Saturday, November 29, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, November 28, 2014

Pre-Code Parade: SIT TIGHT (1931)

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

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

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

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Pre-Code Parade: GOLD DUST GERTIE (1931)

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

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

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

Saturday, November 22, 2014

DVR Diary: FRISCO KID (1935)

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, November 18, 2014


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

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

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

Saturday, November 15, 2014


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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, November 13, 2014

REAL PULP FICTION: Johnston McCulley in Zorro-Land

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

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

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

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

Saturday, November 8, 2014


Ever since D. W. Griffith we've accepted editing as the grammar of cinema, yet every so often someone acts as if eliminating editing, or at least the trace of it, is the acme of cinematic art. The long take and the tracking shot are a kind of alternate language that can call itself cinematic for emphasizing the mobility of the camera, yet to trade montage for mis-en-scene arguably is to exchange the cinematic for the theatrical. Projects like Rope and Russian Ark are impressive in both theory and execution, yet ultimately seem more labor-intensive than the results justify. They're masterpieces of a sort, but are more stunts than real classics. Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu is trying something different in Birdman, but the inherent theatricality of the long-take is still there, as is only fitting for a film about the theater and the mutual envy of theater and film. Inarritu, in a drastic departure from his signature style as the innovator and popularizer of the so-called lasagna movie (intercutting between "layers" of different stories as in Amores Perros, Babel), attempts the illusion, inside very early and very late brackets, of telling his story without a cut, but unlike the Hitchcock and Sokurov experiments mentioned above, he also attempts to sustain the illusion while taking jumps in time. Sometimes he uses devices that are more or less dissolves: the lights go out inside buildings while night turns to day; a video image on a smartphone becomes an image on a barroom TV set. Sometimes he does a kind of in-camera flash-forward, his camera panning across time as well as space. This latter trick is itself very theatrical; you can imagine, if you haven't actually seen, a stage director do something similar, lacking the luxury of the editing room.

Is there a point to this beyond showing off what Inarritu and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki can do? I'm not sure, but there clearly seems to be a point to Birdman's kulturkampf of theater and cinema, and there may be a clue in the "truth or dare" games played by Edward Norton's pretentious stage actor and Emma Stone as the main character's recovering-skank daughter. The Norton character is obsessed with "truth," though he warns that he's only ever "true" on stage, and refuses ever to take a dare from Stone. Michael Keaton's  protagonist, meanwhile, is taking the ultimate dare, risking his savings and his self-respect to prove himself as an actor after years playing superheroes by producing, writing, directing and starring in a highbrow vanity project based on a story by his boyhood idol, Raymond Carver. He's regarded with contempt by the Broadway regulars, barely disguised by Norton, playing a late addition to the cast, and blatantly undisguised by a powerful newspaper critic, a Frank Rich in drag who threatens to ruin Keaton's play by panning it sight-unseen out of resentment of movie stars usurping the legitimate theater. What does this mean to Inarritu and his co-writers? Does he have stage envy? Or had he heard too much about his films being gimmicky in some way or other that put his directorial legitimacy in question? However it works out, the publicity emphasizing the resemblance of Keaton's role, or his character's past, to the actor's own career nicely hides the extent to which the protagonist is more a surrogate for the director, down to the delusions of superhuman omnipotence, than for the star.

