Saturday, April 30, 2016

Pre-Code Parade: HOLD 'EM JAIL! (1932)

The title of Norman Taurog's comedy plays on Hold 'Em Yale, a popular play that was made into a 1928 movie. A comedy that begins with a joke few people get more than eighty years later would seem to start with a handicap. Worse, this is a film that climaxes with a comedy football game and is almost exactly contemporary with the Marx Bros.' football picture, Horse Feathers. In Spokane WA, whose newspaper ran the ad above, the films opened head-to-head and their ads ran next to each other. Horse Feathers remains beloved today, while Hold 'Em Jail! is as forgotten as its stars, Wheeler and Woolsey. It's actually one of their better comedies, at least as far as I'm concerned, taking Horse Feathers' college football parody to another level of absurdity by implanting football madness into the U.S. corrections system. Edgar Kennedy is a football-mad warden whose prison team is performing poorly in the corrections league. His convict coach appeals to the alumni -- the ex-cons of the underworld -- for help, even though he can barely pronounce "alumni." The alums share Kennedy's concern and arrange to have some new talent transferred to Kennedy's jail. They're poor judges of talent, however, for they frame Wheeler and Woolsey for a speakeasy robbery on faith, having been told by Woolsey, a party-favor salesman, that Wheeler, his partner, is an ace quarterback, on the evidence of his having ridden his horse to victory in the big race. They can hardly be worse than the in-house talent. For God's sake, stuttering Roscoe Ates is the prison's starting qua-qua-quar-qua ... signal caller. The boys don't join the team until late in the picture, once it's been further sabotaged by Ates getting a pardon. For the most part, after their arrest and before, they're interested in making trouble. There's a brazen ruthlessness to Wheeler and Woolsey that is utterly unredeemed by any likability on Woolsey's part, yet must have been admired, or at least found funny, by struggling Depression audiences. Their abusive salesmanship, visited relentlessly upon slow-burning Kennedy with apparent indifference to whether they make a sale or not, must have struck a chord with crowds newly but still uncomfortably accustomed to constantly applying for survival. W&W are definitely an acquired taste, but Hold 'Em Jail! may be their most accessible film, both because it has some of their best slapstick and sight-gag work and because it has no musical numbers. It wouldn't surprise me if it had numbers at some point and lost them, though, because there's something haphazard about it. Rosco Ates gets fairly high billing but appears in only one scene, while Robert Armstrong gets a cameo as a radio announcer broadcasting the big inter-prison game. A separate writer is credited with Armstrong's patter, which suggests to me that the future Carl Denham was a late addition to the picture. None of this bothers me, though, because I can do without Ates and I don't mind Armstrong. The main thing is that the stars are as funny as I've seen them, no doubt enhanced by Taurog's crisp comic timing, whether they're torturing Kennedy or guilelessly helping Warren Hymer by nearly crushing his foot, then nearly hacking it off, then nearly melting it, to remove a ball and chain. The football game is constantly inventive, nearly as funny as its Horse Feathers counterpart, and definitely more violent, befitting a film that's more or less the distant ancestor of The Longest Yard.  I especially liked a brutal running gag that had referees getting stretchered off the filed after virtually every play, despite wearing pads like the players. Perhaps that sort of violent football humor shouldn't be funny anymore, but it would be in keeping with Pre-Code not to care what people would think eighty years afterward.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

DVR Diary: FOUR BAGS FULL (La Traversée de Paris, 1956)

Filmed only a dozen years after Paris was liberated from the Nazis, Claude Autant-Lara's film must have seemed shockingly irreverent to many French viewers. A kind of mock-epic or mock-thriller, it portrays one man's night from Hell in the occupied city as he tries to deliver a butchered pig to a black-market customer in the four bags that give the film its American title. It's dangerous work, if not heroic, because the Germans are always on patrol. But what makes the night especially hellish for our clandestine courier Marcel (Bourvil) is his new partner, an impromptu replacement for his usual assistant, now in jail. For the foreign viewer, the shocking thing about La Traversée is Jean Gabin's performance as Grandgil, Marcel's new "helper." Gabin often comes across as Mr. Cool in his movies, but for Autant-Lara he gives a John Goodman-like performance of boorish bluster. Grandgil seems almost sociopathic in his determination to exploit the illegality of it all for his own gain, intimidating Marcel's colleagues while constantly endangering both of them with his bombast. We learn that there's more to Grandgil than there first seemed. He'd told Marcel he was a painter, but looking at him Marcel took him to be a house painter. It turns out he's a fine artist, with Germans among his customers. This comes in handy, for him at least, when the pair finally get arrested, since the local commandant, a cultured man, recognizes the artist. Even when an order comes to herd everyone in confinement onto trucks for deportation to a work camp, the commandant pulls strings to get Grandgil off the truck. Marcel isn't so lucky, and an epilogue that shows that he survived the war doesn't quite wash away the bad taste that has built up. You wonder about Grandgil's privilege and whether he could be deemed a collaborator, and whether on the other hand his adventure with Marcel was the painter's larkish foray into resistance of a sort -- or whether he was taking crazy chances out of some desire to be caught and punished for who knows what. It's a vaguely disquieting yet constantly funny performance from Gabin, and the film as a whole is the sort of black comedy in which the perfunctory reassurance of the epilogue is part of the grim joke. Not all the comedy is black, unless you feel that comedy under German occupation can only be black. Autant-Lara complements Gabin's loose-cannon antics with plenty of slapstick and sight gags -- the leaking suitcases get our heroes followed by bothersome dogs -- and with some inspired visual moments that make the film a kind of comic noir. The best of these is the heroes' arrest, filmed through an indoor window with the actors's distinctive shapes silhouetted in the lights of patrol cars. You can see Marcel run for it, and there's a moment of awful suspense before he reappears in front of the window as a prisoner. The character and actor have earned our empathy for enduring Grandgil's recklessness throughout the picture, and the only real disappointment of the film is that Marcel never gets any payback, though it's probably realistic to deny it to him. I suspect the French will see more in this film than the rest of us can, but the rest of us can at least be entertained by it.

