Sunday, June 29, 2014


Looking at Pre-Code musicals over the years, I developed the notion that Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers saved the genre from evolving into live-action cartoons by stressing virtuoso talent rather than mass choreography a la Busby Berkeley -- often brilliant visually but always potentially soulless -- or outright cartoonish stories with little real feeling, much less romance in them. But while Astaire and Rogers certainly revolutionized musicals in their own way, as Berkeley had revolutionized and "saved" the genre shortly before, the fact remained in the era of Code Enforcement that there were fewer virtuoso performers than could satisfy the demand for musical comedy films. As a result, you still saw musicals that were essentially human cartoons. Paramount seemed to specialize in these, as they seemed most committed to using musicals to putting over radio comedians as movie stars. As a result, here is a musical, directed by Frank Tuttle with a script by many hands, headlined by a performer best known as an anti-virtuoso. Jack Benny made a running gag that lasted almost his entire long career, until he staged some serious performances to set the record straight, that he was a lousy violinist. Benny must seem an enigmatic figure today, having risen to stardom on a perceived absence of talent. The gimmick worked on his radio program, in which he made himself the butt of jokes from his supporting players. But Benny didn't bring his radio support network to this project, and that exposes him somewhat as a personality with relatively little to offer. At the time, when people knew all he wanted them to know about his character, audiences presumably got what was funny in his mannerisms. At the same time, you get the idea that any comedian could have played Benny's part: a bandleader-turned-manager of a failing resort, dodging creditors and law enforcement until an improbable patroness (Mary Boland) gives him a gimmick that can turn the place's fortunes around.

Boland was a queen of misrule in the Pre-Code musical comedy Down to Their Last Yacht and her role here has the same potential. She's Carola P. Gaye, a wealthy widow determined to bankroll the enthusiasms of her latest paramour, Hercules Dove (Etienne Giradot). Hercules is a feeble old man with a Greek fetish. He dresses in classical garb and wants to revive classical ideals of human perfection through the new science of eugenics. He and Carola take over Benny's hotel -- he runs it for the film's ingenue (Marsha Hunt) -- and hope to turn it into a breeding ground for the best specimens of American youth, recruited from colleges across the country. They send Benny to do the recruiting, accepting his suggestion that they make it into a talent search for entertainers. They are adamant, however, that the breeding not begin until all the subjects have arrived at the hotel. There, boys will be paired with girls through the oracular intervention of Hercules's daughter Calliope, whom he touts as the perfect modern woman, and for whom he seeks a suitable mate with the dimensions of the famous Apollo Belvedere sculpture. It's up to Benny to keep the college kids from necking and petting on the transcontinental train trip. He then hopes to use the kids in a modern musical revue despite Carola and Hercules's eugenic intentions.

Presumably it was up to Benny to determine the kids' suitability, and he chose a lot of entertainers. Classical standards of beauty were waived, apparently, for the darling of Corn City College (Martha Raye), whose main attributes are a loud mouth and superhuman strength. She flings heavy suitcases as if they were softballs and does a Samson stunt -- not in the script! -- during the rehearsal of a number set in a classical temple. But classical standards are moot once we are introduced, after some build-up, to the vaunted Calliope. She is none other than Gracie Allen, a peer of Benny's as a radio comic and the wife and partner of George Burns. We first see her driving a four-horse chariot on the wrong side of a California road, with George riding along in panic. I think Burns and Allen survive better today than Benny. In part that's because people today still remember Burns from the days of his very late blooming solo stardom. It's also because the couple act, or Burns's role in it, evolved and improved over time. They reached their peak on television, where Burns made himself a kind of master of reality who was in on all the gags, watched the other characters' activities on his personal TV set, and addressed the audience regularly. Here Burns is still Gracie's exasperated stooge -- though Burns probably lays on the exasperation thicker in movies than in vaudeville or radio. Even so, Gracie carries the act because, unlike Benny, who may seem like a human void, she comes across as a legit crazy woman. The crazy rather than merely scatterbrained aspect of the character is more pronounced here because of Calliope's deranged upbringing and her obsession -- she carries a tape measure everywhere -- with finding her destined Apollo.

The female comics -- Boland, Allen and Raye -- really dominate the picture and give it whatever life it has. Raye gets the best musical moment, too, belting "Who's That Knocking at My Heart" out of the park. Her performance is so powerful that you can almost forgive the goddamn blackface. Yes, Benny's big idea to draw crowds to the hotel is to stage an f'in minstel show. He doesn't blacken up himself, and George and Gracie are also spared that indignity, but Raye's big number features a disturbing moment when tricks of lighting (and makeup) allow her to switch back and forth between white and "black." Still, her song is a showstopper, and George and Gracie, assisted by Ben Blue, can't quite top it with their knockabout minuet, which is still good enough to remind us that Burns and Allen had some talent as physical comics as well. After that, Benny descends to address the audience and declare the picture closed. It simply stops rather than ending properly, but things have sorted out as you'd expect. George turns out to be Gracie's perfect Apollo after all -- since she can only ever get a "32" measurement with her tape, who can say otherwise? Carola has dumped Hercules for a Hindu swami with powers of hypnosis and an astral-body gimmick. The girl who owns the hotel is reunited with the young man she encountered fleetingly at the start of the picture -- this is Leif Erickson, whom I'm used to seeing thirty years older on the High Chapparal TV show, and whose unlined features and singing here freaked me out a little. So it's not like they didn't bother resolving the plot, but it's not like they really cared, either. I couldn't help thinking how the filmmakers might have run amok with the eugenics and Greek concepts in the Pre-Code era, though I remind myself that Search for Beauty, the film I was most reminded of, was no great shakes. College Holiday is merely silly rather than salacious, and if you're going to like it it'll be for individual performances and not as a whole. The thing barely exists as a whole without a real virtuoso -- I guess Raye comes closest -- to hold it together. It has its moments, in short, but this sort of madcap musical may already have seemed obsolete to audiences in early 1937, when it opened wide, and it definitely looks obsolete today. Not that there's anything wrong with obsolete, but it'd definitely be an acquired taste today.

Friday, June 27, 2014

DVR Diary: DILLINGER (1945)

It's hard to believe that the King Bros's poverty-row biopic, a prestige picture for lowly Monogram, was once controversial. Compared to John Milius's 1973 Dillinger and Michael Mann's 2009 Public Enemies, Max Nosseck's picture is a harshly unromanticized view of its subject, emphasizing John Dillinger's essential viciousness and pettiness as Nosseck's successors do not. The viciousness was part of the problem, however. By 1945 standards Dillinger is a very violent movie, and violence has always been crucial to movies' alleged glamorization of criminals. For those who decried that glamorization, and saw it at work in Nosseck's film, the way a gangster story was told often belied its moral. A wise old man of Hollywood saw the danger.

What gangster film doesn't want to tell the audience that Crime Does Not Pay? The proof was the dead gangster at the end of the picture. It was the same way in comic books. At the time Dillinger came out, a comic called Crime Does Not Pay was arguably the most popular title in the country. Yet crime comics were as controversial as crime movies, and for the same reason. The problem was sensationalism and violence. No matter what your ostensible message is, all the shooting and killing could make a different impression on impressionable youth. What does it matter that crime does not pay if violence becomes an end unto itself? From the time of the first crime movies, the great fear has been that violence will inspire violence, that impressionable youth will imitate what thrills them on screen. In more modern terms, Dillinger may die at the end, but while he's killing and robbing kids may find him cool.

Later Dillinger films practically invite you to find the man cool,but Nosseck's film takes more of a Crime Does Not Pay approach. As you can read above, Monogram defended its picture as "the greatest indictment of crime ever produced." And to be fair, the picture goes out of its way to portray Dillinger as a loser, a broken man in his last days, talking big briefly about forming a new super-gang but quickly deferring the event to the following year he'll never see. As played in his introductory role by Lawrence Tierney -- given unusal billing apart from the other actors and after all the other opening credits, with a fanfare of thunder and lightning - John Dillinger is a jerk who never forgets a slight, the kind of man who remembers being called a chiseler by a waiter years afterward and returns to kill the offender who had probably forgotten him within hours. He's an ingrate who bullies and eventually kills his bank-robbing mentor Specs Green (Edmund Lowe). He's kill-crazy in a way the real man really wasn't. I doubt anyone watching the film found him admirable, but some may still have enjoyed the film's violence for its own sake, tame as it is by 21st century standards.

