Thursday, December 31, 2015

50 films for the Registry

To end the year I'll fulfill a promise made earlier this month to scan the Library of Congress's list of films not yet enshrined in the National Film Registry and find fifty films to nominate in chronological order. Readers may recall that I complained about the inclusion in the Class of 2015 of such recent films as The Shawshank Redemption and L.A. Confidential, without passing judgment on their quality, while older films languished that could benefit in the future from a government commitment to their preservation. My feeling was that the Registry tried too hard to be chronologically diverse in order to get the attention of younger people and the news media, and that their justification of "cultural significance" isn't justification enough to reduce the quota of older, historically significant films Registered. I'm now looking at the list of eligible films on the Registry website, starting from 1890. I don't intend to pick the first 50 films because age doesn't automatically confer significance. Instead, I'll choose titles I've seen or know something about beyond their age. So here we go:

1. Serpentine Dance by Annabelle (1896) - If I recall right, this was part of the 100 years of movies montage that used to run on TCM all the time. Before that, it was often mentioned in film history books as an early example of hand-tinting, sexy dancing, and slow motion.

2. Uncle Josh at the Moving Picture Show (1902) - Possibly the original of the long-popular joke about hick audiences not realizing what they saw on the screen was fake.

3. Life of an American Fireman (1903) - One of Edwin S. Porter's pioneer narrative films from the same year as his better-known Great Train Robbery.

4. The Adventures of Dollie (1908). D. W. Griffith's debut as a director has to count for something.

5. The Curtain Pole (1909). Here I've cheated, since the Registry doesn't have this on their list for some reason, but it's an early slapstick comedy with Griffith directing Mack Sennett, and after more than a century the action is still fairly funny.

6. Frankenstein (1910). Landmark American horror film. Far more people have seen Charles Ogle's makeup in history books than have seen the film, though it came out from under tight wraps fairly recently.

7. Musketeers of Pig Alley (1912). Another canonical Griffith short, this time focusing on urban crime.

8. Suspense (1913). Co-directed by Lois Weber with innovative threeway split-screen effects.

9. Kid Auto Races at Venice (1914). The first time most people saw Charlie Chaplin in his Tramp costume.

10. The Squaw Man (1914). Cecil B. DeMille's debut and a milestone for filming in Hollywood.

11. The Lamb (1915). Douglas Fairbanks Sr.'s starring debut.

12. The Mystery of the Leaping Fish (1916). Fairbanks as detective Coke Ennyday in an absurd Tod Browning story.

13. The Butcher Boy (1917). Buster Keaton's debut under the tutelage of Fatty Arbuckle.

14. Shoulder Arms (1918). Chaplin's pioneer service comedy, defying fears that comedy about war was tasteless.

15. Blind Husbands (1919). Erich von Stroheim's directorial debut.

16. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1920). John Barrymore in iconic makeup in another pioneer horror film.

17. The Playhouse (1921) Keaton does multiple takes on the same strip of film, with the help of some tape, to create a seamless illusion of multiple selves in the same frame.

18. The Sheik (1921). Talk about cultural significance: after Rudolph Valentino's definitive star vehicle sexy (and wannabe sexy) men were called "shieks" for the rest of the Twenties.

19. Toll of the Sea (1922). First full-length Technicolor film and Anna Mae Wong's debut.

20. The Covered Wagon (1923). Pioneer (no pun intended) western epic.

21. The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923). Lon Chaney becomes a superstar in the indirect foundation film for the Universal horror genre.

22. The Ten Commandments (1923). The bible stuff is only a small part of DeMille's modern morality tale but it pointed toward his remaking into an epic filmmaker.

23. A Woman of Paris (1923). Chaplin's serious film, in which he gave himself a cameo, set a new standard for cinematic sophistication and made Adolphe Menjou a character star.

24. Don Juan (1926). Barrymore swashbuckler is first feature with Vitaphone soundtrack.

25. Chang; A Drama of the Wilderness (1927). Documentary filmed in Thailand by Cooper & Schoedsack of King Kong fame, complete with elephant stampede.

26. The King of Kings (1927). DeMille's taboo-breaking Jesus film; two years earlier Ben-Hur refused to show His face or even His body in some scenes.

27. The Battle of the Century (1927) - Epic pie fight highlights recently-restored early Laurel & Hardy short.

28. Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928). Keaton's disaster comedy with budget-busting special effects and his signature stunt with the collapsing building facade.

29. The Broadway Melody (1929). Winner of second Oscar for Best Picture.

30. In Old Arizona (1929). Early sound location shooting with Warner Baxter in his Oscar-winning turn as the Cisco Kid.

31. The Skeleton Dance (1929). Walt Disney's macabre launch of his Silly Symphony series.

32. The Bat Whispers (1930). Roland West's dynamic early widescreen picture.

33. Hell's Angels (1930). Howard Hughes's epic vanity project about the air war in Europe.

34. Anna Christie (1930). Garbo talks and Marie Dressler takes a big step toward her phenomenal late-career stardom.

35. Cimarron (1931) It's pretty bad once you get past the early Oklahoma land rush sequence but it's the fourth Best Picture Oscar winner.

36.Flowers and Trees (1932). Disney's first Silly Symphony in improved Technicolor.

37. Tarzan the Ape Man (1932). Reshaped (and distorted) the popular image of the jungle lord and a textbook collection of stereotypes and Pre-Code horrors.

38. Flying Down to Rio (1933). First team-up of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, plus iconic flying scenes.

39. Gabriel Over the White House (1933). Relic of the American imagination's flirtation with dictatorship at the trough of the Depression and attendant crime wave.

40. California Election News No. 1 (1934). M-G-M produced fake newsreel used as propaganda against Upton Sinclair's left-wing campaign for governor of California.

41. Becky Sharp (1935). First feature in improved "three strip" or "three color" Technicolor.

42. The Spanish Earth (1937). Pro-government documentary about Spanish Civil War narrated by Ernest Hemingway.

43. Son of Frankenstein (1939). The first two Universal Frankenstein pictures with Boris Karloff are already in, so let's make it a trilogy as Bela Lugosi's Ygor nearly steals the thing from the Monster.

