Monday, March 19, 2018

The Midwife's Deception (Distilled Media/Lifetime, 2018)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2018 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I put on Lifetime’s latest “premiere,” a film called The Midwife’s Deception which sounds, like the recent Bad Tutor, like the Lifetime producers, directors and writers are running out of seemingly “perfect” service jobs whose holders have psycho designs on their employers. This time the script was written and directed by the same person, Letia Clouston (yet another talented woman filmmaker who deserves opportunities at bigger outlets than Lifetime and this film’s production company, Distilled Media — as opposed to Tap Media or Spring Media?), and though she ran through a lot of the usual items on the checklist for Lifetime scripts (psycho, innocent victim, innocent victim’s decent but clueless spouse, and innocent victim’s best friend who tries to expose the psycho and gets knocked off for her pains), she turned in a better job than usual at both writing and direction. I think what makes this a better movie than the Lifetime norm (though not by all that much) is that Clouston, like Christine Conradt, is willing to make her characters complex and also keep a lot of the backstory unstated instead of throwing everything at us. The central characters are Daniel Miller (Billy Armstrong, a hot-looking guy who for once on a Lifetime movie is not a villain) and his very visibly pregnant wife Sara (Katie Savoy, who looks so convincing as a woman in the later stages of pregnancy I wondered if Clouston had cast an actress who actually was pregnant for the role). The Millers have just moved from Los Angeles, where she had worked as an attorney until taking time off to have her baby and spend the first year or two of her (they know it’s going to be a her and they’ve named her Eloise) life bonding with her, to the small town in Kentucky where he grew up.

One of the gimmicks in Clouston’s script is that there are a lot of nubile young women who remember Daniel as the big hottie from high school and still have crushes on him — which understandably makes Sara feel jealous, even though the woman who actually was Daniel’s high-school girlfriend, Allie (Katie McClellan, who’s shorter than Katie Savoy but also has long black hair and a similar face — one wonders if this is Daniel’s “type”), becomes her best friend in town. Eventually we learn that Sara has been through two previous pregnancies but miscarried both of them, and she’s understandably anxious about this one and making sure she makes it and actually gives birth to a live baby. Enter the bad girl, Jina (Penelope Mitchell), who runs into Sara at a local café (which has the odd name “Shakespeare and Company” — I remember that as the name of a famous bookstore in Berkeley, back when there still were bookstores!) whose proprietor is yet another woman who knew Daniel back in high school and had the hots for him. Jina introduces herself as a certified nurse-midwife and offers to take charge of Sara during her pregnancy and help her through a home birth, despite the misgivings of Sara’s pediatrician, Dr. Collins (played by Matt Clouston, real-life husband of the writer-director — who seems to have named the central couple “Miller” after her own maiden name). One point Clouston’s script makes is how much life in small towns really is based on everyone knowing everyone else: Jina takes Sara to a meeting of mothers-to-be at the restaurant and Sara shows how much of a fish out of water she is by bringing a salad made from quinoa and kale. Of course no one else at the event has ever heard of quinoa! Though Sara is determined to avoid alcohol and caffeine during her pregnancy, Jina sneaks out her smartphone and uses it to take pictures of Sara with the forbidden drinks close to her mouth. Sara demands that Jina not post these to social media — she has a phobia about having any pictures of herself online, which Clouston keeps powerfully unexplained the way the writers of Casablanca carefully kept us in the dark as to just what Bogart’s character had done that prevented him from returning to the U.S.

Jina shows us she’s up to no good well before the other characters learn that; we see her in her grey SUV stalking the Millers at night, and later she gives them an elaborate candlestick for their bedroom with a red mug on top of it “to warm you up at night,” but the objet d’art is carefully bugged, with a hidden camera that allows Jina to log on from home and eavesdrop on the goings-on in the Millers’ bedroom. The biggest thing that happens in the Millers’ bedroom that we get to see is a nice Lifetime-style soft-core porn scene in which Daniel attempts to have sex with his wife, but the baby-to-be in her belly just keeps getting in the way. (Lifetime used to do a lot more soft-core porn than their norm now, and I miss it.) It’s only two-thirds of the way through the movie that we finally learn Jina’s true motive: she wants to kill both Daniel and Sara and take their baby for herself. They’re currently living in the house formerly occupied by Daniel’s mother until her recent death, and the house has uncomfortable Rebecca-esque memories; her plan is to burn down the house with an incapacitated Daniel and Sara inside, frame it to look like a murder-suicide in which Sara’s fetus died as well as both parents, and take the baby and raise it since no authorities will know the kid still exists. About the only explanation Clouston gives us as to why she’s doing this is a speech she gives towards the end in which she says she wants the girl to grow up with a proper appreciation of how tough the world really is instead of being sheltered by the Millers from the nastier realities of life. Along the way Jina posts her pics of Sara apparently drinking on social media — which leads to the rest of the women in town snubbing her as a hypocrite — and when Allie gets too close to the truth, Jina kills her, first drugging her and then smothering her with a large horseshoe-shaped cushion — after which she buries Allie on Daniel’s and Sara’s property, thereby (she hopes) framing Sara for her murder. She also steals Allie’s cell phone and continues to text Sara regularly in Allie’s persona, so when Sara finally stumbles onto the truth about Jina — her real name is Leslie Ann Phelps and under that identity she has a social-media page boasting about the imminent birth of “her” baby — instead of alerting a friend she’s tipping off Jina that she knows.

