Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Crime and Punishment (B. P. Schulberg Productions/Columbia, 1935)

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

I screened Charles our “feature” for the evening, a quite fascinating film from Josef von Sternberg at Columbia in 1935 based on Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s classic novel Crime and Punishment. Sternberg had just been fired from Paramount, where he’d become a star director with the 1927 film Underworld which set the template for the gangster movies of the late 1920’s and early 1930’s. In 1930 he’d arranged with the German UFA studio to make a film there for Emil Jannings, who’d just been let go by Paramount because they didn’t think his English would be good enough for sound films, and the film was The Blue Angel, a tale of a middle-aged college professor and the young cabaret entertainer who seduces and ruins him. To play the young cabaret entertainer Sternberg tested almost every actress in Berlin with a voice and a figure, including a woman named Marlene Dietrich who’d been passed over two years previously by G. W. Pabst for the role of Lulu in Pandora’s Box in favor of American actress Louise Brooks. Having already lost one big role, Dietrich showed up for her audition with Sternberg with a bored, world-weary attitude because she was convinced she’d never get the part and was just going through the motions — and Sternberg immediately decided to use her because that bored, world-weary attitude was just what he wanted for the character. Sternberg took Dietrich back with him when he returned to the U.S. and Paramount, and starred her in a series of six films that started out as both artistic successes and commercial hits: Morocco, Dishonored, Shanghai Express and Blonde Venus. Then the box-office receipts began to fall and Paramount’s head of production, Emmanuel Cohen, decided to have Dietrich work with Rouben Mamoulian on a film called Song of Songs, which flopped. Dietrich and Sternberg resumed their collaboration in 1934 with two great films, The Scarlet Empress and The Devil Is a Woman, which were huge box-office failures. Paramount blamed Sternberg for Dietrich’s box-office decline and fired him, whereupon he was picked up on a sort of corporate rebound by Harry Cohn, head of Columbia Pictures, one of whose joys was having successes with major talents who had bombed elsewhere.

The mastermind of the deal to have Sternberg work at Columbia was B. P. Schulberg, the Paramount studio head who had signed both Sternberg and Dietrich and run the company until Emmanuel Cohen forced him out. (Schulberg’s son Budd never forgave Cohen and used him as the model for the nasty, avaricious, unscrupulous Sammy Glick in his classic Hollywood novel What Makes Sammy Run?) Schulberg decided to put Sternberg in charge of a film adaptation of Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment at a time in Hollywood history in which, as Richard Griffith noted in his contribution to the film history book The Film Till Now, studios were sneaking in social comment by dressing it up in period drag and adapting classic novels that involved the class conflicts of previous eras. It was a time when Hollywood was big on Charles Dickens — in the 1930’s the U.S. studios made films of Great Expectations, David Copperfield, A Tale of Two Cities and A Christmas Carol — and Schulberg seems to have been drawn to Dostoyevsky as a sort of Russian Dickens, one whose works could likewise be tapped to dramatize antagonisms between rich and poor and offer at least some hint of a social critique. The agenda is even stated on screen in a title card at the opening which reads, “The time of our story is any time, the place any place where human hearts respond to love and hate, pity and terror.” Sternberg later claimed in his bitter autobiography, Fun in a Chinese Laundry, that he hadn’t wanted to make this movie and had been forced into it by a contractual obligation, but (as with his later film The Shanghai Gesture, which he said he did just as a favor to an old friend who was producing it) it comes off as a genuinely personal movie. Screenwriters Joseph Anthony and S. K. Lauren had the unenviable task of adapting a substantial novel (though Crime and Punishment is relatively short compared to Dostoyevsky’s other works) into the script for a 90-minute film, but they did a good job not only conveying the essence of the story but tapping into Dostoyevsky’s beliefs on religion, morality and class.

Sternberg also got a good cast together, including Peter Lorre in his second U.S. film as Raskolnikov (rather jarringly his first name in the movie is “Roderick”!), the star college student turned impoverished writer who kills an avaricious pawnbroker (Mrs. Patrick Campbell, the veteran stage star who nearly three decades earlier had created the part of Eliza Doolittle in the world premiere of George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion, and who complained that she had wanted to suggest the character’s ugliness with facial expressions alone, and instead Sternberg and cinematographer Lucien Ballard used every camera trick in the book to make her look awful and essentially do her acting for her). Top billing went to Edward Arnold, who plays Inspector Porfiry, the police official who finally figures out that Raskolnikov committed the murder after nearly condemning the usual obvious suspect — even though he doesn’t appear until half an hour into this 88-minute movie — and his whole approach to the investigation makes him seem like the ancestor of Columbo, the detective who solves a crime essentially by annoying the suspect into confessing. Crime and Punishment is a rich, deeply rewarding film, and blessedly Sternberg, Anthony and Lauren resisted the temptation to “lighten it up” and insert the usual unfunny “comic relief” characters. (The same year, Edward Arnold also played a police detective in James Whale’s marvelous comedy-thriller Remember Last Night?, an otherwise great movie in which Whale and his writers saddled Arnold with a comic-relief sidekick and Whale let him get away with a big beaver job on the scenery — which makes it all the more impressive that Sternberg actually got the usually overbearing Arnold to underact.) The film is a major accomplishment, with three star performers gripping the screen — Arnold, Lorre (billed as “The Celebrated European Actor, Peter Lorre”) and Marian Marsh (who’d played Trilby to John Barrymore’s Svengali four years before), who plays Sonia, Raskolnikov’s prostitute (at least it’s hinted in a film made when Production Code enforcement was at its most draconian) friend. Sternberg’s direction of her proves that he hadn’t lost his command of women when Hollywood politics split him and Dietrich up professionally; her performance is equal to those of her more legendary male colleagues and offers the same kind of world-weariness Sternberg got out of Dietrich in The Blue Angel.

The film also offers some other acid-etched performances, notably those of Raskolnikov’s family — Elizabeth Risdon as his mother and Tala Birell as his sister Antonya — and one of its best aspects is the absolutely vicious characterization of Lushin (Gene Lockhart), a well-connected upper-class twit who boasts that he’s landed two government jobs (which causes Raskolnikov to ridicule him in a series of ever-nastier insults in which the two jobs become seven and then 10) and who basically shows up in the lives of Raskolnikov’s family by essentially offering to buy Antonya, insisting that he’ll share his riches with them in exchange for her total obedience, telling Raskolnikov, “I prefer a girl, like your sister, who’s experienced poverty. I believe that a wife should always look up to her husband as a benefactor.” The 1935 Crime and Punishment is a fascinating movie, proof that all those years glamorizing Marlene Dietrich hadn’t taken away Sternberg’s ability to do a socially conscious movie and making me more curious than ever to see Sternberg’s 1930 film of Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy (a movie Sternberg got put on after Paramount’s original choice, Russian master Sergei Eisenstein, got himself fired for ramping up the novel’s social comment when Paramount wanted it toned down), which I suspect is a lot better than George Stevens’ terrible 1951 remake, A Place in the Sun. When the Metropolitan Opera did a production of a recent operatic adaptation of An American Tragedy their magazine, Opera News, published an article about previous adaptations of the story that included stills of the lake scenes from both the Sternberg and Stevens film — and the Sternberg was awesomely beautiful, full of dappled reflections of light on the lake surface and a visual look that conveyed an air of doomed romanticism, while the Stevens version of the same scene was photographed as flatly as a picture postcard. Crime and Punishment came from my backlog of home-recorded DVD’s and was a movie I hadn’t seen until now, but it was well worth the wait, a finely honed production that may not have done justice to the letter of Dostoyevsky’s novel but certainly communicated its spirit.

Monday, April 23, 2018

I Killed My BFF: The Preacher’s Daughter (Blue Sky Films, Reel One Entertainment, Jordan Creative, Lifetime, 2018)

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

Last night, in between 60 Minutes and Madam Secretary, I put on another Lifetime “premiere” movie (for some reason they’re doing reruns on Saturdays and have relocated their “premieres” to Sundays) of a film originally shot under the title Do Unto Others but ultimately shown with the preposterous name I Killed My BFF: The Preacher’s Daughter. (They’d done another movie called I Killed My BFF in 2015.) It was yet another Lifetime production in which once sensed a bad movie with a good movie trapped inside it trying to get out — indeed, several good movies trying to get out, which was part of the problem. The central character is Lily Adler (Megan West), fraternal twin sister of drug-addled scapegrace Jason Adler (Matthew James Ballinger — the cutest guy and the best actor in the movie, which of course means he gets killed about two-fifths of the way through the running time). Their father (Joel Gretsch) is pastor of a nondenominational church whose theology is carefully unspecified but seems to hew much closer to God as fear than God as love, judging from the way he treats his kids. Their mom offs herself early on by combining alcohol and pills. Lily seems to be a good girl but has a dark past that included drinking, drugs and sex — at 16 she lost her virginity to a 27-year-old man who bailed on her as soon as he knocked her up, and mom arranged for an abortion but never got over her own guilt feelings about that, which, it’s strongly hinted by writers Danny Abel and Blake Berris, helped cause her suicide. As the movie opens Jason is dating — or at least visiting and having a lot of sex with — a woman twice his age named Rae Chastain (Carly Pope, who’s well cast in the role — she looks like the sort of hot older woman a teenager with more libido than brains would fall for!), whom we meet when she’s having a wild party (as wild as Lifetime filmmakers could make it, anyway) involving alcohol, cocaine and sex. Rae’s daughter Scarlet (Katherine Reis), whom Rae named after The Scarlet Letter (a tale about adultery involving a married woman’s affair with a priest), comes home in the middle of the party, finds her mom and mom’s friends drinking and doing lines of coke, and a man and a woman fucking in her bedroom. Scarlet is disgusted and walks out, moving in with her 15-year-old boyfriend Nolan (whom we never see), though it’s above-board: Nolan is still living with his parents and they’re cool with the idea of Scarlet staying there as long as she and Nolan sleep in separate rooms. Jason invites his sister Lily to visit his girlfriend Rae, and Rae determines to corrupt the good little preacher’s daughter, taking her to a dance club and feeding her alcohol and pills, leaving her woozy when she wakes up the next morning and she’s supposed to be leading the youth group at her dad’s church.