44. Meet John Doe (1941). On general principles; this Capra picture about a political impostor who turns against his master is one of my favorite all-time movies, and arguably the only 1941 picture consciously rivaling Citizen Kane.

45.  High Sierra (1941). It might have been Humprhey Bogart's breakthrough itself if Maltese Falcon hadn't happened. Key proto-noir about a doomed, sympathetic criminal.

46. I Wake Up Screaming (1941). Another key proto-noir picture dominated by Laird Cregar's dirty cop.

47. Superman (1941). The Fleischer brothers bring the new comic-book superhero genre to film.

48. The Battle of Midway (1942). John Ford films the actual action in Technicolor and donates stock footage to generations of Hollywood warmongers.

49. I Walked With A Zombie (1943). In my view this one by Jacques Tourneur is the  best of Val Lewton's classic RKO horror films.

50. Victory Through Air Power (1943). Disney's ambitious feature-length animated propaganda documentary book adaptation.

And there you have it. We'll see how many make it in a year from now. But whatever happens to these films, may all Mondo 70 readers enjoy a happy new year.

Sunday, December 27, 2015

On the Big Screen: CAROL (2015)

While Patricia Highsmith's novel The Price of Salt was reprinted at least once under the title Carol, it surprised me that Todd Haynes went for the alternate title for his film of Phyllis Nagy's adaptation of the book. This was never going to be a blockbuster, so I don't assume that the studio feared people confusing The Price of Salt with a diatribe against the high cost of living. Moreover, under its original title Highsmith's novel (originally pseudonymous) is virtually a canonical novel. My assumption was that The Price of Salt is a more pre-sold title than the bland Carol. So why the latter rather than the former? I couldn't tell you until I saw it and saw how Christmassy the thing is. It's Christmassy down to the period setting. December 1952 is for all intents and purposes contemporary with the 1940s setting of some of our most echt American holiday films like It's A Wonderful Life or A Christmas Story. Carol has the strange effect of reaffirming rather than subverting the notion of that period as our golden age, even though its intent clearly is to expose a cruel repression underway in those years. Its romanticism subverts any subversive intent, but the film's virtues don't really depend on subversive intent or effect. That's a good thing, since subverting the repressive sexual-moral consensus of the 1950s sixty years later would be like shooting a dead horse in a barrel. With that battle largely won, Haynes and Nagy can concentrate on character development and a convincing recreation, rather than a deconstruction, of a time when just about anything seemed possible in the U.S.A. Cinematographer Edward Lachman and the film's production designers nail the look of the period, making all the right choices of color and design. As a kid in the 1970s I saw vestiges of this world all around me and Carol matches my memories of them. Another good choice was the decision to film in Super 16mm, a more intimate format that suits the romantic story and makes the narrower frame more like a window opening directly into the past. For me, making this a nearly impeccable period piece was nearly half the battle.

The other half is the story, of course. That's pure eyes-meet-across-a-crowded-shop-floor romance, the eyes belong to posh shopper Carol Aird (Cate Blanchett) and doll-department clerk Therese Belivet (Rooney Mara), the latter sporting a Santa hat and helpfully suggesting, against the grain of the time, that Carol buy her daughter a train set instead of a doll. Nowadays Scott Lang's daughter in Ant-Man has a train set in her room, but Thomas the Tank Engine is something different from the deluxe affair Therese recommends, and I suppose the choice is a sort of signal beyond what these women's eyes told each other. Carol is married but estranged; she's already had an affair with a childhood BFF (Sarah Paulson) but her hubby Harge (Kyle Chandler) is desperate to reconcile, or simply to possess Carol. At stake is custody of the Aird's daughter, but despite the risk Carol is drawn inexorably to Therese, choosing a road-trip with her over spending the holidays in Florida with Harge and their little girl. Therese has a boyfriend she has no real feelings for and a BMF who encourages her to pursue her photographic vocation. Carol's Christmas gift of a pricey professional Nikon kit helps clinch Therese's identification of her with a better future for herself on every level, but her connection with her new friend transcends such calculations.

Things can't go easy in those days, but Carol is smart (presumably following the novel) in not having its heroines persecuted for their sexuality as such, but having their consummation exploited (by a private eye played by Cory Michael [Eddie Nygma] Smith) to give Harge leverage in the Airds' custody fight. On another level Carol herself is persecuted for her choices, but her subjection to inquisitorial psychoanalysis -- the story rejects the crude notion, articulated by Therese's boyfriend, that there's some psychological problem "in the background" of homosexuals --  is kept behind the curtain and is only referred to in the film. From here the film heads for a sort of Capracorn climax as Carol gives a big speech during the pre-hearing custody negotiations in which, after having ditched Therese in a panicked effort to keep her daughter, she effectively sacrifices her claim to the child, or most of it, rather than give up either Therese or her own nature. It gets positively Chaplinesque at the end, which is a wordless exchange of glances that confirm, despite all, the original exchange at the start of the film.

Like many films these days, Carol is just a little non-linear, opening with a scene that actually comes, when we return to it, very late in the story. But Todd Haynes is enough of an artist to eschew the "x months earlier" blurb that many filmmakers rely on rather than make the point cinematically without spelling things out. I still haven't seen Haynes's best known-film, Far From Heaven, for which Carol is already seen as a companion piece, but a knack for critical period recreation shown there and reconfirmed in his Mildred Pierce miniseries allows us to take Carol and Therese as authentic creatures of their time. Cate Blanchett can take care of the rest easily enough but Rooney Mara holds her own with the master thespian and takes a big step toward fulfilling the promise shown in The Social Network. There's been some controversy with the coming of awards season over critics and Academy members being steered toward considering Mara as a supporting actress rather than an equal to Blanchett. I can understand the complaint given how much screen time Mara has and Therese's nearly co-equal status with Carol in the story. It's really only the custody scene that seems to put Blanchett ahead, but I don't really have a problem (unless Mara does) with putting the two stars in separate categories. Shouldn't people who really like this film want both of them to win something? I have to admit that I haven't seen much this year to compare them with, but right now Blanchett and Mara are my favorites for distaff acting honors this year, and Carol is one of the best films I've seen in 2015.

