Friday, August 30, 2013


Half screwball comedy, half pulp fiction, Jack Conway's film for M-G-M is a work of swaggering cynicism featuring Clark Gable in prime romantic-rogue mode. Advertising touted it as a reunion of Gable and Myrna Loy, the stars of the smash hit Test Pilot from earlier that year, a kind of comeback vehicle for Gable after the legendary failure of the Irish biopic Parnell. This time he's a globetrotting newsreel cameraman who isn't above faking footage to score a scoop over his rivals, the most prominent of those being Walter Pidgeon. The show starts in China, where the rivals hope in vain for a Japanese bombing raid and Gable films some artificial atrocity footage in the meantime. Pidgeon tries to top this by having his aviatrix pal (Loy) fly a plane into the airport pretending to carry emergency medical supplies. Gable meets cute with Loy when he blunders into the scene and forces her to crash land. The resulting film is a sensation and the newsreel company turns Loy into a flying correspondent.

Loy's movie name is Alma Harding, slightly evocative of Amelia Earhart as is her later mission to rescue her brother, an aviator lost in the Amazon jungle. Loy is glib and courageous but ultimately soft-hearted, as the role and the film require. She breaks down narrating the footage she shot of sailors evacuating a damaged navy vessel before it explodes. The sequence when she and Gable shoot that footage is a technical triumph, one of the best uses of old-fashioned process photography I've seen from the classic era. Too often such scenes are dead on arrival, static side shots of immobile cockpits designed only to show us the stars' faces as they fake flying. For Too Hot to Handle Conway and his effects team film on a much larger scale, placing Gable and Loy in a full-scale model plane and filming it at the distance necessary 9and from multiple angles) to establish its realism. The camera zooms in and out as it needs to and, better still, the plane moves, banking left or right as Loy angles in toward the crippled ship or Gable climbs out onto a wing to get a better shot. The extra effort makes the illusion more effective, and if it still isn't convincing by modern standards, movie buffs should certainly appreciate the effort and craftsmanship.

Eventually the counterfeit origin of the Chinese crash footage comes out and Gable, Loy and Pidgeon are all disgraced. Loy seeks redemption by finding her lost brother, financed without her knowledge by the two men, who've sold their movie gear for her sake. Lest you think Gable's gone selfless, he's playing the game several steps ahead of Pidgeon, with the help of his able lackey Leo Carrillo, using his knowledge of Loy's plans to get his job back and constantly scheming to get scoops out of her trek. Gable and Carrillo manage to find the lost Harding ahead of Alma, among black skinned, voodoo-worshiping natives who worship the injured man as a bird god. The film's final act is hilariously politically incorrect as Gable must first prove his magic stronger than that of the tribe's witch doctor, and then take over as witch doctor, spending much of the last reel in an outlandish, all-concealing birdman costume to stage-manage and surreptitiously film the arrival of Loy and Pidgeon and the official rescue of hapless Brother Harding. Carrillo knows a little of the native lingo but for Gable the power-word ungaawa suffices. Gable somehow beats Pidgeon back to America despite being left to paddle for his life as Loy's plane departs, and the film ends with Gable utterly unrepentant, still up to his old tricks, and Loy unable to resist. "Ain't I a stinker?" Gable might say, but it's the kind of stink the people loved.

Keeping with the theme, here's a mock-newsreel trailer from

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Pilgrimage: NOW PLAYING, 1933

Three Cornered Moon plays Milwaukee this week. Paramount has a pretty extensive ad campaign for this proto-screwball comedy.


The comparison to the Marx Bros. (whose Duck Soup is coming soon) is weird. I mean, the Marxes were real-life performers, so yes, they're "paid to be goofy," but it's not as if the Rimplegar family is real. Colbert, Arlen, et al were being paid to be goofy just as much as the Marxes were. But maybe we have here a hint at the difference between screwball comedy and the Marx Bros. style. With the Marxes, it's impossible to suspend disbelief; regardless of what the brothers are called in any given picture, they're their standard selves every time and we all know it. But with screwball, perhaps, we're encouraged to believe in and empathize with the characters, even if we know they're played by familiar stars. That's not the whole picture, but it's part of it. Discuss it amongst yourselves.

At the Warner, William Powell is snooping around.


Based on my short study of the advertising for John Gilbert's talkies, I take it as a warning sign whenever movie ads talk about the sort of role that made the star famous. You can probably infer that the star isn't quite as famous as he was. Fortunately for Powell, his greatest popularity was yet to come, but it would take a different studio to set him right.

However it fits in Powell's career, this Michael Curtiz picture looks like prime Pre-Code material. Here's the original trailer from

The Veterans of Foreign Wars were in Milwaukee for a convention this week, and some of the big theaters programmed accordingly.

Here's a weird way of promoting your picture while barely saying a word about it.

John Ford's Pilgrimage had been sitting in my DVR queue for nearly a year before this week's article gave me reason to give it a look. I wonder what an audience of veterans made of it. Indeed, I wonder what Ford fans today make of it, since here the old sentimentalist gives us one of cinema's most hateful mothers. Henrietta Crosman gives an alarming performance as a crabby old lady who at first won't let her son fight in the Great War, then practically pushes him into it rather than have him marry a girlfriend she considers trash. The boy suffers a brutally ignominious death while the girl gives birth to his son, condemned to be a bastard because they didn't have time to marry. After the fact, the old lady still shuns the girl, and her own grandson, as if blaming them for her son's death. Then the picture becomes a fish-out-of-water comedy as Crosman reluctantly joins a delegation of Gold Star Mothers on the title trip to France to see their sons' graves. An ominous tone hangs over the comedy as the mother remains crabby while we suspect that a terrible catharsis is coming. Even though Ford predictably softens in the second half, having Crosman save a young Frenchman from suicide so she can see the error of her ways by learning his story, a mirror of her son's, and setting things right, the first hour of Pilgrimage probably struck many 1933 viewers, even those grown cynical about the war, like a punch in the face. I can imagine how Milwaukee audiences might have felt if that goofy ad drew them to the picture. But maybe I should give them more credit. Problematic as it is, Pilgrimage is an admirably ambitious picture, the first half especially showing Ford in his High Art mode, and Crosman's is a convincing, compelling performance. It's certainly a unique way of addressing people's ambivalence about World War I, and it's hard to imagine Ford or anyone else updating it for World War II. Vietnam, maybe.

