it's been shackled to the rather less acclaimed The Manster for a national release. It all makes you wonder whether the target audience for a "Master Suspense Thrill Show" is likely to be impressed by any invocation of the author of Sweet Bird of Youth. Only history knows for sure. But here's the Master Suspense Thrill Show trailer, uploaded by aRemoteViewer

Easter was last weekend, but Bible fare is popular all year round, at least in theory. A theater in Victoria TX practices the theory this weekend.

I never knew before clipping this ad that there was a holy city in the Wichitas. Said city is Lawton, OK, hence the film's alternate title The Lawton Story. It's a film about a Passion Play and its effect on the audience rather than a straight Jesus movie and exploitation legend Kroger Babb had been playing the thing since 1948. That makes it fresh stuff compared to the 1927 King of Kings that we saw still playing somewhere last week, but there was always money to be made from religion or horror, no matter how old, fifty years ago.

Finally, this is how Toledo sells Claude Chabrol to the "art cinema" public.

"Leda" is available on DVD under its original title, A double tour, and it's a pretty good picture. I just can't help wanting to know what that "extra zip preview feature picture that will excite a stone" could be. I guess that means the advertising works, though it does the advertiser no good now....

Thursday, April 26, 2012

GERONIMO (1962) and the ambiguous political symbolism of the American Indian

Arnold Laven's widescreen western isn't Hollywood's most convincing portrayal of Native Americans,but its heart seems to be in the right place. Working with his Rifleman producers between seasons and co-starring with future wife Kamala Devi on the rebound from a divorce earlier in the year, Chuck Connors is too young and probably too big to match the historic image of the Apache chief. As his buddy Mangas -- probably an allusion to Mangas Coloradas, Ross Martin makes Connors look like Wes Studi. I understand that in Laven and Pat Fielder's screenplay Mangas represents an over-domesticated Apache, but Martin works the theme too hard, coming across more like Geronimo's slightly effete suburban neighbor than his fellow warrior. Whatever Connors lacks in authenticity, however, he compensates for with heroic authority, and that's probably the best to be expected from Laven's earnest attempt to identify Geronimo as an American hero. This film probably does more toward that end, in the sense of turning the Apache into a kind of storybook hero, than the John Milius-Walter Hill version with Studi in the title role from 1993. The Laven film also focused my thoughts on a subject that had been rattling around in my mind for a while. It occurred to me that Laven and Connors's Geronimo could be seen as a hero just as easily by right-wingers as by left-wingers, and that in general, since the advent of the sympathetic Indian motif around 1950, the Indian defender of his land, people and way of life has been one of the few heroic symbols that right and left can agree on, even though each side arguably admires them for different reasons.

Right-wing historians may remain apologists for American westward expansion, but you don't really see their case represented on film in modern times. That may not surprise some observers given presumptions about the biases of moviemakers, but the more interesting omission to me is the lack of complaint against films portraying Native Americans as heroes in struggle against the United States. You don't hear the usual suspects accusing Hollywood people of being "Indian lovers" or demanding that the "truth" be told about the First Nations. It's not as if this topic hasn't had time to simmer. The advent of the sympathetic or heroic Indian happens around the same time as the rise of the modern American right. Delmer Daves's Broken Arrow appeared in 1950, the same year that Joe McCarthy made his first high-profile denunciations of Communist subversion. Laven's Geronimo came out as Barry Goldwater's supporters were building the movement that would win him the 1964 Republican presidential nomination and change the course of political history. My argument is that those Goldwater people were less likely to find Geronimo's narrative of wicked, greedy white men (Adam West is an ineffectual exception) insultingly anti-American than they were to accept Laven's premise of the Apache as a heroic representation of a certain type of American. The key to the argument is an assumption that when the left idolizes or idealizes Indians, they always see Indians as the oppressed Other, a reminder of their perpetual guilt, while when the right idealizes Indians, they see in Indian heroes reflections of themselves.