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

National Film Registry Class of 2015

Actually, I'm a few days overdue reporting on the latest selection for to the Library of Congress's National Film Registry. The 2015 list was announced last week, and predictably enough, some of the least deserving films dominated the headlines. Those are the relatively recent Hollywood hits that are recognized not so much, necessarily, for quality as for broadly-defined cultural significance. With some of these we can have an interesting debate on their worthiness for eventual inclusion in the Registry. Ghostbusters? I can see that. Top Gun? Maybe down the line its purported "deft portrait of mid-1980s America" would be an argument, if not a cause for argument. But if it's too soon to think about Top Gun, it's way too soon to have canonized still more recent films like The Shawshank Redemption and L.A. Confidential. The great flaw of the Registry, I think, is its commitment to chronological diversity. I can understand the thinking behind the inclusion each year of various documentaries, art films and educational films that will be little known to most people. "Historical significance" arguments can even be made, and have been made, in favor of home movies that capture important moments or aspects of American history. But when there remains such a massive backlog of older films, for which the government-subsidized preservation to which Registry films are entitled is obviously a high priority, an imperative to represent the 1980s or 1990s seems counterproductive. Of course, the real imperative behind such choices is to get the attention of the mass media and casual viewers who can't be relied on to know older films or care about their preservation. The Registry presumably benefits from this attention in some way, but the films from fifty or a hundred years ago that must wait another year while the quota of modern stuff is met are not.

There's still plenty to applaud in this year's selection. I was surprised to see the very short 1894 film once known as Fred Ott's Sneeze only getting Registered this year, since as the Register's own press release notes, it was long presented as the representative relic of movies' earliest days. Another ancient film that I haven't seen yet think overdue is 1914's A Fool There Was, the picture that made the once-legendary Theda Bara a legend and established the cinematic archetype of the "vamp." The earliest film in this class that I have seen is Fred Niblo's The Mark of Zorro (1920), which changed the course of Douglas Fairbanks's career, beginning his transformation into the period-costume swashbuckler he's best remembered as, when he's remembered at all and not confused with his son. An inspired choice this year is George Melford's Dracula (1931), better known, of course, as "the Spanish Dracula," filmed by Universal on the same sets as the "American Dracula" with Bela Lugosi directed by Tod Browning. The Registry can use a film representing that brief period after the advent of talkies, and before the advent of dubbing and subtitles, when the Hollywood studios tried to hold their foreign market by making alternative foreign-language versions of their big releases. Whether or not Melford's Dracula is superior to Browning's, as some claim, it may well be the best of this short-lived genre of foreign-language remakes. On purely artistic grounds my favorite choice this year is Anthony Mann's Winchester '73 (1950), the film that united Mann and Jimmy Stewart and marked the advent, without necessarily being the first of its kind, of the "adult" or "psychological" western, as well as the genre's golden age. As mentioned, there are many other films of which I confess myself unqualified to judge. I'll presume that experts have ruled on their worthiness, rather than the PR types who may have pushed for the most recent films. When you take a look at the list of films deemed eligible but not yet Registered, the inclusion or recent crowd-pleasers is even more infuriating. The Registry invites movie fans to nominate up to fifty films for inclusion every year. If I were to go through the list in chronological order, starting with the oldest film I can personally judge worthy, Uncle Josh at the Moving Picture Show (1902), I wonder how far in time I or any real movie lover would get before reaching the limit. There'd be less clickbait in the headlines if everyone voted this way, but the Registry definitely would better serve its purpose.

Sunday, December 20, 2015


Note: This review also appears in roughly the same form on my political blog, The Think 3 Institue.

Over the weekend I finally caught up with Morgan Neville and Robert Gordon's documentary The Best of Enemies, an account of the ABC-TV debates between William F. Buckley Jr. and Gore Vidal during the 1968 national party conventions and the way they supposedly changed the face of TV journalism. This film is a coincidental companion piece to Kevin M. Schultz's book about Buckley and Norman Mailer, which I read last summer and reviewed on my political blog. All we need now is a chronicle of the literary and cultural feud between Mailer and Vidal, buy it's easy enough to read what the participants wrote on the subject. While the Buckley-Mailer was a lament for the quality of intellectual debate, including some capacity for convergence, that passed when Mailer and Buckley died, Best of Enemies ironically blames two supremely erudite men for the coarsening of political opinion in the mass media. While the film strikes a nearly neutral tone politically, it seems to place the majority of blame for what happened and what would come on Vidal, who was hired by ABC as Buckley's antagonist after Buckley had told them he didn't want to be in a room with the man. Vidal is presented as more determined to carry out a hatchet-job on Buckley than in debating the issues at play in the conventions. The loathing was mutual and seemed to coarsen both of them. We see clips of Vidal debating other people and his voice, always as affected as Buckley's, comes across as more natural and spontaneous than it did in 1968, when he adopted a more stentorian voice as if in parody of Buckley, if not in self-parody, and seemed determined to use pre-planned zingers than in actually engaging with anything Buckley said. His main objective was to get under Buckley's skin, and in an example of "propaganda of the deed," get Buckley to expose what Vidal assumed to be a conservative's true nature.

Of course, this is exactly what happened, to what the film claims was Buckley's lifelong mortification. While all the debates were filmed in color, apparently only a black-and-white print survives of this most infamous one. Here it is complete, as uploaded to YouTube by MetrazolElectricity.