Monday, August 26, 2013

PRE-CODE PARADE: Gables of 1931

"T here is hidden brutality in Clark Gable," a reporter wrote for The New Movie Magazine in the fall of 1931. The profile goes on to describe the rising star as a cross between Rudolph Valentino and Jack Dempsey.

There is this difference between Valentino and the man now being groomed as his successor. While women adored the Italian, men were prejudiced against him. With Gable it is far different. He is equally popular with men as with women. It is felt by no less an authority than Irving Thalberg that within a year Gable will be the most popular film player in the period, if not in screen history.

Not long afterward, Gable was dubbed the "King" of Hollywood and carried that royal title as a nickname for the rest of his life. He embodied a new masculinity, not just in contrast to those qualities that prejudiced male audiences against Valentino and his peers, but in contrast to an older Hollywood idea of a rugged he-man. While Gable played the villain in a Hopalong Cassidy picture for Pathe in 1930, M-G-M was trying to put Charles Bickford over as a virile leading man. Bickford certainly was virile, but was perhaps too much a man's man in his burly frame and manner and not enough a lady's man. The silent era seemed to draw a line separating sexiness from manliness, depending on your vantage point. In the sound era, Gable erased the dividing line. But whatever Thalberg was saying as 1931 neared its close, M-G-M seemed less certain of what to do with Gable after signing him early in the year. Producers saw something vicious in him and cast him as villains; Warner Bros. followed suit in the two pictures he made for them (Night Nurse being the better known) that year. It's almost as if Gable was too powerful and too sexy to be safe.

Gable was the Star of the Day on Turner Classic Movies on August 25, and TCM started the day with three films from his apprentice year of 1931. All three happen to be Joan Crawford star vehicles, with Gable rising from pure menace to humble underdog to powerful exploiter. Harry Beaumont's Dance, Fools, Dance, released in Feburary, was Gable's second M-G-M film and his first with a really prominent role. The story is like Three-Cornered Moon taken seriously. Crawford is a frivolous heiress forced to find work after the Great Crash wipes out her father's fortune and leaves him (the original William Holden) dead on the floor of the stock exchange. Before this, the film opens with a sequence often shown in Pre-Code highlight reels in which young partygoers strip to their underclothes to go swimming. Afterward, Crawford becomes an intrepid girl reporter for a major metropolitan newspaper while her shiftless brother (William Bakewell) falls in with bootleggers, providing them an in with his old society buddies. Gable as the head bootlegger gets an ominous introduction. His moll plays the Moonlight Sonata as a door opens to reveal the arrogant villain, who later blows smoke in her worshipful face to show his contempt for all decency. The hapless brother ends up the getaway driver for a St. Valentine's-style massacre of rival gangsters, and is later forced to pull the trigger himself on a tricky reporter (Cliff Edwards), Crawford's mentor, to whom he'd blabbed about his role in the earlier slaughter. Crawford gets the idea to infiltrate Gable's gang for the paper, though she initially proposed a more discreet role than the one she lands as dancing star of the floorshow at Gable's nightclub. Ever since her silent hit Our Dancing Daughters Crawford was expected to dance in her pictures, and here's her chance. She has an eccentric style that would have made her an interesting partner for James Cagney. Anyway, her looks get her an in with Gable, and in his office she learns through an indiscreet phone call of her brother's role in the massacre. That complicates things, but it's nothing a little gunplay can't resolve.

Gable has no redeeming qualities in Dance, Fools, Dance, and Beaumont clearly saw him then as no more than a thug type. A few months later, in the May release Laughing Sinners, Beaumont thinks better of him. In between these pictures, Gable had played a gangster in The Finger Points, the first of his Warner Bros. pictures, but more importantly M-G-M had cast him as a heroic reporter in The Secret Six, his first chance to court popularity. In Laughing Sinners he's not just a good guy, he's arguably a Goody Two-Shoes of the worst sort, a Salvation Army man. The film is careful to let us know, however, that he's an ex-con who turned to religion after two years in prison for an undisclosed offense. No softy, he. Gable's soul-saver befriends an initially-hostile Crawford after preventing her suicide. A nightclub dancer -- she performs with a fake nose and an Old MacDonald beard before stripping for Pre-Code action -- she's been jilted by her salesman boyfriend (Neil "Commissioner Gordon" Hamilton) so he can marry the boss's daughter. Eventually, Crawford warms to Gable and to the charitable work of the Army, which the film portrays less as a religion than as selfless friends of the poor in a time of need. Her idyll is interrupted when Hamilton reappears, sick of his job and sick of his wife and looking to strike some old sparks. He and Guy Kibbee (almost too convincing as a cynical drunk) manage to loosen her up, with help from Kibbee's dangerous "White Mule" hooch, until she's dancing on tables. While Gable's indignant at the way the men have degraded her, giving Hamilton a well-earned sock, he's the soul of forgiveness toward Crawford herself, wanting only her happiness whichever path she chooses. Poised between Gable and Neil Hamilton, you can guess how she chooses.