The climax takes place at the Millers’ home, which Jina sets on fire with a drugged Sara, who’s also starting to have contractions indicating the birth is imminent, inside. Daniel comes home but Jina quickly overpowers him, clubbing him into unconsciousness with a baseball bat, and there’s a big to-do about a gun Daniel’s mother left him which is locked in a safe somewhere in the house — but can Daniel get to it before Jina does? Jina guesses that the Millers have set Sara’s birthday as the combination to the safe, but it’s actually Daniel’s and Sara’s wedding date — and with that information Sara is able to retrieve the gun and shoot Jina to death just before Jina is about to dispatch her husband. (Letia Clouston quite literally took Chekhov’s advice to budding playwrights that if you introduce a pistol in act one, someone has to fire it in act three.) The Midwife’s Deception is well done, and Clouston’s powerful suspense direction and use of dramatic ambiguity in her script sets this one ahead of most Lifetime movies even though all too much of it is based on the network’s usual formulae; and given Lifetime’s recent penchant for endings in which the principal villain escapes to wreak his or her havoc on some other unsuspecting person in another city, it was nice to see Clouston end this one with a shot of Jina at the window of the burning house (an obvious quote from Alfred Hitchcock’s shot of Judith Anderson at the end of Rebecca), about to go out in flames with it. She even avoided the expected everything-is-back-to-normal coda of the Millers in the hospital with their brand-new baby girl! The Midwife’s Deception is a formula piece, but a quite good one within the formula’s limits, and I look forward to seeing more for Letia Clouston — she goes on my list along with Christine Conradt and Vanessa Parise of women directors on Lifetime who’ve clearly “made their bones” and shown they’re ready for feature films.

Sunday, March 18, 2018

The Invaders, Season One: Four Episodes

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2018 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night’s Vintage Sci-Fi film screening ( consisted of four episodes from a surprisingly interesting TV series that ran from 1966 to 1968 (and therefore overlapped with the first two seasons of the original Star Trek): The Invaders, which was produced by Quinn Martin coming off the success of his hit show The Fugitive. The Invaders was basically an attempt to extend the basic concept of The Fugitive into science fiction: architect David Vincent (Roy Thinnes, who seems to have played the series’ only recurring character) is driving on a deserted country road one night when he sees an alien spacecraft land on a field in front of him. He immediately realizes that the occupants of the craft are not only from another planet, they have malevolent intentions. They can assume human form — though only by going through a machine that looks like a cross between a fluoroscope and a Star Trek transporter that not only makes them look like Homo sapiens but also allows them to breathe an atmosphere containing oxygen, which is ordinarily poisonous to them. This process gives some — but not all — of the aliens a slight deformity in one or more of their fingers, which is about the only reliable way you have of telling them from real people — until they die, when their bodies briefly turn into a red glow before vaporizing completely. Also anything the dying alien is touching when it expires similarly glows red and then totally disappears. One thing Quinn Martin did right on this show is get a lot of highly talented guest stars, both actors on their way down (William Talman, the hapless prosecutor on Perry Mason and also so good as a psychopath in Ida Lupino’s marvelous film noir The Hitch-Hiker that when we watched that together Charles joked, “No wonder he was such a bad D.A.! Now we know what side of the law he was really on!”, and Burgess Meredith — though Meredith would make a comeback as The Penguin on the Batman TV series and as the coach in the first Rocky) and ones on their way up (Jack Lord, William Windom, Ed Asner, Peggy Lipton). 

The first episode, “Vikor” (aired February 14, 2018), was, I thought, the best of the four we watched, and given when it was made, when people were just starting to turn against the Viet Nam war, it has a refreshingly cynical attitude towards militarism and the people it proclaims as “heroes.” George Vikor (Jack Lord, surprisingly effective cast against type as a villain), is an industrialist who in 1952 got the Presidential medal for valor in the Korean War. He still has a recording (on an Audiodisc blank acetate) of the medal ceremony, including the applause that greeted him, but he remembers that when he tried to find work after his discharge he couldn’t find any. Bitter about this, he nonetheless somehow was able to start a small business refining steel out of scrap metal and he’s built this into a major operation. As the episode opens he’s working with a mysterious man named Mr. Nexus, who’s ordered a large quantity of something without being too clear about what it is or why he wants it. Of course, Mr. Nexus is one of the invading aliens, and he’s “outed” when a telephone lineman doing some rewiring at Vikor’s plant accidentally looks from his crane through one of the windows at the factory and spots the alien transformation machine in action. The aliens on Vikor’s security force, planted there by Nexus, kill the lineman, but his death makes the local paper and is spotted by David Vincent, who shows up, applies for work at the company, and gets hired by Vikor personally as chauffeur for his wife Sherri (Diana Hyland, who was cast as John Travolta’s mother in the TV-movie The Boy in the Plastic Bubble and started an affair with him, then got terminal cancer; on her deathbed her last words to him were, “John, do that disco movie they’ve offered you”). 

Vikor wants a chauffeur for his wife because she’s responded to almost never seeing him because he’s working all the time by drinking a lot and driving her car (a Thunderbird — Quinn Martin had one of the then-common deals with an auto company to supply all the vehicles for the film, so every car or truck we see is a Ford product) very fast. The local cops have just popped her for driving under the influence and doing 90 miles an hour, and Vikor warns her that even his pull with the local police can’t keep her from the consequences of her actions much longer. Together Vincent and Sherri find out the secret of the aliens’ involvement in Vikor’s business, and the fact that they’ve promised him more than just money: they’re going to make her a sort of local collabò leader of their occupation, giving him the status he’s long craved from his fellow 1-percenters. (Why didn’t he just run for President?) Eventually Vikor realizes his mistake in getting in bed (figuratively) with the aliens instead of (literally) with his wife, but he dies, the alien operation disappears and once again Vincent, who begs off when Sherri expresses her romantic interest in him now that she’s a widow, walks away facing the dilemma that confronted him throughout the series: he claimed there was an alien invasion and the alien invaders were working with Earth people on various schemes to take power, occupy the earth and render it uninhabitable for humans, but with no physical evidence to back up his story people just think he’s a nut and at best don’t believe him, and at worst try to lock him up as mentally ill.