What's interesting is what triggered it: challenged by moderator Howard K. Smith to compare the raising of a Vietcong flag by Chicago protesters to the flying of a Nazi flag in this country during World War II, Vidal answered that the closest thing to a "pro or crypto-Nazi" he could see was Buckley. That provoked Buckley to call Vidal a "queer" and threaten to "sock him in the goddamn face." At the time, Buckley said this was an inexcusable insult because he had fought the Nazis as an infantry soldier, a detail Vidal denied. But the filmmakers told us earlier that conservatives of Buckley's generation fiercely resented the "Nazi" label that liberals and leftists applied to them, not least because, obviously enough, their ideal government was quite far from Nazi notions of the state and leadership. From our vantage, Buckley's resentment only dates him, since we've reached a point where no one takes this N-word seriously and it's actually a premise almost universally accepted that using it (of the H-word) disqualifies you from any internet debate. Did Vidal begin that dilution of this N-word or did time really do that damage? It matters little to the film, which probably resonates more months after its theatrical release now that we've seen a presidential campaign driven almost entirely by insults, though even Donald Trump has not yet threatened to punch his rivals in the face, despite Jeb Bush's increasing efforts in that direction.

Buckley said after the debates -- I don't know whether Vidal ever confirmed or denied it -- that after their most contentious encounter Vidal whispered to him that they'd given ABC its money's worth. The best thing Best of Enemies does -- the worst is to reduce the debates to fragmentary sound-bites that emphasize the snark and bile; it would have been more illuminating to show at least one complete -- is restore the Buckley-Vidal feud to its part in ABC News's controversial and initially reviled plan to minimize its convention coverage -- the other major networks will still going gavel-to-gavel -- and replace reporting to a great extent with commentary. ABC offered "unconventional convention coverage" and, so the film argues, Buckley and Vidal delivered the goods, goosing up the third network's ratings as their feud and the protests in Chicago heated up. This led to other news programs adopting point-counterpoint features, and from there the film draws a line straight to Crossfire and all the arguments we hear on TV today.

While the film's own commentators see the environment today as a reflection of increased political and ideological self-segregation, leaving people unable to truly talk to each other in the sense of seeking common ground, Buckley and Vidal were of the same social class and sounded equally like stereotypical snobs, so it can't be argued that theirs were two different worlds, unless you believe sexual preference crucial. I can imagine modern audiences thinking both men fake, unable to imagine that theirs were anyone's natural speaking voices, and some of the documentary's talking heads argue that neither man could have become a celebrity today talking the way they did. Norman Mailer talked somewhat similarly, reflecting an Ivy League education in spite of a more modest background, and it probably tells us more about this moment in American history than it does about any of these three men that they could be so eloquent yet so crude in many ways. Vidal drove Buckley to threaten violence and Mailer to actual violence, and boasted of his own capacity for hatred, while Mailer was quite capable of violence on his own and Buckley was in many ways a vicious reactionary. I concede that all three were far smarter than today's opinionators -- any one of them might have been smarter than this generation combined -- but they all succumbed to some malign spirit of the age instead of transcending it. They can't be blamed for that cultural change, but I suppose they can be blamed for making that new partisan coarseness sound intellectually respectable, and for encouraging others with more spite than wit that they could do likewise. If anything, they pointed the way toward the uselessness of political eloquence and the equation of insult and truth that threatens to prevail today.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Pre-Code Parade: THE CIRCUS CLOWN (1934)

If movie fans remember Joe E. Brown at all, it's as the addled millionaire in Billy Wilder's Some Like it Hot (1959), who can't figure out that Jack Lemmon is only impersonating a woman until Lemmon takes his wig off in the final scene. Brown's famous response is, "Well, nobody's perfect." He was less forgiving a quarter-century earlier in Ray Enright's Circus Clown. In that film, Brown is his typical small-town dope, an aspiring acrobat with the circus in his blood, though his father (also Brown) tries to suppress it. When a circus comes to town, Happy Howard runs away with it, in part because he's smitten with a husky blonde equestrienne. We learn early, if we couldn't tell at first glance, that the blonde is too husky to be true, and not even a blonde. The circus folk rib Happy about it for most of the picture, uniting to keep the otherwise-open secret from the clueless rube. He finally learns the truth while drunk. To explain that, we have to back up a little. There's a time during the middle of the picture when it forgets about the female-impersonator subplot. During this interval Happy falls for a genuine female aerialist (Patricia Ellis), whose brother eventually rejoins the circus. The brother is a wreck, blaming himself for his wife's death in an aerial accident. He's become a lush, and before his comeback performance Happy finds him drinking from a bottle. Fearing for his girl's safety, Happy tries to snatch the bottle from him. As they struggle over it, the girl enters the tent. This provokes the sort of tragicomic moment they don't make anymore. Happy has just made good, turning an accidental intervention in an acrobat act into a spectacular spontaneous spree on the trampoline and inspiring the circus boss to offer him a contract as a performer. Now, however, it's more important to him that the girl not think badly of her brother, so he attempts career suicide. He explains to her that, in fact, he'd been trying to force a drink on the brother, who'd been fighting him off. Convinced that he has to sell this well, Happy proceeds to guzzle down the bottle. As far as we know he's never had a drink before, much less been drunk. He staggers through a herd of elephants before halting at the equestrians' tent, where he at last overhears the terrible truth about the big blonde. Inhibitions washed away, he plunges into the tent. We watch from outside as the tent threatens to implode, and we see inside as Happy knocks his tormentor for a loop. At last he emerges, brandishing the wig like a pioneer's scalp, only to plant it on the hippo who pulls his wagon in the circus parade.

Ruin follows this hollow triumph, of course, as Happy's spree costs him his contract. But this is a comedy so we know he'll make good again. The chance comes when the circus returns to his hometown. The girl's brother, who does his flying in clown makeup, is hopelessly soused when Happy finds him in the tent. There's nothing to do but lay him out and don the costume and makeup himself. Happy is no aerialist but he is an acrobat, so against the odds he makes it through the trapeze act as his father feuds with a heckling Ward Bond in the stands. His dad can tell it's Happy up there because not even clown makeup can hide the breadth of Joe E. Brown's mouth, and that's how we can tell that Brown is doing at least some of the trapeze stunts himself.  Actual flying is beyond him, I presume, and since Enright can't film close enough to the flying  to see anyone's face in detail there's no point in sending Brown out there. But there's a bit where Happy swings back and forth from his perch, the gag being that each time he struggles to stay where he's landed but can't keep his balance, and in that scene it looks like Brown himself to me. Circus Clown is another reminder, alongside his baseball comedies, that Brown, best known even in his heyday for his mouth and his yelling, was probably second only to Buster Keaton as a slapstick athlete.

