Monday, September 30, 2013

Pre-Code Parade: GIRL CRAZY (1932)

Even the advertising is outrageous for this one.
I like a Gershwin tune; how about you? Hollywood liked them plenty, but there was somewhat less love for the Broadway shows for which many of George and Ira's standards were written. As hit shows their names had commercial potency, but the movie studios really just wanted the songs. Not all of them, though: for William A. Seiter's film of Girl Crazy RKO kept the two towering hits "I Got Rhythm" and "But Not For Me," but did without "Embraceable You." On the other hand, the Gershwins contributed a new (or hitherto unused) song for the film -- but "You Got What Gets Me" hardly counts as even third-rate Gershwin. What did the studio -- producer William LeBaron, director Seiter, and a team of adapters headed by Herman L. Mankiewicz -- think they were getting, and what did they think they were doing? It seems to have boiled down to this: the show that made stars of Ginger Rogers and Ethel Merman on stage struck somebody as an ideal movie vehicle for Bert Wheeler and Robert Woolsey.

Wheeler and Woolsey are one of the acquired tastes of the Pre-Code era. They made a hit as comedy relief in the big-budget musical Rio Rita and became RKO's answer to the Four Marx Bros. At least that was the idea, and it seemed to work for a time, at the time, but in retrospect the duo seem more like RKO's precursors to the Ritz Brothers. Disclosure: I hate the Ritz Brothers. I've never hated Wheeler and Woolsey, but I didn't get them. Woolsey looks and sounds like George Burns's dyspeptic uncle while Wheeler looks the part he played, a pleasant idiot. Together they were "nut" comedians, which means that, like the Marxes, they acted in films not to tell a story, but to act crazy. Like nearly all the Marxes' rivals, they lacked the personalities to make their craziness interesting. But maybe I'd just managed to miss the good Wheeler and Woolsey movies. They did quite a few before Woolsey died in 1938, but I haven't seen many of them -- definitely not enough to get them. Until now.

Reviewing some of RKO's Pre-Code, pre-Astaire musicals, I've noted that they verge on the cartoonish in everything from their comedy to the staging of the songs, that something human is lacking in the absence of a virtuoso performer like Astaire or Rogers. Because we identify RKO musicals with that pair, that inhuman cartooning effect seems like a flaw. In a Wheeler and Woolsey musical, it's a supreme virtue. Shaped to their needs, Girl Crazy comes about as close as early sound comedy could come to a live-action cartoon. You'll feel sure that you've seen some of the gags in cartoons from your youth. You may even see a hint of Blazing Saddles and its town's worship of Randolph Scott in the way everyone in Girl Crazy's western town removes his hat at the sound of the word "west." In all its versions, Girl Crazy is something that happens Out West, but the Seiter Girl Crazy is a ruthlessly irreverent travesty of the West, of the Broadway musical, of whatever you've got. It respects nothing, and in time you realize that it has to take the same attitude toward its source material, to the point that "But Not For Me" becomes but a platform for the obnoxious pre-teen Mitzi Green's long threatened imitations of stage and screen stars. These are actually quite good to the eyes and ears of a Pre-Code buff, but her riffs on the likes of George Arliss, Enda Mae Oliver and Roscoe Ates (a stuttering specialist) only make the film more defiantly obsolete today, adding an F.U. to the modern viewer on top of its similar salutes to everything else. If you can appreciate the way this picture doesn't give a damn what you think of it, then you'll get Wheeler and Woolsey.

Once upon a time there was this musical on Broadway called Girl Crazy. It was about a wastrel scion of a wealthy family sent west to run a ranch. The boy turns the place into a proto-Vegas, though maybe without the gambling. That's as much as I can get from Wikipedia. That character is still in the Seiter film; Eddie Quillan, a future Ellery Queen, plays him. But his story quickly recedes into the background. What counts is that his plan to turn his ranch into an entertainment destination -- with gambling, draws the professional gambler Slick Foster (Woolsey) westward to run Quillan's tables. Traveling with his nagging wife, Slick seeks the cheapest way to travel and chooses to go by taxicab. The driver is Jimmy Deagan (Wheeler), introduced preparing to drive a nail through his windshield, the sign on it aptly identifying car and driver as "Vacant." Jimmy unquestioningly drives the Fosters across the country as the slapstick gets off to a slow start. Leaving a gas station, the cab somehow ends up dragging a cardboard cutout of a motorcycle cop behind it. It takes a while for Jimmy to realize that the cop isn't passing because he isn't real. The payoff comes after he finally gets rid of the cutout, when he and Slick mistake authentic motorcycle cop Nat Pendleton for the persistent piece of cardboard. Poor Pendleton does his own stunt riding as Woolsey hurls objects at him, hoping to knock the offending attachment loose.

Finally our antiheroes arrive in the self-revering west, where Slick decides that the best way to avoid paying hundreds of dollars in cab fare is to have Jimmy lynched. Quillan's ranch is located in a community hostile to law and order; the sheriffs measure their tenure in minutes and one has just been shot when the taxi rolls in. From here Slick and Jimmy must help Quillan fight the local bully (Stanley Fields) who decides to run for sheriff himself, after killing many of his predecessors, in order to put the screws on Quillan and his resort. Our heroes need a candidate to run against the bully, but know that any candidate is doomed. Naturally, Slick and Quillan agree that Jimmy is the perfect candidate. With the help of Mitzi Green, who seems to have some crush on Jimmy (the actress was 12) and has followed him all the way out west, the good guys steal the election. No matter: the law will have little say in the outcome of the story. Instead, Wheeler and Woolsey will be compelled to disguise themselves as Indians (Woolsey playing a squaw) in a self-consciously outrageous bit made more funny by the presence of a real, "articulate" Native American witnessing the travesty -- until he speaks Pig Latin to the boys and proves himself a true brother, linking arms with them as they dance offscreen. They will plot to poison the bully with hooch spiked with gasoline, but must drink it themselves. Recovering from temporary stupefecation, an intoxicated Woolsey will recall his powers of hypnotism -- the reality of which is demonstraed when a bartender wanders offscreen sleepwalker style. And he will manage to mesmerize himself when the mirror on a door swings into his path as he prepares (he must count to five first) to overpower the bully. In the end, men will again pause to remove their hats in honor of the West, and ceramic urns will fall on their skulls. Quillan will propose to his girlfriend, only to be flattened once, twice, and a third time by a swinging door in the middle of a chase scene -- even the Marxes didn't treat the romantic lead like that.

In this manner Girl Crazy devours itself. Self-immolation might be the better metaphor; it gives you the idea of a spectacle, and the Wheeler & Woolsey Girl Crazy is spectacularly, amorally, triumphantly stupid. I've only described the tip of an iceberg of bad jokes and brazen gags, and I'm only now describing the film's "I Got Rhythm" number, which devolves in RKO style from Kitty Kelly's performance to some attempted artistry with light and shadow to all-out cartoon lunacy as everything from the cacti in the desert to the stuffed and mounted head of a buffalo keeps time with the tune. That's the kind of adaptation this is. It flopped at the box office; even Pre-Code audiences didn't get it -- or couldn't take it. For good or ill, this is one nut comedy that is indisputably nuts.

Saturday, September 28, 2013


Joel McCrea is linked in movie history with Randolph Scott, his co-star in Sam Peckinpah's Ride the High Country. By the time they made that film together, swapping roles early in the production, McCrea's star had fallen to Scott's level. Both had been starring in B westerns for years, McCrea in part from the belief that he was no longer plausible as a romantic leading man. While the B westerns Scott made with Budd Boetticher have been canonized as masterworks of the genre, McCrea's westerns were arguably more prestigious at the time, however forgotten they are now. McCrea simply didn't age as well as Scott, who was nearly a decade his senior. Scott acquired a leathery gravitas, took more creative control over his films, and made his great alliance with Boetticher. McCrea acquired a paunch, and his major partnership was with the producer Walter Mirisch. Few of their directors were auteurs; the closest you get is Jacques Tourneur on Wichita (1955). Most of the films were written by Daniel B. Ullman. His screenplay for The Oklahoman was directed by Francis D. Lyon, who directed McCrea in Gunsight Ridge that same year. He spent most of the next decade working in TV. His direction of The Oklahoman is at least competent, but Ullman's script probably does more to make the film watchable.

McCrea plays Dr. John Brighton, a widower who settles in an Oklahoma town near where his wife died in a covered wagon giving birth to their daughter. He becomes the town physician, befriending both the tomboyish Anne (Barbara "Della Street" Hale) and the blooming Maria (Gloria Talbott), the daughter of a Charlie (Michael Pate), a homesteading Indian. Charlie worries that some swampland on his property is toxic, but local cattle baron Cass Dobie (Brad Dexter, best known, relatively speaking, as that other guy in The Maginificent Seven) suspects that Charlie has oil on his land. He hopes to buy Charlie out cheap, but isn't above more underhanded tactics. After Charlie kills Dobie's brother in self-defense and turns himself in, Dr. John takes a stand for him and puts himself on the road to the archetypal showdown in the street.

