Sunday, July 27, 2014

Pre-Code Parade: THE LAST FLIGHT (1931)

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

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

Saturday, July 26, 2014


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

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Real Pulp Fiction: ARGOSY, JULY 22, 1939

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

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

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

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

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


Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Pre-Code Parade: HARD TO HANDLE (1933)

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

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

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

Sunday, July 20, 2014

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

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

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

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Real Pulp Fiction: ARGOSY, JULY 15, 1939

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

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

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

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

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


Tuesday, July 15, 2014

DVR Diary: THE TRAIL OF '98 (1928)

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

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

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

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

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