Speaking of Keaton, Brown and his handlers at Warner Bros. really show up Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer by knowing how to exploit the star's athleticism in a way Metro never really did with Buster. It's really the simplest thing: make his character an athlete, for goodness' sake! While M-G-M, and possibly Keaton himself, were too invested in the archetype of a bumbler who redeems himself, Brown's best comedies present him as a sort of idiot-savant, someone with indisputable physical skills marred by stupidity or some deeper character flaw. In Circus Clown, as opposed to the subtler baseball films, Brown's flaw is raw stupidity, or at best hopeless naivete, but it's exhilarating to see him on the trampoline, especially when you consider that he was about four years older, at age 43, than the deteriorating Keaton. Just to show off, he even plays the father on the trampoline, in full costume and old-man makeup, and remembers to show that he's not quite as spry as his son. If anything, Brown's way with his voice is often the most annoying thing about his films, as here when he tells a boy a bedtime story (it's Peter Pan, for what that's worth) in an insufferably high-pitched baby voice, or when he gets into a roaring competition with a lion. But when he lays off that stuff, Brown is arguably the best physical comic of Pre-Code cinema. Circus Clown was his last Pre-Code picture, the cross-dressing angle qualifying it easily for the Parade. His decline is coincidental with the advent of Code Enforcement, but can't really be blamed on it, since his comedy actually has little to do with the risque or raunchy. I haven't seen much of his later stuff so I can't really describe his decline, but I'll let you know what happened when I get a chance to see it. Until then, I recommend Joe E. Brown again as one of Hollywood's most underrated clowns.

Monday, December 14, 2015

Too Much TV: THE LAST KINGDOM (2015-?)

After announcing that a review of this BBC series would appear two weeks ago, I decided that I shouldn't risk spoiling things for any British readers of this blog. This eight-part miniseries, hopefully the first of several, aired in the U.S. two weeks ahead of its British broadcast schedule. It adapts the first two books of the prolific Bernard Cornwell's "Saxon Stories," nine of which have come out since 2004. They imagine the role played by a fictional hero, Uhtred of Bebbanburg, in the survival of the Saxon Kingdom of Wessex, and with it the idea of England, in the face of invasion and plunder by Danish raiders in the 9th century C.E. Uhtred is both Saxon and Danish; born the former, he is raised a Dane and a pagan after Danes kill his family. When particularly bad Danes kill most of his new family, Uhtred (Alexander Dreymon) maneuvers between Danes and Saxons, seeking recognition as an aelderman and security in land. He is torn by his dual heritage, realizing his best hope of advancement lies with Wessex and its ambitious king Alfred (David Dawson), yet bristling under Alfred's authoritarian notion of Christian kingship and resentful of lingering suspicions of his ultimate loyalty. He has enemies in both camps: the Danish warlord Ubba (Rune Temte) and the Saxon noble Odda the Younger (Brian Vernal), who resents Uhtred's advancement and his arranged marriage to Mildrith (Amy Wren). He has lovers in both camps, not only Midrith, whose religious fanaticism and cultural chauvinism ultimately alienate her from Uhtred, but also the Danish warrior woman Brida (Emily Cox), his childhood playmate turned first lover, who can't cross cultural borders as he can, not to mention the "witch queen" Iseult (Charlie Murphy), a soothsayer Uhtred acquires and falls for while raiding Cornwallum with his ball-busting Saxon sidekick Leofric (Adrian Bower). Over the course of the series Uhtred becomes a more cosmopolitan if not entirely civilized figure, encompassing more of England's heritage than anyone else even if he's not sure what to make of it all, except to remind us at the CW-like opening of every episode that "Destiny is all."

One unintended consequence of watching The Last Kingdom was my decision to quit watching the American series The Bastard Executioner. Set several centuries later, during the reign of Edward II, Bastard was a poor imitation of British historical drama that lacked any semblance of authenticity. Nothing seemed right, from the over-familiar way in which everyone addressed nobility to the horrid accent Katey Sagal employed as this show's witch-woman. I tolerated all of this until Last Kingdom exposed how little actually happened on Bastard -- its main character was like a king on a chessboard checked on every move as he staggered from square to square --and how lousy all the acting actually was. Compared to Bastard's hero, Last Kingdom's Uhtred is a truly heroic, epic figure. Most importantly, he's a hero you can empathize with to an alarming extent. The Bastard Executioner was a self-pitying dope who looked like Thor's developmentally-challenged baby brother. He had a vengeance storyline to motivate him, but nothing like the rage Alexander Dreymon brings to Uhtred. While the rat-in-a-maze quality of Bastard Executioner only induced ennui, you empathize with the fury Uhtred feels at the forces that frustrate him. While I finally couldn't care what the BE did, I found myself rooting for Uhtred to take his frustrations out on the buttheads, barbarians and fanatics who made life difficult for him. I don't know if this is quite what either Bernard Cornwell or the BBC writers intended, but I found myself sometimes wishing that Uhtred would just throttle Alfred the f'ing Great. And this wasn't because I was sick of the show's complications. It was because actor and writers were so successful at getting us to identify with Uhtred's point of view -- and David Dawson nailed this Alfred's cold imperiousness -- even as we realized that history, if not justice on the show's own terms, were on the king's side. Why should Uhtred have to bow and scrape the way Alfred insists? Why should he have to humiliate himself in public penance alongside Alfred's feckless nephew? Because we in our secular age don't really get it ourselves, we empathize when Uhtred doesn't get it; it really does seem picayune and stupid to us. The Danes are little better; leaders like Ubba will kill you on the spot if you cross them, but at least they don't expect their own people to grovel before them.