It's a simple story but Ullman knows how to use limited screen time economically to develop characters and relationships so that The Oklahoman seems paced more like a novel than an action movie. There's some intelligent commentary on the ambivalent feelings whites had toward Indians in the late 19th century. A group of older men discuss Charlie's surrender, one stating that the killing proves that you can't trust an Indian. That provokes a discussion of the ways whites have mistreated the red men, the group conceding that someone like Charlie, otherwise utterly benign and trustworthy, would have good reason to hate whites -- which is why you can't trust him. The script is the film's strength, though Lyon stages the drama effectively in Cinemascope. He gives the film a slightly surprising climax, the final gunfight proving something more than the usual exchange of single shots with one of them lethal. Instead, Dobie and Dr. John empty their weapons into each other until neither can fire anymore. McCrea wins simply by surviving. The showdown is a touch that helps render The Oklahoman not quite a generic western. It's more expansive in its modest way. If not a neglected treasure, it will still hold and reward your attention. As for McCrea, his dispassionate moralism is nothing more than the film needs. As for his self-consciousness about playing a middle-aged lover, here he is loved by women who are 17 years (Hale) and 26 years (Talbott) his junior, though we should note that he courts neither woman aggressively. McCrea isn't an iconic figure like Randolph Scott, but while his Fifties westerns aren't in Scott's league, The Oklahoman reminds us that they're not without their virtues.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

DVR Diary: OSAKA ELEGY (1936)

1936 is still the early talkie era in Japan, even though Kenji Mizoguchi had first experimented with sound all the way back in 1930. Yasujiro Ozu was just releasing his first talkie the same year, for example. I haven't seen many Japanese films from this period, but on the evidence of Osaka Elegy I'd believe that the discovery of sound anywhere encouraged a certain vernacular irreverence. Another way of putting it is that Osaka Elegy reminds me a lot of American Pre-Code movies. What sets it apart is that in 1936 Japan modernity (as Americans knew it then) was still in the making. Mizoguchi shows us dramatic contrasts, the most notable being the way the two sexes dress. Many if not most of the men were western-style suits, while most of the women still wear traditional dress. That's true even of the switchboard operator in a modern office, and when Ayako (the late Isuzu Yamada) adopts chic western fashion late in the film it's a bit of a jolt. If anything it symbolizes how she's been stigmatized after some melodramatic sacrifices for her family. You could just about tell her story in Hollywood. Her father's a crook, her older brother's in college whining for tuition money and her younger sister's in school. She's the provider of the family by default and does what she has to do to keep everyone going. That means working overtime as a mistress for two of her bosses. Finally she plays the game too long, pushes too hard and gets slapped down, and her own family cuts her dead. Where's the gratitude? Dad, brother and sister are too busy being ashamed of the scandal she created. It seems convenient, somehow, for them to throw her out of the house. Fine, then. She takes a walk out to a bridge, but before you get ideas she walks right off and into the camera with an enigmatic expression somewhere between resignation and resolve. It might generously be described as defiance.

Mizoguchi is probably best beloved outside Japan for his late period pictures, the stuff of art houses: The Life of Oharu, Ugetsu, Sansho the Bailiff. But he always came back to the theme of the fallen woman, ending his career with Street of Shame. He did enough of these stories to fill a Criterion Eclipse box set, and he felt that Osaka Elegy in particular was one of his first really good movies. I can't blame him for thinking so; it's a brisk, jazzy, discordant picture. The thing that might remind you most of Pre-Code is the way the women talk back to their men. Where's that modest deference you might have expected from pre-war Japanese women? The women of this picture answer with a collective scoff. Defer to these guys? It's enough that they get their way and get away with things a woman can't. The difference in dress between the modern men and the traditional women illustrates a double standard, and the mostly modern cityscape reminds you whose world this is, while Ayako's story shows the danger of a do-gooder gold-digger garbing herself in the same modernity. Hollywood's heroines of the time would hail her as a sister, and probably hire her as a maid.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Lady For A Day: NOW PLAYING, Sept. 24, 1933

Milwaukee, I have not forgotten you. It's just that the resources available on the Google News Archive aren't so great for September 1933. The Sentinel is almost completely missing, while the digital pages of the Journal are often of poor quality. Fortunately, whoever scanned the Journal cleaned up their act somewhat for the days leading up to the release of Lady For a Day. That film is now remembered as Frank Capra's breakthrough film, though Capra had been Columbia's ace director just about since the coming of sound. What's different about Lady -- which Capra would remake as his final feature, Pocketful of Miracles, nearly thirty years later --  may be that, as an ensemble piece, it was the first one thought of primarily as a Capra picture rather than as some star's vehicle. Speaking of ensemble, this is virtually a Warner Bros. co-production with three of that studio's hottest personalities -- Warren William, Glenda Farrell and Guy Kibbee -- in the mix. They can't hurt.

Columbia and Milwaukee's Palace theater went to town promoting Lady for a Day. Here's a double-page spread of movie ads from the Journal for the film's opening day, September 22.

The theater itself puts two ads in the spread, while the makers of Lux soap join in with a tie-in ad promoting (but not actually featuring) Glenda Farrell. Let's take a closer look:


What's Glenda's secret? She uses soap!


The film itself is inescapably a bit Capracorny, but it has plenty of Pre-Code attitude, too. Let's let Glenda demonstrate, with help from Farrell fan extraordinaire WB Kelso:

Sunday, September 22, 2013


The Puritan wanderer Solomon Kane was one of the early creations of the short-lived, now legendary pulp writer Robert E. Howard, predating Conan the Barbarian in print by four years. In the movies, more than a quarter-century passed after the first Conan movie before Solomon Kane made it to the big screen, and then three more years passed before Michael J. Bassett's Euro production was released in Howard's homeland. At first glance, the picture owes its existence less to John Milius's Conan the Barbarian than it does to Gore Verbinski's Pirates of the Caribbean. I don't mean to suggest that Bassett's film is a comedy -- it takes itself very seriously -- but the Pirates films made the 17th century setting of the Kane stories a safe period to set a fantasy film in. In fact, Solomon Kane takes inspiration from many sources. Some of the interior sets and creature designs may remind you of Pan's Labyrinth, while some of the outdoor action suggests Tim Burton's Sleepy Hollow. A scene in which Kane (James Purefoy) is crucified will even remind you of the Milius Conan, if not of another 1982 film, The Sword and the Sorcerer, in which the hero decrucifies himself. Alas, it can't live up to that picture's glorious idiotic moment when the hero leaps off his cross, catches a sword in mid-air, and goes to work slaying his enemies. Instead, Kane bellows with rage and flops into the mud.

It might be argued that writer-director Bassett takes influences from everywhere but the Howard stories, but we have to concede that Bassett got the look of the character pretty much right. Like Milius's Conan, Bassett's Kane doesn't adapt a particular Howard story. Instead, Bassett gives us an overdetermined origin story, and while Milius's film is also an origin, it had the simplicity of a revenge tale as well, while Bassett ensnares himself in nearly every origin-story plot thread that could be imagined. For starters, it's a tale of redemption, starting with Kane as a freebooter sacking a North African fortress, only to find himself attacked by a Devil's Reaper claiming his soul. His narrow escape leads Kane to seek shelter in a monastery, adopting ways of peace in the belief that the devil will take him should he ever kill again. But Solomon Kane is also about "fathers and sons," but more about sibling rivalry. Flashbacks reveal that Solomon, the second son of honorary Englishman (and Conan alumnus) Max Von Sydow -- is it that the great Swede now speaks the language better than most natives, or do some people think he is English? --  was to be relegated to the priesthood (a dangerous profession in Elizabethan England) but ran away from home after accidentally shoving his bully of an older brother off a cliff. This pretty much gives away the identity of the bad guy stomping around in a leather mask, but Bassett muddles things by insisting that this menace is only a minion of the real big-bad, the priest-turned-sorcerer Malachi (Jason Flemyng), whom we don't even see until the film's last act. His face is tattooed with Latin script in another apparent homage to the Milius Conan, and that's the most interesting thing about him. He ends up overshadowed not just by Solomon's final duel with his brother, who gets set on fire during the fight, and by his own summoning of a giant fire demon out of a mirror. Needless to say, by now Solomon has done a lot of killing, but he's been assured by the dying vow of the late Pete Postlethwaite that any killing he does to save Pete's daughter is O.K. with God.

