Sunday, June 30, 2013


When HBO came to our neighborhood my parents, who had sprung for cable, chose not to pick up the new movie channel. I had friends whose families did get HBO, and I would watch movies with them whenever I got the chance. I was about ten years old when I first saw Ralph Nelson's Soldier Blue. We were just kids, so we were really just interested in the famous massacre scene at the end of the picture. You didn't see that level of violence and gore on TV back then, and it was a kind of revelation, if not a rite of passage, to see it in someone's living room. What happened to the Indians was awful in both senses of the word -- deplorable yet kind of awesome. Watching it again this past week, I realized that I remembered little about specific acts of violence. Soldier Blue's violence had become something abstract in my memory. The film had become less about a crime perpetrated against Native Americans and more a film about violence, one in which violence became an end unto itself. In retrospect, that's the problem with it.

Before adapting Theodore V. Olsen's novel Arrows in the Sun, writer John Gay had scripted the comedy western The Hallelujah Trail, while director Ralph Nelson had helmed the western drama Duel at Diablo. Nelson, at least, had established his credentials as a wrangler of sweeping outdoor action. Neither he nor Gay seemed from prior work like the sorts to make a revisionist western, yet Soldier Blue is nothing if not that. It is revisionist in content if not in form, retaining the classic sweep and widescreen framing of earlier westerns while subverting earlier archetypes and blatantly inviting comparisons with the massacres of the Vietnam War. Nelson and cinematographer Robert B. Hauser give the film an epic look and clearly had plenty of money to spend, but may have risked charges of anti-Americanism by portraying the U.S. Cavalry as blatant murderers of peaceful natives.

The story starts from the opposite end conceptually, with Pvt. Honus Gent (Peter Strauss) barely surviving the massacre of his cavalry unit by Cheyenne warriors. His unit was escorting a rescued captive, Cresta Lee (Candice Bergen) to her fiancee, also a cavalryman. During the bloody battle -- it opens with Honus's buddy catching a bullet in the face -- Cresta manages to rescue herself. The first genre reversal of the picture is Cresta's role as the experienced wilderness survivor in place of the typical older, stronger male. She'd been taken by the Cheyenne two years earlier and was with them long enough to learn more woodcraft than the rookie Honus has. Her personality is defined by her city background. New York is where she got her filthy mouth and her feisty no-nonsense attitude, qualities that seem anachronistic in the setting but are meant to make her the audience-identification figure in 1970. Despite her technical captivity, Cresta embodies an alternative synthesis of urban modernity and native wisdom, refusing the alternative frontier attitude of conflict and conquest. She never truly goes native -- she tells Honus that she's not a Cheyenne and never will be -- but she identifies with them more than with the soldiers she's stuck with in more than one sense.

With Cresta as his guide, Honus has a consciousness-raising journey back to the army. Initially inclined to think of Cresta as a traitor and a tramp, he gradually gives in to what we're meant to see, looking past Candice Bergen's abrasively one-note performance, as the young woman's natural charm. They see the worst of red and white, Honus being forced to fight a brave to the death for a lost sock, then teaming with Cresta to thwart a peddler (Donald Pleasance) selling rifles to the Indians. Having stopped him, our heroes think they've prevented a war, but gloryhound Col. Iverson (veteran western character actor John Anderson) has different ideas. Seeing his army massing for an attack, Cresta runs to the Cheyenne to warn them to flee, but while a handful foolishly want to fight back, her onetime husband Chief Spotted Wolf (Jorge Riviero) more foolishly thinks that his gifts from the U.S. government -- a flag, a medal -- will convince Iverson of his peaceful intentions.


