Saturday, June 18, 2016

TITANIC (1943)

Call me a sensitive old fool, but I've never understood why, for over 100 years, people have happily lined up to watch movies about the Titanic, whose whole raison d'etre is the drowning death of 1,503 people. 

You'd think something like that would be appealing to, say, a ruthless propagandist who wants to stoke an audience's basest instincts. You know, like James Cameron. 

But the wartime German version of Titanic was produced by a guy who took agitprop a million nasty steps further: Josef Goebbels. Believing that an epic about the most famous maritime disaster in history would be ripe for anti-British propaganda (he could've made propaganda from a driving manual), Goebbels hired director Herbert Selpin to shout "Aktion!", and rubbed his bony hands in anticipation. 

Ismay looks like a real nice guy.
Unlike other movie versions of the Titanic, the bad guys here aren't the icebergs, but the British and American aristocrats onboard. The construction of the Titanic has fallen behind schedule, driving the price of shares of the White Star Line to new lows. White Star president Bruce Ismay wants money saved and corners cut as the ship comes down the assembly line. Tell me if you see trouble ahead.

Ismay and other fatcats then start gobbling up White Star stock at a low price, hoping to make a killing (no pun intended) when the Titanic reaches New York on time -- or, even better, ahead of schedule. As he gets onboard the ship for its maiden voyage, Ismay orders Captain Edward Smith to sail full steam ahead, no matter the danger.

Meanwhile, John Jacob Astor, also on the Titanic, wants the ship to slow down -- not to protect the passengers, but so they arrive late. He, too, is buying White Star shares, and it's in his interest if the ship doesn't live up to its hype. His aim to is to buy enough shares from nervous investors in order to own 51% of the Titanic -- and the company itself -- when they finally dock. Where are those Magic 8 balls when you need them?

As the Titanic sinks, Petersen (right) tries to 
figure out how to tell Captain Smith and Bruce Ismay
"Toldja so!" in German.
The one person who sees through the despicable Brits and Yanks is 1st Officer Hans Petersen, who is -- well, whaddaya know? -- the only German on the crew. Petersen (who never really existed) spends the entire movie warning of the inevitable disaster. Goebbels' message seems to be, Hey, we tried! 

However, Titanic's self-righteous epilogue -- "The deaths of 1,500 people remain unatoned, forever a testament of Britain's endless quest for profit" -- is more than a little rich in light of history.

As with other Titanic movies, fictional characters come and go faster than you can say, "Achtung!". A Cuban jewel thief. Young lovers who meet hours before the sinking. A Russian heiress who's lost her fortune. Friends in steerage fighting over the same woman. And because many of the extras were commandeered from the Nazi military, it might be the only Titanic movie where you're happy to see the passengers die.

Panic inside a very large bathtub.
There's nothing really bad about Titanic. But there's nothing particularly special about it either, despite its extravagant budget ($180,000,000 in today's money) and shooting time (over a year). Only one, brief exterior shot appears to have been filmed on a real ship. The Titanic miniature itself is unconvincing. "Drowning" extras stand upright in roughly four feet of water. Warm water at that. 

The producer (right) and his boss drop by the
set with some useful notes.

A movie about the making of Titanic would be more interesting. (A good summary can be found here.) But suffice it to say that Herbert Selpin wound up being a little too big for his lederhosen. In fact, it was likely the only time a producer fired his director by ordering him hanged in a jail cell. And they said Harry Cohn was tough!

So what did Josef Goebbels get in return for those four million Reichmarks lavished on Titanic? A movie about a preening, egomaniacal sociopath deliberately leading people to certain death. Say, where have I heard that before?... 

Realizing the obvious irony, Goebbels kept Titanic out of German theatres, but released it to Nazi-occupied countries and fellow Axis powers. A complete, uncensored video version wasn't made available until 2005. Whether it was worth the wait depends on your tolerance for underdeveloped supporting characters, overheated enemy propaganda, and a climax you've seen coming all your life. 

On the plus side: it's almost two hours shorter than James Cameron's Titanic, and lacks that version's horrible theme song by Celine Dion. 

