Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Luise Rainer (1910-2014)

Rainer was the first person to win Academy Awards for acting in two consecutive years. She did this nearly 80 years ago. One of many highly-touted imports from Europe in the 1930s, she repaid Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer's investment with prestige if not popularity, earning Oscars for The Great Ziegfeld in 1936 and The Good Earth (in yellowface, albeit in black & white) in 1937. The second Oscar was the peak of her career. By 1940 she was through. It was a case, she claimed, of artistic incompatibility with Hollywood. She continued to work sporadically into the 1990s. Eventually her tremendous longevity underscored her trivial level of fame. At age 100 she basked in acclaim at a TCM film festival, but was her work or her mere endurance applauded? She was a star briefly, but never a legend, for what that's worth. But she was the earliest surviving winner of an acting Oscar at the time of her death. That honor now goes to 98 year old Olivia de Havilland (for 1946's To Each His Own and 1949's The Heiress) who is now just about the last survivor of Rainer's peers from 1930s Hollywood. Rainer's death at the end of a year that saw the passing of that decade's greatest child stars virtually relegates a generation of classic film to a more distant plataeu of history.

Saturday, December 27, 2014

IDA (2013)

Ida premiered last year in Poland but will most likely be a front-runner for this year's Academy Award for Best Foreign Film. It hit the art houses highly touted and has the Holocaust factor in its favor, but Pawel Pawlikowski's picture is more about 20th century Poland as a whole than it is specifically about the slaughter of Polish Jews. Deracination in a broader sense is the film's major subject as it addresses not just genocide but the incursions on Polish national consciousness by Communism and western culture. The title character (her name's pronounced "Ee-da," not "Eye-da") is Poland in microcosm. She's a novie nun in the 1960s who's advised to meet her one surviving relative before taking her vows. She meets a disreputable seeming character -- the lady and a gentleman caller are dressing after sex when Ida (Agata Trzebuchowska) arrives. After a brusque introduction, Aunt Wanda (Agata Kulesza) rushes to work, and it's a surprise to learn that she's a judge. She has a bigger surprise for Ida: the devout Catholic girl is really Jewish, rescued in infancy from her parents' fate and raised in the majority faith. This revelation sets up a road movie as Ida and Wanda roll through the countryside to find where their relatives are buried, For Wanda the trip revives a remembered traumatic past and accelerates her personal decline. For Ida it puts her whole sense of self in question, but making Wanda a model for modern secular womanhood proves unsatisfactory in some vague way.

Wanda confronts Ida with her Jewishness but that isn't Wanda's primary identity, either. Her judgeship represents a career on the skids; a decade earlier she was a state prosecutor, presumably conducting political purge trials, and she's still willing to use her office as a threat to uncooperative people. Ida, however, presumably sees Wanda as not so much Jewish or Communist as modern and secular. The climactic scenes come when Ida resolves literally to walk in Wanda's shoes and consummate an attraction to a progressive jazz musician. Ida's unburdened by Wanda's issues (guilt, alcoholism, etc.), but like Wanda, if less dramatically, she seems to opt out of modern life.

Ida chronicles a futile quest for authenticity. A reactionary reading of it might see her reversion to habit -- clothing, that is -- as a decision in favor of the Church as her true home, but the ambiguity of her Catholic identity is the starting point of the entire picture. If you accept that there's something essentially false about her faith -- so long as she didn't have a choice to embrace first her Jewish heritage and then Christianity -- you face the bleak conclusion that there is no "authentic" Polish identity anymore, or anymore than any nation could claim to have by the mid-20th century. In that context it makes more sense to see more ambiguity in the ending. Dressed in her habit again after her tryst, Ida walks briskly foward as the camera retreats. You might assume you know where she's going because of what she's wearing, but I think it's important that we don't see her destination, that the film leaves her still moving.

Pawlikowski, who has worked primarily in English, evokes the film's period with a rigorous monochrome style many viewers find reminiscent of Ingmar Bergman. He works with a pre-widescreen squarish frame in which Ida is often a small figure at the bottom or in a corner. He also employs a kind of retro-modernism in the jazzier scenes amid midcentury decor. In short, the director makes it as obvious as possible that his is an arthouse film, but he and his cinematographers make their pretentiousness often quite impressive. He gets the desired guilelessness from his amateur lead actress, while Agata Kulesza easily dominates the picture whenever Wanda's on screen. Ida is the sort of picture that will be more admired than enjoyed, but in its ambition and execution it does deserve some admiration.

Monday, December 22, 2014


The greatest superhero in movies today is Rama, the martial-arts policeman played by Iko Uwais in the Raid movies directed by Gareth Evans. His fight scenes, which Uwais choreographs along with co-star Yayan Ruhian, have the sort of relentless action comic book fans have always wanted in Batman movies but haven't yet seen. Rama doesn't have any more super powers than Batman does, but Evans, Uwais and Ruhian give their hero as much ferocity, resilience and stamina -- creative editing helps, too -- as American crimefighters have in comic books, but not on film. The Raid movies -- a third is most likely in the works -- are comic book movies, regardless of their gritty urban trappings. They take place in an Indonesia -- as I wrote about the original film, this may reflect reality in the country -- where guns are apparently reserved for the criminal elite, and the foot soldiers must rely on their feet, or their hands, or blades, or whatever's at hand. Raid 2 is even more a comic book movie than its predecessor because it has more blatantly gimmicky fighters. At one point Rama has to fight a brother-sister assassination team. The sister fights Oldboy-style, with hammers, smashing with the heads, slashing with the claws. Just for the hell of it, she's a deaf-mute. Her brother has a baseball fetish, fighting at close quarters with an aluminum bat or making deadly missiles out of batted balls.

We know they'll be formidable adversaries because we've seen them cut swaths through hosts of gunless bodyguards in pursuit of their gangster quarry. In fact, they give Rama trouble for a few minutes, but they only set the stage for our hero's mano-a-mano showdown with a nameless assassin who had taken him down with abrupt ease earlier in the picture. For action filmmakers Evans and his colleagues are great at dramatic pacing, since this one-on-one fight is the true highlight of a picture that has already given us several epic-scale mass melees, including a riot in a muddy prison yard that must have been an ultimate challenge to fight choreographers. Uwais and Cecep Arif Rahman are not dwarfed by the earlier spectacle; their fight is intimately epic in a Homeric way. Rama's victory may be inevitable, but Uwais earns it while allowing Rahman to shine; the bad guy gives as good as he gets down to the final seconds of the battle. The plot of the story remains to be resolved, but this fight can't help make the denouement look anticlimactic.

There's no raid in Raid 2. Instead Evans has opened his narrative up to encompass the archetypes of global crime cinema. Born out of ideas he had before making The Raid, Berandal quickly dispatches the surviving supporting cast from the first film and gives Rama a new mission. To root out corrupt cops in Jakarta, our hero must get himself sent to prison -- by beating up a politician's son -- to befriend Uco (Arifin Putra), the son of the local crimelord. In deep cover for two years, Rama becomes Uco's protector and is rewarded with a place in the organization of Uco's father, Bangun (Tio Pakusadewo). He sees Uco grow impatient with his position as his dad's "bill collector" and with dad's apparent kowtowing to Japanese gangsters. As Rama watches, waiting for evidence identifying cops on the take, Uco provokes a gang war and puts himself on a parricidal path. Arifin Putra's performance as Uco holds the film together, making it something more than a highlight reel of fight scenes. There's something almost poignant about Uco's frustration, his bitter recognition of the contempt with which even bar girls regard him, and his need to prove himself to his father that can only be fulfilled by killing him.

Neither Putra nor Evans entirely holds the film together. At almost 2.5 hours, Raid 2 is about a half-hour too long. To be more precise, it's too long by the time it takes to introduce a character played by Yayan Ruhian (giving him two roles in as many pictures) and eliminate him. Ruhian's storyline comes across as a gratuitous addition designed only to give him some screen time. Apart from that indulgence, the pace of the action doesn't flag and the main story is compelling enough to keep us interested between the fight scenes. Berandal carries some of the artistic risks of the quest for novelty -- the sibling killers may seem silly to some observers --  but the rewards justify those risks and compensate for any awkward moments. Aided by Uwais and Ruhian, over the course of three films (I haven't seen the earlier Merantau) Gareth Evans has become just about the best action movie director on Earth.

Saturday, December 20, 2014


Given its Anglo-Filipino pedigree, a certain generic feel to Metro Manila is probably inevitable. British director and co-writer Sean Ellis certainly gives the picture plenty of local Philippine color as his family of protagonists travels from the terraced rice paddies of the hill country to the squalor and tumult of the capital city. But the story that happens in Manila could happen in a lot of places.

Metro Manila initially seems too bad to be true. Oscar (Jake Macapagal) takes his family to the big city to earn money after their buyer back home cuts his price on rice. The Ramirez family come across like the sort of guileless yokels you'd see arriving in the big city in movies from 100 years ago. On their first day Oscar blows their wad paying the first month's rent to some guy who doesn't even own the building. Oscar has a knack for finding work that doesn't pay. One day's work ends with him getting a sandwich for his trouble and getting left behind to find his way home on foot. To help make ends meet and raise money so their eldest daughter can see a dentist, Oscar's wife Mai (Althea Vega) has to go to work as a bar girl. That means letting patrons grope her, or worse, so long as they keep buying drinks. It looks like things can only get worse.

