Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Real Pulp Fiction: ARGOSY, JULY 29, 1939

This might surprise you: three of the stories in this week's issue have to do with drugs, and two of them are set in the 19th century. You may recall that there's a dope-smuggling angle in W. C. Tuttle's Thirty Days for Henry, which wraps up this week. Tuttle's tale of the vaudevillian turned sheriff is the most nearly contemporary story of the three; Henry Harrison Conroy goes to Arizona because vaudeville is dying. It took a long time to die, admittedly, but it was happening sometime in the 20th century. Set sometime earlier -- there are no hints of the 20th century this time -- is C. K. Shaw's western novelet "The Wagon Whelp." In this one a son avenges his freighter father, who he suspects died by sabotage at a rival's hands. In turn, the rival tries to sabotage his victim's son by framing him for dope smuggling; one of his stooges has the young man haul a sack of beans into town, but has put a container of contraband inside. Everything resolves itself by the end, and not without the violence the genre demands.

Unless the editors spilled the beans in an earlier "Argonotes" page, I'd assume that few Argosy readers knew C. K. Shaw's secret. At least I presume it was a secret. That was usually the point of an author going by initials rather than a full name. There wasn't a consistent rule about this, but in this particular case C. K. stood for Chloe Kathleen Shaw. She started getting published around 1925, and her first credit in the Fiction Mags index, an issue of Action Stories, sets the tone. No Ranch Romances or Rangeland Love Stories for Shaw. She did a man's work. "Wagon Whelp" is her Argosy debut; she'd be published there eight times more before the end of 1940, but would stick to western specialty mags for the remainder of her career.

The other story with drug references is the first chapter of the new serial. Jack-of-all-genres Theodore Roscoe goes historical with Mother Damnation, an "Epic of Roaring Days on the Erie Canal." It's set about a generation earlier than Roscoe's Four Corners stories, though we're still in New York State. His subject is the feud between "Bible Bill," a pious and temperamental boatman, and the title character, a Junoesque saloon keeper who attracts crowds by diving into the canal in her red bathing suit. Bible Bill describes Mother Damnation's place as "this white-chimneyed outpost of hell." Roscoe's narrator, a young man working for Bill, explains:

That referred to the old days when certain unlawful dives along the canal used to paint their chimneys white so's the boaters would know where they could get a sniff of cocaine, maybe, or fence stolen goods.

Mother Damnation resents the insinuation. "I run a square game, here; serve drinks at  th' right price; an' I'll have you know there ain't no white chimney on top of it!" This serial is only a three-parter and I'm not exactly sure where Roscoe is going with it, but he always writes well enough to keep me interested.

The main stand-alone story is yet another entry in Philip Ketchum's saga of Bretwalda, the axe linked to the destiny of Britain. "Tribute to None" has a twist that freshens up the formula a little. The hero is a dissident in the reign of King John, but it's his father who wields Bretwalda, albeit under duress, in opposition to his own son. Eventually the lad gets his hand on the axe and uses it on one of John's more obnoxious underlings, and from there it's a hop, skip and jump to Magna Carta. "When the Dyaks Dance" is a preposterous piece of sentimental superstition from James Francis Dwyer, an old-time among pulpsters. He was 65 when this appeared and had been publishing since 1907. A lonely young white trader with a mother fixation falls ill in a Dyak village and is virtually adopted by the village's women, who not only seem to save him by performing a ritual dance but somehow summon a pretty white soulmate for him. Francis Gott gets a chance to play with a less common accent in his sailing story "The Fog's Whiskers." The central character is a rescued Newfoundland sailor who helps the true hero of the tale win a fishing competition with an ambitious rival. The main point of the story seems to be to put a Newfoundland accent in writing. It goes something like this: "Hannibal Spugs be mir name...Dey calls mir Han....Newfunlun' people be gud people!" I suspect many authors enjoyed writing such accents than readers enjoyed reading them. Finally, Robert Neal Leath contributes "Hell Child," which is no horror story unless the prospect of a spoiled child star scares you. The title moppet is the tyrant of the studio, guilt-tripping a long-suffering mother and playing dangerous practical jokes on the crew until a once-timid actor-turned-director puts his foot down out of love for the still-young, still-pretty mother. Before I go, I owe a shout-out across 75 years to George Lane of Rockford IL, who calls out Arthur Leo Zagat for the "petty racism" in his "Tomorrow" stories. "I read the Argosy for my mental 'dessert," Lane writes, "and it puts a bad taste in it to have jingo-journalism mixed with it." His comments may well provoke a controversy -- Argosy readers were an argumentative lot. I'll let you know if anyone comes to Zagat's defense.


Sunday, July 27, 2014

Pre-Code Parade: THE LAST FLIGHT (1931)

Before you had the crazy Vietnam veteran, you had the Lost Generation. A gap of some wars separates the two. The Lost Generation came of age fifty years before the 'Nam vets, during World War I. Unlike their grandkids, the Lost Generation were usually only threats to themselves. Many were self-exiled, idling in Europe. Others returned to tell their stories. In Hollywood, their bard was John Monk Saunders. He was a flier but never saw combat. He wrote flying stories and flying pictures: Wings, The Dawn Patrol, and so on. The Last Flight is about fliers, wounded physically and psychologically, lingering in Paris after the war. In Saunders's simile, they're like finely-made Swiss watches that have been dropped on the sidewalk. With William Dieterle behind the camera, we follow four of them. The actors are Richard Barthelmess, David Manners, John Mack Brown and Elliott Nugent. Not a promising roster, but all are game. Behind dark glasses much of the time, Manners certainly gives his coolest performance ever as a vet whose only cure for an optical tic is alcohol, while a manic Mack Brown nearly steals the show, as if realizing this might be his last chance to do real acting before his relegation to B westerns.  The others haven't the same excuse but match him drink for drink on their daily bar crawls. Either one or more of them is independently wealthy or else military pensions for invalids were princely by Parisian standards. They drink and joke -- their stated goal is to laugh and play -- but they're all dodging the real issues. My copy of the Time Out Film Guide says this is more Fitzgerald than F. Scott Fitzgerald. That misses the mark a little. Forgive my pedantry but here's a movie about vets drinking in Paris, and sort of collectively courting a poor little rich girl (Helen Chandler), a film that climaxes at a bullfight, and the best you can say is Fitzgerald? Rather, it looks like Saunders is trying to out-Hemingway Ernest Hemingway. A fifth-wheel character who tries to take Chandler from the vets and is a press-service reporter may even be a dig at the great man, who was a reporter at the time of this story. Saunders is no Hemingway, however. He's more melodramatic, knowing his market, and more cathartic in his plotting. At the corrida the Mack Brown character, who had earlier playfully charged and tackled a carriage horse outside a Paris cafe, takes umbrage at Luis Alberini's disparagement of Americans' ability to appreciate bullfighting and jumps into the ring to be fatally gored. This disaster is only prelude to the catastrophe at a carnival shooting gallery that leaves two more of our cast dead. In the end only Barthelmess, being top-billed, and Chandler are left. This is sort of a happy ending but given that Chandler is the most emotionally-fragile figure on screen I couldn't get too optimistic.

Barthelmess, who spent the war in Hollywood and was already a star by 1919, was nearly typed as a troubled vet in the Pre-Code era; see William Wellman's Heroes For Sale for the domestic variation on the Lost Generation theme. Barthelmess looks troubled: at age 36 he reminds me of actors like Tyrone Power and Robert Taylor who got their starts as male beauties but seemed to sour inside as they approached middle age. Barthelmess's lilting voice didn't help him in talkies; it made him seem slow compared to the fast-talkers who took over Hollywood. There's something ambivalent about both his and Chandler's performances that may be intentional on their part, or Saunders's, or Dieterle's. They, and to a lesser extent their co-stars, bark their way through the all-too-witty, all-too-brittle banter without seeming fully to comprehend it. But it may be important that the banter seem forced, that the gang are forcing themselves to laugh and play. Chandler expresses this brittleness better than any of the men; struggling to be zany -- offered any range of choices, she'll "take vanilla" every time -- she also seems likely to burst into tears at any moment for no obvious reason. That worrisome element is crucial to keeping her sympathetic, since at moments she natters on like Gracie Allen, trying to keep up with the boys. Seeing her with Manners immediately evokes memories of Dracula, and while Manners is (almost automatically) more impressive here than in the vampire film, Chandler doesn't really show much more range. She seems defined by a fragility that was not acting, but that may be reading her sad subsequent history into her work in presumably happier days. In any event, that quality suits her to this role as it suited her to Dracula. The discomfort of all the characters should be palpable so that viewers realize that this isn't just some wacky lark in gay Paree or merry Lisbon. That wasn't quite clear to everyone. It was advertised as "the most unusual screen drama ever made" but at least one contemporary newspaper described it as a comedy. Of course, if people kept laughing during the last reel something was wrong. When Last Flight changes tone the shift is shocking; audiences should have been blindsided by the sudden deaths, though they may have felt afterward that they saw it all coming. I suppose you could still see it as comedy, of the blackest kind, or a violent parody of Hemingway, but I suspect Saunders took it more seriously than that. He did have one thing in common with Hemingway: suicide -- but as with Chandler we probably should avoid foreshadowing here. Lets leave Last Flight as a strange, discomfiting relic of that brief moment when everyone really seemed sick and tired of war for doing this to people.