Clarence Brown's Possessed was Gable's last film of the year, a November release. By then, he had caught fire as the romantic villain of Brown's A Free Soul, a part star Lionel Barrymore reportedly recommended Gable for. After his turn as the evil chauffeur of Night Nurse, M-G-M cast him as Greta Garbo's leading man in Susan Lenox: Her Fall and Rise. Having worked alongside another queen of the lot, Norma Shearer (i.e. Mrs. Thalberg) in Free Soul, Gable was reunited with Crawford as if he had just now completed a trifecta of the studio's leading ladies -- almost as if he was really teaming up with Crawford for the first time.

Possessed is a more ambitious picture than the other Crawford vehicles; the proof may be that she doesn't dance in this one. She's a factory-town girl (the early scenes are shot on location) and the girlfriend of dull, bourgeois Wallace Ford. Living literally on the other side of the tracks, she watches the trains go by like a panoramic fantasy of affluence. More fantastic still, one of the passengers talks to her and gives her his card. She blows her burg and heads to the big city, only to get blown off by her new friend. She hangs around long enough to find a new friend. Gable has a role fit for a star: a rich and powerful lawyer with political ambitions. Once divorced, he's determined to love Crawford at a distance, setting her up in a fancy apartment while she tells the folks at home that she married well but ended up an early widow. Gable's philosophy is that losing a mistress is a private embarrassment, but losing a wife is a public scandal. Crawford's OK with that up to a point, resenting the subtle and not-so-subtle slights from Gable's peers. When Ford shows up in the big town, successful and ambitious for more success, Crawford is tempted to go back with him. When she learns that Gable is willing to give up his gubernatorial ambitions to risk scandal by marrying her, she goes into renunciation mode, nobly giving him up (by telling him she's cheating) with confidence that she'll hook up with Ford. But Ford proves himself a heel by repudiating her when she tells the truth about her relationship with Gable, only to beg forgiveness when he realizes the menage could endanger the highway contract he'd hoped Gable would fix for him. She dumps him on the spot. The drama climaxes with a scene that may have influenced Frank Capra's Meet John Doe, in which Gable's political rally is disrupted by hecklers and a rain of leaflets hinting at his scandalous relations with Crawford. She just happens to be in the audience and stops the scandal by telling the truth, including the fact that she gave Gable up to the people, so he could be their worthy servant. In a close that may have influenced Singin' in the Rain, Gable chases her down as she flees tearfully from the arena to profess his love. With this, his apprenticeship is just about done. Possessed is the best film of these three, though all suffer from the contrivances of romantic melodrama. In it, Gable is almost too much an establishment man, just as he's almost too much of a goody-good in Laughing Sinners and definitely too much of a fiend in Dance, Fools, Dance. He couldn't really be his fully formed star self while he was still squiring the likes of Crawford; once teamed with a junior starlet, Jean Harlow, he really hit his stride. His charisma is obvious in all these pictures, however, which together provide an illuminating lesson in the trial-and-error process of making a star in the classic studio system.

Saturday, August 24, 2013

What a brat': BROTHER (1997)

Danila Bagrov is one of Russia's holy fools. The protagonist of Brother, directed by the late Aleksei Balabanov, is a remorseless killer who seems entirely free of malice. I might describe him as an amiable sociopath except for his obvious though not quite overpowering yearning to fit in to his country's pop culture. A veteran of the Chechnyan war -- he tells people he served his tour at headquarters but his skills make you wonder -- Danila's most prized possession as a civilian is his Discman -- his trust is not misplaced, we'll learn -- and his favorite band is the real-life rock act Nautilus. We first meet him blundering onto a music video shoot, and he spends the rest of the movie trying to track down the CD with the song from the video. Balabanov sets us up to see Danila as a dolt, and Sergei Bodrov Jr. looks the part, but there's more to the man than meets the eye, and maybe less in some respects.


Returning to his mother's home, Danila is urged to move to St. Petersburg, where his brother Viktor has taken their dead father's place as a provider for the family. Viktor (Viktor Sukhorukov) turns out to be a small-time gangster who promptly takes advantage of his brother's military experience. For reasons of caution or cowardice, he gets Danila to do a hit originally assigned to him in a public marketplace. Danila does the job with unquestioning competence but gets wounded escaping the target's goons. His escape vehicle is a symbolically hollow freight tram driven by Sveta (Svetlana Pismichenko), whom he befriends in his almost automatic fashion.

Viktor farms another hit out to his brother, but this one goes wrong as our hero gets distracted by a party going on above the apartment where he and two gangster handlers are to ambush their target. The actual lead singer of Nautilus is among the partygoers and Danila, whose entry was a request for aspirin, sits rapt amongst the musicians and artists before remembering his task downstairs. Remembering that the goons had taken hostage an innocent man who'd stopped at the wrong floor and knocked at the wrong door looking for the party, Danila abruptly kills the goons rather than have them kill a witness. I'd call it a suicidal act if I thought Danila had any consciousness of the potential consequences. He may not, or he simply may not care.

Worse than suicidal, his betrayal of Viktor's boss endangers not just Viktor but anyone who knows Danila in Petersberg. The gang tracks down Sveta and brutalizes her to get information. They invade Viktor's apartment and force him to lure Danila into a deathtrap. But if Danila is a holy fool, he's not that kind of a fool. He gets himself a shotgun (one million rubles!), saws it off, customizes the shot, and goes in guns blazing. But while his brother has proven sort of a Fredo, Danila is no Michael. Viktor cries for mercy and gets it. In a comic close to this storyline, Danila sends his brother home to look after their mother while he seeks his fortune in the wider world.