The infamous massacre, based on the Sand Creek slaughter of 1864, ensues. Nelson clearly feels licensed by the success of The Wild Bunch to escalate the violence to levels he would not have dared imagine at the time of Duel at Diablo, just four years earlier. It's a make-or-break moment for the film, if audiences haven't already been turned off by the braying Bergen or the whiny Strauss, who looks and sounds sort of like a Rankin-Bass puppet. Seeing it with somewhat more mature eyes, I think I understand that what I got a kick from long ago hurts the scene and the movie. The main problem with the massacre scene is that Nelson punctuates it with special effects that reduce the moral horror he hoped to evoke into simple spectacle. An Indian boy gets a bullet through his face the way the cavalry guy did at the start of the picture. Blood flies everywhere. In the most blatant example, Nelson zooms in on an isolated woman screaming as a soldier charges with his sabre. In the next shot, the soldier decapitates a dummy. This is not something you do if you want to focus the audience's moral attention on the terror inflicted on the Cheyenne.


The decapitation is an effect, an end unto itself as in horror movies -- but recall that horror movies may horrify but generally don't provoke the sort of moral outrage Nelson and Guy were aiming for. If they do, the outrage is directed at the film itself, just as it was directed against Soldier Blue, more often than it's directed at the fictional characters perpetrating the atrocity. In the very same year, Arthur Penn directed a massacre of Indians in Little Big Man that, in my memory at least, was less concerned with extreme effects yet more effective in its similar revisionist purpose despite leavening it with the humor of Chief Dan George imagining himself invisible. Nelson was trying to do too much, merging the revisionist politics of the era (though sympathy for the Indians goes back to silent movie days) with the revisionist violence of Peckinpah and the spaghetti westerns. Worse, perhaps, he may have used revisionist elements without really having any revisionist sensibility of his own, turning Soldier Blue into a kind of exploitation piece. Above all, Soldier Blue is a revisionist western with Hollywood production values. I'm sure it was meant that way, to be more jarring at its climax, but the effect is somewhat too jarring for the good of the film and its message. This is one of those revisionist westerns that hasn't aged well and will probably endure best as a period piece, an artifact of 1970 rather than a portrait of the Old West.

Saturday, June 29, 2013

The Curtain Falls: JUNE 29, 1933

Sometimes the shape of a story is decided not by how it ends, but when.

Did Arbuckle die of happiness? A follow-up story in the June 30 paper reports that on the 28th Warner Bros. had signed the comedian, who had just wrapped a series of two-reelers, to a feature-film contract. He felt over-excited and went to bed early. He had turned his story around, he thought. But we still think of Arbuckle as someone destroyed by unfair persecution, because we'll never know how far he might have rebounded. He might have become a stalwart of the Warners stock company -- or the backlash of 1934 may have resulted in a new banishment. At the moment of his death his star was rising, while that of his friend and protégé Buster Keaton was plummeting. Keaton lived long enough to regain the recognition he deserved, and his life is seen as a triumph over adversity. Arbuckle remains one of Hollywood's tragic figures, but sometimes tragedy is just a matter of timing.

Meanwhile, the show must go on!

Thursday, June 27, 2013


What if one of the great western writers of the 20th century got to be the auteur of a western film? Alan Le May rose from the ranks of the pulps to become a mainstay in the "slick" weeklies in the 1930s. By the end of the decade he had gone to Hollywood, where he worked on three Cecil B. de Mille, though the nearest one to a western was Northwest Mounted Police. Le May's best work as a writer came toward the end of his career, most notably his racially-charged novels The Unforgiven, filmed by John Huston in 1960, and The Searchers, which needs no more introduction. Before writing The Searchers (published in 1954), Le May became an independent film producer in partnership with George Templeton. They made two films in Texas: Templeton directed Le May's screenplay for The Sundowners (not to be confused with Fred Zinnemann's 1960 Australian saga) while Le May himself took up the metaphorical megaphone for High Lonesome. These films were meant to make a movie star of John Barrymore Jr., whose greatest contribution to cinema proved to be his daughter. At the start of the Fifties Junior looks the part of youthful rebellion in his jeans and overall earnest dishevelment, and a shirtless scene reveals that his character has paid for rebelling against his father with permanent scars, but he's still very green as a movie actor and Le May was too green as a director to keep the young ham in check. The lead performance is an anthology of grimaces, as if it was torture for Barrymore to play what really was a thankless role.