Sunday, April 24, 2016

DVR Diary: BLACK MAGIC (1949)

Orson Welles finished so few of his own directorial projects that fans look hopefully -- or forlornly -- for signs of the great man's hand in films in which others directed him. Inevitably, it is claimed that he directed some of his Black Magic scenes in place of official director Gregory Ratoff. In his just-published third installment of the definitive Welles biography, Simon Callow writes that he "quite openly directed his own scenes late into the night [while] Ratoff's directing was confined to the morning." Which scenes are his is unclear, but anyone who watches the picture can single out certain bravura bits of framing that may have been beyond Ratoff's talent or imagination. Callow adds that Welles tried to rewrite the story, a loose adaptation of Alexandre Dumas -- a favorite of producer Edward Small -- to make his character, Joseph "Count Caligostro" Balsamo, into a would-be revolutionary. He didn't get far in that regard; the character's moments of revolutionary potential pass in montage. But Black Magic definitely is torn between two conflicting views of its protagonist, though this arguably is a matter of the main story violating expectations created in a prologue portraying young Balsamo as an orphaned victim of anti-Gypsy persecution by the Vicount de Montagne (Stephen Dekassy). This cruelty puts us on Balsamo's side and appears to set him up as an avenging hero, but while the adult Balsamo definitely has revenge on his agenda, he has also gone mad with the power he discovered quite by accident while touring with his medicine show, when he calms and appears to heal a woman who has accidentally poisoned herself. His stunt attracts the attention of Franz Anton Mesmer (Charles Goldner), who lent his name to the skill Balsamo appeared to possess. Mesmer appears disinterested, unwilling to accept a rich reward when Balsamo seems to heal a palsied aristocrat, but Joseph himself is a poor, hungry Gypsy with big dreams who's found a way to make money. As Cagliostro, he and his powers become the talk of Europe, earning him a visit to the court of Louis XV of France, where the main story takes place.

Caligostro's old oppressor is part of a conspiracy inspired by Mme. Du Barry, the King's mistress (Margot Grahame), to discredit Marie Antoinette (Nancy Guild), the wife of the Dauphin, who disapproves of Du Barry. They've discovered a double for the princess in Lorenza (Guild, quite effective in the dual role), an innocent young woman with a soldier paramour, Gilbert de Rezel (Frank Latimore). If Calgliostro can mesmerize Lorenza -- why not caligostrate her? -- she can be used to trick a high official into buying an expensive necklace with public money. When this is exposed, the real princess's reputation will be ruined. Cagliostro is all for this -- historically, he was acquitted when accused of involvement in the real-life conspiracy -- if it means making Lorenza his mind-controlled mistress, but an even bigger scheme gradually forms in his mind. There are only two problems: Gilbert is implacably determined to track down his lost love, and Lorenza has irrepressible feelings for the soldier -- despite Latimore being one of the stiffest romantic leads ever.

Cagliostro quickly surrenders all sympathy through his ruthless domination of Lorenza and his mounting megalomania. Even Svengali, at least in the Barrymore film, realizes ruefully that when mind-controlled Trilby reaffirms her love for him it's "only Svengali talking to himself again," but if Cagliostro realizes this, it doesn't bother him in the least. One suspects that Welles, behind the scenes, was successfully turning the real man, or Dumas' version of him, into a typical Wellesian narcissist monster, for whom revolutionary tendencies wouldn't necessarily be contradictory. To the extent that Welles participated in the creation of his character, he seems also to be reworking ideas born with his fugitive Nazi in The Stranger. That Ratoff and his credited writers may have been thinking the same way may be tipped off by the extended climax, a bravura variation on Stranger's clock-tower finale, in which Cagliostro and Gilbert fence atop a Roman landmark standing in for a Parisian landmark. There are plenty of bravura moments in Black Magic, whether from Ratoff or Welles, amid spectacular Italian locations, but the film is just about sunk by Welles's shocking failure --especially shocking for a practicing magician -- in the role of a diabolical mesmerist.

First, the script, possibly with Welles's own input, makes Cagliostro so unpleasant that you can't root for him even when the male romantic lead is a hopeless dud like Latimore. Second, there's an irrepressible restlessness about Welles that undermines Cagliostro's credibility. Tellingly, the film depends as much on Welles' voice -- the voice of The Shadow and the voice that convinced millions that Martians were invading Earth -- as on his physical presence to put over Cagliostro's power. When you learn that Bela Lugosi wanted to produce and star in a Cagliostro picture you realize what's missing in Welles's performance -- a certain stillness, an uncanny calm, except for the eyes, that focuses your full attention on the mesmerist. By comparison with Lugosi, Welles isn't doing enough with his eyes, or else is doing the wrong things. He could have nailed this on the radio, but he never was that great of a movie actor and that shows here. In fact, Black Magic has one of the most embarrassing moments in Welles's acting career. On trial for his role in the necklace affair and managing his own defense, Cagliostro has reasserted his control over Lorenza and made her deny any knowledge of his role in the plot. Suddenly, Dr. Mesmer appears and asks to interrogate Cagliostro. The jurisprudence of absolute monarchy permits this, and the good (?) doctor proves that he has more tricks than he taught Joseph Balsamo. Putting the defendant under his control with an irresistible shiny object, Mesmer gets him to confess all, including a lust for power that Welles underscores by croaking "Power!" repeatedly and punctuates with the vow, "I can still do it!" I like to think Ratoff directed that scene, and toward the end of the shoot as payback for whatever abuse Welles reportedly heaped upon him. Whatever Welles was up to, Ratoff and the writers must share most of the blame for Black Magic's failure as a story -- it remains a visual treat -- most likely because they never really figured out what to do with or about their star.