If Danila seems sometimes to live in a bubble, that might be true of everyone else in Brother's Russia. His efforts to connect with people are often rebuffed. People seem reluctant to accept his gifts of money, perhaps thinking there are strings attached. His great romantic gesture of the picture is to rescue Sveta from her abusive husband, but her first reaction when he shoots the man in the leg is to rebuke Sveta and comfort her abuser. The problem may be with Danila himself, however; he gives people things and does things for them, but his self is a virtual void (that he tries to fill with music) with nothing to offer on a personal level. He may have been imagined as a post-communist blank slate, with pop music his substitute for tradition or cultural heritage. He may want to be part of that milieu but he clearly isn't one of them, and he may not be one of anything. Danila is an easygoing embodiment of the anomie that characterized the Yeltsin era for some observers. There's something blackly comic about his adventures but something unsettling as well. Bodrov, son of a director and eventually a director in his own right who died while shooting a movie, has a guileless if not affectless presence that seems just right for the character. He makes Danila a perfect enigma, allowing you to wonder whether there's more than meets the eye or if there's simply no there there. Bodrov and Balabanov reunited for a more broadly comic sequel that takes Danila to the U.S., and on the strength of Brother I owe that film a look someday.

Thursday, August 22, 2013


The marriage of Barbara Stanwyck and Robert Taylor is the stuff of Hollywood legend. For 1930s moviegoers, it was another fairytale romance of movie-star peers. Today, their twelve-year union (1939-51) is often described as a "lavender" marriage arranged by Taylor's master, M-G-M boss Louis B. Mayer to conceal the bi- or homosexuality of both stars. Read some books about Classic Hollywood and it's hard to tell where history ends and fan fiction begins. You could believe that no one made movies back then without at least once engaging in homosexual intercourse. Not that there would have been anything wrong with that, I'd better add -- but it's hard to know the truth with the book market fueled by old people looking for a last payday and readers seeking either scandal or wish fulfillment. Suffice it to say that this sort of speculation might inspire a close reading of William A. Seiter's picture for Twentieth-Century Fox, the second of three onscreen teamups for Stanwyck and Taylor. Their romance was public knowledge by the time This Is My Affair came out, and that supposedly made it "the picture the world is talking about." Anyone hoping for proof of the stars' true feelings in this film's chemistry will most likely be disappointed, however, since this is such an utterly cliched affair that spontaneous expression within it was practically impossible.

Taylor gets to utter the title line, but he's referring to a fight, not a romance. This is My Affair is, in one respect, a typical Twentieth-Century Fox product of the period, in that it indulges the studio's peculiar nostalgia for the Gay Nineties (no pun intended) or thereabouts. The year is 1901, or it will be after a present-day prologue set at Arlington National Cemetery, where tourists are baffled by the gravestone of one Lt. Richard L. Perry, whose date of death is conspicuously hidden by some shrubbery. The tour guides have no explanation why this apparent nobody lies alongside America's heroes, which leaves it up to the rest of the picture to fill us in. Perry (Taylor) is a Navy man and a hero of the late war with Spain. This resume inspires President McKinley (Frank Conroy) to recruit Perry for a super-secret mission to break up a bank-robbery gang operating in the Midwest. How super is the secret? Because the President suspects that the robbers are getting inside information from someone in the government, Perry's mission to infiltrate the gang and find the source of their information can be known only by himself and the Chief Executive.

Sigh. At that point, even those in the audience, then or now, who are historically illiterate must know that McKinley is doomed. To bring everyone up to speed, Perry has until mid-September to finish his job or else things will abruptly get much more difficult for him -- and he isn't going to make the deadline. Movies love this kind of plot, but it always defies common sense. Consider This is My Affair to have tripped out of the starting gate.

Perry makes his way to St. Paul MN, where a friendly gambler (John Carradine unfortunately isn't around long enough to justify his relatively high billing) introduces him to casino owner Bat Duryea (Brian Donlevy, aka VILLAIN!!!), his practical-joking goon Jock Ramsey (Academy Award Winner Victor McLaglen) and his stepsister and headline entertainer Lil (Stanwyck). Pretending to be a jewel thief on the lam, Perry will join Bat's gang (the robberies finance the casino), antagonize Jock and fall in love with Lil. The plot will be interspersed with musical numbers until the gang relocates to Baltimore, once tipped off that the Midwest is too hot for them. Every so often in movies, Barbara Stanwyck sings. This Is My Affair proves that she should have done it less often. She may have been more plausible later as a jazz singer in Ball of Fire, but singing (or sometimes humming) these old-timey numbers she's dead in the water.

The payoff comes when Perry tips the feds off (via the President) to the Baltimore robbery. He and Jock are captured while Bat is killed -- and given Donlevy's lifeless performance it's no great loss. Perry and Jock are sentenced to death, but Perry delays using his lifeline to McKinley until he can get Jock to use his lifeline by revealing his government source. In what was clearly meant to be the big acting showcase for both Taylor and McLaglen, Perry details the horrors of the gallows while taunting Jock about how his buddy in the government is going to let him twist in the wind. At last Jock cracks and speaks the crucial name. In a modern picture this revelation of the "big bad" would certainly portend another action climax, but the fate of this guilty man ultimately proves irrelevant. Instead, the sole remaining drama is whether Perry will hang. He writes a letter to the President expecting a quick response and release, only to learn that ... well, read your history books. Now Perry's only chance is to get the visiting Lil to appeal to the new President, Theodore Roosevelt (played to this point by Sidney Blackmer as a blowhard buffoon). This means he has to explain that he was a government plant all along -- a rat, to Lil's mind. Not only has he betrayed her brother, but she also assumes that his love for her was all fake. Those still seeking subtext can make of that what they like. In a rage she tells him to go hang, but being a fickle female she soon thinks better of this and is off to the White House to straighten things out.