It's tempting to treat Dillinger as a film noir since Dillinger is undone by a woman. Nosseck and writer Phillip Yordan sacrifice history to dramatic unity by making the "Lady in Red" who betrayed Dillinger in Chicago a longtime girlfriend (Anne Jeffries). She's one of his first stick-up victims, a ticket seller for a movie theater -- there's a movie motif throughout, befitting the man who met his end outside the Biograph Theater -- who's turned on by him enough to back out of identifying him in a police lineup. She proves as cynical and materialistic a customer as her boyfriend, blatantly taking up with another man after Dillinger's arrest in Tucson and finally betraying Dillinger for no other reason than the $10,000 reward money once she realizes he's washed up. In a way Dillinger starts as a Crime Does Not Pay morality play and ends up as something closer to a noir. It's telling that the film forgets its initial framing device. We open in a movie theater watching a newsreel account of Dillinger's exploits. Then an old man walks onstage and identifies himself as Dillinger's father. He explains that his son grew up like any ordinary kid, but as an adult simply never got used to the routine of doing the same thing every day. You may assume that we'll return to Papa Dillinger for the moral of the story, but the film ends with the cops' blunt inventory of the dead Dillinger's worldly possessions. On the surface this is a Crime Does Not Pay moment, but Yordan and Nosseck, or a studio editor, decided against giving anyone a definitive last word. As a result, the last we see of Dillinger is a broken man betrayed by his girl once he's used up and out of money. It looks almost as much like victimization as retribution. Rather than glorifying Dillinger, the picture makes him almost pitiable at the end. It was perhaps too subtle a statement of the Crime Does Not Pay argument for the movie moralists to recognize, and the audiences those moralists were afraid of probably only cared for the violence.

The 1945 Dillinger sets itself up as an epic with that thunder-and-lightning opening, but it falls short of the folk-epic quality of the Milius and Mann films. While the role of Dillinger made Tierney a short-lived star, and earned him a part in Reservoir Dogs nearly forty years later (his character says someone is "as dead as Dillinger"), the young actor is neither the perfect fit that Warren Oates was for Milius nor the cool icon Johnny Depp was for Mann. Tierney simply contributes a degree of brutality that was unusual and thus fresh for the time, but hasn't dated well. Nosseck surrounds him with ace character actors: Specs Green's gang includes Eduardo Ciannelli, Elisha Cook Jr. and Marc Lawrence, who are all fine, though the final scenes with Tierney and Jeffries probably have the best acting in the picture. I would say this Dillinger has value for illustrating what the culture thought of the man a decade after his death, but the controversy suggests that the culture still wasn't sure what it thought of John Dillinger. It was easier simply to treat him as a legendary outlaw the further we got away from his own time. This Dillinger also illustrates a new uncertainty about how to portray criminals in general, and that tension between moralizing and noirification will probably keep the film interesting to film buffs for as long as the categories matter.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Real Pulp Fiction: ARGOSY, JUNE 24, 1939

Writers to the "Argonotes" letter column were always asking when their old favorite authors would be showing up again in Argosy. There seems to have been considerable turnover in writing talent in the mid-to-late 1930s. Some of the most frequent contributors during the first half of the decade had stopped contributing. The biggest loss of all was George F. Worts, who wrote three popular series characters: the defense attorney Gillian Hazeltine, the adventurer Singapore Sammy, and fellow adventurer Peter the Brazen -- the last appearing under Worts's Loring Brent pseudonym. After 1936 Worts wrote almost exclusively for the slicks. All these characters, and others, were missed by longtime Argosy readers, but one of the most pined-for authors was the fantasy writer A. Merritt. People familiar with Merritt's work, if not his biography, might have taken him for a Weird Tales writer, but most of his best known stories first appeared in Argosy. None had appeared, however, since Creep, Shadow! had been serialized in the summer of 1934. Merritt may simply have gone dry; he certainly took on more responsibilities as editor of The American Weekly, a Sunday supplement that ran in William Randolph Hearst's papers and published many pulp authors. Considering how often readers requested more Merritt, and how fondly his past work was remembered, it must have seemed a good idea, and a way to save money, not just to reprint a Merritt novel, but to give the reprint this week's cover. Thus Argosy trumpets the reappearance of Merritt's 1927 novel Seven Footprints to Satan, at a time when many pulps preferred to boast that all stories in any given issue were new. This actually may have been useful to curious readers who, before the paperback era had really gotten under way, may not have been able to find a used copy of the novel in hardback, much less the Argosy back issues with the original serialization. Still, I can't help but see this as a gesture of weakness. The weekly had already reprinted Merritt's Ship of Ishtar, and John Buchan's The 39 Steps, the previous year. Given the Munsey company's failing attempt at brand extension and its consequences for Argosy's budget, reprints can't have been a good sign no matter how they were hyped. In any event, I intend to let Seven Footprints pass with no further notice, since my plan here has been to see how pulp writers see the world of 1939, or see the past through the prism of their present. It'll make the next few weeks easier to get through on time.

The continuing serials get quite intense this week. Walter Ripperger's Man From Madrid goes off on an eccentric tangent as the mysterious Mr. Nibbs who runs the mission for fugitives pretty much takes over this week's installment. He and his minions horn in on our hero's attempt to recover the treasure stolen from the Spanish Loyalists, Nibbs offering our man his assistance in return for one-fifth of the treasure, i.e. one million dollars. Nibbs and his stooges are fiends out of Edgar Wallace; the whole gimmick of a mission as a front for sinister doings is pure Wallace. They intend to find the stolen treasure by catching one of the conspirators -- recall that they are pretended Franco sympathizers who are really out for themselves -- and torturing him, while our hero continues to question whether his mission is worth carrying out. Meanwhile, Howard Rigsby's Voyage to Leandro really catches fire with an intense installment in which our young runaway hero is finally disillusioned with the legendary mutineer with whom he shares a desert isle. The highlight of this week's chapters, and probably of the whole serial, is a wild scene in which the drunken Jeremy Robb dares our hero's weaker, wealthier partner to drive a spike through his shoulder, to prove how tough Robb is. It reads like a scene from a Scorsese or Tarantino movie, only PG rated. It's not the most fantastical or violent moment I've read in these magazines, but it is raw pulp fiction at or near its best.

The headline stand-alone story this week is Theodore Roscoe's latest tall tale of the Foreign Legionnaire Thibaut Corday. "Corday and the Seven-League Boots" is self-explanatory, unless I need to tell you that "seven-league boots" allow you to walk vast distances at superhuman speed. Corday's unit becomes convinced that their commander has acquired such a pair of boots, but the boots become a curse as they're handed down the chain of command after each previous wearer is killed. As is sometimes the case in the Corday stories, the "real" explanation for fantastical-seeming events is more preposterous than the myth. In this case, each man who wears the boots claims to have seen exotic sights from around the world, but all turn out to have fallen under the influence of contraband opium hidden inside the soles. It's not Corday's finest hour. More entertaining is E. Hoffman Price's "Allah's Infidel," in which a white trader retrieves a rare green pearl found by his crew yet stolen by the story's villain. This is only Price's second appearance in Argosy under his own name, though the Fiction Mags index credits him with earlier work under the pseudonym Martin McCall. Over the next two years Price, who had been a mainstay of the so-called "Spicy" pulps and a rare author for those disreputable periodicals to do without a pseudonym, would be an Argosy mainstay;his career would continue deep into the 1980s. Also making his second appearance in the weekly, and also a future star writer, is Louis C. Goldsmith. He was an aviation specialist, but this week's "Shovel Skinner" deals with the dangerous work of steam shovel operators and a veteran's reluctant mentorship of a seemingly ill-qualified novice. I've read some later Goldsmith and can assure you he gets better later, though this story isn't terrible, only mediocre. In addition, Baynard Kendrick's "Standing Orders" is another relevant story set during Hitler's takeover of Austria the previous year. A closeted dissident in Wehrmacht uniform helps smuggle the final writings of a more famous dissident out of the country. Curiously, there's a strong implication that the soldier hero is not just a closeted dissident but a closeted Jew, but maybe I'm reading too much into it. Finally, Murray Leinster contributes this week's Oddity, "The Kidder," in which the best friend and girlfriend of a condemned criminal feel a mistaken need to confess to his mother their blame for his imminent death.

Next week, Voyage to Leandro concludes and we travel to the South Sea islands, the Florida Keys, the Afghan hills and dear old Chinatown. Stay tuned!


Eli Wallach (1915-2014)

Wallach got a late start in movies but stayed late; his debut came at age 40 in Elia Kazan's Baby Doll. He had already made a name on stage in some of Kazan's stagings of Tennessee Williams's plays and was a member of the vaunted Actors' Studio. In an exceptional early film role he projected pure menace as a psycho hit man in The Lineup. But he soon became one of Hollywood's all-purpose ethnic types and is best remembered for playing Mexican bandits in The Magnificent Seven (he outlived all but Robert Vaughan) and The Good, The Bad and the Ugly. In the latter he defined a spaghetti-western archetype as not so much a good-bad man but a less-bad man, redeemed (at least for the audience) by an improbably likable personality. Figures like Tuco Ramirez are spaghetti westerns' audience-identification figures, more so than the godlike or too-cool heroes or the demonic (and sometimes also too cool) villains who so often seem impervious to the ordinary pains and stresses of frontier life. Tuco feels; he protests, even whines, but he muddles through, sometimes losing, sometimes winning. Even if things look bad at the end of the Leone film -- Tuco is left in the middle of nowhere with his hands tied -- you feel certain that he'll live to fight another day.

The actor always moved freely from big to small screen and back to the stage, and from the U.S. to Italy and elsewhere. His passing leaves John Astin as the last surviving male Batman TV show villain, for instance. Not every role could be memorable or good; there probably wasn't much anyone could do with the philosopher in a vat of oil in Circle of Iron, for instance. But he was always a welcome sight in movies, especially when each new appearance was proof that he still lived.  He hadn't worked since 2010 according to IMDB but I expected him to make 100 and enjoy the honors that would have been his due. The honors are coming just the same and he deserves them.

