Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Pre-Code Parade: THE MAYOR OF HELL (1933)

Jimmy Cagney doesn't show up until about 24 minutes into this Archie Mayo picture; until then, it's a Frankie Darro movie. In 1933 the teenaged acting veteran -- he'd been working since 1924 -- got the nearest thing to a big-studio push he'd ever get. Darro would make his biggest mark on Hollywood history later the same year, and also for Warner Bros., in William Wellman's Wild Boys of the Road, though for some audiences he may be best known for his role in the one-of-a-kind Gene Autry sci-fi serial The Phantom Empire from 1935. In 1933 Darro seemed to symbolize youth on the precipice during the Great Depression, a kid whose relatively small stature represented an endangered innocence disguised by a wishful toughness.

In Mayor of Hell Darro plays Jimmy, the leader of a small, impeccably multicultural street gang. A presumptive WASP, Jimmy consorts easily with Italian, Jewish and black kids -- the last played by Allen Hoskins under his Our Gang name, "Farina." They're petty thieves and extortionists, offering to watch your car for a quarter and vandalizing it if you refuse. They all seem to suffer from inadequate if not absent fathers -- Warners stalwart Robert Barrat appears all-too-briefly as Jimmy's mysteriously bitter dad during a protracted juvenile-court scene (Arthur Byron presiding) after the gang is pinched. Byron nudges the parents into consigning their kids to reform school, apparently not knowing the horror to which he's condemned them.

Jimmy (Frankie Darrow, on the ground above left) blames his dad (Robert Barrat, below center) for his abrupt decline from honor student to juvenile delinquent.

This particular reformatory is run by Thompson (Dudley Digges), a petty tyrant who seems interested only in putting the kids to work. Conditions prove unbearable for Jimmy, who takes advantage of the confusion created by the abrupt arrival of a new deputy state commissioner to attempt an escape. Patsy Gargan (Cagney) is a political appointee, a "ward-heeler" who controls 5,000 votes and wants an undemanding sinecure as compensation. He's breezily indifferent to the responsibilities of his office, expecting Thompson to write his reports for him, until he witnesses Jimmy's escape attempt. The lad doesn't get very far, ending up stuck on a barbed-wire fence as Thompson flogs him until he falls off. Something stirs in Gargan at the sight. Something else stirs when he meets the pretty, conscientious head nurse (Madge Evans), who has progressive theories on reforming delinquent youth. Resenting an inferred slight at his own background when Thompson condemns the kids as slum scum, Patsy resolves to be a hands-on commissioner, implementing many of Nurse Dorothy's ideas, if only at first to remain near her.

Thompson (Dudley Digges) turns squeamish at the thought of drinking from Patsy Gargan's flask, but relishes his work flogging Jimmy.

Dorothy has been reading up on the "boy's republic" idea, already implemented in real life in several states, in which troubled boys build character through self-government. Deposing Thompson and driving out his old guard, Patsy turns the reform school into a model boy's republic, with Jimmy its unlikely president. The boys run their own legal system on egalitarian principles; Farina is seen acting as a defense attorney when a white boy is accused of stealing a candy bar from the new store -- run stereotypically by one of the Jewish kids. The boys eat well and sport snappy new uniforms. But Patsy's past catches up with him as he returns to the city to put down an uprising in his political organization. When the dispute turns into a gunfight, Patsy has to go on the lam, opening the door for the vindictive Thompson to reassert his authority.

Allen Jenkins (above, left) doesn't get enough to do as Cagney's stooge. Cagney gets plenty, of course.

Things grow worse than ever as Thompson forces Dorothy out and cracks down on the most spirited kids, i.e. Jimmy's crew. When a tubercular pal dies after being left in a cold punishment shed overnight, Jimmy is ready for war. Mayor of Hell becomes a characteristic film of its period in its imagination of an apocalyptic uprising as the kids take over the reformatory and subject Thompson to a kangaroo court trial.  His escape attempt is as futile as Jimmy's earlier effort, but ends more gruesomely. Driven by the flames of a burning building, Thompson falls off a roof, bounces off the barbed-wire fence and lands ignominiously in a pig pen, where one can imagine what the pigs do with him. When Patsy, rediscovering his responsibility to the boys, arrives to calm the crisis, there's a long moment of tension when it seems possible that the enraged boys may turn on both Patsy and Dorothy, both of whom they assume to have abandoned them to Thompson's tender mercies. But movies allow us to eat our cake and have it too, to imagine the insurrection many in 1933 felt was just around the corner but also to reassure themselves that we can all step back at the urging of a voice of reason, to ensure a happy ending. Mayor of Hell has it both ways, ultimately coming out in favor of law, order and peace but pretty much condoning the hounding of Thompson to his death as an act of justice.

By the time Cagney finally shows up, you get the impression that he's been grafted onto what may have been first imagined as a self-sufficient social-problem film, as Wild Boys of the Road would be. While Cagney gives a fine, charismatic performance, his character's improbably evolution into an idealist may be the weakest part of the film. The boys certainly need a sympathetic friend in a high place like Patsy Gargan, but after the first 20 minutes you get the feeling that Darro, Hoskins et al could have carried this picture by themselves without help from a star as big as Cagney. Strange to say, the star's overpowering presence probably prevents Mayor of Hell from being the kind of definitive Depression document that Wild Boys has become in retrospect. Even so, it captures a bit of the dangerous zeitgeist of 1933 in entertaining fashion.

If it's a Warner Bros. picture, has the trailer.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Satan and Dusty Shoes: NOW PLAYING, JULY 30, 1933

Now playing in Milwaukee: the devil, himself:

You can see him at the Warner.

Far from evil is Cagney in this picture, however -- as you'll learn when I review it this week.

Elsewhere, here's one of the titles of the year:

Here is a backstage musical from the director of The Mummy and Mad Love. Karl Freund is no Busby Berkeley, but damned if he doesn't try. For the climactic song, "Dusty Shoes," uploaded to YouTube by perfectjazz78, he tries to do "We're In the Money" and "Remember My Forgotten Man" in one number. Check this out.

... All right, then. Elsewhere still ...

This last one? It's a Columbia picture, and in the end the pregnant heroine kills herself. Welcome to Pre-Code Cinema!

Sunday, July 28, 2013


In some ways, Masaki Kobayashi's Kabe atsuki heya is a dry-run for his three-part World War II epic The Human Condition. Set in a prison for "Class B" and "Class C" Japanese war criminals, it may be best grasped as a film noir variation on themes from the longer film. Its protagonists, as Kobayashi sees it, are taking the fall for their superiors. Sure, some of the top guys took the fall themselves -- in an early scene some prisoners indulge in literal gallows humor in the chamber where Tojo was hanged -- but but many others are prospering while the men who obeyed the orders rot in prison. The liner notes for the Criterion Eclipse DVD claim that the Shochiku studio shelved Thick-Walled Room for three years from fear of offending the American occupiers, but while our boys aren't exactly flattered by the film -- and some of us have strangely Slavic accents when actors speak English on screen -- Kobayashi is really pointing the finger at his own people.

