Monday, April 11, 2016


Christmas day -- all is calm, all is bright in the Fairfield home. Divorcee Margaret Fairfield is looking forward to her marriage to Gray Meredith. Meanwhile, her daughter Sydney is planning her marriage to Kit Pumphery. 

Then Margaret's ex-husband (and Sydney's father) Hilary drops by after escaping from the local lunatic asylum. And you think your holiday reunions are a pain.

Remembered solely as Katharine Hepburn's movie debut, A Bill of Divorcement is one of those rarely-screened "classics" that had a high pedigree back in the day, but is now creakier than a door that hasn't been oiled in 400 years.

It didn't have to be this way. Having been locked up in the cracker factory for 15 years, John Barrymore (as Hilary) makes his entrance to his former home with a look of confusion, excitement and wonder, without any dialogue to telegraph his thoughts. It's quite a moving moment. And, with few exceptions, it's also the last time anybody in the picture appears to be on speaking terms with the word "subtlety."

They look like they'd have
crazy kids even without
the insanity gene.
The story is actually fairly interesting. Sydney, having never met her father, is under the belief that Hilary's mind was destroyed by shell shock during World War I. She only learns (in a "shocking" Act III reveal) that he carried the insanity gene all along -- as does she.

Faster than you say "lithium," Sydney breaks up with Kit (because who wants crazy offspring?) before urging Margaret and Gray to elope. Sydney and Hilary will live together in happy insanity. 

Oh, and did I mention nothing makes sense in A Bill of Divorcement? Forty-seven year-old Billie Burke plays 34 year-old Margaret. Hepburn, 25, is supposed to be 19. Everyone speaks with American accents (since they're all American actors), only it isn't until about 20 minutes before the climax that we learn we're in a London suburb. And what's with Hilary and Sydney having names usually associated with the opposite sex? And what the hell kind of names are Kit and Gray? 

Barrymore wins the battle of the profiles.
Still, nothing is weirder than the climax -- Sydney and her dad sit down at the piano to finish a sonata he started composing before the War, looking less like father and daughter than a married couple looking forward to some hot times together. Interestingly, it's the only time that Hepburn -- who, as usual, possesses all the warmth of a woolly mammoth preserved in an iceberg -- shows any real emotion.

While A Bill of Divorcement's script is problematic, the ultimate blame must go to director George Cukor, whose instructions to every actor seems to have been, "More histrionics!" The leading stars ratchet up the melodrama as if they're playing to the back row in a theater for the hard of hearing (not to mention hard of thinking). Only David Manners, as Sydney's fiance Kit, skips the ham. 

"You don't mind if I have a better
look, do you?"
The low point, without doubt, is Hilary on his knees, emotionally blackmailing Margaret to take him back now that he's "cured." I have a feeling Barrymore knew the claptrap he was involved in, and decided to roll with it. 

There must have been a big audience for A Bill of Divorcement. Originally a 1921 Broadway play, it was produced as a silent movie a year later. Following the 1932 release, it was remade in 1940. A live television version aired on Kraft Theater in 1949. 

That's fewer bills of divorcements than you'd find in one Hollywood family. But far more Bill of Divorcement's than anybody needs.


Wednesday, August 12, 2015

MANIAC (a/ka SEX MANIAC) (1934)

When the great horror movies of the 1930s are talked about, Maniac is nowhere in sight. This is an unfair omission. Not that Maniac is up there with Island of Lost Souls. Its budget was probably in the mid three-figures, its actors either incompetent or more over the top than Donald Trump's hair, and its dialogue written by someone under the influence of some particularly bad synthetic marijuana.

All of these supposed negatives, however, make Maniac disturbing on more levels than has Candy Crush. The work of self-styled auteur Dwain Esper, Maniac was shown exclusively in "adults only" grindhouses and, when those weren't available, tents set up outside of city limits. That's what nudity, insanity and animal abuse will do to a movie's distribution.

Maniac rips off Frankenstein and several Edgar Allan Poe stories while still managing to be altogether unique. Dr. Meirschultz, a mad scientist (is there any other kind?) is working on a technique to bring the dead back to life. His assistant, Don Maxwell, is a former vaudevillian on the run from the police for unknown reasons. It would seem, however, he's wanted for impersonating a good actor.