We never do find out when Perry died, but the film died long before. Stanwyck and Taylor didn't team up again until 1964, long after they had divorced, in one of William Castle's casting stunts. The fates were against it. She was a freelancer and he was an M-G-M man who didn't get loaned out too often. Also, if This Is My Affair was their showcase as a romantic team, who'd want to see more? I've given it more space than it really deserves only because of the novelty of its appearance on the Fox Movie Channel this week. Even at its best, the channel was poor competition for Turner Classic Movies, but even today it still digs up the occasional long-unseen obscurity. This hackneyed Affair perhaps should have stayed buried, but Classic Hollywood buffs of many sorts may yet find things of interest in it.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Now Playing: AUG. 20, 1933

Let's welcome back our defending champions from last week, playing at the Wisconsin in Milwaukee: Marie Dressler and Wallace Beery in Tugboat Annie.


I wasn't kidding when I called Dressler and Beery America's sweethearts last week. Eighty years ago we had Americans who'd pay money to see two lumbering middle-aged types pitch woo or furniture at one another. Other studios clearly had the idea that unglamorous couples were inherently funny.

This is the third Summerville-Pitts picture from Universal to hit Milwaukee so far this year, and there'll be another in the fall and two more in 1934.  This one happens to be directed by William Wyler, for what that's worth. This series elevated Summerville out of the short subject department, though he'd also been doing character parts in A pictures for some time, most notably his unlikely turn as a folksy German soldier in All Quiet on the Western Front.

Speaking of World War I:


Here's what I thought of this Warner war movie when TCM ran it last year.

Finally, amid the brutality of war and homely people, here's what we call counter programming at the Palace.


Dietrich gets a vacation from Josef von Sternberg this time, taking her direction from Rouben Mamoulian instead. I haven't seen it, but I think I have it on DVD somewhere. If so, I'll try to watch it this week. Stay tuned!

Sunday, August 18, 2013

The Great Gonzo: Toshiro Mifune in RED LION (1969)

Something was in the air in the wild world of cinema at the end of the 1960s: a spirit that mingled comedy and tragedy at a time of mostly (and often violently) thwarted revolutionary enthusiasm. In Japan, one of the expressions of that conflicted spirit was this Toshiro Mifune production directed by Kihachi Okamoto, best known for the black-and-white bloodbath Sword of Doom. The great star and "John Wayne of Japan" made one of his occasional forays into buffoonery that just happened to suit the insurrectionary mood of the moment while somehow critiquing and arguably affirming it all at once.

The time is the Meiji Restoration of one hundred years earlier, when progressive forces rose against the feudalism of the Tokugawa Shogunate by demanding a return to "direct" Imperial rule. Gonzo (Mifune) is a bumpkin driven from his village by the old regime after his girlfriend Tomi was forced into prostitution to pay off tax debts. At the start of our story he's a soldier in the pro-Emperor Sekiho army, whose officers are distinguished by their flaming red "lion" headresses. To win popular support, the Sekiho forces are promising drastic tax cuts and forgiveness of past tax debts. As the army nears Gonzo's village, he begs for the opportunity to enter the town ahead of the army to win the people over. Given a red mane and other imperial regalia, he hopes to redeem his own reputation while liberating Tomi (Shima Iwashita) and avenging himself on his oppressors. Since Gonzo is a stuttering illiterate blowhard, best known at home for once falling out of a persimmon tree and landing on his head, he better hope that clothes do make the man.

It certainly was brave of Mifune to go through the picture wearing what sometimes looks like a Princess Merida Halloween wig.

For a while, they do. Playing on a superstitious wave of belief in a "world reform" that will come with the return of imperial power, Gonzo succeeds (despite having the damndest time sheathing his sword) in taking over the town, freeing Tomi and other debt slaves, and cancelling debts in a revolutionary jubilee. Reactionary forces bide their time, recruiting the inevitable badass loner ronin (Etsushi Takahashi) while the mysterious "Mobile Force One" schemes to retake the village. History seems to be on Gonzo's side, however, but the triumph of imperial forces is one thing, the triumph of the peasants another -- and despite the proclamations of the Sekiho army, their interests don't exactly coincide.

As Gonzo depends on the Sekiho army to back him up, his allies from the town, sent to contact Gonzo's superiors, learn the terrible truth. Internal conflicts in the imperial forces have resulted in the destruction of the Sekiho army, the decapitation of its leaders, and the rescinding of all promises of debt forgiveness. A new, white-maned army marches on Gonzo's village to eliminate the last vestige of the Sekiho enemy. In a moment of dark irony, Mobile Force One emerges to engage the white-manes -- any imperial force is still their enemy -- and ends up only buying Gonzo time. Not that he does much with it.

Sword of Doom proved that Okamoto knows how to give a film a big finish. He proves it again with the epic finale of Red Lion. Gonzo's friends (and his mother) urge him to escape the village while he can, pointing out how he'd given the peasants hope and could do so again. He's more concerned with finding Tomi in the mounting confusion, not realizing that she's gone to one of the restored officials to beg for Gonzo's life. Spurned, she kills the man and goes down in a hail of white-mane gunfire. Learning her fate, Gonzo basically throws his life away demanding to confront the white-mane leader. His fall provokes what looks like an outburst of collective madness. From the start of the picture, the peasant uprising parallel to the imperial restoration has had as its slogan the dancing chant, "Everything's O.K., never mind." While appealing to Gonzo to save himself, villagers had pointed to children performing the dance and chant even as the white-manes occupy the village. Once Gonzo dies, everyone takes it up, becoming a human wave that at least briefly shoves the white-manes out of town. In translation, the chant sounds oddly complacent, but in context, the effect is more like "We won't get fooled again!" or "We don't give a damn anymore!" or maybe just "Fuck it!" However you interpret it, it's a stunning moment, especially because this time Okamoto doesn't opt for all-out bloodshed. A massacre may happen eventually, maybe even moments after the movie ends, but he and producer Mifune leave that to our imaginations, closing instead on an image of pure revolt.