The country and the city

Then Oscar gets a lucky break. He applies for work as a security guard and one of the guards, Ong (John Arcilla) recognizes Oscar as an Army veteran by a tattoo. The military experience surprised me since I'd think it would have left Oscar a more worldly-wise person, but in any event it helps him land a more steady job. Better still, Ong helps Oscar find a decent apartment, since the security company normally won't hire people from the shantytown where the Ramirezes were squatting. Finding a place for Oscar is easy, since it's a place Ong uses for trysts with his mistress. Now things look too good to be true, and of course they are.

Jake Macapagal (left) flinches as John Arcilla fires;
below, Althea Vega is Girl No. 40 (center)

Ong has to want something, doesn't he? In flashbacks, we've learned that he lost a partner during an attempted robbery. The security company transports money in strongboxes that can only be opened with specific keys; otherwise an ink spray will destroy the money inside. It turns out that Ong has kept the strongbox from that incident while reporting it stolen. The key is kept in a special locker in an area of headquarters where drivers like Ong and Oscar don't have access -- unless they're being debriefed after a robbery. Ong's plan is to stage a robbery so that he as the senior partner will have to be debriefed. He expects Oscar to sneak in and steal the needed key from the locker. Oscar understandably balks at the idea until Ong reminds him of everything he's done for him and informs him that the strongbox is in Oscar's new apartment, which Ong rented in Oscar's name in the first place just so he could frame Oscar if the rookie doesn't cooperate.

The best thing about Metro Manila is an element of randomness that emerges when Ong's master plan falls apart almost instantly, leaving Oscar holding the box without any likely access to the locker, since now he has to do the debriefing after the debacle. The worst thing about Metro Mania arguably is how Oscar, otherwise shown as a consistent sap, suddenly proves a tactical mastermind by managing to secure the key and save his family from shame and worse -- by this point Mai is being warned that she can only keep her bar job if she recruits her 9 year old daughter for the amusement of "special" customers. While Oscar pays a high price, his ability to outmaneuver and outwit everyone finally is a little too good to be true. Ellis eats his cake and has it, too, striking a bleak note -- the key to Oscar's success is that he doesn't base his ultimate plan on the "dream" of surviving -- while giving the family an implausible if bittersweet win. Still, in choosing Manila for his setting Ellis makes an admirable stab at social realism, grounding his story at a level of poverty we hardly see in American film, that arguably hardly exists in America. The actors come across well, at least as far as I can tell from listening to their Tagalog dialogue, with Arcilla as Ong clearly the best in class. While Metro Manila is essentially a cliche in exotic dress, its relatively unflinching look at poverty and corruption and its overall craftsmanship still make it worth a look from us.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

National Film Registry Class of 2014

The Library of Congress aims for diversity when selecting 25 films each December for addition to its National Film Registry of artistically or historically significant movies for permanent preservation. How on earth, then, does this year's list include two Carmen Miranda movies? The lady in the tutti-frutti hat is featured in Down Argentine Way (1940), her Hollywood debut, and The Gang's All Here (1943), a landmark of Busby Berkeley's technicolor garishness that counts as surrealism or camp depending on the audience. This arguable sin of commission aside, the list is the typical mix of art and artifact, the latter category covering everything from actuality footage of the burial of Holocaust victims to the surviving footage of an aborted 1913 feature starring legendary black comedian Bert Williams. I'm actually surprised that Orson Welles's Too Much Johnson didn't make it in its first year of eligibility, so to speak. While one would think that older films should have a priority on preservation the Registry includes relatively recent Hollywood fare partly to avoid charges of elitism and partly to acknowledge how quickly cinema becomes folklore. Best illustrating the latter trend are new inductees Ferris Bueller's Day Off (1986) and The Big Lebowski (1998), while Rosemary's Baby (1968) and Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971) show how Hollywood transmutes literature into folklore, in each case making itself rather than the source novel the definitive version of the story for most people. Lebowski is almost the most recent Hollywood film on the list, having preceded Saving Private Ryan into theaters by a few months, but it's probably the best of the Hollywood inductees, while I'd flip a coin to choose between Pvt. Ryan and Rio Bravo (1959) as the runner-up. If any Registry inductee may be deemed overrated, I'd say it's William K. Howard's The Power and the Glory (1933), which doesn't live up, once you see it, to its reputation as a rough draft for Citizen Kane. Speaking for myself, I've never been a fan of Bueller but I suppose the Registry is right to acknowledge its significance for one generation of moviegoers. In any event, here's the complete list so you can make your own judgments. Meanwhile, the Registry maintains a chronological list of films presumably worthy of consideration for future inductions.  I notice that for 1914 the key introductory films for Charlie Chaplin and Cecil B. DeMille are still unregistred. Going only 75 years back to 1938, you'd think Angels With Dirty Faces would be in the registry by now. From 50 years ago, in 1964, a strong case can be made for Fail-Safe; it really ought to have gone in the same year Dr. Strangelove did. It's all too easy to play the "Why isn't this old classic in the Registry while some recent thing is?" game if you don't acknowledge that the Registry is as much a history of changing movie audiences as it is a history of cinema itself. It's fun to gripe, though, so feel free to do so at this time every year.

For now, this is your American film heritage: "The Lady in the Tutti-Frutti Hate" from The Gang's All Here, as uploaded to YouTube by Gregory May.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

On the Big Screen: THE HOMESMAN (2014)

On the evidence of Tommy Lee Jones's film adaptation, which he co-wrote, directed and starred in, Glendon Swarthout's novel The Homesman is structurally very much a distaff version of Swarthout's breakthrough novel They Came to Cordura. In Cordura a man (Gary Cooper in Robert Rossen's underrated 1959 film version) must escort three Medal of Honor candidates from a Mexican war zone back to the United States. In Homesman a woman (Hilary Swank) conducts three madwomen out of the frontier danger zone and back east across the river to civilization. In both stories, the theoretical border separating good from bad proves porous. In Cordura the Cooper character is an officer disgraced for cowardice who proves himself the better man than the three heroes who, as they near home, reveal themselves as vicious, depraved characters. In Homesman the Swank character's sanity is increasingly brought into question, though her charges remain quite as mad as initially indicated. Swarthout, whose best-known novel remains The Shootist, hints that vices become virtues, or sanity madness, depending on the environment. Once we cross certain borders, both geographic and symbolic, our values may be inverted. The scary part is that both the borders and the values are arbitrary to some extent. The thought may have scared Swarthout more as time passed. The Cordura movie ends on a redemptive note, but Jones's film of The Homesman certainly doesn't.

I haven't seen Jones's first directorial effort but The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada is a well-regarded modern western. Working in period this time, he reveals himself a classic stylist with a good eye for the widescreen image and an admirable narrative clarity. Cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto no doubt helped him a lot but the vision is certainly the director's. He also proves himself a decent actor's director, getting strong performances from an ensemble of more and less familiar names, though Meryl Streep really contributes little more than prestige in a late cameo that really doesn't require much. Jones may get top-billing but everything sets Homesman up as Hilary Swank's picture. If some stars are meteors, Swank is a comet, passing by periodically to pick up an Oscar. She probably deserves at least a nomination this time as Swarthout's heroine, a frontier woman with skills fitted to the frontier -- building up rather than killing -- who as a spinster still feels unfulfilled. Ever since she was heralded as The Next Karate Kid Swank has somehow threatened the balance of genders, and as Mary Bee Cuddy she's the one proposing marriage to men, only to be spurned for her plainness and bossiness. We see that she is bossy, and we can believe that some people on the frontier need bossing. She could be the strange girl from True Grit grown up and lonely -- while Hailee Steinfeld herself has only grown up into a barefoot hotel maid. She could be the lady to Jones's own Rooster Cogburn, but the film's main relationship ends up a cruel, cold mockery of romance. Swarthout may have intended something different for all I know -- the movie makes me want to read the novel and a more thorough survey of Swarthout (he also wrote Where the Boys Are!) may be in order -- but Jones has made not a revisionist western but an anti-western, a film that seems to regard the frontier with nothing but horror as a place that breaks everyone in some way.

Jones's own performance arguably stacks the deck. His great fault as a director may be a certain self-indulgence toward himself. This isn't vanity, since the role of George Briggs allows an actor little vanity, though it apparently allowed Jones so many variations that the character ultimately lacks a coherent personality. Briggs is a squatter or claim jumper whom Mary Bee rescues from a slow-motion hanging -- viglantes have left the man with a noose around his neck on his own reluctant horse -- in return for his service as a guide east. Jones introduces himself in abject, cartoonish fashion after his initial capture. Briggs begs and blubbers while persuading Cuddy to save him, and this makes us expect a clownish figure. He resolves himself into more of a Tommy Lee Jones badass as the journey wears on, and remains a reluctant hero throughout. He faces the classic dilemma whether to abandon the madwomen or not, but his sense of obligation to Cuddy keeps him keeping on. His ordeal appears to ennoble him just as Gary Cooper's trek in They Came to Cordura reveals his true character. But Glendon Swarthout, writing Homesman thirty years after Cordura, apparently didn't believe in redemption as strongly, and Jones definitely believes in it less than Robert Rossen did. Either way, Briggs's redemption is belied by his pryomaniacally disproportionate response to a refusal of service (admittedly at gunpoint) from hotelier James Spader, and his determination to do right by Cuddy is undercut when he learns that she paid him in bank notes from a failed bank. The bank hadn't failed when she set the money aside, but the fact of the failure still leaves him bankrupt after acts of extravagant generosity, and that drives him to drink. Jones takes his leave doing a drunken dance, punctuated by gunfire, on a boat returning him to the other side of the river, while a bit of business I cant describe without spoiling what shouldn't be spoiled cinches Homesman's spot as the feel-bad movie of the holiday season. That's not necessarily a bad thing, and overall Homesman joins the ranks of the 21st century's superior westerns, but Briggs is its weakness because he never seems consistently motivated yet doesn't quite come across, as may have been intended, as just another frontier madman. He's more a collection of cool or extreme Tommy Lee Jones moments, and while this is often and predictably entertaining it makes the movie more chaotic than anyone meant it to be. Given how good the film is as a whole, this may only indicate that Tommy Lee Jones will really prove himself as a director when he stays behind the camera.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Ridicule and Reprisal: a preview of coming attractions?