Sunday, June 22, 2014


Jack Cardiff was the cinematographer for The Archers -- Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger -- for three of their greatest films: A Matter of Life and Death, Black Narcissus and The Red Shoes. Cardiff won an Oscar for Narcissus and should have had another for Shoes. He went to Hollywood and continued to do impressive work. Just this weekend I saw his photography of The Master of Ballantrae for director William Keighley and it was spectacular. But I guess what he really wanted to do is direct. It's a common affectation of cinematographers once they get credited for the look of their directors' work. Of the many who took the step up in responsibility and prestige, arguably only Mario Bava and Nicolas Roeg transcended their cinematography as directors. But Cardiff got off to a good start and got an Oscar nomination for directing Sons and Lovers. Still, nothing he directed was on Michael Powell's level and at last, with this Anglo-French adaptation of an acclaimed French novel, it became clear that Cardiff wanted to be Powell. Here was the vehicle, for which he gets an adaptation credit, in which he would prove himself as much a visionary as his erstwhile mentor. He sure wasn't going to do that with his previous film, the badass mercenary drama Dark of the Sun, which was released the same year -- even though Dark is easily the better film of the two, and Girl is really a bit of a disaster.

Boasting direction and photography by the legendary Jack Cardiff, Girl opens with a horrid effects shot of birds hovering over a house that's only slightly redeemed once identified as part of the title character's dream. Rebecca (Marianne Faithful) is having a restless night: she also dreams of doing a bareback act in her motorcycle costume in a circus, with Alain Delon as the ringmaster. He patiently whips her suit to shreds. Later, looking contemptuously professorial -- it turns out he is a professor -- Delon laughs at Rebecca in an abstract background. And there's solarization. Very visionary, Cardiff.

Fortunately, our auteur is on surer ground when he goes on location with the girl and the motorcycle. Rebecca is unhappily married because she pines for Delon. Compared to the sadly-named actor Roger Mutton, who plays her hapless schoolteacher of a husband, who wouldn't pine for Delon. While Mutton can't control a classroom of small boys, Delon commandingly lectures college students on the Playboy Philosophy or something along those lines. Sporting a professorial pipe, he could be teaching them Slack for all I know. The intellectuality of it all no doubt appeals to Rebecca the bookseller's daughter -- and it may be no accident that Archers icon Marius Goring plays the bookseller. Delon is extravagant, giving Rebecca the motorcycle as a wedding present. Where she got her moto-catsuit I don't know, but it looks like the cartoonist Darwyn Cooke got at least some of his ideas for his 21st-century redesign of Catwoman from Rebecca's costume. Wearing the costume, with boots and helmet and nothing else (hence the alternate title Naked Under Leather), Rebecca rides from France to Germany to reunite with Delon while indulging in voiceover monologues and flashbacks that make Cardiff's work seem a little like a caveman version of Terrence Malick. Cardiff indugles in the illusion that Rebecca is riding a motorcycle. To me it looks suspiciously like she's being towed in some shots, though that may be only to make it easier for Cardiff to show off by doing a 360 degree spin around Rebecca's head while she's riding. In other scenes, those where she and Delon must share a bike and talk to each other, or close-ups in dangerous conditions, Cardiff resorts to process shots, though he strives, with mixed success, to make them more convincing than normal. And in some long shots, the stunt rider is clearly wearing a bulkier costume than Rebecca's.  You can't help noticing these things because this is a pretentiously visionary film by a legendary cinematographer. The inconsistencies can't help but distract the mind -- but from what?

The most dated thing about The Girl on a Motorcycle is that Rebecca's plight is considered a subject for a feature film. Nearly fifty years ago I suppose her adventures did seem daring, but it's hard to imagine anyone caring even then. So she's adulterous and worries about being a nymphomaniac. What of it? What of it, indeed, given this film's dull thud of an ending, which seems to reduce Rebecca's drama to a cruel joke. In short, she's ecstatically closing the kilometers between herself and Delon, bouncing on her seat and otherwise stimulating her libido, when she's killed in a traffic accident, in slapstick fashion. Bam! Her bike hits the side of a vehicle and she goes flying. Cardiff cuts to a flying shot and a brief close-up of Rebecca's shot. Then she goes head-first through a windshield, presumably killed instantly. A VW swerves to avoid this wreck, flips and explodes. In many of the shots Rebecca's dead legs are still visible sticking out of that windshield, our heroine reduced to no more an object than the cars on the road. I suppose it put Cardiff ahead of his time, since I was reminded partly of the gruesome finish of Daughters of Darkness and partly of the comedy accident scene in Jacques Tati's Trafic -- both films from a few years later. The really funny part is imagining that Cardiff thought this numb spectacle was akin to Moira Shearer's death scene in Red Shoes. But maybe there's a moral, too? Has transgression been punished? Or, more objectively, has liberation been proved transient at best? Or should Rebecca have been wearing her helmet, no matter how white and ugly it was?


Some people may give Cardiff a pass on style-over-substance grounds, but the film's tackiness makes that difficult. Sure, many shots are as brilliant as you'd demand from Cardiff, but some show horrendous bad taste. One scene I've snipped, with Delon's privates obscured by a flower vase, looks like something Benny Hill would have come up with. For every truly gorgeous moment there's a ghastly one, at least. And throughout, we have Marianne Faithful and the unresolved question of whether Rebecca is insane or simply an idiot. Faithful will leave you guessing, if not wondering about her real self.  As for Delon, his quest for English-language stardom had taken him to strange places already (Texas Across the River, anyone?), and at least he seems to enjoy himself here. That's more than I can say for the audience.

Cardiff wouldn't work in movies again for another five years, and would direct only two more films before reverting to full-time cinematography. To this day cinematographers crash and burn when they turn into directors; Wally Pfister is the most recent victim. It's a shame that they don't get enough recognition -- or compensation? -- for their true talents. Fortunately, the very best like Cardiff are remembered for their real triumphs, while failures like Girl on a Motorcycle fade in time.

Friday, June 20, 2014

Real Pulp Fiction: ARGOSY, JUNE 17, 1939

This week's cover story is Arthur Leo Zagat's sequel to "Tomorrow," from the May 27 issue. The cover even uses the previous cover as a background image, which tells me that "Tomorrow" must have gone over big. That fact isn't flattering to Argosy readers, since you'll recall that "Tomorrow" is a fantasy about a race war waged against a presumptively white United States by a vague yellow/black coalition. It becomes more clear in "Children of Tomorrow" that the Asians run things, while the blacks -- it's unclear whether they're Africans or African-Americans -- are the foot soldiers of the occupying power. You can almost excuse a "yellow peril" fantasy in 1939 given the rising power of Japan, but Zagat's fantasy is doubly offensive because he so plainly imagines it as a race war pitting the whites against everyone else. It's pretty clear that there were no black children in the little group that found a haven in the mountains to become "the Bunch" led by our hero Dikar. In the previous story he made his first foray down from the mountain to find Americans enslaved in concentration camps by the non-white oppressors. In "Children" Dikar is back in charge of the Bunch, but his old rival Tomball -- for some reason the kids, grown up without adult supervision, call themselves by their old full names -- is behaving suspiciously, apparently trying to signal the airplanes that sometimes fly over the mountain. It develops that Tomball also knows of the occupiers below, and in his jealousy of Dikar is willing to betray the Bunch to the enemy. Dikar and his friends have to stop him from contacting the occupiers. Zagat adds an unexpected complication, allowing us to suspect that Marilee, Dikar's mate, has betrayed him in favor of Tomball, driving our hero to contemplate killing them both. That would probably have been slightly too hard-boiled or noirish for Argosy, so Marilee turns out to have been Tomball's hostage, not his accomplice. In any event, Dikar goes back down the mountain, stops Tomball, encounters a vicious black soldier, and discovers the existence of an underground resistance organization operating near the concentration camp. Dikar and his new friends must outwit the wily commander Li Logo -- almost deliberately, this sounds like no actual Asian name -- before he can begin to transform the Bunch into a ragtag resistance army. At least they start out with the rags already. The Bunch will take most of the summer off to train before returning to Argosy in September; by then there'll be a real war on.

If the "Tomorrow" stories express a sort of patriotism, Robert Cochran's "Americans are Different" expresses a different kind. Cochran has a good idea that depends on a punchline for the payoff. A disgruntled D.C. bureaucrat finds himself kidnapped by spies for an unnamed European power who are willing to pay him to acquire confidential documents, but are also willing to torture him if he won't cooperate. He won't cooperate, and ultimately the foreigners go soft on him. They can't comprehend why he's willing to endure torture and unwilling to take money to betray the government he appears to hate. The moral is that his country is one thing, his job another. After his bizarre adventure, he returns to work the next day and promptly resumes his griping. American patriotism, then, is a matter neither of unconditional love nor unconditional obedience -- but it means unconditional loyalty just the same. That's an interesting point to make at a time when Americans were struggling to differentiate themselves from totalitarians and violent nationalists around the world. Readers today would get this, I suspect.