Nonetheless, Lily snaps back to her good side when Jason ends up dead — he and Rae were out driving in Jason’s truck, Jason demanded a packet of heroin, Rae said that was one drug even she would never do, and just how Jason meets her demise and Rae gets injured (from which she ends up with a prescription for pain meds which she, of course, abuses) isn’t explained until later in the show: Jason took the smack, then jumped off a bridge, and Rae leaped in after him but too late to save him. Meanwhile, Scarlet catches her boyfriend Nolan seeing other girls and moves back in with her mom, only she’s also drawn to Lily’s church — which, for some reason writers Abel and Berris never bother to explain, pisses off Rae big-time: she determines to keep her daughter away from Lily, Lily’s dad and their church. There’s a total-immersion baptism ceremony for the youth-group members in which Lily is baptizing Scarlet when a furious Rae shows up, takes her away and announces that the two are leaving town to get Scarlet away from That Church. The climax occurs at a ceremony dedicating the church’s new youth center to the memory of Jason and Jason’s mom, and Scarlet runs away from home to attend — only her mom follows her there and Lily pulls out Jason’s old gun (which we’d seen Jason playing with in an early scene — Anton Chekhov strikes again!) and in the middle of the ceremony denounces Rae as an instrument of the devil whom she has no choice but to get rid of on the spot. Ultimately Rae gets the gun away from Lily, the two wrestle for it (Maurine Dallas Watkins strikes again!) and Rae ends up dead — and in the final scene Lily is shown wearing an orange jumpsuit, leading a Christian group in women’s prison, while her dad, who apparently lost his church as fallout from his daughter’s murderous rage, is preaching in a basketball gym.

Lifetime’s official synopsis claims this story is “inspired by true events,” which makes one want to research the “true events” and see if they were as dramaturgically messy as Abel’s and Berris’s fictions; as it is, I Killed My BFF: The Preacher’s Daughter is full of characters who are wildly self-contradictory, not because Abel and Berris created people with legitimate dramatic and moral complexity, but simply because they never really decided who these people were or what they wanted. The director, Seth Jarrett, does a surprisingly good job with the mess Abel and Berris gave him, and the acting is quite good — though Joel Gretsch just seems to be there as the preacher dad (the writers drop a couple of hints that he’s incestuously attracted to Lily because she reminds him of her dead mom, though fortunately they don’t go very far into that), West, Pope and Reis all deliver legitimately powerful performances and do their best to convince us that these are real people with mixed motives and desires. Quite a few good movies could have been made of this material, including the relationship between Scarlet and Rae — given the real-life instances we’ve heard of in which straight-edge kids have had to deal with drinking and drugging parents, including doing their level best to save them from their addictions, it’s a wonder Lifetime hasn’t done more with that as a situation — and also whether Lily still has any desires towards her old “wild” lifestyle (though this film follows the tradition of 1930’s exploitation movies like Reefer Madness in warning viewers away from the demi-monde by making the demi-monde seem simply too boring to bother with) and whether that creepy, self-righteously “moralistic” dad of hers secretly has an incestuous itch for her bod. But subtleties like that were pretty much beyond the level of micro-talents like Seth Jarrett, Danny Abel and Blake Berris!

Sunday, April 22, 2018

Psycho In-Law (Reel One Entertainment/Lifetime, 2017)

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

Our “feature” last night was a 2017 Lifetime movie called Psycho In-Law that, despite the tacky title, was better than usual but not as good as it could have been. The title is something of a misnomer because the psycho in-law isn’t a blood relative of either member of the couple she torments, Tina Williams (Katie Leclerc) and Brock Nichols (Mike Faiola). Instead she’s the mother of Brock’s previous spouse Lorna, who’d died in an auto accident two years earlier, leaving Brock as a single dad raising a 10-year-old daughter, Harper (a nice and refreshingly un-sentimental performance by Brooke Fontana). The ex-mother-in-law is named Joyce and is played in a chillingly matter-of-fact way by Catherine Dyer. She had a series of boyfriends but Lorna remained the one constant in her life even after she married Brock, and after Lorna had Harper Joyce had clear demands on how the girl should be parented — only now Brock has met and fallen in love with Tina, and the two are already planning to get married. Tina, a well-to-do interior designer (this is one of those movies in which all the characters are well-to-do — Brock is a doctor, Lorna was a lawyer and Joyce’s current partner, Duane Chester [Paul Messinger], is also a lawyer — though it’s less bothersome than usual if only because screenwriter Becca Topol is careful to specify how these people earned their money), lavishes gifts on Harper (including a gold chain necklace with a heart-shaped charm) to get the girl to accept her as her stepmother-to-be. Joyce is instantly suspicious of Tina and takes the necklace (and in a chilling scene she gets rid of it by putting it down the garbage disposal); she also contacts Duane’s private investigator, a marvelously eccentric character who lives in a trailer park and has all his computer equipment out in the open (and he’s also the best-looking male in the movie, regrettably unidentified on imdb.com, though Tom Lind as Tina’s ex-boyfriend Chad comes close), looking for dirt on Tina. All Vince can come up with is a few nude pics of Tina sunbathing and the identity of Chad, but that’s enough for Joyce: she sends an e-mail in Tina’s name to Chad hinting that she’d like to get back together with him. Though Tom Lind is taller, skinnier and considerably more butch than Mike Faiola and therefore, at least on looks, we get the impression that Tina is trading down, he’s also drawn as a manipulative creep who’s itching to get back into Tina’s pants. Since Tina’s real past isn’t enough to break her and Brock up, Joyce decides to invent some dirt on her, using her computer hacking skills to steal money from the bank account of Tina’s former business partner and make Tina look like she did it. 

The cops, in the person of Detective Vince Jeffers (Charles Christopher) — an interesting presence, wiry and muscular, with a shock of platinum-grey hair that makes him look like he just wandered in from a Gay S/M porn movie — investigate and ultimately clear Tina (though not before their intrusion into her interior design office costs her a major client), but Joyce has set it up to look like the next suspect would be someone who was actually in women’s prison at the time, and what’s more was in for crimes like larceny and assault and therefore (at least to Becca Topol’s mind) didn’t have the smarts to commit relatively sophisticated crimes like identity theft and computer fraud. Tina and her level-headed sister Ellen (Pamela Mitchell) ultimately link the crime to Joyce because her partner Duane handled the defense of the criminal on whom she tried to pin the fraud, and Duane threatens to report Joyce to the police. Then he starts to have a heart attack, and instead of giving him the needed medication that would save his life, she empties the pill bottle and pours all the pills down the bathroom sink while running the water. When, early on in Topol’s script, she established that Duane had a history of heart disease and periodically needed to be revived with this medication, I instantly joked, “Anton Chekhov meets Lillian Hellman” — referencing both Chekhov’s famous dictum that if you introduce a pistol in act one you must have someone fire it in act three and the famous scene in Hellman’s The Little Foxes in which the villainess murders her inconvenient husband by refusing to give him the heart medication he needs to keep him alive — only director Jeff Haze stages the scene surprisingly flatly, totally missing the effect William Wyler achieved in the film of The Little Foxes by keeping the camera on Bette Davis, front and center, with a stony, implacable facial expression, while her hapless husband (Herbert Marshall) expired in the background for lack of his meds. Meanwhile, Brock and Tina are rushing their wedding because the venue they want is available six weeks hence but the next available date for it is a full year after that — and Harper is being bounced like a yo-yo between the two powerful women in her life (the girl seemed to be getting along fine with Tina until Joyce tricked Tina into throwing away a particular hairbrush Harper liked, which had been the property of her late mom — shades of Rebecca!) and in some ways is the most emotionally complex character in the film. 

