Wednesday, November 19, 2014

SAY IT WITH SONGS (1929)

Al Jolson's stunning late-in-life comeback helped people forget that it was movies like Say it with Songs that drove him out of the public consciousness to begin with. So bad is Say it with Songs -- a musical about an emotionally-manipulative singer with a gambling problem who's imprisoned for manslaughter (sounds fun!) -- that it seems like a personal vendetta by scenarist Darryl F. Zanuck. Even the ridiculous call letters of the radio station where Jolson's character Joe Powers sings, QRSA, sound like some kind of a private joke. 

Zanuck couldn't even be bothered giving Powers' five year-old son a name, being referred to only as "the little kid," "junior" and, of course, "little pal" -- the name of the movie's breakout hit. I thought you needed to name your child before bringing him home from the hospital.

Jolson tries not to strangle his little pal.
Joe's imprisonment, by the way, was due to fatally beating up the radio station manager, Arthur, for trying to blackmail Joe's wife Kitty. (He would renew Joe's contract only if Kitty was "nice" to him.) In an outrageous abuse of jurisprudence, the judge presiding over his trial questioned Little Pal regarding his dad's state of mind before the killing. The bigmouth brat's helpful testimony: "He said he was going to kill him dead!" Thanks, kid. Now go play in traffic. 


Killers love nothing more than
being forced to listen to maudlin
pop songs.

Unlike most fresh meat in prison, Joe doesn't get on with the others by providing drugs, but, rather, singing them a chin-up number, "Birdies Sing in Cages, Why Can't You?" Yeah, that's what the boys in gray would want to hear in real life, a third-rate TED Talk set to music. No way would they hold his face down in an unwashed toilet while taking turns being "nice" to him.

Once he's out of the slammer, Joe tracks Little Pal down to the boarding school Kitty has enrolled him in while she works for Robert Merrill (a surgeon, not the opera singer who was always on The Ed Sullivan Show.) After a brief reunion, Joe leaves, not noticing that Little Pal is following him through the busy Los Angeles streets, where he gets mowed down by a jalopy. Considering that he was the ultimate cause of Joe's prison term, this would seem like just desserts.

"Who's that old guy putting the moves
on you all the time?"
While in the hospital, the kid is diagnosed with damage to his spine, nerves and vocal chords. You'd leave your kid in the hospital for a spell, right? Not Joe Powers. He carries Little Pal to Dr. Merrill, who has loved Kitty since he was "a young intern." Judging by his age, that would have made Kitty about six months old at the time. Merrill offers to perform life-saving surgery for free if Joe gives up kid to Kitty. Otherwise, it'll cost $5,000. That must have been part of the 1929 version of the Hippocratic oath. (Little Pal's private school doesn't even notice that he's missing until Merrill calls them the following day. What the hell kind of medical and educational standards does Los Angeles have anyway?)

Taken aback by Merrill's questionable ethics, Joe swears to "rob every house in town" in order to pay another surgeon instead, which makes no sense whatsoever. But he soon has a change of heart, returning the kid to Merrill and his dangerous-looking X-ray machine. (It appears to give cancer to people three floors below.) Little Pal can walk once more, but regains his power of speech only when hearing Joe singing "Little Pal" on a record, leading to a happy ending for the audience, who no longer has to watch the movie.


No microphone was needed for Jolson
to be heard over the airwaves.
It's been said that to truly appreciate Al Jolson, you had to have seen him live in concert. And during his upbeat numbers, that legendary to-the-rafters style is infectious, being the only times Jolson performs naturally. But no dramatic actor was he, especially during emotional scenes when his vocal chords quiver as if caught in a wind tunnel. Didn't anyone at Warners remember that Jolson was a star of Broadway musical comedies?

There are times, too, when he appears to be ad-libbing his lines, and not in a good way. When accused by Dr. Merrill of kidnapping Little Pal from school, Jolson replies, "Say, what's the idea? I came in to see about saving my boy's life, and you start beating around the bush!" Umm, yes, alright, have a seat...