Consider how Geronimo starts. It opens with the great chief surrendering with his band after hearing a treaty read promising land and food thereafter, despite a moment of doubt based on the treaty's failure to acknowledge his people as Apaches. That's understood, a smarmy, Indian-hating officer reassures him, and they'll be treated accordingly. We soon see what he means. The Apaches' horses are confiscated on the assumption that they were stolen from whites -- but we'd earlier seen Geronimo catching a wild horse as a gift for a teen Apache for reaching his manhood. How are Apaches to hunt without horses, the chief protests. You don't have to hunt anymore, he's told; you'll get government rations and the whites will teach you how to farm. By this time Mangas, who had surrendered some time earlier, has succeeded against the odds in raising a crop of corn on poor land, but that only inspires the greedy Indian agent and the mean officer to sell the land under Mangas's nose to a cattleman, an arbitrary abuse of authority. The Apaches are completely under the thumbs of bureaucrats backed by armed force, forbidden from living according to their traditional ways, denied even the satisfaction of self-reliance. It's not hard to see the reservation, whether Laven intended it that way or not, as a right-wing dystopia of subjugation to the regulatory welfare state. It would be hard for right-wingers not to respond sympathetically to Geronimo's predicament. At first glance, that sympathy may seem inconsistent with the supposed beliefs of the American right, but bear in mind again that, even if rightists are presumed to respond with hostility toward the Other, our assumption here is that the sympathetic movie Indian isn't the Other for the right-wing viewer, but an idealized embodiment of self-reliant freedom. By comparison with Walter Hill's Gernonimo, which refused in the interest of truth-telling to soft-pedal atrocities committed by either side, Laven is careful to portray Geronimo's uprising as purely defensive and justified by conditions against which, presumably, any self-respecting people would rebel.

Laven sometimes bends over backwards to make sure Geronimo remains purely heroic. The film's most implausible scene has some of Geronimo's starving warriors breaking into a farm storehouse to steal oats. The farm woman catches them shoveling oats into their mouths and has the drop on them before Geronimo appears behind her. When he explains how hungry his men are, the woman nervously invites them to her dinner table and fixes them some fried chicken. She strives to impose discipline, ordering them not to dig in until she says Grace and then rebuking one warrior who tosses a leg bone onto the floor. He doesn't take that well, but Geronimo defuses the situation by ordering the other men out of the house. He then pointedly tosses a bone on the floor himself, which the woman takes as a prelude to rape. She warns him that her husband, a trapper, could be back at any moment, but he's deduced that she's a widow. He comments that her husband survives in their son, who has fearlessly watched the whole spectacle, and goes on his way more determined to have a son of his own by Teela (Devi) the educated reservation Apache he has claimed as his wife. Maybe I'm prejudiced, but given the desperate circumstances it seems unlikely that this scene could have played out without any violence. But the sympathetic Indian is often portrayed as living by higher ideals, whether they be left-friendly notions of harmony with nature or a code of honor (or even chivalry) rightists might identify with their own values.

My point isn't that Geronimo is a right-wing movie, but that despite pro-Indian films like this one there seems little felt need for a "right-wing" movie about Indians, if you presume for the sake of argument that a right-wing western would adopt the older viewpoint (which really wasn't as universal pre-1950 as film historians sometimes suggest) that Indians were mere savages who had to be subdued for civilization's sake. While we take for granted that sympathy for Native Americans is a "left wing" stance -- it wasn't necessarily so for much of our history -- that doesn't oblige right-wingers to disparage Indians just to be contrary. There's no automatic inconsistency in someone like the old western TV star Clint Walker, for instance, championing Indian causes -- he's one-quarter Cherokee -- while being such a rabid right-winger that he needs to rant on the radio sometimes. My own father was proud of his Native blood while professing Republican views, though they were probably more mild than Walker's. It was probably inevitable as the frontier closed and Indians ceased to be a clear or present danger to settlers that mainstream American culture would look more favorably upon them, though it did take a while for the balance to shift significantly in Indians' favor. That shift has not been challenged by the American right, but has been, to all appearances, endorsed by them. Native Americans may not have the same symbolic flexibility for non-Americans; it would explain why Indians figure so rarely in spaghetti westerns compared to Mexicans, the different emphasis perhaps reflecting Italians' greater concern with class conflict (which can be played out more starkly in a Mexican context) or imperialism. On the other hand, Indians loom large in German westerns thanks to the enduring popularity of Karl May, whose tales of heroic Indians were boyhood favorites of Adolf Hitler -- which I guess only proves again the potency of the Native American as a symbol that transcends typical thinking about race as well as ideology. How you feel about Indians and the Indian wars may not predict your political beliefs -- but it may make them more complex than people assume. Knowing that makes watching Indian movies, even middling entertainments like Laven's likably energetic effort, a more thought-provoking experience.