Red Lion has something to say on several levels. First, there's the historical fact that peasants' lot was not much improved by the imperial restoration. Second, there seems to be a warning to the contemporary audience of 1969 about revolutions devouring their own, or proving less than revolutionary for ordinary people. Third, this is a Toshiro Mifune star vehicle, and the actor-producer has given himself a juicy role that lets him run the gamut from slapstick comedy to epic tragedy while indulging in the expected bladed mayhem. Gonzo is a lord of misrule who gets his comeuppance (which isn't inconsistent with comedy) after living the audience's collective fantasy of power  but also an undisputed hero with his heart (if not his head) in the right place. Red Lion is, arguably, ultimately a comedy the way The Wild Bunch is in the same year in its ultimate suggestion that you have to laugh and keep going. It's a comedy the way Little Big Man was the following year, the comedy in each case leavened with the slaughter of innocents. Like I said, there was something in the air around the world in those days, and Red Lion represents that spirit nearly as well as any film. It has knockout (if not blinding) color cinematography by Takao Saito and masterful spaghetti-esque widescreen direction, contrasting massive close-ups, crowd shots and epic vistas. Okamoto's pictorial virtues require no historical context to be appreciated by movie fans, and Mifune fans will be satisfied simply by the sight of their idol having a blast of a role. It's a picture with some sucker punches for the unwary, but most people may enjoy the ride anyway.

Friday, August 16, 2013


What's the best baseball movie ever made? American fans have many possible answers -- my own pick would be John Sayles's Eight Men Out (1988) -- but foreign baseball films never enter the discussion. Who here has seen any? The American release of I Will Buy You with the Criterion Eclipse collection Masaki Kobayashi Against the System was my first chance to see one. I knew that Japan had made baseball pictures -- the American game is one of their national pastimes. Even Toshiro Mifune put on a uniform in the 1955 film No Time For Tears, and for all I know the Kobayashi film is just the tip of an iceberg of Japanese baseball films. There may be baseball movies from Cuba and elsewhere in Latin America worthy of consideration as well, but that's a subject for another time. For now, it's arguable that as the auteur of The Human Condition, Harakiri, Kwaidan, etc., Kobayashi is the greatest director ever to make a baseball movie -- unless you count John Ford for the two baseball-themed TV programs he directed. Everything depends on how you define a baseball movie. If you define it narrowly as a film in which the dramatic climax is a baseball game, the field becomes very limited and Kobayashi is out. I Will Buy You is actually something closer to Sweet Smell of Success on the baseball diamond: a rat-race noir lamenting the corruptions and compromises of commercialized existence.

A noirish entrance into a twisted world

Kobayashi's film chronicles the intense competition among several professional clubs for the collegiate star player Goro Kurita (Minoru Ooki). College baseball in Japan was apparently a bigger spectator sport in the Fifties than its American counterpart was -- or is today, compared to college football or basketball. Speculation over whom Kurita will sign with becomes a sports-media obsession, making this black-and-white movie seem very contemporary for modern viewers. We root by default for the Toyo Flowers, whose scout Daisuke Kishimoto (Keiji Sada) is our protagonist. We first see him on a long trek to sign another prospect from the provinces, who ends up useless because he's lost a finger in an accident. That adds to the pressure to bag Kurita, but to do so Kishimoto has to butter up Kurita's personal coach, the dyspeptic Ippei Kyuki (Yunosuke Ito). Kyuki claims to hate everyone except his meal ticket Kurita. He spurns Kishimoto's gift of fine sake because he's on medication, but Kobayashi allows a suspicion to build that Kyuki is at least partially shamming as part of his emotional manipulation of Kurita and his family. Goro's brothers are self-interested negotiators in their own right -- Kishimoto equates one of them with Godzilla in a telling early acknowledgment of a rival studio's blockbuster from two years before. Kyuki claims that the family authorized him to negotiate exclusively on Goro's behalf, but opportunities arise for everyone to change their minds. Complicating the negotiations further are the Taniguchi sisters, girlfriends of both Kyuki and Kurita. The rival clubs will play Kurita's friends and relatives against each other, each thinking he or she has a special influence on Goro, but none having as much as any thinks.

Above, Kishimoto makes Kyuki an offer he can refuse.
Below, is Kyuki's agonized farewell at the train station just a game?

Resuming its modern role as America's top pupil after World War II, Japan shared Americans' postwar perplexity at the rise of the "organization man" or "salaryman," as if the white-collar vanguard were Nietzsche's dully decadent Last Men if not something more sinister. There's something quaintly naive in the shock expressed in this era at the prevailing "business is business" attitude, and I Will Buy You can't help but seem very quaint in its horrified discovery that baseball is a business. The real horror, however, isn't so much the system but the way the cogs turn on one another in pursuit of personal advancement. Kobayashi remains conscious throughout of the emotionally manipulative nature of the material, and he manipulates it cleverly, keeping you wondering how sick Kyuki really is and thus walking a melodramatic tightrope.  The payoff feels almost unintentionally ironic; after everyone has tried to manipulate Goro's choice to suit their selfish interests, he ends up making a decision pretty much for his own baseball-based reasons. Yet Kobayashi has so immersed us in the emotional urgency of all the competing interests that Goro ends up looking like a selfish bastard. The moral can only be that the "system" has made a tragic outcome inevitable by pitting everyone against each other and flourishing on that competition. Inevitably it seems overwrought, but maybe our judgment is jaded. It's possible that in our complacence over what "business" requires of us that we need to go to the past to see the present with fresh eyes. I Will Buy You is minor Kobayashi and no rival to the best American baseball movies, but to the extent that this Japanese picture mirrors our own sports culture, it may still make you think about how our culture or our attitudes have changed in half a century or so -- for better or worse.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Pre-Code Parade: THE SON-DAUGHTER (1932)

As Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer's all-purpose ethnic player, Ramon Novarro boasted to at least one magazine during the production of Clarence Brown's film that he could and would play Chinese without makeup. Here Novarro found his limit, however, for on film he wears, at the least, more makeup than Edward G. Robinson did for The Hatchet Man. Worse, with Son-Daughter cast entirely with non-Chinese in makeup, Novarro's accent, previously his main asset as an ethnic specialist, makes him stick out as more foreign yet less "Chinese" than the rest of the ensemble. Worse still for a star fighting to survive as new standards of cinematic masculinity undercut his standing as a leading man, Novarro's is a supporting role.

