Sunday, July 15, 2018

Pre-Code Parade: DIPLOMANIACS (1933)

Ever since I read Harry Jenkins' What Made Pistachio Nuts?, a critical account of the rise and fall of vaudeville-inspired "nut" comedy in the early sound era, I've wanted to see Diplomaniacs, a Wheeler and Woolsey vehicle Jenkins treated as an exemplar of the subgenre's disregard for conventional narrative. What mattered most was not narrative coherence or traditional appeals to morals or emotions, Jenkins wrote, but giving the star performers opportunities to do their distinctive thing. In time nut comedy was supplanted by screwball comedy and other "classical" subgenres that offered audiences a more comfortable immersion in cinematic fantasy worlds, but for a time the novelty of funny voices and a certain sense of cynical absurdity in the face of the Depression made comics like Wheeler and Woolsey popular. Their films were personal showcases, but in retrospect, their fame having long since faded compared to the Marx Bros., the pair seem more like cogs in comic machines, consistent with what's struck me as a tendency of their home studio, RKO, to reduce comic actors to human cartoons. Diplomaniacs is an especially infernal machine, directed by William A. Seiter but effectively devised by co-writer Joseph L. Manckiewicz, who trod similar pseudo-political territory the previous year with Paramount's Million Dollar Legs. In other words, Diplomaniacs is in the same neighborhood as Duck Soup, and shares some cast members, but Jenkins warns us against thinking of any of these films primarily as political satires. Politics, he argues, only provided a setting appropriate for the antics of the nut comics. Films like these are anti-war only insofar as they're anti-everything.

The film opens on a note of initially questionable relevance, informing us that American Indians don't grow facial hair, as demonstrated by one specimen showing us his left and right profile. This isn't as surreal as it looks, since it leads to our discovery that Wheeler and Woolsey, or whatever they're calling themselves this time, are running a barber shop on an Oklahoma reservation. Here's a real history lesson for you: the boys are flopping because the barber business back then depended on people coming in regularly to be shaved instead of showing up periodically for a trim. Despite this miscalculation, the oil-rich tribe finds a use for the barbers. Hearing them pontificate on foreign affairs (one of the film's few coherent editorial points is that many nations are deadbeats when it comes to debts they owe the U.S.), the Oxford-educated chief who enters in a limo and is almost too erudite for our heroes to comprehend commissions them to represent his nation at the latest round of Geneva peace talks. Given the generous expense account that comes with the work, the Indians expect results. Should the neophyte diplomats (later explicitly identified in the press as "diplomaniacs") fail to negotiate a favorable settlement, including a permanent anti-war pledge, the chief will turn them into gorillas. Is this typical native witch-doctoring? Since the chief keeps a caged ape he claims was once the most beautiful woman in Paris, it's best for the boys not to take chances.

Recognizing the Oopa-Doop tribe's intervention in international affairs as a potential game-changer like the emergence of Wakanda, powerful arms manufacturer Winklereid (Louis Calhern, Groucho's antagonist in Duck Soup) and his Chinaman-for-hire (Hugh Herbert) scheme to sabotage the Indian mission. Naturally, what you do in such a situation is order up a vamp. Amazon today has nothing on the technology of Diplomaniacs; no sooner has Chow Chow called in the order than the vamp, wrapped in plastic, arrives through a delivery chute. Regrettably, the script doesn't follow up on the possibility that Dolores (Marjorie White) is some kind of robot, but I suppose it's funnier to imagine a real person getting dispatched to her new job in that fashion. Recognizing later that there are two men to vamp, Winklereid and his entourage visit the Dead Rat cafe to recruit uber-seductress Fifi (Phyllis Barry), whose kisses can set people on fire internally and make dangerous projectiles when blown at you. You see, Wheeler and Woolsey usually get love interests in their pictures, and here they are, only marginally more dedicated to their malevolent tasks than the Marxes were when they were hired as hitmen in Monkey Business.


That's about enough set-up. From this point the film is pretty much a sequence of set pieces climaxing when our heroes finally arrive, in appropriate Alpine gear, at the Geneva conference where Edgar Kennedy (Chico and Harpo's antagonist from Duck Soup) presides in two-fisted fashion. There's no time for slow burns in this picture; Kennedy goes from zero to machine gun in career-best time here. During an acrobatic performance the diplomaniacs argue incoherently in favor of an anti-war resolution while Winklereid, taking no chances, throws a classic cartoon bomb into the conference room. The resulting sooty explosion transforms the representatives of many nations into African-Americans, down to the fat white lips shown by such typical specimens of the race as Al Jolson and Eddy Cantor. More than six months before Duck Soup, we get a spiritually-inflected musical number affirming that "All God's Chillun Want Peace." Later, the bomb having failed, Winklereid and his fellow conspirators consider killing the imminently successful diplomaniacs with an experimental explosive bullet, but succeed only in vaporizing themselves, leaving only their clothes to float where they were left. Fortunately, Winklereid's fallback plan of planting a forged treaty on the boys succeeds beyond expectations. Once the fake news is exposed, the film ends with the world at war, Wheeler and Woolsey drafted into the U.S. army (perhaps for gorilla warfare?) and the bad guys looking down with approval from a heavenly cloud.