Saturday, July 26, 2014


Andre de Toth is the fourth horseman of Fifties Westerns, trailing Anthony Mann, Budd Boetticher and Delmer Daves. He may be best known for his 3-D triumph House of Wax but he also made 3-D Randolph Scott pictures. His best-regarded western may be his last, the black-and-white Day of the Outlaw. But Last of the Comanches is certainly his most colorful western. In fact, it's a minor masterpiece of color cinematography. Credit is shared by Ray Cory and Charles Lawton Jr., but comparative filmographies point to Lawton as the master. He's a key cinematographer in the genre, working with both Daves and Boetticher, and with John Ford on 1961's Two Rode Together. His work pops more on Comanches than in any of the others; more than his other films, this one seems designed to show off the color and lighting as much as the actors and action. The screenplay by Kenneth Gamet is like a cross between Stagecoach and the 1943 war film Sahara, which itself might be described as Stagecoach with a tank were it not more directly inspired by the Soviet adventure film The Thirteen. Comanches continues that lineage by focusing on the siege of a fortress for its well. Broderick Crawford commands the action as a cavalry officer pursuing Black Cloud, the titular renegade, into the desert. Trusting the report of a lone mission-educated Kiowa teenager, a motley group of cavalry and stagecoach passengers finds the well and Crawford decides to offer battle to pin down Black Cloud while the Kiowa boy finds the nearest post of fresh cavalry. There's a female (Barbara "Della Street" Hale) and a likely gunrunner for the rest to worry about, but for the most part the script and the acting are free from melodrama. Crawford is particularly good: gruffly authoritative and professional without giving in to the blowhard temptation. He's especially effective in a scene where he interrogates two Comanche prisoners, enticing one with water and separating him from his more obstinate partner to get the information he wants. The general avoidance of histrionics allows the cinematography to claim our attention. Shooting at desert locations, de Toth and Lawton often resort to handheld cameras and rely as much as possible on natural light. These scenes have a naturalist immediacy and brightness that's actually complemented by the relatively few but vivid process shots. The heat of the desert sun is practically palpable. When the party reaches the ruined fort defending the well, it's like a playground for de Toth and Lawton to set up interesting, dynamic compositions. The story climaxes with the cliche of cliches: the cavalry arrives trumpeting to save the day by scattering the Indians. But the film closes on a more mournful note as Crawford recalls the fallen and the camera returns to where each is buried or lies unburied where he fell. Once more the visuals dominate the narrative. The performances are uniformly solid, and in black and white Comanches still would have been a very respectable B picture, but Lawton's use of color makes the film even more a triumph of style than of substance.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Real Pulp Fiction: ARGOSY, JULY 22, 1939

It was presumably the height of prestige for a pulp writer to get a serial published and cover-featured in Argosy. You can imagine writers paying their dues for years before earning such an honor. Yet for the third time in 1939, the venerable weekly gave its cover to a serial that is its author's debut in its pages. Unlike William Grey Beyer (Minions of the Moon) and the one-and-done John Stromberg (Wild River), Charles Rice McDowell wasn't exactly a nobody. "Argonotes" gives us a one-page biography of the author, who happened to be a law professor at Washington and Lee University. When he passed away in 1978, McDowell was described as the most beloved professor on that school's law faculty. A biographer of one of his students wrote that McDowell "talked like Will Rogers but was better looking." McDowell's serial, The Ringer, has nothing to do with law, however. Its hero is no crusading prosecutor or wily defense attorney. Instead, the story's based partly on McDowell's experiences as an athletic coach in the 1910s. It will follow its hillbilly hero from his late return to high school through a diploma-mill military academy into big-time college sports. Ringer is a semi-satirical expose of the academic corruption that promotes unqualified students and makes them star athletes. It shapes up as a less idealized sports story than we might expect from the pulps, and that reflects Argosy's obvious ambition for a higher literary level, even as it offers more likely crowd-pleasing stuff elsewhere this issue. The opening installment is entertaining enough, though, and it promises to pull no punches, though McDowell himself compares his attitude toward college sports to that of Robert E. Lee toward the slaveholding South: its institutions are certainly peculiar, but he can't help loving it.

The real highlight of this issue is Ralph R. Perry's "Shark Master." Perry wrote raw pulp: packed with action, blood, thunder and rage. He worked in many genres and settings but seemed at his best in the South Seas and with tough seamen like his series character Bellow Bill Williams. In this story a man comes to a mysterious island to dive for pearls and avenge his brother, also a pearl diver, who was reported killed by sharks while attempting to harvest the treasures on the ocean floor. Our hero suspects that his brother was murdered, like several eminent pearl divers before him, by the trader who rules the island, its people, and the sharks offshore. The trader claims mastery over sharks: they swim and strike where and when he commands. That gives him extra power over the inevitably superstitious natives. "When they see me make the sharks obey, these blacks obey me like Hitler," the villain boasts in the story's nearest approach to contemporary relevance. This gives our hero two big mysteries to solve: how can the trader control sharks, and how might he have killed the hero's brother, whose specialized shark cage should have protected him from the sea predators? The revenge plot sets up several intense confrontations, most notably an early showdown as the drunken men exhume the brother's corpse in the middle of the night. There's a fury to Perry's writing and an inventiveness to the gimmickry with which he resolves the mysteries. It's great to see Argosy publishing old-school pulp like this at a time when it so often seems to chase vainly after prestige and relevance.

Robert Carse's second novelet in as many weeks is "Volcano," set during the last days before the famous eruption of Mt. Pelee. Like in last week's "Maximilian's Men," Carse imposes a romantic triangle on his period adventure. A ship's mate and his escaped prisoner, an engineer with Jor-El-like foreknowledge of the imminent disaster, become rivals for the affections of an aristocratic lady. Inevitably one will renounce love and life in favor of the other. Like last week's story it's entertaining enough but leaves a feeling that Carse is trying to force his pulp muse into a shape more appealing to Hollywood or the slicks with the romance angle.

The other stand-alones this week include William Edward Hayes's exciting "Comet on Wheels," in which one man struggles to prevent an out-of-control fuel car from colliding with a crowded passenger train; D. L. Champion's "Kiss the Gloves Goodbye," a curt, grim boxing story in which an old fighter's inspiring comeback proves less than met the eye; and Arthur Lawson's "Epitaph in Red," an Argosy Oddity in which an old-west codger reveals the secret behind his bushy beard and a secret about a young man's grandfather. This issue wraps up the reprint of A. Merritt's Seven Footprints to Satan and continues W. C. Tuttle's Thirty Days for Henry. The former is a classic of its kind, I suppose, and the latter is what it is, if you like that sort of thing.

Next week starts a serial by Theodore Roscoe, brings back once more Bretwalda the magic axe, and introduces us to western author C. K. Shaw, whose name carries a secret!


Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Pre-Code Parade: HARD TO HANDLE (1933)

James Cagney had been absent from first-run screens for seven months when Mervyn LeRoy's comedy opened in January 1933. Back when studios churned out features assembly-line style, that was a noteworthy layoff. Fans knew that Cagney had had a contract dispute with Warner Bros. and had walked off the lot. Hard to Handle was his first film under a new deal befitting his stardom. To some extent, it's also an essay on Cagney's star quality. What makes him a "red-headed sex menace," in the ad's words? It may have been his masterful virility and cocky courage, but in this picture Cagney spends a lot of time running from angry people, when he's not exiting a scene babbling like a madman. He's as much huckster as hustler as Lefty Merrill, introduced as the co-promoter of a dance marathon. Pre-Code cinema in a nutshell: what later generations portrayed as tragic exploitation, as literature would do this same decade -- The novel They Shoot Horses, Don't They? was published in 1935 -- Hard to Handle treats as a joke. Allan Jenkins is the master of ceremonies, regrettably present only in this sequence, and yet you can imagine the same patter coming out of Gig Young's mouth in the They Shoot Horses movie from 1969. Lefty's girlfriend Ruth (Mary Brian) is dancing in one of the two surviving couples while Jenkins introduces her mother Lil (Ruth Donnelly) as a brave but pitiful widow, while Lil leads the applause for herself, striking a boxer's victory pose even before Ruth and her partner prevail. That's a thousand-dollar payday, only Lefty's partner has run off with all the proceeds, leaving Lefty to flee an enraged mob of temp employees expecting their pay, not to mention Lil expecting hers. Ruth feels differently, though, and their feelings toward Lefty reflect their conflicts with each other. Lil can't stand Lefty if he isn't successful; she'd rather match Ruth with society photographer John Hayden (an uncredited Gavin "Lord Byron" Gordon from Bride of Frankenstein). Whenever Lefty's fortunes change for the better, Lil practically pushes Ruth back into his arms while giving poor Hayden the brush-off. Yet a successful Lefty seems to repel Ruth, and not just because that's what Lil wants for her. She likes the scrappy energy he displays as an underdog; a successful, established Lefty might be boring by comparison.