The star of the show and title character is Helen Hayes, the future First Lady of the American Theater and defending Academy Award champion as Best Actress for her work in The Sin of Madelon Claudet. Movie fans may remember Hayes as a lovable old lady in Seventies movies and the winner of a second Oscar for Airport. If they're less familiar with the younger Hayes, despite the first Oscar, that may be because in 1935 she beat a hasty retreat from Hollywood after a box-office losing streak and made no other films, apart from a cameo as herself in Stage Door Canteen, until the 1950s. Son-Daughter will give you an idea of why she fled. In short, Hayes is awful, trapped in a stereotyped conception of a romantic Chinese woman that was already antique when she made the movie. Brown's film is based on a play by David Belasco, whose interest in things Asian also resulted, indirectly, in The Hatchet Man and the opera Madame Butterfly. The Son-Daughter is a tale of intrigue in the Chinese-American community at the time of the 1911 revolution that replaced the Manchu Dynasty with a republic. The progressive Chinese of San Francisco are raising money to buy arms for the revolutionaries, while agents of the Manchus seek to thwart them by trickery and murder. One of the progressive Chinese is Dr. Dong Tong. Lewis Stone plays this role, and while that fact slowly settles in your mind let me inform you that even he is more plausible as a Chinese than Hayes. She plays Lian Wha, his daughter, beloved and yet a disappointment to her father simply because she's female. She has a crush on Mr. Tom Lee (Novarro), a college student who turns out to be the incognito son of a pro-revolution prince. Hayes and Novarro enact some insufferable scenes of Chinese courtship as imagined by Belasco and his successors at M-G-M. These scenes are best left to an imagination best left suppressed. But woe! They cannot marry, not even after the good doctor learns of Tom's princely heritage. Instead, Dong Tong must arrange her marriage to a rich businessman, for money, for the cause. The revolutionaries need to raise $100,000 to get another crucial shipload of arms across the Pacific, and four arranged marriages, at a price, should do the trick.

Alas, the Manchu hatchet men are on to the plan. Led by the mysterious "Sea Crab," they eliminate three of the prospective brides. That leaves only the reluctant Lian Wha on the market, but when the chips are down and the old country's future is on the line, our girl earns the coveted "Son-Daughter" title by forcing up the bidding until one lucky man has to pay the whole hundred grand -- in 1911 money! -- to win her hand. That Helen Hayes in yellowface is considered worth the equivalent of eight figures in modern money is possibly this film's most fantastic element.


Here's a promotional contest from a Toledo newspaper.

Still greater woe! The winning bidder is the gambler Fen Sha, who we know already to be none other than Charlie Ch --I mean the Sea Crab. Yes, it's Warner Oland, who by the standard set by the rest of the cast may as well be Chow Yun-Fat, so much closer does he come, if only through familiarity, to the illusion of authenticity in Chinese parts. When playing Chinese, Oland had two choices: he was Charlie Chan, or he was the villain. Here he is not Charlie Chan, though the film arguably makes an inside joke at Oland's expense after Fen Sha's Manchu handler answers a run of Chan-style shtick with "I find proverbs wearisome." More appealing to this imperial stooge is Sea Crab's scheme to marry the girl, kill Dong Tong, keep his money and keep the arms ship in San Francisco. He has the doctor whacked during his carriage ride home from the wedding. Check. He pockets the bride price. Check. When Tom Lee intrudes on his villainy, Sea Crab shoots him. Bonus. But in the moment of his triumph, Sea Crab hasn't reckoned upon the wrath of the Son-Daughter. What follows could only have been more absurd had Hayes and Oland used kung fu on each other, but it doesn't look like anyone in America in 1932 knew what kung fu was. (Aside: it's hilarious to read pulp fiction of the period and see American writers assuring readers that Chinese people don't know how to fight). Instead, birdlike Hayes takes out burly Oland by strangling him with his own queue of hair, the proverbial pigtail of racist caricature.  At film's close she's making sure those arms get to China by riding the ship herself. Heaven help the Manchus.

Unlike the ad at the head of this review, some of the Metro publicity was more coy about how the stars would look in the movie, even while presuming common knowledge of the original play.

The Son-Daughter boasts some impressive sets and some menacing cinematography from  Oliver T. Marsh. It often strikes the right notes of intrigue and suspense, and might almost count as a good movie whenever the star is off-screen. Poor Novarro has what looks like a hero role, but given the femme focus he ends up more like a stooge. He needed to stay away from roles like this one and his in Mata Hari where he merely squires the leading lady. Such roles, I suspect, did more to undercut his stardom than any suspicions about his sexuality. Reviewers recognized Son-Daughter as part of an "oriental cycle" that lasted through the Pre-Code era and went in some more intriguing directions (e.g. The Bitter Tea of General Yen, The Cat's Paw) before it was over. Compared to M-G-M's other, better-known contribution to this cycle, The Mask of Fu Manchu, Son-Daughter may as well be Cheyenne Autumn, but the typical refusal to cast authentic Asians (C'mon man! Anna May Wong even had experience killing Warner Oland on screen) can't help making Brown's picture look nearly as racist as that more overtly Sinophobic picture.  I'm sure the creators dating back to Belasco had good intentions in portraying Chinese longing for liberty, but in its final film form Son-Daughter now has little more than camp value.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Now Playing: AUGUST 13, 1933

After an uninspiring week when Mary Stevens M.D. was the highlight in Milwaukee, let's take a fresh look at what's playing. Star vehicles predominate this week, starting with one of the hottest actors of the year so far.