Tina’s sister Ellen, suspicious of Joyce, invites her to her own home prior to the wedding and tries to record her with her smartphone making a confession to all her misdeeds — only Joyce gets angry and literally pushes Ellen out the window, presumably to her death. Tina catches on that something is wrong when Ellen is late for the wedding and doesn’t pick up her calls, but eventually Joyce shows up and tries to kill Tina but is overpowered by Tina’s own mother — and in the final scene Tina and Brock get married after all, only at a county building instead of an elaborate resort venue, while Ellen survives her injuries and Joyce ends up in a mental institution, babbling about the daughter who became the youngest member of her law firm ever to make partner. There are some nice touches in Topol’s script, notably the flashback scene explaining just how Lorna died — she and Joyce were in a car together, Joyce was driving, and they were in the middle of an argument over how to raise Harper when Joyce got distracted and a truck plowed into their car, killing Lorna while Joyce survived relatively unscathed (at least physically) — but overall Psycho In-Law could have been better. In the first place, it should have been given a more ambiguous title that didn’t give the game away at once; and without a “spoiler” title writer Topol could (and should) have kept us in suspense for longer as to which woman, Joyce or Tina, was the domineering, controlling one we were supposed to dislike. Still, this was a relatively workmanlike Lifetime movie, better than many despite the overall weakness of the acting — Mike Faiola and Katie Leclerc look bland and naïve even by Lifetime leads’ standards, and only Catherine Dyer as the villainess and, briefly, Paul Messinger as her avuncular voice-of-reason boyfriend who becomes her victim, really create well-honed, edgy, multidimensional characterizations.

Friday, April 20, 2018

The Adventures of Robin Hood (Warner Bros., 1938)

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

The film was The Adventures of Robin Hood, made by Warners in 1938 and starring Errol Flynn as Robin Hood — and often considered a benchmark for treatments of this story even though the reviewers of the time compared it invidiously to Douglas Fairbanks’ marvelous 1922 silent version (which led me to take it with a grain of salt when Kevin Costner’s film Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves came out in 1991 and the reviewers of that time said he hadn’t played it as well as Flynn). Actually at this point the Fairbanks version seems to me to be the best of the three (at least the three major ones: there’ve been plenty of others as well, including a 1951 Disney production with Richard Todd as Robin Hood — one of the few times Robin has actually been played by a card-carrying Brit: Fairbanks and Costner were American and Flynn was Tasmanian!), though the Flynn scores by virtue of ravishing three-strip Technicolor (by this time they had all the bugs out of the process); vivid performances by the two main villains, Claude Rains’ usurping Prince John and Basil Rathbone’s Sir Guy of Gisbourne (Robin’s traditional nemesis, the Sheriff of Nottingham, is played by Melville Cooper and turned into a comic-relief character); dazzling action sequences (mostly directed by an uncredited second-unit man, B. Reeves “Breezy” Eason) and an overall air of cheeky insouciance in Flynn’s performance in the lead. Where the Fairbanks version wins out over this one is in a far deeper sense of the romanticism of the period and its chivalric ideals, and also in a stronger authorial point of view; Fairbanks not only starred in his version but also produced and (under the pseudonym “Elton Thomas”) wrote it. The Warners Robin Hood was a typical product of the studio system, with a platoon of writers — Norman Reilly Raine, Seton I. Miller and (uncredited) Rowland Leigh — as well as three directors (William Keighley, who started the film; Michael Curtiz, who replaced him when studio head Hal Wallis decided Keighley’s action scenes weren’t exciting enough; and Eason, who did most of the action scenes and stunt work) and two cinematographers (not counting the Technicolor advisor, W. Howard “Duke” Greene): Tony Gaudio, who started the film; and Sol Polito, whom Curtiz brought in when he took over as director.

According to a letter Ruby Behlmer published in the February 1971 Films in Review, Keighley and Eason directed the location scenes at Sherwood Forest (actually shot in Chico, California — with artificial grass and trees because the real ones had been removed as fire hazards!) and Curtiz directed the scenes in the town of Nottingham and inside Nottingham Castle, where the final confrontation and the great swordfight between Flynn and Rathbone occur. (Rathbone was a serious fencing student while Flynn just faked it, which made Rathbone all the more bitter that the scripts of their films together always called for Flynn to beat him!) Flynn’s performance as Robin Hood slights the alleged noble origins of the character and goes for the kind of macho bravado typical of James Cagney’s performances in sympathetic roles — which makes it unsurprising that Warners actually planned Robin Hood for the real Cagney, with Anita Louise as Maid Marian, Guy Kibbee as Friar Tuck, and Donald Crisp offered the part of the corrupt Bishop of the Black Canons (who gets ready to crown Prince John as king following the — erroneous — report that John’s brother, Richard the Lion-Hearted, has been killed). As things turned out Eugene Pallette played Tuck (probably grateful for the chance at a relatively sympathetic role); Montagu Love was the bishop; and Olivia de Havilland suffered through the role of Marian, here reduced to the stereotypical “prize” for the hero’s victory and given so little character definition a major actress like de Havilland was way overqualified for the role. (At Warners she was almost always cast either as Flynn’s empty-headed love interest or as the “good girl” to contrast with Bette Davis’s “bad girl” — reason enough why she rebelled, sued, broke her contract and went to Paramount, where she won Academy Awards for To Each His Own and The Heiress.) Patric Knowles got one of his rare good-guy roles as Will Scarlett and Alan Hale repeated his Little John from the Fairbanks version (and would play the part again in a 1950 Columbia “B,” Rogues of Sherwood Forest). This Robin Hood does suffer from the chronic flaw Thomas Schatz noted in Warners’ product in the 1930’s — the big action scenes have a relentless, hell-bent-for-leather excitement but the plot scenes have a ponderous quality, as if they’re only there to get us from one action highlight to another — but overall, though not quite the uninhibited fun-fest I remembered from the only previous time I’d seen it (an early-1970’s revival in San Francisco), it is a good, entertaining bit of Hollywood medievalism — though Charles joked that the dirt and mud of Monty Python and the Holy Grail probably better reflects what the period really looked like! — 11/29/03

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Anyway, I just finished the reformatting and printing of the TCM schedule, and while I was doing that I played through some more of the “special features” on the DVD of The Adventures of Robin Hood. Last night Charles and I had played through some of them, including two Warners cartoons more-or-less spoofing the film, both directed by Chuck Jones in the glory days of Warners’ animation department, one featuring Daffy Duck as a predictably incompetent Robin Hood wanna-be (with Porky Pig as Friar Tuck resisting Daffy Hood’s entreaties to join his band) and one featuring Bugs Bunny as a thief who steals one of the carrots from the royal carrot patch (they’re even emblazoned with the royal seal on their peels!) and waits for Robin Hood to rescue him — and Robin Hood, in the final frames, turns out to be Errol Flynn himself, in a live-action clip from the film blatantly and audaciously spliced into what is otherwise a cartoon! We also watched a six-minute bit by Rudy Behlmer which purported to be a history of Robin Hood on film but focused mainly on the Douglas Fairbanks version from 1922 (with some ghastly-looking low-quality clips from it that hardly did justice to a film I think is even better than the Flynn version but at least did the job Behlmer set out to do, which was to parallel certain similar scenes in the two versions) and two shorts, one called Cavalcade of Archery from 1945, which featured Howard Hill (Flynn’s archery double and close friend) in a shrieking feast of Technicolor stunt-work as well as a few Robin Hood clips (including one scene of a long line of men in full armor that wasn’t used in the final cut); and the other the almost legendary Cruise of the “Zaca,” the documentary Warners made up from Flynn’s home movies of his yacht Zaca, his father (Professor Thomson Flynn), his friends from the Scripps Institute of Oceanography (and yes, it was a lot of fun for a San Diego resident to see what the Scripps Institute — already connected with the University of California even though there wasn’t yet a San Diego campus for it to be part of — and the La Jolla cliffs and pier looked like back in 1946!), stunt pilot Paul Mantz (who flew him over La Jolla bay in a helicopter and then had to rescue him when he fell out of the copter while photographing whales), Howard Hill, John Decker (the artist, friend of Flynn and fellow alcoholic who was also Edward G. Robinson’s painting double in Scarlet Street) and a woman identified in Flynn’s narration only as “Nora,” since when the film was made in 1946-47 he and Nora Eddington were still married but when it was finally released in 1952 he had divorced her and married Patrice Wymore. The people I expected to see but didn’t were Orson Welles and Rita Hayworth, since much of this film was made while Welles was borrowing the Zaca to shoot The Lady from Shanghai and Flynn’s contract to loan the boat to Columbia for Welles’ film stipulated that he had to go with them and they had to hire his own crew at Columbia’s expense.