Ruth doesn't have too much to worry about on that score. Hard to Handle consists of a succession of Lefty's get-rich quick schemes, all essentially hare-brained but some more successful than others. The most catastrophic is his plan to stage a treasure hunt at an amusement pier, with $1,000 in bills hid among the concessions. "THERE IS NO DEPRESSION" at the pier, his ads proclaim, but as a mob demolishes everything in sight Lefty's partners reveal that they've only planted two five-dollar bills in the entire place. Soon enough, Lefty's on the run again, but his gift of gab gets him back in the game soon enough. Ruth's frustration with ill-made cold cream gives him an idea; seeing her exert herself in vain rubbing it into her skin, he realizes that the slop would make a great reducing cream simply because people would work so hard rubbing it on themselves. "It won't rub in! It won't rub in!" he screams maniacally as he dashes off in search of fresh fortune. After some hard bargaining to win a society maven's endorsement, Lefty becomes a successful public-relations man and the apple of Lil's eye, if not Ruth's. But if Lefty is still basically a con man, he's not the biggest or the canniest of the lot. He's soon bamboozled by a father-daughter team into promoting Grapefruit Acres, a tract of land in Florida, little realizing that there's no way anyone can make the money the promoters promise growing grapefruit. By the time this sinks in for our hero, his clients have skedaddled to Rio and he's left holding the bag. But by one of those coincidences that are the stuff of popular cinema, who should share his cell but his erstwhile partner from the dance marathon. After greeting him with a punch in the jaw -- his only act of real violence in the picture -- Lefty chats him up as if nothing serious had happened ("So how are you?") and notices his slimmer figure. How did he get that way? Why, it was a grapefruit diet! Cue the maniacal laughter again as Lefty figures out how to make good on Grapefruit Acres -- but after his crowning success he needs to pull off one more con to win Ruth, ever unimpressed by success, for good.

Some are determined to see this talk of grapefruit as an in-joke on the star of The Public Enemy, but whatever Pre-Code is, I don't think it's as in-jokey as today. In any event, Lefty Merrill is a Cagney virtually free of Public Enemy's thuggishness, more rascal or even mountebank than "menace" of any sort. He's a safer if not necessarily more scrupulous Cagney, with just enough transgressive brazenness to maintain his original appeal. We'll see this Cagney periodically for the rest of his career proper, culminating in his Coca-Cola salesman in Billy Wilder's One Two Three. The depression note of desperation adds to the fun of his mania in Hard to Handle, but I'm not sure if the huckster mode shows Cagney at his best. It does prove him an entertaining if overpowering comic actor -- and I think overpowering was what everyone was looking for.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

On the Big Screen: DR. STRANGELOVE or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964)

The story goes that Peter Sellers was supposed to play four roles in Stanley Kubrick's nuclear-war comedy. The versatile actor was already playing the title character, a German scientist who finds it increasingly difficult to repress his Nazi reflexes as doomsday nears, as well as the President of the United States and an RAF liaison to the renegade general Jack D. Ripper, whose obsession with flouride's threat to his purity of essence triggers Armageddon. Kubrick wanted Sellers in all four major locations of the story and had him slated to play Major Kong, the commander of a bomber deployed by Ripper. Sellers reportedly balked at the fourth role, doubting his ability to do a Texas accent, and finally was replaced after an injury, so that Slim Pickens finally takes the ride down with the bomb, a-whoopin' and a-hollerin' as, in retrospect, only he could. There's no reason to doubt this story, but it's one of those moments when Kubrick's judgment must be questioned, as when he contemplated climaxing the film with a pie fight in the War Room. Sellers simply doesn't belong on board the bomber; his presence would have undermined an effect that I presume was intentional on Kubrick's part. Sellers would have distanced and distracted the audience from the suspense the director quite deliberately develops at two crucial points. The first is when the bomber crew struggles to evade a Russian missile; the second when technical problems resulting from the missile attack imperil the mission to drop an atomic bomb. At these moments Kubrick, aided by composer Laurie Johnson, veers from comic to thriller mode. Johnson's theme for the bomber is "When Johnnie Comes Marching Home," and its initial effect is parodic. But as the missile closes in on the bomber in ten-mile, five-mile and finally one-mile increments, and later as Kong struggles to fix the mechanism to open the bomb-bay door, Johnson finds a rhythmic riff between verses and escalates it. The music sells the tension powerfully, but what are we tense about? It seems that during the missile attack, at least, Kubrick is tempting the audience to root for the bomber crew, despite our knowledge of the terrible consequences should they evade the missile and succeed in their mission. I dare say that Kubrick is showing off his ability to manipulate audiences with every cinematic trick in the book -- and to prove the point, arguably, he does it again at the supreme moment. As the miles to the target are counted down and Kong struggles with the wiring, are we really entirely rooting against him? We should be -- but then again this is a comedy and we wouldn't want to abort a gag. But it would be the wrong type of comedy if it were Peter Sellers sitting on the bomb. Kubrick films the attack on Burpleson Air Force Base to stop General Ripper in a verite style superficially similar to the realism of the bomber scenes, but I doubt whether anyone roots for Ripper, with Sellers as Group Captain Mandrake at his side, to repel the attackers. Ripper is too obviously a lunatic, while the bomber crew, even the clownish-sounding Kong, are ordinary men in a way Sellers would not have been.  Early, Kong lectures his crew about the human emotions they're bound to feel at the prospect of nuclear war. There's something satiric about his talk, since we feel sure at this early point that real human emotions would inspire these men to abort the mission regardless of orders or duty. But if we find ourselves wanting them to survive the missile attack later, it's as if a trap has been sprung implicating us and our human emotions in the doomsday to come. It's as if Kubrick, widely regarded as distant from human emotion, was explaining why that might be so. It'd be funny if he saved something like a statement of principles for his funniest film.

Dr. Strangelove is one of the funniest films ever, perhaps because we needed to laugh at the thought of Doomsday in 1964 and still do now in our age of Preppers. The audacity of Kubrick and Terry Southern's imagination (adapting Peter George's more conventional thriller) has aged well, as does Kubrick's mastery of sound comedy, particularly the comedy of the human voice. This is where Sellers comes in heroically handy, his clipped British tones as Mandrake contrasting wonderfully first with Sterling Hayden's paranoid growl, then with Keenan Wynn's flat laconic idiocy; his President Muffley's adenoidal tones contrasting authoritatively with George C. Scott's redneck bluster, then shifting to diplomatic baby talk on the phone with the Soviet premier; his Strangelove's teutonic drawl clashing with Peter Bull's melodramatic plumminess as the Soviet ambassador and with Sellers himself as the President. I still say Sellers couldn't have substituted for Pickens's authentic physical presence, but in his three roles he is an invaluable asset, while the other actors mentioned are uniformly inspired. Strangelove is playing this week at Albany's house of movie revivals, the Madison Theater, and it's worth seeing on the big screen if only to notice Dr. Strangelove sitting quietly at the War Room round table -- I think it's a double for Sellers with the unmistakable wig -- for at least half an hour, not speaking until spoken too like a good authoritarian, during Sellers' slow-burn colloquy with a manic Scott. Of course, it's worth seeing on a big screen because that's what it was made for, and it's great to have a venue, fifty years after Strangelove opened, where it can be seen at its proper scale.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Real Pulp Fiction: ARGOSY, JULY 15, 1939

William Dieterle's Juarez. the latest of Warner Bros.'s prestigious biopics starring Paul Muni, was released in the spring of 1939. Author Robert Carse and the editors of Argosy must have felt it was a popular enough movie to exploit. Note the prominence of the hero's name in the cover copy advertising a story in which he is mentioned, but never appears. On a superficial level, "Maximilian's Men" is the sort of Foreign Legion story at which Carse specialized. Yet the cover copy strikes an atypical note: this time the Legion is on the wrong side of history, or at least more obviously so than normal. Carse's story is less about the Legion than about one Legionnaire, more antihero than hero for taking the wrong side. In Carse's reading of Mexican history, the Austrian royal Maximilian is well-meaning but no more than a catspaw of Napoleon III, the Emperor of France, who is less interested than Maximilian (or our protagonist) in giving Mexico good government, but really only wants to exploit what wealth and resources the country has. Still, the Legion has been sent to support Maximilian, and our protagonist knows nothing other than duty and loyalty. This puts him at odds with an American operative aiding Juarez and an aristocratic Mexican lady who first sympathizes with Maximilian, but turns against the monarchy once she realizes Napoleon's true intentions -- and falls in love with the American. Carse foregrounds the love triangle in a manner untypical of him; he seems not only inspired by a particular movie, but by the conventions of Hollywood that require more of a romantic angle than he put into his more hard-boiled tales. There's also a note of relevance, the concept with which Argosy grappled throughout this year. As his Legionnaire protagonist finally realizes the error of his misplaced loyalty, so Carse hopes that virtuous soldiers of his own time will put other values before duty.

"You're men who fought for what you believed in, too [the American tells the Legionnaire], but when you go back to Europe you can do something for Tonia and me. Tell the folks there what it means when a lad like Napoleon tries to take a country that doesn't belong to him. That's easy to forget when people have been living in peace for a while, but we can't let them forget. Peace and freedom mean too much."

Not an unworthy sentiment, but I prefer my pulp unburdened with this sort of conscientious relevance. Pure pulp is more hard-boiled and barnstorming than this. Carse writes well, but something is missing -- replaced is more like it. The author may have sacrificed some of his raw pulp spirit to make propaganda or Hollywood bait. But he'll be back next week with something less relevant, though movie-like just the same.