The film focuses on the six occupants of one cell. The two main characters are Yamashita (Torahiko Hamada) and Yokota (Ko Mishima). Yamashita's unit took shelter in a native hut on a South Pacific island late in the war and accepted dinner from its friendly occupant. Yamashita's commanding officer doesn't trust the "savage" not to rat them out to the Allies, so he orders a reluctant Yamashita to kill him. When he's somehow fingered as the killer after the war, Yamashita hopes that his commander will absolve him by admitting responsibility at the trial, but the officer, who soon becomes a peacetime politician, proves a rat and a liar. Yokota is an intellectual who served as a translator in a camp for American POWs. His commander forces him to flog a prisoner who dies soon afterward. Whether for that reason or simply for being a camp guard, Yokota is stuck in prison, where he reads Oscar Wilde's prison writings and causes a scandal when he smuggles news of an escape attempt by Yamashita to his brother, a Communist agitator.

Yamashita longs to take revenge on his old commander, and he seems to get his chance when, despite his escape, he gets a one-day furlough. He confronts the frightened man but sees the face of the native he killed when he thinks of killing another man. Conscience-stricken, and also conscious of the trust his fellow prisoners placed in him, he spares the old officer and closes the picture by telling his buddies, "I'm back."

If you've ever seen the American film noir Act of Violence, think of Yamashita's storyline in Thick-Walled Room like that film told from the point of view of Robert Ryan's avenger rather than Van Heflin's guilty victim. 

If Yamashita ends up on the road to readjustment, others aren't so lucky. Another prisoner in the cell is tormented by surrealist dreams of atrocities and finally hangs himself, while Yamashita had only joked of growing a beard -- despite a warning that Americans don't like facial hair -- so he could use it to hang himself. Symbolically, he shaves the beard for his furlough. If Kobayashi himself seems to sympathize with the opinion that the war-criminal prison doesn't purge crimes from humanity, but purges humanity from the crimes, Yamashita's story gives cause for hope, demonstrating that not everyone need be crushed by the ordeal. The Thick-Walled Room is an effective appeal for equitable treatment of Japan's veterans, a plea against killing the spirits of the rank-and-file while the higher-ups make different kinds of killings in the new economy. In his third-directed (though not third-released) film, Kobayashi is stretching his pictorial muscles -- maybe even invoking Citizen Kane when a prisoner sees snow inside a crystal to trigger a flashback -- while keeping the film grounded in the personal stories of the principal prisoners. It ended up one of three 1956 releases for the director now included in the "Masaki Kobayashi Against the System" collection, followed by the baseball drama I'll Buy You and the more noirish-sounding Black River. Look for reviews on this blog in the weeks to come.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

FRED WILLIAMSON in the Western that Dare Not Speak Its Name!

The newspaper ad above comes from the Baltimore Afro-American. What that shows us is that in 1975 not only did Fred Williamson have no problem producing, writing and starring in a picture called Boss Nigger, but a black-owned newspaper had no problem advertising the title. Similar ads for the movie appeared in white or mainstream newspapers as well -- with controversy or not, I can't say. In 2008, for the DVD release of the picture, Williamson prepared a text preface endorsing its reappearance under its original title, and with the original title song playing on the soundtrack. Conservatively, the DVD company released it under the title Boss. It's pretty certain that few if any movie theaters would show a film called Boss Nigger today, no matter how much a product of African-American auteurship -- albeit directed by a white man, Jack Arnold -- it was. Were race relations easier forty years ago? Depends on where you were, I suppose, but it seems at least that the "N-word" was not the red flag for so many people that it is now. I can't help thinking, too, that cable TV pundits and radio talkers would furiously (if not fearfully) denounce many of the top blaxploitation films were they to first appear today. Many would seem to a certain sensitivity today like incitements to race war, or simply expressions of race hatred. I'm sure some saw them that way in the Seventies, but my nostalgic impression is that white people back then were better sports about it all, more willing to indulge others in their particular fantasies -- and quite likely enjoying them themselves.

This is some setup for a pretty bad movie. Boss Nigger betrays its low budget and quickie schedule in almost every frame. Jack Arnold's triumphs as a director were two decades in the past, and the former sci-fi specialist at Universal brings little pictorial imagination to Williamson's story, or else he and Williamson, as co-producers, lacked the resources to bring either man's imagination to life. Much of the action plays out in poorly staged long takes, leaving the picture with little of the epic (or mock-epic) sweep the producers presumably aspired to. There's a particularly bad comic bit in which D'Urville Martin, as Williamson's sidekick, is trying to reach through a window and club a guard in a rocking chair with his pistol. Martin's reach is too short and he keeps missing. There's the beginning of a sight gag here, but they payoff would be to somehow get the guard rocking further and further back until Martin can whack him -- the gag is the rocking of the chair. Instead, Arnold has a captive woman in the room pretend to seduce the guard and simply shove the chair toward the window so Martin can strike home. That's typical of the inept comedy of the picture. Arnold had presumably proven himself as a comedy director by handling Peter Sellers in The Mouse That Roared, but here his touch is leaden. Fred Williamson is no Peter Sellers, of course, but bear in mind that Fred was after even bigger comic game.

Some of the ads for Boss Nigger wishfully label it "Another Blazing Saddles." It's tempting to dismiss the Williamson/Arnold picture as a ripoff of Blazing Saddles and to note that, in challenging Mel Brooks and Richard Pryor on the field of comedy, Fred and Jack were bringing a knife to a nuclear war. The facts suggest something more like coincidence. Boss Nigger was being mentioned as Williamson's next project as early as the spring of 1973, after the actor had made two successful "Nigger Charley" movies. Blazing Saddles wasn't released until February 1974, but Boss Nigger didn't make it into theaters until a year after that. The point of similarity, of course, is that in both films a black man becomes the sheriff of an Old West town. It wouldn't surprise me if Williamson had seen some version of a Blazing Saddles script, or if he had been offered the role that went to Cleavon Little after Warner Bros. wouldn't let Brooks cast Pryor. Whether he did or not, the one thing Williamson's own script for Boss Nigger has going for it is its discovery of a conceptual space not covered by Brooks, Pryor et al yet ideally suited for blaxploitation. In Blazing Saddles the black sheriff is a dupe, a pawn in Hedley Lamarr's plot to destroy the town of Rock Ridge, imposed on the town by Lamarr and his pal the governor. In Boss Nigger, Boss the bounty hunter (Williamson) takes over the town of San Miguel on his own initiative and for his own purpose. Boss wants the town and its jail as a base of operations from which to wage war on the gang of Jed Clayton (William Smith), with no nobler ultimate purpose, at first, than to collect the big bounty on Clayton's head. Much more so than in Blazing Saddles, the black sheriff in Boss Nigger becomes a lord of misrule. A lot of the labored comedy in the middle section comes from Boss and his sidekick Amos enforcing their "Black Laws," empowering themselves to fine or jail anyone who disrespects them by using the N-word or by any other means. Williamson and Arnold never really manage to make this funny, but the idea isn't bad.