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

CHAPPIE (2015)

Neill Blomkamp's Chappie is one of the most archetypally dense films I've seen in a while. It pretty much touches all the bases of man-made life, from Frankenstein to Pinocchio to Robocop, yet manages to make a modestly original contribution of its own. I think it's a better riff on the Pinocchio myth than the vaunted Kubrick-Spielberg AI (2001) because of its incorporation of the other archetypes, all in one character, and because of the way it turns the Pinocchio idea on its head at the end. The film's Geppetto is Deon (Dev Patel), the creator for the Tetravaal corporation of a line of "scout" robots that assist police in fighting crime in day-after-tomorrow Johannesburg. Deon wants to develop artificial intelligence further, to create a robot that is itself creative. Since that doesn't really promise to pay, Deon has to pursue his project clandestinely, all the while being spied on by an envious rival (Hugh Jackman) promoting the Moose, a more ED-209 type unit. It's just Deon's luck that he and his creation are kidnapped by gangsters with day-glo guns who want to hack into a scout and turn it into a gangster robot. Ninja (Watkin Tudor "Ninja" Jones) and his expatriate buddy America (Jose Pablo Cantillo) are disappointed when Deon introduces them to a robot with the mind of a baby, but Ninja's moll Yo-Landi (Yo-Landi Visser) bonds with the poor frightened thing and calls it a "happy chappie." The new creature, adopting Chappie as its name, is hereafter torn by conflicting influences. "Creator" Deon wants it to act ethically and encourages its artistic potential whenever he can. "Daddy" Ninja wants to train it to be a badass criminal and distrusts Deon's influence as much as Deon does his. "Mommy" Yo-Landi almost instinctively feels that Chappie ought to be allowed to grow up as it wants.

Through a series of circumstances "Daddy" gets the upper hand despite his casual mistreatment of Chappie. He tips the balance his way when Chappie discovers his mortality. Deon installed his new AI software in a damaged scout limited to the life of its. current battery, and a horrified Chappie feels betrayed that Deon would create him only so he would die. Yo-Landi talks of the soul moving to another place at death, but Deon doubts that Chappie's software can transmigrate that way. But when Deon explains a stolen helmet the Jackman character uses to control the Moose, Chappie intuits that he could project his consciousness into another body if he can only crack the right codes. On this hope Ninja hangs a plan for Chappie to override his objection to heisting -- taught, not programmed, by Deon -- in order to earn the money for a new body. This only sets up another betrayal when Ninja admits, after the fact, that he lied about the availability of another body for Chappie, but by this point another gangster storms in demanding Chappie for himself, and Jackman's robot closes in with a mission to destroy Chappie and everyone else....

Blomkamp alter ego Sharlito Copley provided visual inspiration and voice for Chappie, while Jackman's grotesque hair and clothing suggest that he's playing a version of Sharlito Copley. Both actors were overshadowed, for many hostile reviewers, by the musicians Ninja and Yo-landi playing versions of themselves, but rather than being annoyed by their mannerisms I found them appropriately odd figures in the film's futuristic fairy-tale landscape. Meanwhile, Copley does a great job animating Chappie -- he's especially good portraying the robot's confused anger at his plight, which persists despite his learning at a rapid rate -- while Jackman delivers one of last year's most entertainingly loathsome villain turns. I think Chappie goes a little overboard in pursuit of a happy ending that not everyone in the film or watching it might find happy -- I was left wondering what Ninja and Yo-Landi would actually think of the destiny the film intends for the latter -- but I admired the integrity of the production and its commitment to big ideas in candy-coated form. It's a great comeback for Blomkamp after the disaster of Elysium and leaves him once again a figure to watch in the sci-fi action genre.

Saturday, April 16, 2016


George Lucas's mistake was to think of Star Wars as a fictional universe to be shaped by his imagination. At least that was his first mistake -- the second being that his imagination wasn't so hot after a while. But the big mistake was not to realize that Star Wars essentially is a very specific type of story. Certain things have to happen in this story, and certain things have to be in it. At the turn of the century Lucas made three films that failed, among other ways, to meet these criteria. It was time for someone to step up and say they knew Star Wars better than George Lucas. To judge by the box office and a critical consensus best described as a sigh of relief, J. J. Abrams proved that he knew Star Wars better than George Lucas by remaking Star Wars. It wouldn't do, of course, literally to remake Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope (1977), but the idea clearly was to do an archetypal remake, to tell essentially the same story while continuing the original story. An unintended consequence of this strategy is a strange sense of demoralization, of the impossibility of progress, hangs over the film, despite it being not at all implausible that partisans of the Galactic Empire would not all lay down their arms upon the deaths of Emperor Palpatine and Darth Vader, however much such an outcome was implied at the end of Episode VI: Return of the Jedi (1983), especially in its later, enhanced edition. So if I understand the opening crawl correctly, this rump Empire, ruled by an entity called the First Order, itself led by some nebulous Oz-like power named Snoke, occupies a significant part of the former Empire, while the restored Republic occupies the rest and wages a cold war against the First Order masterminded by Leia Organa, who supports and/or provokes insurgencies on occupied worlds under the rubric of the Resistance. In answer, and in the classic action of the insane, the First Order builds a death star, bigger and more destructive than ever yet with the same fundamental vulnerabilities required by the Star Wars archetype. Meanwhile, on some outlier planet, the Force stirs in a resourceful ragamuffin who winds up with custody of a cute droid with important strategic information. And there's Han Solo!