Monday, April 23, 2012


Different national cinemas have different generic borders. Koreyoshi Kurahara's road movie is basically a zany comedy and a satire of Japanese pop culture, but it takes its satire closer to the edge of authentic hysteria than American comedy audiences of 1962 would probably be comfortable with. He and screenwriter Nobuo Yamada would probably be accused of misogyny for the way they treat their female co-protagonist, Noriko Sakata (Ruriko Asaoka). She discovered obscure poet Daisaku Kita (Yujiro Ishihara) and made him a multimedia celebrity in little more than two years. The film opens with Noriko marking Day 730 of their relationship by writing the number on a wall of Daisaku's apartment. To her it's cute graffiti, but it also resembles the tallies a prisoner keeps on the walls of his cell, and that's how Daisaku seems to see it.

Being a media personality in 1960s Japan is grueling work. Daisaku disc-jockeys in the morning, appears on various panel shows, makes personal appearances to greet foreign celebrities at airports, and is probably best known for his daily TV program, "From Today's Classifieds." He and Noriko pick the most interesting classified ad from the day's papers and bring the advertiser to the studio for an interview. On Day 737, if I remember right, Daisaku picks an ad asking for someone to drive a jeep gratis to distant Kyushu, where the woman's pen-pal, a doctor, will use it to reach isolated patients. Though the woman and the doctor have never met, they've carried on an epistolary romance based on their mutual commitment to "humanism." For Daisaku, this seems like love in its purest form. Enthused, he takes the unprecedented step of agreeing to drive the jeep himself.

That's not how "From Today's Classifieds" works, however, and in any event he doesn't want his drive to be a publicity stunt. But the only way Noriko can save him from a breach-of-contract suit from the network and save a loyal producer's job is to turn it into a stunt. More than that -- she's clearly concerned that he's driving the jeep to get away from her, that his idealization of the pen-pals' pure, humanistic love is a rebuke to her obsessive, business-oriented yet emotionally needy ways. She decides to follow him in his own Jaguar, despite all his efforts to throw her or force her off the trail. There's a lesson at the end of the road, but until then things look like a mad, mad world in miniature as the Jag chases the Jeep across the country.

You can almost imagine Rock Hudson and Doris Day in the lead roles, but Kurahara's movie often comes closer to the emotional intensity of Hudson's films with Douglas Sirk than his work with Day. I Hate But Love climaxes with the sort of scene you might see in a Sixties farce, or a screwball comedy, or a silent movie: the sports car has slipped to the edge of a cliff and teeters there with Noriko at the wheel, but it doesn't seem as funny as it should. Then again, maybe it doesn't seem so funny to Americans after the ordeal Daisaku has put Noriko through in his harebrained pursuit of pure love. You half expect that the car will go over with her in it, but just like in an American comedy, a denouement follows that refutes the false idea of pure love and reconciles (apparently) the film's real lovers to love with all its complications and obligations. The moral seems to be that you can't separate personal from business relations the way Daisaku seems to want. He's convinced himself that his relationship with Noriko isn't real love because she's his business manager and intensely concerned with moving him from appearance to appearance. A tense afternoon at home after a ballgame he's scheduled to attend is rained out seems to illustrate the emptiness of their romance, though the way their boredom evolves into roleplay and the way that ultimately repels him -- it seems like she's trying to take over his imagination, too -- suggests otherwise. I suppose Daisaku's road trip is just another flight from commitment; he's searching for confirmation that love can exist without demands, without any possibility that one is using the other. I suppose, too, that in a way I Hate But Love satirizes satire, ultimately mocking the notion that some idealistic alternative to modern life exists to be discovered by hitting the road. Maybe that's why the comedy seems to bite deeper at extremes.