Comedy may not come naturally to Fred Willamson, and at times Boss Nigger becomes quite uncomic. Williamson gives Boss a social conscience by having him befriend the Mexican peons who live in impoverished segregation at the edge of town. He plays Moses by confiscating goods from the general store and distributing them to the peons. He and Arnold play mawkishly for pathos by having one boy befriended by Boss trampled to death by the horses of Clayton's gang after tumbling to the ground in slow motion. Later, Boss's girlfriend, the town's only other black person, is shot dead by Clayton, and there's nothing comic about Boss's vengeance. Clayton had given Boss his own beatdown earlier, and there's nothing comic about William Smith's villainy. Williamson and Arnold cast well for a big, mean bully, and Smith is one of the few performers to fully deliver the goods here. At the very end, Boss Nigger achieves something like an epic poignancy after Boss kills Clayton, only to be gravely wounded by the town's conniving mayor (R. G. Armstrong). Convinced (against Amos's assurances) that his wounds are mortal, Boss becomes desperate to leave San Miguel. He doesn't want to die in a white man's town, and he spurns the appeal of the white schoolmarm who befriended him (Barbara Leigh) to go with him. His few white friends, including the doctor and the blacksmith, load him into a wagon for Amos to drive away. On their way, they pass through the Mexican quarter, and the body of Boss's girl is loaded into the wagon. There's something of Shane in this ending, with the hero departing not dead but most likely dying -- despite Fred Willamson's admonition that he should never die (and should get the girl) in his own pictures.  Of course the blaxploitation music that's played throughout the picture kind of kills the mood, but Williamson may not have thought the final pathos inconsistent with the overall burlesque. The ending hints at a deeper ambition than Williamson, who had not yet begun directing himself, wasn't ready to realize, and Arnold could no longer fulfill. Williamson would write a darker-toned western, Joshua, a few years after, and around the same time directed his own ill-fated collaboration with Richard Pryor, Adios Amigo. In sheer quantitative terms, Williamson was one of the major western stars of the Seventies, but Boss Nigger falls short for many reasons of any ambition he had to make a major western. In some ways, the even more impoverished Joshua is a better movie. But Boss Nigger will always be a point of interest for western and blaxploitation fans, and anyone attracted by the allure of the forbidden.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

DVR Diary: THE SICILIAN CLAN (Le Clan des Siciliens, 1969)

Thanks to the Fox Movie Channel, which is still worth watching in the morning but turns to crap in prime time, I've just seen a French crime movie I've wanted to see for a long time. While dubbed in English, the Fox Movie edition is widescreen and apparently uncut. The dubbing is inevitably a disappointment; it sounds like Alain Delon may have done his own dubbing, but Lino Ventura definitely didn't, while Jean Gabin, at the time the grand old man of French movies, ends up sounding a little like the High Chaparral star Leif Erickson talking out of the side of his mouth. As you see, what we have here is an all-star picture, and with ex-con turned author Jose Giovanni co-writing the script just about all the ingredients are in place for a classic. But in the absence of a master like Jean-Pierre Melville behind the camera, Henri Verneuil directs a merely efficient caper picture without the mood or intensity worthy of his stars.

Despite the title, the film is not about the Mafia. The Sicilian clan in question is the Manalese family, led by patriarch Vittorio (Gabin), who helps jewel thief Roger Sartet (Delon) escape from prison -- Sartet is given a miniature circular saw to cut his way out of a paddy wagon during a transfer -- in return for the plans for the security system for an upcoming jewelry exhibition in Rome, which Sartet acquired from the designer, now a fellow convict. Sartet wants in on the prospective robbery but Vittorio doesn't trust him because Sartet is a killer -- and an outsider. After Sartet has to shoot his way out of a tryst with a prostitute, Vittorio keeps him under close wraps until he has a chance to case the Rome site himself, in the company of old criminal pal from America. They discover that the security system is more extensive than Sartet had indicated, and pretty much unbeatable. Here the film shifts direction. Instead of a Rififi-style caper, Sicilian Clan goes ultra-modern when Vittorio's American buddy gets the idea of the Manaleses hijacking a plane carrying the jewels from Europe to the U.S. The American can secure an impromptu landing strip for the captive plane by appropriating a stretch of highway outside New York City.  The caper becomes a matter of getting the clan (and Sartet) on board the plane without the police (led by Ventura playing like the French Walter Matthau) noticing the highly-wanted Sartet, then pulling off the hijacking without the U.S. Air Force blowing the plane out of the sky. All goes well until Vittorio learns about Sartet's beach affair with one of his daughters-in-law and decides that the randy Corsican should die. The old man's brutal assertion of patriarchal authority proves the undoing of the entire gang.

Sicilian Clan has some moments of intelligent suspense, particularly after Sartet boards the plane in the guise of a British security agent, when his cohorts have to deal with the sudden appearance of the real man's wife at the airport. After discovering that her husband is not on the plane, Vittorio tries to throw her off the trail by explaining (using an airport phone, he pretends to be a government offiical) that the man is still at his hotel. Now she wants to call him at the hotel, and it becomes a race against time to get the plane off the ground before she realizes she's been tricked. Verneuil is at least efficient, but to what purpose? It seems like some too-careful balance was struck between Gabin and Delon, with Ventura's flic the odd man out, so that Delon disappears from a large section of the film while Gabin visits Rome. Neither star dominates the film long enough for audiences to identify with one or really understand what they stand for. When Vittorio resolves to destroy Sartet, is this a vindication of old-school values or the self-destructive outburst of an obsolete old man? Is Sartet the wild beast Vittorio thinks he is? We don't see enough evidence to damn him so, nor does the film really make a case that Vittorio is dangerously old-fashioned or simply irrational. The plot ends up looking contrived to set up an intergenerational showdown, reducing the film to an overcooked potboiler. It can probably be enjoyed on its own undemanding terms, but the best French crime films have spoiled me. I expect more of an immersively existential experience along the lines of Melville's Le Samourai, or Claude Sautet's Classe Tous Risques -- but sometimes a caper is just a caper. Dial down your expectations and Sicilian Clan may still satisfy.

Monday, July 22, 2013

Now Playing: JULY 22, 1933

College Humor is done after two weeks at the Palace, so we have an all-new slate of movies in Milwaukee this week. Here's the Palace's new attraction.

The most I can tell you about this Norman Z. McLeod film for Paramount is that it made the National Board of Review's ten-best list for the year. You'll notice a certain lack of pictorial imagination in the advertising, but maybe the "You will laugh!" hard sell works better that way.

The Warner's new feature, replacing Baby Face after one week, is a title that can be found in public-domain box sets pretty easily, and can be seen free online right now, even if the prints in either case don't do the film justice.

This picture from the director of The Covered Wagon and The Great Gabbo was the last appearance of Ernest Torrence, the hulking actor who made his name as the heavy in Henry King's Tol'able David and is best known today as Buster Keaton's dad in Steamboat Bill, Jr. Here he smuggles illegal immigrants. Claudette Colbert plays his daughter. I remember it being fairly entertaining, though I don't know if it can live up to the hard-boiled ad copy.

The human whirlwind that was William Wellman delivers another picture this week, this time at the Wisconsin.


One studio wasn't big enough to handle Wellman's Pre-Code output. Normally a Warner Bros. director, he did this one for M-G-M. Here's what I thought of it back in 2009.

Gold Diggers of 1933 is gone now, but Universal is hoping that Ginger Rogers will get some rub off the smash-hit summer musical.

In fact, some exhibitors hoped that Rogers would be so well identified with her big song in Gold Diggers that they retitled this Murray Roth picture In the Money. Rogers is hardly a gold-digger in this picture, however; instead, she dumps her boyfriend because he's a compulsive gambler.