The one relatively original idea in The Force Awakens is to have one of the heroes be a deserting Stormtrooper, a young man whose conditioning fails him when he's ordered to take part in a massacre. On some level, however, Finn (John Boyega) defaults to a Han Solo archetype -- while the actual Han (Harrison Ford) limps into the Ben Kenobi role -- according to which selfish motives evolve into selfless heroism. None of the major characters in Episode VII is a perfect match for someone in Episode IV; Rey the resourceful ragamuffin (Daisy Ridley) is sort of Luke and Leia rolled into one, while the cheerful X-wing pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) is a similar blend by virtue of his original ownership of the cute droid and his high-spirited heroism. Black clad Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) is obviously our Darth Vader -- it's his right by blood -- but he looks more like a Slytherin dropout when he takes his mask off and his overhanging family drama leeches any badassery from him. For all that Abrams and Disney have declared themselves unbound by all the once-canonical novels published since 1983, the key idea that Ren is actually Han and Leia's son turned to the Dark Side had already been done in the books. It turns out not to be a good idea on film, for nothing could take the life out of the beloved Han Solo before he was actually killed than to force him into a "fathers and sons" storyline, and to treat his final confrontation with his delinquent brat as a moment of operatic grandeur undermined by cliched earnestness. Han's exit is a mercy killing, since Ford is unconvincing as a septuagenarian swashbuckler, however necessary his mostly irreverent presence was to make this new film recognizably "Star Wars" to all the people who cried for a Han-type character through all the Prequel Trilogy the way small children cry for Mickey Mouse during the second hour of Fantasia. That demand for programmed irreverence has always been a drag on fantastic ambition, a warning to creators not to take anything more seriously than the casual viewer is willing to. Here, somehow, by bringing Han back only to burden him with child issues and then kill him, Abrams manages to have his cake, spill it on the floor and face-plant into it. Still, the film's treatment of Han and Ford is as reverential as intended compared to its pathetic display of Carrie Fisher as General Organa. I don't know whether Abrams gave her nothing cool to do as, say, a fighting general, because he couldn't imagine it or because Fisher is heartbreakingly incapable of doing anything. You'd hardly believe, if you didn't know, that she's considerably younger than Ford from her presence -- it can hardly be called a performance -- in this picture. Neither her face nor her voice appear capable of expression at this point in her life, though I try to tell myself that she might have given more had Abrams given her more to do. Seeing this Leia is more tragic than seeing Han die. The real surprise, for anyone who'd seen him play the Trickster in episodes of The Flash, is that Mark Hamill, conveniently bearded, is the least decrepit looking of the original trio. Objectively, by appearing in only one scene he does the least to poison our imaginations.

While it's depressing to see the old stars displayed this way, the overall effect of The Force Awakens is like a random Star Wars role playing game brought to life, with roughly sketched player-characters getting to meet some famous NPCs in settings new yet familiar, Tattooine-ish or cantina-esque. For all that, it's not an overtly bad film; it lacks the ambition to be bad in the ways the prequel films often were bad. The craftsmanship is unimpeachable, apart from the acting, but there's only so much you can do with a paint-by-number set. The new main characters might have been more interesting if they (not counting Finn) weren't so tied, explicitly or implicitly, to the old characters. While the prequel films are largely failures, you can appreciate what Lucas was trying to do, and actually did, which was to expand his universe by exploring its past. We're supposed to be moving forward now, but Force Awakens doesn't feel like its expanding the universe in any way. Since the prequels showed us the slow rise of the Empire, having the First Order and Snoke and Ben Solo's corruption thrown at us each as a fait accompli seems wrong, and the incestuousness of the story in the way it has everything circle back to Han, Leia and Luke feels like a universe closing in on itself and locking into unalterable archetypes. A lot happens in this film, and some of it is quite impressive visually, but I don't know if "awakens" really describes any of it.

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

DVR Diary: STRAY DOG (1949)

It doesn't surprise me that when Akira Kurosawa made a cop movie, he was influenced less by American film noirs than by Jules Dassin's shot-on-location procedural The Naked City. Kurosawa was more a naturalist than an expressionist, more elemental than chiaroscuro, so the whole shadows-and-light thing probably didn't impress him as much as it did others. As it is, there are faint parallels with an American procedural noir made the same year, Alfred Werker and Anthony Mann's He Walked By Night, though these shouldn't be overstressed. It comes down to an increasingly desperate manhunt for a seeming supercriminal, but for Kurosawa the criminal matters less than his pursuer, while in He Walked By Night the criminal is the most fully (or nearly) developed character. What Kurosawa mainly seems interested in is personal responsibility, as shown by his protagonist, a rookie police detective whose stolen gun is used in the criminal's crimes. As the rookie, Toshiro Mifune is driven by an already-awful sense of guilt that grows worse as robberies and a murder are traced back to the stolen gun. When the criminal nearly kills his new mentor (Takashi Shimura, inevitably), the rookie's guilt nearly breaks him, despite every well-meaning effort of his more seasoned colleagues to put all the blame for the crimes on the criminal. Once he starts using it it's his gun, not yours, they tell him, but you can't blame the rookie for feeling as bad as he does, especially once you understand that it's exactly that acute sense of responsibility that sets him apart from his antagonist (Isao Kimura). Both men are war veterans who were robbed on their way home. One man lashes out at society for that offense, among others, by becoming a criminal, while our hero becomes a cop. It's not that he blames himself for getting his stuff stolen, but it's his refusal to surrender to cynicism or rage, or to hold the whole world responsible, that makes him a hero.