Damn! Diplomaniacs really does outdo Jenkins' description.It's a comedy of absolute ruthlessness with no pretense of likability unless you, like some girl in each film in the series, find Bert Wheeler strangely cute. Its almost ideological absurdity is highlighted by Hugh Herbert's performance as Chow Chow, the whole point of which is the absurdity of the casting. Chow Chow kvetches at Winklereid from the moment of his arrival, lapses into odd ethnic accents, experiences a flashback of his mother when meeting the notorious Fifi, comments that white vamps, compared to those of other colors, get dirty more easily, and utters proverbs such as "Sex of one, half dozen of another." In the picture's most flamboyant act of narrative vandalism, Chow Chow quits his role as Winklereid's henchman in mid-picture, climbing down from a tree branch and starting home from Paris to China. Shortly afterward, we find him sailing homeward, passing a floating signpost laden with advertising. A few minutes later, we cut back to him arriving in China, where Mrs. Chow Chow berates him for arriving five years late for dinner. During that time she acquired several small children because, as she explains, she wanted to surprise him.  Digressions like this one make Diplomaniacs look more stylistically up-to-date than it might have been when Jenkins was writing his books. People who watch it should find it very reminiscent, if not pre-miniscent, of today's absurdist prime-time cartoons, and its overall everything's-a-joke attitude can be found all over the place in our time, sometimes to an unpleasant degree. As a Wheeler and Woolsey vehicle it's whatever; those two haven't stood the test of time in cultural consciousness because they never really developed, either verbally or visually, personae as readily recognized and embraced as those of the Marxes. But as a comedy picture Diplomaniacs is a belligerent blitzkrieg that may be more simply stunning than purely funny but is nevertheless an amazing hour to sit through if you get the chance.

Thursday, July 12, 2018

DVR Diary: SANDOKAN THE GREAT (...la tigre di Mompracem, 1964)

The late Umberto Lenzi (he died in October 2017) may be best known today for his cannibal films of the 1970s. He started out making period adventure films, and by 1964 he was assigned an Italian pop-culture icon: Sandokan, the anti-imperialist Malaysian pirate hero of Emilio Salgari's novels published between 1883 and 1913. Contemporaneously with Italy's infamous failure to conquer Ethiopia and the establishment of colonial rule over Libya, Salgari's protagonist battled the ever-expanding British empire. The anti-colonial 1960s were a ripe time for a Sandokan revival with Steve "Hercules" Reeves in the title role. Sandokan the Great, as it was called in the U.S., was the first of a four-film series, the first two of which starred Reeves under Lenzi's direction. The series carried on with a new director and Ray Danton as Sandokan while Lenzi made two more exploitation pictures featuring a character called Sandok, offered as "The Maciste of the Jungle." In the premiere outing Reeves traipses about in a costume out of Hollywood's Arabian Knights fantasies and is overall less concerned with flexing his famous muscles than with something more like swashbuckling. He, his tea-obsessed sidekick Yanez from Portuguese-ruled Goa (Andrea Bosic) and Sandokan's mostly-loyal followers wage guerrilla warfare against the Brits, who answer less to the empire proper than to a character here called Lord Bromm who is really John Brooke, the historical White Rajah of Sarawak, the big bad of Salgari's books. Along the way Sandokan kidnaps a British official's daughter who gradually becomes radicalized (Genevieve Grad) and must worry about a traitor within his ranks. The traitor mystery is handled rather half-assedly and the action overall is rather unspectacular, and quite landlocked for the adventures of a reputed pirate, until we come to the climactic attack on a British fort, where Reeves gets to show some strength and the pace quickens as we near the end. The film's main assets are Lenzi's locations and Reeves's reliably heroic presence. Apart from the exotic locales and the appearance of a somewhat less civilized yet friendly tribe, nothing here really suggests what Lenzi will become as a director. Compared to his horror films Sandokan is kiddie stuff, and it probably was such on its own terms. TCM broadcast Sandokan recently while you can find its immediate sequel, as I did years ago, in some cheapo Mill Creek boxed sets. If you don't expect much from them they make for undemanding light entertainment with just a hint of progressive political consciousness to make it worth some people's while, but not so much to turn others off.