Seth Rogen's The Interview is not on my holiday viewing list. The ads have made it look like just the sort of stupid slapstick comedy I'd expect from that source, though my direct experience of Rogen's work is limited and I was mildly amused by The Green Hornet. The film has received a lot of free publicity recently, whether Sony Pictures desired it or not, as the apparent provocation for a hack of Sony computer files by a group sympathetic toward or simply employed by the North Korean government. Besides making other as-yet unreleased Sony films available for file sharing, the hackers acquired Sony memos revealing creative differences over The Interview reaching to the Japanese peak of the Sony corporate empire. As everyone must know, in The Interview the characters played by Rogen and James Franco are tasked with assassinating Kim Jong Un, the ruler of North Korea, whose father was dispatched earlier by the Team America World Police. The North Koreans have reacted to the idea much as many right-wing Americans reacted a few years ago to a pseudo-documentary imagining the assassination of George W. Bush. Whatever the British filmmaker's actual intention, many Americans felt that to imagine was to advocate. The North Koreans are probably more justified in feeling that way about The Interview because Americans definitely see the Kim dynasty as monsters who deserve death. Are they (or their sympathizers) justified in expressing their anger by hacking Sony or (allegedly) threatening the company's employees? Justification is hard to measure in what's become an international incident, and to an extent it's hard to sympathize with Sony, not to mention Rogen, given how likely such a reaction was to such a project. Naturally, liberal minded people in the U.S. are far more offended by the hacking and the alleged threats than by the still largely unseen movie. Most of us would scoff at an argument that Kim Jong Un is owed any respect by liberal minded people. To the American mind, he is nearly the perfect tyrant, the last real totalitarian ruler that we know of in classic 20th century style. Even for those on the left, his hereditary claim to rulership must be an affront to everything Marx and Lenin, or even Stalin and Mao, stood for. While nations have some obligation to show a certain minimal respect for one another -- an obligation the U.S. often neglects -- people here assume an inalienable right as private citizens to express their poor opinion of the Juche monarch. They see Kim Jong Un as their grandparents saw Hitler and their great-grandparents saw the Kaiser -- as an enemy and thus a fit subject for ridicule.

If the controversy over The Interview provokes any soul-searching, the relevant question is why the Kims fascinate us in such a morbid, infuriating way. The answer was obvious sixty years ago when the first Kim had just invaded South Korea. Then, North Korea was part of the International Communist Conspiracy. Later, the persistence of oldschool Stalinism there served as a reminder beyond the demise of the USSR and the reform of China of what Communism was essentially in American eyes: the totalitarian nightmare of regimentation, indoctrination, forced festivity and so on. In the 21st century the Kims simply represent "Evil," if not an older, ultimate affront to human dignity: the man who demands to be worshiped like a god. As with previous bogeymen, Americans sometimes try to exorcise their fears by turning them into jokes, the pudgy Kims making particularly good material. Yet had we the contempt our ridicule of the Kims should imply, we could simply ignore them. If we can't ignore them now because of their weapons, that's because we weren't content to ignore them before. Far away as he is, even on this admittedly shrinking globe, Kim Jong Un embodies something not merely contemptible or ridiculous but unacceptable to Americans, something that makes it seem impossible for him to share the earth with us, and something that makes it important to Seth Rogen that he call Kim by name rather than have his characters kill a fictional tyrant. If The Interview were to address or satirize this American obsession with dictators, at a time in history when many people see Americans as dictators of the world, it might have something more than the trainwreck interest it's bound to have now, when people may even feel brave by going to see it.  On some level, North Korea's predictable reaction must give Seth Rogen satisfaction, or simply the lulz. If their reaction escalates, someone besides him will most likely take the hit. Speaking for myself, I do think it's his prerogative to mock a tyrant, but when you mock a hypersensitive, defensive foreign ruler it could be like messing with sasquatch, and since more people than Rogen could be held accountable by this particular squatch I'd be more impressed by any bravery Rogen may pretend to have if he were more exposed to the anger he's provoked.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014


Because I haven't seen enough war propaganda films from other countries, I have the impression that ridicule is a peculiarly Anglo-American mode of propaganda. Perhaps because the Americans for so long couldn't take any foreign power seriously as an existential threat, it seemed more natural for us to make fun of our enemies. Mack Sennett's production seems like a perfect example of ridicule as propaganda -- except that Sennett, self-styled King of Comedy, was too chicken actually to make the film during the war.

Here's how Sennett explains himself in the March 29, 1919 issue of Moving Picture World magazine.

Sennett wasn't as courageous as his erstwhile protege Charlie Chaplin, who released his war comedy Shoulder Arms while the fighting was still under way, though by October 1918 the war was almost over. Sennett's reticence echoes the feeling at the time that Chaplin was taking a big chance by making any aspect of the war a source of comedy, not to mention the feeling more prevalent in our time that comedy "trivializes" war and its atrocities. By the time the next world war rolled around Chaplin again seemed to take a risk by trivializing Hitler in The Great Dictator, but he only set the tone for the mockery of Hitler and other Nazi leaders that continued throughout the war, from Bugs Bunny's battle with Hermann Goering in Herr Meets Hare to Moe Howard's inspired casting as Hitler in Three Stooges shorts. If anything, those burlesques take their inspiration more from Yankee Doodle in Berlin than from Chaplin's films.

With their big moustaches and bombastic manner, the Kaiser and his generals were as obvious a Sennettesque subject as Hitler was Chaplinesque. The comics playing the Prussians, led by Ford Sterling as the Kaiser himself, easily steal the film from top-billed Bothwell Browne, a popular female impersonator on stage whose only movie appearance this is. Browne plays an American flying ace assigned to go behind enemy lines and wreak havoc. Naturally his most effective tactic is to dress as a woman and arouse the rival lusts of the imperial family and the high command. Browne doesn't really make much of an impression because he's supposed to be good at what he does. Comedy might normally derive from how obviously fake a female impersonator is. But if we're supposed to believe that Browne's disguises are effective, our focus shifts to the dupes we know are being fooled. The focus shifts further away from Browne once the top Germans become rivals for the strange woman's affections, and especially when the Kaiserin learns (from her jealous son, the gangly, rat-faced, chain-smoking Crown Prince Frederick [Mal St. Clair]) that Wilhelm is making eyes at the newcomer. Her beatdowns of her imperial husband are among the slapstick highlights of the film. She hits him with everything in her domestic arsenal, spreading collateral damage all over the face. Sennett's director F. Richard Jones sets things up nicely. Knowing he's caught and there's a storm brewing, the Kaiser orders everyone else off their lawn, for delicacy's sake, and then declares mildly to the missus, "Now we're alone." At which point the Empress utterly destroys him; it's the sort of scene that gets funnier as Jones piles on the violence beyond all reasonable expectation. Seeing the Kaiser beat down this way may have been funnier and more cathartic for the 1919 audience than when the Americans attack and drive him from power. The final scenes are pure cartoon: the Kaiser, Crown Prince and General Hindenburg (Bert Roach) run on the Sennett cyclorama, chased by a gravity-defying, horizontally traveling bomb labeled "U.S.A," while Browne's hero makes his escape by latching himself to an aeroplane.

The war might have been over when Yankee Doodle hit theaters starting in March 1919, but wartime hate endured in the film's equation of Germans with monkeys ("both from the same family"). Stereotypes predating the war abound: the Kaiserin is shown draining a huge stein of beer, while the Kaiser's big serving dish conceals a single frankfurter, because Germans love those things. There's lip service to propaganda about war aims -- the Kaiser's fall marks "the end of autocracy" -- but it's possible people had already stopped taking that seriously. There's dishonest propaganda when an Irish POW, in a virtually self-contained subplot, taunts his captors by reminding them of how the Irish beat the hell out of the Germans at the Battle of the Somme. Instead of answering, "Uh, no," the indignant Germans threaten to execute the Irishman unless he becomes a German citizen -- he takes the oath with his fingers crossed before vandalizing a painting of the Kaiser. On a more insensitive note, when the Kaiser critically scrutinizes a rather sad-looking Prussian Guard, he's informed by their commander that these same men bravely stormed and captured a Belgian convent earlier in the conflict. Sennett might not have been able to get away with some of this material a few months earlier, and in any event his caution paid off when the film, often supported by live appearances by Browne and a troupe of Bathing Beauties, became a smash hit. It gave American audiences an opportunity to express their relief, after both the strains of war and the pressures of real hardcore propaganda had passed, with raucous laughter at the threat that now seemed so ridiculous. Yankee Doodle in Berlin isn't a very good film in retrospect, but it's one of those cases where you definitely had to be there at the time

Sunday, December 7, 2014

DVR Diary: Keisuke Kinoshita's ARMY (1944)

Introducing this film on Turner Classic Movies, Ben Mankiewicz was at pains to frame Army as anything but a propaganda film, even as he informed us that it was commissioned by the Japanese military. But if Army isn't wartime propaganda, then neither is an American film like Since You Went Away. After all, in that picture Claudette Colbert bawls after sending her husband off to war, and everyone is very sad when they learn that Robert Walker has been killed. Yet no American critic would dare say that those scenes make Since You Went Away a subtle anti-war movie, yet Mankiewicz, or whoever writes his intros, makes such a claim for Army, on no better basis that that Keisuke Kinoshita and his writers dared make their characters fairly rounded human beings. If Army doesn't seem like propaganda to some viewers, that only reflects a very narrow notion of what propaganda can be.