Is there an original idea to be found in Solomon Kane? It seems not, though there are a few creatively directed moments. One of the best, it turns out, is a tangent from the main story in which Solomon encounters a minister whose congregation has been cursed by Malachi and transformed into flesh-eating subhumans. The slow torchlit reveal of the lot of them, both sexes bald and greenish in the light, packed in a cellar beneath a trapdoor, is the most genuinely creepy moment in the picture. The main story is a dispiriting muddle of "begins" cliches, again begging the question of why modern movie audiences supposedly can't accept the idea of a hero walking the earth without knowing how or why he does so, or being reassured somehow that he is reluctant, conflicted, etc. To my knowledge, Robert E. Howard never felt a need to account for Solomon Kane's childhood or family rivalries. Bassett's attempt to do so doesn't enhance the legend but serves only to make his film more like all the other modern films that find heroism so exceptional that it must be explained by factors other than a commitment to justice or the common good. This grows tiresome and seems to reflect a distrust of moral certainty, if not heroism itself, at least among self-styled creators. There's certainly room for skepticism about moral certainty (or certitude) in movies, but by now it's gotten monotonous. Solomon Kane is itself a monotonous picture, more often merely miserable than spooky and too predictable to be epic. The picture isn't awful, but it's disappointingly uninspired and a disservice to Robert E. Howard's legacy.

Friday, September 20, 2013

Pre-Code Parade: TODAY WE LIVE (1933)

William Faulkner was Snoopy: a dogged writer who dreamed of being a World War I flying ace. Faulkner had the double advantage over the bipedal beagle of actually existing and doing so during the war. He went to pilot school but no further, but let the folks at home believe more than that. He was good at fiction, or so the Nobel committee said. He was less good at movies, but found a patron in Howard Hawks. Maybe Hawks sat on his doghouse roof in turn and dreamed of writing famously. He sought the company of great writers. Hemingway kept him at arm's length (he liked Gary Cooper better), allowing him a free (in spirit if not in price) adaptation of To Have and Have Not scripted by none other than Faulkner but never consenting to write for film. Hemingway may have stayed away from movies so he could sneer at his rivals for writing them. Faulkner needed the money more, I suppose -- though by the time Hawks got hold of him he had become a bona fide bestseller by virtue of his novel Sanctuary, filmed without his input as The Story of Temple Drake, and enough of a celebrity that his name could be mentioned in some of the advertising for his adaptation, directed by Hawks, of his own short story "Turnabout." The story appeared in the Saturday Evening Post, another workplace Hemingway avoided and another he held against his rivals, even the friendly ones like F. Scott Fitzgerald, who supposedly wasted his gifts working to commercial formulae. For what it was worth, "Turnabout" was well read in the Post, but required enhancement in the adaptation to cinema. Faulkner is credited with the story (of course) and the dialogue of Today We Live, but the "screen play" itself flowed from other pens. Edith Fitzgerald and Dwight Taylor ought to be mentioned here, because their additions to the magazine story might otherwise convince people (like me) who know the story only through the movie to think that the story itself had been written by Snoopy.

It is like this: Gary Cooper is a rich American who moves to England and becomes Joan Crawford's new neighbor, introducing himself with an almost national instinct at the worst time, Joan having lost her father to the war. That leaves her with a brother, played by future husband Franchot Tone, and a future husband, played by Robert Young, whose possible intimacies with Crawford are unknown to me. You can tell the other three are British while Cooper isn't, however alike all four sound, because they're already there when the picture starts. They're fighting in the war, too, and in his turn Cooper catches the war bug, around the time Crawford catches the Cooper bug.  Joan herself crosses the water to play nurse, only to learn that Cooper, a flier himself, has crashed and died. Audiences with memories of William Wellman's Wings would by this point be reluctant ever to fly with Gary Cooper, unless they realized that it was too soon in the picture, at this more advanced point in his career, for Cooper to be dead. Joan herself doesn't realize this and hooks up with Young for consolation. As was predictable, Cooper reappears expecting to pick up where he left off with Crawford and realizing his error, and her deceit, only when he delivers a drunken Young to his living quarters, which are Crawford's, too.

Faulkner thus adds, or is provided with, an additional motive element of romantic rivalry for the scenes that are the real material of "Turnabout" and the stuff that must have attracted Hawks to the story. Cooper and Young, the latter seconded by Tone and the former by Roscoe Karns, engage in a contest of one-upmanship, debating whose is the braver work in the war. While Cooper bombs cities, Young and Tone operate a torpedo boat that doesn't fire torpedoes but guides them -- hauls them, really, toward their targets. Young gets a plane ride, Cooper a boat ride; each is impressed. The sea scenes are somewhat more convincing, Hawks's setbound planes lacking the scale and mobility of later fakery in films like Too Hot to Handle. Through editing and simple directorial persistence Hawks manages to give these scenes some dramatic momentum. Hawks was also obviously enthused by scenes of barracks camaraderie, the great sport of First World Warriors during their downtime being the training and matching of fighting cockroaches. But there is nothing Hawksian, and hardly anything Faulknerian, about the wrap-up. Would either of them have assumed on their own that once Cooper returned from the presumptive dead that either he or Young must die the big death? Yet audiences and/or producers assumed just that, and so did our creators. So Young gets blinded in battle. By movie rules that means that Crawford will give up any further thought of Cooper to take care of Young, while Young will not want to be a burden to her, as he imagines a blind man must be. He convinces Tone to take him out for one more mission, while Cooper, learning of Young's adventure, rushes his plane into the air to pretty much watch as a mishap with the torpedo boat's firing mechanism, to describe it generously, compels Tone to take on a suicide mission. Following movie rules himself, he's going to spare Young by tossing him overboard, but this is the moment Young has been waiting for, so rather than take a dive he wraps himself around Tone (some scholars see subtext in "Turnabout," but some people see subtext everywhere) and together the buddies send a shipload of Heinies to Valhalla, blowing Crawford a clear path to her romantic reunion with Cooper.

Faulkner would return to themes of flying in his novel Pylon, adapted by Douglas Sirk during Faulker's second round of celebrity as The Tarnished Angels, and to themes of World War I in A Fable, infamous during his lifetime as an overhyped pretentious post-Nobel dud. Hawks hooked up with him next for another war picture, 1936's The Road to Glory. Their best-loved collaborations are To Have and Have Not and their Raymond Chandler adaptation, The Big Sleep, for which they and co-writer Leigh Brackett, according to legend, had to ask Chandler whodunit, in vain. Later, Hawks identified Faulkner as the perfect man to write an Ancient Egyptian epic -- the idea hadn't occurred to Norman Mailer yet -- and the end product, Land of the Pharaohs, reached DVD as a "Cult Camp Classic." Today We Live was the only time Hawks adapted his friend's own work, which is probably a good thing for both men's reputations, which were better off when this film was more thoroughly forgotten.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Ken Norton (1943-2013)

Sports fans will remember Norton as the man who broke Muhammad Ali's jaw in the first of three split-decision fights, but readers of this blog know him as an icon of the 1970s: the star (in two separate roles) of Richard Fleischer's slavesploitation epic Mandingo and its sequel, Steve Carver's Drum. According to my stats, my review of Mandingo is by far the most popular thing I've written here, though most people probably look it up for the screencaps. For similar reasons, my review of Drum is also a top-ten item. Norton's death at age 70 from complications following a stroke is, however sad, as good an occasion as any to refer people to two films that strongly influenced Quentin Tarantino's Django Unchained -- most obviously in the form of "mandingo fighting" -- and are arguably superior in their unselfconscious exploitation of the mood of their time. Look up Mandingo here, and Drum here -- and give Ken Norton some props along the way. As actor and fighter, he literally talked the talk and walked the walk. Ave atque vale.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

IP MAN 2 (2010)

Now that I've seen Wong Kar-wai's long awaited portrait of the Wing Chun master and "teacher of Bruce Lee" Ip Man, The Grandmaster, it's past time that I caught up with the Wilson Yip's sequel to his award-winning biopic from 2008. Because Wong had announced his intentions long ago, Yip's Ip Man struck some as an exploitation piece designed primarily to beat Wong to theaters, as it did by a wide margin. The awards it received suggested that Yip's picture was something more than exploitation. I found it a well-crafted, crowd-pleasing period piece influenced as much by Ron Howard's Cinderella Man in its focus on an impoverished hero as by admittedly obvious Chinese influences. If there's a Hollywood influence on Ip Man 2, I'm afraid it's something less lofty. Think Rocky IV rather than Cinderella Man -- though, admittedly, pitting kung fu heroes against foreign hulks is nothing new in Chinese cinema.