Yet as the series builds to its tremendous climax, possibly the best mass battle scene ever made for TV, you see both sides evolving as Uhtred evolves. Alfred bends during a desperate time after he's driven from his capital and his son takes ill. Despite the opposition of his still-more devout queen, the king takes Uhtred's advice and entrusts his child to Iseult's healing arts. He learns, as Uhtred's military advice has already shown him, that pagans are not all evil and can be of help to him. On the other side, paramount Dane Guthrum (Thomas W. Gabrielsson) doesn't entirely share his compatriot's contempt for Christianity, recognizing the way it emboldens individuals and inspires multitudes. While Uhtred tips the scales in the Saxons' favor, Guthrum is willing to give God the credit and accepts baptism as part of a treaty with Alfred. As I said, a lot happens in these eight episodes, with a lot more to go if the BBC goes on to adapt the remaining novels. It's good to know that all those novels are out there if they don't, but I don't see why they wouldn't. The Last Kingdom is first-class television in the approved modern "serialized" style with a terrific ensemble cast. Adrian Bower's Leofric steals nearly all of his scenes in badass comic relief, while Rune Temte's Ubba is a truly frightening antagonist, topped only in loathsomeness by his late replacement, Jonas Malmsjö's Skorpa. Brian Vernal's Odda becomes more of a villain as the show goes on, while Harry McEntire as Aethelwold, Alfred's troublesome nephew, evolves enigmatically, always potentially a villain, almost always more certainly a fool, yet potentially still more as well. We won't see all of them again if the series resumes, but they leave us confident of what we'll see in the future. Anyone who starts watching The Last Kingdom should finish wanting more.

Saturday, December 12, 2015

Pre-Code Parade: MADAM SATAN (1930)

Describe Madam Satan as Cecil B. DeMille's semi-musical comedy-disaster movie and the uninitiated will assume that nothing good could come from such a concept. They're not far from the mark, but it's not what DeMille's contemporaries would have thought before the film first appeared. In 1930 his Jesus biopic The King of Kings was still an exceptional work in his filmography, the Bible scenes in his first go at The Ten Commandments only a prologue to a modern story. Memories of all his supposedly sophisticated society comedies were still fresh, and Madam Satan is like those, if more heavily farcical and dubiously musical. As it turns out, the part that's most DeMille-like to modern audiences is the best part, but let's not get ahead of ourselves.

DeMille started the talkie era at a new home, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, after a stint as an independent producer. Madam Satan was his second M-G-M picture, conceived at a time when movies were ideally All-Singing as well as All-Talking. The story I heard at a festival screening last month was that the studio pressured DeMille to make Madam Satan a musical. It's sort of a musical, with most of the songs and dances concentrated in one section except for an out-of-nowhere bursting-into-song moment near the end of an interminable-seeming first act. "Sort of musical" would describe the quality of the music, too. Music isn't the real problem with the picture, however. While DeMille wasn't saddled with a "dialogue director," he probably could have used one. Look at the rest of his career and you might argue that he never really figured out how to deal with dialogue in a way that made it look normal. Look at some of his silent films and you can see how much more efficient he was at storytelling before sound. Had Madam Satan been silent the story still would have been dumb but he probably would have nailed the farce aspect of the first act with little trouble and some panache. With sound the farce is leaden; everyone's timing seems off and the story seems to go nowhere slowly.

Bob Brooks (Reginald Denny) is coming home from a night of hard partying with his millionaire buddy Jimmy Wade (Roland Young). They strive with drunken industriousness not to wake up Mrs Brooks, Angela (Kay Johnson), a stay-at-home wife on whom Bob is cheating with one Trixie, a showgirl (legit singer Lillian Roth). Bob never stays at home long; he's grown bored with Angela, and Angela is boring. Bob is equally boring, by the way, but he's more aggressive about it. Denny played Bulldog Drummond's sidekick Algy in a series of films later in the Thirties; Algy is described by Drummond himself as a "driveling idiot," and you see that quality in Denny's performance here. Roland Young's character is supposed to be a wild and crazy guy, but movie buffs familiar with Young's work -- he was the original Topper, if that means anything to anyone -- will see the problem here. Anyway, things get more farcical when Angela calls on Jimmy Wade to meet his new fiancee. The engagement's a cover story, since Bob uses Jimmy's place for trysts with Trixie, who now has to feign intimacy with Jimmy in Angela's presence. A knock on the door from Bob forces Jimmy to hide Angela in the closet, but she manages to learn the truth about Bob and Trixie. Now she remembers the song her maid sang to her all of a sudden about fighting for her happiness, and by God, she will!

Jimmy Wade is rich enough to hire out a dirigible and a dance troupe for his next big costume party. We're starting to enter the territory of DeMillean spectacle here; the miniature effects for the moored dirigible, with skyscrapers in the distance, look quite good on the big screen, while the antics inside show the influence of DeMille's aesthetic henchman Mitchell Leisen. Early musicals have little to offer in terms of virtuoso dancing or choreography, but sometimes made up for that lack with pure conceptual nuttiness. So it is with Madam Satan's Ballet Mecanique, a dance interpretive of mechanization, the dancers so many cogs presided over by the lightning-bolt wielding Spirit of Electricity. But it really defies description, so look at it instead. This clip was uploaded to YouTube by one absurdomundo, some spiritual kin of mine.