However Kinoshita himself feels about war, nothing in Army subverts the script's propaganda account of 80 years of history leading up to World War II. In short, Army tells us that Japan's WWII enemies -- the U.S., Great Britain and Russia -- have always been hostile elements interfering with Japan's rightful regional aspirations and unfairly favoring China over Japan. At the brink of the Meiji revolution in the 1860s, the English-speaking powers are poised to intervene during a civil war. After Japan whips China in the 1890s, the European powers unjustly force Japan to return a province ceded over by China. The Russo-Japanese War a decade later is portrayed as just revenge on Russia for its role in Japan's earlier "humiliation." In the 20th century, the Chinese need a new rebuke because they've been "looking down" on the Japanese. In the film's most eccentric reading of history, Army accuses China of manipulating the U.S. and U.K. into helping them conquer Japan! But whoever's manipulating whom, all these countries need a beating, and Japan's just the country to do it. Of course, this summary of recent history overlooks Japan's role in World War I, when it allied with some of these benighted nations against its eventual Axis partner, Germany, but history on film is always selective, whatever the filmmaker's intentions may be.

Army follows one family through these turbulent years. The Takagis are patriots who never quite manage to see combat, through no fault of their own. Circumstances keep them off the battlefield, and to compensate the current patriarch (Chishu Ryu) is a superpatriot, while the mother (Kinuyo Tanaka) goads their eldest son to be brave and excel in all things. The lead actors are major figures in Japanese cinema, each with a lengthy and honored career that in Tanaka's case extended into direction. They help make the case against Army as propaganda by effortlessly humanizing their characters. Tanaka in particular has a closing scene that became one of the great moments in Japanese movies as she races through town trying to get a final glimpse of her boy as he finally marches off to war. Her obvious feeling of loss is supposed to belie her eagerness to see the lad become a soldier, and sympathetic viewers of Army take all such moments as subversive of the desired patriotic message. But if Hollywood could have it both ways, so could the Japanese Army. Neither sought to deny that people would feel sad about giving up their boys to war.

Yet when Army invites empathy it's presumed subversive of itself because the script has characters, including the mother, tell us that Japan's young men really belong to the Emperor, while their parents are only caretakers until the boys are ready to go where they belong. I think it's wrong to see a contradiction between that viewpoint and the sadness the mother feels upon finally giving up her son. To see a contradiction is to presume that wartime Japan was a totalitarian state, so fanatical and inhumane that its cinema would only want to show parents rejoicing to send their sons to war. Army suggests a somewhat more relaxed, empathetic attitude, even though the film reportedly was partially censored. It's a propaganda film that takes indoctrination itself as a subject for admittedly gentle satire, the way a Hollywood war film might poke fun at rationing. It can even make fun of excessive patriotism, as when two characters get into a furious argument over whether the medieval Japanese could have beaten the Mongols without the aid of the "divine wind." It's probably a mistake to presume that Kinoshita, his writers, or the Army consider one side of that argument the right one. Yet there are also moments when the film seems critical of its own empathetic impulses. In one scene, a father hears a report of a battle in which his own son was involved, growing increasingly concerned as it appears that the boy's unit suffered heavy casualties. He asks for more detail until his informant rebukes him, seeing that the father is more interested in his own son's fate than the fate of the army or the nation. Army wants its audience to take the larger view while acknowledging their natural feelings. That is only not propaganda if you expect propaganda to portray its people as supermen rather than ordinary human beings. Hollywood propaganda didn't work that way and in this case neither did the Japanese version.

Kinoshita is one of the echt Japanese directors, along with Ozu and to a lesser extent Mizoguchi, whom some critics exalt above the more popular directors like Kurosawa and to a lesser extent Kobayashi whose work is too "western" or allegedly tailored to global arthouse audiences. For certain critics the great subject of Japanese cinema is not the way of the samurai or the soldier but family life. Army is an early film by one of the reputed specialists in intimate domestic stories that is meant to keep up the country's enthusiasm for war. In that respect, it does a good job emphasizing that this particular war will be some people's one opportunity to do something great for their country, to live up to the values listed in various imperial rescripts, etc. Its enduring virtue once its original purpose became obsolete is its ability to do several things at once. While Tanaka's dash through town at the end is the obviously great cinematic moment, an even greater if less flashy moment comes earlier, at the family's last dinner together. The mother asks the son to give her one final shoulder massage, and as he gives her the treatment the younger son, in monkey-see-monkey-do fashion, goes over to the father and gives the old man's shoulders a similar if less effective pummeling. All the while, the family is taking care of last things, but the absurdity of the little boy drumming on dad's shoulders lightens the moment and softens the blow that the mother will feel more strongly later. This scene is the essence of the picture, a mirror to the Japanese people's actual experience of the war -- not counting the bombings that audiences were enduring when the film was released at the end of 1944. The irony of Army is that it might have been most effective as propaganda had it been exported, because no one could watch it without realizing that, no matter how crazy they might be about the Emperor, and no matter how biased their view of recent world history, the Japanese are first and foremost human beings like the rest of us. To say that outside Japan in 1944 would really have been subversive.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Bunta Sugawara (1931-2014)

Japanese cinema has suffered two irrecoverable losses this fall, particularly for fans of crime films. Ken Takakura, who may be remembered by American moviegoers for English-language films from The Yakuza to Mr. Baseball, died last month. The news I got today from the Breakfast In The Ruins blog hit closer to home. Bunta Sugawara was Takakura's contemporary and my favorite yakuza actor. He was the star of Kinji Fukasaku's definitive five-film Battles Without Honor and Humanity series (1973-74) as well as a follow-up "New Battles" series later in the 1970s and in many other Fukasaku films. He was one of the stalwarts of Toei Studios at a time when Toei was Japan's answer to Warner Bros in the 1930s as far as classic gangster films were concerned. If Sonny Chiba, working in the martial-arts genre, was Toei's Cagney, the often more stoic Bunta was their Bogart. Yet Bunta played the more literally Cagneyesque lead role in Akihisa Okamoto's White Heat-inspired Yokahama Underworld: Machine Gun Dragon, proving he could be wild as well as cool, and in Hideo Gosha's Violent Streets he exaggerated his coolness to a comical laid-back extreme in a cameo role. Unlike Takakura or Chiba, he never tried to break into Hollywood, though at least one of his films did make it to U.S. grindhouses in dubbed form, with the star re-dubbed "Bud." It took the golden age of DVD to show the world, or at least Americans like me, what Sugawara could do and had done, and I'm grateful that I didn't miss that window of opportunity. I've only written here about a fraction of his films that I've seen, but you can follow this link to learn why the wild world of cinema is in mourning this week.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

ELECTRA (1962)

You could make a movie about a young actress learning tough lessons about men, and maybe acting on them in tragic fashion, as she matures from playing Electra to playing Clytemnestra. That's the path Irene Papas traveled in her films for director Michael Cacoyannis. In Electra she's the title character, the daddy's-girl daughter out for revenge on her mom Clytemnestra for the murder of her dad Agamemnon. Fifteen years later, Papas would be Clytemnestra mourning Agamemnon's sacrifice of her eldest daughter in Iphigenia. In Electra Clytemnestra (Aleka Katselli) tries to remind her angry, bloodthirsty daughter of that history, and of Agamemnon's insulting return to Argos with the Trojan princess Cassandra as his concubine, but Electra's having none of it. You were a bitch before all that, she says in effect, and the film has primed us to agree with her. Katselli's Clytemnestra is arrogant and imperious, and Electra seems to hate her guts, or at least distrust her, even before the queen has her lover Aegisthus murder the newly-returned king. We see the young Electra brush the queen's arm off her shoulder when Clytemnestra makes a show of the family greeting the husband she has already condemned. Time doesn't soften Electra's attitude, which is no surprise considering how mom has married her off to some poor (but respectful) farmer and exiled her to the sticks, where she makes something of a show of her impoverishment, going barefoot while the women of the chorus -- this adaptation is faithful to the form of Greek tragedy -- wear shoes. Reunited with her long-lost brother Orestes (Giannis Fertis), she pleads for revenge. Luring Clytemnestra to her village with a tall tale about a baby, she hopes to claim her share of revenge. But no matter what temperature you serve revenge at, it turns to ashes in the mouth when your victim is blood kin.

Does Electra explain Frank Miller? The comic-book auteur took the name for his most famous creation at Marvel Comics, the antiheroine driven by her father's murder to become a ninja assassin, while the ancient Greek setting anticipates Miller's turn to antiquity in 300. And Cacoyannis's film is in black and white, just like Sin City! One can go too far with such speculation, easily, but it just goes to show how the Greek archetypes endure. But if we think we understand the "Electra complex" and thus Electra's place in Greek culture, Cacoyannis surprises us with a sudden emotional reversal that should remind us how alien Ancient Greece is to us, how difficult it is to encompass with our modern categories or sensibilities.