The next episode of The Invaders on our program was originally shown February 28, 1967, two weeks after “Vikor,” and called “Doomsday Minus One.” This time the aliens try to plant a matter-antimatter bomb in the Utah desert which will kill a million people, and they hit on the idea of using a normal underground nuclear test as cover for their bomb. David Vincent gets called in by Major Rick Graves (a surprisingly young-looking William Windom), who’d had inklings that there were alien invaders afoot on Earth and assigned a security person to tail them — only they got wind of him and killed him in a bar (the aliens have a round object with five points on it that, if they apply it to a human’s neck, can depending on how it’s set either stun him or kill him). Vincent discovers that the base’s commander, General Theodore Beaumont (Andrew Duggan), is the earth collabò in league with the aliens this time; he’s so bitter against the U.S. government, the military and the human race over the death of his son in combat that he’s ready to work with the aliens and knock off a million people just for revenge. Eventually, however, he sees the error of his ways and hijacks the truck containing the aliens’ bomb, driving it straight towards their redoubt in the desert and blowing at least some of them up. 

Following that we watched “Quantity: Unknown,” originally aired the next week after “Doomsday Minus One” (March 7, 1967) and with a quite moving performance by James Whitmore as Harry Swain, a man who tells Vincent his wife and daughter were killed by the aliens. This time the MacGuffin is a cylinder the aliens lost track of and killed the driver who was delivering it to the Sperrick Laboratories. Though the cylinder is made of metal, it’s a metal unknown on earth and the analyst in charge of studying it, Diane Oberly (Susan Strasberg), can’t get it open no matter what she does to it, including firing a laser beam (still a novelty in 1967) dead center at it. Vincent persuades the authorities at Sperrick to make up a fake cylinder and ostensibly send it to a lab in New Orleans for further analysis, but Col. Frank Griffin (former Perry Mason prosecutor Hamilton Burger in the last role of his career — he died a year and a half after this show was filmed at the comparatively young age of 53), yet another human who’s working with the aliens, spots the surveillance at the airport and waves to his confederates, thus signaling him not to pick up the cylinder. Vincent is therefore once again persona non grata among the people he’s been trying to convince of the seriousness of the alien threat, and he hatches a plot to steal the cylinder from Sperrick and take it to New Orleans himself — only in a big reversal that, thanks to the relative restraint of writers in 1967 compared to the stuff they pull on us today (the writers of this episode are Clyde Ware, original story; and Donald Brinkley, script), is actually believable, Harry Swain isn’t a man who lost his wife and daughter to the aliens; he’s an alien himself, and the whole point of his pretense was to get Vincent to take the cylinder to New Orleans, whereupon the aliens would recover it, open it and find what it contained: the instructions from their home planet on how to effect the conquest of Earth. In the denouement, Vincent confronts Swain at a water treatment plant and they fight at the edge of an artificial waterfall; Vincent survives but Swain falls to his death, though just before he expires he spots the cylinder floating in the water and touches it, thereby making sure that the cylinder vaporizes when his body does. 

The final show in our sequence, “Wall of Crystal” from May 2, 1967, was probably the spookiest of the four because this time the MacGuffin is a crystal the aliens have invented, using the earth mineral mica as well as a reagent from their own planet, and it sucks all the oxygen out of the earth’s atmosphere, thereby making our air more like theirs. The first people it works on are a young couple who’ve just got married, Bill (Jerry Ayers) and his new wife (Peggy Lipton), who are on their way to their honeymoon when a truck containing the alien crystals overturns, they spill onto the highway and asphyxiate both Bill and his missus when they get too close. The scene then shifts to San Francisco, where David Vincent has finally found a believer who has a high enough position of authority to help: journalist and TV commentator Theodore Booth (Burgess Meredith), who has promised to expose the aliens both on his TV show and his newspaper column if Vincent can get him any physical evidence at all. Vincent accordingly recovers one of the crystals, puts dirt around it and puts it in an air-tight bag because it only does its harm if exposed to air, then turns it over to a lab for analysis, with Booth promising to air the story if the analysis reveals it’s as toxic as Vincent says it is. Only the aliens get to the lab first, expose the crystal and kill the scientist who was supposed to analyze it. 

The aliens this time are led by Taugus (Ed Asner, younger than we’re used to seeing him and quite good in an implacable, matter-of-fact characterization — he’s the sort of “heavy” who doesn’t seem either excited or revolted by villainy, but just thinks it’s part of his job), and in order to intimidate David Vincent into silence they kidnap his brother, Dr. Richard Vincent (Linden Chiles), and later grab his wife Grace (Julie Sommars) as well. Fortunately Richard is able to give David a clue as to his whereabouts — an old winery near a now dried-up lake bed where, when they were kids and it still had water, David once saved Richard from drowning. Grace calls the police but before they arrive David gets to the old winery and manages to rescue his brother, but the aliens are able to vaporize themselves, the entire winery and Theodore Booth in the shoot-out (the last particularly distressed me because not only was I a journalist but Booth was easily the most interesting character in the show and it would have been wise for the producers to let him live and make him a series regular). When the police come they see no winery, no aliens and nothing that remotely looks like crime, and they make a few comments about how they’ve been victimized by typical pranksters wasting the cops’ time and the government’s money — and in the last shot we get a closeup of the lead cop’s hand and realize he’s an alien.  

