Thursday, June 22, 2017

Marie Antoinette (Columbia, American Zoetrope, Pricel, Tohokushinsha, 2006)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2017 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Charles and I watched a peculiar movie from the DVD backlog: Marie Antoinette, Sofia Coppola’s 2006 adaptation of Antonia Fraser’s biography Marie Antoinette: The Journey, which attempted to refute a lot of the allegations made about Marie Antoinette from her own time to the present, and in particular the line she’s supposed to have said, when told that the people of France were starving for bread, “No bread? Well, then, let them eat cake!” (This was actually an urban legend about clueless royals that first appeared in print about 100 years before Marie Antoinette’s time.) The film was both written and directed by Sofia Coppola, and it’s a frustrating movie because she did so many things right and so many things wrong. The biggest thing she did wrong was deciding to score the film not with the music of the period (though Marie Antoinette was a big opera fan, and we know as a matter of historical fact who her favorite composer was: Christoph Willibald Gluck, a German who’d first achieved fame in Italy, then won the appointment as court composer to the Austro-Hungarian Empire in Vienna; the reason we know Gluck was Marie Antoinette’s favorite composer was that when she left Austria to become first Dauphine and then Queen of France, she spent a lot of the French court’s money to hire Gluck away from Vienna and bring him to France — and Gluck was so renowned in his own time that when he left the Austrian court hired Mozart to replace him but only paid Mozart half of what they’d paid Gluck) but with modern-day rock songs, specifically from the so-called “New Romantic” sub-genre popular in the early 1980’s.

The soundtrack list includes “Natural’s Not In It” by Gang of Four (heard under the opening credits, and a jumbled set of lyrics which may have something to do with the extreme inequality of wealth and income typical of both 18th century France and the 21st century world, but the only word I made out clearly was “fornication”), “Jynweythek Ylow” and “Avril 14” by Aphex Twin, “I Don’t Like It Like This,” “Pulling Our Weight” and “Keen On Boys” by The Radio Dept., “I Want Candy,” “Aphrodisiac” and a lame cover of the Johnny Mercer-Rube Bloom standard “Fools Rush In” by Bow Wow Wow, “Plainsong” and “All Cats Are Grey” by The Cure, “Ceremony” by New Order, “What Ever Happened” by The Strokes, and “Ou Boivent Les Loups” by Phoenix, who got into the movie because their lead singer, Thomas Mars, is Sofia Coppola’s boyfriend. (This movie reached pretty big heights of nepotism: Sofia’s cousin Jason Schwartzman was cast as Louis XVI, her brother Roman Coppola was the second-unit director, her famous dad Francis Ford Coppola lurked around the shoot as an éminence grise, and her mom Eleanor directed the “Making Of” featurette on the DVD.) Just about every time Sofia Coppola and her staff, including cinematographer Lance Acord, art directors Pierre do Bousberranger and Anne Seibel, set decorator Véronique Melery and costume designer Milena Canonero, managed to create a convincing illusion that we were really in the late 18th Century at Versailles and Trianon, France, she trotted in one of those damned rock songs to blow the illusion and turn Marie Antoinette into a sumptuous music video. The one time one of the rock songs actually worked the way Sofia clearly intended it to was the use of Bow Wow Wow’s “I Want Candy” over a montage of the preposterous cakes, pastries, candies, aspics and other lavish desserts that were a regular feature of Marie Antoinette’s dining table — indeed, there are so many lovingly shot and lit close-ups of insanely luxurious comestibles Charles joked that the middle third of the movie was “food porn.” (My own joke was that maybe they were going to debunk the legend that Marie Antoinette said “Let them eat cake,” but they were sure going to surround her with an awful lot of cakes.)

The other big thing Sofia Coppola did wrong was set virtually the entire movie in Versailles and Trianon, showing us Marie Antoinette’s world with no intimation of what was going on in the rest of France. I can see why she made this decision — she wanted to show just how hermetically sealed the French royal court was from the rest of the country and how clueless they really were about what their insanely extravagant lifestyle and foreign adventurism (including striking a blow against the rival European superpower of the time, Britain, by aiding the revolutionaries in America) was doing to the economy of France and the welfare of its people — but as we get scene after scene of insane splendor, with the characters wearing sumptuous clothes, ridiculous hairdos (there’s a scene of Kirsten Dunst as Marie Antoinette resting in her prop bathtub — remember that this was a time when taking a hot bath was itself a luxury item since the water had to be heated by fire and carried in by minions with buckets — and getting sprayed with modern hair spray to get her hair to stand up in an historically accurate fashion, which made me wonder how they did it in the pre-aerosol 18th century) and powdered wigs (in Fraser’s book she mentioned that the French used so much talcum powder at court it provoked a worldwide shortage of the stuff), living in rooms of absurd size, grandeur and opulence and gorging themselves on sweets, the sheer weight of the spectacle gets oppressive. Indeed, as the movie was drawing to a close I was beginning to think, “Will the French people please hurry up and start the Revolution already?” I said that when the movie had only about 15 minutes left to run, just before the courtiers at Versailles received word that a mob had just stormed the Bastille, following which they got word that another mob was on its way to Versailles itself to loot the palace and hopefully capture the king and queen — and, oddly, Sofia Coppola decided to end her movie with the monarchs fleeing Versailles for the countryside, a trip arranged by Marie Antoinette’s friend and lover, Swedish ambassador Count Axel Fersen (Jamie Dornan, who doesn’t have the almost unearthly beauty of Tyrone Power, who played the part in the 1938 MGM Marie Antoinette, but he’s hot enough he’ll do), without mentioning that they were caught shortly thereafter and spent their last days in prison in Paris before the revolutionaries got around to executing first him and then her — events Antonia Fraser described in her book.

Now for the good things about Marie Antoinette. First, the physical production is incredible; Sofia Coppola got permission to shoot in the actual historical locations, even though Versailles was in the middle of a big restoration at the time so there were only parts of it she could use[1] — and, as was explained in the making-of featurette, they could use the rooms themselves and show the art but they could not use the historical furnishings or drapes: they had to make their own replicas and bring them in. Second, instead of copying the past-is-brown look her dad did so much to establish as movie orthodoxy in The Godfather, Sofia Coppola and her cinematographer and art directors designed the movie in pastel tones, copying the look of French paintings of the period — especially those set outdoors, which often featured pastel-dressed members of the French 1 percent cavorting in similarly pastel natural settings. (The real Marie Antoinette was fond of playing at being a shepherdess, and she even staged amateur theatrical productions in which she could play a peasant, one of which is shown in the film.) In the making-of feature, she and her staff said they went out of their way to avoid showing bright colors — except for the vivid red dress worn by Asia Argento as Madame Du Barry, marking her as a “scarlet woman” both literally and figuratively — and the look is absolutely stunning. Also, Sofia Coppola deserves credit for casting the movie quite creatively; I’ve been a fan of Kirsten Dunst since the played the little-girl vampire in Interview with the Vampire (in which she and Antonio Banderas totally stole the movie out from under the nominal stars, Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt) and I marked her as being headed for a major adult career; maybe she hasn’t been the superstar I thought she’d become, but she has had a good career and she and Sofia Coppola have worked together since (notably in the recently released film The Beguiled, a quirky choice for a remake since the 1971 original, directed by Don Siegel and starring Clint Eastwood as a Civil War soldier who ends up in a house full of women who are so intent on keeping him there one of them does an unnecessary amputation of his leg, was a major box-office flop; fortunately Eastwood and Siegel immediately followed it up with Dirty Harry and rehabilitated both their careers). I would have liked a bit more temperament from Dunst in the role but she plays Sofia’s cool reading of the character brilliantly and is totally believable in the part — certainly more so than Norma Shearer in the 1938 MGM Marie Antoinette (based on a biography by Stefan Zweig called Marie Antoinette: Portrait of an Average Woman, which apparently had a much more negative portrayal of her than Fraser’s book or this film), who kept falling back on the Hollywood clichés of the time whenever she had to have a big emotional moment.