OK, Goebbels, you win --this time.


Monday, June 13, 2016


Just in case you caught the Tony Awards the other night, prepare yourself for a shock: Alexander Hamilton wasn't a rapper, nor was he Latino. In truth, he spoke with the upperest of upper crust British accents, and resembled the Phantom of the Opera following plastic surgery. 

In other words, 34 year-old Alexander Hamilton looked exactly like 65 year-old George Arliss. I know people aged faster back in the day, but wow.

An example of Arliss' seemingly endless parade of portraying historical figures, Alexander Hamilton is unique in that it seems to be the only one where his character doesn't play foxy ol' matchmaker for his daughter and a shy, handsome young man. Instead, he has to focus his energy on convincing Thomas Jefferson that it's necessary for America to create a national bank. Where's the romance in that?

The only time it'll take a man longer to
undress than a woman.
You'd be surprised. While his wife Betsy is away in London caring for her ill sister, Hamilton does the 18th-century dirty with Mariah Reynolds, the wife of his enemy James Reynolds -- who has arranged the affair. (Hamilton had fired Reynolds from his Treasury job for being drunk and lazy. I thought that was a requirement for a government job.)

Faster than Hamilton can say, "I did not have sex with that woman, Mariah Reynolds," another of his political enemies, Sen. Timothy Roberts, gives him the lowdown: withdraw your bill regarding the national bank, or your illicit sleepovers will be front page news. Man, I bet Hamilton was sorry he ever created the New York Post.

Betsy Hamilton realizes that one cheating
husband is worth 13 united states.
But Hamilton cares nothing for his reputation, only for the the survival of the United States, further proof that we're watching a period piece. Betsy is ready to take the first coach out of Philadelphia, but stays when her husband assures her that his dalliance meant nothing. (Wives, take note!) 

Suddenly, Thomas Jefferson and most of Congress show up to let Hamilton know that they rewarded his honesty for admitting his affair by approving the national bank by an overwhelming majority. Moral of the story: cheating on your spouse is good for the country. (Wives, take note!) And for good measure, President George Washington shows up to offer his heartiest congratulations. (Wives -- ahh, you know the score by now).

Hamilton thanks Washington for defeating the British
by offering to put his face on a coin worth 25 cents. 
Having acted onstage since 1887, George Arliss' acting style was literally theatrical. But by the time of Alexander Hamilton, (which he originally played on Broadway in 1917), he was starting to tone things down -- even if he delivers a line like "No good news is good news" as if it were straight from the Bible.

Too, the movie offers some interesting historical highlights. Thomas Jefferson will agree to the national bank only if Hamilton agrees to put the U.S. capital in the South. In a slyly amusing moment, Hamilton, who has already decided that the capital should be built from scratch on the Potomac River, compliments Jefferson for thinking of it himself. This was the last time any politician allowed somebody else to take credit for a good idea.

"Thank you for your service... And that's a wrap!"
And speaking of history, I had no idea until Alexander Hamilton that General George Washington bade farewell to his troops on a Warner Brothers soundstage with a painted backdrop. History classes are worthless. (Just to prove the versatility of Alan Mowbray, the actor who portrays Washington, he later played Satan in The Devil with Hitler. I'd like to see de Niro try that.)

If you're unfamiliar with George Arliss, Alexander Hamilton isn't necessarily the place to start. I'd suggest his wonderfully witty performances in A Successful Calamity and The Last Gentleman (what a perfect title for him!), followed by the dramas The Man Who Played God and The Green Goddess. 

Now you know where Prince got the idea
for his stage outfits.
But you're not going to search them out, so why do I bother? Because, if nothing else, George Arliss gives you the rare chance to see a 19th-century stage actor walking and talking on your TV. It's like a damn episode of The Twilight Zone.

So if you don't know anyone in the cast of the current Hamilton musical in order to score a ticket, consider George Arliss' take on the great man. Remember, the play is just under 3 hours long, while the movie is a zippy 70 minutes -- and without all that darn hippity-hop music.


The original 1931 trailer for Alexander Hamilton. Imagine George Arliss on an Imax screen in 3-D.

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.