While this film remains unavailable officially on DVD, someone has made a copy from a VHS tape and uploaded the 61-minute picture to YouTube. I've just found this out so I haven't seen this yet. Don't spoil it for me! Thanks to sneakysnoo11 for making it available

Saturday, July 20, 2013

DVR Diary: ALIBI IKE (1935)

Joe E. Brown isn't really one of the great screen comedians -- he's best remembered today for his supporting role in Billy Wilder's Some Like It Hot, in which he utters the famous closing line, "Nobody's perfect," -- but the three baseball pictures he made for Warner Bros. are exceptional comedy films. They are slapstick comedies in which the hero is not a physically incompetent bumbler. In real life, Brown reportedly had enough talent on the diamond to be offered a minor-league contract, and on film he played a superior if not phenomenal athlete. The comedy came from the Brown characters' quirky personalities. He's virtually the same person in the three films -- Fireman Save My Child, Elmer the Great, and Ray Enright's 1935 film. Alibi Ike is adapted from a Ring Lardner story, while Elmer was adapted from a Lardner play, and Fireman is at least Lardneresque. In all three films the defining thing about the Brown character is that he starts as a big fish in a small pond, a small-town phenom, and brings a certain unselfconscious arrogance with him when he's called up to the major leagues. Each time he brings with him a potentially crippling eccentricity that can be linked to an unacknowledged anxiety about making it in the big league. In Elmer, for instance, he clearly prefers being the big fish in the small pond, idolized by his neighbors and slaved over by his family. In Alibi Ike -- his character's actual name is Frank X. Farrell -- his quirk seems pathological. He "alibis" constantly, going beyond what we think of the word today. He doesn't just make excuses for himself but feels compelled to make shit up even when he needs no excuses. He seems incapable of candor, as if to admit any truth about himself, to confirm anyone else's perception of him, is to leave himself vulnerable. Asked whether he's proposed to his girlfriend (19 year old Olivia de Havilland in her movie debut), Frank is inclined to deny it until one of his teammates explains that he's bet on the question, and after admitting the proposal he goes mad with alibis, claiming that he only felt sorry for the girl and blaming women for being seducers -- not knowing that his new fiancee is overhearing it all through a door. He does it all without malice and is genuinely stunned, though not without alibis, when she explodes in rage and breaks off the engagement. Although the film has a happy ending, there's no indication that Frank will ever change much. He just takes getting used to. Once people understand that he means well, he is forgiven his eccentricities, just as the Chicago Cubs manager (William Frawley) is quick to clear him of throwing a ballgame despite seeing him open a pay envelope from the gamblers. You see, Frank had alibied his way out of a compromising scene with the gamblers, or had thought he had, and he naturally assumes that the money simply proves how well he'd fooled them. Anyway, his friends realize that he lost that game only because he was in a funk over the girl walking out on him. Alibi Ike's message is that however exasperating Frank can be, he's a good guy at heart, only there's something wrong with him. Brown convinces you of both the good nature and the eccentricity bordering on pathology. In the baseball films, at least, he proves himself one of the better comic actors of the 1930s.

Brown was a product of the sound era -- he had the second best-known yell in Hollywood after Tarzan -- but with his horse face, his big mouth and his athleticism he might have made it in silent comedy. If anything, Warner Bros. seemed more enamored with the yell than Brown himself was. It's dubbed into a lot of long-shot action scenes, while Brown can be seen yelling only once in Alibi Ike. Enright puts plenty of sight gags into the picture, starting with the shock laugh of Frank driving his car into the ballpark through an outfield wall while Frawley wonders aloud when the tardy prospect will arrive. An extended sight gag comes toward the climax, after Brown has escaped from kidnappers -- he beats three of them singlehandedly -- and is desperately driving back to Wrigley Field. He somehow drives up the ramp of one of those car-carrier trucks and has to stop behind one of the stacked cars. Convinced that he's stuck in traffic, while the truck keeps moving, he honks his horn furiously. Repeatedly, the driver of the car-carrier waves him past. There's something sublimely futile about it, and the scene wraps up nicely as the driver finally gets out to see who's been honking at him, while Frank quits his car, goes in the opposite direction on the other side of the truck, jumps into the abandoned driver seat and leaves the driver behind. Most of the physical comedy is based on baseball, of course, from Frank's protracted windup to his frantic self-frisking when a bunted ball rolls up the sleeve of the oversized uniform he has to wear after finally reaching the park for the big game -- a state of the art night game in the year the first such games were played in the majors. Brown gets to show off his athleticism in the same scene when he finally retrieves the ball and makes a flying dive into home plate to stop the other team from scoring the winning run. It's nothing spectacular, but all the Brown baseball pictures are efficiently entertaining comedies maintaining an easy balance of slapstick and character humor. They aren't exactly among the best comedies of the Thirties, but they're better than most people are likely to expect.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

WINNETOU PART 2 ("Last of the Renegades," 1964)

In the year of Sergio Leone's Fistful of Dollars Harald Reinl released his third western based on the writings of German novelist Karl May. Reinl's head start availed him not as numerous Italian rivals passed him by on the way to the western film canon, while the German Winnetou series continues to languish in relative obscurity. As I suggested while reviewing Winnetou Part 1, Reinl suffered from bad timing, at least as far as the world outside West Germany was concerned, working at a time of relatively low interest in American Indians. His films are also inescapably more corny than most Italian westerns. The second Winnetou film, reuniting Pierre Brice in the title role and top-billed Lex Barker as frontiersman Old Shatterhand, reiterates that corniness, but also reinforces Reinl's standing as a superior action-adventure director.

The sequel makes a somewhat bad impression right away as our Apache hero intervenes in a fight between Ribanna, an Indian maiden (Karin Dor), and a bear. There's really no way to make it look good, but the scene does set up a romance between Winnetou and the woman of the Assinaboin tribe. Neither can speak the other's language, but both know English, and their courtship is carried on in regrettably stilted fashion. In the English dub, they tend to speak of themselves and each other in the third person. Fluent otherwise, they suffer from what Daffy Duck might call pronoun trouble. Also, while Pierre Brice became a beloved film idol in German playing Winnetou, the actor dubbing his lines into English makes the Apache warrior sound like a complete stiff. I hope Winnetou sounds better auf Deutsch.

Do you see a tragic romance in the making? Congratulations, but it isn't as bad as you might first fear. To spoil things a little, Ribanna is still alive when the film is over. But Winnetou isn't the only man who falls for her. Another is a U.S. Cavalry officer captured by the Assinaboin (my spelling is speculative) but freed thinks to Winnetou's intervention. Later, this Lt. Merril gets the bright idea of furthering peace between whites and Natives by marrying Ribanna. Everyone's impressed by this idea except for Ribanna, but even Winnetou, who seems like an ever-self-sacrificing sort, sees the wisdom of the plan, and Ribanna's dad, the chief, urges her to take one for the team. In time, Ribanna and Merril bond while protecting themselves and the Assinaboin women and children from the film's villains, so if the end is somewhat sad that applies to Winnetou only. At least he had a girlfriend for a while. His buddy Shatterhand is stuck with sidekicks -- not one, but two. We see and hear mercifully little of the one who only talks in rhyme -- he does it all the time! -- while the late Eddi Arent proves more tolerable as this movie's comic Briton, apparently a necessary ingredient in Karl May movies. It's not as if spaghetti westerns did without comic-relief characters, but the comic relief weighs down the Winnetou movies more than you notice in the Italian films.