Mifune is still young here, though Rashomon isn't far away, but it's still impressive that someone we recognize as one of cinema's mightiest badasses can so convincingly play someone so green and, in some ways, naive. Just the same, the film is nearly stolen from him by Keiko Awaji, playing the criminal's showgirl sweetheart, whose tough exterior is under siege by the rookie and her own mother. She gets one of the film's most memorable and gratuitous scenes as one of an dance team hoofing away at some seedy theater. Their routine over, the showgirls stagger back to their dressing room and collapse en masse in an almost orgiastic sprawl of exhaustion. Kurosawa lingers, half-leering, half-sympathetic, as the dancers catch their breath. As one might expect, he has a number of nice set pieces distributed throughout the picture, from Mifune's Droopy Dog-like stalking of a possible lead on the sale of his gun to the stakeout of a baseball stadium and the use of the PA system to lure the criminal into a trap. I said Kurosawa was an elemental director, and there's plenty of rain here to prove it, and an even more effective evocation of oppressive summer heat. Stray Dog is a slickly-made film and I suppose some will take it as further proof that Kurosawa spent too much time aping western genres and archetypes, but the emotional element of the film and Mifune's intensely emotive lead performance set this Japanese cop movie apart from its more world-weary or hard-boiled American models and mark it as an unmistakably personal film.

Saturday, April 9, 2016

Pre-Code Parade: SIDE SHOW (1931)

This Roy Del Ruth comedy has one of the most transgressive images in Pre-Code cinema, at least in retrospect. It's Winnie Lightner, Warner Bros.' musical-comedy heroine of early talkies, in both male drag and blackface playing a "Wild Man of Borneo" and looking alarmingly like a cartoon come to life, complete with top hat, grass skirt and oversized slap shoes. That was entertainment back in the day, and to be honest it's funny seeing her in the latest role this jill-of-all-work has to take on in her ongoing effort to keep Col. Gowdy's Big City Circus running, especially when the "Hey, Rube!" call goes out and she has to wade with her rubber club and help fend off rowdies trying to wreck the show. And before the mayhem breaks out there's a genuinely surreal moment when Charles Butterworth, playing a barker among his many circus roles, introduces her, promising an important announcement, his own top hat in hand. Butterworth drops the hat -- and it shatters, triggering a monologue of grunts from Lightner, after which she resumes smoking her cigar. I think I found it the more hilarious because it's appalling, and in story terms it illustrates the extremes Lightner will go to to save the circus. We've already seen her as a hula dancer, a living painter, a barker (in drag) and a (in moustache if not full drag) a "fire diver" who has to set herself on fire and dive from a high platform into a pool of fire. A stuntperson actually does this, which I mention not to disparage Lightner but simply to wonder that anyone does it. And yet a more spectacular stunt shot follows immediately. Butterworth's character, who pines after Lightner the whole picture, has followed her up the ladder to encourage her, and has stopped partway down the ladder to watch the dive. He applauds so enthusiastically that he falls off the ladder and joins Lightner in the pool. Again, a stuntman does this, by which I mean a stuntman does this, and Del Ruth gets a perfect shot from behind the stuntman on the ladder. This really is a nicely shot film (Devereaux Jennings was the cinematographer) with many spectacular shots, from the mass brawl at the circus to a scene in which Lightner chases some jerk into a passenger car on the circus train, pounding him with a pillow that explodes with feathers that fill the screen as her victim runs toward the camera. I read that this was one of those pictures that was cut to ribbons because it had been a full musical at the point when audiences had tired of the genre, so the songs had to go, but while Side Show is admittedly episodic it doesn't really strike me as a mutilated film.

Side Show describes the Lightner character's vocation and her self-image. Pat has sacrificed her own ambitions, both personal and professional, to prop up the drunkard Col. Gowdy (Guy Kibbee) and longs for a life and a man of her own. The man is Joe Palmer, and since he's played by Donald Cook, best known as Jimmy Cagney's damaged-vet brother in The Public Enemy, he doesn't seem that promising. Worse, once Pat's younger sister Irene (Evalyn Knapp) shows up, Joe falls for her and they eventually run off together. The film contrives a happy ending when Joe returns for Pat, having hooked Irene up with a younger guy, but I think we can indulge the contrivance, because Pat deserves a break after all she's gone through. She definitely doesn't deserve to end up with Sidney, the Butterworth character -- and I don't say that to disparage Butterworth, since I actually dig the actor. How to describe him. Physically, think of Stan Laurel as a bipolar version of Butterworth. In terms of personality, Butterworth is what Buster Keaton should have become in talkies. Butterworth was actually billed as a "dead-pan" comic a la Keaton, defined by an imperturbable absurdity. If the cuts to the film had any consequence, it was to give Butterworth more of an opportunity to steal the film from Lightner, but they actually make a neatly-contrasted comic team, his pixilated placidity balancing her manic antics. The best-such moment, and a runner-up for Pre-Code Moment of the picture, comes when Lightner, disguised as the disgruntled fire diver, is stopped on her way to the center ring by the local sheriff, who's on hand to make sure the circus doesn't defraud the public. He wants to chat with the diver but Lightner isn't going to risk imitating a foreign man's voice, so she lapses into a gibberish sign language with many conspicuous thrusts of fingers into hand-made holes. Butterworth translates: "He asks how's your home life." Butterworth has all kinds of small moments that get big laughs, just as Lightner gets big laughs with big moments. I could describe more but I don't want to overrate Side Show as a comic masterpiece. It is the first time I've really appreciated Lightner's brash versatility, which probably would have made her a huge star today. In her own time, Side Show already finds her past her peak of popularity. She retired in 1934, but there's a sort of happy ending, since she married Roy Del Ruth, who did right by her here and thereafter.