The first half of the sequel is more interesting. Yip picks up Ip Man's story in postwar Hong Kong, where our hero (Donnie Yen) struggles to make a living teaching Wing Chun to a skeptical population. Contrary to The Grandmaster, Ip's wife has made it across as well, with a baby on the way. Long days pass with nothing to do but sit and smoke and banter with the landlady on his rooftop training facility, until one young punk, Wong Leung (Huang Xiaoming) shows up to challenge the newcomer. He learns about Wing Chun the hard way, but comes back with some buddies to learn more. After Ip handles them all with ease, they become his disciples. Mrs. Ip has to gently remind him to remind them to pay regularly so they can meet the rent on both the school and their home.

A pensive Donnie Yen on one of Ip Man 2's atmospheric sets,
setting a poor example of discipline with that cigarette in his hand but definitely scoring period authenticity points.

Ip soon runs afoul of the Hong Kong martial arts establishment. A Hung Kuen fighter challenges Leung; his buddies dogpile the Wing Chun acolyte and take him prisoner, demanding ransom from the new master. Ip liberates Leung and routs the Hung Kuen goons, but now has to deal with their master. Master Hung (fight choreographer Sammo Hung) lays the law down; he and his peers will onl allow Ip to teach if he accepts their challenges. Once Ip has done this, humbling some of Hung's cronies and fighting the big man himself to a standstill, the law gets laid down again. Ip may have earned the right to teach, but he still better pay his dues to the martial arts association. There's often something gangsterish about martial arts schools in genre films, and that quality stands out strongly in the first half of Ip Man 2. Ip refuses to pay, but an ultimate reckoning with Master Hung is forestalled by events beyond his control.

At a low point in Ip's new career, after the Hung Kuen goons have provoked an incident leading to his eviction from his school, the film goes soft on Master Hung and the association. It reveals that the local masters have been more or less forced into a protection racket by a corrupt official of the British colonial administration who pockets the money Master Hung collects.  This official aspires to be a fight promoter of some sort, and toward that end he brings a British boxing champion, "Mr. Twister" Milo (Darren Shalavi) -- that's how his name is spelled on posters in the movie, though the subtitles call him Miller at one point. Upon his arrival, Ip Man 2 reverts to the form of the first Ip Man, pitting the hero against a foreign oppressor. The British in Hong Kong may not have been as atrocious as the Japanese on the mainland -- the Brits did most of their damage back during the Opium Wars of the 19th century -- but for Wilson Yip the essential offense is the same: foreigners are disrespecting China and its culture. Twister crashes a martial-arts exhibition staged prior to his own appearance and starts thrashing the performers, behaving more like a professional wrestler than a boxer of the period. This outrages Master Hung, who challenges him to an MMA bout on the spot. In case you were wondering, this is the Rocky IV part of the film, when the superhuman foreign beast destroys the old champion to give the hero more incentive to fight.

The film can only end one way: Ip Man vs. Twister in the center of the ring. The fight itself can only end one way, despite British efforts to rig it by changing the rules midway and forbidding Ip from throwing kicks. The fight and its cultural stakes are what separate the Ip Man films from The Grandmaster. Wong Kar-wai might well be accused of making movies mainly for the global arthouse audience, but it's clear that Wilson Yip's primary audience consists of Chinese people who want to see an arrogant gwailo humbled and their own honor upheld. The Grandmaster is introspective, using kung fu as an allegory for China coming to terms with itself during the 20th century. The Ip Man films are populist, affirming Chinese identity through victory over oppressors. The latter approach will seem distasteful to non-Chinese viewers who may see these as xenophobic films, but Wilson Yip's approach isn't necessarily artistically inferior to Wong's -- especially if we compare the two stories as martial-arts films.

While Yuen Woo-ping, The Grandmaster's fight choreographer, has made martial-arts more like superhero action ever since The Matrix,  Sammo Hung still works in the dynamic style he helped make famous as a performer in the 1980s and 1990s. The fighting in Ip Man is not that much more realistic than the fights in The Grandmaster -- the venerable Sammo relies on wirework for many of his own tricks -- but it always feels more grounded and visceral. Dare I say it: he (and Wilson Yip) treat fighting in more cinematic fashion than Yuen and Wong. In the two pure martial-arts set-pieces, as opposed to the fights with Twister, Sammo clearly thinks in terms of sight gags rather than pictorial composition, whether he's finding numerous ways for Ip to use a shipping palette as a shield or weapon or exploiting his own weight when Master Hung leaps onto a table and nearly catapaults Ip over his head. On a simpler level, Yip holds shots longer than Wong does, allowing Donnie Yen and the other fighting actors to impress us with legitimate physical skills. In many ways, Ip Man 2 is a livelier film than The Grandmaster. Martial arts may seem like the way that should make the most difference, but we should still concede that Wong's film, even in its somewhat discombobulated American form, often goes in directions more interesting than those Yip chooses, and that while Donnie Yen is not necessarily an inferior Ip Man to Tony Leung, The Grandmaster's Ziyi Zhang is easily the best performer in either film. If two films on the same subject can be an apple and orange, we have them here. To each film fan his (or her) own.

Sunday, September 15, 2013


Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer released this adaptation of a novel by pulp headliner Richard Sale -- later to have his own Hollywood career as a writer and director -- during the era of Code Enforcement. The film was condemned by the Legion of Decency, a Catholic organization, and banned in Detroit, Providence, and probably other places. The studio cut the film and the Legion modified its rating. I don't know if the version available today through Time Warner and Turner Classic Movies is the cutdown or a restoration. Either way, it illustrates how alien a time like 1940 is to us in some ways. The Legion condemned Strange Cargo in part for "A naturalistic conception of religion contrary to the teaching of Christ," but most modern viewers will miss whatever nuances disturbed the Legion and see Frank Borzage's picture as unabashed Christian propaganda. The alienation goes deeper than that; there are moments when the characters in the story behave in ways that probably were easily comprehensible to the original audience, yet may be hard to understand today. The whole motive of the story will seem strange to a lot of people. Think of it as a fantasy film, however, and it has something going for it.

The setting is a prison camp in French Guiana, where we first see Clark Gable released from the darkness of solitary confinement. He's an unrepentant criminal in a world apparently without hope of repentance or even reform. His fellow convicts are a rogues' gallery of heavies. Eduardo (Kali guru from Gunga Din) Ciannelli is a bitter Bible-reader, the wrong kind of Christian, as we'll learn. Albert (Dr. Cyclops) Dekker is a British con with a plan to escape and a reluctance to let Gable in on it. On the outside looking in is Peter (needs no introduction) Lorre as "M'sieu Pig," a professional informant, and Joan Crawford, a drifter of dubious occupation who risks expulsion from the island merely by talking to Gable, who strays from his work detail to hit on her, despite ratting him out when he goes AWOL to visit her room. The guards didn't notice him missing at first because another man, Cambreau (Ian Hunter) actually infiltrates the prison at the right moment to keep the count right.  None of the other cons know him but they don't question his presence or his willingness to aid the escape.

Gable misses the breakout because Dekker had knocked him out with his boot in the middle of the night, but takes advantage of the confusion to make his own escape from the infirmary. Cambreau has helpfully left him a map showing the rendezvous point, where a boat will take the fugitives off the island. Along the way he re-encounters Crawford, while Ciannelli is beaten and left for dead by two fellow escapees who resent his hoarding food. They all make it to the beach, however, where Gable beats down Dekker and declares himself in charge. Ciannelli doesn't make it to the boat, however; he dies in an epiphany after Cambreau sets him straight about the word of God. Cambreau has an odd effect on people. His gentle manner at first disturbs, then inspires people. The weird thing it that he inspires some people to die. In a paranoid fit, one con throws the gang's only keg of fresh water overboard because he thinks they're out to steal it from him. After a few gentle words from Cambreau, he jumps into the sea to retrieve the keg and gets eaten by sharks. Feeling bad over the death of his protege (the Sale novel apparently hints at more to the relationship), Dekker, under Cambreau's influence, volunteers to taste-test the recovered keg for leaked sea-salt. One swig proves a death sentence. Of the escapees, only a smug Bluebeard type (Paul Lukas) seems immune to Cambreau's spirituality, though Gable and Crawford struggle hard against it, as they do with their attraction to each other.