Director Lloyd Bacon instructs Jolson
to believably sit still for two minutes.
Say it with Songs has an undeniably cheap look to it as well, with an outrageously phony painting of the Brooklyn Bridge standing in for the real thing being the worst of it. It was a strange way to treat Jolson, who saved the studio's bacon when bankruptcy loomed. After all, The Jazz Singer made movie history in 1927 as the first feature with singing and talking sequences. The following year, The Singing Fool, another part-talkie, immediately became the highest-grossing movie ever made (surpassed by Gone with the Wind 11 years later). 

"Alright, Jolie, enough
already!"
Say it with Songs tried to replicate The Singing Fool's success by bringing back Jolson's co-star, Davey Lee, as his son. The latter movie made "Sonny Boy" the biggest-selling record of the year, so, true to formula, Jolson warbles "Little Pal" over and over and over here. One wonders what this barely-out-of-diapers kid thought of a bombastic entertainer singing in his face like a cyclone all the time. 

Maybe Warner Bros. cynically thought that anything with Jolson's name on it would sell tickets. If so, they were wrong. Say it with Songs premiered at Warners' flagship theatre in Times Square, but was pulled after two days of negative reviews and bad business. While Jolson continued to flourish onstage, movie audiences didn't care much to hear him say it with songs or anything else for that matter.

Parental cruelty alert: Davey Lee retired from movies at his mother's request in 1930 in order for him to have a normal childhood, forcing him to give up a weekly salary of $30,000 (or about $428,000 in today's money). I got Davey's autograph, by the way, at an Al Jolson centennial convention in in 1985. What was astonishing then was just meeting someone who had starred in movies with Al Jolson in the 1920s. Now, it's knowing that he was only three years older than I am now.  

                                                   ********************* 


Wednesday, November 12, 2014

THE BIG KNIFE (1955)

If you've ever had the urge to write an I'll-get-even-with-those-SOBs script about a job you hated, watch The Big Knife to see how those things turn out. In a word, badly. 

The main problem is its dramatic fulcrum: Should A-list movie star Charlie Castle renew his contract with Hoff-Federated Studios? 

Look at your own life. Then look at Charlie Castle, who must decide if he wants to spend another seven years living in a Beverly Hills mansion and having the world snap to attention at his every whim, all the while making a bundle of money. This is drama?

Oh, and not enough liquor, either.



Well, Castle does have real problems. Fooling around with every two-bit tootsie while his long-suffering wife watches from the sidelines, for instance. A reliance on booze to ease his "pain." And then there was his drunken, fatal hit-and-run accident for which his PR guy took the fall. Predicaments, in other words, of his own making, and which are supposed to be on par with The Iceman Cometh. It may come as a shock to people in the movie business, but listen up: Nobody cares about your problems.

To be fair, it took director/producer Robert Aldrich guts to portray the movie business as seedy as The Big Knife presents it. Everyone, from the studio boss to the Hedda Hopper stand-in gossip columnist, excels in moral and emotional blackmail. The studio is even willing to murder Castle's floozie Dixie Evans just to keep her from going public about Castle's hit-and-run. The entire industry is portrayed as a West Coast Mafia, only without the ethics. 

Ida Lupino studies Jack Palance's head
for lice.
The script betrays its original stage origins. In fact, you could close your eyes and not miss a thing, other than subtlety and good taste, which you'd miss with your eyes open anyway. When the dialogue isn't expository ("Here's your agent!"), it's melodramatic to the point of hilarity ("You swat the fly from my face with a hammer!"). Really, I'm more willing than most to give older movies a fair shake, but I'm only human. You could give the original SCTV cast this script and not tell the difference.