Her Louis XVI is Jason Schwartzman, Sofia Coppola’s cousin (his mom, Talia Shire, is Francis Ford Coppola’s sister), who’s good at conveying the rather befuddled nature of the character (though Robert Morley in the MGM version was even better; as Charles pointed out, Morley’s overacting was more effective than Schwartzman’s underacting, and judging from the surviving paintings, the real Louis XVI looked a good deal more like Morley than Schwartzman), a guy who just wants to be left alone to hunt and play with locks and couldn’t care less about running the country. He also has an ultra-low sex drive — though they eventually had four children, Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette were sexless for the first 7 ½ years of their marriage, and one gets the impression from this film that neither of them even knew very much about sex. One thing Sofia’s script does is reproduce Fraser’s depiction of the acute interest the rest of the court took in whether Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette were getting it on because it was a major political concern that there be an heir to the French throne — a male heir because France, unlike Britain, did not allow women to rule (when their first child is born and it’s a daughter, whom Marie Antoinette names Maria Theresa, after her mother, the sense of disappointment from just about everyone around her is palpable). Their bed is in a preposterous room in which virtually the entire court got to watch as they made preparations to go to sleep, and the only concession to privacy was that the bed was ringed by a curtain (sort of like a modern-day hospital room) which they could draw once it was time for lights-out. Marie Antoinette keeps getting anxious letters from her mom saying that the entire alliance between France and Austria depends on her getting her husband interested in having sex with her so they can produce an heir to the French throne, and given that Marie Antoinette was just 14 when she was shipped off from Austria to France (and handed over in a humiliating ceremony in which she had to be stripped naked to cross the border so she would not carry anything Austrian with her — she was re-dressed in French clothes once she crossed the line and wasn’t even allowed to bring her pet dog with her; instead she was told, “You can have all the French dogs you want” — later she learned that at the French court she was not allowed to dress herself; there was a separate servant assigned to each article of her clothing and they all had to be put on in the proper sequence, and if one of the servants was late for work that day she just had to wait, half-dressed, until the servant arrived and the proper sequence could resume; both of these situations were vividly described in Fraser’s book and, of course, Sofia Coppola could hardly resist putting Kirsten Dunst through these scenes!), she didn’t have the slightest idea of how to get a man interested in her physically. (Fraser’s book quotes a document of the period in which a doctor who’d examined Louis XVI wrote a detailed analysis of his attempts to have sex and what was going wrong with them.)

Getting back to casting, some of Sofia’s choices were absolutely brilliant, including Marianne Faithfull as Maria Theresa (it turns out Marianne Faithfull was actually part of a long-standing aristocratic family herself; she’s a distant relative of the Baron Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, author of the book Venus in Furs, whose taste for sexual humiliation was the source of the word “masochism”) and Rip Torn as Louis XV, and there’s a marvelous scene in which Sofia cuts between him randily pounding away at Madame Du Barry and the latest pathetic attempt of his son and his daughter-in-law to get it on. In a lot of ways Marie Antoinette is a great movie, but it could have been much better — if it had given us more of a sense of what was going on in the rest of the country as Marie Antoinette lived this utterly ridiculous caricature of a court lifestyle at Versailles; if Sofia Coppola had got rid of the rock songs and stuck to music of the period (all we hear of the music of Marie Antoinette’s time are two opera sequences with music by Jean-Philippe Rameau, who was actually active about a century before Marie Antoinette’s time; she deleted a sequence of mezzo-soprano Susan Graham in drag, singing the aria “Che faró senza Euridice” from Orfeo ed Eurydice by Gluck, Marie Antoinette’s favorite composer, but even if she’d included it the scene would have been anachronistic because the version Marie Antoinette would have heard performed would have been Gluck’s French rewrite, Orphée, in which the aria would have been called “J’ai perdu mon Eurydice” and would have been sung by a tenor, replacing the soprano castrato who had sung the part in the original Vienna version) and, most importantly, if she had carried the story through to its end and given Kirsten Dunst a chance to face the guillotine bravely and finally achieve in death some of the dignity that had eluded this preposterous character in life.



[1] — It’s quite possible Sofia Coppola got permission to shoot in Versailles because, though the Coppola family is Italian in origin, they’ve had a long-standing connection with France: Francis Ford Coppola’s grandfather, Piero Coppola, was a major symphony and opera conductor in Paris in the 1920’s and 1930’s.

Monday, June 19, 2017

Girlfriend Killer (Concord Films, Lifetime, 2017)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2017 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I switched to the Lifetime channel and stayed there for four hours watching a couple of movies, both dated 2017 even though neither was billed as a “premiere.” The first one was Girlfriend Killer, which was written by Christine Conradt but a disappointment coming from her because she utterly failed to bring any sort of multidimensionality to her villain (the usual aspect that raises Conradt’s scripts above the Lifetime norm). The real auteur of this one is neither Conradt nor the traffic cop — oops, I mean director — Alyn Darnay, but Barbie Castro, who not only starred as the usual Lifetime damsel in distress but co-produced the film with Eric R. Castro (presumably her husband) and cast her daughter Taylor Castro as her character’s daughter in the movie (well, that’s one way to avoid the bugbear of having two people in a movie who don’t look at all alike passed off as genetic relatives: cast a real mother and daughter as the mother and daughter in the film) and also hired one Rhys Castro as the propmaker — there are more Castros in this movie than there ever were in the Cuban government! Barbie Castro has done at least three “_____ Killer” series films for Lifetime before, Assumed Killer, Patient Killer and Boyfriend Killer, though Boyfriend Killer is the only one I can recall seeing before. It was also written by Christine Conradt and directed by Alyn Darnay, but I said of it that “this time [Conradt] seems merely to be following her formulae instead of legitimately extending them the way she did in The Bride He Bought Online,” and the same could be said of Girlfriend Killer as well. Girlfriend Killer does have its points, including the off-beat profession Conradt thought up for her heroine, the Barbie Castro role. She’s a divorcée named Carmen Ruiz (I got the last name off imdb.com and don’t recall hearing it mentioned in the film) with a teenage daughter named Ayla (Taylor Castro) and a boyfriend named Ryan Gerner (Brian Gross — not exactly a hunk to die for but a nice-looking piece of man-meat with great pecs). 

Carmen has created a business for herself that is a combination consultant and videographer for men seeking to make marriage proposals to their significant others (and not just women: one of the most delightful scenes in the film is one in which Carmen stages the proposal of a Gay man to his partner! I guess it’s progress of a sort that we at last exist on Lifetime). She stages the date on which the guy will pop the question and uses a hidden camera and either a shotgun mike or mikes concealed in flowerpots and bushes (just like in the early days of sound film in the late 1920’s!) to record the proposals, then presents the lucky man with an Internet link to download the video and collects her fee, while Ryan helps her as an editor and a grip. Only one of her customers, Emerson Banes (Jason Cook, who for once is not the hottest guy in the movie even though he’s the villain — both Ryan and Carmen’s ex Nick, played by Khotan Fernandez, are sexier!), isn’t as lucky as the service advertises: he makes his proposal in Carmen’s elaborate staging, but his girlfriend Marissa Stefans (Elisabetta Fantone) turns him down, saying that she’s been seeing someone else for four months, he’s someone Emerson doesn’t know that she met at a “trade show,” and they hit it off better than she and Emerson ever have. Emerson is your typical spoiled Lifetime 1-percenter; he drives a red Maserati sports car that practically becomes a character itself and his response to Marissa’s turn-down is to knock her off. Before Marissa mysteriously disappears — she’s missing for several days before her body is found — Ryan gets an odd phone call which he tells Carmen is from his brother Jason but is really from a woman, which made me think for a bit that Christine Conradt was going to have Ryan be the man Marissa was seeing behind both Emerson’s and Carmen’s backs. But that little pink herring (it really isn’t well-developed enough to be considered red) gets dropped in a hurry and the rest of it is a typical tale of Obsessed Psycho 101 stalking Carmen — she tried to console him after his proposal got turned down and he instead concluded that it was Carmen who was meant to be a soulmate. 

It turns out he not only broke into Carmen’s home and stole all her video footage, including his own failed proposal, which he runs over and over again in his private projection rom, he even has plastered a whole wall of his house with photos of her — how 20th century; today the obsessed man would instead have a computer file of photos of his crush object and relentlessly scroll through them instead of posting them on his wall — and he’s determined to get her by any means necessary, including running down Ryan with that hot red car (Ryan emerges relatively unscathed but for a while Emerson thinks he’s killed him). Meanwhile Carmen’s daughter Ayla has been on a camping trip in the woods with her dad Nick, whom she likes, and Nick’s fiancée Zoe Kent (Vivi Pineda), whom Ayla can’t stand — only she runs away from camp and makes it back to Carmen’s home, where Emerson kidnaps her (as I’ve noted in these pages before, it’s virtually obligatory for a Lifetime movie in which the heroine in distress has a child for said child to be kidnapped as a set-up for the final sequence) and holds her, telling Carmen to charter him a boat and allow him to escape to the Bahamas, otherwise he’ll kill Ayla. At first Carmen doesn’t want to involve the police for fear Emerson will kill Ayla if she does, but Ryan talks her into it and the “boat” she offers Emerson is a set-up — its crew members are undercover police officers — and of course the film ends with Ayla recovered safely and Emerson arrested (though it is something of a variation on the usual Lifetime formula to have the principal villain captured alive instead of killed). Girlfriend Killer is a pretty typical Lifetime movie, neither especially good nor especially bad, decently done and with some nice-looking male cast members who for once aren’t playing villains, but a bit of a disappointment from Christine Conradt because one thinks that, given her head instead of locked inside a Castro family vanity production, she could have made Emerson a genuinely interesting and multidimensional villain character instead of just a “stick” psycho.