The film builds to a climax that modern viewers might agree would have seemed blasphemous in 1940. The boat has reached safety, and after Lukas has gone his way and Gable has left Crawford behind, our protagonist and Cambreau sail out again into a powerful storm. Throughout the picture, Gable has been a mocker of Christianity, the kind that knows the Bible and can pick out its weak points, who scoffs at the idea that man was made in God's image, who uses the Song of Solomon's description of the human body as a "temple of God" as a come-on line to Crawford. On this new boat, he's finally had enough of Cambreau, and during a struggle Cambreau falls overboard. A triumphant Gable has a Colin Clive moment. As Cambreau bobs helplessly in the waves, his arms symbolically draped behind him, cruciform, across a piece of driftwood, Gable mocks him with possibly the most over-the-top acting of his career. "I'm your God, now!" he roars at Cambreau. In a pantheistic fit, he points to the boat captain -- "He's God!" -- and to himself -- "I'm God!" But when he takes the obvious next step, telling Cambreau, "You're --" he suddenly stops as if he's suddenly realized something. He gets it! -- whatever it is -- and dives into the raging sea to save Cambreau. From there, a final reconciliation with Crawford (and a final rebuke to Lorre, who's been lusting after Crawford throughout) is inevitable, if its consummation will be deferred until Gable serves out his prison term, as the Code required.

One of the old-time conventions of cinematic Christianity is the idea that there's something about the mere presence of a true Christian (and let's face it, Cambreau is something more than a mere Christian believer) that affects people whether they like it or not. The Christian's implacable serenity has a compelling power -- or repelling for exceptions like the Lukas character, who jokingly identifies himself as a son of Satan -- like that of Dracula when he gets into his pitch about the strange twilight world. The Christian exists in a state of peace that is implicitly available to anyone and desirable for nearly everyone. Unless you understand this concept a lot of the action of Strange Cargo will make no sense. To be fair, it's not so much Christian propaganda as it is a story that takes a lot of Christian mythos or sensibility for granted in a way we don't expect from Hollywood movies now. Reviews of the novel Not Too Narrow, Not Too Deep, suggest that Sale sustains suspense for a while over whether Cambreau himself is angel or devil, but in the movie his affiliation is unmistakable from the start, despite the sometimes-fatal consequences of his ministrations. Borzage, an arch-romanticist of the screen, no doubt intended Strange Cargo as an uplifting experience, but something that seems old-timey now struck certain powerful people as unacceptably unorthodox in 1940. The film retains some interest today despite its questionable theology as a showcase for Gable, who plays as unlikable version of his usual rogue character as he could get away with for much of the picture, and a jamboree of character actors, even if most of them go soft along the way. One thing's for certain: they don't make 'em like that anymore.

Friday, September 13, 2013

Pre-Code Parade: THE STAR WITNESS (1931)

Three generations of a family gather at a dinner table for a round of domestic comedy. The wastrel son disparages dad's bookkeeping job; the youngest boy craves beans. A doddering grandpa shows up on "furlough" from the National Soldiers' Home; the small ones idolize him while the grown-ups find him and his Civil War stories and his playing on the fife tiresome. Outside, a William Wellman movie breaks out. Two big cars are engaged in a gangland gun battle in the middle of a rainy evening until they spin and skid to a halt. Two desperate men race toward the retreating camera as Maxie Campo (Ralph Ince) guns them down. One of the victims flops in the gutter, Public Enemy-style. Now the cops are on their way, so Maxie and his boys have to get away. They cut through the family's apartment building, through their very apartment, Maxie pausing to deck the old codger when he gets too crotchety.

The cops have little trouble following Maxie's trail, and the Leeds family is happy to tell their story to the crusading district attorney (Walter Huston). They soon regret their glibness. While Maxie gets arrested and faces a capital trial for the shootings, his head goon Big Jack (Nat Pendleton) knows that the d.a. is likely to put the Leeds brood on the stand. He does all he can to dissuade the family. He offers the father (Grant Mitchell) a $1,000 bribe, or a paid vacation for the whole family. When Leeds spurns the bribe, Jack tries the hard sell. Soon he has Leeds by the legs, practically slamming him through the wall of his hideout before dumping the wretched man in a ditch under a bridge. Leeds is lucky to be alive, but in case the family didn't get the message, Big Jack has one of the younger boys kidnapped on his way to a baseball game. Defying a police dragnet, Jack tells the family that the boy will die if any of them testify against Maxie. That shuts everyone up, despite the d.a.'s threat to jail them for contradicting their earlier sworn statements. Everyone clams up, except for the old man. He goes off on a rant about "foreigners" taking over the country and how good Americans need to stand up to them the way he stood up for the Union way back when. When the family reminds him of the boy's peril, he reminds them that everyone's life is in danger while the "foreigners" run loose. Then he goes about tracking down the boy after the police have failed.

While Turner Classic Movies aired Star Witness to spotlight Dickie Moore, who plays the youngest boy, on his 88th birthday, Walter Huston gets top billing in the actual picture yet is overshadowed by the "And" billing for the actor playing the old veteran, Charles "Chic" Sale. Wellman's Star Witness is a recycling of the title, if not a remake of the plot of a Movietone short Sale had made in 1928. Sale had already made a name for himself making old codgers by the ripe age of 46, when he appeared in Wellman's film; perhaps ironically, he was only 51 when he died. While the Star Witness short was advertised as a comedy, Wellman's feature has a split personality. Sale is essentially a comic figure, even while he serves as a mouthpiece for nativist outrage, but Wellman arguably (and perhaps necessarily)overcompensates for the comedic element with a high level of brutality, including not just the beating Pendleton inflicts on Mitchell, but also some rough handling of George Ernst as the kidnapped boy. He emphasizes the contrast with stark crosscutting between Mitchell's ordeal and scenes of the family waiting to serve him dinner at home. Later, he merges the streams and makes the film a thriller as Sale conducts his improbable search. It's like Hitchcock directing Gabby Hayes as Sale stalks the neighborhood where Ernst is thought to be held, playing his fife in the street in the hope that Ernst will hear it wherever he is. The comedy never fully goes away; a passing woman gives Sale a penny as if he were a panhandler. But Wellman gradually ratchets up the suspense level, intercutting Sale's march with scenes of Ernst with his captors, including a friendly gangster and fellow baseball fan who shows the boy the grip for a fancy pitch. You can see what's going to happen, and your anticipation of what the kid will do with the ball when he hears the fife is what we call suspense.

Wellman keeps up the pressure even after the ball goes through the window, since Sale has to convince people of what the ball means, and he isn't exactly the most convincing person at first glance. Some of the police are looking for him ever since he slipped his handler in the courthouse restroom, but others don't know him from any other coot on the lam from the soldiers' home, and they're ready to stuff him in a squad car and take him away while leaving the boy to his fate. Come to think of it, Hitchcock might have taken notes from this film. I had my doubts about it when I realized it would be a vehicle for a vaudevillian coot, but it's a testament to William Wellman's instinctive sense of drama during his intensely industrious stint at Warner Bros. -- to repeat, 17 feature films between 1931 and 1933, including two for other studios and not counting uncredited work on an 18th picture -- that he makes it an entertaining drama that bears his personal stylistic stamp.

Well, jumping cornstalks! Here's the original trailer from

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Masaki Kobayashi's BLACK RIVER (1957)

Kobayashi's black river is an asphalt road servicing an American military base in occupied Japan. On one side, the sort of establishments that attract soldiers looking for a good time, almost a stripmall of sleaze. On the other, the small timers, the losers, the hustlers. Along this street of dreams and nightmares two men vie symbolically for the soul of Japan. Nishida (Fumio Watanabe) is a poor but earnest engineering student with a cartload of books. He meets cute with Shizuko (Ineko Arima) when she picks up some of the books that fall of the wagon as he moves into the neighborhood. But Joe, aka Joe the Killer (Tatsuya Nakadai) has eyes on her as well. He's the local gangster fattening off the corruption around the base. He wants to cut a deal with the landlady across the street (Isuzu Yamada) to buy her property, drive out Nishida and the other poor tenants, and build a "love hotel" for the GIs. He wants Shizuko for himself and he's got enough dangerous charisma -- this is reportedly the part that made Nakadai a star -- to get what he wants. Joe's old girlfriend makes it a quadrangle by latching onto Nishida, leaning on him like a crutch in the woozy quasi-chase scene that climaxes the picture, just as Joe leans on Shizuko further up the road.

Modern jazz plays over the Shochiku logo and the abstract, collage-like credits. The funky shapes of the English-language clippings may remind you as much of Picasso as of Saul Bass, and we see and hear it all as cool -- but does Kobayashi see it the same way? Black River is a loathing portrait of an abject nation or people on the make or on the bum, where getting someone to stand up for someone else is like pulling teeth. In defeat, solidarity is dead. You can't even get a wife to give blood to her dying husband without her throwing a fit of protest. Even Nishida, our nearest thing to a good guy, is reluctant to give blood. The miasma of desperate selfishness is catching. The efforts of a Korean tenant to rally his neighbors in defense of their rights are hopeless. Culture is dead; America's mark is everywhere. A neighbor asks to borrow some of Nishida's books, but he doesn't care which ones. He just wants to make an impression on his visiting dad. Another neighbors idea of a housewarming gift is a nudie poster. You get the idea.