Maxwell strikes a blow for every
overworked employee in America.
Meirschultz is able to revive a suicide victim, who now walks around his house like a negligee-clad zombie. But what he really wants is someone with a "shattered heart." (Like all mad scientists, he's got a fresh, beating heart inside a Mason jar on his table.) Meirschultz suggests Maxwell kill himself in order to be brought back to life. Maxwell counters this intriguing proposition by shooting him

"Hey, look what I found!"
Since Maxwell naturally keeps his stage make-up kit in the lab among the hypos and beating hearts, he's able to pass himself off as his late boss. But once he gives an insane patient named Buckley a shot of "super adrenaline" (launching the funniest/creepiest transformation scene in movie history), Maxwell realizes that there's more to being a mad scientist than powdered hair, spirit gum and a Bela Lugosi-accent. 

Buckley kidnaps the zombie femme and, in a sop to the more demanding audiences of 1934, shows his love by undressing her before grabbing her by the throat. We never learn what becomes of them, but I don't think it was a honeymoon in Bora Bora.

Toss in Maxwell's ex-wife, an inheritance, and a sloppy climactic fight between two women who think the other's insane, and you've got a 50-minute movie that stands the test of time, even while most people today can't stand it.

Remember the Republican debate?
Maniac attempts to be a serious take on mental health issues by occasionally describing the actions we're witnessing. Accompanied by queasy violins, these onscreen analyses are to make you feel less guilty for watching a tasteless melodrama aimed at ticket-buyers -- men, mostly -- who couldn't get their hands on porn. 

"Excuse me while I consult with
my colleagues."
If the audience found words like "dementia praecox" beyond their ken, however, they received visual cues whenever Meirschultz or Maxwell go on their insane rants. From out of nowhere, images of smoke, hypnotic hands and laughing devils (stolen from a silent movie) appear to let us know that something isn't right in Maniac Land. Next time your doctor starts giving a rundown of what's wrong with you, picture him or her like the guy on the left.

This is what drove grandpa wild back
in the day.
A brief scene featuring Maxwell's wife and her friends exists only as an excuse for a bunch of women (I hesitate to use the word "actresses") to parade around ungracefully in their underwear. In addition to being utterly inept, they all wear furry, high-heeled slippers, an item of clothing I've never seen anywhere except old exploitation movies like this. What was hot stuff in 1934 is just icky now.

An eye for an eye for a cat.
The ambient sounds on Maniac's soundtrack -- a noisy camera? air conditioner? -- can't hide the priceless dialogue, which reaches a peak in the movie's most notorious scene. Maxwell, by now in the depths of paranoia, is convinced that a black cat has the "gleam" of the devil in its eye. As the cat appears to be tossed across the set by an off-camera stagehand, Maxwell gives chase. Finally catching his prey, Maxwell squeezes out its left eye and, holding it to the light, proclaims, "It's not unlike an oyster or a grape!" before giddily chowing it down. 

To make the scene that much more realistic, a one-eyed stunt cat was used for the close-up. You can only picture the want-ad Esper put in the trades: "ONE-EYED CAT NEEDED. MUST NOT MIND HAVING GLASS EYE VIOLENTLY SQUEEZED OUT OF ITS SOCKET." That the two cats don't look a thing alike is secondary. Show it any CGI-drugged audience today and watch 'em gag.

Satisfied customers leave L.A.'s Gayety Theatre during
Maniac's original 1934 run. Note the added attraction
of onstage "SEX MODELS."
Even among fans of the strange or bizarre, Maniac is an acquired taste, despite playing the grindhouse circuit into the early 1970s. It's too weird to be simply sniffed at as "bad," too ugly to show to unprepared audiences, and way too politically incorrect to run at college film festivals. (I didn't even mention the brief subplot involving a guy who skins cats for a living.) Nobody actually enjoys Maniac in the accepted definition of the word. At best, most viewers sit there in slack-jawed disbelief, as if they're watching a living nightmare. 

Circulating prints, however, are in surprisingly good shape -- a little scratchy, but otherwise quite sharp for an indie movie over 80 years old. At least somebody cared to preserve it.

And it's educational, too. Thanks to one of the onscreen diagnoses -- "failure of memory, poor retention, and failure on the part of the patient to curb his primitive tendencies" -- I learned I had paresis. Thanks, doc!


The original 1934 trailer for Maniac. If you can't watch it, go here. It will make thy blood to creep. Honest, it says so!