I ought to note that Lt. Merril is played by Mario Girotti, who had yet to change his film name to the once globally recognized Terence Hill. The presence of the future Trinity makes Winnetou 2 seem slightly like a rough draft of a spaghetti western. Mario Adorf gave the previous film some of that vibe playing its villain, and Reinl's challenge for Part 2 was to cast a villain to rival or top the mighty Mario. Where oh where will a German director find someone up for that challenge?

Reinl doesn't quite nail it; Klaus Kinski is only the number-two villain of the story, though he easily makes a stronger impression than Anthony Steel, who gets the role of greedy would-be oil baron Joe Forrester. This guy wants to expand his holdings onto Indian land and is willing to provoke a war to do so, using his right-hand man Lucas (Kinski) to massacre Indians, so the army will be blamed, and settlers, so Indians will be blamed. Lucas proves a resourceful, dangerous character. Captured by Merril and left with the Indians for safekeeping, the bound Lucas manages to free himself with a burning branch from a campfire and kill two guards while making good his escape. It's very disappointing, then, to see the Kinski character die in long shot, in a hail of anonymous gunfire, rather than in epic combat with Merril, Shatterhand or Winnetou. Even more than Girotti/Hill, Kinski signifies the potential of Euro-westerns already present in the Reinl films.


Once the film gives up on the Winnetou-Ribanna romance, Reinl really picks up the pace of the action. Again working on German and Yugoslav locations with cinematographer Ernst W. Kalinke, the director deftly coordinates the movements of multiple forces -- Shatterhand and Castlepool (Arendt), Merril and Ribanna, the Assinaboin warriors, the U.S. Cavalry, Forrester's private army, the escaping Lucas and eventually a lone Winnetou -- until all converge at a spectacular mountain site riddled with picturesque caves. Before that, he had staged a spectacular and dangerously explosive battle at Forrester's refinery, which the villain chooses to blow up in an effort to kill Shatterhand, setting an alarming number of stuntmen on fire. In general, Reinl has a panoramic way with the moving widescreen image. After first filling the frame with men and landscape, he pans to show you something more that had been going on just out of sight. Combining his natural and financial resources, he gives the first two Winnetou movies an epic energy that more than makes up for the dismal comedy and stilted romance. They don't catch the zeitgeist of the time they were made the way so many spaghetti westerns do, but they're big and entertaining adventure films that earn a small but respectable place in the history of westerns.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013


The best-known team-up of director Mervyn LeRoy and actor Edward G. Robinson is Little Caesar, the founding Warner Bros. gangster film from 1930. But when they reunited at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer in 1941, everyone's point of reference was Five Star Final, the 1931 film in which Robinson played a newspaper editor. That makes sense, since Robinson was again playing a newspaperman. At this point he may have been typed more as a newsman than as a gangster, having starred as a newsman for several years on the Big Town radio show. His unholy partnership this time was with Edward Arnold, who has Robinson's usual role as the gangster. Arnold had been both a newspaperman and a formidable villain in Frank Capra's Meet John Doe earlier in 1941, but Capra tapped into a deeper, calmer current of menace in Arnold than LeRoy could find. Capra suppressed any impulses Arnold had to play broad, allowing the actor to give a chilling performance. For LeRoy Arnold is practically exuberant yet pathetically ineffective as a criminal overlord. The one advantage of Arnold's broad but ultimately unthreatening performance is that it spotlights by contrast Robinson's effective underplaying as a fearless publisher who tricks the gangster into becoming the financial backer of his innovative tabloid newspaper. Once the deal is made, it's a question of which partner will destroy the other first, but Arnold's gangster is so implausible in his failures to control or eliminate Robinson and so unimaginative about exploiting a newspaper to his benefit -- imagine the film that might result -- that it becomes impossible to take the story seriously.

LeRoy and his writers seem intent on making a historical statement. Their story starts with Robinson returning home from World War I with the idea of a tabloid along the lines of his military newspaper, and there's some thought of chronicling the Roaring Twenties through occasional familiar headlines and newsreel clips. But little effort is made to evoke the period apart from having Marsha Hunt sing "After You're Gone." Yet Unholy Partners clearly means to portray an era it considers over, the "tabloid age." Some of the early gimmicks and stunts Robinson tries to boost circulation might have reminded the original audience of the outrageous New York Daily Graphic or the bad old days of the Daily News. But it's unclear what the film is comparing all of this with. You could almost believe that LeRoy is really tipping his hat to the Pre-Code era of cinema, when he and Robinson made Little Caesar and Five Star Final -- both better films than this one. The Code, presumably, dictated that Robinson had to die for finally bumping off Arnold. Robinson commits suicide on spec, flying with a French pilot in an attempted transatlantic trip with the clear conviction that he won't come back. The film plays lamely for pathos as Robinson renounces marriage with his loyal girl friday (Laraine Day) to face his fate. As it turns out the deck is so stacked that Robinson does die, but his pilot survives. This odd insistence on the necessity of the tabloid man's demise is the most interesting feature of this tepid drama that has been rightly forgotten while LeRoy and Robinson's earlier collaborations live on in movie history.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Now Playing: JULY 15-16, 1933

We have a new champion in Milwaukee.

Paramount's musical comedy has seen off Warners' Gold Diggers of 1933 to end the latter's mind-boggling five-week winning streak. This ad tells you how many people in town saw last week's winner. According to local papers, College Humor and Gold Diggers are the city's most popular movies in years, possibly since the Depression hit. Movie reporters predict a wave of musicals to exploit the demand created above all by Gold Diggers and its Berkeleyan predecessor, 42nd Street.

For now, the Warner theater keeps its Pre-Code flag flying proudly.


In our own generation, Baby Face has clawed its way back into history to become one of the definitive Pre-Code pictures. Barbara Stanwyck's Nietzschean seductress -- is the dame in the first ad really supposed to be her??? -- might once have been seen as a sexist stereotype of someone sleeping her way to the top, but many critics now see her as an icon of empowerment, an avatar of the era's survival ethics. And it definitely is a different world where John Wayne is just a stepping stone for her rise to power. Take a look at the trailer from

Elsewhere in Milwaukee: gold diggers on the Mississippi ...

I've seen this one. No Baby Face but fairly amusing. The next one has intrigued but eluded me so far.

Here's a movie about women with real power: Amazons in Ancient Greece in an allegorical comedy sending up the modern day battle of the sexes, war profiteering, etc. Elissa Landi stars in a role created on Broadway by Katharine Hepburn. Sounds like a perfect Pre-Code subject, but this picture doesn't circulate as much as it might. It may have been a dud, but don't you want to see it?