Ineko Arima and her suitors:
Fumio Watanabe (above) and Tatsuya Nakadai (below)

Amid the grime Nakadai is radioactive, though it's another character who identifies himself, in a belligerent mood, as Godzilla -- and that's twice in two movies in the Criterion Eclipse box set that Kobayashi has invoked the Toho blockbuster of just a few years before. You can see why Nakadai caught fire here; next to his thuggish sexuality Watanabe looks feeble, and in the end it's Nishida but Shizuko who destroys Joe. She pushes the drunk in front of a truck, metaphorically drowning him in the black river that keeps on flowing despite the demise of the scapegoat. They killed the bad guy but the tractors still knocked down the apartments.


This is half Streetcar Named Desire, with Nakadai as Brando, and half Grapes of Wrath, with Watanabe as an intellectual, ineffectual Tom Joad. You get the poverty and wretchedness and demolition scenes without the speechifying about the people, so maybe some will like this better. There's plenty to like in this noirish skid-row screed against a nation of sellouts, but there's something generic about it that Kobayashi and Nakadai would transcend in their greatest films together and other directors would top when contemplating the corruption of occupation. This jazzy jeremiad may be too cruel to be cool but Nakadai gives it the juice to stand the test of time.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Pre-Code Parade: THE DOORWAY TO HELL (1930)

Film historians usually date the birth of the Warner Bros. gangster cycle to the January 1931 release of Mervyn LeRoy's Little Caesar and Edward G. Robinson's starmaking turn in the title role. Archie Mayo's Doorway to Hell came out three months earlier, in October 1930, and even has James Cagney in it, but is usually recognized as little more than a footnote in Cagney's filmography and rarely if ever as a pioneer gangster picture. There are reasons for this. The main reason is that Doorway to Hell looks more like a rough draft of a Warner Bros. gangster picture than a real one. Consider Cagney. This was his second film appearance, falling between Sinner's Holiday, in which he recreated a Broadway role, and his minor yet scene-stealing work in William Wellman's Other Men's Women. The part he gets in Doorway is probably the appropriate role for a rookie; the problem with it is whom he's cast with. Cagney is a flunky -- to be more generous, he's the right-hand man of the film's lead gangster. His name, "Mileaway," is strangely prophetic of the "faraway fella" epithet his "Irish Mafia" buddies like Pat O'Brien gave him. We first see him as a messenger in a pool hall, conveying instructions received by phone to a figure we quickly learn is a hitman. The hitman is Dwight Frye. The boss is Lew Ayres. Something is wrong with this picture.

It probably didn't seem that way in 1930. Then, Ayres was a young meteor. The year before, at age 21, he was Garbo's love interest in The Kiss. Earlier in 1930 he staked his main claim to cinematic immortality as the star of the World War I blockbuster All Quiet on the Western Front. Ayres seemed set to be huge, but his greatest role may also have proved a curse. The sympathetic German soldier of the war film marked Ayres as a sensitive type; the actor internalized the film's pacifist ethos, derailing his career for a time by declaring himself a conscientious objector during World War II. Already, you suspect, movie audiences may have felt it one thing for Ayres to be the sensitive enemy bemoaning the cruelty of war, and another for him to play a ruthless criminal mastermind.

If you want to fit Doorway to Hell into a gangster subgenre, Al Pacino has the right description for it: "Just when I thought I was out, they drag me back in!" Ayres plays Louie Ricarno, who spends the first act of the film brilliantly consolidating his control over the Chicago underworld and putting it on a "business basis." Having conquered the Windy City, Ricarno is ready to retire. This is a good time to remind you that the man playing him was 22 years old. Initially reluctant to obey him, some of the local hoods are reluctant to see him go. Even his moll Doris (Dorothy Matthews) is reluctant to see him leave the life behind; more to the point, she's reluctant to leave the life -- and Mileaway -- behind.

Mileaway inherits the Chicago setup but can't keep all the factions in line. Gang war resumes, and while Mileaway flounders helplessly, cooler heads think they know how to bring Louie back into the game. They know (because Mileaway blabbed it) that Louie has a younger brother in a military school. They attempt a kidnapping of the kid to force Louie's hand, but they bungle it and the kid gets run over by a truck trying to escape them. The muggs get what they wanted, sort of. Louie's definitely back in the game now, but he's after their hides.

It may read like a conventional crime melodrama, but Doorway to Hell doesn't know where its real story is. They have a triangle of Ayres, Matthews and Cagney but bungle every attempt to wring drama from it. Most importantly, as far as I can tell Louie never catches on to Doris and Mileaway's affair, even though the cop who has a running, bantering relationship with Louie throughout the film has figured it out by looking at a mirror from the right angle. The cop takes advantage of this knowledge to trap Mileaway into making a confession to a crime he didn't commit. Mileaway has an alibi, but can't use it because it would mean admitting his betrayal of Louie. The scene where Mileaway gets grilled is where the film falls irreparably apart. Watching it, I assumed that the cops wanted Mileaway to rat out Louie to save his own skin, but for some reason they really want Mileaway to confess to a crime they know he didn't commit. He thinks he's confessing to spring Louie, as well as to keep the cop quiet about the affair, but the cops are actually holding Louie, and will keep holding him until he stages an escape, on a separate charge. The real drama of the picture should be the triangle, but that would mean giving Mileaway more balls or more of an edge. It would mean doing something sensibly dramatic like having Mileaway decide he wants to keep his power and take Louie's girl. Producer and director had James Cagney in this role and couldn't imagine any of this. They simply didn't know what they had, and producer Darryl F. Zanuck remained ignorant until it was almost too late for Cagney, casting him in a similar subordinate role in The Public Enemy until the early rushes for that picture exposed the error. Doorway to Hell had one point it wanted to make -- that there could never be any getting out of the business for the gangster, and finds the stagiest way to stage it, finishing with Ayres alone in a hideout, albeit with a couple of visitors, somehow checkmated into accepting his fate and walking through the metaphoric portal of the title. In one of those charming little touches of the early gangster film, machine gun fire plays all the way through the epilogue text and the end title card.

Well, the studio had to start somewhere, and Doorway to Hell may have served Warners as a tutorial on how not to make a gangster film. Mayo's direction, at least, is mostly solid, and the film has more of a studio-set expressionist look than some of the early gangster films. If that registers as somehow not looking right, that only reinforces the rough-draft impression Doorway makes. At least that gives it curiosity value, and the film will always be of interest to Cagney fans as a case study of their man paying his dues in a thankless role. Write it off as a learning experience for all involved, and for yourselves, too.

Check out the adorable animated gunfire in the original trailer from

Sunday, September 8, 2013

OPEN LETTER TO THE EVENING NEWS (Lettera aperta a un giornale della sera, 1970)

Filmed in 1968 and edited into shape over a two-year period, Francesco Maselli's film is a criticism of academic Communists by a professed academic Communist. Maselli filmed it in a documentary style, deliberately overexposing the 16mm film to get the bleached look of authentic amateurism. At the same time, one suspects Maselli of certain concessions to glamor -- on the casting couch, perhaps? Maybe late-Sixties fashions make any woman look good, but on the other hand, did communism not attract more stridently plain or stocky female types? An air of radical chic hangs over the proceedings, even as Maselli satirizes some of that mentality. His target is a brand of communism that specializes in international posturing while apparently ignoring more immediate tasks at hand. The opening act is an all-night gathering to draft the title document, in which the signers vow to form an international brigade to fight the Americans in Vietnam. A mood of self-conscious yet unrepentant futility prevails, as the authors assume that the letter will never be printed.

Aren't they surprised when the letter is not only printed but popular, inspiring statements of solidarity from Dutch "culture workers" and the European left's No.1 celebrity intellectual, Jean-Paul Sartre. Needless to say, this puts our radicals on the spot, since none of them really assumed that the letter would be taken seriously. As they flounder for a way to spin the situation, the momentum of events gets out of their control. The Communist government of North Vietnam has consistently refused support from foreign fighters, but on this occasion, wouldn't you know, the Central Committee is reconsidering its policy, while negotiations are underway for Yugoslavia to arm and supply our intrepid protagonists. Everything turns out all right in the end, but it's a close call most of the way. The film ends with our main characters literally kicking a can down the road before releasing their tensions in boyish play.

I think Maselli made his point, but in case you didn't get it he also intercuts his heroes' misadventures with scenes of prisoners being tortured by a bored, coffee-sipping official. We're never told where this is happening, but I assume that the location is supposed to be Italy itself. If so, the film becomes a slap at leftist internationalism. On the NoShame DVD, Maselli (still with us at age 84) relates that his film generated a firestorm of "polemic" in the leftist press, but he had the good fortune to be an Italian Communist, a member of Europe's most liberal such party, and was able to withstand and answer criticism without getting expelled.