Thursday, August 6, 2015


The Devil's Sleep is a good example of a grindhouse movie of its time. (I use the word "good" advisedly.) On its surface a "hard-hitting" drama about "the sleeping pill racket", it is, in reality, an exploitation picture taking advantage of its "adults only" warning by tossing around drug slang along with a couple of instances of nudity. 

I mean, look at that poster. One devil and two "teenage" girls in bikinis are the selling point. On the lower left is what looks like an Alka-Seltzer in a glass of water. Did anyone buy a ticket to The Devil's Sleep to get a serious discourse on drug abuse?

But there are lectures a-plenty, alright, from Judge Rosalind Ballentine, Inspector Darnell and Detective Sergeant Dave Kerrigan. It seems the local teens are downing bennies and goofies like Necco Wafers. While Judge Ballentine is rightfully appalled, she doesn't put the blame entirely on the kids: "The teenagers of the new generation grew up in a time of nerves: newspaper screaming headlines of race riots, revolution, earthquake -- back of it all, speed. Everyone rushing nowhere to get nowhere, and for no reason." Was this thing shot in 1949 or 2015?

If this guy spent as much time on
studying as his wardrobe, he
wouldn't still be in high school
at the age of 27.
Kerrigan convinces his girlfriend's younger brother, Bob, to rat out  his friends who seem to be riding on the Phenobarbital Express, eventually asking him to go undercover by getting a job in the drug ring. Sure, all cops put high-schoolers in physical danger in order to break a case. Police have better things to do than investigating crime themselves.

Kids these days, hunh?
Conveniently, Bob is currently dating Margie Ballentine, the Judge's daughter. While unwittingly attending a party at the pusher's house -- hey, it can happen! -- someone slips a goofie into Margie's drink, where she winds up falling naked into the swimming pool. Again, it can happen! 

A little more obvious than an iPhone.
One of the pusher's goons takes a compromising picture of Margie au naturel to blackmail the crusading judge. We're supposed to be aghast at this breach of morality, while being treated to a couple of juicy close-ups of the photo -- a typical grindhouse example of cognitive dissonance that didn't seem to bother anybody at the time, probably because they didn't know what it meant.

Ladies, would you go to a gym run by
these guys?
The leader of the drug ring, Humberto Scalli (gee, I wonder what his ethnic heritage is) uses a woman's gym as his cover, where his overweight clients are also hooked to his "weight-reducing" pills. As his sidekick says, "Those blimps really line your pockets!" Scalli is equally subtle, remarking, "I gotta laugh. They're like trained elephants -- give them a pill and send them on their way." The bit players who were the target of this witty repartee must have loved appearing in this movie. 

"Don't be like me, kids, or you'll wind
up looking like a drag queen."
Many exploitation movies of the '40s and early '50s tried to attract attention by casting familiar names to make their two-bit -- make that one-bit -- productions look more important. The Devil's Sleep offers Lita Grey Chaplin as Judge Ballentine. It's a little rich to see her playing Miss Morality, considering she was knocked up at age 16 by 35 year-old Charlie Chaplin, who was then obliged to marry her -- a union that ended with an incredibly ugly divorce before her 20th birthday. The Devil's Sleep was her final attempt at show business immortality, after decades of third-rate vaudeville houses, where here defining talent was... being Charlie Chaplin's ex-wife.

Wake up, doc!
Then there's John Mitchum, whose older brother, Robert, was already a red-hot movie star. Despite sharing the same parentage, John lacks his sibling's looks, charisma, talent, and whatever else you relate to Robert Mitchum. During his one scene as a doctor, John not only can't keep his eyes off the cue cards, he pronounces "barbiturate" as "barbitooit." Er, thanks, doc, I think I'll go for a second opinion...

Can't he read? No, probably not.
Presumably as eye candy for what few women put down good money for The Devil's Sleep, George Eiferman, aka Mr. America of 1948, appears as himself, taking a job as an instructor at Scalli's gym. Sounding like he's downed a couple of goofballs, Eiferman is even less convincing as himself than John Mitchum is as a doctor. In the least realistic scene in a movie filled with them, he eventually finds the stash of pills by breaking a padlock off a locker with one hand. 