On the serial front, Walter Ripperger wraps up The Man From Madrid by escalating his three-way battle of wits into a four-cornered struggle for control of the stolen Spanish republican treasure. Ripperger started from a point of relevance and acknowledges the defeat of the republic along the way, but the finish is pure thriller and entertaining on that level. In the second installment of Thirty Days for Henry, W. C. Tuttle checks off more items from his serial to-do list. In every story of Henry Harrison Conroy, the unlikely sheriff of Tonto Town, we must pause for Frijole, the ornery cook of Henry's ranch, to tell a story about his eccentric rooster, William Shakespeare. Tuttle gets that out of the way this week, while every week gives us a healthy helping of dialect humor thanks to those moronic Mexican ranch hands, Thunder and Lightning Mendoza. The dumb thing about dialect humor is when you have two Mexicans talking to each other, with no one else around, in their idiotic accented dialect. Wouldn't they talk to each other in Spanish? That wouldn't be as funny, which would be pretty bad considering that Tuttle's stuff isn't that hilarious to start with. As for the actual story, at least Tuttle doesn't insult our intelligence by delaying the revelation that La Mariposa, the saloon singer, is actually the long-lost daughter of King Colt, the saloon owner and local narcotics importer. This allows an apparent villain to show his sentimental side, and here I honestly wonder whether Tuttle has his tongue in cheek or not when writing such scenes. He works on the edge of self-parody, but if some reader always took it straight I'm sure Tuttle didn't complain. And lest I forget, Argosy continues to save money by reprinting another installment of A. Merritt's beloved classic Seven Footprints to Satan.

The stand-alone stories are a motley lot. Garnett Radcliffe returns with another tale of India, "Fool of the Regiment," in which a foul-up becomes the favorite of an officer for having the raw strength to save him from a cave-in. Eustace Cockrell contributes a boxing story, "Sweet Talking Man," with a black protagonist. He's a former champ who's lost his fortune because he was a sucker for the title antagonist. Our hero's old manager comes up with a con to win his old charge his money back, disguising him as a nobody and setting up a big-money fight with a contender, hoping that the bad guy will bet a wad on it. In the ring, the strategy is for the old champ to pretend he's broken his hand and lure his foe into a trap; the twist is that our hero wins despite actually breaking his hand. Our fighter talks in politically-incorrect dialect but Cockrell doesn't overdo it compared to some writers, and it's not as if white boxers were ever portrayed as masters of grammar or vocabulary. I can give the dialect a pass this time because Cockrell's subject isn't really "Aren't Black People Funny?" Murray Leinster has another interesting story in "Plague Ship," stranding a crippled captain and a frail missionary on the afflicted title vessel. The twist here is that the missionary, while attempting to convert the captain, undergoes a conversion himself as he must take on the physical responsibilities of making the ship seaworthy again. He doesn't quite save the captain's soul, but he does save his life, and Leinster makes the missionary a better man for his adventure. Finally, Burton W. Peabody's "Red Light -- Green Light" is a literal trainwreck having to do with another romantic triangle. The Leinster story and the conclusion of Man From Madrid are the best things in this issue, but it bears repeating that the Henry serial may well amuse you if you've never read one before.


Tuesday, July 15, 2014

DVR Diary: THE TRAIL OF '98 (1928)

How bass-ackwards can Hollywood get? Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer spends a fortune and gets a to-this-day uncertain number of stuntmen killed to make an epic drama of the Klondike gold rush three years after Charlie Chaplin released his burlesque of the Yukon epic. But to be fair, the subject was bigger than either Chaplin or M-G-M; the Klondike was the stuff of pulp fiction practically from the time gold was found there, little more than 30 years before Trail of '98 was made. There were still plenty of stories to tell, and Chaplin could be topped in terms of sheer spectacle. He did some location shooting -- not in the Klondike itself -- but didn't use much of the footage: his style required a more controlled environment. Clarence Brown had second units all over the place, and the payoff is scenes of actors suffering quite convincingly in pretty rugged settings. This was a huge production; Metro promoted it as its next triumph after The Big Parade and Ben-Hur. But it aspires more to do for the North what The Covered Wagon did for the West. Unfortunately, the film only comes to life in its second half, despite many impressive early scenes on location and an almost too convincing "snowslide" scene. Once it comes to life, however, it just about literally catches fire.

The picture gathers a cast of characters from across the country as word spreads via the newspapers of the gold strike. The most important ones are our hero, Larry (Ralph Forbes); the heroine, Berna (Dolores Del Rio), who's travelling with her blind grandfather; Salvation Jim (Tully Marshall), a Bible-spouting Old West-style prospecter; and Lars Petersen (Karl Dane), the stereotypical big Swede. Talking pictures weren't necessary for dialect humor; Lars says "Yumping Yimminy!" several times over on title cards. These and a few others survive the winnowing-out process on the trek through the wastes of Alaska -- a teenaged boy and Berna's old man are among the casualties -- to set up shop in Dawson. There the successful gold-striker Locasto (Harry Carey) lords over all he surveys; he returns from prospecting and orders a half-dozen plates of beans, just so he can leave them while he enjoys a steak. One key to Locasto's success, we learn, is claim jumping; our heroes are among his latest victims.

The first half, the trek to Dawson, has the most awesome and harrowing location shots and special effects, but there's a monotony to the long march that's only relieved when the movie actually grows a plot. Larry and Berna have hooked up but are ready to quit and head back to the U.S. when word of a fresh strike sparks a "stampede" of miners. Larry convinces a reluctant Berna to let him stay on to try his luck once more. Left alone, her resources running out, Berna is befriended by a woman (Doris Lloyd) who says she knows how it feels to be left behind to starve. She invites Berna to move in with her, and Berna's sudden enthusiasm for the idea may raise eyebrows. Her clinging gratitude is excessive, as if her feelings for her new friend involve something besides food. But just as Berna stretches out rapturously on her new bed, her arms spread as if to welcome whoever walks through the door, who should stroll in but Locasto? The woman has lured Berna here for him to rape, and Brown films the scene as if Harry Carey were Dracula; his back covers the fainting Berna and the screen goes dark.

Larry, Lars, Jim and a fourth partner have found gold after all. Lars and Jim rush to Dawson to register their claim, only to find out that Locasto has already claimed the land, thanks to some fancy bookkeeping. Lars goes berserk, hauling a clerk through the teller's window before destroying the entire office with his bare hands. With their resources running low at the camp, Larry's remaining partner decides to abandon him, taking their food with him but accidentally leaving behind the matches essential to his survival. He dies fantasizing of his triumphant return to his family with a suitcase full of money and gifts, while Larry retrieves the canned food on his own trip to Dawson. He arrives with a poke of gold dust to find Berna employed as one of Locasto's dance-hall girls. He shows her the gold and she slaps it away, screaming at Larry as the saloon patrons and employees all hit the floor to gather up the dust. It takes awhile for Larry to realize how Berna has reached such a state, and it bears mentioning here that Locasto had kicked Larry's ask quite convincingly earlier in the story. Naturally Larry wants a rematch now, but Brown makes us wait as Locasto arrogantly takes his time getting some valuable furniture, including an oil lamp, out of the way of the imminent mayhem. Harry Carey makes a great badass villain, by the way. Locasto gets in the first punch, but Larry's adventures have toughened him and now he gives as good as he takes. They move on to chair shots, and while these are typical flimsy movie chairs the fighters bleed from the blows as later barroom brawlers rarely would. Finally Larry gains the upper hand until Locasto pulls a pistol and opens fire. He shoots thrice and hits Larry at least once before our hero grabs that oil lamp and lobs it at the gunman, turning Locasto into a human torch. Our villain staggers through a corridor, tumbles off a balcony onto the dance floor and still manages to crawl a little as the crowd flees in terror while the whole building catches fire. Berna manages to drag Larry to safety as a whole block of buildings goes up in flames. They and Jim and Lars survive to earn another fortune at a more reasonable pace, vindicating the virtue of steady work.

In short, Trail of '98's epic aspirations are redeemed by the second half's robust pulp trash. It only comes to life when the protagonists have a compelling human antagonist instead of the impersonal elements. By the last half hour it's a snowball rolling downhill, and you get the impression that Brown and Metro could have made a perfectly fine action movie had they simply started in Dawson, without killing people for real. In sum, the epic pretensions of the first half weigh the film down, so that it's not as great a Yukon saga as Anthony Mann's The Far Country. Still, if you have the perseverance of the film's characters and make it all the way to Dawson, there's two-fisted fun to be had with this picture, if you're into that sort of thing.

Sunday, July 13, 2014


If nothing is real, then everything is permitted. Thus reads the sutra of Buddhist comedy, as written by the sage Stephen Chow. His best-known text is Kung Fu Hustle, the global sensation of a decade ago. Journey to the West is only his second film as a director since then; Chow wasted some time developing a cross-cultural team-up with Seth Rogen, The Green Hornet, but the stars' styles apparently differed too strongly. One can presume that Chow's Hornet, which he would have directed and played Kato in, would have been a more fantastical film than the actual Rogen vehicle. Journey reminds us that nothing is too outlandish for Chow if it might be funny or simply amazing. It's his prequel, if not a full reboot, of China's great comic epic, showing how the monk Sanzang (Wen Zhang) put his team of reformed demons together. Chow, who gets a "Written, Directed and Produced by" credit while acknowledging several collaborators, shapes the material to Kung Fu Hustle's zero-to-hero-by-the-grace-of-Buddha formula. More so than Hustle, Journey will strike Americans as an uncomfortable blend of slapstick, sentimentality and death. But if the central message of Buddhism isn't exactly "life and death are a big joke," that's still close enough for Stephen Chow.