The movie audience, presumably, is rooting all the way for Electra and Orestes to get their revenge. They presumably cheer when Orestes kills Aegisthus, though Cacoyannis, respecting tragic convention, keeps the fight offstage. Presumably we anticipate Clytemnestra getting what's coming to her. That, too, happens offscreen, represented for us by the chorus writhing and screaming in a frantic montage. The evil queen is dead, but now everyone's miserable. Dead, Clytemnestra is now just plain Mom again, and her own kids killed her. Now our sibling heroes are objects of horror, each wandering off into his or her private wasteland, Orestes to be tormented by furies, Electra presumably bound for oblivion. No matter what justification or provocation they had, they crossed a taboo line and know it. If this were a purely modern tragedy the kids might still mourn the mother they knew before she went evil, but before long they'd settle down and take their rightful places in power in Argos. In their own time, the enormity of their deed is not so easily shrugged off, and if we don't get that, that may be part of Cacoyannis's point in making his film.

Visually, Electra makes Cacoyannis look like the missing link between Sergei Eisenstein and Sergio Leone. The early scenes of Clytemnestra in near close-up watching Agamemnon's procession in the distance should remind film buffs of Eisenstein's Ivan the Terrible, while his dramatic use of close-ups throughout, especially in this film's rocky settings, look forward to Leone's spaghetti westerns. Filming in black and white makes Electra look more modernist, or at least more stylized than the later, arguably superior Iphigenia. Both films (and to a lesser extent Cacoyannis's English-language Trojan Women) succeed in confronting us with a Greece we can understand yet can't identify with in any easily complacent way. They are powerful correctives to the cartoon version of Greece presented in so many Italian peplum pictures or American fantasy films, just because Cacoyannis's Greeks don't behave like our contemporaries and aren't so easily assimilated in our consciousness or dismissed from our memory.

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Pre-Code Parade: A VERY HONORABLE GUY (1934)

This is the closest Joe E. Brown got to playing a Warner Bros. gangster. He's actually something quite different: a Damon Runyon gangster. If anyone can be accused of romanticizing, glamorizing or glorifying gangsters, it might be Runyon rather than Warners. Runyon's gangsters are lovable rogues, typically gamblers rather than anything more vicious, or else vague "promoters" like Brown's character in this adaptation of a Runyon story. Runyon was a hot property in Hollywood at the end of the Pre-Code era. Frank Capra had turned a Runyon story into his smash hit Lady For a Day while another adaptation, Little Miss Marker, would help make Shirley Temple a superstar in 1934. Warners supposedly envisioned A Very Honorable Guy initially as a Cagney vehicle, but the hero's haplessness, on film at least, makes Brown a better fit. He plays Floyd "Feet" Samuels -- everyone calls him Feet and the film doesn't bother explaining such an odd nickname -- in a rags-to-riches story with potentially fatal complications. Feet's down on his luck and only a looker-on at the high-stakes table when he's recruited as a "wooden duck" by two minions of The Brain (Alan Dinehart). They'll use him to get through the door and get at a man The Brain wants to discipline. No killing, just some rough stuff, but when the cops show up Feet, who'd been stuffed into a closet after protesting, takes the fall after coming out swinging and decking a flatfoot. An honorable man, The Brain puts up $500 to bail Feet out, but he expects our hero to pay him back by a certain date or face the consequences.

Where's Feet going to find such money? He's had a run of bad luck and it continues after his release. Given ten bucks for good luck, he decides to blow it all on a huge box of candy for his girlfriend Hortense (Alice White), but he ends up blowing the whole bill on 200 chances at a push-pin game in hopes of winning the candy box for free. Of course, an old lady walks up behind him and wins the candy on her first chance. That probably counts as bad luck for Feet, too. Back in jail, he'd even managed to lose a nickel he'd bummed off an unbilled Clarence Muse for a phone call. He manages to extract a few bucks from his pickpocket roommate (Hobart Bosworth) but loses them through a hole in his pocket after entering a restaurant and ordering a dinner. Condemned to dishwashing to pay his way, he sees a deliveryman paid $16 for a slab of meat and assumes that his body should be worth much more. He puts himself on the market, offering his body to science for an even grand, but there are no takers until he encounters Dr. Snitzer (Robert Barratt), who wants to make a mold of Feet's skull and put it in every medical school in the country. Feet gets the money in advance and has 30 days to settle accounts before fulfilling his obligation -- the doctor doesn't expect to wait a lifetime for his goods. The Brain himself vouches for Feet as a very honorable guy, assuring Snitzer that his subject won't welsh on him. Brain even promises to "underwrite" the transaction, making himself responsible for Feet keeping his end of the bargain, whether he wants to or not.

Once he's on borrowed time, Feet has an unprecedented run of luck, starting with a bet placed by accident, that leaves him a millionaire. He can now afford to marry his girl and live large, and when Brain reminds him that his thirty days are almost up, he figures he can square things with Dr. Snitzer by paying him back with interest. But you don't deal with a scientist like that, especially when we know that the doctor has eyes for Feet's girl. When Feet learns of Snitzer's romantic interest, he figures that the doctor hasn't negotiated in good faith and feels justified in absconding with his bride-to-be to South America. Honor still compels Brain to send his minions to fetch Feet, but his own encounter with Snitzer convinces the mastermind that the doctor is incompetent and actually barking mad. Now honor compels Brain to rescue Feet and his girl from his own men, who've hijacked the armor car Feet had hoped to escape in....

A Very Honorable Guy comes across like neither a Damon Runyon movie nor a Joe E. Brown vehicle. The characters don't talk in the eccentric cadences that listeners to Guys and Dolls recognize as Runyonesque, but at the same time Brown is playing a Runyon character rather than his typical idiot or braggart. He doesn't even get to do his signature yell until an epilogue. Brown is likable enough in the role but with the slapstick also kept to a relative minimum he isn't able to give an all-out star performance. Under those circumstances Robert Barratt, one of Warners' most verstatile character actors and probably the most underrated member of the studio stock company, arguably has the funniest scene in the picture. It's Dr. Snitzer's sit-down with The Brain, the gangster having invited the doctor to a cafe to discuss delivering Feet as promised. Matter of factly, Snitzer dumps a few lumps of sugar into his coffee cup, along with salt, pepper, catsup, worcestershire sauce, etc. "Are you actually going to drink that?" Brain asks. Of course not, Snitzer answers; you asked me to have a coffee, but I don't have to drink it. He blithely stirs the mixture together and finally dumps it on the floor. "There! I've had my coffee and I'll still be able to sleep tonight." Director Bacon cuts back to Dinehart often enough to sell Brain's gradual realization that he's dealing with a madman. In case the audience hadn't figured that out, Snitzer explains that he'd escaped from a lunatic asylum by disguising himself as a poached egg. Brain can't get out of that cafe soon enough, and Snitzer gives him this odd little bye-bye wave, having never really changed his deadpan expression, as icing on the crazy cake. Having seen him listed in the cable-guide credits, I was actually hoping for a little more mad-scientist shtick from Barrat, but this scene is a little gem of lunacy that enlivens a modestly entertaining comedy. More than a Brown vehicle, it's a nice ensemble showcase for many of Warners' second-echelon players, from Bosworth's nearly-guileless pickpocket to the always-watchable Harold Huber as one of Brain's enforcers, using land-shark tactics to get into Hortense's apartment in search of Feet. Bacon keeps things moving briskly across 62 minutes; the film neither wears out its welcome, nor should it leave anyone feeling shortchanged. By no means Brown's finest hour, it's at least an easy hour for classic movie fans to get through.

Friday, November 28, 2014

Pre-Code Parade: SIT TIGHT (1931)

When I was writing about Gold Dust Gertie last time I suggested that star Winnie Lightner was prepared to deal with the challenge of co-starring with Olson and Johnson because she'd held her own with Joe E. Brown already. I wrote that before watching Sit Tight, another Lloyd Bacon film, in which Lightner tends to recede into the background while Brown dominates the action. Lightner gets top billing but Brown's face tends to be more prominent in the advertising -- or at least his cartoonish features, exaggerated further by actual cartooning, attract your eye more. Lightner may have been sabotaged by Warner Bros.' decision to cut nearly all the songs out of this erstwhile musical comedy. As it is, she sings the only song that made the cut, but it's not exactly a highlight. Also, Lightner is playing something other than her gold digger archetype this time. She's more or less an honest woman -- an entrepreneur, in fact -- a doctor, no less! She is "Dr. O'Neill," the proprietor of a health spa, and the opening scenes when we see her running her business are her most dominant moments in the picture. While the place is full of pretty girls, the principle customers are out-of-shape men, old or fat or both. They look pretty hopeless, but the good doctor motivates them by telling them how attractive they'll become. She gets their money by appealing to their vanity without having to marry any of them.

In fact, Winnie is the pursued rather than the pursuer in Sit Tight. Brown is her suitor and assistant Jojo, self-styled "the Terrible." He's an aspiring wrestler, having learned all the holds from a correspondence course. Presumably he practised on the dummy he brings into the ring for an exhibition, after which he challenges the crowd, promising money to anyone who can pin him. Brown was an athlete and shows a wiry frame when stripped to the waist but here, unlike in his later baseball pictures, he has to play a bumbler. He's too small to throw the big men, and he's more of a coward than someone as physically gifted as Brown was should be. The comedian does most of his own stunts, taking some decent bumps in the ring and performing most impressively in chase scenes. At one point, he hurdles three massage tables and their occupants, and it's unmistakably Brown because he's running toward the camera. You get the sense that Brown is what M-G-M hoped Buster Keaton would be in sound pictures: a physical dynamo who also looked and talked funny. The talking funny was clearly very important for Brown and Warners: he does his signature yell (the precursor, for those with long memories, of the Hippo Hurricane Holler) on any pretext, even though it's probably the least amusing thing he does in retrospect.  Otherwise he specializes in brag and bluster, though this is one of the pictures where his character can't back them up.