Saturday, July 13, 2013

On the Big Screen: PACIFIC RIM (2013)

It would have been hard to believe in 2008 that Guillermo del Toro would not make another movie for five years. The field seemed wide open for the Mexican horror specialist after the pop success of his second Hellboy movie quickly followed the arthouse triumph of Pan's Labyrinth. Many projects were announced afterward, but only now has he released his next film. Most notoriously, he had to bail out of The Hobbit after Warner Bros. kept him and Peter Jackson dangling for an unconscionable period. His own dream project, an adaptation of H. P. Lovecraft's At the Mountains of Madness, is a long-term tenant in development hell, Hollywood balking repeatedly at the story's lack of action, female characters, etc. Thwarted, del Toro turned to a project he'd been thinking about since at least 2010: a homage to Japanese monster movies (kaiju eiga) pitting massive mecha against beasts from the bottom of the sea. The actual idea was Travis Beacham's; he and del Toro co-wrote the screenplay, which proves as much an homage to military aviation movies as it does an amped-up monster movie. Just about every cliche you can imagine from such pictures shows up in Pacific Rim, making the plot pretty predictable and underscoring the superficiality of all the characters. Right there some del Toro fans will be disappointed, but the director's main concern this time is with spectacle as an end unto itself. If he can deliver that and instill a sense of wonder like that his own generation felt watching the original Godzilla films, Pacific Rim will be a success in spite of its shallow human element.

By one standard, the film fails miserably as an homage to kaiju eiga because Beacham and del Toro's kaijus are just about completely lacking the personality the old men in suits sometimes managed to give their characters. If Roland Emmerich's Godzilla erred by rethinking the monster as some sort of animal, Pacific Rim errs by making its monsters into aliens. The kaiju -- so the world dubs them -- burst from an apparent dimensional rift at the bottom of the Pacific to attack cities on either side of the ocean. Existing military technology (the first attack takes place this very year) can take down the kaiju, but it takes a long time during which the monsters can do unacceptable damage. Working on a familiar level of childish intuition, the world's military and scientific experts determine that giant humanoid robots that can punch, throw and, yes, shoot the kaiju will make more effective defenders of humanity. In a long prologue, the experts are proven right to the point where kaiju become objects of pop-culture mockery -- but like bacteria, our enemies are adaptive, learning new ways to defend themselves and overwhelm the jaegers -- though no Germans are shown piloting the robots, they are dubbed auf deutsch, begging the question why this film isn't called Jaegermeister. Instead, the countries with skin in the game -- the U.S., Canada, Australia, Russia, China and Japan -- what about Mexico, Guillermo? -- take the lead in robot combat. The complicated robots require double brainpower to operate, with pilot teams bound by family ties preferred. The Americans, for instant, use two brothers to pilot "Gipsy Danger," but you know that can't last.

Needless to say, the surviving brother (Charlie Hunnam) goes into a five-year funk, while the jaeger program is dropped in favor of erecting impregnable sea walls to protect Pacific Coast cities. Needless as well to say, one of those walls gets pregged, and soon our hero's old commander (Idris Elba) picks him off a wall-building project to man one of the last jaegers for a last-ditch defense against newer, better kaiju. By now, scientists -- or at least the two eccentrics working with the jaeger program -- have figured out that the kaiju are coming through a portal that can be closed by dropping a big enough bomb down its "throat." By the way, aren't you getting tired of superhero or sci-fi movies in which everything hinges on closing or opening a dimensional portal? If not, Pacific Rim is the movie for you. But before any throats get bombed, our hero has to bond (or "drift") with the obligatory Japanese character (Rinko Kikuchi) -- and I'm not being sarcastic; a Japanese character is obligatory in a kaiju eiga homage -- who has relatives of her own to avenge, as well (it emerges) as surrogate-daddy issues with our overprotective stalwart commander. Our mismatched team must prove themselves to skeptical peers, including an almost equally obligatory arrogant jerk, defying the rules (as American heroes must) if necessary, while on top of everything else, our stalwart commander has the Movie Disease, though in a twist on the formula the blood comes out of his nose. Do you think he'll die of it???

I probably could have spared you all that since I've already said that the spectacle makes or breaks the film. The results are mixed. I have a feeling I made the right choice not watching Pacific Rim in 3D, since, like so many films presented that way, del Toro's is inexcusably murky. On top of that, he sometimes films the kaiju-jaeger fights so close that clarity is lost, especially considering that they almost always fight in the rain and in the ocean. One of the reasons the kaiju lack personality, despite each one getting a code name you may be expected to remember at the toy store, is that you never really see them clearly. Del Toro is too ambitious a director to film the battles as straight-on as they did at Toho back in the day, but when you never see the kaiju straight on they end up as so many roaring blobs, a few of which at least have semi-distinctive heads. It's probably no accident that the best action scene is on land, when Gipsy Danger must battle a kaiju in the streets of Hong Kong. When del Toro deigns to give you a clear shot of a jaeger throwing a picture-perfect punch or using a freighter like a club, Pacific Rim delivers as promised. Overall, his pictorial sensibility is too strong for the picture ever to fall too long into incoherence. It often looks pop-perfect, for which the production designers and cinematographer Guillermo Novarro deserve shares of credit. Inevitably, no matter how much del Toro professes his love for monster movies, this film will look thematically impersonal compared even to the Hellboy films, but a few moments when his horror-film sensibility shows itself are among the film's best. Both scenes tap into the nightmarish fantasy of being personally persecuted by giant monsters. In a flashback, a weeping child toddles through a devastated city, perhaps a lone survivor, one shoe on and one off, as a kaiju approaches. In comic mode, a newborn monster literally targets a specific person, a comedy-relief scientist who inadvertently taps into the kaiju hive-mind. As far as acting goes, the comic scientists (Charlie Day is American; Burn Gorman a Colin Clive-ish Brit) are tolerably obnoxious, welcome for at least having personalities, while del Toro mascot Ron Perlman puts in his expected yeoman work as a dealer in black-market kaiju parts. As our drifting heroes, Hunnam and Kikuchi are no less than earnestly likable, while Idris Elba is painfully overqualified for his cliched commander role and needs to get out of the genre ghetto fast -- but Thor 2 is next, I'm afraid. Ideally, Pacific Rim's spectacle should redeem its unimaginative characterizations, but it doesn't do so by as decisive a margin as I'd hoped for. It's an entertaining film and those who like what del Toro likes will like it, but it wasn't unreasonable to expect something more than mere entertainment from any del Toro film, and a sense of disappointment may linger once the entertainment is forgotten.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

PRE-CODE PARADE: The Ordeal of John Gilbert

One of the undying legends of Hollywood is that the silent star John Gilbert's adaptation to talkies, and his career, were sabotaged by his employers at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Gilbert was one of M-G-M's most popular male stars thanks to the war film The Big Parade and his romantic teaming with Greta Garbo, but the legend tells that the actor offended Louis B. Mayer in some way. In the most dramatic version, Gilbert slugged Mayer when the boss tried to console him, cynically or not, after Garbo had jilted Gilbert at the altar, after which Mayer swore revenge. For some reason, Mayer waited until the coming of sound, either tampering with the quality of the sound recording or assigning Gilbert roles so that he would sound ludicrous, either for what he said or the way he said it. From the time Gilbert first spoke, playing Romeo in The Hollywood Revue of 1929, it was all downhill. By the end of 1933, after Garbo had tried to save him by having him cast as her leading man one last time for Queen Christina, the studio dumped him. He made one more picture and died in 1936.