You gotta admit, he's a got a great head of hair.
The Devil's Sleep real star, though, is the legendary Timothy Farrell as Humberto Scalli, a character he played in two other low budget shockers, Dance Hall Racket and Racket Girls. (Starting to see a pattern?) But he's known best as being Robert De Niro to Ed Wood's Martin Scorcese in Glen or Glenda, Jail Bait and The Violent Years. A court bailiff when he wasn't appearing in fly-by-night pictures, Farrell brings a strange piquancy to all his roles. There's no way he could have made it in real movies -- he's only slightly less wooden than a totem pole -- but there's something undeniably hypnotic about him. And whether he's playing a pusher, shrink, cop, or (gulp) gynecologist, you always wonder if he was as sleazy in real life as he is onscreen. 

The Devil's Sleep, like many of its ilk, probably turned up occasionally in Times Square theatres into the  '60s, angering patrons who were looking for real adult entertainment. Today, of course, it's best enjoyed with the mind-altering substance of your choice, an irony that its more wised-up participants wouldn't find surprising. 


Friday, June 26, 2015


Unlike other spy movies of the '60s, The Defector takes a serious look at the quiet drudgery and danger of international espionage. Physicist John Bower is blackmailed by the CIA to enter East Germany in order to pick up microfilm from a disgruntled Russian scientist. Peter Heinzmann, a physicist working for the Stasi, is assigned to tail Bower -- a man whose work he respects -- in order to get the microfilm first. When the Russian scientist is murdered -- and the microfilm proves worthless -- Heinzamann is ordered to get Bower to defect to East Germany. With the help of a young woman named Frieda, Bower manages to escape to the West -- but the Stasi has one more trick up its sleeve.

The Defector -- a French production shot in Germany -- lingers in the mind, but for mainly the wrong reasons. It's an interesting but slow picture, picking up steam only in the final 30 minutes or so, when Bower tries escaping enemy hands. The story is certainly interesting -- I have a feeling it's a more accurate snapshot of the spy game than the James Bond movies -- but that's not what gives The Defector its cachet.

How do you say "Yikes!" in German?
No, that would be Montgomery Clift's final performance as Bower. Looking less like Tom Cruise as he did in I Confess, the 45 year-old Clift now resembles the drunken, decimated Buster Keaton in the latter's final M-G-M talkies. You can't help but gasp at his first close-up. Once the handsomest actor in movies, he now appears more haunted than the house in The Amityville Horror, the victim of a near-fatal car crash a decade earlier, followed by a constant intake of booze and pills. Food? What's food?

Yet, as if capitalizing on his physical downward spiral, Clift is an ideal choice as the accidental spy. This is no Sean Connery, but an isolated, sickly man who takes the job only to keep his government research grants coming. At no time do you ever think he could fight his way out of a situation. In fact, having him shot at point-blank range would seem a blessing.

Hardy Kruger is caught between a cop
and a hard place.
As Heinzamann, Hardy Kruger gives the Stasi operative a humanity missing from other spy movies of the day. Like Bower, Heinzamann is blackmailed by his handler to complete the job. They're two of a kind, even if the German is in better physical condition. He actually likes Bower and would rather see him return safely home than to get stuck on the wrong side of the Berlin Wall -- even if they could make beautiful research together in East Germany.

Oddly, he looks better on acid.

Judging by the one-sheet atop this page, The Defector's American release downplayed Clift's involvement (it was his first movie in four years), while trying to sell it as something similar to the trippy Roger Corman movies coming into vogue, thanks to one scene where Bower is slipped some acid. As if the drug was necessary; from the moment Bower arrives in Leipzig, his paranoia increases under the constant state-run surveillance, where even a visit to a doctor might mean life or death for all involved.

The Defector is dated in many ways -- the microfilm is said to determine if the USSR will get to the moon before the USA, a problem charmingly naive compared to today's international crises -- but is refreshing for its almost utter lack of "excitement". Today's spy movies replace genuine drama with CGI, impossibly handsome undercover agents, and allegedly-clever one-liners. The Defector's biggest action sequence is a power boat blowing up in the last reel. 

This is an action star?
Yet Bower's climactic escape -- by bike, foot, and boat -- makes for more genuine excitement than any Mission Impossible movie, because you wonder just how the hell Montgomery Clift survived any physical exertion outside of breathing. Disguised as farmer, Clift looks more like a concentration camp survivor.

No, I don't think so.
Perhaps that's why a love scene depicted in one of The Defector's lobby cards is nowhere to be seen in the final cut. The idea of a naked Clift in bed with a cute 26 year-old woman is just too much to take.