Pulp writers aspired to write for the slicks -- the larger-format magazines on better-quality paper like Collier's and the Saturday Evening Post. Sometimes when pulp writers reached the next level they quit the pulps. In some cases, Frederick "Max Brand" Faust being a notable case, writers who cracked the slicks preferred the pulps because of looser editorial policies. Jacland Marmur, a sea-story specialist, moved freely between the two levels. His "Salt Water Hick" in this issue falls between stories published the month before and two months later in Collier's. It's reasonable to guess that "Hick" had been rejected by the self-styled National Weekly, but Marmur may have tailored the story to the market. Usually the difference between a "slick" and a "pulp" story is more romantic interest in the former to please the slicks' larger percentage of female readers. There's no romance angle in "Hick." Instead, as the title suggests, we have a fish-out-of-water situation and a neat gimmick in the hero's ingenious use of a cargo of wheat to save his ship from sinking. I like Marmur's more exotic sea stories but this was entertaining enough. The other stand-alone story this week is C. F. Kearns's "Gold at Black-Knife," featuring Two-Horse Swen, a supporting character in Kearns's more popular Handsled Burke series. It's notable for the extent to which Kearns resists the temptation to go overboard with Swen's accent. It's there, but this isn't a dialect story, and the difference matters. Kearns is less interested in writing a character who talks funny than in telling a story, which is more than I can say for some pulp writers.

On the serial front, John Stromberg's "Wild River" closes with anticlimactic notes as the hero's Red pal settles down to be a schoolteacher on the hero's grandfather's ranch, while the hero himself, predictably enough, gets the girl he'd been pining for all along. Stromberg has been critical but not condemnatory of leftism throughout; his remedy for radicalism, it seems, is that people need personally fulfilling work, though he leaves no assurance that everyone can find it. While Stromberg has made sure to season his story with action scenes, the so-called "Great American Novel of 1939" never really felt like a pulp serial. It really did seem more ambitious than that, though its appearance in Argosy, and apparently noplace else, indicates that Stromberg's ambition exceeded his talent. Meanwhile, Howard Rigsby's "Voyage to Leandro" evolves into a battle of wits and a tale of temptation as its young hero seems to befriend the mutineer he had idolized from afar while worrying over the fate of his sick companion. We learn more about the island's mystery hermit and his still more mysterious daughter, the elusive "Nautilus." This week gets us past the halfway point and the story's still developing nicely. Walter Ripperger's "The Man From Madrid" goes into whodunit mode, introducing one of those folksy policemen types that people always underestimate to solve the mystery of last chapter's killing. Our hero fears a frame-up, since he had, after all, threatened to kill the dead man, and he can't tell the truth about himself without making himself the most obvious suspect. The eccentric if not sinister Mr. Nibbs, the mission minister from last week, takes an interest in our hero and hires one of the city's top defense attorneys to keep him out of jail. Most likely he smells money, whether or not he realizes the size of the treasure our hero's trying to recover. Already we're pretty much past the Spanish Civil War political context of the opening chapters, and it looks like the story will evolve in more conventionally strange directions. We'll find out next week, when Argosy seems to raise a warning flag by giving its cover to a reprinted story. Is the mighty weekly cheaping out of us, or is it simply responding to popular demand?


Tuesday, June 17, 2014

DVR Diary: WOMAN ON PIER 13 (I Married a Communist, 1949)

It's hard to imagine many Hollywood movies more reflexively reviled than this Howard Hughes agit-noir from his recently-acquired RKO studio. According to legend, Hughes tried to make participation in the project a test of loyalty for studio talent -- loyalty to himself, I suppose, as much as to the American Way of Life. In general, overtly anti-communist movies get a tougher rap from critics than the overtly anti-Nazi films of a few years earlier. This is because the anti-commie movies are perceived to target not a fighting wartime aggressor but an underdog dissident faction. Regardless of recent histories demonstrating the complicity of American communists in espionage and crimes against international communists, most people's image of an American communist, if they have one at all, is not of a terrorist gangster actively pursuing the violent overthrow of the U.S. government. Posterity has deemed the anti-red rhetoric of the scare years disproportionate to the actual threat. As a result, films like I Married a Communist are dismissed as absurdities if not offenses against truth. The fact that the film's title was changed quite quickly to the almost-pointless Woman on Pier 13 suggests that movie audiences during the actual Red Scare may have felt the same way. But rather than debate whether the film was fair to the actual Reds I want to pay attention to what the screenplay (credited to Robert Hardy Andrews and Charles Grayson) actually says and how it may belie our expectations.

I Married a Communist is a bit of a cheat title. It should have been I Married an Ex-Communist, because the object of the title, Brad Collins (Robert Ryan), quit the party in disgust more than a decade before the story starts. Since his street-fighting days as a labor agitator, Brad has risen, with the help of a name change, from stevedore to shipping executive. He's successful and just married to Nan (Laraine Day), the I of the title, when the trouble starts. Just when he thought he was out, the Reds pull him back in. Christine Norman, an ex-flame (Janis Carter) has the dirt on his Commie past, and so does the Party boss Vanning (Thomas Gomez). Since the revelations will ruin his career, and his role in a strike killing may condemn him to the electric chair, Brad must submit to blackmail. The simple part is the 40% of his salary he has to kick back to the Party. But then it gets interesting.

Brad's company is negotiating a new contract with the union. This being a Hollywood picture, the union honcho Jim Travers (Richard Rober) is a former flame of Nan's. But he's a good guy -- the most positive male character in the entire picture. He's not going to start a strike on his own; he believes in negotiation and compromise. But the Party wants Brad to precipitate the strike -- it presumably serves some international strategic purpose, since it will tie up the San Francisco docks -- by taking an intransigent stand against the union, against compromise. Here are two things worth noting. First, the right-wing propaganda of 65 years ago is different from the right-wing propaganda of today in some significant ways. Most notably, and maybe most surprisingly given Hughes's agendas, his anti-communist movie is not hostile to organized labor. In fact, as I suggested, Jim the union leader is the nearest thing to a hero after Nan herself. Meanwhile, the script seems to be telling us that employers who refuse compromise with unions are doing the Commies' work for them. Robert Stevenson directed this film at the cusp of the "Treaty of Detroit" era when management and labor agreed to share the wealth to an unprecedented extent in return for peace on the shop floor and the elimination of communist influence. 1949 was not a period of economic decline for which unions could serve as a scapegoat as they do now. Some observers might expect anti-communism in the McCarthy era -- the Senator from Wisconsin made his big splash into celebrity a year later -- to be synonymous with hostility to organized labor, but on this evidence it simply wasn't so.

While Brad reluctantly carries on his insincere negotiations, Christine jealously turns her seductive attentions to Nan's younger brother Don (John Agar), whom Brad had given a job before the trouble started. She gradually transforms Brad into a radical union agitator who shouts Jim down when the moderate leader pleads for moderation. This process apparently took longer in an earlier cut of the film, since Brad's radicalization and its role in provoking the strike is shown as part of a lengthy montage of snippets of scenes that clearly had important dialogue in them, while ominous music plays. Left intact is Brad's first introduction to communism at one of Christine's parties. This scene is as ideological as the movie gets. It tells us what the writers (if not Hughes) thought communism stood for. What it stands for, apparently, is "the scientific management of society," as one well-fed intellectual asserts. Nothing here about the proletariat or property or capitalism. An initially skeptical Brad senses that this is a form of elitism and tells his interlocutor that "I prefer democracy." So another thing missing that we in 2014 might expect in an overtly anti-communist propaganda movie is a defense of capitalism. Nothing here about "free enterprise," nor even about "freedom." The opposite of communism is "democracy." Communism, then, appears to be a political system above all, characterized by the rule of an elite justified by an appeal to science. This is actually a fair hit against Bolshevism or Leninism and the concept of necessary, incontestable leadership by a vanguard party who would do the dictating during Marx's "dictatorship of the proletariat." Sixty-five years later you may be more likely to hear someone say that democracy and capitalism contradict each other, with capitalism getting the better of the argument. 1949 was a different world.

Where the 1949 film gets most outrageous is in its portrayal of blatant gangster tactics by American communists. Some were certainly involved in the sort of labor-dispute street fighting Brad took part in as a young man, but I Married a Communist goes beyond that. Communists are shown murdering a suspected informant, in part as a way to intimidate Brad. The victim is tied up and dumped off a pier as he begs for mercy. Brad, being Robert Ryan, is unimpressed by the attempt to scare him. Later, the Communists begin to devour their own. When Don begins to get wise to how he's been manipulated, Vanning orders a hit on him. The local Reds farm out much of such work to a carny who runs a shooting-gallery concession on the pier. Eschewing the obvious, the hit man kills Don by running him over with a car. Later still, Christine threatens to turn on Vanning, but he dumps her out a high window. The film's conflicts are ultimately resolved by gunplay, Brad killing Vanning while suffering a mortal wound so he can give Nan back to Jim, from whom he took her. In history, you often hear of "purges" among the American communists, but these weren't the sort of purges you had in countries where communists controlled the state and enforced their own laws. American communists who got purged usually formed their own splinter parties, even more futile than the original party. Mine wasn't the most thorough Google search, but I found nothing indicating that American communists killed each other on American soil to enforce party discipline or to punish informants. Actual labor unions seem more likely to have done such things. American communists seem to have been more "community organizers" in the pejorative sense than men of action or the sort of hard cases who carried out revolutions elsewhere. In Russia, Stalin robbed banks and Lenin condoned it. The category error of American anti-communism was to assume that America's communists were the same sort of people, that to be a communist was to be a criminal at heart. That feeling still persists, and so I Married a Communist will not seem quite as alien or surprising in its overall attitude as I'm suggesting here -- and I must also admit that a non-violent finish would have made a weak film only more dull. But my main point remains: to be against communism doesn't mean automatically that you'll also be against other things, or for other things still. An anti-communist movie of 1949 isn't necessarily a right-wing movie by today's standards -- and it's not really a good movie by any standard. But it's very interesting as a historical document and a great example of what movies can tell us about the culture they were made in and how it differs from our own.