This morning I played through still more of the bonus material, this time two audio-only tracks that focused on Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s musical score for Robin Hood. One was an NBC broadcast from May 11, 1938, in which Korngold himself conducted the NBC Hollywood studio orchestra in about 25 minutes’ worth of excerpts from the score with Basil Rathbone (who of course was in the film as one of the principal villains, Sir Guy of Gisbourne) narrating and explaining where each excerpt fit in the film and what action it accompanied on screen. This is probably one of the most treasurable items of Korngoldiana since it gives an account of one of his most famous scores under the composer’s own baton — and not surprisingly he out-conducts not only Leo F. Forbstein (Warners’ house conductor, who recorded the actual soundtrack) but also the rather limp Varujian Kojian, who conducted the Salt Lake City Symphony in a late-1970’s recording of the entire score for Varèse Sarabande. Indeed Korngold’s music sounds better here than it does with the distraction of the film itself! (One option the DVD gives you is playing the entire film with the dialogue erased from the soundtrack and only Korngold’s music still heard — an option that’s been offered on a few other DVD’s of classic films especially well known for their scores, including North by Northwest.) The other item I played this morning was closely related: a 1947 home recording at a Hollywood party of Korngold playing some of his film music on piano, including two excerpts each from Robin Hood, The Sea Hawk and Kings’ Row as well as one each from Escape Me Never, The Sea Wolf, The Constant Nymph, Captain Blood, Elizabeth and Essex and Anthony Adverse — on the last of which he actually sings along with his playing, filling in the missing orchestral parts. Though tinnily recorded, dubbed at a low level and with the usual cocktail-glass clinking and other party noises competing with the music (Erich Wolfgang Korngold, cocktail-lounge pianist — who knew?), these are fascinating excerpts and well worth having. I dubbed these onto an audio cassette this morning so I could have them in more convenient form than in the middle of a “special features” bonus DVD, and on the other side of the cassette I dubbed the audio extras from the Casablanca DVD: the Screen Guild Theatre dramatization of the film from April 1943 (I’d expected the Robin Hood broadcast to be a similar dramatization but it wasn’t!) and the scoring-stage recordings of Dooley Wilson and two chunks of Max Steiner’s background underscoring (Rick’s reunion with Ilsa at the Café Americain and the Paris flashback). — 11/30/03

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The film Charles and I watched last night was The Adventures of Robin Hood, the 1938 Warner Bros. spectacular with Errol Flynn in the title role, Olivia de Havilland as Lady Marian Fitzwalter, Basil Rathbone as the principal villain Sir Guy of Gisbourne, and Claude Rains as the usurping Prince John, who at the end of the 12th century saw his chance to grab the English throne when his brother Richard the Lion-Hearted (Ian Hunter) went off to fight in a Crusade and was kidnapped and held for ransom by Prince Leopold of Austria on his way back. Robin Hood had been filmed several times before but the best-known version to U.S. audiences then would have been the 1922 epic, produced by and starring Douglas Fairbanks, Sr. and directed by Allan Dwan from a script by Tom Geraghty and “Elton Thomas” — the latter a pseudonym for Fairbanks himself. Indeed, when Kevin Costner starred as Robin Hood in the film Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves I was amused when the reviewers’ consensus was, “He’s not as good as Errol Flynn” — when a lot of the reviewers of this version had dismissed Flynn by saying, “He’s not as good as Douglas Fairbanks.” I picked this movie last night because after all the dire political news we’ve been experiencing lately, I felt we could use a piece of pure escapism — though the script for The Adventures of Robin Hood (by Norman Reilly Raine, one of Hollywood’s go-to guys just then for scripts depicting the Middle Ages, and Seton I. Miller) definitely has a streak of class-consciousness in that the heroes, the Saxons, are a discriminated-against minority taxed and oppressed by the ruling Normans, and in order to fill his own coffers and pay off the corrupt people around him Prince John ordered the taxes on the Saxons raised to virtually unsustainable levels. At the same time a certain Leftist orientation is almost bound to creep into a script about Robin Hood since the very premise of the story — an outlaw who steals from the rich to help a poor, oppressed minority — has a critique of the rich and powerful built in, so much so that Ayn Rand once described the Robin Hood legend as the most corrupt and evil story ever told. 

Charles and I not only watched the film but also listened to a couple of audio excerpts, including a May 11, 1938 NBC radio broadcast in which Basil Rathbone narrated a presentation of the first-rate (and ultimately Academy Award-winning) musical score by Erich Wolfgang Korngold, the first time a piece of film music was presented on the air not just as accompaniment for a story but as a masterpiece in its own right. The Adventures of Robin Hood had a convoluted production history — it was originally green-lighted in 1935 as a vehicle for James Cagney until Cagney had a dispute with Jack Warner and successfully sued to get out of his Warner Bros. contract. (Warners won him back on appeal in 1937 after Cagney made two films for an independent studio called Grand National — one of which, Something to Sing About, rated an entire chapter in Cagney’s autobiography since it was his only musical between Footlight Parade and Yankee Doodle Dandy and Cagney’s one career regret was that he hadn’t made more musicals.) The project got revived in 1937 as a vehicle for Errol Flynn, whom Warners had put in the 1935 film Captain Blood after their original star, Robert Donat, had withdrawn and the other “A”-listers they tried for were unavailable; suddenly they had a huge star in a genre they’d pretty much avoided — the historical swashbuckler — since John Barrymore had left the studio, and they looked for other vehicles in a similar vein. For Robin Hood they shot the works budget-wise — the film cost nearly $2 million — including three-strip Technicolor (one imdb.com “Trivia” item says Warners used all 11 three-strip Technicolor cameras then in existence), grandiose sets, a location trip to Chico (though most of the outdoor footage in the final cut came from the Warner Bros. ranch at Calabasas, which they had bought for “B” Westerns and rarely used in a major film), a stunning score by Korngold (the love scene for Robin and Marian is a bit on the sappy side and the march for the Merry Men has an oddly Spanish-sounding rhythm, but as a whole the score is vivid, evocative, state-of-the-art concert music that not only works perfectly for the film but is great listening on its own and reflects the influence of Wagner and Richard Strauss on Korngold’s style) and, above all, an unrepeatable star cast. 

I remember thinking when I first watched the Douglas Fairbanks Robin Hood that it was an even better film than this one — that Fairbanks just seemed to capture the spirit of nobility and chivalry of the Middle Ages (the popular image of the Middle Ages, at least — the real one was probably a lot more brutal, and both literally and figuratively dirty, than the one we generally get in movies, and for all their quirky humor Terry Gilliam’s films have probably come closer than anyone else’s to “the way it really was”) a bit more than the makers of this version did — but The Adventures of Robin Hood is a great movie. It’s proof that you can tell an action story and also bring it warmth and heart, and Raine and Miller constructed the script well enough that the action scenes and the plot exposition flow into each other seamlessly instead of giving us the feeling all too common today that the story is coming to a dead stop to give us an action highlight. Errol Flynn’s performance as Robin Hood is one of the strongest of his career — probably his definitive one in a swashbuckler role — even though he plays Robin Hood as butch and doesn’t play some of the surprisingly androgynous games he did in some of his other period roles. He’s got everything a Robin Hood needs: great looks (he was 28 when he made the film, the youngest actor ever to play the character), infectious charm, the charisma to recruit others for what is essentially a band of terrorists seeking to upend the established order, and an overall strength — physical, mental and moral — that makes us believe in the character and his struggle. And he’s matched by the rest of the cast, particularly the two principal villains: Basil Rathbone brings to Sir Guy the same authority he’d later show on the right side of law and morality in his 14 films as Sherlock Holmes, and there’s a steely implacability in that ringing voice and erect posture of his and a sense that he, like the gangsters in the contemporary-set films Warners was making at the time, is simply bad as a conscious career choice: he’s not an anti-hero and he’s not a sadist or a psychopath, simply someone who has chosen a villainous course and pursues a career in evil with a steely efficiency. 

Claude Rains is also superb, playing Prince John much the way he would play the collabó police chief Captain Renault in Casablanca four years later (though without any hint of the moral regeneration he undergoes at the end of Casablanca); he even gets a similar line about how the wind is blowing in his character’s favor. (Indeed, at one point Warners was planning a sequel to The Adventures of Robin Hood that would have reunited Flynn, de Havilland and Rains; alas, World War II put a limit on expensive productions, especially period films, and by the time the war was over de Havilland had successfully sued to break her Warners’ contract and Rains had run his out. I suspect the sequel would have been about John’s reign as King after Richard’s death and would have included a plot point in which Robin, now restored to his noble title as Sir Robin of Locksley, was one of the barons who ganged up on King John and forced him to agree to the Magna Carta.) It’s a great film, vividly photographed — the exteriors take us back to the wonderful days when color films were actually colorful (and when, because it cost twice as much to make a film in color as it did in black-and-white, a studio making a color film obviously wanted to make the color as spectacular as possible to draw in enough audience members to pay back the investment), courtesy of cinematographer W. Howard Greene and Technicolor consultant Natalie Kalmus (who used her clout over the process to make sure Technicolor films were as bright and vivid as possible). The interiors are darker and closer to the past-is-brown orthodoxy of today, though that can be explained as an artistic choice; back when the only light sources, especially at night, were home fires and torches, rooms were just darker than they are now. The Adventures of Robin Hood had three different directors; the film was started by William Keighley (his last name is pronounced “Keeley”), whom Flynn got along with — perhaps because they were both of Irish descent (Flynn was born on the Australian island of Tasmania but his father, oceanography professor Thomson Flynn, was Irish), but Jack Warner and Hal Wallis fired him in mid-shoot because they didn’t think his scenes were exciting enough and replaced him with Michael Curtiz, whom Flynn couldn’t stand because he was a tough taskmaster (and also, one imdb.com trivia poster suggested, because by the time The Adventures of Robin Hood was made Flynn’s first wife, Lili Damita, had divorced him and married Curtiz), while action specialist B. Reaves “Breezy” Eason directed the big action set-pieces. 