Chow keeps us off balance for the opening reels; viewers unfamiliar with his source material will be especially uncertain of who the actual protagonist is. A river village is menaced by a monster that attacks and devours a small girl's father. A demon hunter arrives to subdue the monster; throwing explosives into the river, he brings up a giant ray and declares victory. But a new arrival, Sanzang, warns that the ray is just an animal and the real demon is still in the water. He's proven right in the middle of the villagers' everyone-into-the-river celebration. With the aid of some brave souls and a very fat woman, Sanzang manages to get the demon stranded on land, on which it turns into a person. He then attempts to exorcise the evil spirit by singing from his demon-subduing textbook, the 300 Nursery Rhymes. The demon-man is merely confused by the performance until he's grabbed by yet another interloper and brusquely stuffed into an imprisoning sack. This newcomer is the forceful, tomboyish Miss Duan (Shu Qi), whom the villagers now acclaim as the real demon hunter while Sanzang, crestfallen, retreats to his home city to consult with his homeless master.

Demon hunting brings Sanzang and Duan to the same destination, a restaurant of the damned where the specialty is roast pig and the secret ingredient is PEOPLE!!! Together -- but Duan does most of the work with her incredible bracelet -- they defeat but fail to capture the master chef K.L. Hog, whose immobile smiley face hides the visage of a swine. Since a pig-demon is one of the companions in the Journey proper, we know we haven't seen the last of Mr. Hog.

Meanwhile, Duan develops an unlikely crush on Sanzang, given her contempt for his skills and his dedication to celibacy. She sets traps to make him prove his own love for her, but is woefully unskilled in the art of seduction; the only dance she knows is a set of fighting poses. Fortunately, she has a kid sister on her traveling support team who tries to teach her the softer ways. When that looks hopeless Sis resorts to the Obedience Charm, which will allow her to control Duan's movements for the crucial seduction. In a scene like something out of a Bob Hope or Danny Kaye picture, the charm ends up on Sanzang's back unbeknownst to Sis, who goes through the motions of seduction while a shirtless Sanzang is visited by two of Duan's male minions.  Fortunately, K.L. Hog, now in the form of a giant boar, attacks before things get too ugly.


Sanzang and Duan's gang are bailed out by three more rival demon hunters, and now we're given to understand that they're all superior to Duan. Hog is still on the loose, however, and Sanzang can only learn how to stop him from the famous Monkey King Sung Wukong (Huang Bo). Now in human form, Sung has spent the last 500 years imprisoned by Buddha for being an asshole. He tries repeatedly to trick Sanzang into removing the wards that confine him to his cave; in the meantime, with help from Duan, they capture Hog and stuff him in a magic bag. Since we cant call a movie Journey to the West without having the Monkey King run amok, Sanzang finally falls for one of his tricks and frees the demon. However, the other three demon hunters are right on the spot, each eager to smack down the rather runty ape-man. They all end up dead. Then Monkey King tears out all of Sanzang's copious hair, leaving him shorn like a true monk, before Duan steps in to rescue her beloved. Monkey King kills her, but not before she elicits the long-desired admission of love from Sanzang. Happily, his hair had nothing do with her attraction to him.

Comedy is different in China. Stephen Chow has just killed off his picture's love interest. Granted, in the actual Journey the monk has no love interest so you have to explain her absence, but still! But let me backtrack a little to further illustrate the different comic sensibility at play here. Back in the river village, you'll recall, a little girl was left fatherless. Chow has paid some attention to her, initially in a macabre way: her father had been playing in the water, pretending to scare her but making her cry until he surfaced to reassure her. She continues giggling while the monster actually attacks and kills her father. In an American movie that little girl might grow up to become an avenging demon-hunter in her own right. In Stephen Chow's movie the little girl is killed by the monster in the next attack, after a lot of slapstick effort to rescue her from the demon's clutches. Then her mother goes into the water to fight the demon -- and she gets killed. I don't think that Chow finds all this funny, but he clearly doesn't think that it's out of place in a comedy, either -- and that sets him apart from American movie comedy, despite all the influence generations of the stuff obviously has had on him. Going back to the present, he's killed the romantic lead. I expect that from a sword-and-sorcery picture where she might come back as an avenging valkyrie, but Chow has a different epiphany in mind.

Throughout the story, Duan has vented her contempt for Sanzang's reliance on the 300 Nursery Rhymes, at one point tearing his precious tome into shreds. Later, she contritely returns the book to him, explaining that she had taken three days to reassemble it, but warning that, since "I don't read so well" it might not really be intact. After her death, the grieving Sanzang turns to her re-edited 300 Nursery Rhymes. By a miracle, the barely-literate Duan had reassembled the book into the Buddha Sutra that had subdued the Monkey King 500 years earlier. Reciting from the sutra, Sanzang becomes invulnerable to the Monkey's attacks. Better still, he summons Buddha himself. In a climax that amplifies the hero's enlightened re-entry from space in Kung Fu Hustle, Buddha appears like a starchild off-planet to lay the smack down on Sung Wukong, who thinks he can win because he's wrecked a mountain in the Buddha's shape. Sung transforms into a giant gorilla to grapple with his old enemy, but you haven't seen a Buddha Palm until you see it here. It keeps coming and coming until you realize that Monkey King isn't even equal to a cell of the Enlightened One. Whatever you may think of his religion, this Buddha kicks ass without even trying. All through the picture we've encountered warriors and demons, each tougher or more powerful than the last, but they're all nothing compared to Buddha. I don't know how seriously Stephen Chow actually takes Buddhism in real life, but his two martial-arts fantasies certainly do proselytize for Buddha quite forcefully. And for what it's worth, Buddhism reconciles Sanzang both to losing the love of his life and to his mission to come, though it may be a concession to modern sensibilities that the hero has to experience romantic love, however briefly, before he can renounce it.

To American eyes it may seem as if tragedy and comedy clash too often in Journey to the West, but it's arguably wrong to call it tragedy when people simply are killed, or even when characters in whom we've been invited to invest emotional interest are killed. If we call it a moment of pathos when Duan dies we come closer to an older tradition of American comedy, but even then the silent clowns would never let their idolized females die for pathos' sake. There is pathos, I suppose, when Sanzang sees a shimmering golden vision of Duan at the end of the picture, but overall Chow's attitude toward killing characters is like Chuck Jones killing Bugs Bunny in What's Opera, Doc? What did you expect, given the subject matter? The truth is, Journey to the West is more like cartoons than anything else. Astounding violence co-exists with utter clownishness, from the fat woman landing on a plank to send the river demon flying through the air to the squeaky-toy sound effect when the heroes punch out K.L. Hog's minions to the giant Monty Python foot of one of the demon hunters. Cartoons and comedy movies come from a burlesque tradition that allowed trauma to be exaggerated into comedy on the common recognition that none of it is real. It may not be exaggerating too much to suggest that Buddhism's recognition of the transience of all things and the distance it establishes from emotional attachment help explain the affinity of Asian martial-arts cinema for American slapstick comedy, as exemplified by Jackie Chan and, on a more philosophical level, by Stephen Chow. Still, none of this makes Journey to the West a great or even very good film. The character of Duan, while played to the hilt by Shu Qi, never really coheres, and the chemistry Chow insists on between her and Sanzang isn't really there, and some of the demon hunters have no real personality beyond their gimmicks. Despite its weaknesses in characterization and plotting, Chow's Journey is still a wildly imaginative spectacle that has the virtue, increasingly rare in American spectacle, of really looking and feeling different from everything else. For all its faults, vive la difference!

Friday, July 11, 2014

Pre-Code Parade: a note on violence against women

Three years after Alice White and Chester Morris co-starred in Playing Around, they teamed again in King For a Night, a Universal picture directed by Kurt Neumann. I found out about this movie while doing a Google News Archive search for the actors' names to find ad art for Playing Around. That search turned up this bit of publicity for King For a Night:

I'm as big a cheerleader as anyone for the transgressiveness of Pre-Code cinema, but this story took me aback. Hitting women had been Jimmy Cagney's particular gimmick, I'd thought, and something for which Cagney seemed to be forgiven. But this story tells us that hitting women was more than one actor's eccentricity. I actually find it a little disturbing that punching dames was a thing and that people were keeping score. I dare say Nagel v. Tobin in Free Love is no longer famous, but what does it mean that it once was? Free Love turns out to be a 1930 picture and thus nearly three years old when this story was written, yet Nagel's right uppercut was well remembered without the aid of video recording. Iron Man was a 1931 Tod Browning boxing film, again well if not fondly remembered by the author of the article. Meanwhile, what's become of Alice White? Back when Playing Around came out she was a Next Big Thing. By the time of King For a Night she had found a more comfortable level as a comedy character player -- and, apparently, as a cinematic punching bag. I didn't manage to find a news story about her hospitalization for "screen blows," but I did find another cute publicity piece promoting Cagney's Picture Snatcher, in which he asks White which side of her face he should slug and she asks for one side because the other's still sore from the last punch she took. Damn... It looks like the "hospitalization for screen blows" may have been a cover-up for a beating she later blamed on her actor-boyfriend John Warburton, but still. To be objective, all these blows may have been struck for a Pre-Code standard of realism -- men did do this to women, after all -- but the relish with which this anonymous writer reports these movie punch-outs may make a reader slightly queasy.  And all this being said, if TCM evern schedules King For a Night -- a picture, by the way, that reportedly had to go back to the studio for reshoots after early audiences hooted at the original ending -- I'm cranking up the DVR.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Pre-Code Parade: PLAYING AROUND (1930)