Monday, April 4, 2016

Pre-Code Parade: HOLLYWOOD PARTY (1934)

Bring along your girl.
Go home with someone else's.
What about your girl?
She'll make out all right.

The title song promises a climactic Pre-Code picture, but Hollywood Party, a film without an official director but in which many hands participated, is one of those dead-end musical comedies in which stars are reduced virtually to human cartoons. This is so literally true in this case that Jimmy Durante gets into a fight with Mickey Mouse. In a way, I suppose Party is the climax of that particular sub-genre, which could be seen as Pre-Code's answer to the superhero film. I had better explain that. Talkies brought a lot of Broadway and vaudeville talent to Hollywood, many of whom were "nut" comics of some sort, and the advent of commercial radio around the same time popularized even more outlandish personalities. If cinema's challenge now is to animate the dynamism of superhero art and incorporate the aesthetics of video games, the challenge then was to visualize the imagined absurdity of radio while incorporating the burlesque unreality of nut comedy. The result was cartoonish, incoherent musicals like this one, Party having an especial contempt for continuity and other conventions owing to its haphazard construction. As a Pre-Code picture it's less a scandal than a seizure. M-G-M rarely got closer to utter chaos than with this film.

I don't know if this was M-G-M publicity art or a local newspaper artist's still more insane interpretation of the already unstable Hollywood Party.

It has a plot. Durante plays himself, the star of the Schnarzan series of jungle adventures. Somewhere in the picture, during a patter routine about reincarnation -- he was both Adam and Paul Revere's horse -- Durante will tell the old tale of dreaming he was a butterfly, then wondering afterward whether he was a butterfly dreaming he was a man. So it is with Durante as Schnarzan. An actor named Jimmy Durante plays a character named Schnarzan -- bulked up with animal hair, he looks like a refugee from the Island of Lost Souls -- and while his public in the picture knows that Schnarzan is portrayed by Jimmy Durante, many of them refer to him simply as Schnarzan. This is arguably sort of relevant later, or it's as relevant as anything is here. The Schnarzan pictures co-star Lupe Velez, also playing herself, but she and Durante/Schnarzan are feuding, so he doesn't invite her to his epic Hollywood party, the purpose of which is to impress the visiting Baron Munchhausen (Jack Pearl) and thus secure the purchase of his lion collection, Schnarzan's studio being convinced that the films are fading because the animals are old and tired. A rival studio has a rival jungle lord, Liondora (George Givot), who hopes to raise the money to outbid the Schnarzan studio for the lions by seducing the Clemp family of Oklahoma oil millionaires (Charles Butterworth, Polly Moran, etc.). Lupe crashes the party but ends up preoccupied by two more party-crashers, Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy, who were the original owners of the lions and demand them back after no bank or store will cash the check the Baron made out in his native currency, the tiddlywink. Outside the soiree, the Three Stooges seek autographs (while Ted Healy shoots photos) and are accosted by a group of anthropologists, unlikely invitees presumably hoping to meet the Baron, who dispute whether Curly is a Neanderthal or an Androgyne. Inside, Mickey Mouse is yet another party crasher, frightening showgirls and partygoers into standing on chairs and drawing up their skirts. Compelled to perform for the gathering, he provides the piano accompaniment for a Technicolor nightmare, "Hot Choc'late Soldiers," portraying the cataclysmic war between those heroes and the Gingerbread Men. The title army triumphs after using the classic Trojan Pigeon stratagem, but at what cost? They return home maimed, some of them headless, only to be melted into an undifferentiated brown river by the chuckling sun. Don't let it be said that Walt Disney didn't rise to the occasion. Finally, a disgruntled, egg-riddled Stan and Ollie unleash their prize lion on the party, but Schnarzan is up to the challenge -- except that everything, even the Berkeleyesque fantasy of switchboard showgirls and the romantic subplot involving juveniles June Clyde and Eddie Quillan -- was the dream of Jimmy Durante the M-G-M comic, inspired by his reading of Edgar Rice Burroughs' Tarzan the Untamed. Roused by his wife Jane (!), Durante now must hastily prepare for his friend Lupe Velez's party, but takes fright at the sight of a lion sculpture to close the picture.