It’s also not taking away from Flynn’s performance that he was doubled through much of the film, by fencing coach Fred Cavens through much of the spectacular final duel scene with Rathbone (Rathbone was an accomplished fencer, while Flynn learned the rudiments from Cavens but otherwise faked it all, and Rathbone was understandably bitter that the scripts in their films together called for him to lose their duels; in 1939, in the Universal film Tower of London, Rathbone, as Richard III, would fight an on-screen duel with his brother George, played by Vincent Price, and win) and by archer Howard Hill, who not only played a small on-screen role in the movie but worked out the archery stunts and actually shot the famous scene in which Robin Hood wins an archery tournament by firing his arrow right through his competitor’s and splintering it. (A lot of people assumed that shot was faked; it wasn’t — Hill actually made the shot, though as Charles pointed out he was probably a good deal closer to the target than it looks in the movie.) Hill also worked out a system by which Robin Hood and his Merry Men (including Patric Knowles as Will Scarlett — Knowles had at least some of Flynn’s charisma but kept getting cast as his brother or his sidekick — Alan Hale as Little John and Eugene Pallette as Friar Tuck) could be shown visibly to shoot evil Normans in the back: the arrows were real but the actors wore targets under the backs of their costumes and were heavily padded to make sure the arrows didn’t really hurt them. The Adventures of Robin Hood is a spectacular film in all senses of the word, a deserved classic and one that made a lot of money for Warner Bros., not only in its original release but in frequent reissues (since it was a period film they wouldn’t have to worry about it becoming dated the way a contemporary-set film from the 1930’s would have), and it’s still regarded as the touchstone for depictions of the Robin Hood legend on film. — 4/20/18

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Woman in the Moon (Fritz Lang Film/UFA, 1928)

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

Charles and I spent most of the night in our room watching Woman in the Moon (Frau im Mond), Fritz Lang’s 1928 sci-fi epic (his last silent film) dealing with a trip to the moon. It’s yet another extraordinary movie — so far I’ve seen every film in a quite extraordinary stretch Lang made from 1922 to 1937 that includes Dr. Mabuse, Die Nibelungen, Metropolis, Spies, Woman in the Moon, M, The Testament of Dr. Mabuse, Liliom, Fury and You Only Live Once. With the possible exception of Kriemhild’s Revenge (part two of Die Nibelungen and based on a part of the legend Wagner didn’t use in the Ring cycle) there isn’t a clunker in the bunch, a period of sustained artistic creativity and commercial success virtually no other filmmaker of Lang’s stature ever enjoyed.[1] (Alfred Hitchcock’s record between the first version of The Man Who Knew Too Much and Notorious was almost as strong, but it only lasted 12 years rather than 15 and it had a few substandard pieces in the mix: Jamaica Inn, Mr. and Mrs. Smith and Lifeboat.) Woman in the Moon is quite a long film (169 minutes in Kino’s DVD) but it never seems either padded or dull (the two most common defects of unusually long films). It does change tone and theme quite often, but perhaps that was just the way Lang and his scenarist (and then-wife) Thea von Harbou (who, as she’d done with Metropolis and Spies, published the story as a novel simultaneously with the release of the film in one of the earliest examples of synergistic marketing) decided to keep it interesting.

Woman in the Moon begins with grizzled old scientist Georg Manfeldt (Klaus Pohl), discredited 32 years before for giving a lecture in which he speculated that there was gold on the moon (the newspaper clipping, which he’s kept all these years, is headlined, “Narr oder Schwindler?” — “Crazy or a Crook?”), living in a hovel and receiving his one friend, airplane manufacturer Wolf Helius (Willy Fritsch). Manfeldt gives Helius his old paper on the moon and Helius agrees to build a spaceship that will take them there. The film then takes a quick turn into the territory of Mabuse and Spies as a cabal of industrialists described in the credits as “The Brains and Checkbooks” (Tilla Darieux, Hermann Valentin, Max Zilzer, Mahmoud Terja Bey and Barwin Walth) hire an agent to pose as an American named “Walter Turner” (Fritz Rasp) and steal the plans for Helius’s spacecraft. They not only do so, they threaten to blow up his factory if he doesn’t allow them to put “Turner” (the character is actually identified in the credits as “The man who calls himself ‘Walter Turner’”) on the ship. Then, as soon as Helius has yielded to their demand, the film changes tone once again and becomes straightforward science-fiction, as the rather motley crew — Helius, his good friend and engineer Hans Windegger (Gustav von Wangenheim), Hans’s fiancée Friede (Gerda Maurus, whose presence reunites the romantic leads of Spies), Dr. Manfeldt and a prepubescent stowaway named Gustav (Gustl Stark-Gstettenbaur) whose regular readership of Nick Carter novels about space travel has made him want to do it for real — take off on their rocket to the moon. When they actually get there Lang and von Harbou have one more shift in tone awaiting us — the film then becomes a space-opera version of a desert-island tale in which the bad guys attack, the good guys kill them but in the process accidentally destroy a good chunk of their oxygen supply, so one of the surviving astronauts is forced to stay behind on the moon while the others take the spaceship home. And as if that weren’t enough, overlaid on top of this is a romantic-triangle plot between Hans, Friede and Helius, who finds himself falling in love with his best friend’s girlfriend and ends up (a twist that, as Charles pointed out, you could pretty well have guessed at from the title) joined by Friede in their moon redoubt as Hans and the kid leave for Earth.

What makes Woman in the Moon most interesting is the surprising accuracy of its science. Given that 1928 audiences probably had no idea that anyone would still be watching this film after humans had in fact traveled to the moon and back, and therefore we’d actually have a real knowledge base to compare it to, the fact is that the number of things Lang and von Harbou got right is pretty astonishing. It’s a bit less so when you realize that their scientific advisors — Professor Hermann Oberth and (uncredited) Willy Ley — later became part of the German rocket program during World War II (which probably explains why the unmanned “H32” probe they send up as a test before risking a manned flight looks so much like a V2) and still later part of the U.S. rocket program after the war. The spaceship in Woman in the Moon is rocket-powered (unlike the silly lunar cannon from H. G. Wells’ novel and film Things to Come — a cannon-powered moon shot had been just barely believable in the 19th century when Jules Verne wrote From the Earth to the Moon but by 1936 it was flatly ridiculous); the rocket is built in multiple stages, with each stage jettisoned as it burns out so the next one can be fired; the necessary escape velocity and the effect of acceleration (the most physically dangerous part of space flight, assuming the containment holds up and the astronauts aren’t exposed to the immediate death of losing all their air instantly) are depicted accurately; and there’s even an attempt to dramatize weightlessness, though since there apparently weren’t any wire workers at UFA in 1928 the astronauts themselves don’t float in mid-space (the floor of the spaceship is adorned with leather straps into which they insert their feet so they won’t lose contact with the floor even in zero gravity); and the ship lands on the moon by firing retro-rockets to slow its descent until it can touch down safely. All these aspects were part of the actual manned lunar flights as well. About the only major scientific boner is the assumption Lang and von Harbou incorporated in their story that, though the familiar side of the moon is in a vacuum the then-unseen “dark side” does have air. They find this out when professor Manfeldt goes out in a spacesuit (another accurate call, though it’s surprising that in a film which had a major budget for spectacular sets and special effects, the “spacesuit” is all too obviously a recycled diving suit with oxygen tanks stuck on back — though give Lang and von Harbou credit for yet another good call: this was 18 years before Jacques Cousteau invented SCUBA gear) with a pack of matches and strikes about four of them; when they ignite, this proves that the lunar air contains oxygen and is therefore breathable by humans.

Aside from the science, Woman in the Moon is quite well-paced dramatically and gives us characters we care about. We’re pretty sure from the get-go that Helius and Friede will end up together simply because they’re the best-looking people in the film (and, of course, because they were the romantic leads of the preceding Lang-von Harbou film, Spies) and that the oily character played by Fritz Rasp[2] will get his comeuppance — which he does in a series of highly dramatic lunar confrontations in which he follows Manfeldt to the lunar gold fields, watches as Manfeldt falls down a pit clutching an enormous gold stalactite, then gets shot by Hans in a gun battle (a stray bullet from this match hits the regulators on their oxygen supply and sets up the ending). Woman on the Moon may not have the mythic power of Nibelungen (especially part one, Siegfried), the awesome scope of Metropolis or the sheer energy of Spies, but it too was a major influence on films to come as well as on the real-life dramaturgy of space flight. While preparing the launch scene, Lang asked Oberth how the early rocket experimenters gave the signal to fire. “We usually count to 10 and launch on 10,” Oberth said. “That doesn’t sound very dramatic,” Lang replied. Then it struck him: “Why don’t we count backwards?” The film shows a sequence in which the number on an intertitle dissolves from six seconds to five, four, three, two, one — and at zero the title immediately cuts to the rocket going up: the first countdown. No film would deal this seriously with space travel until Destination Moon 22 years later, and the makers of that one — scenarist Robert Heinlein, producer George Pal and director Irving Pichel — would rip off quite a lot of this one, including the assertion that private rather than public interests would fund the moon shot; the sinister cabal trying to derail the project (identified, subliminally rather than explicitly, with the Soviet Union in the later film); even the final suspense gimmick in which the ability of the astronauts to get back to Earth is jeopardized by the lack of a key component (though in Destination Moon it’s fuel, not oxygen). The other interesting thing is that Woman on the Moon is one of the few science-fiction films ever made by a top-flight director; the sci-fi films to come were mostly directed by hacks (Irving Pichel, Byron Haskin, et al.) and, aside from the involvement of Howard Hawks with The Thing, and the young Robert Wise’s original The Day the Earth Stood Still, a director of top reputation didn’t make a sci-fi film again until Kubrick did 2001. — 2/1/05