The Invaders actually holds up surprisingly well — a friend of ours remembered it from its original air dates and said it was a combination of The Fugitive and John Carpenter’s more recent (1991) almost-masterpiece They Live, also about an alien invasion force who disguise themselves as humans and whose ultimate goal is to pollute the earth’s atmosphere until it resembles their home planet’s and they can take over. The show is reasonably impressive and the writers generally seemed to know just how far they could take the concept before it sailed off into total audience disbelief — and though Roy Thinnes isn’t as famous as the angst-ridden series lead as David Janssen became in the similarly plotted but non-sci-fi The Fugitive, he’s a capable actor even though ironically his most famous credit is probably for a film he wasn’t in: he was originally cast as the second lead in Alfred Hitchcock’s last film, Family Plot, but midway through the shoot Hitch decided Thinnes wasn’t what he wanted and William Devane replaced him. The version of The Invaders we were seeing was a DVD boxed set released in 2008 and with each episode produced by an introduction with Roy Thinnes in 2008 explaining the story he’d filmed 40 years earlier — and at least one member of the audience at our screening was impressed at how well he weathered the years. (According to, he’s still alive.)

Saturday, March 17, 2018

The War of the Worlds: The True Story (Pendragon, 2012)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2018 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The two films shown at last night’s Mars movie screening in Golden Hill ( were unusually good given some of the crap we’ve been presented before — though much of the crap was the sort of Mystery Science Theatre 3000-type fare that while inept as filmmaking has camp entertainment value simply by being so bad. The first was a film called The War of the Worlds: The True Story, whose odd conceit was that the war between Earth and Mars described in H. G. Wells’ classic 1897 novel actually happened and the last survivor of it, Bertie Wells (Floyd Reichman), was interviewed and videotaped in 1965 reminiscing about it. Hines, who apparently wrote the script as well, also assumed that in 2006 a cache of contemporary film footage of the actual war of the worlds was unearthed in a safe in a vault of a building that was about to be torn down, and so his film supposedly intersperses footage from the interview with Bertie Wells done six months before he died with the newsreel and documentary film of the actual war. What Hines really did was take a whole mass of stock footage, including newsreels from both world wars, as well as scenes from feature films of the classic era either made or set in times a few decades later than the 1900 date given of the actual war of the worlds. 

He quite artfully patched in newly created effects footage of the Martian war machines and grafted them into his stock clips, though some of the clips themselves were so recognizable from their original contexts they were jarring and disconcerting: the Odessa Steps sequence from Eisenstein’s Potemkin, representing Londoners fleeing from the Martian onslaught; the famous sequence from Buster Keaton’s The General in which a train attempts to cross a burning bridge, the bridge gives way and the train collapses (the sequence Keaton insisted on staging with a real train really crashing into a river from a real collapsing bridge; the train remained in the river at his Oregon location from 1926 to the early 1940’s, when it was extracted so the metal could be used as scrap in World War II); a scene from Meet Me in St. Louis with Judy Garland clearly recognizable sitting on a couch; and other scenes with Shirley Temple and other actors from classic-era Hollywood (one “trivia” poster recognized William Shatner, though I didn’t). Part of the conceit was that Hines used not only the basic plot of Wells’ The War of the Worlds but also much of the actual prose from Wells’ novel, split between Bertie Wells in character and a third-person narrator (Jim Cissell) who sounded like the kind of voice actor they got for “audio-visual” movies they showed in schools in the 1960’s. The result was a fascinating movie but also a quite dull one at times, and I tend to agree with the reviewer who said that through a lot of this movie you are more amazed at the skill of Hines’ technique than moved or grabbed by the story. According to the Wikipedia page on the film (, which is a lot more informative than its entry ( only lists five of the actors in the film, while Wikipedia gives the full cast), Hines’ inspiration was the 1938 Orson Welles radio broadcast of The War of the Worlds, which updated the story to Welles’ own time and presented it as if it were an actual news event being broadcast in real time. (The famous panic that ensued as many people listening to Welles’ broadcast thought the Martian invasion was really happening was the subject of the other movie on our double bill.) 

He wisely cast two actors as Bertie Wells, Floyd Reichman as the older man recounting the Martian invasion from 1965 and a younger actor (not listed on either or Wikipedia) playing him in the supposed documentary footage — which actually features a lot of “cheating,” showing scenes no cameraman could possibly have been there to film (though there are a few sequences in which a character appears using the hand-cranked film cameras of the early days on screen — it wasn’t unknown in the real days for a newsreel producer to send several cameramen to shoot a major battle or public event and have one cameraman get into another one’s shot). Hines actually made an earlier version of The War of the Worlds in 2005, though it’s unclear whether the 2012 release we were watching was cut down from that first one or whether the two were different projects by the same writer-director and some of the same actors; according to Wikipedia, Hines originally planned a War of the Worlds film in 2001 that would relocate the story to modern times, then abandoned it after the September 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon made that seem tasteless and commercially dubious. He apparently got a version into release in 2005 but complained that he couldn’t get it shown in theatres because that was when Steven Spielberg’s version, starring Tom Cruise and released by Paramount, came out, so it went direct-to-video instead (along with another one, directed by David Michael Latt for The Asylum — a company that specializes in ripping off major-studio productions of public-domain stories or easily replicated premises — they put out their own adaptation of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ A Princess of Mars just before Disney released John Carter, and their other films include titles like Ghosthunters and The Fast and the Fierce), so he went to the Wells well again and came up with this version in 2012. It was a highly capable movie but, as the reviewer noted, one comes away more admiring the filmmaker’s ingenuity than being absorbed, moved or entertained by the story.