Sunday, June 15, 2014


It took a while, but I've finally seen the middle film in Pablo Larrain's trilogy of films set during the rule of General Pinochet in Chile. Post Mortem was released between Tony Manero and No, but is the first film of the trilogy chronologically, set during the coup year of 1973. It's also the most classically composed of the three films, with impressive widescreen cinematography by Sergio Armstrong. Alfredo Castro, the star of Tony Manero, again takes center stage as a somewhat more sympathetically alienated character. Mario Cornejo is a civil servant, as he always carefully identifies himself. That lends a certain dignity to his actual work as a transcriptionist of autopsies. It's hard to tell whether the morgue is the ideal setting for such a drab creature or whether the work and the proximity to death is killing something inside him. Mario is a lonely man with a crush on a dancer in a burlesque show, Nancy Puelma (Antonia Zegers) who happens to live across the street from him. He makes it his mission -- apparently he has the run of the backstage area -- to save her career when she's threatened with dismissal for getting too thin, going so far as to threaten harm to the theater if the manager doesn't keep her. His threat is pathetic; he childishly knocks over a glass display and ends up giving the manger his own car in return for Nancy keeping her job. Nancy herself is seeing other men but her own neediness responds to his.

Meanwhile, politics is building to a crisis that is at first only a nuisance to Mario and Nancy as a labor rally blocks their car one day. Politics hovers over Nancy like a cloud, however, as activists meet in her apartment, though she seems indifferent. Mario's detachment is illustrated as he takes a morning shower while explosions and other sounds of mayhem erupt across the street. Eventually he strolls over to find Nancy's home destroyed and no one but a dog in sight. Work is unusually busy today as bodies are filling the halls of the hospital, to the growing dismay of Mario and the assistant coroner Sandra (Amparo Noguera) who's attracted to him but had been rebuffed before. Later, Sandra and Mario are summoned by men in uniform to perform a very special autopsy. This scene simply can't have the same effect on non-Chileans, but anyone with a sense of history may feel the impact when the corpse Sandra dissects is identified as Salvador Allende, the freely-elected Marxist president who has been overthrown by the coup. Sandra can't bring herself to finish the work and Mario is such a bundle of nerves that he can't type properly; he uses his unfamiliarity with electric typewriters as an excuse. Later they debate whether Allende killed himself, as the new authorities claim, or was killed, as Sandra suspects.

Mario discovers that Nancy has survived by hiding in a shed. She now depends on Mario to provide her with supplies while she stays in hiding. Meanwhile the bodies continue to pile up at the hospital, and not all of them are dead. Mario discovers a victim still breathing and begging for life, and he and Sandra manage to sneak the man into one of the medical wards for treatment.  It proves a temporary reprieve. In a climactic scene Mario finds Sandra standing at the top of a stairwell littered with bodies, screaming at a soldier. Apparently the goons have gathered up suspect hospital patients and killed them, including the man Mario and Sandra had saved. As Mario watches, immobile, at the bottom of the stairs, Sandra risks her life by admitting that she had rescued the man. Luckily, the soldier only fires into the air to intimidate her. For extra measure he fires superfluous bullets into some of the corpses.

A contrast clearly forms in Mario's mind between Sandra's death-defying heroism and Nancy's hiding. The contrast grows more stark when he learns that Nancy has shared her hiding place with a lover. Mario's response is shown in a single shot that closes the picture and begs some questions. The answers depend on what you think of Nancy -- whether she deserves, for whatever reason, what she seems to get or whether Mario's act is a misdirected act of resistance to the atrocities raging around him. It could be seen as an atrocity in its own right, or as Mario's repudiation of a past no longer sustainable. Larrain sustains the ambiguity by ending the story here. If we were to see how Mario was going to behave thereafter, his attitude toward Sandra or toward the new regime, we could more certainly attach meaning to his treatment of Nancy. But Post Mortem is really about the specific moment in September 1973 and is arguably meant to raise broader questions about Chileans' behavior at the time, for which each has his or her reasons. Larrain here seemed to be working his way out of the grotesquerie that marked (or marred) Tony Manero and is absent from No, in which Alfredo Castro is not the central character. Some grotesquerie is excusable, I suppose, when portraying a grotesque moment in history, and if the ending raises more questions than it can answer, they're questions worth asking. As a whole, Larrain's trilogy is an admirable set of films that establish the Chilean as potentially a major figure, if not one already, in the wild world of cinema.

Friday, June 13, 2014

MEET HIM AND DIE (Pronto ad uccidere, 1976)

There were two men named Franco Prosperi directing movies in Italy during the 1960s and 1970s. The better known of the two is Franco E. Prosperi, the collaborator with Gualtiero Jacopetti on the Mondo Cane movies, Goodbye Uncle Tom, etc. The other Franco Prosperi was not distinguished with a middle initial, and since the Mondo co-director often isn't in references, he's sometimes credited, or blamed, for the other guy's work. The other guy directed and co-wrote Pronto ad uccidere (literally, "Ready to Kill") a somewhat old fashioned movie in Italy's polizziotteschi genre. The same story might have been filmed in the U.S. twenty or forty years earlier. In short, it's about a cop (Ray Lovelock) who pretends to be a criminal to the point of getting caught attempting a robbery and going a prison, the better to infiltrate a drug gang led by Giulanelli (Martin Balsam). For our hero, the mission is also an opportunity for revenge; members of this gang shot and paralyzed his mother during an earlier robbery. As usual in such stories, our undercover man must earn the boss's trust without blowing his cover. Along the way he falls for a moll (Elke Sommer) who has an agenda of her own. This recent Raro DVD release is noteworthy only for its action scenes. The highlight is an extended sequence in which Lovelock, driving truck full of drugs hidden inside eggs, is hijacked after stopping for what looks like an injured female motorcyclist. Against four-to-one odds, Lovelock, after taking a beating, first commandeers the fully functioning motocycle, then chases down the truck, and then chases it down again after the hijackers drive him off the road. There's terrific stuntwork here highlighted by Lovelock's double doing a Yakima Canutt style trick, anticipating Indiana Jones by doing it with a truck rather than a stagecoach. There's also a nice ending that isn't really an ending as the story stops at a moment of truth for our hero, his vengeance denied and another enemy revealed. It's more of a Seventies moment than the rest of the picture as some of his assumptions are knocked out from under him, but otherwise it has less of the crusading zeitgiest of other Italian police pictures. There's little personality either in front of or behind the camera, though Balsam is always fun to watch and Sommer's still easy on the eye at this point. None of this is necessarily enough to recommend Meet Him and Die to posterity, but this film isn't really the bottom of the poliziotteschi barrel, either. Not a keeper, but maybe worth a look.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Real Pulp Fiction: ARGOSY, JUNE 10, 1939

Challenged by at least one reader to publish more relevant fiction, Argosy answers with a new serial set against the backdrop of the Spanish Civil War. Walter F. Ripperger's "The Man From Madrid" arrives a little late, however. The Spanish conflict had ended at the end of March, with Francisco Franco's insurgency, supported by Italy and Germany, triumphant over the Loyalist forces, supported by the Soviet Union and numerous freelance foreigners, one of whom is Ripperger's protagonist.  Our hero specifically fought with the famous Abraham Lincoln Brigade, but while that group became synonymous with communism, or at least "fellow traveling," Ripperger stresses that Don Graham is apolitical, or has grown that way. For that matter, his antagonists are apolitical, though they fought for Franco in the so-called Fifth Column. "Man From Madrid" is really a slightly hard-boiled thriller set in the U.S. Graham is out to get the men who captured and tortured him and his Spanish friend Jose, who remains more of a zealot, to get the location of a Loyalist treasure. These men then conned the Franco forces, telling them they would use the treasure to buy weapons while planning to pocket most of it for themselves. The story becomes a whodunit when one of Graham's torturers ends up dead at the end of this first installment, while there's a hint of further mysterious shenanigans when Graham encounters Mr. Nibbs, who runs a mission that apparently caters to fugitives and has, as later chapters will reveal, considerable pull for a mere preacher.