•••••

I screened Charles and I a movie I’d been curious about re-watching ever since last weekend’s Vintage Sci-Fi showing of Destination Moon and 2001: A Space Odyssey: Fritz Lang’s pioneering 1928 film Woman in the Moon (an odd title: the original German name is Frau im Mond, “im” can mean either “in” or “on,”  and Woman On the Moon would actually make more sense as an English translation of the German title). This time around it didn’t seem as good to me as it had when Charles and I first got the Kino on Video DVD (released in 2004 with a new synthesizer-and-guitar musical score — apparently, unlike the original scores Gottfried Hüppertz composed for Lang’s Die Nibelungen and Metropolis, the accompaniment actually composed for this film didn’t survive even though there’s an enigmatic credit on imdb.com for a song that supposedly appeared in this silent film and was sung by its leads, Gerda Maurus and Willy Fritsch, suggesting that the original prints presented it as a non-dialogue sound film but only the silent version survives) along with some other Lang material they released. The print quality of Woman in the Moon is excellent — either they had unusually good sources, the folks at Transit Film and the Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau Foundation did an especially good digital restoration, or both — but the Kino DVD is 169 minutes long and, quite frankly, this is a film that could have used some cutting. Indeed, what’s surprising about it is that very little of it is actually about the trip to the moon: it begins with a prologue that lasts nearly an hour and is about the skullduggery between the good guys — aircraft factory owner Wolf Helius (Willy Fritsch), his engineer Hans Windegger (Gustav von Wangenheim), and Windegger’s fiancée Friede Velten (Gerda Maurus), with whom Helius is in unrequited love; also Professor Georg Manfeldt (Klaus Pohl in a way overacted performance that makes Wallace Beery’s acting in a similar role in the 1925 The Lost World seem restrained by comparison), who’s spent 32  years working out his theory that humans not only can go to the moon but should because the moon’s mountains contain far more gold than those of earth — and the bad guys, a mysterious syndicate of businessmen represented by a character referred to in the credits as “The Man Who Calls Himself ‘William Turner’” and is played by Fritz Rasp. The syndicate wants either to take control of Helius’s moon rocket and grab the riches of the moon for themselves — they are shown at a secret meeting at which one of them insists that the moon’s wealth should belong to businessmen, not “intellectuals and visionaries” — or, failing that, to destroy it. Rasp is clean-shaven but his hair is combed down so far over his forehead it’s hard not to think that Lang deliberately meant the character’s appearance as a caricature of Adolf Hitler, who was five years from taking power in Germany when this film was made but was already a celebrity as the leader of a Right-wing political movement that got stronger every time the German economy got weaker. 

Just how much Lang’s departure from Germany when Hitler took over in 1933 was a principled statement against fascism (as he, of course, portrayed it) and how much was simple fear that the Nazis would discover he had a Jewish mother is something his biographers are still arguing over; it is known that when Lang made his two-part film of Die Nibelungen in 1923-24 he was publicly identified with the German Right, but later in the U.S. he was a financial supporter of various Left-wing causes and, if not outright blacklisted, was at least grey-listed: the man who in Germany in the 1920’s had made epic spectaculars like Die Nibelungen and Metropolis eked out a living in the U.S. in the 1950’s directing low-budget films noir while other directors (including fellow German expat Henry Koster, who’d established his reputation in the 1930’s with Deanna Durbin’s musicals but was out of his depth in big movies) got assignments like The Robe and The Virgin Queen. It’s also true that because Lang fled the Nazis while his wife, screenwriter Thea von Harbou, stayed and worked in the Nazi-controlled film industry, later critics have tended to give him credit for all the good aspects of their collaboration and blame the bad stuff — the sentimentality and almost child-like moralizing — on her. (Von Harbou also got a bad rep from the way Metropolis was cut up for years; since her name was on the screen as the writer, she got blamed for plot holes and dramatic lacunae that had been coherent and made sense in her original version but didn’t in the cut-down prints from Channing Pollock and others who mangled the original film.) For much of the first hour of Woman on the Moon we watch tales of greed and unscrupulous among Earthlings and wonder, “When will we get to the moon already?” Also, it’s surprising that these scenes are mostly photographed quite dully (though the cinematographer, Curt Courant, later worked with Alfred Hitchcock and did a magnificent job shooting the 1934 version of The Man Who Knew Too Much) and only an occasional shadowy, oblique, chiaroscuro composition reminds us that Lang, more than any other individual, invented film noir

Once we actually get to the moon rocket, which Helius has named Friede both because it’s the name of his crush object and it’s the German word for “peace,” the film is stunning not only in its visual acumen (even though the long shot of the factory and its environs is one of the most obvious models ever put on screen in a big-budget movie) but its scientific accuracy. Lang’s and von Harbou’s astronauts go to the moon in a multi-stage liquid-fueled rocket (just like their real-life counterparts did 41 years later), and this was the film for which Lang invented the countdown. He asked his scientific adviser, Dr. Hermann Oberth, how they signaled the launch of one of their experimental rockets. “We count from one to 10, and launch on 10,” Oberth told him. “That doesn’t sound very dramatic,” Lang said. Then an idea hit him; Lang told Oberth, “Why don’t we count backwards from 10, and launch on zero?” After Woman on the Moon came out, real rocket researchers started counting down the way Helius and his fellow astronauts do in the film, and eventually the countdown became one of the defining rituals of the space program. (Oberth and his uncredited colleague, Willy Ley, later worked as part of the team that developed the V-2 rocket weapon for the Nazis, then got to come to the U.S. after the war and work for NASA.) Even though this is a silent film, the countdown — with big numbers flashing as titles on the screen until zero is reached and the rocket goes up — is exciting and dramatic. The moon voyage itself is depicted more or less accurately, and Lang got his actors to look credible undergoing acceleration (the increase in gravity that makes going up into space a painful experience until escape velocity is reached). His depiction of weightlessness is a bit more hit-and-miss — though the Friede’s capsule comes equipped with leather straps, some hanging on the ceiling and some bolted to the floor, to give the astronauts something to hold on to so they don’t just float around the interior, there are all too many scenes of them walking normally in the spacecraft. Still, it’s nice to have at least one space-travel film from the silent era that acknowledged weightlessness instead of ignoring it completely like the Republic serials! 

Lang’s and von Harbou’s biggest scientific howler is their assumption that while the side of the moon visible from Earth had no atmosphere, the “dark side” not only had breathable air but ice — when they get to the moon Prof. Manfeldt first goes out in a spacesuit (which looks just like a diver’s outfit at the time and almost certainly was a diver’s outfit sent up from the UFA costume department, though it has a portable air tank two decades before Jacques Cousteau invented SCUBA and divers started carrying portable air tanks for real), then lights three matches and they catch fire and burn, indicating that that part of the moon, at least, has oxygen-containing air and people can move around in it without the encumbrance of spacesuits. Once the astronauts get to the moon, Manfeldt discovers a patch of bubbling mud that looks like a tar pit, the villain (who’d insisted on coming along or his fellow conspirators would sabotage the flight) gets conveniently eliminated, but then they discover that because the landing was rougher than they anticipated, one of the ship’s oxygen tanks ruptured and so they don’t have enough air to get everybody home. Wolf Helius makes the noble sacrifice to stay on the moon — in the final shot he’s surrounded by a lot of food boxes, indicating that he’ll have rations for a few months, though one wonders how he will continually resupply himself (unless he brought plant seeds and can grow food à la The Martian) unless there’s a steady stream of new moon rockets re-provisioning him. Also, like Destination Moon — a film that copied a lot from Woman on the Moon (the flight is funded by the private sector instead of the government, the investors are attracted with a film showing how the trip will be made, there’s a sinister attempt to sabotage the project, and in the end the big problem turns out to be how to get back from the moon due to the loss of a key component), so much so I suspect Robert Heinlein or someone else on George Pal’s writing committee had seen it and was deliberately copying it — there’s a major disappontment at the end in that we don’t see the moon rocket actually return to Earth. Instead there’s a scene in which Helius sees the rocket fly off and gets ready for his new life on the moon — and, in a scene which Charles thought anticipated the ending of Josef von Sternberg’s Morocco by two years, Friede turns out to have stayed behind as well and the two lock arms and lips for the final scene.

Woman on the Moon re-teamed Willy Fritsch and Gerda Maurus after Lang’s immediately previous film, Spies (a thriller which anticipated both Alfred Hitchcock and James Bond!), and according to Patrick McGilligan’s “black” biography of Lang — which was so nasty to him McGilligan could have called it Director Dearest — he said that Lang not only psychologically but physically abused Maurus during their two films together. Oddly, what comes across on the screen is an actress giving a diffident, restrained performance — Lang directed Maurus much the way Sternberg directed Marlene Dietrich in their famous series of films in the early 1930’s — and Maurus, with her close-cropped, wavy hair and androgynous appearance (she spends the last two-thirds of the film in pants) and her enigmatic demeanor, also seems to anticipate the “Hitchcock blonde” of his later films. Though at least one movie before Woman on the Moon attempted a serious, realistic depiction of space travel — the 1918 Danish film Himmekskibet (A Journey to Mars), which contained what looked like process shots almost a decade before Lang and Eugen Schufftan supposedly invented the process screen for Die Nibelungen and MetropolisWoman on the Moon set the template for virtually all films about serious travel from then on and got copied a lot — the 1936 Russian film Cosmic Voyage almost counts as a remake and copies from Woman on the Moon the pre-pubescent stowaway who sneaks aboard the moon rocket (a gimmick also used in quite a few Republic science-fiction serials). Woman on the Moon is often slow going, but the parts of it that do work — notably the central section, with its quite accurate depiction of how humans ultimately would get to the moon — more than make up for the parts that don’t. — 4/18/18



[1] — It’s even more amazing that he sustained his creativity despite the wrenching biographical and historical events of the time — his falling-out with UFA that kept him idle from 1928 to 1931 and the rise of the Nazis, which forced him into exile and put him through two dodgy periods of relocation, to France in 1933 and the U.S. two years later.