I'm afraid my theorizing isn't doing justice to the best and funniest film I've seen so far this year, a film that may owe as much to Mel Brooks as to higher things. The Broadway milieu and the troubled production and its almost accidental triumph automatically evoke The Producers, while Inarritu's occasional acknowledgment on-screen of the drummer providing much of the film's soundtrack -- you wonder sometimes whether this film traded scores with Whiplash -- looks like a nod to the Count Basie band's cameo appearance in Blazing Saddles. You might have expected something more pretentious if you recognized the Godard homage in the way the names in the credits appear a few letters at a time, and I suppose the playfulness on display in Birdman isn't alien to the dread Frenchman, but Godard is rarely this laugh-out-loud hilarious. Much of the credit for this goes to Edward Norton, who should be as much a shoo-in for a supporting actor nomination as Keaton seems deservedly to be in the lead-actor category. In fact, Norton nearly blows Keaton off the screen anytime they're together, even when their byplay is clearly improving Keaton's game. Had the film been made a decade later, the former Incredible Hulk could well have taken the lead, and even though Norton's actual role is crucially different from the actor in his aloof disdain for cinema, it's arguably more painfully closer to the mark than Keaton's in the master thespian's bridge-burning difficulty. More than in Keaton's case, Norton's departure from superhero cinema was a matter of self-sabotage; it may be easier to imagine him tormented by the Hulk's voice than Keaton by Batman's. None of this, however, makes Norton's performance so brilliant funny. The actor would have managed that had he never heard of Marvel. Keaton, too, is good enough to transcend his history; he'd be as good had he never been Batman. That's because Birdman isn't really about superheroes, superhero actors or superhero movies, except to the extent that superheroes give theater chauvinists a new excuse to belittle cinema. Ultimately, Inarritu may have intended his film as a vindication of cinema, a demonstration that it can play by theater rules as well as transcend its bounds. If we see Keaton's character as a representative or embodiment of cinema, rather than as a mere shadow of Michael Keaton, the film's mysteriously wondrous ending makes some thematic sense and the film itself remains a comedy. As a comedy, Birdman is in an ancient, classical tradition. Keaton's run through Times Square in his tidy-whities is something out of Keystone silents when the stars would run amok in public places, and it's set up with a classically simple sight gag. Exploiting the most modern technology, Inarritu in a way takes the art of cinema back a whole century, but if it's funny that's OK. Birdman's comedy, leavened in classic style with a little pathos, does much to redeem any seeming self-indulgence. Ideally, people will enjoy it without even thinking of it as an art movie, if it gets outside the art houses. Here's hoping it will.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014


Convict Lake in California takes its name from an 1871 shootout between a posse and a gang of escaped convicts. For Twentieth Century-Fox, the secret of Convict Lake was that its violent history could be molded into a template set by a studio western of a few years earlier, William Wellman's Yellow Sky. Wellman's film had a gang of bank robbers trekking through the desert to find an old prospector and his tomboy daughter sitting on a treasure. Michael Gordon's Secret of Convict Lake has the prison escapees trek through treacherous snowy mountains to discover a colony of women and children led by a bedridden Ethel Barrymore by the lake, their menfolk having gone off prospecting. Wellman pitted gang leader Gregory Peck, playing hard boiled at first against type, against ambitious, greedy Richard Widmark. Gordon pits Glenn Ford, who had experience playing darker western types (The Man From Colorado, Lust For Gold), against ambitious, greedy Zachary Scott, who loses some of his essential smarm as a grubby convict. In both films, the lead outlaw is redeemed by love after grooming himself proper. Overall, Convict Lake seems designed to amplify Yellow Sky at every level. There are even multiple secrets of Convict Lake, depending on how you count. As in Yellow Sky, there's loot to be had, but for Ford's character there's also a secret personal agenda that brings him to the lake. He was jailed for murder, but while he admits killing his man he claims self-defense, but a former friend testified that the act was unprovoked. That man lives in the lake community, and his fiancee (Gene Tierney) ends up being Ford's love interest while he waits for his chance at revenge. Yellow Sky was an early "adult" western, and Convict Lake is more adult, at least by 1951 standards, addressing the needs of lonely women, attributing some mild masochism to the Scott character (he enjoys being slapped by women) and including in the gang a psychologically disturbed rapist and murderer (Richard Hylton). It's a crime of violence for him, we're told; he goes berserk when women -- and men, he says provocatively -- resist him. He ends up lynched by pitchforks and heavy logs by outraged femininity after going for one of the younger ladies, while the Ford character turns against the gang, having never really thought them his friends, before getting his crack at his returning betrayer.