The Good Nanny (MarVista Entertainment, Fast Archer Films, Lifetime, 2017)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2017 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Actually, Girlfriend Killer looked like a masterpiece compared to the truly weird movie Lifetime showed immediately after it, The Good Nanny, which seemed like a deliberate attempt by writer-director Jake Helgren to reverse the formula originated by Christine Conradt in her first Lifetime script, The Perfect Nanny (2000). Whereas that one, the first in Conradt’s long line of “Perfect _____” scripts, had given us a basically decent suburban family set upon by a seemingly perfect but actually psycho woman they hire as a nanny, Helgren’s script gave us a woman who isn’t even a professional nanny — she’s an interior designer, Summer Pratt (Lifetime veteran Briana Evigan), who’s been hired to decorate the home of Travis and Lily Walsh (Peter Porte and Ellen Hollman) and ends up agreeing to look after their rather squirrelly daughter Sophie (Sophie Gurst). Summer is at liberty to do this because her own fiancé, Hefner (David Tillman), is out of town because he’s just been hired to do lobbying for the company Travis and Lily Walsh own — and though they Skype each other regularly she’s getting restive as his absence gets longer and longer. Summer’s other big problem is that she has a medical condition that makes it difficult to conceive, and since she wants children more than just about anything else in the world that bothers her probably more than it should. (I’ve known many straight people of both sexes who would have loved to be able to have sex with each other without having to bother with either the risk of pregnancy or the affirmative steps needed to avoid it.) When she starts filling in as Travis’s and Lily’s nanny, Summer has a hard time getting through to Sophie because she literally doesn’t speak — our first intimation that she even can speak is when Summer hears Sophie talking to an apparently imaginary friend named “Sasha,” and though both the voices are Sophie’s they carry out an audible conversation in which Summer can hear both Sophie and “Sasha” exchanging misgivings about how the new nanny doesn’t like them any better than the last one did. Helgren shows a certain flair for the Gothic, though his effects with low-keyed lighting, offbeat camera angles and doomy music seem to be playing against his relatively straightforward story and he takes his own sweet time explaining to us just what’s wrong with this picture — why Sophie seems so alienated from her parents, why they seem to regard her as a burden and Travis in particular makes it pretty clear he doesn’t want her around at all.

Eventually, with the help of her friend, African-American pediatrician Dr. Monica Thorne (Tatyana Ali, the only cast member here I can remember seeing, or even hearing of, ouside the corridors of Lifetime) — the usual Lifetime Black person whose plot function is to serve as the voice of reason and try to steer the white characters away from all the stupid things they have to do for this, or any other Lifetime movie, to have a plot at all — Summer finally catches on that “Sasha” and Sophie are actually the same person. Her real name is Sasha Carter and she’s the daughter, not of Lily, but of her scapegrace sister Tara (a nicely slatternly bad-girl performance by Kym Jackson), who’s been a fugitive from justice ever since she stabbed her abusive husband (the father of Sophie a.k.a. Sasha) to death. Unfortunately Summer’s efforts to trace Tara succeed all too well; after risking her job in a restaurant kitchen by taking Summer’s call at work, Tara determines to crash Travis’s and Lily’s lavish Southern California home and steal back her daughter. Lily, it seems, took Sasha in the first place because she visited her sister and found the girl being neglected, but her interest in parenting beyond just providing food, clothing and shelter was virtually nil — and when Tara shows up to retrieve her daughter she’s carrying a gun. She uses a kitchen knife to stab Travis to death, intending that Lily will be blamed for this and Tara won’t be suspected, and all this leads to a final big confrontation on a beach (this is southern California, after all) in which Tara kidnaps Sasha, Summer and Lily get Sasha a.k.a. Sophie away from her, Tara shoots down her sister Lily and then demands that Summer give Sasha back to her, and Summer approaches Tara, seemingly about to return her daughter, only she has a knife on her and uses it to stab Tara and save the girl from her mom’s clutches. The Good Nanny is an annoying movie — the ending is powerful, if unusually melodramatic even for Lifetime (and where, oh where, is official law enforcement? In Lifetime’s earlier days it was actually fairly frequent for their movies to end in a free-lance bloodbath, but more recently there’s generally been some police involvement in the denouement even though it remains more common for Lifetime’s villains to be killed than to be arrested at the end), but it’s been a long, hard slog to get there.

There are some neat touches to The Good Nanny, including one in which Travis is getting out of his swimming pool (and yes, the sight of Peter Porte’s great bod clad only in swim trunks is an aesthetic delight!), sees Summer and invites her to join him — “I’m sure Lily has an extra bikini … if you feel you really need one,” he says — and later Summer tells Lily about her concerns about Sophie and the way she’s growing up, mentions her encounter with Travis as an aside, and all Lily cares about is, “You mean Travis came on to you?” There’s also a preposterous ending in which, with just about every other adult in her life dead, Sophie a.k.a. Sasha ends up with, you guessed it, Summer and her boyfriend, who’ve given themselves the challenge of raising her and trying to get her to be a normal kid after all she’s gone through. But Helgren also supplies one of the most blatant “cheat” sequences in Lifetime history — as often in Lifetime movies, we first get an opening “teaser” scene and then a flashback to the main body of the film, but in this one the “teaser” turns out merely to be one of Summer’s dreams which express her anguish at not being able to have a child of her own. If there’s a worthwhile element in The Good Nanny, it’s the fascinating performance of Ellen Hollman as Lily; she begins the story as a virtual Stepford wife, amazingly and almost annoyingly chipper, but as the story progresses and we see how sick all the adults in it are except for Summer and Dr. Thorne, Hollman’s acting rises to the challenge of the character and we realize that she and Tara are nowhere nearly as different as we thought when Tara first came onto the action (though by a glitch in the casting Kym Jackson looks more like Briana Evigan than like Ellen Hollman, and so we’d more likely believe that Tara and Summer were sisters than Tara and Lily!). Other than that, though, The Good Nanny is a pretty dreary and draining Lifetime non-epic whose attempts to “spin” fresh variations on the basic Lifetime formulae only come off as desperate and draggy.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

“Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea”: Four Episodes (20th Century-Fox TV, 1964-1965)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2017 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I’d been a bit dubious about whether Charles and I should go to last night’s Vintage Sci-Fi movie screening in Golden Hill (http://sdvsf.org/), since the program on offer — four episodes from the first season of the 1964-1968 TV series Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea (which kinda-sorta counts as science fiction because the script for the last episode shown last night, “Doomsday,” specifies the setting as 1973 even though it was filmed in 1965). I hadn’t seen the series when it was new (or since) and I was not looking forward to the experience because I had seen the movie the series was based on, a ridiculous Irwin Allen production from 1961 which cast Walter Pidgeon as the commander of the high-tech research sub Seaview (there seems to be some uncertainty as to whether the sub’s name is one word or two, but when we see it printed in these shows it’s just one word) which is designed to look like a giant shark and has big picture windows on its front, not that such would be needed because it also is ringed with TV cameras so the crew on board the Seaview can get a visual image of where they are, where they’re going and where they’ve been on the monitors any time they want. The 1961 movie started to go wrong from the opening credits — and the romantic ballad by Frankie Avalon (who’s also in the movie as a Seaview crew member!) heard during them — and it had a bizarre cast list (including Joan Fontaine, Peter Lorre, Henry Daniell and Barbara Eden before she was bottled) and a stupid plot. Surprise! These four episodes of the TV version proved to be much better than the movie, mainly because, though Irwin Allen was once again in charge, he eschewed the camp elements that had made the 1961 movie and most of his other productions (including Lost in Space and The Time Tunnel, as well as 1970’s features like The Poseidon Adventure, The Towering Inferno and The Swarm) virtually unwatchable. Indeed, if the TV scripts for Voyage had a flaw, it was that they were too unrelievedly tense and grim — one imagined Allen telling his writers, “More tension! More grimness!” — and a few lighter moments à la the charming character bits in the original Star Trek (a show that actually owed a lot to Voyage) would have helped. 

The four episodes shown last night were “The Fear-Makers” (originally aired September 28, 1964), “The Sky Is Falling” (October 19, 1964), “Submarine Sunk Here” (November 16, 1964) and “Doomsday” (January 18, 1965). “The Fear-Makers” was quirky but the least interesting of the four, and its most appealing element was the amusing anti-type casting of former ventriloquist Edgar Bergen as Dr. Kenner, a psychiatrist who’s assigned to the Seaview because its commander, Admiral Harriman Nelson (Richard Basehart, playing the part Walter Pidgeon played in the movie and for my money playing it considerably better; he’s far more believable as a spit-and-polish naval officer and his presence puts Irwin Allen one degree of separation from Fellini!), is having an argument with Navy brass over whether people can actually survive both physically and mentally at depths of over 4,000 feet. A previous sub, the Polidor (now why would the U.S. Navy have a sub named after a German record company?), crashed below the surface with all hands lost, ostensibly because the crew freaked out at the depths they were at but really, it turns out, because of a “fear gas” Dr. Kenner invented and which his assistant, Dr. Davis (Lloyd Bochner), somehow smuggled onto the Polidor in the form of a gas bomb that detonated when they reached the fearsome depth so the U.S. would conclude people can’t survive undersea too far below sea level and the mysterious country that was paying Davis to do this would have the depths of the ocean all too itself. (As usual in scripts of this vintage, the mystery country is not named but it’s not hard to figure out, especially when we see Davis put in a phone call to his secret boss, a mystery man who is driven around in a black right-hand-drive Rolls-Royce, smokes cigarettes out of a long holder and speaks in an accent seemingly blended from equal parts Erich von Stroheim and Boris Badenov.) Davis smuggles the “fear gas” on board the Seaview concealed inside a reel-to-reel tape recorder (actually quite a few reel-to-reel tape recorders feature in this show, from little portables like the one Davis has to big capstan-driven ones with which Naval Command records the transmissions from its subs; there are also quite a lot of slide rules — this is a great show if you’re into watching retro technology in action), only he loses control and he is the one who freaks out before he’s finally subdued, the Seaview’s mission continues and it’s established that humans can survive and maintain their sanity at the depths the sub is designed to reach. Given that Edgar Bergen’s assistant is the bad guy, of course I couldn’t help but joke that he’d have been better off taking Charlie McCarthy instead! 