[2] Incidentally, Rasp — who was also in the cast of Spies as well — though clean-shaven, wears his hair plastered across the side of his forehead the way Adolf Hitler did. Though Patrick McGilligan has pretty much laid to rest the myth Lang fostered in later years that he’d always been a principled opponent of the Nazis, it’s still startling to look at a film from the late Weimar era and see a villain with an apparently deliberate resemblance to Hitler.

Monday, April 16, 2018

57th Annual Academy of Country Music Awards (Dick Clark Productions, CBS-TV, aired April 15, 2018)

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

Our main “feature” last night was the Academy of Country Music (ACM) Awards, the rump country-music “awards” show created by the late Dick Clark (and still owned by his production company — the person is dead but the corporate “person” lives on!) and headquartered in Las Vegas, whereas the “real” country-music awards, the County Music Association (CMA) awards, are in country’s home town, Nashville, Tennessee. (There was a nice joke from host Reba McIntire that noted that no fewer than three of the nominees are about to have children — Chris Stapleton, last night’s big winner and the fat, homely schlub who keeps beating all the cute guys in tight jeans — I’ve called him the Bruce Vilanch of country music — wasn’t there because his wife was about to give birth to twins — McIntire noted that three of the nominees were about to have kids and said, “What happens in Vegas comes out in Nashville nine months later.”) Hosting a major country-music event in Las Vegas right now, just a few days past the six-month anniversary of a mass shooting at a country-music festival there, was a dodgy enterprise to say the least, and curiously the producers of the ACM’s decided, instead of beginning the evening with a suitably “inspirational” song commemorating the event, to have the various stars (or about five of them) just give speeches at the start. The actual first song — Kenny Chesney’s “Can’t We All Get Along?” — referenced the massacre only obliquely. It was a nice song, and Chesney did it tastefully even though he’s visibly getting a little too long in the tooth for the torn T-shirt and tight jeans bit, but one might have hoped for something a little more, uh, appropriate for the opener.

Then Maren Morris, one of my favorite modern singer and who was nominated for two duet records in the preposterously titled category “Best Vocal Event” (which seems to be for duets between people who don’t ordinarily sing together — I’d been hoping it would be won by Willie Nelson and the late Glen Campbell, but it wasn’t), came out with a song called “Rich” that seemed awfully similar to Lorde’s star-making hit “Royals” — it’s hardly a patch on her marvelous “My Church,” the song I heard her do on a previous ACM and which made me an instant fan, but it’s still good and showcases those amazing white-soul pipes of hers. (She’d be my current favorite to do a biopic of Janis Joplin, though Carrie Underwood — of all people — seemed to be trying to outdo her in the Joplin-redux department: more on that later.) Next up was a song called “We’re Not Losing Sleep” by a heavy-set guy named Chris Young, and it was workmanlike and professional — terms that cover my reaction to a lot of the music performed on this show — as were the next two songs on the program, “Meant to Be” by Bebe Ruska with Florida Georgia Line (which seemed to be called “Meant to Be” only because the song’s actual catch line, “Let it be,” already got used as a title by someone else) and Brett Young doing a nicely diffident country love song called “In Case You Didn’t Know.” Charles was irritated at how little all this music sounded like what he thinks of as country — and I can see his point; most modern-day “country” has its roots in the sound we who lived through the 1970’s called “Southern rock,” owing more to the Allman Brothers and Lynyrd Skynyrd than to Hank Williams and Johnny Cash, and Charles joked, “How would you feel if you turned on a jazz show and all it was was rock with a few bits for saxophones?” (Actually there is quite a lot of that sort of thing out there; it emerged in the 1970’s as “fusion music” and now is called “smooth jazz.”)

The show periodically broke from the present to celebrate its history — specifically 1993, 25 years ago — and one of the songs from a quarter-century ago they hauled out and refurbished was a piece called “Chattahoochee” (don’t hold me to that spelling!), done as a duet between the original artist, Alan Jackson (no longer a hot male apparition in tight blue jeans but still a quite good-looking man), and current artist John Pardi. Not only did “Chattahoochee” sound like a traditional country song, powered by pedal steel guitar and fiddle, Jackson and Pardi even dressed like old-school country artists, with those hilariously campy Nudie Cohen clothes and, in Pardi’s case, a guitar strap with his last name embossed on it in leather. Then Lady Antebellum came out and blessedly did a song on which their woman, Hillary Scott, sang lead; it was called “Heart Break” — two words — and was quite lovely (and as politically incorrect as their name is — when they first emerged I joked, “What are they going to call their album — Slavery Was Cool?” — I like them, especially when Scott sings lead and the two men, Charles Kelley and Dave Haywood, just sing backup). Next was Dierks Bentley doing a peculiar song called “Woman Amen” which uses all the Black gospel chords to proclaim his worship of the female gender and the various members of it that have been significant in his life. Afterwards came Blake Shelton, whom I usually don’t like (for reasons not the least of which is because this homely, mediocre talent somehow has got two great woman singer-songwriters of far more charisma and appeal to fall in love with him — first Miranda Lambert and now Gwen Stefani), but who did a quite good song called “I Lived It,” saying basically that he at least formerly lived the scapegrace life he’s described in his songs. Then there were a couple of duets, one called “What If?” by Lee Brown and Loren Alaima and one called “Coming Home” by Keith Urban and Julia Michaels — and two solo spots for Kelsea Ballerini (a quite clever piece of material called “I Hate Love Songs”— the conceit is that she may hate love songs but she loves the person she’s singing the song to — for which she was lowered to the stage, Pink-style, in a giant heart) and Jason Aldean (a more generic love song called “You Make It Easy”).

Then came one of the high points of the evening, Miranda Lambert doing “Keeper of the Flame,” apparently one of the songs from the In the Wee Small Hours-style breakup album she did after she and Shelton parted ways (and I noticed the diplomacy of the people behind the ACM Awards to book their appearances about an hour apart), after which Little Big Town did the same cover of Elton John’s “Rocket Man” we’d previously heard them do on the Elton John tribute special I’m Still Standing. “It’s O.K. but it doesn’t really add anything,” said Charles, and I entirely agreed (even though it’s nice to have lyricist Bernie Taupin on record as saying the song was inspired by a Ray Bradbury short story called “The Rocket Man” and meant exactly what the lyrics say, and was not a veiled reference to drugs). Then came another of the 1993 tributes, Toby Keith (who headlined at President Trump’s inaugural gala after most bigger stars turned the gig down) and Blake Shelton duetting on “Should Have Been a Cowboy.” (As I once remember pointing out to a roommate, the job “cowboy” still exists — it’s someone who’s responsible for keeping cattle in line on cattle drives — and the only real difference between modern-day cowboys and the ones of Western legend is that instead of riding horses, the modern ones drive trucks.) After that came a vocal group called Midland doing their hit song “Drinking Problem,” which was O.K. but too close to the sort of country song people who don’t like country music make fun of. (I once told Charles the old joke, “What do you get when you play a country song backwards? You get your job back, your car back, your house back, your wife back, and you sober up” — to which Charles replied, “Yeah, and your mother and your dog come back to life.”) Then came a sensational soul performance by Carrie Underwood, belting out a song called “Cry Pretty” that had precious little to do with country music — it was pretty obviously modeled on Garnet Mimms’ hit “Cry Baby,” especially as covered (and transformed) by Janis Joplin on her third album, Kozmik Blues — but was electrifying, especially when Underwood started doing Janis-like moves with her voice. Like Miley Cyrus’s “The Bitch Is Back” on the Elton John special, Underwood’s was a powerful piece of soul singing from a singer I didn’t realize had it in her.

Then it was pretty much downhill: vocal duo Dan and Shea did a song called “Tequila” that was basically country-lite, without the boozy appeal of the Champs’ old instrumental of the same title; Darius Rucker, who’s sort of the Florence Foster Jenkins of modern-day pop (dorkily incompetent but charming in his ineptitude) did a song called “The First Time,” Thomas Rhett in quite a nice reworking of the the-partner-I-want-is-marrying-someone-else trope called “Marry Me” (as in “she wants to get married, but she won’t marry me,” illustrated with clips from the video for it, which show the guy she is marrying), Luke Bryan with “Most People Are Good” (which had the interesting sentiment for a country song that you should “love whom you want and not feel ashamed” — even the country audience has moved forward on our issues; I can remember how Garth Brooks got raked over the coals for a similar sentiment nearly a quarter-century ago in “We Shall Be Free” — “when we’re free to love anyone we choose”), Lauren Alaina doing a nice feature called “Doin’ Fine,” a third 1993 revival featuring Reba McIntire duetting with Kelly Clarkson on Reba’s “Does He Love You?” (which might have worked better if they’d rewritten the song so Reba sang the part of the jilted lover and Clarkson the part of the girl he jilted her for), and a finale (most of it heard over the credits) with Chris Jensen doing a song called “Redneck Life” that almost qualified as country-punk: its gravamen is, “I didn’t choose a redneck life/Redneck life chose me,” though Jensen looks considerably less like a redneck than a cross between a beatnik and a punk, dressed in casual all-black clothes, with tousled hair and a fiercely protective mien. I couldn’t help but think that if he’d been born and raised in Britain, Jensen would be singing nasty songs about the Queen!