All the pieces seem to be in place, but Convict Lake is no Yellow Sky, mainly because Michael Gordon is no William Wellman. The narration over the escapees' trek through the mountains is an immediate vote of no confidence in Gordon's narrative skills, and the director often seems to have no clue how to make use of either the outdoor locations or the spacious soundstage where most of the action takes place. Too many scenes are shot from middle or long distance, as if Gordon were a holdover from the earliest days of movies; the action is rarely framed as dramatically as it could be. Even during its initial release, the film was criticized for Leo Tover's overly dark cinematography, and the rather poor print shown on FXM Retro compounds the problem. As it stands now, Secret of Convict Lake is simply an ugly film to watch. In surer directorial hands the story certainly would be stronger, and while Ford and Scott are effective as antagonists there are a few too many characters for Gordon to juggle competently. Ford's showdown with his betrayer is inevitably anticlimactic, since nearly nothing has been done to build the latter up as an antagonist before he returns to the lake. If my hunch is right that Fox was simply trying to ape Yellow Sky, then the failure of Convict Lake proves that the power of the adult western wasn't yet something, this early in the greatest decade for Hollywood westerns, that could be reduced conveniently to a template or formula.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Pre-Code Parade: JOURNAL OF A CRIME (1934)

How do you get away with murder? Forget about it! No, really how can you possibly get off the hook after you've deliberately killed somebody. Forget about it, I said! The story conference at Warner Bros. may have been worthy of Abbot and Costello, but the writers of William Keighley's high-society melodrama actually were adapting a French play, though I don't know if we can blame the French for the film's conclusion. Whoever's to blame, here's a late Pre-Code picture with a finish that probably wouldn't be permitted a year later. Ruth Chatterton is the jealous wife of successful playwright Adolphe Menjou, who has a crush on the ingenue of his newest operetta (Claire Dodd). She shoots the singer in the back during a rehearsal, but by coincidence a bank robber, who has just killed a teller, is in the theater trying to ditch the gendarmes by blending in with the stagehands. His clumsy attempt to flee once the law shows up to investigate the killing only gets him caught and blamed for the singer's death. Menjou quickly figures out what actually happened, but finds himself emotionally blackmailed into silence when Chatterton threatens to kill herself if he goes to the police. Instead, he intends to wait her out while she goes the way of Raskolnikov, slowly consuming herself with guilt, as much over the poor robber/murderer having to die in part for her own crime. She feels compelled to visit the prisoner and confess the truth, but as he sees it he's already going to die for the bank teller so the false charge doesn't really bother him. It bothers her increasingly, however; she faints upon reading news of the convict's execution. Finally at the breaking point, by which time Menjou pities rather than hates her, she finally makes an appointment to turn herself in to the Attorney General (an unusually benign Douglas Dumbrille), but in a twist deemed ridiculous even by contemporary reviewers Chatterton redeems herself by rescuing a child from an oncoming car and taking the hit herself. She suffers one of those cinematically fortunate brain injuries that does no permanent damage to her cognitive capacity but wipes out entirely her memories of the past, including the murder. In a denouement that leaves the hitherto relatively sympathetic Menjou looking like a creep, he decides he'll now keep his wife after all, presumably reconstructing her personality selectively to suit himself while she lives innocently ever after. There's something almost preposterously Christlike about it all. Chatterton endures a kind of death for her own sin only to be reborn pure, after talking to a thief who was willing to take her sin upon himself, asking in return only to learn the ending of Robinson Crusoe. Spoiler alert: "He returns to England." It all leaves me wondering who exactly in the audience was supposed to be pleased by this story. It's okay visually, and the rehearsal scenes climaxing in the shooting and the capture of the thief are particularly well shot. But it's hard to imagine anyone empathizing with the Chatterton or Menjou characters, since the former is redeemed at the cost of her personality while the latter perpetuates a cover-up forever after for selfish reasons. Refined in tone -- consider the stars, after all -- it has none of the sleaze identified with Pre-Code, but Journal ends up one of the period's most amoral pictures, and not in any particularly likable way. If the peasants marching on Hollywood in 1934 had said "Off with her head!" I'd have to agree with them just that once.