The only color film in Criterion Eclipse's Warped World of Koreyoshi Kurahara collection, I Hate But Love is eye-popping pop art for the virtual tourist of Sixties Japan. Yoshio Mamiya's cinematography complements the director's sweeping style to give us an expansive portrait in passing of a time and place. Ishihara and Asaoka are dynamite in the leads, their chemistry undeniable even when they're supposed to be most alienated from each other. Parts of the picture may leave a bad taste in the mouth, but that shouldn't last. My overall impression was of jazzy, crackling energy and of comedy at the picture's sometimes hidden heart.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Pre-Code Parade: MEET THE BARON (1933)

This is Pre-Code cinema:

Walter Lang directed it. David O. Selznick produced it. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, the Tiffany of Hollywood studios, released it -- and lex10 uploaded the clip. To give you some further idea of Meet the Baron, after the clip ends Edna May Oliver calls the campus plumber of Cuddle College. He is Ted Healy, assisted by his Stooges -- Larry Fine and Moe and Jerry Howard. The last of the three is called "Curly" in the course of the film but is billed under his "real" stage name. They introduced themselves earlier in the picture rowing a gondola through a flooded basement. Neither Healy nor his stooges are much interested in working until they learn that the shower room has gone dry with all the women naked and waiting for water. They must respect the proprieties, however, even though the girls have gotten hold of their robes by the time the plumbers show up. Nevertheless, Healy et al blindfold themselves, promising that they can see nothing through them until Curly spies a dime in a corner. Their prowess as plumbers, of course, is well known to history. It's the funniest bit in the movie, and that's the problem -- Healy and company are not the stars, and the stars are not very funny.

Meet the Baron is one of Hollywood's attempt to exploit the rival medium of radio. The studios seemed to think they could top radio by offering audiences what radio could not: the stars "in person," seen as well as heard. The "Baron" is "the famous Baron Munchausen of the air," identified only afterward as Jack Pearl, who adapted his Munchausen shtick to radio in 1932 and became a phenomenon. The idea is self-evident; the Baron recounted his exploits in a European accent thick with malapropisms to a skeptical interlocutor. Like many radio sensations, Pearl put over a national catchphrase; when challenged by the interlocutor, the Baron riposted, "Vas you dere, Sharlie?" M-G-M's brilliant idea was to deconstruct the radio Munchausen in what proves a kind of origin story. Herman J. Mankiewicz, future co-author of Citizen Kane, and Norman Krasna decided that Pearl's character should not be the "real" Baron Munchausen, whom they imagined as a legitimate world explorer, but the great man's incompetent assistant, lost with him and another aide in Africa for years. When the true Baron abandons his aides, taking their last water with him, the two stooges (for want of a better term) are found by a rescue expedition that mistakes Pearl for Munchausen. Since the rescuers have said they're only interested in finding the Baron, the second stooge, Joe McGoo, convinces Pearl to keep up the imposture. The men become world heroes and are contracted for a lecture tour (that takes them to Cuddle College in scenic Cuddle-on-the-Hudson), including a high-profile radio appearance. To minimize the risk of embarrassment, McGoo insists that "Munchausen" can utter no more than 2,000 words on the radio. At Cuddle, Pearl falls for one of the maid staff (ZaSu Pitts) but faces exposure when the real Baron, who made it out of Africa incognito, learns of the false Baron's fame and decides to confront him. Thanks to an embarrassing letter, Pearl turns back this challenge, but when a cousin recognizes and identifies him as his real self it looks like the end for the famous Baron Munchausen, except that America apparently found him entertaining whether he told the truth or not.