Fortunately, the next three episodes on the program were better than “The Fear-Makers.” “The Sky Is Falling” is a quite engaging tale, written by Don Brinkley and tensely directed by Leonard Horn, in which a UFO flies over the entire west coast of North America, freaking people out as it goes all the way down from Seattle to San Diego, after which it ditches itself and crashes into the sea. The overall UFO disgorges a miniature version that has the capability of docking itself onto the Seaview, but that’s a capability that only becomes a plot device after the episode’s guest star, Rear Admiral Tobin (played as his usual coarse villain by Charles McGraw), insists that the Seaview fire its nuclear-armed missiles at the spacecraft because it’s obviously hostile. Of course, Admiral Nelson (Richard Basehart) and his second-in-command, Captain Crane (David Hedison, who’d been “Al Hedison” when he played in 20th Century-Fox’s 1958 horror-sci-fi classic The Fly), are resisting this because they see the possibility that the craft’s incursion onto Earth was just an accident — as indeed it turns out to be: the spaceship (whose fly-by of Earth was represented by stock footage from previous sci-fi films, including the 1951 classic The Day the Earth Stood Still) simply got lost in space, drifted out of wherever it was supposed to be going and ended up on Earth simply by mistake. Only its captain — whose natural appearance would be so repulsive to Earthlings (we do get a glimpse of him au naturel, and it looks like his face has been plastered not only with cottage cheese but also spaghetti with white sauce) he assumes the appearance of whichever Earthling he’s talking to, which means that Richard Basehart plays him in one scene and David Hedison does in another — can’t leave because their drifting off course has used up too much of the craft’s radioactive fuel. 

Over the opposition of both Rear Admiral Tobin and the gung-ho generals running the war on land, both of whom want the Seaview to fire nuclear missiles at the craft and destroy it, Nelson offers the spaceship’s captain some of the Seaview’s spare supply of strontium-90 atomic fuel, which isn’t what the spaceship usually runs on but can be converted to work. (The strontium-90 comes in plain cardboard boxes stenciled “DANGER-RADIOACTIVE FUEL!” but without the usual three-triangle logo for a radioactivity warning and without any hint that the packaging in any way shields the people handling it from the radioactive effects.) The spaceship captain makes it clear that if the U.S. military destroys his craft, the people back on his home planet will regard this as an act of war and will retaliate in force, and since they have higher-tech weapons than we do this will result in the total destruction of Earth and everything alive on it. Eventually the U.S. fires on the ship but our weapons don’t hurt it any, but the ship retaliates by firing an “ion ray” that turns off the ship’s power (only temporarily, but Nelson and the Seaview crew don’t know that!) and thereby shuts down all its systems, including the life-support filtration system that keeps the ship’s air breathable and without which the crew will suffocate. Nelson and the Seaview crew are able to forestall a second attack and give the space people — who have used the remaining power on their own craft to raise the Seaview to 100 feet below sea level, where the Seaview’s mechanical snorkel system can be raised to provide the crew air — their strontium so they, like E.T., can just go home: a surprisingly anti-war script for 1964. 

“Submarine Sunk Here” was hardly as political but it was an interesting meditation on individual responsibility and the ways crew members do or don’t work together, and the trouble a craft like the Seaview can get into when its crew let their feelings as human beings take over from their responsibilities to the craft and its mission (which appears to have been a running theme on this show). It opens with one of the crew members so anxious to get off the sub for its scheduled shore leave — his wife is about to have a baby and he wants to see the kid as soon as possible — he takes a poke at another, and a third crew member gets up from the sonar system he’s supposed to be monitoring in order to break them up. Because of his inattention, the sub drifts into a field of derelict mines and starts setting some of them off, resulting in it being frozen in place on the bottom of the sea (for once the sub in Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea actually got there!), and the rest of the show is a race against time between a crew on land attempting to fix the diving bell (owned by Nelson’s own underwater research company — in the 1961 movie the Seaview was a privately funded oceanographic research sub but in the TV series its status was considerably more ambiguous, and in most of the shows we saw last night it was pretty firmly a part of the U.S. Navy and thereby under naval command) and bring oxygen to the Seaview before the crew suffocates to death — with the added complication that if the Seaview is at too steep an angle underwater (its “list”), the diving bell can’t attach itself to the sub. Eventually the Seaview tilts at more than the 30° “list” at which the diving bell, bringing oxygen tanks (one viewer at our screening wondered what would have happened if the diving bell, full of oxygen tanks, had hit one of the mines) to give the men a fighting chance to breathe, can latch on — and the only way to get the sub righted again so the bell can attach is for one of the crew members to flood one of its water-tight compartments so the ship’s internal balance will change and reduce the “list.” Of course, the person writer William Tunberg chooses to have volunteer to do that is the one whose screw-up at the sonar screen caused the accident in the first place. This show included the closest Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea came in its first year to having a comic-relief character, Curley Jones (Henry Kulky), whose stout stature, shaved head and whiny voice couldn’t help but recall his namesake Curly Howard from the original Three Stooges — he’s an obnoxious character but fortunately he’s not on-screen enough to detract from the surprisingly grim high-tension nature of the show. 

The fourth episode, “Doomsday,” was in some ways the best, though one gets the impression that when producer Allen commissioned this script from writer William Reed Woodfield he was thinking of the sensation caused the year before by the films Dr. Strangelove and Fail-Safe, both of which were about the dangers caused by how easily it would be for a nuclear war to start, quickly get out of control and ultimately annihilate the human race. In this one the Seaview receives word that the U.S. and that sinister power that dared not speak its name on U.S. television were already involved in a war, and Admiral Nelson and Captain Crane get orders that they’re supposed to get ready to fire all four of the nuclear missiles with which it’s equipped — only the person in charge of turning the key on one of the missiles so it can be fired, Corbett (the quite good-looking Donald Harron), refuses the order because he doesn’t want to be party to an all-out nuclear war and the resulting destruction of all life on earth. Nelson grabs the key and arms the missile himself, chewing out Corbett for his insubordination. Eventually it turns out that the sinister unnamed power didn’t mean to start a nuclear war, and did not in fact do so — they simply launched 25 rockets carrying weather satellites, only they launched them all at once and didn’t give the U.S. a heads-up that they were doing this, so it looked like a nuclear attack. In the meantime, however, one of the missiles has been jammed inside the Seaview, and it will detonate and incinerate the sub if the sub surfaces — which will lead the representatives of the Sinister Unnamed Power (can we just call them SIP — or, for that matter, USSR?) — so what’s a poor peace-loving sub commander to do? He could fire the missile from 4,500 feet below the surface so it will detonate 1,000 feet below and not hurt anything, but to do that he literally needs permission from the President of the United States (Ford Rainey), who, showing a gravitas and an awareness of the seriousness of his responsibilities notably absent from the current occupant of the Oval Office, is very nervous about giving Nelson even a five-minute time window because that would allow anyone in the U.S. military to fire a nuclear missile during that time period. In any event, the Seaview’s crew can’t get the missile launched in the narrow window of both time and distance from the surface, and as the sub rises their next idea is to drain some of the fuel from the missile so they can launch it higher up in the water and it still won’t explode on the surface — only Corbett screws things up again, though his second act of insubordination buys them enough time to disarm the missile without firing it at all. Nelson is left with the Captain Vere-like dilemma of having to recommend a court-martial against someone whose actions turned out to be right. 

Overall, these Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea episodes are profoundly dated — there are no women in the dramatis personae (though given how silly the women’s roles were in the 1961 Voyage movie, that’s probably just as well) and no people of color either — at the end of “Submarine Sunk Here” we see two women walking by as extras on a hospital set, obviously meant to be nurses — and though the show’s cinematographer, Winton Hoch, had previously worked for John Ford on some of Ford’s classic Westerns, the photography is pretty bland, dull and grey. But overall the show is quite impressive and surprisingly dour and serious for the work of Irwin Allen!