Here's an example of Ripperger's ambivalence toward the conflict many saw as a rehearsal for the big war between fascism and its enemies that would break out less than three months from now:

"Something I want to know, comrade," Jose said, "Why you fight for Loyalists? The Frente Popular no interest to you. The C.N.T. -- the Syndicalists, to you they mean nothing. The U.G.T. -- the Socialists, the F.A.I. -- thees Anarchists, all is nothing to you? Why you fight for us? Why you fight so brave, like a man crazy?"
Graham rolled a cigarette. He didn't quite know how to answer that.
"I don't know what's right or wrong over there, Jose," he said, "It just sort of happened. I was up there in Madrid when the war started. I joined up because things were so bad in Madrid, so much confusion, so much muddling, so many lives lost that shouldn't have been lost and before I knew it, the thing that I was fighting for suddenly seemed bigger than I was. I didn't stop to think."
The fanatic light in Jose's eyes changed. "You don't believe in thees thing, comrade?" he said sadly.
"I don't know, Jose. Sometimes I think that everything you believe is right and sometimes I don't. I've seen things done....Well, I don't know."
"In war -- in war, sometimes you have to do things not so nice."

This ambivalence should prove a redeeming quality should the plot develop in conventional ways. One wonders how well informed Ripperger was about the war. The Fiction Mags index has no biographical information about him, so I did a quick investigation of my own. Ripperger (1889-1944) was a businessman, mainly as a treasurer and director of the Tech-Art Plastics Company. Writing was a family hobby; Ripperger's wife published in women's magazines while two daughters collaborated on fiction under a single pseudonym. During World War II, before his death, Ripperger chaired the Brooklyn Red Cross's blood donor service. In the writing business, he may be most noteworthy for publishing a two-part adaptation of King Kong in Mystery Magazine during the film's initial release. His 1941 novella "I'll Buy Your Life" was turned into a Poverty Row movie called I'll Sell Your Life that same year. Not bad for a dilletante, I suppose.

This week's cover feature is the latest story in Philip Ketchum's chronicle of Bretwalda, the charmed battle-axe tied to the destiny of Britain. "Delay at Antioch" takes us far from Bretwalda's usual sphere of influence, following its latest wielder on the First Crusade to the besieged title city. The axe doesn't really have or confer super powers on its wielders. The fated family members can wield it with ease while few others can, but that's about it apart from the doom that brings both victory and defeat, great joy and great sorrow, to each generation. For the latest generation, that means a star-crossed love with a Muslim princess whose inevitable death --even though she's half-Armenian, their mating might have smacked too much of race-mixing for some readers -- tempers our hero's enthusiasm over the eventual fall of the great city. Ketchum writes heroic action reasonably well but is less gung ho about the Crusade idea than Robert Carse was in retrospect a few weeks ago, For Carse the Crusades were a metaphor for a war to come, while Ketchum, working on a tragic theme, can't work up as much idealism about the conquest of the Holy Land. His Muslims are adversaries rather than villains, the real bad guy being a rival Crusader who tries to kill our hero but ends up eliminating the princess instead. Ketchum wrote at a time when many, in the west at least, saw the Crusades as a kind of chivalrous war with heroes on both sides, Saladin being the exemplary antihero of that myth. Cecil B. DeMille made a Crusades movie a few years earlier (co-written by pulp superstar Harold Lamb) and an Egyptian government remembered it so well and favorably twenty years later that they welcomed him to film The Ten Commandments on location. Ketchum's Crusade story catches some of that same attitude.

The other major stand-alone story this week is Paul Ernst's "The Great Green Serpent," which reads as if it had been rejected by Weird Tales. It even has the sort of in-joke references to other authors I associate with the Lovecraft circle (not knowing if Ernst really was one of them) -- the protagonist visits a Dr. Belknap of Longview Hospital, who has got to be a nod to or dig at Frank Belknap Long for some reason or other. It's the story of a Jamaican voodoo curse and how it destroys an American plantation boss who kills a witch-doctor, and apparently will destroy the narrator investigating the original victim's fate. The extra gimmick is that the victim's picture can't be taken, while his touch causes matches to ignite. One thing I'll say for Ernst: this story does have a great final sentence, giving us the twist in the tale we may have expected all along at the last possible moment. The other stand-alones are W. Donaldson Smith's "Home Are the Horses," about a self-destructive jockey, and Luke Short's "Some Dogs Steal," a comical tall tale about the havoc wrought on trappers by one such incorrigible cur. Hugh B. Cave's "Boomerang" counts as an "Argosy Oddity," which isn't very flattering on the editor's part; this three-pager deals with poison and revenge in a familiar manner.

On the serial front, John Stromberg's "Wild River" builds up to next week's conclusion in strange fashion as our hero takes his communist pal on a vacation to visit his crusty old rancher grandfather. How this confrontation of ruggedest individualism and aggrieved collectivism will turn out seems to matter more than whether our hero will ever get a decent job on the Boulder Dam project, but this has been an unorthodox serial all along, and not really in a bad way. Howard Rigsby's "Voyage to Leandro" goes into survival mode in its second installment as our two teenage seaborne runaways realize that they might be short on supplies for their trek to the South Sea Islands, then shipwreck on a desert isle that proves not entirely deserted. In fact, the notorious mutineer who had been their idol is holed up there as well, but now he seems more like a threat, which is a nice way to keep the story interesting. They and the Man From Madrid will be back next week, while the main attraction then will be the return of Tomorrow, i.e. Arthur Leo Zagat's bunch of postapocalyptic cave-kids embarking on a quixotic quest to liberate the U.S. from the Non-White Peril. War is coming in 1939, and it'll be in Argosy first!


Monday, June 9, 2014

DVR Diary: THE WIZARD OF OZ (1925)

Try to keep the title in mind as I describe Larry Semon's film to you. An elderly toymaker in an Expressionist toyshop reads to a little girl from L. Frank Baum's famous novel. He relates how the land of Oz is ruled by Prime Minister Kruel following the disappearance years earlier of the baby princess who was to become queen at age eighteen. The rabble are restless so Kruel turns to his minion, the Wizard, to keep them terrified by summoning the Phantom of the Basket. At this point the little girl interrupts the narrative to say, in effect, what the hell? She wants to hear about Dorothy and her friends. Fortunately, the toymaker is nothing if not obliging.

Dorothy (Dorothy Dwan) is a teenager, though her mental age seems somewhat younger, frolicking on her Aunt Em's farm. Uncle Henry (Frank Alexander) is a distant, obese figure, less lovable than Em, but to be fair, Auntie doesn't have to deal with the farmhands. Two of them, played by the auteur and his frequent stooge Oliver N. Hardy, are rivals for Dorothy's affections. Another, called Snowball, is played by an actor billed as G. Howe Black. There's a lot of slapstick action here that aspires to comedy. But you lose much the point of Oliver Hardy if you have an actor playing Uncle Henry who is far fatter than Ollie. And there seems to be no point to G. Howe Black (whose real name was Spencer Bell) except that, well, black folks are funny. For instance, Snowball is described in a title card as a "meloncholic." Because black folks do like to eat that watermelon. Isn't that funny?

All this bores the toymaker as much as the palace intrigue bored the little girl, so we return to the palace. The rabble remains restless, impatient for the rightful queen to claim the throne. To prevent this, Kruell dispatches his faithful lackey, Wikked, by biplane to the land of Kansas, where he must take possession of certain papers that might otherwise bring down the government. At this point the little girl interrupts once more to say, really -- honestly -- what the hell? It was clever of Larry Semon to embed the obvious criticisms of his project in the film itself -- not that it helps reconcile anyone to its free-to-the-point of anarchic adaptation of the Baum book, for which one L. Frank Baum jr. must share the blame.

Wikked and his helpers touch down on the vast Gale farm and seek to take possession of the damning documents. Ollie turns traitor when Wikked tells him that the papers would prevent him from marrying Dorothy, but Larry manages to steal them at the last moment, before a great storm strikes. Semon is star, director and co-writer of The Wizard of Oz, so there's no way Larry is staying behind when the big wind picks up the barn. In fact, Ollie, Uncle Henry and Snowball all accompany Larry and Dorothy on their tempestuous journey. Snowball had actually been hiding in a rain barrel and missed the takeoff, but a persistent bolt of lightning propels him all the way to the roof and through the chimney. Because if black people are funny, black people getting hit in the ass with cartoon lightning bolts is hilarious.

So our farmers land in the land of Oz and face an armed guard at the gates of the capital. Kruell impatiently implores the Wizard to transform the farmhands into monkeys or other harmless things, but the Wizard's powerlessness leaves Larry and Ollie, now back on Dorothy's side, to their own devices. Larry has it easy; he simply steals a scarecrow's clothes and assumes the role, thought I can't say where he got the makeup for his face. Ollie reveals hidden talents; diving into a scrap heap, he emerges as a tin woodsman, complete with axe and hat. Snowball does not transform. That's because a black man already looks funny.

Our heroes somehow get Dorothy into the palace and have her proclaimed queen, though Kruell insists that he retains certain prerogatives as Dictator of Oz. The farmhands must be put into temporary custody in a dungeon, but Ollie avoids this fate by turning on Larry again, while Uncle Henry is made Prince of Whales. Because fat people are funny, and since Uncle Henry is much fatter than Ollie he gets a funny name as well. Larry and Snowball are sent below, doomed to torture in molten mud until the Wizard reappears to give Snowball a lion suit. This suffices to frighten away the dungeon guards but creates confusion when Snowball and Larry find themselves trapped in a cage with real lions. Snowball dives through a window and G. Howe Black's stuntman takes an epic tumble down a hillside while Larry escapes to assist in the belated overthrow of Kruell by the good Prince Kynd. Yes, all the names in Oz are like that. There's a vamp character named Vishus in Kruell's entourage, but most of her role seems to have ended up on the cutting room floor.