Saturday, July 7, 2018

ANT-MAN AND THE WASP (2018) in SPOILERVISION

Director Peyton Reed, star and co-writer Paul Rudd and the supporting cast for 2015's Ant-Man return for the inevitable sequel, and if you've seen the first one, you've pretty much seen this one. Last seen on the losing side of Captain America: Civil War, Scott Lang (Rudd) was sentenced to house arrest and is days away from completing his sentence when a strange vision brings him back into contact with his estranged mentor, Dr. Hank Pym (Michael Douglas), and Pym's daughter Hope (Evangeline Lilly), still fugitives held responsible for Lang's use of Pym's shrinking-growing suit during the 2016 conflict. Coincident with the Pyms' attempt to contact the quantum realm, where Janet Van Dyne was lost thirty years earlier, Lang has a vision suggesting that during his short time in the quantum realm he had somehow made contact with the original Wasp (Michelle Pfeiffer, returning to superhero cinema after more than a quarter-century). Much as they resent Lang for forcing them into a fugitive life, the Pyms realize that he's essential to their plan to rescue Janet through all manner of quantum-this, quantum-that technology. Not only must Lang risk a longer sentence for breaking house arrest, and not only must the Pyms perform delicate science on the run, but all three have to deal with people muscling in on their work. A gangster (Walton Goggins) who'd provided the Pyms with crucial components for their projects now wants commercial control over their work, while a super-powered interloper who comes to be called Ghost (Hannah John-Kamen) wants access to the quantum realm to cure her chronic intangibility, the by-product of an accident that killed her father, a former Pym colleague. Meanwhile, the audience expects the Infinity War to break out at any moment, and when it does in mid-credits, the consequences are dire.

That necessary business aside, has any film ever been more about fathers and daughters than this one? Not only do we continue the daughter-surpassing-the-father storyline of the first film, as Hope gets a shrinking costume of her own, and not only are we reminded of Scott's bond with his young daughter (Abby Ryder Fortson), but even Ghost has a father figure in yet another of Pym's old partners, rival scientist and long-ago "Black Goliath" Bill Foster (Laurence Fishburne). Resentment of Pym conflicts with humanitarian instincts as Foster initially strives to help Ghost but ultimately recoils from the selfish ruthlessness of the former SHIELD assassin, who has a mad notion of leeching quantum energy from Janet Van Dyne, should the good guys reach her, in order to save herself. I'm not sure what the point of this triplication is, unless the point is that these storylines are increasingly common as we insist on female empowerment in genre cinema. Whatever the point, Ghost is an entertaining enough villain but suffers from having to share the screen with Goggins and his gangsters, while everyone suffers from the involvement of a bunch of FBI idiots and especially from the return of Scott Lang's ex-con buddies (Michael Pena, Tip Harris and David Dastmalchian), who are now his partners in a budding security business. Those three were just about insufferable in the first film, and there's no question of their insufferability in the sequel. The film, really a Marvel B-movie, is bloated by comedy relief, including a reprise of the storytelling gimmick from the first film in which Pena's character recaps previous events, putting his words in the other actors' mouths. It was interesting the first time, but never since. At least Pena has some natural likability and his character has something of a personality. Dastmalchian's personality boils down to superstition, and Harris doesn't even have that. Nor is Rudd himself particularly hilarious in his comic showcases; Scott Lang often seems more like a shtick than a character, and it's hard to know what more can be done with him, even as we're promised that he'll return in another sequel if not sooner.

For all that the comedy was tiresome, the action kept me interested. While the fight choreography itself is nothing special, the idea of people who can shrink and grow (though the Wasp never becomes giant like Lang can) fighting someone who can turn insubstantial gives an inventive quality to the battles between Ghost and the title characters. I was also amused by the chase scenes with shrunken cars racing through San Francisco, which seem partly an homage to the toy-car chase scene in the SF-set The Dead Pool. These bits are good enough for me to spare Ant-Man and the Wasp a thumbs-down, though the stale comedy parts make it slightly worse than the original film. Both are definitely lower-tier Marvel films, but that seems to be understood by all going in. It also seemed to be understood that something light and possibly funny was needed after the sturm und drang of Infinity War and before the heavy lifting of its sequel next year. That the Ant-Man films are mere programmers by Marvel standards shouldn't be held against them, but I think we have a right to expect a third film to escape the rut the filmmakers seem determined to drive the series into. More of the same next time will be more difficult to forgive.