Chester Morris was the bad boy of early talkies. He probably gained his greatest fame in the Forties as the reformed crook Boston Blackie in movies and radio, but he was far from reformed in 1930. The rediscovery in the home-video age of Morris's three films for director Roland West -- Alibi, Corsair and the amazing The Bat Whispers -- reestablished an edgier image of the actor in the minds of movie buffs. He seems a natural fit for director Mervyn LeRoy, who was a year away from releasing Little Caesar and launching the official Warner Bros. gangster cycle. Morris's character in Playing Around, Nicky Solomon, may be LeRoy's first cinematic gangster, but while he has some of the charisma Morris gave his antiheroes in the West films, he ends up being a small-timer and something of a loser. He takes second billing to Alice White, whom Warner Bros. and First National were trying to turn into a major musical-comedy star, and you could believe that Playing Around is one of those relics from the first backlash against musicals that had most of their numbers cut out. There's still a disproportionate amount of attention paid to the floor shows at the Pirate's Den, the popular nightclub to which Sheba is taken by her penny-pinching soda jerk boyfriend Jack (William Bakewell). We're not so deep into the Depression yet -- the film was released in January 1930 -- that we can sympathize much when Jack insists on ordering a glass of buttermilk, the cheapest item on the Pirate menu. At the same time, Sheba seems shallow for resenting Jack's economies. In any event, they're about to leave the place when, on impulse, Sheba decides to participate in a Prettiest Legs contest for which Nicky Solomon is cajoled to act as judge. When Sheba wins, the master of ceremonies convinces her to sing a song, supposedly the only one she knows. Her silver loving cup becomes the talk of her neighborhood -- the gossip of two immigrant housewives becomes a running gag -- and this hint of fame goes to her head, as does Nicky.

Everybody seems to know Nicky and he seems to be a big man in his milieu, so it's a surprise to find him begging to borrow money from a  restaurant proprietor to pay for Sheba's dinner. He doesn't let on about it to her, and he assures his creditor that he has a big deal in the works that makes him a good risk. I hope he didn't mean the job he actually does, which is to knock over the store where poor Jack and Sheba's father both work. Nicky has to shoot the father when the old man goes for a gun -- don't worry; it's just a flesh wound! -- while Jack makes him because Nicky honks his car horn as he pulls out for his getaway. Nicky's four-note car horn sounds like just about every cartoon car horn you've heard from this period, yet Jack assumes -- correctly! -- that Nicky Solomon and only Nicky Solomon has such a horn. Nicky is all too easily tricked -- by Jack, no less -- into lamming out of town and is caught at the train station, but mercifully this is not the end of Nicky. As befits an Alice White vehicle he's taken alive and will only get five years for his crimes, and Morris reclaims some of his bad-guy charisma by joking with the cops as they take him away.

Playing Around isn't yet a gangster picture because it isn't really about the gangster. He isn't the menace of social problem that needs to be exorcised violently in Little Caesar and The Public Enemy. Instead, Nicky Solomon is just the villain who tempts the heroine with a lifestyle of easy money but is thwarted by Jack, our ultimate virtuous and resourceful hero. Morris is the best thing about the picture but given the competition that isn't saying much and his role does him no favors. The crime plot is nearly overshadowed by the Pirate's Den production numbers -- the place has segregated choruses, the black dancers getting their turn to perform late in the picture -- and the odd ending reinforces the feeling that this was meant to be more of a musical than it actually is. Some pictures of the period have exit music, but to date Playing Around is the only one I've seen that accompanies the exit music with a recap of the story, the sort of montage that might play over end credits decades later. Whether LeRoy was trying something new for novelty or the studio was trying to pad the picture out, I can't say. But while little makes Playing Around particularly good, this last moment definitely makes it different.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Real Pulp Fiction: ARGOSY, JULY 8, 1939

Nothing says pulp fiction like a fat old cowboy, right? For Argosy, however, "Hilarious Henry" was a major drawing card. Henry Harrison Conroy had become one of the weekly's most popular recurring characters since his first appearance in early 1935. His creator was W. C. Tuttle, by then a star writer for twenty years. Tuttle specialized in comic western detective stories and kept several different series characters (or teams) going for decades. Henry's stories were set close to the present day; he is a refugee from the death of vaudeville who ends up inheriting a ranch in Wild Horse Valley, Arizona and becoming the sheriff of Tonto Town. From the look of him, and the heavy emphasis Tuttle places on his red nose, you'd think the author, who did a lot of movie writing as well, was begging for his near-namesake W. C. Fields to notice the property. As it turned out, Frank (Wizard of Oz) Morgan played Conroy when M-G-M filmed the origin story, Henry Goes Arizona, later in 1939, while Fields finally made a different kind of western the following year. Fields as Henry would have been more like The Bank Dick out west than My Little Chickadee, but reading a few of Tuttle's stories makes plain why the great man, had he ever read them, would have left where he found them. Henry is too often the straight man for a large cast of recurring, allegedly funny characters. At least that's how "Thirty Days for Henry," the new serial this week, shapes up. Tuttle's writing has a sitcom quality; the recurring characters show up like clockwork to do their respective shticks. Worse, Tuttle is fond of dialects. One of Henry's deputies is a stereotypical yumping-yimminy Swede. Two of his ranch hands are clownish Mexicans, "Thunder" and "Lightning" Mendoza, who exist only to mangle the English language. Tuttle twice over this week has one of them utter the mighty oath, "I cross his heart, I hope you die" to vouch for his own veracity. The author at least recognizes that not all Mexicans are alike. Another Mexican talks with a similar accent, but is more intelligent and articulate than the Mendoza brothers. The Henry stories strike me as an act that grew tired fast, but for fans they were probably more like comfort food, each familiar character's reappearance a welcome event. As for the actual story, Henry has to solve two murders that may have to do with a shady saloonkeeper with a vengeful rival and a long-lost daughter. In this sort of story, you don't mention a long-lost daughter unless we've already met her, and there's one glaringly obvious candidate for this role. It's all by-the-numbers, but Argosy readers clearly enjoyed it. Tuttle would keep writing Henry stories for another decade, moving him from Argosy to Short Stories during the upheaval that resulted in a major format-change in the 1940s.

Since Argosy is still reprinting A. Merritt's Seven Footprints to Satan, that leaves Walter Ripperger's "The Man From Madrid" on the serial front. By now the Spanish Civil War has almost nothing to do with the story of stolen treasure, which has become a three-way battle of wits involving our hero, his ruthless ally Mr. Nibbs, and the surviving member of the group that stole the treasure. This penultimate installment finds Ripperger in endgame mode, teasing a shift in alliances as each player weighs the best way to get the biggest share of the loot, while the smarter-than-he-acts policeman struggles to piece the plot together. Ripperger does this sort of intrigue and psychological warfare fairly well and his story remains one of the year's better serials.


Our above-the-title writers this week should be familiar names by now. Philip Ketchum's "Scourge of the Severn" is the latest in his Bretwalda cycle, and his weakest story so far. The latest wielder of the mystic axe helps Henry Plantagenet win the English throne and wins a bride for himself to make up for the defeats and sorrows to which Bretwalda's owners are doomed. Ketchum doesn't do much to make the period interesting and really seems to have phoned this one in. Richard Sale closes the issue with a grim short, "I Want to Be Like Lefty." It's the rise and fall of a young fighter who despite his skills shuns scientific boxing to slug things out like his idol, not knowing that Lefty ended up punch-drunk in a sanitarium, as he himself will.

Meanwhile, Arden X. Pangborn brings back the crafty Chinatown jeweler Wong Soo, who in "The Eye of the Crow" solves a masked robbery of the archetypal charity collection, for which an innocent man is framed. As usual, Wong Soo proves himself a better detective than the white cops assigned to Chinatown, showing up their obvious racism even while Pangborn's stories are arguably racist themselves in their stereotypes of Chinatown. Louis C. Goldsmith, a rising Argosy star, has a decent novelet, "We're Running Line," about hazardous surveying work subject to sabotage. This was a big improvement on the last Goldsmith story I read, but I felt handicapped in my appreciation by my ignorance of surveying. I have to assume that Argosy's target readership was more familiar with the jargon of the job than, say, the average paperback reader would be today. Obviously Goldsmith felt no need to explain exactly what the surveyors were doing, but you don't need to know all the details to get the drama of the story. Last if not least, William Foster Elliot makes his Argosy debut with "Ten-Thirty and Red," a trifle about an undercover cop infiltrating a drug ring. This issue was an improvement on last week, with Ketchum the weakest link and the Tuttle not exactly awful. Next week Robert Carse brings the Foreign Legion to 19th century Mexico and "The Man From Madrid" concludes. Stay tuned.


Sunday, July 6, 2014

Pre-Code Parade: I'M NO ANGEL (1933)

Mae West was the Madonna or the Lady Gaga of her time, a provocateur, a missionary of scandal if not that much of a singer. She got herself arrested for staging a play called Sex on Broadway back in the Roaring Twenties and thus was a celebrity well before she hit Hollywood in 1932. Unlike her spiritual descendants, West was also a kind of nostalgia act. The Twenties may have been our first moment of pop-culture nostalgia. Amid so much that was new in that decade, there was a fond recall of the "Gay Nineties," which weren't quite as scandalous as the adjective now suggests, but were remembered by survivors, and idealized by their children, as a wide-open time of fun before the Anti-Saloon League ruined everything. For her first star vehicle at Paramount, which had tried her out in a character part in another picture, West (and grudgingly acknowledged screenwriters) adapted her nostalgia piece Diamond Lil into She Done Him Wrong. That picture opens with a loving depiction of those good old days before the turn of the century, including an abundance of beer. West returned to that period several times, as if inscribing herself as a pioneer of sex in the time of her own childhood. But for her second Paramount starring role, and her first original screen story -- she gets a "Story, Screenplay and All Dialogue" credit while Wesley Ruggles directs -- she made herself a modern woman.