There's a pretense of pathos when Dorothy ends up favoring Kynd over Larry, but Ollie is still on the loose and gives chase to our hero. Larry climbs a high tower -- some of this film's sets look terribly cheap but some of the props are huge -- just as Snowball, whom we've all underestimated drastically, has hired a plane for the trip back to Kansas. Larry leaps for the rope ladder dangling from Snowball's plane, catches it -- but the ladder breaks! And down he goes! But by this point the little girl in the toyshop has fallen asleep and the toymaker simply gives up. Since he is also Larry Semon, I expected a payoff revealing that he had once been Larry the farmhand, but that would have made sense in a way Semon's Wizard never does. So a title card tells us that The Wizard of Oz ends with Dorothy marrying her prince and ruling happily ever after.

Semon had just about broken into the top tier of silent comics with a series of expensive shorts dominated by stunts and special effects when he jumped the shark -- had he heard the term he would probably have tried to do it literally -- with his Wizard, a project that reportedly bankrupted the independent studio that released it, though it was still turning up in theaters through the end of the silent era, after Semon himself was dead. The film lives down to its dire reputation as grimly described in Walter Kerr's The Silent Clowns. I don't know how Semon thought he could get away with his loose-to-the-point-of-liquid adaptation of Baum, since the Oz mythos was already quite well known thanks to stage versions and a film series produced by Baum himself a decade before Semon. I suppose he assumed that talent would justify the liberties he took, as it justified the liberties taken by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer a generation later. Then, talent prevailed to the point that the 1939 musical is the definitive version of the Dorothy story for subsequent generations. And that leaves Semon no excuses. If his Wizard failed, it was because he failed. Out of his usual comedy costume, Semon looks nondescript, and he doesn't do much with the scarecrow gimmick. He wastes time with self-indulgent effects-driven gags that stop the story dead. In the worst case, when the storm hits Kansas, Larry stalls, taking a step or two, getting hit by cartoon lightning, waiting, and tentatively taking a few more steps before lightning hits him again. Later, pursued by Hardy in the dungeon, Larry takes on a Bugs Bunny aspect, hiding under one wooden box only to appear miraculously under another, and at one point seeming to split in two and run in opposite directions. It's one thing for an actual cartoon character to do this sort of magic, but in live action it looks like cheating.  In the end Semon only cheated himself by revealing his own limitations as a clown and a director. A feature as bad as this one reminds us of how far ahead of the pack the top three or four comics were. It's a shame that Semon had to destroy his career to prove this point, but the gesture seems typical of the man's work.

Sunday, June 8, 2014

On the Big Screen: THE IMMIGRANT (2013-14)

It might be worth noting that the original Immigrant, or the film I think of when I hear that title, is one of the exceptional Charlie Chaplin shorts in which his tramp character doesn't end up on the road alone. Envisioning himself as an immigrant -- he wasn't quite one in real life -- rather than a tramp, Chaplin seemed to recognize that these newcomers needed each other, that rugged or romantic individualism wasn't an option for most of them. That insight informs James Gray's film, though this new variation on the theme, while set in Chaplin's time, is less Chaplinesque than Dreiserian, bordering on Dostoevskian. It's as much an homage to the silent era as the neo-silents we've seen lately, but the main idea here is to return to the themes and archetypes of that time with the frankness of modern cinema. In other words, we see tits and characters say "fuck," but in some ways it's a very old-fashioned melodrama, down to a certain pathos of renunciation at the end. At the same time, Gray and co-writer Nick Menello have subtler points to make, though not all of them are very subtly made.

It's not dramatic enough for a Frenchwoman to come to America in 1921 so Marion Cotillard plays a Polish woman. Ewa and her sister Magda are refugees from their country's war with the young Soviet Union who have made their way to Ellis Island with little means of support. The sisters are separated when Magda shows signs of tuberculosis, while Ewa seems stranded when her aunt and uncle fail to show up to collect her as promised. Things seem hopeless until her relative fluency in English -- she had been a nurse for an English diplomat at home -- catches the attention of Bruno Weiss (Joaquin Phoenix), who appears to be some sort of fixer. He arranges to get Ewa off the island and settled in an already-occupied apartment. Shortly afterward, he finds her work. Bruno is a sort of pimpresario; he acts as MC in a small-time theater, introducing a parade of beauties who are, in fact, his whores. He's slow to integrate Ewa fully into the act -- as Miss Liberty she doesn't have to go topless like the other girls -- but there's no other way for her to raise the money to get Magda off Ellis. In a painfully awkward scene filmed with an old-fashioned reticence, our absinthe-addled heroine must deflower a reluctant young man who father drags him to the theater to prove his manhood. She's decided she must do whatever's necessary to get money, but at the same time she learns gradually how she was set up for her new role, how Bruno has connived from the beginning to make her his whore, if not more than that.

Enter Bruno's brother Emil (Jeremy Renner), aka Orlando the Magician. First introduced dazzling an Ellis Island audience with a levitation trick, Emil seems most talented at provoking Bruno's jealousy. Bringing his act to Bruno's theater, he recruits Ewa to take part in a disastrous mind-reading act, the heckling of which by an audience contemptuous toward Miss Liberty only compounds Bruno's rage. Sibling rivalry inspires Emil to talk of taking Ewa away to California with him, while Bruno warns that Emil never follows through on his big plans. It all ends badly when Bruno, fearing that Emil intends to kill him with his own gun, but not knowing that Emil had emptied it of bullets, stabs his brother to death. Instead of Bruno, Ewa becomes the target of a police manhunt when another member of Bruno's troupe, fearful for her own future in his absence, denounces Ewa as Emil's killer. Now it's up to Bruno to do the right thing to really rescue Ewa (and Magda) this time, and for both Bruno and Ewa to come to terms with their complicated relationship.

You could very well see such a story on the Pre-Code Parade, or told without sound, and Gray, cinematographer Darius Khondji and composer Chris Spelman invest the picture with an appropriate romantic lushness regardless of their tawdry material. Gray has an interesting point to make about the interrelation of opportunity and exploitation in the immigrant experience. Many were taken advantage of, but might never have had a chance otherwise. Ewa's is an extreme case that nevertheless rings true. It gets trickier when the filmmakers try to dramatize the intimate ambivalence of exploitation through Bruno's story. He veers from self-delusion, to the extent that he sees himself as a genuine entertainer, and self-loathing over what he does to Ewa, if not to all the women before her. If Ewa is the Dreiserian figure, Bruno is the one out of Dostoevsky, and that would seem to make Joaquin Phoenix ideal for the part. Something isn't quite right, however, and there's something less right about Jeremy Renner as Emil. It isn't that they don't sound convincing as 1920s entertainers, since both characters are (despite Emil's first impression) bad entertainers. Neither actor never quite becomes of the characters' time -- perhaps their neuroses are too blatant on the surface where actors of the actual time would never show them -- while Cotillard, distanced by her foreignness in the first place, is effortlessly convincing. Even in her case, however, some moments don't ring true. It's hard to believe that the father and son would pick the obviously strung-out Ewa as the one to initiate the son sexually. It's just as odd to hear Renner described as "the pretty boy" relative to Phoenix, who despite his scar has it all over Renner in terms of charisma. Renner comes off least well -- don't hold your breath waiting for a Hawkeye movie from this born character actor -- not least because he's saddled with blatantly thematic dialogue about opportunity and the American dream; the fact that it's supposed to ring hollow doesn't help the actor much. Gray's on safer ground when he makes his story less About America -- not even Cotillard's Miss Liberty costume is as heavyhanded as Renner's dialogue -- than about the complications of exploitation and opportunity and the convergence of guilt, hate and love that transcend the American experience.

Once Renner is offscreen the film recovers rapidly, its real focus having always been on the Cotillard-Phoenix relationship. The two stars really elevate their game in the last half-hour, especially in the pivotal moment when, without words, Phoenix must sell how moved he is while eavesdropping on Cotillard's confession in a cathedral, when he learns how guilty she feels, despite all he's done to her, for causing him suffering. His ultimate confession to her of how completely he had deceived and exploited her is yet another powerhouse moment from the hottest actor in America right now, and playing off him Cotillard, in my view, finally lives up in an American film to the expectations her early Oscar created. Despite my criticisms, I think Gray and Menello deserve a ton of credit for their ambition, while Khonji and Spelman should share credit for making The Immigrant a rich viewing experience. If their story doesn't succeed fully on the level of their aspirations, they still do justice to the era and the cinematic tradition they strove to evoke.