Clift's death (from "occlusive coronary artery disease") four months before The Defector's American release probably doomed what little success it might have achieved. The actor's sickly aura hangs over the movie like a human car wreck, keeping your attention even when the pace slackens and you wonder just where the story's going. Like his fellow method actor Marlon Brando in the twilight of his career, Clift just had to show up to make a project interesting.


Tuesday, May 12, 2015


The 69-minute long Are We Civilized? opens with all the hallmarks of a '30s independent production with big ideas and little money. A cast credit promising an epic (starring "Many thousands of soldiers, sailors and peasants"); a narcissist for a director whose signature that takes up half the screen ("Personally Directed by Edmund Carewe" -- thanks for showing up on the set, Ed!); and a "special score" performed by The Manhattan Symphony Orchestra of New York (not to be confused with Manhattan, Kansas). 

"Say, I remember you before you were a
fascist pig!"
In an unnamed European country, newspaper publisher Paul Franklin, Jr. is visited by his father, who, since World War I, has led a successful life in the USA. Under the direction of Gen. Bockner, the head of the Censorship Bureau, Junior's home is soon ransacked both for his newspaper's insistence on publishing the truth, and Senior's incendiary radio broadcast condemning the fascist government. Senior attempts to mend Bockner's ways.

Older than the real thing.
And it's at this point Are We Civilized? starts to show its sorry budgetary restrictions. Paul Sr. gives Bockner and his stormtrooper buddies a half-hour lecture on world history, illustrated for us by old silent movie clips. (Over a decade later, this cost-cutting trick was used in The White Gorilla.) Accompanied by a score that sounds like a bad mix of "Rhapsody in Blue" and The Twilight Zone, we start with primordial ooze before claymation dinosaurs start battling it out. A caveman figuring out how to draw leads to a discussion of Moses, Buddha, Confucius, Julius Caesar, Jesus and Mohammed. (I don't know why ISIS is all in a tizzy about portraying ol' Mo, since he appears to be a good-looking rascal.) 

"Wait, don't go, I'm only up to 14th century!"
During this time, Paul Sr. is completely oblivious that his son is currently getting the shit beat out of him by an angry mob outside the front door. But no matter -- there's still Napoleon, the Civil War, steamboats and automobiles to talk about. And as for all that footage from silent movies and newsreels -- copyright, shmopyright! They've gotta do something to pad this thing out.

"Comment ai-je ici?"
For its weird detour into history -- lasting almost half its running time -- Are We Civilized? is also remarkably prescient of a second world war, while Paul Sr.'s description of the Depression rings true today: "Destitute, homeless, hopeless men, women and children, bewildered in their pitiful distress," thanks to society allowing Wall Street shenanigans to run unchecked. (Former silent leading man William Farnum bellows his occasionally-overwrought dialogue as you'd expect from an actor born in 1876.) 

William Farnum (right)
with screenwriter Harold
Director Edmund Carewe and writer Harold Sherman clearly had a lot on their little plate. But they are to be honored for calling out the Nazis at a time when Hitler's personal representatives in Los Angeles had the final say over studio scripts -- Germany being a major market for American movies. (It's a practice that continues, to a lesser extent, as Hollywood movies are routinely rewritten in order to make the Chinese government look good.) Yes, the country in Are We Civilized? is anonymous, but its locale is unmistakable. Only an indie production without any desire for a German release could get away with it.

Are We Civilized?'s dialogue ranges from "what the?" (Jr. speaking of Sr.: "He's often told friends that having the top of his skull blown off in the war was a blessing in disguise") to dryly amusing (Jr., engaged to the daughter of head of the Censorship Bureau, promises to "love, honor, and suppress"). When Bockner threatens to expel the Franklins to America (where Senior already lives), you have to wonder why they don't say, "No problem, get us on the first boat outta here!" 
Carewe and Sherman apparently thought Are We Civilized? would somehow change the ways of mankind. Four years earlier, Universal Pictures thought All Quiet on the Western Front would signal the end of war for all time. In 2005, Steven Spielberg promised Time magazine that Munich, his movie about the massacre of Israeli athletes at the '68 Olympics, would lead to peace in the Middle East. No wonder so many movie-makers are good at what they do -- they live in a fantasy world 24/7.

Yet one glance at today's newspaper proves that Paul Franklin Sr.'s prediction that mankind would be in peril if we kept up our disastrous ways was all too accurate. The answer to Are We Civilized? is hardly a positive one. 