Jojo may pine for Winnie O'Neill, but he has a roving eye. He's very much a Pre-Code comedy hero in the way he ogles and sometimes manhandles pretty women, and Sit Tight is very much a Pre-Code comedy in the opportunities it gives Brown to run amok among attractive, scantily clad girls. It's quite ribald when Brown, passing himself off as a doctor, repeatedly checks a female patient's breathing, her towel slipping down further with each breath at his urging. Yet for all he ogles others, his heart, or his subconscious, belongs to Winnie. In the ring, as he's choked out by Tom Kennedy, he dreams of himself as a sultan surrounded by slave girls, but the main attraction of the harem is Winnie the hootchie-kootchie dancer. The husky Winnie is no one's idea of a hootchie-kootchie dancer but Jojo's, and his idealization of her redeems his sometimes-wandering eye. Back in reality, he redeems himself by going into the ring against a Masked Marvel, actually an enemy from earlier in the picture, solely to stall for time. In the romantic plot with which comedies like these are almost always saddled, the handsome young collegiate wrestling prodigy has been kidnapped prior to the big match on which Winnie has staked the future of her spa. That forces her to match Jojo with someone to keep the crowd happy, and while much of his match is him running away from his foe, Brown gets in some nice drop kicks and cannonballs on his way to an unlikely victory. Again, Lightner may have been the star, and may have had more to do in earlier, more musical cuts of the picture, but Brown has much more to do in the film we have today, and he seems like the star by default. If anything, the notorious wild men Olson and Johnson were more deferential toward Lightner months later than Brown was earlier in 1931. It simply shows that he was ready for solo stardom, while Lightner's time on top was already starting to run out.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Pre-Code Parade: GOLD DUST GERTIE (1931)

Winnie Lightner was Warner Bros.' original gold digger, at least in the talkie era. Warners had been making "Gold Diggers" movies since 1923, but Gold Diggers of Broadway, a musical that surivives today only in fragments, was a big hit in 1929 and made Lightner a star. She was a different kind of gold digger than the ones we remember from a few years later, the predatory hotties like Joan Blondell and Glenda Farrell. Lightener was no hottie, but got by on pure aggression. There's a ruggedness to her that marks her as a creature of early talkies more than of Pre-Code proper. Her star vehicles are slapstick comedies with a lot of the "nut" comedy -- she herself was "Wild Winnie" -- that was in vogue in those transitional years. She may have been a victim of the increased sexuality of Pre-Code as audiences found the Blondells and Farrells more plausible or appealing gold diggers. Maybe Lightner's characters were too mercenary for audience tastes. Ads called her the "Alimony Queen," and that's what she is in this Lloyd Bacon film: twice married, twice divorced, on the hunt for number three while demanding her money from the first two. Gold Dust Gertie is a follow-up to Lightner's hit The Life of the Party, and is based on a play called The Wife of the Party. That title sounds like a natural but Warners may have worried that audiences would think they'd seen the picture already. In it, Gertie makes life difficult for her ex-husbands, who have married twins, neither of whom knows that their men were married before. Nor does their employer know this, and he has all kinds of morals clauses for his workers. The old man (Claude Gillingwater) is as unsuited to his business as possible: he manufactures women's swimsuits, yet remains scandalized by any change in fashion since the nineteenth century that exposed more female flesh. This unlikely suspect becomes Gertie's new target -- whatever his faults, he sure is rich. Pretending to be a virtuous young woman, she'll take over as the old man's designer and put over her exes' ideas, thus assuring that they'll keep their jobs and she'll keep getting alimony until she reels in the big prize. Naturally, she needs to hide her past relationship with them from her new paramour, but just as her efforts appear to end with another trip to the altar, who should be waiting to perform the ceremony but the same minister who had married her off the two previous times....

Gertie's ex-husbands are played by Olsen and Johnson. They were among the ultimate nut comics, best known for anarchic live shows whose comic effects were hard to reproduce on the scripted screen. Here, seemingly, was a threat to Lightner: two Durantes to her Keaton, or a Polly Moran to her Dressler. Lightener could hold her own with rival comics, though, having to deal with a fast-rising Joe E. Brown in two previous pictures. Better still, if not for the men themselves, Olsen and Johnson are quite submissive in their supporting roles. Johnson (I think it is) still has that horrible high-pitched self-amused laugh, but otherwise they come probably as close to vanishing into their roles as they ever would. They have one fun bit of knockabout with Lightner as they strive desperately to hide her, before she conceives her imposture, from their boss. They try stuffing her into every possible nook or cranny of their office -- even under the rug is a possibility, before cramming her into a crowded closet. More typically Lightner is the dominant figure. When all the characters are on an ocean liner, and it's her turn to hide them from the boss, she tosses them through a porthole. They dangle from a rope over the churning water in convincing discomfort. The film has that knockabout spirit, an inheritance from Life of the Party acknowledged by a cameo from Charles Judels, a maniac comic whose destructive tantrums were highlights of the earlier picture. Judels has a single scene in Gertie, playing the original swimsuit designer who blames Olsen and Johnson for the rejection of his designs and goes berserk on them in classic "I keel you!" fashion until they lock him in a washroom. He embodies the insane energy these comedies have at their best, before Pre-Code comedy got, dare I say, more refined.

Gold Dust Gertie addresses the sensitive question of spousal battery in the manner of Laurel and Hardy. Was the violence wrought on husbands by wives in these comedies some form of guilty projection by male comics, or does it express the anxiety of a bachelor audience? I don't know if one-sided violence against wives was ever considered funny, but around 1930 or so one-sided violence against husbands must have seemed hilarious. Like the wives when Laurel and Hardy are married men, Olsen and Johnson's wives (Dorothy Christy and Vivien Oakland) aren't exactly unattractive -- they're better lookers than Lightener -- but they're relentless, unforgiving monsters of jealousy and avarice. O&J get in trouble with Gertie in the first place because their new wives, taken on only to please their boss, are taking all their money so there's none to spare for Gertie's alimony. Once Gertie re-enters their lives with threatening letters, illusions of marital bliss are shattered with violent force. The hubbies show up to work the next day scarred and bandaged. Compared to the old fogey boss, the wives are irredeemable and implacable. Once the boss learns the truth about Gertie, he forgives her, feeling that their adventures have given him a new appreciation of life. He even forgives Olsen and Johnson for their indiscretions, figuring that if Gertie had married them, they can't be all bad. These epiphanies follow a somewhat overdone waterborne chase scene with motorboats, the wives following behind in a rowboat. Will the wives be as forgiving as the boss? Of course not: Gertie advises the boys to swim for China as the wives approach, each wielding an oar like a weapon. Striking as one, the women pound their spouses through the beach with such force that they pop up in the ocean, resolved to take Gertie's advice. It's cartoonishly brutal and funny for that reason, but it's the sort of humor that has you questioning your laughter afterward. But the slapstick of Gold Dust Gertie is on such an absurd scale that you really shouldn't. It's not as good as Life of the Party (I've seen it but have yet to write about it) but its exuberant amorality may still win you over.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

DVR Diary: FRISCO KID (1935)

Herbert Asbury, the author of Gangs of New York, published The Barbary Coast: An Informal History of the San Francisco Underworld in 1933. The book sold well, and two years later a Barbary Coast film appeared. Of course, anyone could make a movie set amid the San Francisco underworld of the 19th century, so while Samuel Goldwyn claimed the popular title, Warner Bros. made Frisco Kid, offering the public James Cagney as a 19th century public enemy. If Martin Scorsese's film of Gangs of New York is at all faithful to Asbury, then Frisco Kid is probably more faithful to the author's spirit than the official adaptation of Barbary Coast. Lloyd Bacon's film is a sprawling chronicle of violence with a relatively thin plot holding it together.As a film of 1935, it's still a transitional artifact of the onset of Code Enforcement, reminiscent of Pre-Code in its spirit of rough justice yet occasionally reticent in a new way. In a way its San Francisco and its hero are metaphors for a repentant Hollywood at the dawn of a new order, though its violent moments show that Hollywood could still have some things both ways.

Cagney is Bat Morgan, a simple sailor but smart enough to spurn the mickey slipped his way by the infamous hook-handed Shanghai Duck, yet not swift enough to avoid a blow to the head intended to induct him into involuntary nautical service. He manages to escape after coming to and is fished out of the ocean by the benevolent Sol Green (George E. Stone). Bat gets revenge on one of Shanghai's minions with a table leg and finally beats the Duck himself to death in Ricardo Cortez's casino. Now a sort of celebrity, he decides to muscle in on the gambling racket all along the infamous coast. His strategy is to start at the top, convincing the local political boss to join him as a silent partner in all the joints. They'll offer protection when the town's crusading journalists call for a crackdown, in return for a fair cut of the profits. Only Spider Burke (Barton MacLane), an old crony of Shanghai Duck, rejects the plan; he's still out to kill Morgan, but his bullet takes out Sol Green instead. The film then shows us a dead Burke on the wharf; while we must assume that Morgan killed him, Bacon doesn't want to show the deed. The Code may have frowned on what would have been premeditated murder rather than a death struggle in self-defense like the fight with Shanghai Duck.