He plays a drifter on the run, caught raiding a barn on the Davis ranch in the Big Bend country. Nicknamed "Coon-Cat," he has a scalp wound and a wild tale of having killed a shopkeeper, two menacing strangers having put him up to it down to giving him a gun. The Davises investigate his story, only to find the store empty and, from the lack of evidence, long unoccupied. Something else seems fishy about his story: his descriptions of the two strangers -- the "smiling man" and the "foreign talking man" -- are recognized as matching two infamous figures in a long-ago fence war...but those two men are dead. That makes Coon-Cat's story sound even more like a fabrication, heightening the suspicion that he's covering up some worse deed.

The audience knows objectively that the two strangers are out there -- in one of his early prominent roles, Jack Elam plays the Smiling Man, but Le May forces his story into the "they won't believe me" paradigm as Coon-Cat repeatedly sees the duo lurking about but can't get others to see them. Instead, as evidence builds of a crime spree in the region, suspicion falls repeatedly on Coon-Cat. The duo's mischief threatens to provoke a new fence war when the Davises defend Coon-Cat against a neighbor rancher (engaged to marry one of the Davis women) whose parents have been murdered and who wants to lynch Coon-Cat for it. Civilization has barely arrived in Big Bend -- a Davis teenager is impatient to attend her first party ever -- but the two strangers, with Coon-Cat as their unwilling or unwitting pawn, seem out to bring it all down. The only way Coon-Cat can defeat them is to get someone finally to trust his stories and trust him as a person....

As a writer, Le May does a good job of quickly establishing a fairly large group of characters and making their interactions feel familiar and plausible. As a writer and director he manages to get a tolerable performance out of often-overblown Chill Wills, who gets some eloquent scenes describing the violence of the past. As a director, Le May has a good eye for striking locations, and Wills's account of the mass death of cattle at a contested fence, standing amid their whitened bones, has a whiff of epic chill. But Le May's heavyhanded plotting, the creaking contrivance of the real villains' ability not to be seen by anyone but Coon-Cat, ultimately undercuts whatever else he brings to the direction. An early expectation that High Lonesome might prove a rare western horror film -- the eerie possibility that Coon-Cat might indeed have seen ghosts is quickly dissipated, and instead you grow frustrated with all the stupid people who never manage to see Jack Elam sauntering about, without really gaining any more sympathy for the often-scowling and ever-hapless Coon-Cat. As one might expect from a writer of his talent, Le May had promising material to work with, but he learned that directing a movie isn't as easy as writers may think. His film appeared in the same year when Winchester 73, The Gunfighter and Broken Arrow set the tone for the western's greatest decade, and real directors would continue to set the tone. It was eventually up to John Ford to make Alan Le May's most lasting contribution to western cinema for him.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013


Exploitation movies are usually pretty singleminded affairs. Sure, the advertising may promise one thing while the film itself delivers another, but that's still usually one particular thing. You don't normally see an exploitation picture with as profoundly split a personality as Charles Haas's Beat Generation. It appears to have started out as a screenplay by the late Richard Matheson. That screenplay, from what we see in the final film, was a noirish affair about a misogynist cop whose wife is victimized by a serial rapist. The cop (Steve Cochran) is on his second marriage, the first having ended badly. The first wife was a tramp, it seems, and three years on vice detail has only hardened Dave Culloran's attitude toward women. We see that in his surly, skeptical interview with a victim of the so-called "Aspirin Kid." The second Mrs. C. (Fay Spain) complains that Dave interrogates rather than talks to her. The rape strains their marriage to the breaking point. The worst part of it is that Culloran unwittingly set his wife up for the rapist. He'd given a ride to the hospital to a man he'd grazed with his car, and this observant fellow (Ray Danton) learned Culloran's address from papers on the car seat. Also learning that Culloran is a cop investigating the rape spree, he calls the detective (during a lineup of possible suspects) and announces his intent to surrender at a certain location. Instead of going there, he goes to the Culloran house, using his usual m.o. (he owes $10 to the man of the house; he has a headache and needs a glass of water with his aspirin) he brutalizes the housewife. Afterward, Dave can't help wondering why his wife let the stranger in. When he learns that she's pregnant, he freaks out further and freezes toward her.