That may have been taking a chance, since her nostalgia appeal probably helped her get away with playing a sex goddess without the figure that required in 1933. On the other hand, her sex appeal was less a matter of physical perfection -- obviously! -- and more a matter of attitude based on experience. That makes her recasting of herself as a relative underdog a further stretch. She Done Him Wrong presumes a Mae West already idolized, an unflappable master of events. In I'm No Angel she's not exactly more vulnerable -- West seems incapable of vulnerability -- but she starts at a disadvantage. Tira (pronounced "Tyra") is a carnival performer who has to think fast when it looks like someone has been murdered in her room. Afraid that she'll be implicated -- one of her carny cronies had tried to blackmail her gentleman caller but had to brain him -- she agrees to take on the dangerous work of lion taming for her boss Big Bill (Edward Arnold) in return for the services of his high-priced lawyer (Gregory Ratoff).

Big Bill had been pushing her to do the lion act because he knew it'd make her a star and his show a sensation. Events prove his hunch correct. Lion taming was easy work in those days; flick a whip and fire a gun every so often. West also has the aid of process shots, including an ambitious traveling matte that lets a lion follow her around the cage. Anyway, the act (and her costume) goes over big and Tira soon settles into the typical Mae West lifestyle: extravagant clothes and a whole corps of fawningly sassy black maids -- Hattie McDaniel gets the least dialogue of the four, and no screen credit, while one another is famously ordered to peel a grape. Tira is one of the era's super gold diggers -- but can it be? Is she actually falling in love with one of her men? Well, it is Cary Grant, whom she'd made a star in She Done Him Wrong, so why not settle for the best?  She's ready to give up the circus gig, but Big Bill can't lose his meal ticket. He finds their old carny crony who'd made trouble earlier in the picture, and now he makes more, establishing himself in Tira's apartment like he's the old boyfriend. As Big Bill expected, Cary calls off the engagement. As no one expected, Tira, who appears at least stunned and possibly hurt at the news, sues him for breach of promise.

And now Mae West, the ghost of the Gay Nineties and a survivor of the Roaring Twenties, becomes a true Pre-Code heroine. Big Bill's lawyer agrees to handle her case, while Cary's attorney (Irving Pichel is uncredited but there's no mistaking that mellifluously sinister voice) assembles a small army of former lovers to detroy Tira's credibility. Their relationships are Tira's area of expertise, not the lawyer's, so she convinces him, and the judge, to let her cross-examine the defense witnesses. Any woman playing the lawyer's part on screen was still a rarity at this time, and Mae West as a mock-lawyer must have been dynamite for 1933 audiences. She lives up to the moment, brilliantly demolishing Pichel's case man by man, vindicating herself without denying or renouncing anything, including the gifts she accepted -- but did not solicit, she insists -- from all the men. It may be her greatest scene on film because it requires her to really engage her interlocutors -- she often seemed oddly aloof, as if walled up behind her own one-liners, in She Done Him Wrong -- but in a confrontational setting that allows her to assert her preferred dominance. Through it all, Pichel still has a trump card to play: Grant's own testimony about the man in her room will ruin Tira despite everything. But as he watches her fight for her due and her good name, Grant gains new respect for her and pretty much falls in love over again. He finally orders Pichel to stand down, refusing to contest the suit any further. As it turns out, he won't lose anything because he shortly proposes to her and she tears up the settlement check. That is, he won't lose any more than comes with supporting Mae West's lifestyle, but that's a happy ending for Mae and her fans, and the apogee of West's movie career. The advent of Code Enforcement the following year delayed the release of her follow-up picture and forced its transformation from It Ain't No Sin to Belle of the Nineties. It was still a hit -- there was new reason, even after Repeal, for nostalgia for those wide-open days -- but it was downhill from there. As her movie star declined, she survived as a living legend, re-emerging occasionally -- for the last time, perhaps most notoriously, at age 85 -- to assert that her sex appeal was a matter of pure will. If others haven't followed that path to its end yet, some inevitably will. Mae may have hoped to be timeless, but she belongs to Pre-Code Cinema, and with I'm No Angel she certainly earned her spot.

Meanwhile, how about dessert?

Friday, July 4, 2014

On the Big Screen: SNOWPIERCER (2013)

Despite all the positive buzz this spring I couldn't bring myself to see Edge of Tomorrow. I just couldn't shake the feeling that I had seen it all before, time and again. I didn't feel that way about Snowpiercer, but while I went to the local arthouse to see it today, its American distributor felt that Bong Joon-ho's wintry apocalypse would have the opposite problem: it would not seem familiar enough to American audiences. As genre movie buffs know by now, Snowpiercer has been "dumped" into arthouses in its director's cut after Miramax could not compel Bong, one of South Korea's star directors, to cut the film and make it more U.S.-friendly in some way. For all I know, the controversy was a clever ploy that may salvage what otherwise might have been a catastrophic bomb had it rolled out wide in the multiplexes. It had a good holiday crowd in my town, at least, but it probably never would have been a blockbuster, even with Chris "Captain America" Evans in the lead. It simply isn't cool in the right way. Instead, it's weird in a way that has become a sort of Korean national style, even though Bong nods quite obviously to Anglo-American influences. Put another way, it's weird in a way that makes it genuinely fantastic rather than merely cool, but that may take it out of many people's comfort zone. One person's weird is more people's "stupid," alas.

In case Korean cinema is all a blur for you, Bong Joon-ho is the one who made the classic procedural Memories of Murder and the monster comedy The Host, among others, both of which star Song Kang-ho, who is the lead Korean in Snowpiercer. Bong and American writer Kelly Masterson adapted a French graphic novel that at first glance might appeal to Republican conservatives, since it portrays the disastrous unintended consequences of an attempt to reverse global warming. The effort to cool the atmosphere proved too successful, causing a global deep freeze survived only by those thousands who managed to board the Snowpiercer supertrain, which now circles the globe constantly. The story proper begins a generation later, when the train's designer, Mr. Wilford (Ed Harris) is worshipped, to use a Korean analogy, like someone from the Kim dynasty. Wilford is no communist, however; the Snowpiercer is segregated on class lines, an elite living luxuriously toward the front, the majority living like shit toward the rear. The poor live in filth and feed on a daily allowance of "protein blocks" that look nasty even before you learn their key ingredient. They haven't taken it lying down, however. There have been periodic uprisings and Curtis Everett (Evans) is planning the latest. The spark is the armed seizure of two small children for purposes unknown and the atrocious punishment of one child's father (Ewen Bremner) for throwing a shoe in protest. His right arm is put through a porthole to freeze while Mason (Tilda Swinton), a spokesperson for Wilford, lectures the rabble on accepting their predestined places in life and on the train. The man's arm is removed and shattered with a hammer; it turns out that many older passengers in the rear cars are missing limbs, though not for the reasons we first assume. Under Curtis's leadership, the rebels weld barrels together into a part battering ram, part tunnel for the moment when three security gates open simultaneously. To go further, they must liberate imprisoned security expert Namgoong Min-su (Song) from a morgue-like prison. He knows how to open the gates all the way to the lead cars and the Great Engine, but he's hopelessly addicted to Cronol, a form of industrial waste with hallucinogenic properties. As long as the rebels can keep him and his daughter in the nasty stuff, they'll keep pressing forward with Mason as their hostage.

The Snowpiercer is a microcosm of our class-based society with spectacular luxury cars that stun the rebels and the movie audience alike. The film occasionally loses its sense of urgency as the rebels pause to eat sushi, gape at an all-encompassing aquarium car and sit in on an elementary class teaching the genius of Mr. Wilford, but the spectacle almost justifies the delay. While the dystopia train tells a pessimistic story of the perpetuation of inequality even at the brink of human extinction, the reduction in scale inspires Curtis's thought that now, finally, it's possible for the masses to "take over the engine" and finally control society. To do so, they have to go through well-armed guards -- though not so well-armed as they wanted people to think -- and one nearly-indestructible badass boss (Vlad Ivanov), before Curtis has his Apocalypse Now-meets-2001 encounter with Wilford and has his sense of mission subverted by some unexpected revelations. Fortunately, just as Curtis has his moment of doubt, Namgoong has an alternate idea: instead of trying to take over the train, why not just leave? Wilford preaches that it's death to detrain, but Namgoong has noticed from year to year that the ice is actually melting. Mankind could actually start over again, but it may be necessary to abandon the old society altogether to get a proper start.