Brave New Jersey (The Shot Clock, BondIt, 2016)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2018 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The other film on the program, Brave New Jersey, was a real charmer! It was based on the October 30, 1938 Orson Welles radio broadcast of The War of the Worlds, which Welles produced as part of his Mercury Theatre on the Air series of radio dramas and which famously fooled people into thinking that the invasion was really happening because Welles and his co-writer, Howard Koch (who’s listed in the credits of this film as the sole writer of the broadcast — Welles was as upset by that as he was by the claim made by Pauline Kael and others that Herman Mankiewicz was the sole writer of Citizen Kane; he said that Koch had helped with the second part of the script but his contributions to the first part needed extensive revision) framed the events of Wells’ novel as if they were happening in real time and moved the setting from England to the U.S. — specifically the town of Grover’s Mill, New Jersey (cited in an in-joke in the final credits to Timothy Hines’ The War of the Worlds: The True Story, which say that shortly after the events of the film, Bertie Wells and his wife emigrated to the U.S. and settled in,  you guessed it, Grover’s Mill, New Jersey). Directed by Jody Lambert (whom I’ll call “they” because no online source I’ve seen specifies whether they’re a man or a woman) from a script they co-wrote with Michael Dowling, Brave New Jersey is set in the decidedly fictional town of Lullaby, New Jersey, just two miles from Grover’s Mill. The name “Lullaby” is a masterstroke on the part of Lambert and Dowling because it lets us know right away that this is a “sleepy” small town where nothing exciting ever happens. The biggest news in Lullaby in years is that a local farmer has just invented a contraption called a “Rotolactor,” an automatic milking machine that supposedly can milk 15 cows at once. (There’s a nice scene in which a man is shown drinking milk, realizing it’s sour and spitting it out again — and we’re obviously meant to assume that this milk was produced with the Rotolactor.) 

On the night of October 30, 1938 the town’s mayor, Clark Hill (Tony Hale), is scheduled to host a ceremony that will feature the unveiling and first exhibition of the Rotolactor — which looks like a giant merry-go-round for cows — in action, only the first time they turn on the Rotolactor in rehearsal the control board shorts out and they have to pour water on the machine to get it to stop. Clark Hill also has an unrequited crush on local housewife Lorraine Davison (Heather Burns), who on his recommendation is reading the novel Gone with the Wind (an obvious in-joke since the film of Gone with the Wind starred Clark Gable!), while unbeknownst to Lorraine, her husband Paul (Sam Jaeger) is receiving love notes from an out-of-town woman named Margaret. The Davisons have a daughter, Ann (Grace Kaufman), who’s shown wearing a fancy gown obviously too big for her — it’s her Hallowe’en costume, and mom says, “You look just like Bette Davis.” “I’m supposed to be Garbo!” she retorts. The Davisons have also taken in a distant relative from Poland, a kid named Ziggy (Harp Sandman), whose family sent him to the U.S. to keep him away from the Nazis — they wouldn’t invade Poland until 1939 but I guess we’re supposed to think his parents realized the danger they were facing and sent him to their American relatives a year early — and who speaks absolutely no English. He and Amy get caught outside — he’s been dressed as Abraham Lincoln for Hallowe’en despite, of course, having no knowledge who that was — and get caught up in a prank by the neighbor kids to throw water balloons filled with piss at the town’s reclusive old man, Ambrose P. Collins (Raymond J. Barry), who it turns out commanded a unit in a crucial battle in World War I, received a medal from President Wilson personally, and ever since then has been locked in his house with his memories looking for a chance to get into action again. (The whole plot line with him being targeted by the prankster kids seemed straight out of the “Mr. Brauckoff” Hallowe’en scene in Meet Me in St. Louis.) There’s also a nice young woman, Helen Holbook (Erika Alexander) with an overbearing fiancé, Chardy Edwards (Matt Olberg), and Sparky (Evan Jonigkeit), the town “bad boy” he catches her necking with after she’s turned down Chardy’s the-world-is-about-to-end-anyway-so-let’s-fuck-now-while-we-still-have-the-chance pass. 

In the end, the pranksters turn the switch to the Rotolactor, which not only sets it on fire but triggers the fireworks that were supposed to commemorate it, which Captain Collins and his motley crew — including the predictably hapless town sheriff (Mel Rodriguez) — “read” as the Martian attack and charge, while the local minister, Reverend Ray Rogers (Dan Bakkedahl), sailed his collection plate through his church like a Frisbie and interpreted that as a sign that the Martians were coming not to conquer the world, but to mediate man’s conflicts and bring us peace. Lambert and Dowling threw a few modern expressions into their dialogue, including “time frame” and “inappropriate” as a response from a woman receiving an unwanted pass from a man (in 1938 a woman turning down a crude advance would likely have chewed out the guy by saying, “You’re a masher!,” a bit of 1930’s slang incomprehensible to most modern audiences), but for the most part Brave New Jersey is a richly allusive (I especially liked the town meeting in the church that seemed cribbed from the one in Mel Brooks’ Blazing Saddles), entertaining movie. About the only thing that rubbed me the wrong way was the use of a modern-day folk-rock musical score — built around a song the hapless Clark Hill writes as a love ballad for Lorraine Davison, which is heard in his own inept rendition during the movie (with Tony Hale forgetting that he had to move his hand down the fretboard of his guitar to look like he was really playing it) and in a fully professional version (but with Tony Hale this time turning in a decent vocal performance) over the closing credits. I think the film would have been more effective with a 1930’s-style musical score than a modern one, but otherwise Brave New Jersey is a one-joke movie but one which doesn’t overstay its welcome and depicts the War of the Worlds broadcast panic — which has been the subject of fictional made-for-TV movies as well as documentaries — in a light-hearted screwball-comedy manner.