Whatever his own polemical intentions, Maselli thought of Open Letter as a character-driven cinematic novel. If the overall tone is satirical, he goes to great if not salacious lengths to humanize his characters. No doubt reflecting his own experience, he shows us communists who live and screw in the real world, driven by the same passions and jealousies as everyone else, perhaps at the expense of the will or discipline revolution may demand. In short, there's a lot of sexuality and bare breasts in the movie that may sweeten the polemical pill for the non-ideological audience. Female beauty clearly arouses the aesthete within him that Maselli may have meant to suppress with his deliberately distressed filming style. It sets Open Letter apart from later, retrospective films on the same subject that focus on fanaticism at the expense of humanity. Maselli humbly suggests that the trade-off between the two qualities is even more problematic, if also somewhat amusing.

Friday, September 6, 2013

Pre-Code Parade: THE PERSONALITY KID (1934)

Pat O'Brien often played a mentor figure for James Cagney in Warner Bros. pictures, but when Cagney wasn't in the picture O'Brien was often cast as a poor man's Cagney, playing similar roles with less charisma, less intensity and far less physical grace. Roles like The Personality Kid seem like Cagney cast-offs. O'Brien plays an up-and-coming boxer -- the real-life fighter King Levinsky was often called "the personality kid" in 1934 news stories -- whose savvy spouse (Glenda Farrell) acts as his business manager. O'Brien is the sort of boxer that used to be called a "dancing master" before Muhammad Ali made fancy footwork respectable. He's a showboater who taunts his opponents, knowing they can't lay a glove on him. In the first fight we see he makes the opponent look amateurish. This bum misses so wildly that he falls down almost every time he throws a punch. It looks like a Toughman competition before O'Brien finishes his man. Then director Alan Crosland does his most creative work in the film. O'Brien boxes much like Sugar Ray Leonard, throwing furious flurries of punches that impress quantitatively if not qualitatively, and Crosland films these flurries with rapid-fire editing of a speed and rhythm rarely seen in 1930s Hollywood, cutting on every punch until you're nearly as dizzy as the bum going down for the count. Watch more than one of these sequences and you may believe that O'Brien is as good as he thinks he is.

With Farrell's guidance -- and who would doubt her acumen? -- O'Brien rises up the ranks and becomes an object of high-society curiosity. Like Cagney in 1932's Winner Take All, O'Brien is taken up by a socialite (Claire Dodd) who sees him as an intriguing primitive type. She has him pose for paintings in the traditional strongman/caveman costume, and if he can't keep up with the sophisticated conversation he basks in the attention. Little does he realize that he's living a lie. He learns the truth after his latest victory when he hears his defeated opponent boast of his acting skills. Our hero refuses to believe that the other man took a dive but sees the light when the loser decks him in the dressing room. He hunts down the promoters and confronts them with his knowledge in front of a reporter. They angrily inform him that his manager/wife was in on the con, and at home she confirms it, telling hubby that it had to be this way because he doesn't really have a punch and would never get a title shot otherwise. Now that he's blabbed, of course, he definitely won't get one. Blaming wifey for that, he walks out on her, not knowing that she's carrying his child.

O'Brien is soon reduced to playing the strongman role for a patent-medicine show, but when he finally learns about Farrell's advanced predicament he tries to get back in the fight game. The most he can do is go to work for his old promoters and take a dive himself for the latest contender in order to provide for his little family. In the ring, his sense of honor and the promise of the winner's purse inspire him to double-cross the promoters. Aided by his old trainer (Clarence Muse, in a nod to the era's segregation, has to make his way all the way down from the nosebleed seats to reach ringside), O'Brien proves to the world that he has a punch after all, then proves to himself, confronting the promoters and his goons afterward, that he can take a punch as well. It's all good in the end, as the reporter who exposed him previously now lobbies for his formal reinstatement. Farrell looks forward to raising children on a little farm, but O'Brien now has new cause to believe his own hype again.

In a Cagneyesque role O'Brien only proves that he's no Cagney, but he has decent chemistry with Farrell and plays the sap well. The dependable quality of the Warners stock company and Crosland's lively direction of the fight scenes lift the picture a little above its utterly predictable plot and make it an entertaining little programmer of the sort Warners made in bunches in Pre-Code times.

Now for the trailer, boasting some original footage, from

Thursday, September 5, 2013


You might think of Gottfried Reinhardt's courtroom drama as a cross between Anatomy of a Murder and Judgment at Nuremberg. Or since it's a Kirk Douglas movie, how about a cross between Paths of Glory and Ace in the Hole? These comparisons may help you remember the story, which has been overshadowed ever since by the titanic theme song composed by that rockabilly sensation Dmitri Tiomkin. The song got an Oscar nomination (it lost to "Moon River") and hit the Top 20, but few who might hear it on oldies stations may know, or ever recall, that there was once a movie attached to it.

Once again, Kirk is a military lawyer trying to save soldiers from execution, but this time we know from the start that they're guilty, and someone else is playing the disreputable reporter. Kirk's charges are Robert Blake, Richard Jaeckel, the sergeant from Gomer Pyle and some other guy. The film makes it pretty clear that this fearsome foursome raped a teenage girl somewhere in Occupied Germany (Christine Kaufmann is Introduced to American audiences here after several years' work in European films), and the Blake character (more honorable, some would say, than the man who plays him) will confess his guilt at the drop of a hat. The U.S. wants to prove to the Germans that their soldiers don't receive favorable treatment and can't get away with this crap, so E. G. Marshall is sent to seek the death penalty for all four men. Kirk is on the case because even guilty men are entitled to a defense. Since the case against them, between Blake's confession and Kaufmann's identification of all four, is open-and-shut, Kirk's task is to make sure these sad sacks don't hang. The way to do that is to raise just the slightest possibility that Kaufmann was asking for it in some way. The defense hangs, so the defendants won't, on such fine details as whether Kaufmann was wearing her bikini when the soldiers found her by a stream in the woods, after an argument with her boyfriend. The big courtroom showdown, probably still scandalous for some viewers at the time, has Kirk inspecting Kaufmann's bikini bottom to determine whether it may have been violently removed by the rapists, as she claimed, and tearing it in half in front of her to demonstrate how its intact condition until then proves her a liar. Her ordeal on the witness stand accelerates a downward spiral toward tragedy as the little town earns the film's title before Kirk moves on to new adventures.

Reinhardt is no cinematic stylist and alienates us from the start by having a narrator (who eventually becomes a character in the story) translate the German dialogue in the early scenes rather than give us subtitles to read or simply have the actors talk in English as they all will eventually. Once all the characters are in place, however, the actors take over and save the film. Kirk Douglas's lawyer is a conscientious cynic, well aware of the need to ruin a young woman's life to save four undeserving men and warning everyone to do whatever's possible to avoid his showdown with Kaufmann. To its credit, the film aims at an objective tone, clearly lamenting Kaufmann's fate yet not asserting that the four men would be better off hanged. They may have raped her, and Douglas may have humiliated her, but for what comes after the title tells us whom to blame. Of the other actors Blake is the standout in the showiest role, raging at a doctor who diagnoses him as impotent during the trial and later trying the Ariel Castro way out ahead of the verdict. He may be the most repentant and presumably the most sympathetic of the rapists, but he's also easily the craziest and most disturbing of them. By comparison, Douglas gives a tightly controlled performance that pays off with a reaction to the last news of Kaufmann that's profoundly minimalist by his usual histrionic standards. Town Without Pity was probably seen as pushing the envelope of frankness in subject matter 52 years ago, but the story and the performances have held up reasonably well long after the original shock value wore off.

Here's Gene Pitney singing the title song, as he did on the original soundtrack. This 1962 clip was uploaded to YouTube by Slim Ostner. The lyrics to Tiomkin's tune are by Ned Washington.


Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Pre-Code Parade: I'VE GOT YOUR NUMBER (1934)

TCM ran this Ray Enright film as part of a Glenda Farrell day during last month's Summer Under the Stars festival, but she's only in two scenes. The stars are Pat O'Brien and Joan Blondell as, respectively, a telephone repairman (assisted by Allen Jenkins) and a hotel switchboard receptionist. Blondell is just one of the many women O'Brien and Jenkins meet in their daily adventures, which take them from immigrant tenements to posh whorehouses. I'm assuming about the latter, of course, but so would you if you saw the place and its languid, lingerie-clad tenants who flirt with O'Brien while Jenkins sulks. His partner gets impulses to strangle people, O'Brien explains, so he strangles himself instead. Their work is full of adventures. When a live wire falls across an occupied car during a fire, our hero cuts the power in time to save the driver's life. When he has to investigate someone monkeying with the wires at a particular home, he and Jenkins stumble onto Farrell's racket. She's a distaff version of Warren William's Mind Reader, a turbaned fake medium whose flunkies (including Louise Beavers, from "the southern part of Heaven") speak into an upstairs phone Farrell has hooked up with a loudspeaker so the spirits of the departed loved ones can talk to the suckers. O'Brien and Jenkins promptly break this up, but Farrell takes O'Brien to her room to beg for a break. When O'Brien comes out, Beavers is reading Jenkins's palm. It doesn't look good just then, but he ends up hooking up with Farrell, squiring her in an encore appearance when both show up drunk at a nightclub.