Bat Morgan's rise to power is complicated by his blossoming relationship with one of the reformers, crusading newspaper publisher Jean Barrat (Margaret Lindsay). At first Bat assumes that she's spoken for by her editorial writer (Donald Woods), but she must have something for the bad boys, or else she sees the good in our antihero. As her love for Bat becomes more obvious, her social circle frowns on the relationship and snubs Morgan. To show up the snobs Bat leads a contingent of Barbary Coast gamblers who crash the opening night of a new opera house, and from here things go downhill. The temperamental Cortez resents an insult from the same old fogey of a judge who had snubbed Bat earlier. Unlike Bat, Cortez shoots the judge. This provokes a virtual civil war in San Francisco as the establishment forms a vigilante army -- not for the first time, we're told -- to purge the Barbary Coast. Cortez and Bat's political sponsor -- who has shot the editorial writer in the back -- are captured, tried in kangaroo court and hung by the neck from upper-floor windows. The remaining gamblers are prepared to turn Bat's deluxe casino into their own private Alamo, but Morgan no longer sees any reason for futile violence when defeat is certain.

Frisco Kid seems like it should have fit the town-tamer mode of classic westerns, but it never quite gets there. Instead, it follows the rise-and-fall pattern set for Cagney by Public Enemy, though it aborts the fall with an act of grace. It can't be a town-tamer movie because Cagney's character doesn't reform in time to play that role. Instead, his own taming is the film's ultimate subject. He's effectively tamed by superior force, and the power of the vigilantes is the part most reminiscent of Pre-Code movies, but the real moral influence is that of the good woman, Jean. If Bat Morgan is to survive, he must submit to her tutelage; he's alive at the end of the picture only because she offered to "sponsor" him, after she persuaded the vigilantes to spare him by showing that he had urged the gamblers to surrender, only to get shot in the back by one of them and trampled in the ensuing melee. James Cagney was arguably Pre-Code cinema personified (male division), the original glorified gangster, and by putting him through this sort of auto-da-fe Warner Bros., erstwhile alleged glorifier of gangsters, presumably showed contrition for its own recent vices and promised, through him, to be good from now on, now that the Warners themselves had been impressed by the power of an outraged citizenry the year before. I'm not sure if this was Cagney's first period piece picture, but it's definitely a way to say that the Cagney audiences knew would now be a thing of the past. Cagney is fine here, but his role suffers from the lack of a strong antagonist who lasts the whole picture through. Since he's the tamed rather than the tamer, there's no one for him to tame after Shanghai Duck and Spider Burke are eliminated. The Cortez character seems designed to play the wicked-gambler role in the town-tamer archetype, but he never becomes an antagonist to Cagney and gets relatively little to do apart from a great moment killing the judge and his nicely underplayed stoic resignation ("You win. I pass.") in the face of the lynchers. Apart from Cagney's charisma, Lloyd Bacon's direction and Sol Polito's cinematography are the main things that keep Frisco Kid entertaining. The first reel in particular is a showcase for Polito's illuminating imagery of light in darkness, from the feeble shafts penetrating Shanghai Duck's dungeon to the moonlight reflected from the water playing on the wood of the wharf. Later, Bacon's wrangling of hundreds of extras forming the vigilante army comes to the fore in this film's equivalent of Scorsese's draft riot in Gangs of New York. Some contemporary critics considered Frisco Kid a better film than Barbary Coast -- where the villain was Warner's other super-gangster, Edward G. Robinson -- and having seen them both now I'm inclined to agree. Neither film is a great one, but Frisco Kid is a fine piece of film craftsmanship and, depending on how you look at it, a symbolically significant film marking the change from an era of freedom to one of less, even if it's forced to call this a happy ending.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014


Every few years the studio system displays an embarrassing redundancy by giving the public two films on the same subject in the same year. Just this year, for instance, Hollywood gave us two Hercules movies. That might not be the best example, since fiftysomething years ago Hercules movies were practically a dime a dozen, but readers can think of other cases. Tombstone and Wyatt Earp didn't fall in the same calendar year, but they came so close together that I saw a trailer for the latter the night I saw the former -- at the time I thought the trailer gave the feature a tough act to follow, but the first Earp actually set a standard that doomed the second. Eighty years ago we had two Catherine the Great movies, but to be fair this was a transatlantic rather than inter-Hollywood competition. There were Hollywood talent and money in both pictures however. Paramount deemed Catherine a proper subject for the latest collaboration between director Josef von Sternberg and star Marlene Dietrich. Their picture, The Scarlet Empress, is by far the better known of the Catherine movies. The British contender, sometimes known as The Rise of Catherine the Great, beat the Hollywood film into theaters by several months. Producer Alexander Korda, fresh from the global success of The Private Life of Henry VIII, had the backing of United Artists and the particular patronage of one of UA's founders, Douglas Fairbanks. The old swashbuckler would star for Korda in a career-killing bomb, The Private Life of Don Juan. For Catherine Fairbanks contributed his son, fresh from a stint in the Warner Bros. contingent in the Pre-Code Parade. Junior's Atlantic crossing began a middle period in his movie career. At Warners he'd proven himself a fairly charismatic young actor in a variety of roles, none of which marked him as his father's son. Later, he would become just that in the roles for which he's best remembered, in films like Gunga Din and Sinbad the Sailor. I haven't read Junior's autobiography, so I'm left wondering what sort of anxiety of influence he felt when Hollywood reporters described him and his father as a package deal for Korda. I do know this: his two best-known roles from his middle period are villains -- his Tsar Peter in Catherine and his Rupert of Hentzau in David O. Selznick's Prisoner of Zenda -- and the defining trait of his Peter is his hysterical resentment of a virtual parent.

Fairbanks's performance as Peter III -- from here on I'll stop calling him Junior -- pales for many viewers in comparison with Sam Jaffe's performance of the same role in Scarlet Empress. Jaffe gives a grotesque performance worthy of Sternberg's more expressionistic movie. Paul Czinner's film for Korda has suffered overall in comparison with Sternberg and Dietrich's iconic extravagance, but I rather like the modesty of scale in the Korda Catherine that makes Fairbanks's Peter a more menacing figure. The Tsar-to-be has lived for years under the thumb of his aunt, the Tsarina Elizabeth (Flora Robson), for whom men in general are to be dominated sexually and politically and Peter in particular is to be treated like a child. He angrily resists her attempts to marry him off, but is momentarily smitten by Catherine (Elizabeth Bergner), the princess of Anhalt-Zerbst, having caught her unawares and finding her charmingly guileless. Hoping to marry the heir to the throne, she has never seen him and doesn't know him when she meets him by accident. He likes that her behavior isn't conditioned by knowledge of his rank, but before his wedding day is done he starts second-guessing himself and her, jumping to the conclusion that she knew him all along and had tricked him into marrying her. In this comparably subtle way Peter's erratic intellect and paranoia are established while this Peter remains a sort of tragic figure. Who doesn't want to be liked or loved for who rather than what you are, after all? Unfortunately, Peter is such a damaged person, presumably thanks largely to Elizabeth, that who he is makes him a hopeless fit for what he must become. Even as he plans a purge after taking the throne, Peter leaves hints of a more promising sensibility, baffling his generals by asking for an opinion on military strategy of "Ivan Ivanovich," his idea of the average Russian and a man he can never find. His impulse dies as he interviews a literal-minded guard whose only answer to all questions is that his name isn't Ivan Ivanovich. The moment is comic if not tragicomic, depending on how generous you feel toward Peter.

How you feel toward Peter in this picture may depend on how you feel toward its Catherine. Bergner begins the picture as a simpering ninny but is slowly shaped into a future ruler by Elizabeth, who has no confidence in Peter's prospects. The actress never quite matures into the role history and the film demand of her; Bergner lacks Dietrich's iconic authority and the flattering framing a Sternberg could provide. Bergner never fully transforms into the voracious Catherine of legend, and her movie pointedly highlights the princess's first pathetic attempt to play that role. Advised by Elizabeth to make Peter jealous, she adopts a regiment and boasts of having seventeen lovers in the unit, but her count is as much bluster as the military uniform she adopts. In each case she comes across as a child playing an adult game. Her tragedy in this picture is that she really wants to save Peter from his madness as much as she wants to save Russia from his madness. What redeems her in our eyes is her reluctance to destroy Peter, however necessary doing so must be, and how outraged she is when he is inevitably destroyed. Bergner was highly regarded in her time and would come to Hollywood to do Shakespeare soon after this, but she isn't as impressive here as Fairbanks. She lacks his intensity but, to be fair, she isn't playing a madman. But the picture works in its modest way because Fairbanks plays a very human madman, while Peter's relationship with Catherine is emotionally realistic enough to make you wish a better outcome had been possible. Perhaps the best comparison of the two Catherines isn't with the sort of rival pictures I've mentioned, but with the two complementary pictures on similar subjects from 1964: Dr. Strangelove and Fail-Safe. One is indisputably greater than the other, but the lesser film doesn't wither in comparison but shows powerful qualities of its own. Likewise, if you concede the artistic superiority of The Scarlet Empress, that should still leave room to recognize the virtues of its nearly-forgotten double.

Saturday, November 15, 2014


Don't blame director Arnaud des Pallieres for the video-gamey title of the American release of his film. It was just plain Michael Kohlhaas to him, just as it was to Volker Schlondorff back in 1969. Both films adapt the legend of a minor German rebel as it had been canonized by the novelist Heinrich von Kleist 200 years ago. Schlondorff's film (here's my review) was a product of its time, a blend of New German Cinema and late-Hollywood risk-taking in the "history of cruelty" mode popular back then. Retelling the story now could easily have become an excuse to tart up the action with modern effects, but Pallieres resists that temptation. Instead, he films the story's violence with a cold objectivity and an absence of choreography that are bound to disappoint people expecting something "cool" from that awful American title. Yet there is, I suspect, a strong American influence over this new Kohlhaas film, and if I'm right it's a very good influence.