Sunday, March 11, 2018

Life in the Thirties (McGraw-Hill, Pennsylvania Public Libraries Film Center, 1959; edited from “Back in the Thirties," NBC-TV, December 30, 1957)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2018 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Life in the 30’s was a pretty typical McGraw-Hill educational film — it was originally an hour long but we just watched the first half (it was split between two reels and the reels were uploaded separately) — and though its credits promised something about 1930’s culture (one of the opening graphics was of a white guy playing a clarinet, and he was obviously supposed to be Benny Goodman) it was almost exclusively a political history of the decade, or at least its first half (it broke at the point of Franklin Roosevelt’s landslide re-election in 1936), from the Great Depression hitting the U.S. to the Bonus March and the U.S. military suppressing it (ironically the forces that crushed the Bonus March were led by General Douglas MacArthur, whom we’d just seen in American Guerrilla in the Philippines depicted as a great hero!), FDR’s first election, his “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself” inaugural speech (oddly just read by the narrator, Alexander Scourby, rather than shown in FDR’s own voice, though later we do hear Roosevelt’s real voice in one of the Fireside Chats and also hear the actual voices of National Recovery Administration head General Hugh Johnson and Roosevelt’s 1936 election opponent, Kansas Governor Alf Landon), the bank holiday, the NRA (back when those initials had a much more positive connotation in American politics than they do now) and the other alphabet-soup agencies with which the Roosevelt Administration and the Democratic Congress tried to put people back to work, and what the narration called the “demagogues” who tried to bring democracy down. This was the one part of the film Charles took exception to, because it lumped Huey Long and Francis Townsend in with Gerald L. K. Smith and Father Charles Coughlin as “demagogues” when their politics had little in common at all (and it was Townsend, more than any other individual, who was responsible for Social Security; though his old-age pension plan was so impractical even progressive economists at the time opposed it, it was so popular Roosevelt and the Democrats in Congress felt pressured to come up with a workable alternative that would accomplish the same thing: an end to senior citizens living in poverty). — 3/10/18


Last night I screened for Charles the second half of Life in the Thirties — the word “Thirties” is spelled out in the title even though the download we had from, based on a 16 mm print distributed to public libraries by McGraw-Hill, was labeled “Life in the 30’s.” The movie didn’t turn up on under that title and I later found out why: the version we were watching was a 53-minute cut-down from a 1957 NBC-TV special called Back in the Thirties, originally shown December 30, 1957 — at a time when a lot of people who would have had living memories of the 1930’s were still alive. The emphasis, especially in the cut-down version we were watching, was on the politics of the era; the first half had ended with Franklin Roosevelt’s massive re-election victory in 1936 and the second actually back-tracked a bit to the repeal of Prohibition in December 1933 as well as covering FDR’s infamous clashes with the U.S. Supreme Court (there’s a marvelous clip from FDR and another from Will Rogers making fun of the Supreme Court’s determination to invalidate almost everything the Roosevelt administration and the Democratic Congress tried to do about the Depression) and his humiliating defeat on his so-called “court-packing” plan. 

Roosevelt wanted to expand the Court to 15 justices so he could appoint the new ones and he’d have people sympathetic to his program; while the expansion failed, a judicial reform bill did pass Congress, and among other things it did was raise the pension for judges who retired, so attrition and the length of his Presidency eventually allowed FDR to pack the Court after all — and in the meantime the court’s “swing vote,” Justice Owen Roberts, started voting to uphold the New Deal legislation, starting with the Robert F. Wagner Act of 1935 that guaranteed collective bargaining rights to labor unions, and it was called “the switch in time that saved nine.” (I referenced this in a Zenger’s blog post in 2012 after another justice named Roberts, current Chief Justice John Roberts, switched sides at the last minute and voted to uphold the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act and Anthony Kennedy saw the decision he’d written as the court’s official opinion became the leading dissent instead.) There was an inevitable segment on the kidnapping of Charles Lindbergh, Jr. and the execution of Bruno Hauptmann for that crime, and there were a few bows towards the culture of the period, including a segment on radio with a nice film clip of Arturo Toscanini conducting the NBC Symphony on one of its first broadcasts, and the radio engineers that were broadcasting it sitting in front of far more meters than anyone doing a live broadcast or a recording session would use today even though modern recording technology is far more sophisticated than anything that existed when Toscanini started his broadcasts in 1937. Alas — and this was a problem that ran through the entire hour-long film — there was a very bad wow and flutter throughout the soundtrack, with the maddening result that the narration by Alexander Scourby and the various film clips that featured people speaking were clear but the music was annoyingly inconsistent and the speed fluctuations so bad that during Toscanini’s segment it was almost impossible to tell just what piece he and his orchestra were playing. (This also affected most of the film’s underscoring — famous songs from the actual 1930’s arranged and conducted by Robert Russell Bennett — but at least most of those tunes, though sounding so ghastly it got hard to keep watching this, were recognizable.) 