All legends are suspect, of course. As for why Mayer would wait until sound came to ruin Gilbert, you can look at his last silent picture, Desert Nights -- as I just did, thanks to Turner Classic Movies -- and wonder whether the fix was in before Gilbert first spoke on film. For a star of his purported magnitude, that story of a hero outwitting diamond thieves in the desert looks suspiciously like B movie stuff. As for what came after, TCM followed Desert Nights with a run of Gilbert's talkies, skipping over the infamous His Glorious Night to start with the Tolstoy adaptation Redemption. I'd seen that years ago and remembered only that it was boring. I focused on the next three films, starting with Sam Wood's Way For a Sailor from late 1930. The two previous films had already done such damage that Sailor was said to feature a "new" Gilbert. The star shaved off his defining moustache and threw himself into the he-man milieu of the merchant marine, as envisioned by pulp author Albert Richard Wetjen. But this only exposed how different Gilbert was, in ways entirely to his disadvantage, to his co-star Wallace Beery. In some places Beery was billed above Gilbert to reflect the new pecking order at M-G-M, and in the film itself Beery blows Gilbert off the screen whenever they share it. Way is an episodic saga built on the Gilbert character's on-off romance with a shipping clerk (Leila Hyams) who wants him to quit the sea and live a stable life. Gilbert vacillates, loving both the girl and the sea -- and probably his buddies, too. But the love story is flimsy stitching holding together disparate episodes, and the star is neither romantic in his old manner nor convincing as a rough-tough sailor man. Only a mid-sea rescue sequence with actors and stuntmen getting seriously pounded by artificial waves, stands out cinematically. Gilbert's voice itself isn't the problem, but he never really learned to use it to rebuild his persona the way Beery, an older veteran of silent days, managed triumphantly. Gilbert's voice quickly became a national joke after his earliest talkies, but could anyone imitate it? A 1931 fan magazine tells a story that a tourist encountered Gilbert but failed to recognize and ultimately refused to acknowledge him because he didn't sound like Gilbert. The punchline: Gilbert tells a buddy that the studio thinks the same way.

In 1931 there seemed to be a chance that Gilbert would pull out of his decline. TCM didn't show his next picture, Gentleman's Fate, but the movie press indicates that the film was well received. John Robertson's Phantom of Paris appears to have been a second-consecutive success. Gilbert inherited a role intended for the late Lon Chaney -- an adaptation of Gaston Leroux's Cheri-Bibi that was retitled to emphasize the Phantom of the Opera connection. While it isn't great, it's definitely the best Gilbert starring role in a talkie that I've seen, and could have been a turning point for him because it shows the sort of role he could flourish in. He plays a Houdini-like escape artist framed for murder after quarreling with the victim, whose daughter he loves. Bibi escapes from prison, of course, but when the real murderer dies of influenza before he can be made to confess, Bibi's only option to remain free is to kidnap the corpse, hire a plastic surgeon, and reappear as the murderer, an aristocrat who married Bibi's love (Hyams). Gilbert must step into Chaney's shoes modestly to play a man of two faces and two voices. While he isn't especially convincing in his imposture, he strikes a commanding figure in the early reels as the masterful escapist. Allegedly burdened with rage issues, Bibi allows Gilbert to project more power than he ever did otherwise in talkies, to my knowledge. You may not be a studio executive, and neither am I, but watching Phantom your first thought probably would be that Gilbert should be cast as dashing jewel thieves and dominant seducers. Put him in a tuxedo or dinner jacket and have him play as charismatically arrogant as he can. Gilbert might have been M-G-M's William Powell before they got Powell.

Instead, perhaps the best evidence for sabotage is Gilbert's final film of 1931. Harry Beaumont's West of Broadway is meandering debacle that could not have seemed promising to anyone rational. Gilbert is an ailing war hero returning home to learn that his fiancee wants to end their engagement. It turns out that he's also a millionaire and an alcoholic. Worse than that, he retains his war buddy as a civilian sidekick, and the sidekick is the Swedish dialect comedian El Brendel. El has some fans even today, and they can have him. For most movie watchers, however, he's a byword for everything bad about early talkies, or at least early sound comedy. People back them really seemed to think that El was funny by virtue of his accent alone. For us moderns, that means a jaw-droppingly bad scene in which he tries to relate to Gilbert's Chinese cook (Willie Fung) that he has "indiyestion." The two ethnics end up getting into a tickle fight, which is putting the best spin on it. To be fair to Fung, he actually has the funniest moment of the picture. A new arrival, seeing him pass from behind, tries to summon him by calling out, "Boy!" Fung turns to point out his Fu-Manchesque whiskers, and in an early blow for civil rights reproves the woman, "No callum boy! Moustache!!" Back to Gilbert: after a drunken night out with a seeming gold digger (Lois Moran) he marries her on impulse to spite his old flame. Sobering up the next morning, he realizes his mistake and offers the girl money to forget everything, not realizing that for her it was love at first sight. She wants to dry him out and won't take no for an answer. She follows him to his dude ranch -- it's her Fung reproves -- where Ralph Bellamy pays his dues as a foreman with little to do, a potential subplot involving his crush on the boss's wife going nowhere fast. At the ranch, Gilbert dressed as a cowboy looks hardly more plausible (or comfortable) than El Brendel. As for the rest of the story ... can't we skip it? She hides the booze, he drives her away then gets worried when he's told she's driving a new car recklessly, though the worry has no payoff. He tracks her back to Chicago, gets in a brawl, gets arrested, and wins her back somehow. Take my word for it. Gilbert makes not so much a bad impression as no impression. You can't even speculate whether Gilbert was really drunk in any scenes, since he overacts the shakes in a way that might not have passed muster with Mack Sennett. Anyway, I've seen Gilbert hammered on screen, in The Captain Hates the Sea, and its a sadder sight than anything in West of Broadway, which is sad only by its utter lack of entertainment value. It's one of the worst Pre-Codes I've seen since starting this project.

Afterward, Gilbert tried to take charge of salvaging his career by writing an original story for himself. M-G-M indulged him by making Downstairs, which TCM didn't show in its marathon despite its reputation as Gilbert's best talkie vehicle. It was his only film of 1932. From there he did Fast Workers, for which director Tod Browning refused screen credit, and finally Queen Christina. Gilbert didn't fall alone, however. M-G-M saw an almost complete turnover in its male star roster once sound set in for good. The studio washed its hands of Buster Keaton (drunk) and William Haines (morals) in 1933. Ramon Novarro outlasted them a little due to his versatility as an all-purpose ethnic, but he was done after 1934. Other victims outside M-G-M could be cited, ranging from Richard Barthelmess at Warner Bros. to Harold Lloyd (who held out the longest because he produced his own films). Sound imposed a new aural ideal of masculinity, if not multiple ideals: the tough talker, the fast talker, etc. Many male stars of silent days couldn't live up to the new ideal. As with Gilbert, it wasn't necessarily a matter of bad voices but an inability to use their voices as instruments defining personality. Some established stars like Ronald Colman managed the feat, while a younger silent star like Gary Cooper had an easier time learning the new rules.