Meanwhile, the Aspirin Kid, who uses several names but most often calls himself Arthur Garrett, tracks down Art Jester (Jim Mitchum), one of the lineup suspects. Figuring that he saved Jester from arrest by phoning when he did, "Garrett" figures that Jester owes him something. To distance himself further from the detectives, and to keep Jester in play as a suspect, he orders him to find and rape a woman using the Aspirin Kid m.o. The attempt is blackly comic in Jester's nervous ineptitude. The comedy is compounded by the willingness of Georgia Altera (Mamie Van Doren) to bed this man or any man after dumping her husband, whose abrupt appearance sends Jester scurrying away -- ten bucks poorer. Eventually Culloran and his fellow detectives catch up with Altera, who doesn't prove particularly cooperative. In fact, she's having an affair with Jester/Garrett, but Culloran intimidates her into giving him up to the cops. Problem is, of course, that Jester is just bait for a trap laid by the real Aspirin Kid, who soon has both Culloran and Georgia in his power....

Not bad at first glance, but producer Albert Zugsmith couldn't leave well enough alone. Matheson's story became the pretext, as embellished by Lewis Meltzer, for a purported expose of the beatnik scene. The Aspirin Kid became a member or fellow-traveler of the scene, reading Schopenhauer, playing bongos, etc. He listens to Louis Armstrong in the jazz clubs (wasn't Satchmo a tad square by then?) and stages hootenanys at his own beachfront hangout. In its portrayal of beatniks the movie goes way over the top -- one might say it jumps the shark as Arthur Fonzarelli did in Milwaukee around the same time in history.

One big problem with Hollywood's approach to the beat scene is its habit of identifying the scene with music. Beatnik movies always threaten to turn into outright musicals, and the hard-boiled crime story described above, once transformed into The Beat Generation, does just that. The film pauses for an occasional song as well as one eccentric poetry reading by an out-of-uniform Vampira of Plan 9 fame. To keep that association in your mind just slightly, I should mention that in a short-lived subplot dealing with a Lover's Lane killer, Jackie Coogan, playing Culloran's partner, puts on drag for a stakeout-- because they can't risk policewomen's lives with a killer on the loose. It's an utterly gratuitous scene, one of many in this movie, and altogether they nearly redeem it.


The Beat Generation builds to a genuinely berserk finish as Aspirin's beatnik pals interrupt him as he contemplates killing Culloran and raping Georgia. They're bored, you see --  so to placate them our villain puts on an impromptu hootenany (ask your grandparents, kids), improvising a song on the bongos until others pick up the tune and start singing and dancing. It gets like A Charlie Brown Christmas in there after a while. Way to break up your drama, filmmakers. But it gets better. After a repentant Jester frees Georgia and Culloran, the ensuing chase spills into the hootenany. The crazed beatniks throw themselves at Dave, dancing around him and teasing him. Of all people, former boxer Slapsie Maxie Rosenbloom takes Dave to the floor for a "wrestling hootenany." And during all this time, Aspirin doesn't leave the building! Instead, after Dave finally breaks free of Maxie, Aspiring goes back through the house the way he came instead of taking the nearest exit -- and while pursuing him, Dave gets caught by Rosenbloom again! Maxie just wants Dave to show him the move he used to free himself earlier, but this gives Aspirin time to nearly make good his escape via the ocean. If all this wasn't enough, there's a pretty well-staged underwater fight scene involving a spear gun to come before it's all over. By then, The Beat Generation has reconciled its contradictions into a nearly sublime absurdity. You'll keep asking the film, "Are you kidding?" during the final reel and when it's over you still won't know for sure. Imagine a Beach Party film where the Von Zipper gang actually gets to beat people into bloody pulps, but still suffers their usual sight-gag humiliations, and you get an idea of The Beat Generation seems to be trying to be. I have to say "seems" because I'm not sure, after all was said and done, whether anyone involved really knew what it was trying to be. And the film is probably better off for that.