Saturday, June 17, 2017

Princess of Mars (The Asylum, 2009)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2017 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night’s “Mars Movie Screening” featured a double bill of what are so far the only two feature-length movies based on Edgar Rice Burroughs’ 11-book series of stories set on the planet Mars (the first one, published in serial form in pulp magazines as Under the Moons of Mars and then put out as a book as A Princess of Mars), the much-ballyhooed 2012 Walt Disney Studios production John Carter (originally shot under the title John Carter of Mars but with the M-word deleted from the final release because Disney had just released two other movies with the word “Mars” in the title, including a “comedy” called Mars Needs Moms whose very title was virtually guaranteed to put off potential ticket buyers, with the result that they just alienated science-fiction fans who would have loved to see a film based on the Burroughs Mars books at long last while not bringing in anyone else to replace them) and a cheap-jack independent production called Princess of Mars (though the screening’s publicity included the indefinite article that had been in Burroughs’ title) made by a company called “The Asylum” in 2009. The final credits of Princess of Mars give the company’s Web address as “www.theasylum.cc/,” and while I have no idea which country in the world owns the domain “.cc,” the site is still alive, the company is still in business and they produced the recent better-than-average Lifetime TV movie Break-Up Nightmare. Their usual modus operandi of ripping off major-studio productions and trying to get cheaper exploitation versions of the same premise out into theatres (or at least onto DVD’s) first is revealed by other items on their Web site, including The Fast and the Fierce and Ghosthunters. Princess of Mars was intended not only as a knock-off of Disney’s then-upcoming John Carter but of Avatar as well — apparently some prints were released under the alternate title Avatar of Mars — and not having read any of the Burroughs Mars books I can’t vouch for the fidelity (or lack of same) to the source, but according to Charles (who has read some of the Burroughs Mars series) this film’s writer-director, Mark Atkins, made the same mistake as the creators of John Carter did: instead of shooting a straight adaptation of one of the Burroughs Mars books he mashed up plot elements from several of them.  

Princess of Mars opens in modern-day Afghanistan, where John Carter (Antonio Sabato, Jr. — considerably, shall we say, “beefier” than he was in his prime but still a nice enough hunk of man-meat even though the star of John Carter, Taylor Kitsch, is sexier) is some sort of rogue Special Forces fighter tangling with Afghan warlords and drug dealers. One of his battles leaves him near death, but the sinister doctors treating him have a plan: they will download his entire genetic information (which, according to Atkins’ script, fits on a 16-gigabyte hard drive, which the more scientifically literate members of our audience thought was absolutely hilarious) and use it to clone him, so though the original John Carter will die there’ll be a new one who’s not only genotypically identical to the first one but also has all his memories and knowledge. They also send him through some kind of interstellar vortex to Mars — not the Mars in our solar system but “Mars-216,” a planet in another solar system which, like our Mars, is the fourth planet from its sun and whose terrain is red in color (courtesy of the Vasquez Rocks, a Southern California location that’s a go-to site for a lot of movies supposedly set on Mars). Carter first meets up with the Tharks, a race of bipedal creatures with hideous mask-like heads with tusks; they’re a warrior class who fight duels to the death to determine who shall run the tribe and who shall die trying. The leader of the Tharks is Tars Tarkas (Matt Lasky), and when Carter asks for a drink of water Tars wrings out one of his shirts and hands Carter a cup filled with his wringed-out sweat. 

The Tharkian cuisine gets even worse when Tars offers Carter a worm to eat — “I told you we shouldn’t have used Indiana Jones’ caterer!” I couldn’t help but joke (Princess of Mars is the sort of movie that seems to invite Mystery Science Theatre 3000-type commentary) — and it turns out that the worm enables Carter and the Tharks to understand each other’s languages, so that from that point on Atkins has the Tharks speak in comprehensible English instead of the gargling noises that are apparently the Tharks’ own tongue. Meanwhile, there’s an intrigue around the power station that purifies and filters out the impurities in Mars’s atmosphere — if this station isn’t kept in continuous operation Mars will lose its breathable air and everyone and everything on it will die — the power station runs automatically (and one of its junction boxes clearly has a “Craftsman” logo on it) but there need to be two people (or whatever the Martians call the species on their planet that looks like us) in charge to intervene and run the backup unit in case the main one fails. They are Kantos and Saroh Kan (Matt Lagan and Kimberly Ables Jindra), and they’re supposed to be a married couple, but Lagan plays Kantos as such a screaming queen that’s hard to believe. Also the job requires its occupants to live inside the power station for up to 300 years, which most people (or Martians) would probably find a deal-breaker. The central intrigue is that the Kans get killed and the Tharks kidnap the Princess of Mars, Dejah Thoris (Traci Lords); she and John Carter instantly fall in love (or at least lust) with each other, but the Tharks are keeping her in a cage to which only Tars Tarkas has the key — and he wears it around his neck so Carter can’t get it without defeating Tars in a fight. Actually the cage is an incredibly flimsy construction made of bamboo stalks tied together with twine, and it would seem easy for anyone with Antonio Sabato, Jr.’s musculature just to rip the damned thing apart and free her that way — but that never seems to occur to him (or to Mark Atkins). 

Eventually Tars agrees to let the princess out of her cage and the principals all end up at the power station, where the villain Sab Than (Chacko Vadaketh) turns out to be, not a native-born Martian but another Earthling, Sarka, one of the bad guys Carter had fought back home in Afghanistan (ya remember Afghanistan?). Rejected by Princess Thoris, who only has eyes for Carter, Sarka decides to get his revenge by — you guessed it — pulling the plug on the power station, thereby condemning every living thing on Mars (including himself) to death by suffocation, and he and Carter have a grand sword fight up and down the power station (suggesting that Atkins had seen the Errol Flynn-Basil Rathbone epics from the 1930’s) until Carter wins, Princess Thoris brings the power station back on line by waving her hands over it like one of those computer screens on NCIS, and Mars is saved for humanity, Tharkdom and everything else that abides there. There’s also an earlier scene in which the Princess, still locked in that bamboo cage, is beset by a flock of weird and malevolent flying creatures in a scene that suggests Atkins was ripping off Hitchcock’s The Birds. Princess of Mars is one of those frustrating movies that’s too bad to work as genuine entertainment and not bad enough to work as camp, either; Sabato basically lets his pecs do his acting for him and Lords goes through the entire movie with a fixed look of boredom on her face — I found myself wishing someone would have stuck his cock in her face so we could at least see her doing what made her famous originally. Lords apparently admitted in an interview that she was embarrassed by making this movie and had done it only for the money; she’s held on to her looks but seems either to have lost whatever acting skills she ever had or never bothered to acquire any. (The only other Lords film I can recall seeing is John Waters’ Cry-Baby, an experience she remembered fondly in her autobiography — she said Waters treated her kindly and respectfully but the film’s star, Johnny Depp, was so heavily cocooned by his entourage she literally never spoke to him except when they had a scene together — but I don’t remember her making an impression on me, good or bad; it’s a fun movie but Lords seemed to be in it more as one of Waters’ fabled casting stunts than for any intrinsic talent.)  

Princess of Mars is a pretty useless movie; it cost $300,000 to make (though only $70,000 of that went towards principal photography; most of the rest was spent in post-production on the special effects, which look pretty good for the budget but hardly compare to the elaborate state-of-the-art ones in Avatar or John Carter, and when Sabato does his great leaping jumps, made possible by Mars’ lower gravity, it’s obvious it’s being done with wire work) and the lack of money shows, though a more imaginative director than Mark Atkins probably could have done more with the money they did have. It’s just 93 minutes of professionally acceptable but uninspiring film, and it doesn’t help that a couple of times you hear the word “Barsoom” on the soundtrack — “Barsoom” was the Martians’ own name for Mars (and they called Earth “Jasoom”) but you wouldn’t know that from this film, and at least one audience member gave the audible version of a wince when he heard Traci Lords call Mars “Mars.” The screening was preceded by a number of student films with Martian themes, including a 1981 production called A Picnic on Mars which was largely done with stop-motion animation — the actual models used were on exhibit — and deals with two hot-looking young Martians, a man and a woman, dressed in the bare minimum (and frankly they were more fun to look at than the leads in Princess of Mars!), whose attempt to have the titular picnic on Mars is beset by various monsters, many of them borrowed from Burroughs’ descriptions of the lower orders of Martian life. While I ruefully thought of what the film’s two leads would look like now (especially comparing what I looked like in 1981 with what I look like now!), and much of the dialogue was so badly recorded it was virtually incomprehensible (fortunately either the recording quality got better as this eight-minute film unrolled or I just got used to it), A Picnic on Mars was genuinely charming and quite good for a student film of its vintage — which was old enough that “film” actually meant film and not “computer” or “smartphone.”