There was also a segment on swing music — though it was represented by a cacophonous blast of sound from a studio orchestra that had virtually no audible resemblance to what was actually popular in the 1930’s — and a brief depiction of the Lambeth Walk, just about the only British dance (as well as its accompanying song, one of the greatest hits of the time) that crossed the Atlantic and became popular in the U.S. as well. As the film wound down it returned to politics and started covering what was happening overseas, with Mussolini and Hitler proclaiming their dictatorships the wave of the future, Mussolini showing his country’s war chops by invading “defenseless Ethiopia,” the Spanish Civil War (depicted as a when-elephants-fight-the-ground-gets-trampled struggle in which the poor Spanish people got caught in a proxy war between Germany and Italy on one side and Russia on the other), the big Madison Square Garden rally of the German-American Bund (in which Bund Führer Fritz Kuhn’s goon squad beat up a counter-protester who tried to heckle — “Just like a Trump rally!” I inevitably proclaimed), and the New York World’s Fair of 1939, which presented a dream vision of peace and international cooperation just as the rest of the world was about to start World War II. The commentary by Richard Hanser — “based on an idea of Henry Salomon,” according to the credits — naturally savored the irony that the 1930’s started with depression and ended with war, and given that this was a product of the late 1950’s looking back on the 1930’s it’s not surprising that the overall political message of the film was that wonderful capitalist democracy successfully beat back the challenges of both Fascism and Communism. — 3/11/18

Saturday, March 10, 2018

American Guerrilla in the Philippines (20th Century-Fox, 1950)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2018 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I decided to run a movie at 9 p.m. and I picked an download (one that didn’t last too long on their site because of copyright restrictions) of a 1950 film called American Guerrilla in the Philippines — though our download was missing the last five minutes and cut off in the middle of a fight to the death between our band of courageous American and Filipino resisters and the Japanese occupiers in a church. I was interested in this movie mainly because of its director, Fritz Lang — though an “Trivia” poster said that Lang took the job merely to pay off his debts and in later years denied having made the film. It’s certainly far from what we think of as a Lang film, both his masterworks in Weimar-era Germany (Dr. Mabuse, Die Nibelungen, Metropolis, Spies, Woman in the Moon, M and The Testament of Dr. Mabuse) and the great noirs and proto-noirs he did in the U.S. (Fury, You Only Live Once, the underrated You and Me, Man Hunt, Ministry of Fear, The Woman in the Window, Scarlet Street, Clash by Night, The Blue Gardenia and The Big Heat) along with such outliers on his credit list as Liliom (the film he made in France between fleeing Nazi Germany and ending up here), the marvelous Western Rancho Notorious (of which Lang diplomatically said he and star Marlene Dietrich didn’t get along because “I tried to create a new screen image for her” — translation: she was 50 and he wanted her to look her age instead of using all the camera, lighting and makeup tricks Josef von Sternberg had taught her to look younger) and the film in his oeuvre most directly comparable to this one, the 1943 occupation drama Hangmen Also Die about the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich, Hitler’s deputy and the man he’d chosen to oversee the Holocaust, by Czech partisans. 

American Guerrilla in the Philippines began life as a novel by Ira Wolfert — whose only other film credit I can recall is as author of Tucker’s People, a novel about the numbers racket in New York City that got filmed in 1948 as Force of Evil — which attempted to make readers aware of one of the most little-known parts of World War II. After General Douglas MacArthur’s hasty retreat from the Philippines in 1942 after the Japanese had kicked his and the U.S. Army’s collective asses, a handful of American servicemembers got stranded on the island, unable to escape to Australia the way MacArthur and the bulk of the American forces had, and instead of surrendering — which they knew meant torture and death — they hid out in the mountains, lived off the land the best they could, hid out and joined whatever Filipino forces were resisting the occupation. The fiction Wolfert and the screenwriter, Lamar Trotti (who also produced), created out of these facts centers around a Navy ensign named Chuck Palmer (Tyrone Power during the period when he was trying to shed his pretty-boy image and butch up; as one reviewer pointed out, he had actually served in combat in World War II and this performance may have had an air of verisimilitude from that) who at first just wants to get out of the Philippines and flee to Australia. Only he soon learns that the Japanese have occupied the port he was hoping to get to — the one MacArthur had sailed from — so he begs an Army colonel for money to buy an outrigger boat and sail it the 1,300 miles to Australia. Palmer and his motley assortment of men get eight miles in three days before a monsoon storm sinks their boat and all their provisions, and force them to swim for shore. They are about to lose all energy and drown when they’re rescued by another, similar boat sailed by Filipinos, and they hear there’s a resistance movement going on and get the assignment to go from Leyte to Mindanao to communicate a message to the rebel leader there — if nothing else, this film does a good job depicting how difficult it was to sustain a resistance movement in a nation that’s essentially a bunch of islands, especially without modern remote communications technology.

The two leads, Palmer and Jim Mitchell (Tom Ewell, also considerably more butch than the nerdy guy we’re used to seeing opposite big-breasted blondes in movies like The Seven-Year Itch with Marilyn Monroe and The Girl Can’t Help It with Jayne Mansfield), make the trip in a captured Japanese motor boat (which led one poster to wonder why they didn’t just take that to Australia — but that, too, would have been a risky trip without provisions and especially without extra fuel) and then get sent back to Leyte to work with the local resistance. The young man who heads it, Miguel (Tommy Cook), is the most interesting character in the movie and Cook turns in its strongest performance, off-handedly blowing away an older man whom he’s realized is a Fifth Columnist who if allowed to live was going to turn them in to the Japanese. Palmer and Mitchell also get summoned to meet with a mysterious Juan Martinez (Juan Torena), an older Filipino who’s secretly aiding the Resistance while maintaining his above-ground identity as a planter. He’s also married to Jeanne Martinez, played by French actress Micheline Presle (though her last name was re-spelled “Prelle” on the credits, perhaps because 20th Century-Fox wanted something easier on American eyes; little did they know that just six years later they’d make the first film of an enormous star named Elvis Presley!), whom Palmer had already met and fallen in love with when she showed up at the colonel’s office the same time he did and he interceded with the colonel to get her cousin to a hospital because she was about to give birth to a son (how on earth, in the Philippines in 1942 way before ultrasound technology, did she know what gender the child would be?) and would need a Cesarean section. He’s predictably miffed to find out she has a husband, but screenwriter Trotti takes care of him by having the Japanese catch on that he’s aiding the resistance and torture him to death, thereby providing Tyrone Power a chance to do the heavy-breathing love scenes his audiences still expected from him even in a war movie. Indeed, Trotti’s writing of the scene is so redolent of Casablanca I joked that the only way they could have made the parallel closer is to have the husband turn up, not dead after all! 