Epilogue: In these authentic newspaper clippings, Mamie Van Doren reports on her encounter with the beat scene.

Monday, June 24, 2013

Now Playing: JUNE 24, 1933

We have a new box-office champion for Milwaukee this year:

Gold Diggers will have outlasted its precursor, 42nd Street, by a week if it actually does exit on schedule. Back when being Held Over in one of those monster movie palaces meant something, being Held Over a third week really means something!

Now, let's meet this week's challengers. It looks like RKO may be on the right track.

Melody Cruise is an almost disturbingly cartoonish musical, as I discuss in my review. Whatever this film's fate at the box office, RKO was determined to keep on experimenting, and we should hear from them again before the year is out.

Now for the also-rans:

This Fox Film release at least has a star of 42nd Street in Warner Baxter, as well as "A Luscious, Lavish Eyeful of Tantalizing Ladies in the Dance of the Maidens." For those who aren't into that thing, there's a "Terrific Boulder Dam Sequence" billed as the "Supreme Thrill of Motion Pictures." The TCM synopsis tells us that the Baxter character works at Boulder Dam, but if anything terrific, much less supremely thrilling, happens there, the synopsis writer must have missed it.

This one from M-G-M has some high-quality art for a newsprint ad.

Robert Montgomery is a powerful press agent who runs his own speakeasy and tries to turn a would-be suicide into a star, then helps her beat a murder rap. has a trailer for this one.

Finally,another RKO attraction:

Get your minds out of the Pre-Code gutter: Ann Carver's profession is the legal profession. Not much difference, you say? Never mind that. The real scandal here is that super-attorney Fay Wray selflessly sacrifices her career after blaming herself for her hubby's legal troubles -- thus helping him beat a murder rap -- how do movie people get in these predicaments? --  because she, the breadwinner, didn't support him enough. Appalling, isn't it?

Saturday, June 22, 2013

DEAD MAN (1995)

Lance Henriksen discovers a corpse in the woods. The body has fallen so that the head is haloed by the radiating branches of a campfire. "He looks like a goddamn religious icon," Henriksen observes -- and when we saw the man die earlier, many of us probably noted the resemblance. Henriksen proceeds to crush the decaying head under his boot. That about sums up Jim Jarmusch's approach to the western.

The gesture is at once an implicit criticism of the genre and an implicit self-criticism. Jarmusch has caught himself aestheticizing violence, and the only remedy is more extreme violence. Dead Man is a revisionist western but in 1995 it comes too late in the game for any plausible appeal to offended idealism. Jarmush is left with revisionism's minimal proposition -- that the principal fact of the West was its violence rather than any civilization the violence midwifed into being. The tone can only be blackly comic, the violence senseless. Yet the temptation is always there to see it as something more -- if not as a means to a noble end, then as a phenomenon of perverse beauty. Jarmusch could not help making a beautiful film. Nearly 40 years after Day of the Outlaw, Dead Man is the last great black-and-white western, at least for now. Cinematographer Robby Muller deserves much of the credit, but the vision is Jarmusch's.

Stripped of political outrage, the revisionist western sees the West as the land of war of all against all. The pretense of civilization under construction is mocked. The territory is riddled with individual seekers. If the subset of revisionist western called "acid" or "psychedelic" invokes an altered consciousness under extreme conditions, Dead Man can be seen as a synthesis or summation envisioning the West as a whole as an altered state of consciousness where everyone seems crazy.