Wednesday, April 29, 2015


If a weasly, clubfooted tutor ever puts the moves on you, it’s best to give him a tumble. Otherwise, he’ll hold a grudge by becoming one of the most despicable people in history.

That seems to be the moral of Enemy of Women, the World War II-era biography/expose of Dr. Paul Joseph Goebbels. As Nazi Germany’s Minister of Propaganda and Public Enlightenment, he had total control over radio, movies, theater, art, newspapers and even psychics -- a position to be held by David Brock when Hillary Clinton is elected president. (I kid, I kid!)

An independent production released by Monogram Pictures, Enemy of Women is far more serious than its gaudy yet shabby posters would suggest. Too, its budget is better than your average Monogram release, and its running time longer. It almost looks like a movie from one of the majors, only with a relatively unknown cast,  which actually works in its favor.

Maria and Dr. Traeger engage in foreplay,
Perhaps knowing that wartime audiences might not be all that interested in a straight-ahead docudrama about Hitler's right-hand SOB, Enemy of Women's creators thread the picture with a love story involving aspiring actress Maria Brandt (the woman Goebbels desires but can never have) and Dr. Hans Traeger. They could have titled it Love in the Time of Swastika.

Maria had rejected Goebbels advances during his tutoring days. Once he becomes the head of all things artistic, Goebbels pulls strings to make Maria the biggest movie star in Germany, whether audiences liked it or not. In other words, they're a lot like Harvey Weinstein and Gwyneth Paltrow. But when Maria rejects Goebbels yet again, her career is finished and, for good measure, her father murdered. You'd think putting her on suspension would've been enough.

"Oh, Joey, tell me again about
the censorship laws!"
It's difficult to understand why Goebbels is obsessed with scoring with Maria, since he has a date with a different woman every night. Either these dames are attracted to power, or clubfeet must be a real turn-on for them. In fact, Goebbels seems to have hitched himself to Hitler's wagon just to score with the ladies; world domination is gravy. But as he tells Maria after her marriage to Hans, "You are the one open account in the ledger of my life." What a Romeo.

The look of love (for Hitler)
Rather than portraying him as an evil swine right off the bat, Paul Andor (born Wolfgang Zilzer) plays the pre-Nazi Goebbels as a metaphor for post-World-War I Germany -- a weak, pathetic cripple -- finding self-respect (and power) only when attending his first Hitler rally in 1928. The movie suggests that it was there Goebbels dreamed up the whole "Heil Hitler" routine. Quite an addition for one's résumé. (Most of the Nazis in Enemy of Women are either former wimps or full-time bullies.)

"Round up all the Jews, kill all the newspaper editors --
and, oh yeah, make sure there's toner in the copying
Once in power, Goebbels becomes the ultimate mid-level manager, forever grousing to subordinates ("I am not at all happy with our anti-Catholic campaign") while taking advantage of his position (see "score with the ladies" above). Despite the fictional storyline, there's a vague realism to Andor's performance that a major star would have lacked.  As with many independent movies of its time, Enemy of Women winds up being better than it should be because of its budgetary limitations. And the climactic forced separation between Maria and Hans -- arranged by Goebbels, naturally -- still works as an authentically heartbreaking moment.

For reasons unknown but entirely welcome, YouTube's print of Enemy of Women is in excellent shape for a "orphaned" movie. Despite being slightly washed-out from time to time, there are moments when it looks startlingly new, giving us the rare chance to see a Monogram movie the way it looked in its original theatrical release. Equally satisfying, there's nothing to mock, no over-the-top dialogue or hammy acting -- it's actually quite involving, with an excellent book-ending device involving an Allied air raid over Berlin. It's no Casablanca -- but sometimes a good burger is better than a steak. 

However, I still don't have permission to hang up the poster in my living room.


Saturday, March 21, 2015


Every actor has to start somewhere, but nobody's movie debut was more meager than Errol Flynn's. Having never acted before, he was hired to play Fletcher Christian in the Australian picture In the Wake of the Bounty, an odd hybrid of melodrama, documentary and travelogue. Or, as the onscreen introduction informs us, "the first of a series of great travel films to be produced by Expeditionary Films depicting strange incidents, strange places and strange people." They should have started with the studio itself.

"Aye, those Tahitian women were lovely...
or so I hear."