You can tell something is wrong with the picture -- apart from all that's mentally wrong, that is -- when Baron Munchhausen gets a huge buildup, enters in the arms of a gorilla ("He's the son of King Kong!") and is introduced with a Captain Spaulding style musical number, and then does virtually nothing for the rest of the picture. This is easily explained, however. As Baron Munchhausen, Jack Pearl had suddenly become a radio superstar. Attempting to exploit this, M-G-M starred Pearl in Meet the Baron (also featuring Durante and the Stooges), which proved that Pearl had nothing to offer in visual media. In Hollywood Party he offers less than nothing, leaving us to wonder why, exactly, the Baron is drinking from a woman's shoe the next time we see him, without really caring to learn the answer. By comparison, Durante, for me the most obnoxious feature of Pre-Code cinema, is actually somewhat entertaining, because here at last he found an environment as unreal as he was. At least I can take him better as a meta-character than as his typical self. Durante knows better, however, than to try sharing the screen with Laurel & Hardy, who are rightly top-billed despite arriving late. They are masterful, first in their battle with doorman Tom Kennedy and later in one of their classic ritual duels with Velez, this one involving a bowl of raw eggs. The future Mexican Spitfire gets right into the rhythm of it and may be one of the team's most aggressive antagonists, hitting Ollie with multiple egg attacks before he and Stan can resume the offensive. My favorite bit of the fight is when, after Lupe hits Ollie with her shoe, an indignant Stan tears off one of his shoes and has to be restrained by ever-chivalrous Ollie from clobbering her. These three, at least, (and George Stevens, who reportedly directed their scene) seem to know what they're doing, which probably could not be said for most of the other participants behind or in front of the camera. There are inspired moments in Hollywood Party but the film really represents a dead-end for Pre-Code Hollywood's attempt to amalgamate the absurdities of stage and radio comedy. Ironically enough, it was "screwball" comedy that imposed coherence on the genre, leaving Hollywood Party to stand as an almost instantly obsolete monument of primitive surrealism -- and maybe all the more surreal for that.

Saturday, April 2, 2016


Rarely do you see a show so specifically tailored for a cable channel and its audience demographic as Miles Millar and Alfred Gough's Shannara Chronicles, which makes it ironic that the MTV series is effortlessly surpassed in what it presumably wanted to do -- make a world of magic accessible to a relatively casual contemporary viewer -- by Sera Gamble and Sean McNamara's The Magicians on SyFy. It's not just that Magicians is set in the present day, since Shannara bends over backwards to make its postapocalyptic setting as nearly contemporary as possible. The crucial difference is that Shannara tries to bend Terry Brooks's characters and concepts into a cliche of modernity, while Magicians, adapting Lev Grossman's trilogy of novels, relies on superior writing and acting to develop several strong, distinctive personalities who feel modern because they feel real. Shannara ends up a mirror of MTV's own fantasy of youth, while Magicians, for all its purposefully derivative trappings, is becoming a uniquely character-driven fantasy show, and the best new genre program of the 2015-16 TV season.

The Shannara Chronicles approximately adapts Brooks's novel The Elfstones of Shannara. Some time after a cataclysmic event destroys human civilization, once-fantastical species have evolved from man, the dominant species, apparently, being the elves. Culturally, on the show at least, the elves are much as you and I, only with pointy ears. The show begins on a note of progress as Princess Amberle (Poppy Drayton) becomes the first female to pass the grueling endurance test to become a guardian of the Elcrys, the magical tree on which the well-being of the elf kingdom (ruled over by John Rhys-Davies) depends. Progress comes too late, it seems, since the Elcrys is dying, and that puts the kingdom in danger of invasion and annihilation by hordes of demons. The druid Allanon (Manu Bennett), Brooks's badass Gandalf, reports that the cure for the Elcrys can be found in distant Safehold. After most of the Elcrys guard is massacred, Amberle takes up the quest to Safehold, accompanied by half-elf Wil Ohmsford (Austin Butler), a descendant of the hero of Brooks's earlier novel The Sword of Shannara. Wil possesses the mighty Elfstones, which get him out of many a jam but tax him physically, as all magic does to its wielders in this world. Along for the ride is Eretria (Ivana Baquero), a human Rover i.e. a brigand initially tasked by her leader and adopted father (James Remar) with stealing the Elfstones so she herself won't be sold into slavery. Meanwhile, Allanon has magical skirmishes with the big bad and mentors an elf with powerful and potentially dangerous abilities, while the elf king is murdered and replaced by a changeling in league with the demons.

MTV took on Shannara presumably because the success of its Teen Wolf series showed its audience had an appetite for genre stories. Just as Teen Wolf evolved into something far different and darker than its comic namesake, so Shannara became something quite different from Brooks's Tolkienesque fantasy. As already noted, the crucial decision seems to have been to underscore the postapocalyptic element of the fantasy world far more than Brooks ever has, to my knowledge. You are constantly reminded that the world of elves, gnomes, etc., was built on the ruins of our world, and the ruins often are shockingly well-preserved, given how much time presumably has passed in order for new species to evolve. In one episode our trio find the ruins of a 21st century high school, with many of the posters on the walls and other artifacts intact. In another, a human colony has salvaged artifacts of the distant (?) past and can generate power to play 21st century music for parties that clearly are meant to look inviting to the MTV audience. In other respects the show strives for contemporary relevance. As commentary on bigotry seems necessary again, we get a storyline involving elf-hating human hunters who take pointy ears as trophies, and in general interspecies mistrust exist to a greater degree, so I'm told, than it does in the novels. Relevance and accessibility are the twin goals, the latter theoretically achieved by having the elves and so forth talk in 21st century slang and idiom and by foregrounding the main heroes' romantic triangle and objectifying all three characters as sex objects. Shannara delivers much of the same soap opera many genre fans identify angrily with the CW network, but takes it to a shoulders-and-sheets level CW rarely indulges in. Add to all this an honest effort at fantasy action on a somewhat epic scale -- Manu Bennett often seems to be taking part in an entirely different, possibly cooler show -- and you get an overcalculated mishmash designed to please all-too-specific demographics without any real organic creative evolution. After Into the Badlands showed what Millar and Gough are capable of when they aren't pandering to a specific audience -- unless you can define an AMC demographic for me, that is -- Shannara was doomed to disappoint me. In its defense, while I compare it to the stereotype of a CW show it never really blunders into the kinds of stupidity that renders some CW programs infuriating, while it managed to maintain a dramatic momentum that other, more promising shows (e.g. The Bastard Executioner) never really attained. Its main problem -- perhaps a fatal one -- is that it was compromised by its choice of venue in a way that shouldn't be possible today. My presumption is that a Shannara Chronicles on a different channel would have been a far different thing, everything else remaining equal, but maybe I'm wrong.