Lee Tracy as an amusingly unscrupulous ambulance chaser seemed a natural at the time. Here's how M-G-M promoted it to movie audiences, thanks to

The big Metro release of the week is a two-star affair reuniting America's unlikeliest sweethearts.

The title character appeared in a series of comic stories in the Saturday Evening Post starting in 1931. Norman Reilly Raine wrote Tugboat Annie stories into the 1960s and the character got a short-lived TV series in the 1950s. As for Dressler and Beery, the 1930s was one of those periods, like the 1970s, when unconventional figures and personalities could become matinee idols. Dressler had only a year to live, while Beery settled into B pictures (by M-G-M standards) by the end of the decade.

Speaking of older stars, here's one of the oldest.

TCM ran Voltaire a while ago and I managed to see it. Arliss is an odd actor, alternating between raspy, sardonic underplaying and hambone histrionics. He isn't exactly my idea of Voltaire, but he does hold your attention. Warner Bros. took a more entertaining view of pre-Revolutionary France in Madame du Barry the following year. This is a rare Warner Pre-Code feature for which TCM does not have a trailer, alas.

Here's an old star in a different sense of the word old.

Swanson wasn't as thoroughly eclipsed by the coming of sound as her alter ego Norma Desmond. Her first talkie had actually been a hit, but she seems to have been one of those star personalities who too well embodied an era that the Depression had made repellantly obsolete. She'd make Music in the Air the following year, then only one more feature between 1934 and Sunset Blvd. in 1950.

Finally, there is stardom, and then there is celebrity. Other Milwaukee theaters may depend on star power this week, but the Palace takes a chance on one of the year's unexpected celebrities.

I doubt whether this silent clip uploaded to YouTube by travelfilmarchive is the actual footage Palace patrons saw, but it's the only footage I could find that was definitely from the Streets of Paris attraction at the Chicago fair. Sally's bit starts at the 2:39 mark and goes to the end of the clip.

As the ad says, judge for yourselves!

Monday, August 12, 2013

Jafar Panahi in THIS IS NOT A FILM (2011)

The director Jafar Panahi made two of my favorite Iranian movies: the small-time crime drama Crimson Gold (2003) and Offside (2006), an impressive bit of guerrilla filmmaking about female soccer fans sneaking into a men-only stadium. Since then, Panahi has been at increasing odds with what seemed an increasingly reactionary government during the Ahmadinejad administration. During the turmoil following the disputed 2009 election, Panahi was arrested but quickly released with an apology. After making public his sympathy with the opposition at the Montreal Film Festival, he was arrested again in 2010. This time he was accused of making propaganda against the Islamic Republic, apparently for working on a documentary about the recent unrest. The verdict amounted to a blacklist with the force of law. Panahi was sentenced to six years in prison; beyond that, he was forbidden to direct movies or communicate with foreigners for twenty years. Iran does allow appeals, and the prison part of his sentence appears to amount to a loose form of house arrest. But it's the ban on directing that hurts -- not that he's taken it lying down.


Mojtaba Mirtahmasb is the credited director of This Is Not a Film, but it's plainly Panahi's show. Shot on a camcorder and iPhone, it's a document of Panahi's isolated existence during the appeal process. Confined to his pretty nice apartment, with his family out visiting relatives and only his pet iguana for company, Panahi can have visitors and so summons Mirtahmasb to film his musings on frustrated projects. Close to his heart now understandable reasons is a screenplay he was denied permission to film about a young woman imprisoned by her parents to prevent her attending art school. He believes he can tell the story and even demonstrate how he would have shot it by using tape on his carpet to lay out the girl's apartment. The inadequacy of it all gets to him, however, and he flees to his balcony to brood. Fortunately, he has a very picturesque view of a massive construction project across the street.


Panahi's impulse is to protest and struggle, but his humane storytelling instincts gradually take over in the second half of the 78-minute film. A neighbor from another floor shows up to ask the director to take care of her dog Micky while she goes out. He initially agrees but gives the dog back before the girl is out the door because it scares his iguana. In the final act of the movie, Panahi takes an elevator ride with a college student who takes out everyone's garbage. In a bright moment of comic unity, they end up on the girl's floor and she tries to inflict Micky on the student, who proves even more reluctant than Panahi to deal with the animal. At last they reach the ground floor and go into the courtyard, the student cautioning Panahi not to venture out with his camera. As we'd seen earlier from the balcony, this is "Fireworks Wednesday," a periodic show of dissent denounced on the news that day as having no religious basis. It's almost too perfect a visual summation of the life of the street and the vein of protest from which Panahi has been isolated. At the same time the spontaneous moments of comedy he captures tie in to his reflections (illustrated by an American DVD of Crimson Gold, among others) on the virtues of casting amateur actors in his movies.

Since then, it turns out, Panahi has managed to make another clandestine film that premiered at the 2013 Berlin Film Festival. I don't know whether he's suffered any reprisal for doing this, and one might expect (or at least hope for) an amnesty (should it be in his power) from the new administration of President Rouhani. For the most part, This Is Not a Film is for Panahi fans only, or for people interested as much in Iranian politics as in Iranian cinema. Still, even those who know Panahi only as a kind of martyr, an Iranian counterpart to the Hollywood Ten, may see in it the qualities that make movie fans around the world hope he can make movies without Dada disclaimers in the near future.