Throughout the first half of its 64-minute running time, In the Wake of the Bounty jerks abruptly from a pub where blind seaman Michael Byrne holds forth on his adventures aboard the HMS Bounty decades earlier, to flashbacks on the ship, and then back again. Never explained is how he returned to England after the mutiny or passed the naval physical to begin with, considering that he's, uh, blind

"Avast! Who moved my cheese,
Mr. Christian?"

Unlike later depictions of the Bounty's notorious commander, here Bligh has lost a couple of stripes, being a Lieutenant instead of Captain. He's also something an 18th-century Capt. Queeg, ordering his crew flogged for allegedly stealing his cheese. Talk about being a petty officer!

"We love unhygienic white men!"
But all that is forgotten when the crew reaches Tahiti. In the Wake of the Bounty then becomes something like a 10-minute home movie shot on location, with real-life islanders as extras. When the half-naked women aren't making like they're hanging out at the Playboy Mansion grotto, they're dancing for the Bounty sailors, throwing their hands in the air like they just don't care. The native men are content to play their drums, although I wonder how they feel about their women going gaga for these greasy Limeys who haven't seen a bar of Lifebuoy since setting off to sea. 

Then another 10 minutes are devoted to the mutiny and its aftermath -- returning to Tahiti to pick up some babes and sailing to nowhere. But the men soon realize that a floating Plato's Retreat isn't all it's cracked up to be. As blind Michael Byrne puts it, "We drank heavily and fought over the women," which sounds an awful lot like your average New York bar any night of the week. Unlike the location shots, the "native girls" on board the Bounty are fully-dressed white actresses. It's an old Western custom: naked white women bad, naked darker women OK.

"Why did white men mate with the dark-
skinned women of Tahiti"? Take a guess, Skippy.
And there, at the 30-minute mark, In the Wake of the Bounty becomes a semi-documentary of life on Tahiti and Pictairn Islands (the location of Fletcher Christian's last stand) in 1932. On Pitcairn, we meet the real-life descendants of the Bounty's mutineers, where inbreeding had been rampant for 160 years. (We see the wedding of Alan Christian to Eva Christian, presided over by Edgar Christian. Eww.) And if you think all they do is hang around eating breadfruit all day, the narrator informs us, "There's no slackers on this little island!" -- despite the kids, we're told, having only a two-hour school day.

Not even all that cool native
jewelry can ease Fletch's pain.
But then, without warning, it's back to Bounty-full melodrama, as life after mutiny is no paradise in paradise. Fletcher Christian bemoans his fate to one of his sidekicks: "Death would be a release from the remorse that dogs my footsteps -- day and night, night and day!" Who knew people were singing Cole Porter in the 18th-century?

Swing it, baby!
And then it's back to 1932 once more, this time for the scripted climax. A Pictairn couple tries to SOS a passing ship to bring medicine for their sick baby, but the distance is too great for the message to carry. The baby dies, the mother weeps melodramatically, and the father recites a prayer at fade out. That's what you get for marrying your sister.

When In the Wake of the Bounty's intro promises that Expeditionary Films "has not spared time or money" in making the movie, it seems to mean that they didn't spare any money at all. The sets look like something out of a Thomas Edison short from 1903, while much of the acting is strictly 19th-century stage melodrama. When one of the Bounty's sailors says of Lt. Bligh, "If I could only live to see him suffer like we've been suffering," he might as well be quoting the audience's opinion of the director.

"Don't worry, ladies, you'll be swooning
over me soon enough."
But what of 24 year-old Errol Flynn in his movie debut?  He's a little gaunt -- did he have one of his bouts of malaria before shooting? He sports his real, pre-Hollywood teeth, which he wisely keeps hidden most of the time. And he's kind of awkward, often looking down at his feet while keeping his arms folded. Still, he's easily the best actor in the movie, with his smooth, familiar voice trying to make sense of the risible dialogue he's been given. ("Mutiny... piracy... Oh God, where will it all end?" Believe me, I asked the same thing.) Even if you had never heard of Errol Flynn, you'd pick him as the only one in the movie who had any chance of success.

Two years later, Flynn's first starring role in an American movie, Captain Blood, was released, launching his legendary career. That same year, M-G-M released Mutiny on the Bounty starring Clark Gable and Charles Laughton, immediately becoming a seafaring classic. But In the Wake of the Bounty, little seen outside Australia, left no wake at all.