After the entertainment the revelers are to remove their masks, but one latecomer refuses to do so. This is the stunning, the incredible, the irresistible MADAM SATAN! whose true identity is a mystery to none in the audience but all on the blimp. The idea, you see, is that Angela  (did I spoil it???) is so atypically, unprecedentedly brazen that none of her acquaintances would suspect that this gorgeous monster is the once-mousy housewife. It might work on paper, but on film the premise hits a high hurdle early; Kay Johnson in a mask and a slinky costume still isn't as sexy as Lillian Roth; nor can she sing like that legit talent and future biopic subject. Let's compare. Here's Roth rehearsing a number, as uploaded by WMMDN:

Now here's Johnson in her Satanic majesty, at the climax of her re-seduction of Bob. This one was uploaded by ray85milan:

Maybe Bob gets off on novelty. All such speculation is moot, however, as there's a storm coming. Lightning blasts the mooring tower and sends the dirigible adrift into the turbulent sky. Again, on the special-effects level this is all stylishly if not quite realistically done, especially if you see it on a big screen as it was meant to be seen. Fortunately, Jimmy Wade has well-stocked his balloon with parachutes, setting the stage for comedy rather than suspense. Madam Satan climaxes on a mock-epic scale like It's A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World as passengers are tossed from the dirigible to make slapstick landings, the most spectacular Pre-Code Moment of the Film being Trixie's entrance through a skylight into a men's club locker-room. That stuff you'll have to see for yourselves someday.

Length works in Madam Satan's favor. At nearly two hours, you have time to forget the terrible first half-hour and appreciate the often-inspired art direction and overall madness of the picture. Kay Johnson's failings as a demonic seductress don't really detract from the quality. If anything, the way all the men fall for her -- it's like the way the men of Metropolis drool over Brigitte Helm's lead-footed hoochie-koochie dance -- enhances the film's satire of the mentally-idle rich. It just so happens that, with the Depression descending, people didn't find it quite so funny as DeMille or Metro hoped. The director never really worked in this mode again, unless you count his rarely-remembered 1934 castaway comedy Four Frightened People. He may have realized that sound had taken his comedic touch; most of the subsequent laughs he got would be unintended. He may also have realized that this sort of story, the kind that helped make his name, had become obsolete, and adapted in order not to go obsolete himself. The destruction of the dirigible is a symbolic farewell, if not a Viking funeral, to one stage of DeMille's career. It's the triumph of spectacle over wit in his work, and in this case it's a deserved victory that makes Madam Satan worth seeing today.

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Pre-Code Parade: BORN RECKLESS (1930)

It's called a "John Ford Production" but who directed it? We're told that it was "staged" by Andrew Bennison. What this seems to mean is that Bennison played that short-lived role of the early talkie era, the dialogue director. Folks at Fox Film apparently weren't sure of Ford's ability to direct dialogue, or else Ford, more interested in free-range camera movement in the manner of his erstwhile studio stablemate F. W. Murnau, couldn't be bothered with the dialogue scenes. There's definitely some impressive camera movement here for a 1930 film, along with the sort of dense set design typical of Fox's late silents. The camera lurks through the narrow, crowded streets of the main city set early on to establish the protagonist's milieu. The art direction is impressive without quite being convincing, and that goes for the story, too.

Ford and Dudley Nichols adapted what apparently was a popular novel by Donald Henderson Clarke. Louis Beretti was well enough known that star Edmund Lowe could be identified as the novel's title character in some movie advertising, though Fox didn't see fit to name the film after the novel. Beretti is a neighborhood hood who goes to war and survives to make a fresh start back home. He keeps his criminal career secret from his old-world parents, switching from dapper gangster duds into a worker's overalls before coming home for spaghetti dinner. The cops aren't fooled so easily and Beretti is brought in for questioning. At the suggestion of a drunken reporter (Lee Tracy, shortly before his brief breakout to stardom) the authorities give Louis and his buddies the option of enlisting -- it's 1917 and bands are playing "Over There" everywhere -- with the promise of pardons if they make good as soldiers. The real idea is to burnish the police chief's reputation as a patriot, but whatever the ulterior motives involved Beretti is willing to give war a shot.

The next section is a botch that nearly cripples the film and can probably be blamed all on Ford. War is supposed to change Louis Beretti in some way, but Born Reckless never follows him into combat. Instead, we get a lot of Fordian shenanigans in boot camp and behind the lines featuring some of the usual suspects like Ward Bond. John Wayne is supposed to be in the picture somewhere, historians claim, but I didn't notice him. A subplot is set up in which Beretti befriends a wealthy young man determined to prove himself in combat despite coddling from his parents, but after the establishing scene we don't get the payoff until Beretti narrates it to his friend's widow after the war. The military sequence plays like the road to a dead end, and having reached it Ford and Bennison simply give up and go back to the U.S.A.

Beretti has a longing for the widow, whom his dead buddy apparently talked up quite well, but before our hero can make a move we learn that Joan Sheldon (Catherine Dale Owen) has already hooked up with a new beau. While I missed John Wayne's passing presence in this picture, there was no mistaking an unbilled Randolph Scott as the new beau. At 32, Scott is as young as I've ever seen him. He's still paying his dues here, playing little more than a handsome profile who has no more than a few words of dialogue in his few scenes. But enough of him. Beretti goes more or less straight, opening up a niteclub whose presumed violations of Prohibition appear to bother no one. But his old friendship with the local underworld big shot, cleverly named Big Shot (Warren Hymer) deteriorates as Beretti is torn between respectability and his old crowd.The plot threads tie together when Big Shot, returned from a stretch in stir, makes a new racket of kidnapping, snatching Joan Sheldon's child. Beretti rescues the kid before a final showdown with Big Shot. Both scenes are nicely shot, the rescue introduced with a tracking shot of Beretti walking across a field to the kidnappers' hideout. The showdown is a slow burn leading to an explosion, Lowe and Beretti chatting at a bar with an odd, evasive formality that distantly anticipates the technique of Leone and Tarantino before they abruptly open fire on each other as the camera retreats through the bar's swinging doors. There are definitely pieces of a superior gangster film here, but it looks like Ford didn't know how to put them together. Part of the problem is Edmund Lowe's much too laid-back performance as Beretti, but you can't blame him for the film's faulty construction; he may have had as little proper direction as the movie as a whole did. Despite any ambiguity in the credits, Born Reckless is often unmistakably, and in this case unfortunately, a John Ford film.