It can also be seen as a Tarantinian western nearly a generation before Tarantino got around to making one. Dead Man is an act of genre homage ("My name is Nobody!" a character declares by way of introduction) and genre deconstruction at the same time. In the Tarantino style, which was arguably the Jarmusch style well before, there are loquacious, digressive characters, the most obnoxious of which is the bounty hunter Conway Twill (Michael Wincott). You may want to applaud when Twill's companion Cole Wilson (Henriksen), accused by Twill of incest, parenticide and cannibalism, finally grows tired of his company and kills him. Is that Twill Wilson's chewing on by the fire later? Twill may have been a bullshitter but in Jarmusch's West you can believe anything might happen.

The bounty hunters are after Bill Blake (Johnny Depp), a price having been put on Blake's head by John Dickinson (Robert Mitchum in his last American theatrical film), the patriarch of the town of Machine. For some the West may be a refuge from industrialization, but not for Jarmusch. Blake has just arrived from Cleveland to take a clerk's job, but he arrives late and the position is already filled. Befriending a flower girl, Blake avenges her when her ex (Gabriel Byrne) bursts in shooting in a fit of jealousy. Blake just happens to be uncanny with a gun, but he's killed Dickinson's son and the old man wants revenge and can afford to have others carry it out for him.

Wounded himself, Blake barely escapes and finds himself rescued by a fat Indian. This is "Nobody" (Gary Farmer) -- his real name identifies him as a liar -- who was kidnapped by white settlers while still a boy and taken to England to receive a civilized education. It didn't entirely take, but Nobody acquired an appreciation of poetry and so assumes that the William Blake he's rescued is the visionary English poet -- which means he should be dead. Nobody is part fan, part spiritual guide, assuming the task of returning the late poet where he belongs. On their quest, they encounter many strange people and kill most of them. Meanwhile, Wilson kills off his annoying colleagues and keeps on the trail until he catches up at the Pacific coast, in a native village that looks like part amusement park, part Apocalypse Now.

Here is the rare movie where Johnny Depp is the most normal or sane character. Blake is more Nobody than his faithful Indian companion, however; a nebbish who just happens to be an instinctual killer. But we shouldn't expect to find fully-rounded personalities in Jarmusch's West. His West is a magnet for the opposite type, incomplete people singlemindedly seeking themselves or their fortunes and ready to destroy anything in their way. This West is a vision quest (and hence an ordeal) for everyone who enters. It's also an homage to the visionary screen West that Jarmusch presumably grew up on, a world that was a trip whether he saw it stoned or not. Like spaghetti westerns, it debunks old myths only to spread new ones. But Dead Man seems like a loving debunking, not a work of anger like some of the original revisionist westerns or the more political spaghettis. Jarmusch takes too much pleasure in violence and madness, while Neil Young strives to make it all sound cool with his electric guitar score.  Jarmusch is committed to a kind of truth through his unflinching portrayal of brutality, but he is perhaps too enamored with an idea of outlawry to take his horrors seriously. Dead Man is a dark jest that despite its revisionist trappings ultimately sides with cinema against humanity -- but it is only a movie, after all, and quite an entertaining picture for those who can stand it.

Thursday, June 20, 2013


Adapting a Lee Wells novel that was widely serialized in newspaper a few years earlier -- do a Google News Archive search and you can read along -- director Andre De Toth and credited writers Phillip Yordan and Sidney Harmon set up an archetypal western situation only to pull the rug out from under their characters and the audience. Cattle baron Blaise Starett (Robert Ryan) comes to wintry Bitters, Wyoming for a showdown with his natural enemy, the homesteader Hal Crain (Alan Marshall). They are rivals for land -- as always, the cattleman resents the farmer enclosing graze land with barbed wire -- and for a woman, Hal's wife Helen (Tina Louise). We get a slow buildup to a violent confrontation and Starett gets to make the cattleman's typical speech about the rights he's earned by taming the land before the farmers showed up. He's about to throw down when Jack Bruhn (Burl Ives) bursts into the general store as if out of nowhere, attended by armed men. He's a deserting cavalry officer and they are desperadoes fleeing with stolen gold. They plan to stay awhile and expect to be fed. Bruhn's men expect more than that but he tells the townspeople to hide their liquor and remove the women to a safe place.