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

President John F. Kennedy Inaugural Gala, January 19, 1961 (NBC, 1961; PBS, 2017)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2017 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I watched a PBS special that was potentially one of the most promising and compelling programs on television, only it got turned into a hideous mishmash that almost totally wrecked the historical value of the material. It was shown on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of the birth of President John F. Kennedy, and the main focus was the recently rediscovered footage of the fabled inaugural gala hosted by Frank Sinatra at the National Guard Armory in Washington, D.C. January 19, 1961, the day before Kennedy’s inauguration as President. Sinatra had been a key part in Kennedy’s campaign and had rounded up an impressive list of celebrities not only to come out for him publicly but, after he was elected, to participate in the gala: Ella Fitzgerald, Milton Berle, Alan King, Joey Bishop, Ethel Merman (who came out to participate in the Kennedy gala and to wish him well even though she was a lifelong Republican — today our country is so polarized it’s virtually impossible to imagine a performer crossing party lines to honor a new President with different politics from their own!), Nat “King” Cole, Gene Kelly, Harry Belafonte, Jimmy Durante and opera star Helen Traubel. Sinatra was particularly proud that he had got Fitzgerald, Belafonte and Cole on the program because he was hoping that the presence of African-Americans on the talent list at the gala would not only publicly dramatize Kennedy’s commitment to civil rights but would “push” the administration to be more active on race issues than Kennedy had promised in the campaign. (The fact that Kennedy put in a call to Martin Luther King, Jr.’s wife Coretta while King was famously languishing in that Birmingham jail, while his opponent, Richard Nixon, thought doing that would be showboating and ignored it, was a highly symbolic gesture that helped signal the historic switch in the two major parties’ positions on civil rights through the rest of the 1960’s; the Democrats, historically the party of slavery, segregation and the Ku Klux Klan, became the party of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, while the “Party of Lincoln” became, thanks to the deal Richard Nixon cut with South Carolina Senator Strom Thurmond to institute the “Southern Strategy” to neutralize the third-party threat of George Wallace in 1968, the party of racism and white supremacy.) 

Apparently the entire inaugural gala was filmed by NBC for an all-star TV special, but for some reason it never aired; the commentary on this program said this was because Washington, D.C. was gripped by one of the worst snowstorms in its history, though even in 1961 that shouldn’t have prevented a broadcast — even if they couldn’t do it live, they could still have shown the film later. The footage was rediscovered, and of course the obvious way to present it would have been to shoot a short documentary prologue about the 1960 Kennedy campaign and the involvement of Sinatra and his celebrity friends in it, use that to preface the gala footage and show the extant footage of the gala, start to finish. Did they do that? No-o-o-o-o-o! Instead they decided to use the gala footage simply as raw material, dragging in talking heads like historian Doris Kearns Goodwin and actress Phylicia Rashad (who seems to have been dragged in just because she’s Black and she could give props to Kennedy and Sinatra for having so many Black performers on the show), sometimes having them talk over the performances, and so frequently cutting away from the actual gala to show video footage or still photos of the Kennedys that after a while it started to seem like they were just using the soundtrack of the gala as basis of a series of music videos of Kennedy, his family and his Presidency. The gala, what you could see of it, looked quite impressive despite the horrible circumstances under which it was being performed: a hall way too big for the kind of intimate entertainment being provided (though decades later Sinatra would perform in similarly huge venues to accommodate the thousands of people who wanted to see him live before he croaked), a snowstorm that literally stranded Ethel Merman inside the Armory (she had shown up to rehearse, intending to go back to her hotel, pick up her stage costume and wear it during the actual performance; instead she couldn’t leave, so she sang in the plain plaid overcoat she’d worn to the rehearsal), and a “ceremonial” audience that nonetheless seemed to appreciate what they were being given. 

The gala — or at least the bits and pieces we got of it during the PBS show — opened with Sinatra singing “You Make Me Feel So Young” in the beautiful arrangement Nelson Riddle had given him for the Songs for Swinging Lovers LP in 1956 (and the recording quality was surprisingly good for a concert film in 1961; the charming background parts Riddle wrote for a flute section were quite audible), a song that seemed on that occasion to conjure up the youthful effervescence that had attracted millions of voters to pick the young, glamorous Kennedy over the more experienced but also more dour Nixon. Ella Fitzgerald was up next, doing a version of “Give Me the Simple Life” that continued the exuberant mood — I’ve long thought Ella was at her best singing in slow or medium tempi and using her magnificent musicianship and phrasing to put a song over, and this one was a little too bouncy to show her at her best, but she was still great and the song fit the upbeat mood of the overall show. Then there was a series of comedy routines involving Milton Berle, Joey Bishop (the only Rat Packer besides Sinatra himself who was part of the gala), Alan King and Bill Dana (doing his stereotypically racist but still screamingly funny “Astronaut José Jimenez” routine), after which Ethel Merman came on in her rehearsal coat and belted out her big hit “Everything’s Coming Up Roses” from the musical Gypsy. I’ve never been a fan of La Merman — I can tell those loud, belted high notes must have had a visceral effect on her audiences but I don’t like the way they only rarely approached pitch (I remember when I got the CD compilation From Gershwin’s Time on Columbia in 1997, celebrating Gershwin’s centennial, and Merman’s star-making song, “I Got Rhythm,” was performed on that set by Kate Smith, whose voice was just as big as Merman’s and whose musicianship, especially her intonation, was far superior) — but on this occasion Merman was better behaved musically than usual and the whole theme of the song, with its notes of indomitability and ultimate triumph, couldn’t have been more appropriate for the inauguration of a new young President. After that the PBS producers plugged in an earlier recording from the 1960 campaign singing “High Hopes,” the song James Van Heusen and Sammy Cahn had written for Sinatra’s 1959 musical A Hole in the Head and which Cahn rewrote as a JFK campaign theme song (“Back Jack/Jack is on the right track”). 

This went into one of the most bizarre parts of the gala, in which Sinatra, Berle, Kelly, Fitzgerald and Cole teamed up for a medley of songs with special lyrics telling the story of the 1960 campaign. It began with a rehash of the famous “Gallagher and Shean” vaudeville routine, after which Alan King sang, and Gene Kelly danced to, “It’s Been a Long, Long Time.” Then Nat “King” Cole warbled a bit of his 1951 hit “Too Young” to make fun of the frequent criticism during the campaign that Kennedy was too young to be President (though Nixon was only five years older!). After that Berle went into a number, based on Gay New Orleans pianist Tony Jackson’s turn-of-the-last-century classic “Pretty Baby,” which purported to explain the Electoral College. (In 1960 we were still in the middle of that long and remarkable run of 26 Presidential elections in 104 years, from 1892 to 1996, in which the winner of the popular vote for President also won the Electoral College, and hence the Presidency. Since 2000 that’s happened only three times out of five!) After that Harry Belafonte came out to sing the 1920’s song “My Buddy” with a rewritten lyric, “My Bobby,” paying tribute to the new President’s brother Robert and the importance of their political relationship. Then there was an ensemble version of the old college fight song “On Wisconsin,” about the importance of the Wisconsin primary to Kennedy’s eventual win of the Democratic nomination, followed by Sinatra doing a campaign rewrite of the song “That Old Black Magic” as “That Old Jack Magic.” Ella Fitzgerald then came on for the song “Too Close for Comfort” — a reference to the razor-thin margin by which Kennedy won the 1960 election — and the medley closed with the ensemble singing yet another rewritten lyric to “High Hopes,” “Moving Forward.” After that things reverted to more traditional showbiz as Nat “King” Cole came out and did his jazzy version of the song “The Surrey with the Fringe on Top” from Richard Rodgers’ and Oscar Hammerstein II’s Oklahoma!, and Gene Kelly came on for an elaborate dance routine which began with a bit of “Singin’ in the Rain,” segued into an Irish jig commemorating the shared Irish-American ancestry of both Kelly and Kennedy, and ended with a batch of patriotic songs during whose final entry, John Philip Sousa’s “Stars and Stripes Forever,” Kelly ended up break-dancing. 

Then Belafonte sang “When the Saints Go Marching In,” and after that came the high point of the evening: Frank Sinatra singing Earl Robinson’s anthem to patriotism and tolerance, “The House I Live In.” Frank Sinatra had introduced this song in a 1945 short film, also called The House I Live In, directed by Mervyn LeRoy and written by future Hollywood 10 blacklistee Albert Maltz, in which he’s taking a break from a recording session, he runs into a group of kids who are targeting one of their number for a beating because “he’s a different religion.” Sinatra delivers a lecture on racial and religious tolerance in the weird combination of profundity and corn that was the stock in trade of Leftist writers during the Popular Front era, and then he sings the title song — only in neither his rendition in the film nor the record he made at the time for Columbia did he sing the song with anything like the sheer emotion and soul he brought to it at the Kennedy gala, flush with the hope that the President he had just helped to elect might, not only as a liberal Northern Democrat but an Irish Catholic whose forebears had suffered discrimination themselves, actually do something to bring about equality. (Sinatra would keep “The House I Live In” in his live act for decades, but as his politics lurched Rightward and he ended up supporting Ronald Reagan the song would sound more like an empty gesture, just one more of his old hits he had to slog through to keep his audiences happy.) After “The House I Live In” — which the producers of this PBS presentation at least allowed us to see and hear most of straight through — Nat “King” Cole did his hit version of Hoagy Carmichael’s “Stardust,” though the PBS producers defaced it with stock footage of Kennedy-era rocket launches and a sound clip of JFK’s voice saying we were going to the moon and addressing the nation’s other challenges “not because they are easy, but because they are hard” — obviously somebody at PBS thought “Stardust” should be presented as a metaphor for the space program. 