Friday, June 6, 2014

DARNA! THE RETURN (...ang pagbabalik, 1994)

This is what some people probably think superhero movies should still look like. It certainly looked primitive compared to the most contemporary American attempt at the genre, Joel Schumacher's Batman Forever, but given how the genre has evolved under the influence of Bryan Singer, Christopher Nolan, and the corporate mind of Marvel Studios, the similarities of the superhero films of 1994 look more significant than the differences -- and that's not a rip on Joel Schumacher, no matter how deserving of one he is. His Batman films, however overblown in scale, were retreats from the darker "operatic" vision of Tim Burton, reflecting Schumacher's own more colorful and positive experience of comics. Despite all the choking or chortling over the nipples on men's costumes, they were more innocent films, more in keeping with a default archetype of superhero movies. Darna ang pagbabalik is that archetype in simpler and perhaps purer form.

Co-directed by Peque Gallaga and Lore Reyes, it's the most recent feature film about the Philippines' most popular superheroine, though there have been two TV series about the character since then, most recently in 2009. Created in 1950 by writer Mars Ravelo, who always gets a proprietary credit, and artist Nestor Redondo, Darna is a cross between Wonder Woman and the original Captain Marvel -- let's split the difference and say she's the Philippines' Mary Marvel. Rather than go into recently digested detail from the internet, I'll stick to what our movie tells us about Darna. She has a Shazam-type relationship with a young woman named Narda who becomes Darna when she pops a magic stone in her mouth and yells Darna's name. Darna has superhuman strength and the power of flight. How powerful she is exactly is hard to say, though at the climax of this film she pulls off a super-feat worthy of Superman or once-and-future TV star The Flash. She can change back to Narda by shouting that name, at which point Narda coughs up the magic stone. One suspects that many Darna stories involve Narda losing the stone somehow -- she loses it twice in this picture -- much as Billy and Mary Batson tended to get their mouths gagged so they couldn't say "Shazam." That may be the only way to give the villains a fighting chance.

The follow-up to a 1991 film, "The Return" opens with a flood forcing the people of Narda's village to flee to Manila while Darna (the heroically endowed Anjanette Abayari) beats up some mercenary-looking guys for the government. After the fight and the transformation, Narda is mesmerized by a snake and clobbered by a woman in a turban who steals the magic stone. The trauma reduces Narda to a childlike state, forcing her younger brother Ding to look after her in the big city.

The turbaned woman has set up shop there as well. She is Dr. Adan (Cherie Gil), a kind of televangelist prophesying the destruction of Manila by a terrible flood from which the faithful will be saved in a kind of rapture. She has a corps of backup dancers (but no dance music) and a turban that sometimes seems to have a life of its own. She is also, if I understood correctly, the daughter of Darna's arch-enemy Valentina, a gorgon-haired snake woman currently in a withered state. She needs the energy from the magic stone to keep from deteriorating further, and when Ding steals it after crashing one of Adan's live sermons, Valentina withers further, with the aid of early CGI, into little more than a pink wrinkled worm. It looks ludicrous yet there's some genuine naive pathos in Adan's wailing grief over her mom's pitiful state.

The re-powered Darna takes on a criminal gang in league with Adan's cult, but Narda eventually loses the stone again so Valentina can be re-energized. This sets up the big showdown as Darna goes hand to hand with her old foe before saving Manila from a tidal wave. As I said, "The Return" is an old-school superhero movie, so the tidal wave does not hit. The filmmakers lacked the budget to stage such a disaster, and the thought of letting it happen probably never occurred to them. No "destruction porn" here. The nearest thing to porn of any kind is the close attention often paid to Darna's cleavage.

The effects are a mixed bag, reflecting the filmmakers' willingness to try for authentic comic-book action. Darna flies via process shots, occasional crane work and crude traveling mattes, though the directors do one clever thing without effects to sell her flying. They stage several scenes on top of buildings, from Darna landing after a joyride with Ding to her fights with the gangsters and Valentina. Doing this gets Darna high up where she belongs, and that's somewhat of a reasonable substitute for more convincing flight scenes. Abayari definitely looks good in a Darna costume, though her action-hero skills are nothing special by modern standards. I doubt she learned any martial arts for this role. It was more important to strike the right superhero poses, particularly for the flying scenes. The music is generic superhero stuff of the period, or just before, with a main theme influenced more by John Williams's Superman march than by Danny Elfman's Batman or Darkman music. By 21st century standards it looks and sounds like kiddie fare, but probably no one ever thought of it being anything else. Its redeeming quality is its enthusiasm; that willingness to try, even with inadequate means, rather than not make an all-out superhero movie, is key. It helps this kind of movie to have an over-the-top villain, and Cherie Gil saves the day in this respect in a role that seems intended partly as a send-up of real-life counterparts of Dr. Adan and the people who believe in them. In other words, there was probably something for all ages to enjoy. Depending on how weary you've grown of the scale and sophistication of American superhero movies, you may be won over by Darna's primitive charm. On the other hand, the Mars Ravelo estate could be sitting on a gold mine if they can think of a way to go global with Darna, while Warner Bros. struggles to finally put Wonder Woman on the big screen for the first time. But if going global with Darna means "Nolanizing" her in some way, it might be better to leave well enough alone.

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Real Pulp Fiction: ARGOSY, JUNE 3, 1939

Writing to "Argonotes," Don Wilkins of Chicago notes that in a recent issue the editor had wondered in print "why Phillips isn't more generally praised." Wilkins has his own idea: "I believe this is because his yarns while fairly interesting are juvenile college-sports stuff." The subject is Judson P. Phillips, and Wilkins, presumably, doesn't know that Phillips has adopted, perhaps for exactly the reason Wilkins proposes, the secret identity of Hugh Pentecost for the serial "Cancelled in Red," which concludes this week. It entertainingly solves several mysteries at once as characters are exposed as heels without being the actual murderer of the story. No juvenile stuff by 1939 standards, but there had to be a market for Phillips's normal output, since he gets this week's cover for his baseball story, "The Wingless Wonder." Phillips changed with the seasons, tackling football in fall and hockey in winter. He was one of the top writers in the sports genre, perhaps the most obsolete of pulp genres. Sports story magazines abounded in the pulp era, along with more specific mags dedicated to baseball, football, boxing, etc. There's no market for such stuff today, except maybe in juvenile fiction, though the genre survives in cinema, mainly in the form of inspirational-coach pictures. Sports stories date back to dime novels and the archetypal adventures of Frank Merriwell. I expected sports pulp to be Horatio Alger type stuff -- character-building material in which hard work and perseverance are rewarded with victories. "Wingless Wonder" isn't quite that. The hero is a veteran pitcher whose arm is breaking down, who's been advised by his doctor not to pitch for the rest of the season. But he can't let his team down during a crucial series, despite the entreaties of his wife. He does not prevail. His arm falters early, he gets shelled by opposing batters, and he's pulled for a reliever. But! His self-sacrificing performance motivates his teammates to go on a hitting tear, win the game and turn their season around. So my suspicion that sports pulp always has to have a positive ending is confirmed, but on this evidence the genre isn't necessarily as predictable, or as boring, as I thought. It was interesting to see the influence of other media in a subplot about a novice radio announcer getting his big break during this climactic series. Phillips clearly thought that it added a note of authenticity to mimic the typical patter of an announcer, and readers may have expected it since they most often "saw" baseball through the eyes and in the words of such announcers. Sports stories may not be what we think of when we think of pulp, but we'll be seeing more in this line as we work our way through the year.

Along with the conclusion of "Cancelled in Red," John Stromberg's "Wild River" takes a bleak turn as this installment portrays the hero's hopeless attempt to reconcile with an enemy, a man he accused of theft in the opening installment and who blames our hero for the death of his wife in childbirth. Stromberg writes a convincingly awkward scene as the hero tries to make up with his antagonist over drinks. The antagonist is at first wearily resigned ("Forget it kid. I just feel mean, I reckon."), but remembering only embitters him anew ("Get out of here before I kill you.") He'd tried to kill, or at least seriously hurt our hero earlier in this installment; the cruel irony is that he dies in an accident to climax the installment despite the hero's valiant effort to save him. Like I said, bleak stuff. It's too soon for responses to start appearing in "Argonotes," but I wonder whether readers' revulsion at its bleakness explains Stromberg's very short career in the pulps. Beginning this week is Howard Rigsby's "Voyage to Leandro," about two teenaged boys lighting out for the territory, so to speak, in a boat out of San Francisco Bay in the 1880s. Inspired by the exploits of a notorious mutineer, the boys seek adventure in the South Seas, but it's unclear after the first installment what sort of adventures they'll have. Readers are expected to identify with their adolescent rebelliousness, I suppose, and that isn't really too hard to do.

The other stand-alone stories this week include Crawford Sullivan's "S. S. Sesame," about a Capra-esque crew of allegedly-lovable eccentrics aboard the title ship; Jim Kjelgaard's "'I,' Said the Sparrow," in which a hillbilly poacher takes up bow-hunting so the local revenuer won't hear him, and helps a poor couple raise money trapping beavers; and Foster-Harris's "The Whiskerious Stranger," featuring his series character Mr. Weeble, a meek-looking man with (as you may have guessed from the title) a prominent mustache who sort of goes berserk when provoked. Philip Ketchum takes a break from his chronicle of Bretwalda the mystic axe with the western mystery "West of Water," but he'll get medieval again with next week's cover story.