I probably set myself up for a "Vas you dere, Sharlie?" when I say that I can't comprehend Pearl's popularity. The problem, I think, is that seeing is not believing. Like many a radio star, despite any background in vaudeville, Jack Pearl simply lacks screen presence. He really is nothing but a voice, and while that voice could evoke anything the listener might imagine, the reality of Pearl in person is rather lackluster. The deck was stacked against him, however, since M-G-M stuck him with that Pre-Code incubus of comedy, Jimmy "Schnozzle" Durante in the role of Joe McGoo. Followers of the Pre-Code Parade should know my low opinion of Durante by now, but I do have to acknowledge that he tops Pearl in every respect. As a team, they're redundant, since both rely heavily on malaprop humor, probably the least cinematic form of comedy yet one that dominated radio, Pearl being little different in this respect from Amos 'n Andy.  I can understand the appeal of malaprop (as well as dialect) humor in an era when few immigrants were yet fully assimilated into American culture, and I can also see a class element in Durante's use of it as an ethnic social climber trying to sound smarter than he actually is. But that sort of comedy doesn't have anything to stick to now in the 21st century, and malaprop comedians suffer for it. When Durante's dialogue ceases to be funny we're left with an obnoxious narcissist whose raw pushiness may still have appealed to Depression audiences rooting for aggressive survivors but again leaves us cold today. To us, speaking for myself, he simply sucks the air out of any room he's in, suffocating the comics forced to partner with him -- Buster Keaton being his most unfortunate victim. The only performer I've yet seen who could stand up to Durante in this period was Marion Davies. Though her encounter with Durante in Blondie of the Follies is brief, she's able to trump his monologue on Grand Hotel -- Edmund Goulding directed both films -- and a supposed Barrymore impersonation with her own Garbo bit. By comparison, Jack Pearl is helpless against him, while the Stooges cheat. Rather than attempting to top Durante's jokes, they get to throw water in his face and throw him down a flight of stairs.

Of course, while Jack Pearl is long forgotten (vas he dere, Sharlie?) and Durante is remembered by most people as a Christmas cartoon character, the Three Stooges are immortal -- they've just been reincarnated on film, after all. There's a lesson in this. Their and Healy's humor may have been deemed more lowbrow than Durante's or Pearl's, but it's easily more cinematic. Moe, Larry and Jerry don't quite seem fully formed here, understandably given their subservience to Healy. Moe suffers the most since he can't dominate the other two with Healy around, while Curly is the most confrontational toward their boss. Ted Healy was an okay comic character actor and remained so after breaking up with the Stooges and until his mysterious death in 1937, but modern viewers probably can't help feeling that he adds nothing to the act he headlines. He doesn't seem sufficiently superior to the Stooges to justify his power over them; that seems more a matter of pure brute force than the unexplained yet obvious loyalties that hold the Stooges themselves together -- do Moe, Curly or Shemp even acknowledge one another as brothers in any of their pictures? At least in this picture, Healy strikes me as a sort of padrone figure, the sort of fixer who could find work for immigrants in past generations, upon whom his workers might well feel resentfully dependent. Healy reinforces the Stooges in our minds as more essentially working-class comics than many of their contemporaries, but the Stooges work better as a more egalitarian trio despite Moe's bossiness -- he can only ever claim a lion's share of nothing, so while he may play the bully he's never really the master the way Healy seems to be. Only when free of Healy would the Stooges really figure out where they stood with each other in order to secure their place in comedy history. It'd be wrong to say they steal Meet the Baron from Durante -- they don't really have enough screen time to do it -- but it's bound to seem as if they do to modern viewers -- and poor Pearl isn't even in the running. Even ZaSu Pitts doing her proto-Olive Oyl act tops the star of the picture. It's no surprise to learn that Pearl made only one more film for M-G-M. Like Joe Penner, he's proof that radio comedy doesn't translate automatically into film comedy.

Overall, as the clip may suggest, Meet the Baron is as overproduced as you might expect a Selznick production for M-G-M to be. The Cuddle College student body (billed as "The M-G-M Girls") are introduced in an elaborate patter-song sequence with rhyming dialogue in a style briefly in vogue, but the sequence barely seems related to the early African scenes. Especially overproduced is a number marking Pearl's triumphant arrival in New York, highlighted by a singing Statue of Liberty and not one but three Mae West impersonators -- they do the voice and the costume.  Non-Stooge bits of physical comedy are mostly bad. Pearl suffers an interminable ride on a bucking mule in one of the lamest bits. Durante has one good sight gag as he tries to keep track of Pearl's word count during the radio interview; he covers the walls of an office with tallies before thinking to use a convenient adding machine. Meet the Baron is more curio than comedy, since even the Stooges are far from at their best. Nor does anything else in the picture approach the shower scene on the Pre-Code Scorecard. My best guess is that Meet the Baron is mainly for Stooges completists and would-be pop-culture historians. It counts as a chapter in the history of American comedy -- or more accurately as a page turning from one short chapter to a longer one.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Now Playing: APRIL 20, 1962

Cecil B. De Mille's The King of Kings -- the silent movie not to be confused with Nicholas Ray's 1961 do-over, still currently playing first-run engagements all over the country -- is one of those films of which it is always said that it played in theaters for decades after its original release. Hard to believe for a silent picture, though the De Mille did come out with an early Phonofilm soundtrack. But here's proof from Youngstown, OH.