Meanwhile, Blondell (who shares no screen time or space with her soon-to-be partner in gold-digging) is a good little switchboard operator whose good-natured cooperation with an innocent seeming prank ends up implicating her in wiretapping. O'Brien conducts the investigation that costs Blondell her job. To make it up to her, he takes her out to dinner and arranges with the wealthy man he saved earlier, who promised to repay him sometime, to get Blondell a new job in his office. She proves a sucker for the same creep but gets wise just in time to give chase as the creep absconds with a stolen bond delivery. This sets up a two-fisted melodramatic finish that only proves that the film had to end sometime. The plot is pure B-grade but the breezy, sleazy tone of the first half elevates the film for a while. It's little more than a programmer but when a studio can program something like this with the Warner Bros. stock company it's bound to be entertaining regardless. Subsequent films on Glenda's day had more of her and were better for that. We'll take a look at a few more of them in the days to come. For now, here's the trailer for I've Got Your Number from the usual source:

Monday, September 2, 2013

On the Big Screen: THE GRANDMASTER (2013)

Some readers may recall that just a few years ago a biopic about Wing Chung master Ip Man won some major Asian film awards. A few of you may even have read my review of Wilson Yip's film. It might seem presumptuous of Wong Kar-wai to do his own Ip Man picture so soon afterward, until you recall that Hollywood has notoriously released competing versions of the same subject in the same year -- see 2013's two terrorists-attack-the-White House pictures. Still, there's a sense that Wong is pulling rank, if only because his stature as one of Asia's premier art-house directors earned his Ip Man movie a more extensive American theatrical release than Yip's ever got. Wong paid a price for that, reportedly supervising an American edition that falls more than 20 minutes short of the film's actual length (detailed disapprovingly here) yet including material missing from the original Chinese release. His supervision of the cutdown presumably entitled the American release to its "Martin Scorsese Presents" credit, since it's hard to imagine Scorsese endorsing a studio hack-job. In some markets, Samuel L. Jackson is also billed as a presenter, and that's certainly the easiest money the actor ever made, since the Weinstein Company apparently bought the use of his name for street cred. But I digress. The challenge for Wong is to avoid an Amazing Spider-Man situation where too many people wonder aloud why we needed an Ip Man "reboot" so soon. The Wilson Yip film (and its sequel) are readily available on Netflix, so it's not as if that film is buried, and it's certainly even more fresh in Chinese memories than for American movie buffs. Fortunately -- and, to be fair, predictably, Wong does a lot to differentiate his version of Ip Man's life, even to the point of making you question to whom the title refers.

I described the Wilson Yip movie as a cross between Fists of Fury and Cinderella Man, and The Grandmaster is neither of those. While Wong's picture is a kind of national epic in its own fashion, it's not the Japan-bashing exercise Ip Man and so many other Chinese kung fu movies are. Wong's Ip Man (Tony Leung) never fights a Japanese, at least in the American cut. The Grandmaster is more about China defining itself to itself than about China defining itself by resistance to Japan. It's a tragic epic, mindful of thwarted possibilities in the past and concerned constantly with what ought to be preserved as the country changes. The central thematic figure, if not the true title character, is Gong Er (Ziyi Zhang), the daughter of Gong Yutian, the "grandmaster" of northern Chinese kung fu. Despite what you see in movies, Gong Er's gender precludes her from succeeding her father, even though he has taught her and her alone the obscure yet powerful 64 Hands technique. Instead, Yutian hands his authority over to the arrogant Ma San (Zhang Jin), who foreshadows his unworthiness by making a violent spectacle of himself during Yutian's goodwill final visit to his southern counterparts, among whom is our hero. He's recognizably the same character Donnie Yen played so well in the earlier picture: a mild-mannered bourgeois fellow with skills that don't need self-promotion. Jealous of northern superiority, the southern kingpins promote Ip Man as Yutian's final challenger, but the bout is more of a philosophical contest fought over a cookie. Having already sent Ma San packing, Yutian leaves it to his daughter to settle the score when Ip gets the better of their encounter. The stipulation in their case, since kung fu is about precision, is that if Gong Er forces Ip Man to break anything during their fight on a lavishly furnished stairway, she's the winner. The splitting of a stair is the margin of victory, but nothing becomes of this. More might have, because there's a strong air of flirting to their fight, despite Ip's respectable marriage, but Ip has to break his promise to visit Gong Er in the north when the Japanese occupy his town of Foshan.

The Grandmaster brushes over relatively briefly Ip Man's World War II adventures. He has no audience-gratifying fights with the Japs, and two of his children die of starvation during the occupation.  Instead, Wong pushes on to the post-war period, when the still-impoverished Ip moves to Hong Kong in search of work as a kung fu teacher. It's a different world from the glamorous Foshan of the first part, and while Ip won't stoop to some of the gimmickry of his rivals (lion dancing, etc.) he has to hustle to earn a rep. Once he's done this, he virtually disappears from the film after finding Gong Er working as a doctor in Hong Kong. Our hero chivalrously steps aside for a long flashback recounting our heroine's World War II adventures. Grandmaster Ma San proves a rat, collaborating with the Japanese puppet regime in Manchukuo and killing his old master when he protests, though not before the old man punches him out the door. Gong Er swears vengeance, with the dire stipulation that she will neither marry nor teach kung fu. She remains true to that oath after settling accounts with Ma San, which means that the 64 Hands style will be lost forever. Ip Man can't dissuade her, nor can he save her; lingering injuries force her to become dependent on opium en route to an early grave. Hers is a tragedy of wasted potential, since she is shown to be the mightiest fighter of her time. She's twice-over a victim of her times; denied her rightful standing because of traditional sexism, she also limits herself out of a misplaced sense of tradition, stubbornly sticking to her oath when a new age makes other options possible. "Some people may live without rules, but I can't," she says. Of her, Ip Man says, "Like her father, she was never defeated. She only ever defeated herself." His own career, culminating in his mentorship of Bruce Lee, symbolizes the preservation and democratization of martial arts as a key to retaining China's cultural and moral identity during times of radical, ongoing transformation.

Like Wilson Yip's Ip Man, The Grandmaster is a film about a martial artist, but Wong's picture is less of a martial-arts movie than Yip's. Anyone who's seen Ashes of Time Redux knew to expect something more expressionist from Wong, and he delivers, if to the detriment of the tradition he claims to memorialize. While Yip had Sammo Hung choreographing his fights, Wong relies on that international stalwart Yuen Woo-ping, but reduces him to little more than a glorified gag man. Wong's fight scenes are all about editing and cinematography as the director strives to isolate startling instants of impact or pictorially brilliant moments; no long takes here. The results are inevitably mixed. An early brawl in the rain may remind some of Pacific Rim in its near-blur of damp monochrome mayhem, but the climactic fight between Gong Er and Ma San in a snowy railway station gets much closer to the tone Wong aims for. While I hope to avoid the purism that may make late-Seventies kung fu movies seem monotonous to some viewers, I do think Wong is often guilty of pretentious pictorial bullshit. He likes to employ slow-motion at supposedly signficant times, or for atmospheric effect, and not just in fight scenes, but the style too often reminded me of music videos. Slow-mo is one of my pet peeves, but it may bother others less. Having gotten that out of my system, I owe Wong credit for how good the film looks overall -- the 1930s section is reminiscent of everything from The Godfather to The Last Emperor to Shanghai Triad, while the "Once Upon a Time in Kung Fu" tag in the advertising is a conscious (and crude) invocation of Sergio Leone echoed in the use of Ennio Morricone's music from Once Upon a Time in America -- and for his direction of the lead actors. While Donnie Yen made a fine Ip Man both as a fighter and a character, Tony Leung is simply in another league as an actor, while Ziyi Zhang is as terrific as Gong Er as anyone would expect.  The lead characters' unconsummated romance carries symbolic weight, arguably representing roads not taken by their country, but the emotional intensity they convey in their formally understated fashion is part of that extra something Wong Kar-wai brings to the subject that makes revisiting the life of Ip Man worthwhile.