Sunday, April 15, 2018

Vintage Sci-Fi Screening, April 14, 2018: “Destination Moon” (Eagle-Lion, 1950) & “2001” (MGM, 1968)

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

Last night’s Vintage Sci-Fi film screening (http://sdvsf.org/http://sdvsf.org/) was billed as “Ground-Breaking Science Fiction!” and contained two movies that stood above the common rut of sci-fi films then and now: including the 1950 Eagle-Lion release Destination Moon and Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 masterpiece, 2001: A Space Odyssey. I’ve not only seen both these films several times but have previously posted notices on them to this blog, Destination Moon at https://moviemagg.blogspot.com/2016/06/destination-moon-george-pal.html and 2001 at https://moviemagg.blogspot.com/2017/05/2001-space-odyssey-kubrick.html, so I’ll just be brief here. Destination Moon was produced by George Pal, directed by Irving Pichel (usually known as an actor but the co-director with Ernest B. Schoedsack of the first version of Richard Connell’s story “The Most Dangerous Game” in 1932) and written by Alfred “Rip” Van Ronkel, Robert A. Heinlein and James O’Hanlon based on a novel by Heinlein. That’s how the names appear in the credits, but it’s clear this is really a Schreiber rather than an auteur movie and the Schreiber is Heinlein — who, according to “Trivia” posters on imdb.com, worked on no fewer than five versions of this material: two novels, Rocketship Galileo and The Man Who Sold the Moon, a short story called “Destination Moon” which a science-fiction pulp magazine published in connection with the film, the film script itself and a radio adaptation of it. Heinlein’s Right-wing Libertarian politics are very much in evidence throughout this movie, from the assertion that going to the moon is too big a job for the government and only private enterprise can handle it to the dark hints that if the U.S. isn’t the first country to get to the moon, a sinister, unnamed (but obviously, in a 1950 Cold War context, the Soviet Union) foreign power will get there first and will be able to rain down missiles on us in space attacks we’ll be helpless to stop. (The simultaneously filmed Rocketship X-M can be read less as a cheap ripoff of Destination Moon and more as a politically progressive response film to it — something I thought even before I learned that blacklisted Communist writer Dalton Trumbo had made one of his uncredited sub rosa contributions to its script.)

I’ve had an odd relationship with Destination Moon over the years; I remember watching it with my late roommate/home-care client John P. on TV and both of us were startled that the film was actually in color; we’d each seen it (separately) before, but only on black-and-white TV’s. (Destination Moon is often cited as the first science-fiction film ever made in color, which is true only if you don’t count the 1932 Doctor “X,” shot in two-strip Technicolor and usually classed as a horror film, though it’s about a group of scientists doing advanced research and the horror comes from one of their discoveries going terribly awry.) One of our regular attendees hailed Destination Moon as the first “serious” science-fiction film that attempted a realistic (as realistic as the scientific knowledge available at the time it was made could be, anyway) depiction of space flight — this gentleman also mentioned that he’d once driven astronaut Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin around at a convention, thereby putting the rest of us one degree of separation from someone who really had gone to the moon and set foot on its surface. Sorry, but Fritz Lang’s Woman on the Moon, from 22 years earlier, got there first: Lang had the assistance of two technical advisors who later worked on the Nazis’ rocket program and still later on the U.S. space program, Hermann Oberth and an uncredited Willy Ley, and they explained everything to him, including acceleration (the increase in gravity that occurs as a rocket nears escape velocity) and weightlessness (Lang and his writer, his then-wife Thea von Harbou, posited that the floor of their spacecraft would be studded with leather straps into which the astronauts could insert their feet so they could walk normally in a weightless environment; in Destination Moon the astronauts wore magnetized shoes and in 2001: A Space Odyssey they used Velcro grip shoes). Woman on the Moon was also the film for which Fritz Lang invented the countdown: he asked Oberth how they knew when to launch their experimental rockets. “We just count from one to 10, and launch on 10,” Oberth said. “That doesn’t seem very dramatic,” Lang answered — and then the director hit on counting backwards and having the launch be at zero. (Woman on the Moon was a silent film, but the launch countdown — shown with numbers flashing on the screen — is still quite dramatic and powerful.) About the only scientific howler Lang, von Harbou and his advisers committed was positing that there would be pockets of human-breathable air on the moon so that the astronauts — Lang’s romantic-lead couple, anyway — could stay behind and live out their lives there.

I found myself liking Destination Moon last night better than I have before. It’s still a creepily fascistic movie — and I probably was more aware of those elements than I would have been if I hadn’t seen it right after a Mars movie night in which the main feature was Starship Troopers: Traitor of Mars, another film with its origins (however dim) in something Robert Heinlein wrote. One surprise about Destination Moon is that there are virtually no women in the dramatis personae (later space-travel films like Rocketship X-M usually included at least one, if only to provide a romantic interest for the lead): just Erin O’Brien-Moore (the interesting actress who played Humphrey Bogart’s clueless wife in the 1937 social-comment melodrama Black Legion, and played her beautifully) doing nothing but one scene in which she pledges to stand by and wait for her husband to come home from his moon trip, and if he doesn’t come home to remain faithful to his memory. Destination Moon isn’t one of those science-fiction films that offers any real human emotion, nor does it have the sort of doomed romanticism of Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles written about the same time — but then Heinlein and Bradbury ended up at opposite poles of sci-fi fan debates throughout the 1950’s and 1960’s over militarism, technology, the Cold War and eventually Viet Nam (at one famous science-fiction convention in 1968 the two introduced competing resolutions on the Viet Nam war, with Heinlein’s supporting it and Bradbury’s opposed), but on its own terms it’s quite well done and one can readily imagine how its combination of technological supremacism and American patriotism (and a bit of Ayn Randianism in the pathetic attempt of a little man with a moustache to stop the moon rocket from blasting off via a court order, which Heinlein clearly wants us to see in Randian terms as one of those pesky little takers trying to assert himself against the MAKERS) struck a chord with 1950 audiences. My favorite story about Destination Moon doesn’t have anything to do with the film itself: it seems that before George Pal produced it at Eagle-Lion he had offered it to Paramount, who had been bankrolling his one-reel “Puppetoon” shorts. They turned it down, so Pal got Eagle-Lion to finance it — and as it turned out, the theatre Eagle-Lion engaged for its opening run in New York City was two blocks away from the Paramount building, so the “suits” at Paramount could look out their windows and see moviegoers literally lining up for blocks to see the movie they had turned down.

The other film on last night’s program was Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 masterpiece 2001: A Space Odyssey, easily the greatest science-fiction film ever made and arguably the greatest film ever made, period. I vividly remember seeing it three times in 1968 at the Cinerama Theatre in San Francisco (and now regretting that never again will anyone be able to see this film that way, even though by the time 2001 was filmed the original three-camera Cinerama process had been superseded and “Cinerama” merely meant one camera using double-wide 70-millimeter film — Kubrick and his effects technicians, Douglas Trumbull (who worked out the “psychedelic” shots in the film’s famous finale and got credit) and John Dykstra (who built the spaceship models, and didn’t), already had a hard enough time working out the effects (including having to change the Discovery’s destination from Saturn to Jupiter when building Saturn’s rings convincingly turned out to be too difficult) and one shudders to think what they would have gone through trying to do them in three-camera Cinerama. 2001 is a film I can’t be objective about; I’ve been in love with it since I first saw it at age 14 and this time around I basically just sat back with an awestruck look on my face and let Kubrick’s masterpiece wash over me. I still can’t believe that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences did not even nominate 2001 for Best Picture — at least Citizen Kane got nominated! That shocked me in 1969 and it still saddens me that not only did 2001 not get the Best Picture award it thoroughly deserved but Kubrick did not win Best Director (he did win an award for the effects work in 2001 that, ironically, was the only Academy Award he ever got even though it was his technicians Turnbull and Dykstra who deserved it) and Douglas Rain did not win Best Actor for his utterly chilling performance as the voice of HAL. (After the screening, the proprietor told me that Rain had given an interview in which he said he spent only two days recording the voice of HAL — and that’s the only part of his career anybody remembered or wanted to ask him about. That puts him in the same class as Fay Wray, who in her later years complained that she’d had a major role in Erich von Stroheim’s The Wedding March and had played opposite Gary Cooper and other “A”-list stars of the late 1920’s and early 1930’s, and all anyone ever wanted to interview her about was her role screaming at a giant ape in King Kong.) One thing that amazes me about 2001 was that Kubrick was the first major director to attempt a science-fiction film since Fritz Lang had made Woman in the Moon 40 years earlier (unless you count Robert Wise, who wasn’t that highly regarded when he made the original The Day the Earth Stood Still in 1951 but became a major Hollywood figure later), and it’s something of a surprise that not until George Lucas and Steven Spielberg scored with the genre in the 1970’s has it become de rigueur for virtually every filmmaker seeking a blockbuster reputation to do science-fiction at least once.