Silent acting was hard to unlearn; you can see it in the losers' eyes. When Norma Desmond said of her generation, "We had faces," she really meant that they had eyes. More than any overblown pantomime gesticulating, intent or blazing stares define silent acting. Their eyes had to do the work their voices could not, and once they could use their voices their eyes made a redundant, excessive impression. Gilbert suffers from this in Way For a Sailor but the later films show him striving to unlearn the old intensity while failing to replace it with real vocal virtuosity. Whether M-G-M could have helped him with this if the bosses really wanted to is a matter of conjecture; they seemed happy to let their old talent swim or sink while making new stars like Clark Gable or even making new stars of old but vocally-gifted talent like Beery. I know of no smoking gun proving a conspiracy to ruin Gilbert -- not even West of Broadway. But the Gilbert talkies I've seen suggest that the star shares some of the blame for his decline, for artistic if not personal reasons. He may or may not have been sabotaged, but the fact remains that he failed, and the likelihood is that he would have failed whether the studio wanted him to or not. Is that a tragedy? To his truest fans, yes. For the rest of us, maybe not tragic, but certainly sad.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

WINNETOU THE WARRIOR (Winnetou 1. Teil, 1963)

Why did Italy beat West Germany in the great Euro-western race of the 1960s? In this competition to make up for the decline in American product due to the glut of TV westerns in the United States, Germany's Sputnik, so to speak, was Harald Reinl's series of westerns starring Lex Barker. Reinl's first film in the series, The Treasure of Silver Lake, came out in 1962, nearly a year ahead of Gunfight at Red Sands, the film often cited as the first spaghetti western. Winnetou Part One came out in December 1963, well ahead of Sergio Leone's A Fistful of Dollars. Winnetou and Fistful have a lot in common. Both featured American stars, Winnetou's Barker being a veteran of movies going back to his late-Forties Tarzan pictures, while Clint Eastwood was still toiling in television. Both pictures feature dynamic widescreen photography and pop-inflected soundtracks that were new for the genre. Having just watched it, I can testify that Winnetou the Warrior is, at a minimal estimate, a visual treat and an entertaining action film. It's still easy to explain Italy's victory as a matter of quality (and quantity), but that's never been the most reliable explanation of popularity. What did Leone have that Reinl didn't -- or vice versa?

Pierre Brice (left) as Winnetou bonds with Lex Barker's Old Shatterhand.

Both Italy and Germany have western traditions dating back to at least early in the twentieth century. The American West provided the setting for a Puccini opera and a series of books by Karl May, Germany's answer to H. Rider Haggard and a favorite author of young Adolf Hitler. May's western hero was Old Shatterhand, a German-American surveyor who becomes blood brother to the Apache warrior Winnetou. While Winnetou Part One wasn't Reinl and Barker's first Shatterhand movie, it is the character's origin story. It reintroduces the character as a greenhorn working for the Great Western Railroad, accompanied by some Euro-sidekicks who give the film an alien element absent in most spaghetti westerns. Like the Virginian, our hero doesn't seem to have a real name. He's called "the surveyor" or "the greenhorn" until he earns his western name in a barroom brawl. It's either a hand that shatters or gets shattered on opposing jawbones. He's brawling because he has a beef with some fellow railroad employees. You see, O.S. had scrupulously plotted a path for the railroad that would avoid Apache land, but the boss on the ground, Mr. Santer (Mario Adorf), has ignored our hero's plans and is determined the have the road plow right through Indian territory. Santer has an ulterior motive; the railroad construction gives him an excuse to search for a legendary treasure.

In Winnetou, Santer (Mario Adof) meets someone he can't push around.

Santer inevitably runs afoul of the Apaches, and Shatterhand gets caught in the middle. He tries to prove his own good intentions to Winnetou (Pierre Brice), who knows English thanks to the presence among his people of a white schoolteacher. Santer ruins things by muscling in on the parley, picking a fight with Winnetou and siccing the Kiowas -- this story's bad Indians, on the good Apaches. The conference ends with the old teacher dead and Winnetou a captive of the Kiowas. To prove his good intentions again, the recent greenhorn Shatterhand manages to sneak into the Kiowa camp, subdue several sentries, and free the Apache. Then he heads back to Great Western headquarters in Roswell NM (!) to settle accounts with Santer. A miniature civil war rages there, highlighted by a feat of guerilla railroad construction that enables Shatterhand to drive a locomotive through Santer's saloon headquarters. Shortly afterward the Apaches arrive to attack everybody, while Santer escapes in the confusion.

The Battle of Roswell

Now Shatterhand is the captive, his throat nearly cut by an enraged Winnetou. The warrior's sister Nscho-tschi (pronounced "Sho-chi," Marie Versini), also taught English, nurses O.S. back to health so the tribe can get the full value from torturing him and his cronies to death as payback for the crimes of Santer and the Kiowas. Shatterhand pleads innocent and is allowed to argue his case in a trial by combat on the river in a leaky canoe. By the time he wins, Nscho-tschi has also produced evidence confirming his rescue of Winnetou. The chastened warrior now agrees to become Shatterhand's blood brother. He also agrees to show the way to the legendary treasure, though no Apache can lay eyes on it, so that Shatterhand can use it to pay for Nscho-tschi's further education in white ways. Little do they know that Santer and his surviving men have been stalking them all along, waiting to discover the site of the treasure before a final attack....

I saw a version of Winnetou 1. Teil on YouTube that's dubbed in English but leaves in comedy bits that were left out of the U.S. release and thus remain in their original German. These scenes involving Shatterhand's buddies and an irrelevant English photographer -- "Was haben sie gegen der Oxford Press?" he asks Indians who ride past refusing to pose for him -- certainly diminish the film compared to the best spaghettis, but would not have been an issue, having been cut, for its first American audiences. They were left with a straight action-adventure story with spectacular locations in West Germany and Yugoslavia that are admittedly less arid than Apache territory ought to be but can be excused for looking so good in Ernst W. Kalinke's camera. Reinl has a good eye for staging widescreen action, whether on wild locations or in his artificial Roswell. Lex Barker is a convincing hero, especially during the river fight, while Pierre Brice became a superstar as Winnetou -- he basks in that glory to the present day -- and Mario Adorf needed only to show up to make a terrrific villain. On the soundtrack, Martin Boettcher is no Ennio Morricone but seems to come from roughly the same place, helping break the monotony of folkloric theme songs that was one of the few flaws of Fifties westerns in the U.S. So again: why didn't Winnetou (or Apache Gold) go over the same way as the Italian westerns?

It comes down to content, I think -- both subject and mood. Winnetou is earnest in an old-fashioned way, while Fistful of Dollars (borrowing from Kurosawa's Yojimbo) introduces a then-modern note of cynicism in its antiheroic violence. Meanwhile, Winnetou spotlights what is conspicuously absent in spaghetti westerns as a subgenere: Native Americans. It had the misfortune to reach America (not to mention other parts of the world) at a time between the exhaustion of a recent wave of pro-Indian Hollywood westerns -- John Ford's apology to the Indians, Cheyenne Autumn, bombed in 1964 -- and a more countercultural championing of the Native cause in the revisionist westerns of the early 1970s. The bounty hunter was the more popular figure at the moment when westerns became global pop art -- a period when "sick" humor and black comedy were in vogue -- while the somewhat paternalistic sincerity of the German Shatterhand films must have seemed corny to those who neither knew nor loved Karl May. Winnetou -- or Part One, at least -- deserved better then and now. It certainly isn't a better film that Fistful of Dollars and Reinl couldn't compete with Leone, Corbucci and others as visionaries of violence. But Winnetou 1. Teil suggests that Reinl may merit recognition as one of the better action-film directors of the 1960s.