Then Kennedy himself emerged to deliver the sort of short greeting the honoree at these sorts of events usually contributes, after which the program closed with Jimmy Durante, of all people, singing the Kurt Weill-Maxwell Anderson “September Song” (an odd bit of nostalgia — the singer is supposed to be an old man reminiscing about his love life and hoping he can have one last fling with a member of the opposite sex before he croaks — for a gala honoring the inauguration of the second-youngest President in American history), and a closing with Helen Traubel belting out “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” Despite the wretched hash PBS made of it in their presentation — may we dare hope for a straightforward presentation of the gala, start to finish, on DVD or Blu-Ray? — the gala is fascinating not only musically but politically. Musically the biggest surprise to a modern-day audience is that there’s no rock ’n’ roll — in 2017 it seems like an odd omission for a tribute to a President that exuded youth and had won at least in part to the youth vote, but Frank Sinatra personally couldn’t stand rock and people of his (and Kennedy’s) generation wouldn’t have regarded it as a legitimate feature of something so serious and Important as honoring a newly elected President. Politically what’s most surprising about this is that at a time like today when we’re constantly being told what government can’t do — including providing health care to all its citizens — and when the current President is not only the oldest person to be elected to that office (as Kennedy was the youngest — though Theodore Roosevelt was even younger when he assumed the presidency following the assassination of William McKinley) but his entire approach is to warn the country of dire dangers that he alone can fix, it’s wrenching to be taken back to a time when a young, exciting, dynamic, handsome President told us what we could do and beckoned us to join him on a “New Frontier.” (The cultural gap between John F. Kennedy and Donald J. Trump is weirdly symbolized by the difference between the alacrity with which the stars of 1961 accepted the invitation to be part of his inaugural gala and the difficulty Trump’s people had getting anybody to perform at his in 2017.) 

Kennedy’s legacy has become one of the oddest in American politics, not only because he died way too soon but because he achieved relatively little, and yet that little allowed people who came after him to claim his legacy for their own and say, “If only … ” More sober-minded historians could argue that ironically it was Kennedy’s assassination that allowed for the passage of the Civil Rights Act and much of what he had proposed — if only because Kennedy proved wretchedly incompetent at getting Congress to approve all those things, while the man Kennedy’s death elevated to the Presidency, Lyndon Johnson, was a master at dealing with Congress — but Kennedy basically became a palimpsest on which just about everyone in the Democratic Party could write their own desires, their own priorities, their own positions (and Kennedy’s brother Robert became even more of a palimpsest when he was struck down by an assassin’s bullet 4 ½ years later in the midst of a run for the Presidency that was probably doomed to failure, though that hasn’t stopped generations of liberals and progressives since from thinking, “If only RFK had lived … ”). The production with which PBS surrounded the footage of the Kennedy inaugural gala essentially reflects the “white” Kennedy legend — quite a lot of which was built on lies: the seemingly vigorous young man who was in fact chronically ill; the guy with the glamorous wife who behind the scenes couldn’t keep from sticking his dick into anything as long as it was alive, human and female; the politician who promised heroic achievements and delivered almost nothing. And yet the Kennedy ideal has so hypnotized America, and especially liberal and progressive America, that just about every Democrat who’s run for President since, most notably Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, has had at least to try to claim some part of it for themselves (which is one reason why it was such a horrendous, stupid mistake for the Democrats to nominate Hillary Clinton in 2016 — though Trump mobilized his base through resentment and fear, not hope and positive change, at least he was the breath of fresh air, while Clinton presented herself as the voice of “experience” and attacked her opponent as “not ready,” basically making the same losing argument against Trump that Nixon had against JFK in 1960) — which led comedian Mort Sahl, a personal friend of JFK, to say that Democratic voters were like people who got married and then tried to fall in love. 

The commentators on the PBS presentation of the Kennedy gala made the obvious point that JFK’s administration “ended badly,” and it wasn’t just the murder of its central figure that qualified as an unhappy ending: after working his ass off to elect John Kennedy President, Frank Sinatra had a hissy-fit when the Kennedys abruptly dumped him in 1962. Kennedy had been planning a vacation in Palm Springs and Sinatra offered to put him up, setting up quarters on his estate for the Secret Service agents who would be providing security and building a helipad on his property for JFK’s helicopter to land. Then Kennedy, warned off by his brother Robert — who at the time was using his powers as U.S. Attorney General to bring down the Mafia and was all too aware of Sinatra’s Mob ties — abruptly canceled his plans to stay with Sinatra and spent his California vacation at the home of lifelong Republican Bing Crosby instead. Sinatra never forgave Robert Kennedy for that one, and it was that which led Sinatra to endorse Hubert Humphrey for President in 1968 and thereafter switch parties and support Nixon and Reagan. One sees the great entertainers on these film clips and realizes with a start that Harry Belafonte is the only one who’s still alive — just as, of all the speakers at the 1963 March on Washington, Congressmember John Lewis (D-Georgia) is the only one who’s still alive (though quite a few of the musical guests on the program, notably Bob Dylan and Joan Baez, are not only alive but still active) — which gives one a sense not only of the inevitable march of time but also that the idealistic torch which JFK in his inaugural said had been passed to a new generation of Americans has since been dropped, and not very many people in this country — certainly not the ones leading it today! — seem all that interested in picking it up again.

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Trumbo (Bleecker Street Films, ShivHans Pictures, Groundswell Productions, Universal, 2015)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2017 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night the “feature” Charles and I watched was Trumbo, a quite good movie about the Hollywood blacklist of the late 1940’s and 1950’s, in which the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) announced an investigation of Hollywood in 1947. Ostensibly their purpose was to — in the modern phrase — “de-fund the Left” by identifying major Hollywood stars and filmmakers who were giving large donations either to the Communist Party itself or its network of front groups, and intimidate them into stopping those contributions. It was also to expose Communist propaganda Left-wint filmmakers, especially writers, had allegedly slipped into film scripts. The last charge was true, but only to an infinitesimal extent; occasionally one can watch a movie written by a Communist like Dalton Trumbo or Lester Cole and detect a few lines that reference class struggles and the like, though you didn’t have to be a Communist to entertain Depression-era movie audiences with stories that hinted that maybe, just maybe, rich people weren’t super-intelligent, godlike figures the rest of us should stand back and revere. The line — to use a Communist phrase — changed abruptly when World War II ended and the Soviet Union, our allies against Germany and Japan in the war, emerged as at best a worldwide rival and at worst a bitter enemy, committed to imposing Communist tyranny on the rest of the world. HUAC’s initial investigation focused on two groups of witnesses, the “friendlies” and the “unfriendlies.”

The “friendlies” were people like studio head Jack L. Warner, Motion Picture Projectionists’ Union chief Roy M. Brewer (the real power behind the blacklist; though he’s only shown in this movie in one brief archival film clip, it was he more than any other single individual who made the blacklist effective by ordering his union members not to project any films that involved blacklisted talent), Right-wing actors Adolphe Menjou, Robert Taylor, Barbara Stanwyck and John Wayne, and gossip columnist Hedda Hopper, who in Trumbo screenwriter John McNamara’s version of the tale becomes sort of the Evil Genie, the Dark Eminence behind the blacklist. The original “unfriendlies” were eight writers, of whom Trumbo, John Howard Lawson and Lester Cole were the most prominent and successful (a lot of the others were not big-time screenwriters but people like Alvah Bessie and Albert Maltz who had been war correspondents in the Spanish Civil War and who were brought to Hollywood by studio producers who hoped their expertise would help with making credible World War II films), along with producer Adrian Scott and director Edward Dmytryk, who between them had made the classic film noir Murder, My Sweet and helped burned-out musical star Dick Powell (a conservative and a member of the blacklist-supporting Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals) make a comeback as a noir actor. (There was an eleventh “unfriendly,” Bertolt Brecht, who basically evaded the whole thing by playing word-games with the committee; confronted with an English-language script for a film that had his name on it as a writer, Brecht pointed out that he didn’t know English well enough to write in it and he had written a German script whose content may or may not have literally got lost in translation. (Brecht was in a hurry to get back to Communist-dominated East Germany and didn’t want his departure delayed by a year in an American jail serving a sentence for contempt of Congress.)

The Hollywood Ten and their supporters in liberal Hollywood (who, at least until they were scared off by committee and/or studio pressure, included such luminaries as Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall, John Huston and Katharine Hepburn) worked out a strategy by which, asked the committee’s infamous question — “Are you now, or have you ever been, a member of the Communist Party?” — they would essentially work out an answer that would establish the idea that under the U.S. Constitution the committee didn’t have the right to ask that question. They knew that would probably mean they would be found guilty of contempt of Congress and threatened with a year in federal prison, but they were hoping that all the liberals President Franklin Roosevelt had put on the U.S. Supreme Court would reverse the verdicts, put HUAC out of business and set them free. Then two of the Court’s strongest liberals, Frank Murphy and Wiley Rutledge, died within weeks of each other in 1949, and though Roosevelt’s successor as president, Harry Truman, was also a Democrats, his Court picks were considerably to the Right of FDR’s and they joined the Court’s conservatives and moderates in upholding the constitutionality of the blacklist and the anti-Communist laws Congress passed during the early stages of the Cold War. Trumbo picks up the story in 1947, when Dalton Trumbo’s commercial success — he’s bought a ranch house on a large estate just outside of Los Angeles where he’s living with his wife and three kids, and he’s just signed a three-year no-options contract with MGM (“no options” were magic words in Hollywood in the age of the studio system; typically movie contracts bound the talent for up to seven years but the studio for only three months, after which the studio had the option to keep you under contract or fire you — and for decades “option time” was a high stress point for just about everyone who worked in the film business), when he sees a newsreel announcing HUAC’s upcoming investigations of Hollywood, featuring Hedda Hopper proudly boasting that the committee will soon clean up the Red stains that threaten to engulf Hollywood.