 Above, Robert Ryan as the Cattleman. Below, Burl Ives as the Outlaw.

The bandits' appearance completely transforms the story. We might expect that the rivalry between Starett and Crain would remain in the foreground as both men deal with Bruhn's invasion. Instead, it virtually ceases to matter. Starett emerges as the hero because, confronted with the lawlessness he drove out years ago, he reverts to his earlier role as a town-tamer. Older and wiser, he knows he can't fight Bruhn's gang, either single-handedly or with the help of the peaceable townsfolk. De Toth illustrates this by having Starett beat down one bad guy (Jack Lambert) in a fistfight, only to have Bruhn order two more goons to pummel Starett into temporary submission.


To save the town, Starett has to use psychology, playing on the fissures within the gang. Bruhn's authority is the only thing holding the gang together and the only thing restraining his men from pillaging the town and raping the women. The director illustrates the menace when Bruhn finally relents and lets his men dance with the ladies. The camera whirls around the room as the clumsy, brutish males manhandle the women in a parody of dancing, while the gang's half-breed (hawk-nosed and typecast Frank De Kova) barely moves, telling his partner simply, "I want to look at you." In a way, this is the most violent scene in the movie. But it offers a chance at redemption to the gang's youngest member (David Nelson), who hasn't yet outgrown his conscience.

Bruhn is dying from a lung wound suffered during the robbery. If he dies, his men will tear the town apart. Starett's only option is to convince them that he knows a trail through the mountains that will open their lead on the pursuing cavalry. Then, when Bruhn inevitably passes, the chips can fall where they may in the snowy forest. Whether Starett makes it back or not, his recent feuds no longer matter to him. He's seen the face of savagery again and realizes how close he came to taking over that role himself.

Day of the Outlaw moves so far beyond its original storyline that it doesn't bother wrapping it in the expected ways. That may make the film seem incomplete, or make some viewers wonder whether the writers changed their minds early in the script. Burl Ives and his crew so dominate the middle of the movie that Ryan's redemption can seem underplayed. But Andre De Toth makes the film worth viewing as long as he doesn't trade his stark location for studio sets. He and Russell Harlan make this one of the last great black and white westerns, and the monochrome imagery only underscores the wintry misery of Bitters and environs. The film may not boast the most well-made plot, but that's the way it wants to be. It's nearly revisionist in its desire to transcend one of the genre's most common archetypes, but its redemptive finish reaffirms the genre's heroic values.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Pre-Code Parade: FLYING DEVILS (1933)

Ralph Bellamy is one of the rare actors to become an archetype. It wasn't exactly flattering to the show-business survivor who got his Hollywood start in 1931 and endured to appear in movies people today may still recognize as "modern" (Trading Places, Pretty Woman, etc.). Bellamy is remembered by film buffs for his 1930s roles as a romantic loser, the guy who lost the girl, often to Cary Grant. During the "classic" era of Code Enforcement, to be a Ralph Bellamy type was to be ineffectual, a little dull in more than one way, and hopeless in competition with the leading man.