Not a bad idea for Good Friday programming, not to mention counterprogramming, given that the Ray probably already had its "I was a teenage Jesus" reputation, no matter how unfair that way to Jeffrey Hunter. Can't help wondering what this print looked and sounded like. It probably didn't have its original Technicolor bits and all bets were probably off on the sound. Still, as one of those proverbial prints that reappeared through the decades before the age of restoration, the version Youngstown saw is probably a historical document in its own right.
But "the simple Christian Story" wasn't everyone's idea of an Easter weekend attraction.  Also in Youngstown, here's another story with multiple versions.

I don't know about you, but Jose Ferrer is absolutely the first name I'd consider for directing a Rodgers & Hammerstein musical. After all, he made Return to Peyton Place!
With all this family wholesomeness we need some real counterprogramming, and we'll find some of it in Pittsburgh, courtesy of our valiant British allies.

Happy Easter, 1962!

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Jonathan Frid's Last Bow

Devoted fans of the Dark Shadows soap opera of the 1960s and early 1970s may be forgiven for speculating that publicity for Tim Burton's movie remake may have sped the demise, reported today, of Jonathan Frid, the original Barnabas Collins. From my own experience showing the trailer to my friend Wendigo, what Burton appears to have perpetrated has shocked and infuriated many fans of the old series. They were clearly hoping for a somewhat straight retelling of Dan Curtis's Barnabas legend, but Burton, in the promotion stage at least, has delivered a travesty that looks as much like a pastiche or parody of his own past work as it resembles a homage to or parody of Dark Shadows. Watching it with no vested interest in Dark Shadows myself, I was appalled that Burton had seemingly backslid about a quarter-century -- though the film is clearly meant in a nostalgic vein -- when something more in the Sweeney Todd manner might have been expected from him and purported Dark Shadows superfan Johnny Depp. Burton has tried to spin this -- presumably in the face of fan-base rage, --  by saying that they'll like the film as a whole better, but that he felt that overt comedy would evoke the unintended amusement many viewers got from the cheap, campy old shows.  In any event, lest anyone feel that Frid went to his grave -- or wherever -- cursing the movie, original co-star Kathryn Leigh Scott is quick, following the announcement of his passing, to state that neither he nor she resented Burton's treatment of their legacy. Both Scott and Frid make cameo appearances in the picture next month and we may presume that both were treated with a due deference from self-professed fans on the set that may color their attitudes. As old troupers they may also have been better sports about the material than their fans. Whatever Frid himself felt about it -- he remained relatively aloof from the fandom for many years, perhaps cursing the typecasting that limited his post-series acting career, before embracing them late in life -- it might be said that when Burton's movie appears and Frid has his scene, the beloved thespian will at last be truly undead....

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Now Playing: APRIL 18, 1962

Cleosploitation spreads to St. Joseph, MO:

I notice this is the same double-feature playing in one of the theaters (in Miami to be exact) where we first noticed this phenomenon last week. The films are from two different studios -- Cat from M-G-M, Bramble Bush from Warner Bros. -- so I don't know what arrangements would have to be made to pair them as a package for exhibitors. Maybe it's just a coincidence. Maybe someone read in Variety that this particular combination did well somewhere. Let's see if they show up together again.

On the first-run front, here's one of the year's big pictures opening in Spokane WA:

I find it interesting that they had to include the little snippet of Lee Marvin identifying him as the title victim. It's as if they didn't want audiences to worry that Wayne and Stewart might shoot each other. In any event, here's the trailer, uploaded by TheMovieSceneUK.

In the second feature, two expatriate American planters annihilate guerrillas in an unidentified country in Southeast Asia. Any guesses? Brushfire was the directorial debut of one Jack Warner Jr. The fact that the film was a Paramount rather than a Warner Bros. release may be telling. In any event, young Warner never made another film.

In Schenectady NY, former western specialist Delmer Daves is back with another youth-oriented romance, continuing his streak since A Summer Place:

And here's the trailer, uploaded by TheViewMonster.