Sunday, December 6, 2015


Here is the end of an era: A Time for Killing is the last film produced by Harry Joe Brown, Randolph Scott's longtime production partner. Scott had retired five years earlier on the high note of Sam Peckinpah's Ride the High Country, leaving Brown to deal with upheaval in the western genre. The influence of spaghetti westerns is arguably apparent in some dramatic use of widescreen close-ups and in a darker, more brutal tone. I was willing to credit that tone to Phil Karlson, the credited director, since Karlson made some of the darker, more brutal films of the 1950s. Yet there's also a self-destructive inconsistency of tone I at first blamed on studio interference with Karlson, only to learn that Karlson was the interference. At first, Brown had a dream team working on the picture: Roger Corman directing and Robert Towne screenplay, edited by Monte Hellman. Brown, or Columbia Pictures higher-ups, fired Corman because, for once, that industrious director had fallen behind schedule. For Corman this was an A assignment and he apparently treated it as such, ambitious to achieve epic visuals on location. Karlson was brought in to speed the job to completion, while Hellman quit and the script was rewritten. The result is a mess, a sloppy mix of Hollywood past, present and future -- the last in the form of Harrison J. Ford in his first credited movie role -- and conflicting notions of what a western should look like.

Some of the inconsistency may have remained had Corman done so; his frequent stooge Dick Miller stuck around in an annoying comic-relief role as a cowardly Union soldier that may have been part of the original conception. If anything, Brown must have wanted more of Miller; there are blatant studio pick-up shots of him and his comedy partner that muck up the pacing that Karlson was supposed to improve. Their pathetic comedy seems increasingly out-of-place as the story turns darker and darker. Meanwhile, the best-known comic performer in the cast, Max Baer Jr. of The Beverly Hillbillies, turns in a once-in-a-lifetime turn as an unhinged Reb, one of a band breaking out of a western prison camp days before the end of the Civil War. This psycho loves fighting and killing for their own sakes, and is almost as likely to pick fights with or kill his own comrades as he is to fight the pursuing Union troops led by star Glenn Ford. Baer is skyrocketing over the top, and yet he's topped by his character's commander, a Confederate officer played by George Hamilton in a once-in-a-lifetime channeling of pure evil.

If Baer's evil is a barbaric yawp, Hamilton's is arrogant, almost satanic spite directed at Glenn Ford. He resents Ford, it seems, merely for showing him courtesy, if not also for showing mercy to one of Hamilton's men who was sentenced by Ford's own spiteful commander to be executed by untrained black orderlies; the wretch survives two volleys before Ford puts one in the brain. It all seems futile to Ford because word from the East indicates that General Lee's surrender and the war's end are no more than days away. If the finished film has a theme left, it's that war endures in hearts and minds after armies stand down. Hamilton embodies all the unreconstructed Rebs who endured to the time the film was made, and beyond. "This war will continue for a hundred years," he vows, despite learning from a dispatch stolen from a murdered messenger that the war, indeed, has ended. He flaunts the telegram to his hostage, played by Inger Stevens, a missionary who is Ford's fiancee, to show that he doesn't give a damn about it. And after he rapes her -- Corman/Karlson only take us to the brink of the act, but do show us Hamilton dragging his spur across her naked side -- she in turn withholds knowledge of the surrender to Ford, as if fearful that he wouldn't avenge her if he knew the war was over. Instead, he continues the pursuit across the Mexican border to an abandoned town where most of the remaining cast are slaughtered, but the two comedy-relief idiots get to escape. Ford only learns the truth when Baer, who murdered the original messenger with a shot to the face, confesses it hysterically after getting gut-shot by one of his own team.

Glenn Ford himself seems to have been intrigued by the idea of a hero weary of violence betrayed by a beloved's bloodlust. In Richard Thorpe's The Last Challenge, made around the same time, he breaks up with Angie Dickinson after learning that she'd paid Jack Elam (in vain) to dry-gulch a hot-shot young gunfighter looking to pick a fight with Ford's marshal. If Ford seems tired, showing all his fifty years, in both films, that seems in part to be an artistic choice by the actor. In Time for Killing it looks like he reconciles with Stevens, but an air of hopelessness hangs over both films, underscored in Killing by the strategic and philosophical pointlessness of the whole running battle. The makings of a possibly great western are strewn about the landscape of Karlson's film. The location footage, much of it presumably Corman's and shot by Kenneth Peach (who worked mostly in TV), is often as impressive as Corman hoped, making the studio inserts all the more glaring. Also in the eclectic cast are (Harry) Dean Stanton as one of the more reasonable Rebs and Timothy Carey as an arrogant Union sharpshooter. Among the negatives is the utterly generic, inappropriately upbeat score by Mundell Lowe. In the end the location work and the extreme villainy of Hamilton and Baer -- they get the best close-ups, by the way -- make Time for Killing worth seeing, but no one who sees it will doubt that it could have been a better if not great western.

Thursday, December 3, 2015

I still watch too much TV

And that's not even counting the news, which can take up a lot of my time sometimes. You'll have to look at my other blog for my reviews of the news, but over here at Mondo 70 it's time for a new season of "Too Much TV," which proved the first time around (improbably to me) one of the most popular features, judged by pageviews, in the seven years of this blog. As before, there's a bias toward genre programming here, as there seems to be more programming in that broad category than ever. How broad is it? For me, it ranges from superhero shows to historical dramas. It might be better to say it's a category that excludes sitcoms, reality shows and the more mundane dramatic shows. I don't dismiss the last type out of hand, but I watch too much TV already, and a line has to be drawn somewhere. Anyway, in the next few weeks we'll look at some shows that have come (and, in some cases, gone) since my last TV review. The new season will start this weekend with BBC America's The Last Kingdom, probably with a passing glance at FX's Bastard Executioner. From there, and in no particular order, I'll cover Ash vs. Evil Dead, Into the Badlands and Supergirl and take a belated (and probably too late) look at Da Vinci's Demons. Time permitting, I may take retrospective looks at some much older shows I'm watching, or update some of the ongoing shows I reviewed earlier this year. I'll probably review some movies, too. Stay tuned.