Sunday, July 20, 2014

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

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

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

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Real Pulp Fiction: ARGOSY, JULY 15, 1939

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

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

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

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

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


Tuesday, July 15, 2014

DVR Diary: THE TRAIL OF '98 (1928)

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, July 13, 2014


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Friday, July 11, 2014

Pre-Code Parade: a note on violence against women

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

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

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Pre-Code Parade: PLAYING AROUND (1930)

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

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

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

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Real Pulp Fiction: ARGOSY, JULY 8, 1939

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

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


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

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