American Guerrilla in the Philippines is a piece of hack work and it’s obvious why its director disowned it later, but it’s also a quite good movie within the limits of the genre — and it has some good aspects. For one thing, though it’s shot in three-strip Technicolor and the opening credits occur over a backdrop of the brightest and most vivid blue the Technicolor people could create, the actual movie is darker, grungier, looking more like a color film of today than one from 1950. It probably helped that the Technicolor color consultant was Leonard Doss, not the fearsome Natalie Kalmus — who picked a lot of fights with directors because she always wanted the colors neon-bright no matter what the story called for or what artistic uses of color the directors and cinematographers wanted — but American Guerrilla in the Philippines looks dark enough to be a suitable portrait of a war even though, given their druthers, I suspect Lang and his cinematographer, Harry Jackson, would rather have shot it in black-and-white and got the rich, dark, chiaroscuro effects Lang was known for. One annoyance is the musical score by Cyril J. Mockridge, the film composer buffs of classic-era film scores love to hate because he always slapped on the most banal tunes he could think of and did even more “quoting” of familiar songs from the era than most film composers did. But overall American Guerrilla in the Philippines (even in the truncated form we were watching, in which we missed the ending of the battle of the church and the triumphant return of Douglas MacArthur, played by actor Robert Barrat) is an impressive movie, maybe not what it could have been if Lang had had more control over the project and could have turned it into another Hangmen Also Die, but not a mindless glorification of war either and a welcome telling of one of the less well-known stories of World War II.

Jonny Quest: “The Robot Spy” (Hanna-Barbera, 1964)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2018 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

With some extra time between the truncated ending of American Guerrilla in the Philippines and the beginning of Stephen Colbert’s show, Charles and I looked for other things to watch on the same flash drive as the movie and found them in an episode of the 1964-65 animated TV series Jonny Quest and half of a McGraw-Hill educational film called Life in the 30’s. Jonny Quest had been an oddball favorite of both Charles and I from our childhoods — I’d actually got to see it in its original run and he’d caught up with it in reruns — it was basically an attempt by the Hanna-Barbera cartoon studio to do an action-adventure animated series with human characters and get it on in prime time (they’d already done that with The Flintstones and would do that again with The Jetsons — as a kid I always thought The Jetsons was way cooler than The Flintstones — but those were situation comedies and this was an action drama). The main characters were Professor Quest (voiced by Don Messick), his son Jonny (Tim Matheson, who later grew up to have an adult acting career, though on this show he was still using a longer version of his last name, “Matthieson”), his companion “Race” Bannon (Mike Road), Jonny’s (East) Indian friend Hadji (Danny Bravo) and his pet dog Bandit, who’s white overall but has black around his eyes that looks like he’s wearing a domino mask. In one sequence Hadji uses the magic words, “Sim-salabim!,” and levitates Bandit for no particular reason other than this is a cartoon, so he can — but for the most part this show is mostly within the bounds of 1960’s technology extrapolated just a bit to accommodate the characters of the rival scientific geniuses, the good Professor Quest and the evil Dr. Zin (Vic Perrin). 

“The Robot Spy” begins with the landing of a flying saucer in the desert near Professor Quest’s secure lab facilities. When its hatch open it reveals an inhabitant which is a black sphere, with four legs — it walks like a spider but, of course, with only half the complement of its real-life model’s legs (meaning less work for the animators), and it opens a lid to reveal a single red eye in the middle of its “head” with which it can see virtually anything. Of course, Professor Quest and Race Bannon (imagine, a guy named Bannon on TV with a decent haircut!) take it inside the lab — where it turns out its origins aren’t extraterrestrial at all: it’s really a robot spy (as if you couldn’t guess from the title!) which the evil Dr. Zin — who shows us a typical example of cartoon-villain insensitivity by batting away the food tray containing his dinner when his long-suffering servant brings it to him because he’s too lost in concentration over his experiment to want to be disturbed (being the servant of a super-villain is probably really hard work!) — is masterminding. He inserted the robot spy into a flying saucer as a Trojan horse, knowing that Quest couldn’t resist bringing it into his lab, where it’s going to download the plans for Quest’s super-weapon, the Para-Power Ray Gun, which can stop mechanical devices without injuring the humans working them. Only the robot spy can’t then upload the plans to Dr. Zin’s computer back at home base: it must physically carry them back to Dr. Zin’s redoubt, which means that the Quests (of course Jonny and Hadji tag along to the operation) and Bannon have a chance to stop it. Of course, this being a comic-adventure menace, bullets just bounce off the thing; it also resists flame-throwers and crashes through the electrified fence around the Quest lab, so the Quests have to trot out the Para-Power Ray Gun even though they haven’t tested it yet. The ending is predictable (though it is something of a surprise to see the flying saucer blow up as it lands, when the whole point of the super-weapon is to shoot things down without damaging them long-term!), but overall Jonny Quest is a fun show, at least in part because to modern eyes Professor Quest and “Race” Bannon come off as a Gay couple, presumably raising Jonny after his mother died and left the professor a widow. I barely knew anything about same-sex relationships when this show was originally aired and even I read something more than just a professional or friendship relationship between the two adult men on the show!