In the Pre-Code era, Bellamy sometimes got the girl. More to the point, Pre-Code Bellamy fought for his woman, sometimes to the death. In Russell Birdwell's Flying Devils, an RKO aviation picture from the Merian C. Cooper era, that makes Bellamy the villain. He plays Speed Hardy, the impresario of a flying-circus thrill show featuring "The Black Cats." The team includes his wife Ann (Arline Judge), his alky mechanic Screwy (future Jiminy Cricket Cliff Edwards), and aloof Ace Murray (top-billed Bruce Cabot). Birdwell and his writers portray the flying circus as a desperate, dissolute lot. Screwy acts crazy but his girl-chasing -- women around the world have autographed his overalls, one in Chinese -- suggests another meaning to his name. For Ace stunting is a dead end. It's the only flying work he can get after a conviction for bootlegging. He also fits the "lost generation" type of men damaged by the late war. He shies away from displays of affection, telling Ann that he's "not into that stuff," while Screwy invites girls to play "airplane" -- lips touching equals "contact." All is well, as well can get with this lot, until Ace's younger brother Bud (Eric Linden) shows up intending to drop out of college and join Ace in the air. Ace tries to talk him out of it. If he must fly, Bud should get an air mail or airline job instead of the no-future of stunt flying. Bud is irrepressible, however, and so is his passion for Ann Hardy, which awakens a jealous monster in Speed.

Ace and Bud aren't competitors, but their relationship reminded me of the romantic competition between brothers in another flying picture, William Wellman's Central Airport. That's another picture in which the hero's younger brother gets the girl, as if signalling that the lost generation needs to step aside -- to get lost, one could say. In Central Airport Richard Barthelmess simply goes on his way, but Flying Devils is more melodramatic and more pessimistic in its climax.

Speed hires Bud for the Black Cats and features him and Ann in a double parachute jump routine. Nature takes its course, however, and a joyride crash landing forces the unhurt youngsters to take shelter in someone's home. In a moment of Pre-Code subtlety Ace and Speed find them and Speed inspects the house. We don't see what he sees, but we just know it from his reaction: Bud and Ann stayed overnight, but only one bed was used. Speed conceives a revenge out of pulp fiction -- the real stuff, I mean. He sells Bud on the idea of staging a midair collision of expendable planes, both pilots bailing out seconds before the crash. Then he sabotages Bud's parachute, not knowing that Screwy saw him (two of him, in fact, Screwy is so hammered) do it. Word gets around in time for Ace to take to the air for unscheduled real aerial combat with Speed. This crowd gets more than they bargained for when Ace saves the day by ramming Speed's plane, blowing both of them out of the sky. It's an insane finish that hasn't really been built up properly. Ace may seem lost but he didn't seem doomed. His sacrifice seems less noble than senseless. But I guess the film had to end with one man standing, not counting Screwy, who's interested in every woman but Ann. Flying Devils is edgy in tone but too over the top at the end for its own good. I call your attention to it chiefly for the relative novelty of Ralph Bellamy with balls, before Code Enforcement neutered him for posterity.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Now Playing: JUNE 17, 1933

Eighty years ago today, Paramount Pictures called on the Four Marx Bros. to promote one of the studio's upcoming releases.

Now for what's playing in Milwaukee this week. Held over for a second week is Warner Bros.'s second blockbuster musical this year.

Gold Diggers prevailed over Paramount's International House at the local box office last week. This week, Paramount throws another Pre-Code haymaker at the champ.

One of the year's most controversial pictures, Temple Drake was an adaptation of William Faulkner's scandalous best-seller Sanctuary -- read it and you'll never think of corn cobs the same way again. You won't see the Faulkner connection made in the advertising, but people presumably knew who Temple Drake was.

The Sentinel's movie review gives Faulkner and the film credit where due:


 And here's my own review. Compared to this and Gold Diggers, everything else is likely to pale, but for those looking for summer movie thrills, the Garden offers the bombing of New York City.

I like the double-billing of Men Must Fight and an actual fight film. Baer and Schmeling should have satisfied audiences who might have expected more fighting from the main attraction. I try to explain what they actually got here. Hint: the woman of 1940 is pissed.

Here are the also-rans.


So who is Henry Garat? The answer is: a French actor who won international recognition for the art-house hit The Congress Dances. Fox Film must have hoped he would prove another Maurice Chevalier, but William Dieterle's Adorable would be his only American film. Throwing some sort of Ruritanian whimsy into theaters at the moment when Busby Berkeley and his gold diggers were running amok probably sealed Garat's fate in Hollywood.