The blacklist costs the Unfriendly 10 their freedom and about a year of their lives, and when they get out they find that the studios have imposed a policy that no one named as a Communist, sympathizer or “fellow traveler” can work in the movie business. But the studios still need scripts, and cheap-jack producers like Frank and Hymie King (John Goodman and Stephen Root — incidentally Frank King was for real but his brother/partner was really named “Maurice”!) need them even worse, enough that they’re willing to pay Trumbo (Bryan Cranston) and his blacklisted confreres under the table for scripts as long as the writers don’t seek on-screen credit for them and deliver them in virtual cloak-and-dagger ways (in the film Trumbo’s kids get tired of being pressed into service as couriers for manila envelopes containing his scripts) and at warp speed — which causes Trumbo to become addicted to amphetamines in order to maintain the workaholic schedule working under such conditions requires of him. At one point fellow blacklistee “Arlen Hird” (Louis C. K.) — a fictitious character McNamara blended together from the lives of several real blacklisted writers — has an outer-space alien delivering collectivist ideals in a script in which the alien is supposed to have an affair with an Earth woman (though in real-life 1950’s Hollywood such a story line would itself have been politically verboten: not only would it have been too kinky to pass the Production Code Administration, the same censors who were keeping Left-wing writers from working under their own names would have probably come down hard on a script like that because they would have read it as a metaphor for an interracial relationship). During the 1950’s Trumbo’s scripts actually won two Academy Awards, but of course he got neither of them; his script for the 1953 romantic comedy Roman Holiday, directed by William Wyler and starring Gregory Peck and Audrey Hepburn, was credited to Ian McLellan Hunter, who at least was a genuine writer with enough credits to make it believable that he could have written an Academy Award-winning script. (Ironically, according to Murray Schumach’s book The Face on the Cutting-Room Floor, Hunter himself was threatened with blacklisting just before Roman Holiday was released and Paramount told him they were going to take his name off the script. Hunter and Trumbo had a lunch together at which Trumbo said, “That’s shameful! They can’t do that to you!” Hunter replied, “But, Dalton, you wrote that script!”)

The second one was even more embarrassing: it was for The Brave One, a 1956 RKO tearjerker about a young Mexican boy who adopts a bull as a pet and then cries to see it killed in a bullfight, and on that occasion the script was credited to “Robert Rich.” There was no Robert Rich (though some accounts say the producer had an underage nephew named “Robert Rich” and that’s where he got the name), and at the Academy Awards that year an embarrassed Jesse Lasky, Jr. (son of one of the co-founders of Paramount Pictures) accepted the award on behalf of this nonexistent person. What makes the depiction of this incident in Trumbo even more ironic is that the award “Rich” has received is for “Best Original Story” — but Trumbo, though he wrote the screenplay for The Brave One, did not write its original story. The actual writer was documentary filmmaker Robert Flaherty, who had written a story called “My Friend Bonito” for a four-part omnibus movie called It’s All True which Orson Welles was supposed to make in South America in 1942. The film was never finished, but the story sat in RKO’s vaults for 14 years until the King Brothers, pushing up from Monogram to a major studio, did a deal with RKO to produce it and hired Trumbo, a.k.a. “Rich,” to turn Flaherty’s story into a script. The fact that no one, including the indefatigable Hedda Hopper, can trace down the nonexistent “Robert Rich” after he wins an Academy Award starts suspicions circulating as to just who wrote that script, and Trumbo’s name tops the list of suspects. Eventually Trumbo gets a job from Kirk Douglas to write the script for Spartacus, the big spectacle movie he’s about to produce as well as star in for Universal-International in 1960, and at first it’s going to be just another pseudonymous job until Otto Preminger decides that he wants Trumbo to adapt Exodus, Leon Uris’s sprawling novel about the 1948 war between Israelis and Palestinians that led to the formation of the modern state of Israel, and that Preminger — who for all his weaknesses as a filmmaker (he was lousy at atmosphere and so tyrannical with his actors virtually all of them ended up hating him) had a knack for stirring up controversies around his films in hopes that breaking taboos would get people to want to see them — is actually going to put Trumbo’s name on the script and dare John Wayne, Hedda Hopper, the American Legion (which threatened to picket theatres that showed films involving blacklisted talent) and everyone else who didn’t like it to come after him. That shames Kirk Douglas into putting Trumbo’s name on Spartacus as well, and the blacklist is finally broken — or at least bent out of shape enough that the talented people on the “wrong” side of it can finally come out of the shadows and work under their own names.

In fact, as Dalton Trumbo himself said when I saw him speak at the San Francisco Film Festival in 1971 (he came to introduce his movie Johnny Got His Gun, which he directed based on his 1939 anti-war novel and for which his son Christopher wrote the script), in the 1960’s blacklisted writers achieved a sort of cachet and a lot of them got more jobs than they would have otherwise because hiring a formerly blacklisted writer became an indication of prestige. (At least one blacklistee, Hollywood 10 member Ring Lardner, Jr., had to wait for his rehabilitation until 1970, when he wrote the script for Robert Altman’s anti-war comedy M*A*S*H.) The film ends with Trumbo making his famous speech before the Screen Writers Guild in 1970 (though the banner behind him on screen anachronistically gives the organization’s current name, the Writers Guild of America) in which he said there were no heroes in the blacklist, there were “only victims.” What you don’t learn from this film is that speech, with its surprising notes of sadness and conciliation towards the blacklisters themselves, raised hackles among other blacklist survivors, some of whom peppered Trumbo with comments along the lines of, “What the f--- do you mean, there were only victims?” The best aspect of Trumbo is that it doesn’t make Dalton Trumbo any better than he was: he’s not an unambiguous Hollywood hero. He’s an almost unbearably pretentious man who talks in so stilted a fashion one gets the impression that he’s consciously shaping every sentence that comes out of his mouth as if he were writing it down for a script. One readily sees why his long-suffering family — wife Cleo (a marvelous hang-dog performance by Diane Lane) and his kids — gets tired of him, though one also notes with pride that his daughter Niki doesn’t fall far from the family tree and becomes an activist in the civil rights movement, including raising money for the school integration cases that became Brown v. Board of Education. The film is well directed by Jay Roach, who previously had done only comedies, and for the most part its re-creations of 1940’s Hollywood are well done though the actors playing movie stars — Michael Stuhlberg as Edward G. Robinson, David James Elliott as John Wayne, Dean O’Gorman as Kirk Douglas — don’t even come close  to matching their originals (indeed, Stuhlberg was so far off that when he first appeared I thought he was supposed to be playing John Garfield instead!).

The real irony behind watching Trumbo right now is that the blacklist, like so many other terrible phenomena unleashed on America by its right, is staging a major comeback; yesterday an online story at https://www.nytimes.com/2017/06/11/arts/delta-airline-trump-public-theater-julius-caesar.html?ribbon-ad-idx=4&rref=theater&module=Ribbon&version=context&region=Header&action=click&contentCollection=Theater&pgtype=article reported that at least two major corporate sponsors of the New York Public Theatre’s annual free Shakespeare festival in Central Park, Delta Airlines and Bank of America, had pulled their donations from the festival over the current production of Julius Caesar, which was done in modern dress and had the title character costumed with a shock of orange hair, while Caesar’s wife was a rather detached woman of Slavic ancestry. Though Donald Trump’s name wasn’t mentioned, the parallel was close enough that Donald Trump, Jr. had a public hissy-fit and claimed that the production might incite somebody out there to assassinate his dad — and Right-wing media outlets like Fox News and Breitbart took up the cause, got Delta to cancel its entire sponsorship of the New York Public Theatre and Bank of America to pull their funding from that production. Coming on the heels of the reaction against comedian Kathy Griffin, who lost her gig co-hosting CNN’s New Year’s show over a photo she shot of herself holding a ketchup-adorned severed head made to look like Trump’s, and Reza Aslan also being fired for CNN for making a snarky anti-Trump comment on the air, it seems that U.S. artists are once more, as they were in the 1940’s and 1950’s, being told there are limits on what they will be allowed to say in public and in particular how much they can — and can’t — get away with in criticizing their Great Leader. The attack on the New York Public Theatre is particularly ironic in that it exists because of the blacklist; in the early 1950’s Joseph Papp was a writer-director on New York-based live TV shows when he was blacklisted, and he sought out the help of George Delacorte, founder of Dell Publishing, to found the New York Public Theatre and launch its annual Shakespeare productions. The attacks on Aslan, Griffin and the Public Theatre are badly needed reminders of just how much the free speech we think we have is dependent on the largesse of giant corporations that can be withdrawn in an instant, and the extent to which even so seemingly solid a bastion of free expression as the arts can be subject to political pressure aimed at silencing dissenting points of view and telling artists how they can — and cannot — express themselves and still hope to make a living at it.