The Red Cloak sounds more up my alley. This "slashing drama" is a 1955 Italian movie that targeted the U.S. market with token Americans Bruce Cabot and Patricia Medina. The director, Giuseppe Maria Scotese, has such promising-sounding items in his filmography as Il lungo giorno della violenza and Acid -- delirio dei sensi. A subject for future study, perhaps.

Eugene OR welcomes "that team" of Jim Hutton and Paula Prentiss for another cinematic pairing.

It was their fourth outing together in the last 16 months, the third since Where the Boys Are. Apparently the teaming had something to do with both performers' height, Hutton being the only young actor who looked sufficiently tall next to the 5' 10" Prentiss. But if Hutton and Prentiss are teamed for the youth market, Jane Wyman and Clifton Webb would seem aimed at the opposite demographic. They still believed in the general audience back then.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012


Camillo Mastrocinque had a late-career transformation when he directed the Carmilla-inspired Crypt of the Vampire at the age of 63. Two years later he attempted to tap the same atmospheric gothic vein by making Un Angelo per Satana, the story of a legendary curse and its consequences centuries later. This film replicates some of the elements of Crypt, starting with a young scholar (of a sort) as a point-of-view character and pressing forward with hints of lesbianism from a female menace. Mastrocinque freshens up the package by trading in Christopher Lee for Barbara Steele, but his commitment to black-and-white resulted in this film never getting a proper theatrical release in the United States -- it ended up on television in the 1970s. Visually it is very reminiscent of Crypt and monochrome was arguably the right call despite the mid-60s stampede to color that rendered Angel almost instantly obsolete. What Angel lacks, arguably, is the courage of Crypt's supernatural convictions.

Roberto Merigi (Anthony Steffen) has been hired by Count Montebruno to restore an infamous statue recently recovered from a local lake. The statue of a beautiful woman has a curse attached that takes immediate effect when the boatmen who brought Merigi to the village drown on their return trip across the water. The statue is about 200 years old and portrays a beautiful female ancestor of the present count. She's also a spitting image of the count's daughter, the English-educated Harriet (Steele). The legend relates that the original model had an ugly sister, a failed rival for a man's affections, who placed a curse on the statue, which was originally mounted on a bridge, and promptly tumbled off the bridge with the statue, which remained submerged until the film's 19th century present.

Will Belinda's curse on the statue (above) doom its model's descendant (Barbara Steele, below)?

Before long, predictably enough to the superstitious, Harriet begins behaving strangely. She plays the sexual predator, seducing and flogging an imbecile gardener while simultaneously seducing her pretty maid (Ursula Davis, the vampire from Crypt) and compelling her to break off her engagement with the local schoolteacher. Her scheming has fatal consequences for many. She seems to be possessed, not by the spirit of her precursor but by Belinda, the wicked sister who cursed the statue. It's up to Merigi, who started to fall for Harriet before the curse kicked in, to get to the bottom of her strange, dangerous behavior and figure out what power has changed her so drastically.

An Angel for Satan is provocative adult entertainment!

Angel reunites Mastrocinque with his Crypt cinematographer, Giuseppe Aquari, and the team again milks an atmospheric location for all it's worth. If anything, Angel has even more gothic sweep than Crypt, thanks to moody shots of boats on the lake and Barbara Steele riding her horse through the landscape. Going black-and-white was probably a good idea, since it makes the film less the Pop Art anachronism it could have been and more of an honest evocation of the 19th century we know from photographs. Barbara Steele is as good as you could want in her split-personality role, which sort of merges her two Black Sunday characters in one body. No matter how often she played depraved women, she could always convince you that her character at least starts out innocent.

What disappoints a little is the film's ultimate resolution, which undercuts Steele by reducing her character to little more than a puppet. Somehow the way she changes becomes less plausible once you eliminate the supernatural element, and it becomes hard to believe that the real villain of the piece could manipulate all the victims (the motive being hatred for "all who love") so effectively and so indirectly. You can still believe in the curse when all is said and done, but the story complicates things in a manner that doesn't necessarily enhance the horror of the piece. Angel isn't as effective or impressive as the still-underrated Crypt. but it's still an attractive and interesting effort that probably looks older now than it actually is. That seems appropriate somehow.