On SyFy, The Magicians is part of an attempted renaissance through which the former Sci-Fi Channel hopes to reclaim the respectability it enjoyed a decade ago, when the rebooted Battlestar Galactica was one of the vanguard shows of a perceived new golden age of television, before the channel sold its soul for sophomoric laughs by making "SyFy Original" a byword for self-conscious, bad-on-purpose schlock. If SyFy's other new shows are as good as Magicians the channel is well on its way to redemption. It follows the parallel journeys of two friends from childhood, Quentin Coldwater (Jason Ralph) and Julia Wicker (Stella Maeve). As kids they were fans of a Narnia-like fantasy fiction series about the magical realm of Fillory, but Julia has outgrown that stuff and urges Quentin to do likewise. Almost by accident each wanders by a different path into an entrance exam for Brakebills College for Magical Pedagogy, which I could swear is somewhere around here in upstate New York. Quentin passes the exam and is admitted to Brakebills, while Julia flunks and, according to routine, will have her memory of the exam wiped away. She improvises, however, and cuts her arm as a mnemonic device that overcomes the forgetting spell. As Quentin gets used to life at Brakebills, a campus increasingly under attack by a horrific power known as The Beast, Julia becomes obsessed with learning magic independently, falling in with an underworld of "hedgewitches" and embarking on a roller-coaster ride of brief epiphanies and nightmarish disasters. Since she clearly has considerable talent and possibly tremendous potential, you're left to wonder why Brakebills rejected her, why Brakebills has the authority among magicians it appears to enjoy, etc. But Magicians doesn't indulge in the paranoid fantasies (yet at least) that would render Brakebills itself suspect; the faculty's intentions appear benign, its concern for discipline sincere and necessary given the violence magic is capable of. If there's no clear why for Brakebills having no place for Julia, that's because the show doesn't offer simple answers for anything. Its lead characters grow increasingly complex as we go on, and while some people have objected that none of the main cast is likable, I think the show has gone quickly beyond a dependence on likability in its development of some of the most interesting personalities on genre TV.

At first glance, the high concept of Magicians is "adult Harry Potter" in several respects. There's sex, yes, and there's also a brazen amount of smoking, boozing, drug taking, etc., all without judgment from the writers. Leaving all that out, the students at Brakebills are not children, nor are they stock fantasy types. Along with Quentin, who, defined by his neuroses and obsession with Fillory, is arguably the least fleshed-out character on the show, we get to know his eventual girlfriend Alice (Olivia Taylor Dudley), the most studious and driven of the students, a gorgeous nerd who's socially repressed as a rebellion against her parents' orgiastic lifestyle and obsessed over the fate of an older brother who attended Brakebills; Penny (Arjun Gupta), who despises all trappings of fantasy (especially the Fillory novels) despite his own obvious talents and strives defensively to maintain a too-cool arrogant attitude even as he discovers his dangerous power as a teleporting Traveler; Eliot (Hale Appleman), at first glance the perpetual undergrad, dissolutely easygoing, omnivorous in his sexual and intoxicant appetites, under whose snarky demeanor -- he seems on first impression the most like someone you'd find at Hogwarts -- run deep, dark waters that surface when the Beast forces him to kill a lover; Margo (Summer Bishil), Eliot's BFF ever since they had to strip and reveal secrets to each other in an undergrad rite of passage, who often comes across as a Mean Girl in spite of herself and whose emotional neediness emerges as Eliot's attitude darkens; and Kady (Jade Tailor), who becomes Penny's girlfriend but has to flee Brakebills when her ties to hedgewitches (her mother's one) are exposed and ends up (as of the most recent episode) collaborating with Julia and a group of elite, relatively ethical hedges, in an attempt to summon a god. Even if Quentin seems shallow among them, Jason Ralph conveys the depths of the character's conflicts and confusions, supported by a formidable ensemble of young actors. The writers match the actors by constantly imagining original stuff for them to do as they learn more about magic in general and the dark truth behind the Fillory novels in particular. Of genre shows I watch only The Flash can compete with The Magicians on the high-concept level, and the speed with which Magicians opens up its fantastic universe -- apparently telescoping events in the first two Grossman novels drastically -- while keeping it all comprehensible (or comprehensibly mysterious) is arguably unmatched. I get a greater rush of vital novelty from each episode than I get from any other program, including those I still consider this show's superiors. Best of all, however freely the show adapts the novels, you never feel that Magicians is pandering to specific demographics, or stereotypes of demographics, the way Shannara does. It seems that people recognized the difference; while Shannara's future is uncertain, Magicians is assured of  a second season. Considering that the second season is when many shows hit their stride, that's really good news, and it will make the wait until 2017 (and season four for Black Sails and The 100) even longer.