They killed his wife and hurt his horses; now Michael Kohlhaas will fight!

You can read my review of the 1969 film for more detail on the Kohlhaas story, but to sum it up, our hero (now played by Mads Mikkelsen, succeeding David Warner) has had his rights and his horses violated, and his wife has been killed while protesting on his behalf, so he starts a private war against the local baron who wronged him, and the war threatens to escalate into a full-scale political rising. Michael Kohlhaas remains apolitical, however. He'll lay down his arms and send home the small army that has rallied around him if only the baron will personally restore Michael's two black horses to full health and their former beauty.

In the most noteworthy story switch from the 1969 film, Kohlhaas negotiates not with a male potentate (nor with Martin Luther) but with a female ruler, a young princess (Roxane Duran) whose guileless if not stupid appearance hides a calculating and treacherous, yet on some level still honorable character. She must destroy Kohlhaas to restore order and set an example, but she makes sure that he gets what he'd asked for all along before he dies. In place of Luther the 2013 film gives us an anonymous Theologian (Denis Lavant) who chides Kohlhaas for his violent self-indulgence. Unimpressed by Kohlhaas's execution of one of his own men for looting, the Theologian challenges our hero's assumed right to rebel and his presumption of taking justice for himself when God alone, ultimately can judge. While the 1969 Kohlhaas is a kind of figurehead for an all-out rebellion reflecting the mood of 1969, the 2013 model is more intimate, arguably more morally serious, and it seems to owe many of its distinguishing qualities to Clint Eastwood.

I think it was the emphasis on horses that clicked things together for me. While the figure of Coalhouse Walker Jr. in the novel and film Ragtime are the most obvious American version of the Kohlhaas legend, Eastwood's Unforgiven, written by David Webb Peoples, is arguably a reflection of the Kohlhaas theme. In Unforgiven, horses are proposed by the local marshal as suitable compensation to a pimp for the disfiguring of one of his whores, and one of the cowboys held responsible for the disfigurement tries to offer the horses directly to the prostitute as a gesture of personal repentance. In this case, the whores as a group refuse the gesture and demand revenge instead, offering a bounty to whoever will kill the cowboys. Peoples (if not Eastwood) may have understood this as an ironic variation on Kohlhaas: the one gesture Kohlhaas would have accepted as a peace offering is spurned by the whores of Big Whiskey. But while the influence of the Kohlhaas legend on Unforgiven is purely speculative, the visual influence of Unforgiven on Arnaud des Pallieres seems hard to deny. The unromanticized violence: check. The bleak landscape: check. The resemblance is closest when Kohlhaas and his young daughter watch his men ride down upon and massacre a wagon train. We see the action from the Kohlhaases' perspective, at a great distance that refuses us any visceral thrill from the killing. As father and daughter watch, she asks him why he's fighting. For his horses? For his wife and her mother? Michael has no answer. Meanwhile, his faithful minion Cesar (David Bennent), who had earlier survived an attack from the baron's dogs, breaks from the attack and rides back up to Kohlhaas's position, only to fall dying to the ground. It's strongly reminiscent of the great "We've all got it coming" scene in Unforgiven, when William Munny and the Schofield Kid talk about killing on a hilltop as one of the whores slowly rides their way with terrible news.  Eastwood is a popular and honored director but doesn't seem to have inspired many stylistic followers, but Michael Kohlhaas hints that there's at least one out there.

With his squinty slits of eyes Mads Mikkelsen is more a Robert Mitchum than a Clint Eastwood but his own enigmatic charisma is essential for portraying a character who may well be an enigma to himself, a man who can't acknowledge and may not even recognize his deepest motives. He's a powerful figure who bends yet never quite breaks under the weight of conscience and the pressure of religion and custom. As Kohlhaas's daughter, Melusine Mayance proves herself a formidable child actor by holding her own with Mikkelsen. As the Princess, Roxane Duran isn't on screen much but she brings an almost eerie presence to the picture, dressed in plain black, that makes it plausible that people might have trembled before royalty. If the look of the film as well as its themes bring Eastwood to mind, Jeanne Lapoirie's cinematography has much to do with that. If "Age of Uprising" makes you think of a video game, Lapoirie's imagery is just about the opposite of that. I can't stress enough how stupid that American title sounds to me, but I'm happy to report that few films recently have been as superior to their titles, if you accept Age of Uprising as its title, as this one is.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

REAL PULP FICTION: Johnston McCulley in Zorro-Land

Where can I get the man for the situation? I must have one well born and reared, who knows how to conduct himself in the presence of others well born. I must have one with a natural attraction for women, one skilled in wooing. I must also have one skilled in handling a blade and known to be quick and fearless in combat. There are many such, but they are not renegades, as you are.
-- Johnston McCulley, Don Renegade

After Edgar Rice Burrough's Tarzan, Johnston McCulley's Zorro probably is the most famous character created in pulp fiction. Yet while Burroughs remains a household name in American pop culture, Johnston McCulley as an author has never come close to Burrough's fame. It wouldn't surprise me if many people assume that Zorro was a real person or, more tellingly, a creation of the movies. The easy assumption to make is that, unlike Burroughs, McCulley really was a one-trick pony. It didn't seem that way during his heyday. He was nearly as prolific as Burroughs, and may have created more series characters, from the prototypical masked avenger the Crimson Clown to his comic antihero, the lisping pickpocket Thubway Tham. None of these had Zorro's staying power, although McCulley continued producing Thubway Tham stories, as well as Zorros, until his death in 1958. If anything, McCulley seemed to prefer not writing Zorro, though the character became more of a meal ticket for him in later life. Look at McCulley's bibliography of works published in Argosy and it becomes apparent that the author was more interested in Zorro's milieu than in Zorro himself. He wrote numerous serials set in what one Argosy cover called "Zorro-Land," California under the rule of Spain and Mexico. Each of these, as far as I know, was a one-off story. McCulley may have never returned to any of these characters other than Zorro. If so, he missed an opportunity that may only appear obvious in retrospect. Zorro-Land was McCulley's universe, and in our time it would seem natural, depending on issues of chronology, for McCulley's California heroes to encounter one another or at least acknowledge each other's existence. Those who've read more McCulley can correct me if this did happen. My acquaintance with the author remains very limited. I haven't even read The Mark of Zorro yet, but I've read a couple of the later Zorro short stories. They are rather robotic affairs, and the difference in quality and energy between those and Don Renegade, which debuted in the November 11, 1939 Argosy, suggests that McCulley flourished when he was being most original, when he was thinking up however many variations on the Zorro type rather than following the Zorro formula.

The title character is an antihero in search of redemption, a man of giant appetites whose repasts McCulley describes in loving if not necessarily knowing detail. Marcos Zappa is a nobleman who turned against his class and led an Indian rebellion when society wouldn't let him marry a native girl. He was spared when the rebellion failed but branded with an "R" for Renegade that makes him a social pariah. For money, he makes himself the catspaw of another disgruntled don who seeks to avenge a slight from a lady. This villain wants Zappa, his brand disguised, to seduce the woman who rejected the villain originally and provoke a fight so he can kill the lady's current paramour. Once Zappa has won the lady's love, the villain will expose Zappa as a renegade, disgracing the lady, while arranging for Zappa's escape. Thus Zappa re-enters a decadent milieu of gaming halls where everyone wears a mask and estates where guest beds come with lovely young female bed warmers. While Zappa chivalrously makes no further use of his, it's obvious enough that most other guests keep the girls in bed past their bedtime. Of course, the master plan is complicated almost immediately. Zappa comes to the rescue of a coach threatened by bandits but is himself rescued by a dashing young nobleman who proves, as should surprise no one, as the very man whose lover Zappas is to steal, and whom Zappa is to kill. At the other end of the social spectrum, Zappa's imposture doesn't fool an old pirate crony of his who's happy to keep his secret, for now. None of this is original if original is the opposite of predictable, but starting from scratch once more in Old California allows McCulley to tell the tale with a fresh panache I found lacking in his later Zorro stories. While I've abandoned the idea of reviewing every story in the 1939 Arogsys, I definitely look forward to reading all the chapters of Don Renegade, and maybe I'll tell you how it ends.

Sometimes you can return to familiar characters productively after putting them aside awhile. The best stand-alone story in the November 11 issue was "Chaos is a Quiet Place," the latest novelette by Donald Barr Chidsey about his unlikely team of insurance investigator Nick Fisher and reformed (and supposed dead) pickpocket Eddie Savoy. This was their first appearance in Argosy in nearly two years, after a run in 1936-37 when they were Chidsey's most frequently-used characters. Chidsey must have been in the right mood because "Chaos" swings with hard-boiled irreverence as the heroes negotiate the return of a stolen treasure while suspecting a setup for an even bigger heist. Set in Egypt, the story probably fails political-correctness tests, though it's far from the most racist thing I've read from Chidsey. But I can't help liking that wisecracking smartass attitude, even if it makes Fisher and Savoy look like all too typical ugly Americans abroad. In any event, they're only dealing with crooks, only without all the moralizing you got in the actual crimefighter pulps. Not much else is memorable in this Argosy but this and Don Renegade make the issue worth a read.