Naming Curtis's mentor (John Hurt) "Gilliam" is a pretty obvious homage to a fairly obvious influence on Bong, but there's also a lot of superficial Kubrick elements here, including a direct musical quote from The Shining. Bong is clearly closer to Gilliam's sensibility than Kubrick's, though Snowpiercer as a whole looks like an attempt to acknowledge influences while leaving them behind. Somewhat more dimly, I was reminded of Roger Corman and Nicolas Roeg's Masque of the Red Death by the spectacular transitions from car to car, while any violent cinematic quest to meet a mad mastermind, as I've already noted, harkens back to Apocalypse Now. So Snowpiercer actually is "familiar" in some ways, at least to movie buffs. But Bong synthesizes all these influences to serve a vision that is distinctly his, in a film that has the freshness of a distinctive visual imagination. Cinematographer Hong Kyung-pyo, who worked with Bong on his previous film, Mother, and production designer Ondreij Nekvasil, for whom this is a major step up in stature, deserve their shares of credit for realizing Bong's vision. In front of the camera, Snowpiercer further confirms Chris Evans's maturing into an authoritative leading man and action star, just as he's contemplating retirement to behind the camera. In a role more showy than substantial, Tilda Swinton echoes Jodie Foster's invocation of Margaret Thatcher, or a generic reactionary female, in last year's disappointing dystopia Elysium, but Swinton is unafraid to go for over-the-top caricature and gives a far more memorable and entertaining performance. Song Kang-ho makes a solid impression without having to speak English -- apparently the need for subtitles was one of Miramax's problems with the director's cut -- and despite his relatively late appearance becomes a virtual co-lead with Evans, getting a big speech in his own language to match the American's showcase confession of cannibalism and admission of sacrifice-envy. A global ensemble of character actors fill out the picture with the broad-stroke portrayals it needs. Overall, Snowpiercer is as much a roller-coaster ride -- often literally -- as any Hollywood sci-fi adventure, but I suppose it's too blatantly and honestly carnivalesque about it to be blockbuster cool, and that makes it an arthouse film in America. Ironically enough, Miramax thinks that this parable of inevitable class struggle, climaxing with the utter destruction of luxury and the idle rich, would only be enjoyed by the people in the front of the train.

Thursday, July 3, 2014


Many westerns with historical figures as characters play fast and loose with history, but this Sam Katzman B western for Columbia Pictures, directed by serial specialist Spencer G. Bennett, is like a Bizarro history lesson. The utterly generic title refers, I presume, to Tecumseh (Jay Silverheels), the great Shawnee chief. In this picture, Tecumseh feuds with his violent brother, the self-styled Prophet (Michael Ansara), because the Prophet wants to wage war on the white men in the Ohio Valley, while Tecumseh only wants peace. Tecumseh is passionately devoted to the idea that white and red man can live together. For him, the ultimate proof of racial harmony will be his marriage to Laura (Christine Larson), a white woman and his dear friend since childhood. Toward this end, he wants to build an American-style town for the Shawnee. Called New Tippecanoe, it will prove that Native Americans are as capable of bourgeois civlization as the whites. But the Prophet will have none of it; nor will the British, for whom the Prophet is a pawn in their plan to wage war on the former colonies. The town is built with the encouragement of Gov. William Henry Harrison and Harrison's man on the scene, another of Tecumseh's boyhood white friends, Steve Rudell (Jon Hall), who also loves Laura -- none of the young people knowing that her father is in league with the Brits to arm the Prophet and make mischief. At the climax, the Prophet's braves attack the Americans, but are repulsed. In a fit of vindictive rage, he and his remaining braves burn New Tippecanoe to the ground. Tecumseh survives to see his dream reduced to ruin. In his despair, he doesn't even press his claim to Laura against Steve's obvious advances. Instead, he bids them farewell and heads north to face his lonely destiny.

I'm not going to bother giving you a history lesson, but NO!!! Suffice it to say that many today regard Tecumseh as a hero because of his resistance to American expansion, that when people called William Henry Harrison "Old Tippecanoe" it was not to compliment his peaceful ways toward the Indians, and that the town that was burnt was called "Prophetstown," and it was burnt by whites. Brave Warrior is flabbergasting in its indifference to facts. To an extent I can understand moviemakers taking liberties with the lives of the famous outlaws and gunfighters for dramatic or "print the legend" reasons. But Brave Warrior seems determined to make a new legend of Tecumseh from whole cloth, and it seems like there should be a reason for this, but for the life of me I can't figure it out. I get that the film whitewashes the Americans, blaming the violence in the Ohio Valley on the Prophet and the British, but why -- so to speak -- whitewash Tecumseh? Why make him the friend of the U.S. when he wasn't? The only good reason I can see is to give Jay Silverheels a virtual leading man part, even though top billing goes to the dull Hall. It's always cool to hear "Tonto" use that great voice in complete sentences, but that's just about the only cool thing in this ahistorical misfire. Ansara is wasted in what should have been a great role, the script doing very little to play up the Prophet's mystical pretensions. Here he's basically a thug with bad war paint and an eyepatch. While Ansara was establishing himself as one of Hollywood's all-purpose ethnics, he hardly looks like Jay Silverheels's brother. When the brothers take their shirts off to fight for leadership, Ansara almost looks like Bolo Yeung compared to the authentically wiry Silverheels. Worse still, we never get the final showdown between the brothers everything seems to be pointing toward. Tecumseh should be hell-bent for revenge on the Prophet for burning New Tippecanoe, but instead he mopes into the horizon, an appropriate symbol of this idiosyncratic yet uninspired project.

It says something about the studio system that Columbia still made an effort to promote this plodding programmer. The studio sent leading lady Larson -- purportedly a paramour of Ronald Reagan -- on the road with a troupe of Indian extras to plug the picture. Here are some relics of their trip to Pittsburgh.

Somehow it didn't surprise me to learn that Larson's career didn't last long.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Real Pulp Fiction: ARGOSY, JULY 1, 1939

This week's cover story, Allan Vaughan Elston's "East of Fiji," doesn't really deliver the exoticism the cover promises. There isn't the sort of culture clash you might expect, but simply a murder mystery focusing on the so-called Cockroach Inn, where people may or may not have been killed and some sort of treasure may or may not have been stashed years before. It isn't very memorable; I honestly could remember nothing about it until I ran through the pages again tonight looking for screencaps. They said that was true about a lot of pulp fiction but I didn't believe it until I started this project.

I had better luck remembering Garnett Radcliffe's "The Rifle of Feroz Khan." Radcliffe was another exotic author, specializing in tales set in India or thereabouts. This time we hear a tall tale from the title narrator relating the greatest shot he ever made. William Tell was nothing compared to Feroz Khan, who has to shoot a pebble off the head of a friend to prove his own veracity -- he had boasted of his marksmanship -- and exonerate the friend, who had been falsely accused of a crime. Radcliffe ratchets up the tension as the nervous hero stalls by demanding a more difficult shot, steadily placing himself further and further away from the target. It has a resolution that made me cackle a little with satisfaction.

With Walter C. Brown's "The Lost Pigtail" we return to the Chinatown of the pulp imagination. On our last visit, I suggested that the pulp Chinese with their strange customs and proverbial idiom were ancestors of the magical beings who populate today's "urban fantasy" stories. I stand by that, but at the same time Chinatown authors too often substituted proverbs (or dialects) for dialogue and actual characterization. Everybody talks and pretty much acts alike in most of these stories. In this one, we learn why it was handy for one old-timer to keep his queue of hair that others had shorn off to keep up with the times. In a typical plot of this period, someone's stealing money that had been collected for war relief in the mother country, then under attack by "the brown monkeys" from Japan. Our hero's hair helps him defeat the villain, though he did not use his pigtail to strangle his foe, as I expected. How'd he do it? Someday you may find out for yourselves.

Charles Tenney Jackson's "The Island That Died" is a story in his series about Mase McKay, a swamp man who lives on the edge of the law in the Florida Everglades and thereabouts. He hires out for an expedition looking for fossils and gets caught in an old feud over treasure. It's fairly action-packed but, like "East of Fiji" it hasn't proved particularly memorable. McKay was a popular enough character, however, that we'll see more of him this year.

This week's Argosy Oddity is John Ames York's "Thunderbolt." In short, it's about a German flier dive-bombing Hitler, and both men showing up in the afterlife. That sort of speaks for itself.

On the serial front, the last installment of Howard Rigsby's "Voyage to Leandro" can't hope to live up to last week's hair-raising episode, but Rigsby makes a valiant effort by having his hero's delirious partner chop his own gangrenous foot off. From there it's on to an all-too predictable happy ending as our hero finally meets the mysterious girl called Nautilus and ends up marrying her, while his tarnished idol, the mutineer Jeremy Robb, is tossed off a cliff by his own moronic sidekick. Overall, "Leandro" is a superior serial and an interesting coming-of-age-through-disillusionment story. Meanwhile, Walter Ripperger's "The Man From Madrid" kills off more of its cast without yet solving the mystery death from the first installment. Our hero, who you'll recall is trying to recover a stolen treasure for the beleaguered -- and by the time of publication, obsolete -- Spanish Republic, is caught between the increasingly desperate, murderous leader of the thieves and his increasingly brazen self-appointed helper, Mr. Nibbs, who has left one of the thieves a gibbering wreck after last week's torture. There are two weeks to go now, and it still looks like things are going to get worse -- for the hero, not the reader -- before they get better. The serials (not counting the reprint of A. Merritt's Seven Footprints to Satan) and the Radcliffe story are the saving virtues of a largely mediocre issue.

Next week brings back Philip Ketchum's magic axe Bretwalda and Arden X. Pangborn's Chinatown jeweler Wong Sun, while one of Argosy's most popular authors, and one of his most popular characters, make their debuts in our survey. Stay tuned!