"...and right, too!"
"And I can do it with my left hand..."
John Garfield originated the role of Charlie Castle on Broadway, and probably brought genuine angst to an otherwise-unlikeable part. But here, Jack Palance, fine in character roles, never rings true as the leading man with artistic aspirations; he's just not able shake his tough-guy persona. Palance can't even kiss women without looking like he's going to strangle them. 


"You think you've got problems? I went from
working with Orson Welles to this dreck!"
And those women of The Big Knife are fit to cliched type: saint (Charlie's wife), bitch (the columnist) and sluts (the mistresses). As the doomed Dixie Evans, Shelley Winters is sympathetic, being used by studio execs for sexual favors in return for a couple of bit parts. (She's billed in the credits as "Miss Shelley Winters," presumably so as not to be confused with Mr. Shelley Berman.) Everett Sloan repeats his Jewish tragic/comic relief routine from Citizen Kane as Castle's agent Nat Dazinger, offering bromides like "Stop wringing your mental hands!" like he was quoting Oscar Wilde.


"Look at me when I'm declaiming
overheated dialogue!"
But, brother, clear the decks for Rod Steiger's no-holds barred antics as studio head Stanley Shriner Hoff. Clearly based on Louis B. Mayer (with a touch of Harry Cohn and Darryl F. Zanuck), Steiger is full-on, head-collision ham, going from gentle 
father-figure to howling underworld don faster than you can say "sequel possibilities." His performance is a master class in overacting that could be measured by seismometers. You marvel at how the sets remain standing, or that Steiger himself doesn't drop dead of a heart attack by the end -- and the whole time sounding exactly like Marlon Brando! Anyone who takes his performance seriously doesn't know what they're missing. It's like Lionel Barrymore after a year of Method acting lessons.
  

It sounds classier in Italian.
The Big Knife has a certain pedigree, being based on the Broadway play by Clifford Odets. Odets, unfortunately, was one of those "groundbreaking" playwrights whose works scream WARNING: IMPORTANT MESSAGE AHEAD. He stopped off in Hollywood for a spell, allowing an up-close view of how studios work. That was probably when he heard the rumor about Clark Gable's real-life fatal DUI hit-and-run, which an M-G-M executive pleaded guilty to in exchange for a lifetime salary --  a story that's never been confirmed, but I'd like to think is true.


Odets even worked himself into The Big Knife as Horatio "Hank" Teagle, who doubles as Castle's Jiminy Cricket. We know he's the only character with a moral compass because A) he's a writer, B) is moving back to New York to work on an important novel he admits nobody will read, and C) says things like, "Half-idealism is the peritonitis of the soul." No wonder nobody reads his books.

Right column, third from the top: I've heard of casting couches,
but this is ridiculous.
When The Big Knife flopped critically and financially in its 1955 release, Robert Aldrich pinned the blame on Jack Palance for not looking like a leading man, while ignoring everything else -- like the concept, script, acting, the bombastic score and his own direction. However, the upholstered furniture, which actually receives a credit, does a believable job.

The original 1949 stage production of The Big Knife ran only three months, leading me to believe nobody liked it then, either. (It was directed by, who else, Lee Strasberg.) When my wife and I saw its Broadway revival in 2013, we spent most of the time stifling our giggles while our eyes rolled like bowling balls. Somebody ought to take a big knife to The Big Knife once and for all.
 

                                                  ********************

Friday, November 7, 2014

SYMPHONY OF LIVING (1935)

Some movies tug at your heartstrings. Symphony of Living yanks at them like the Minnesota Vikings and the San Diego Chargers playing tug-of-war. Why make a movie that simply touches you when it can bash you over the head with every conceivable melodramatic plot device? If nothing else, Symphony of Living just might be, if not the birth of a bushel of cinematic cliches, at least the distillation of them.

This is how every middle class
family in New York dresses at home.
Violinist Adolph Greig lives with his two layabout adult children, Pamela and Richard, who do nothing but complain that he's not bringing home enough money. Pretty soon, he's not bringing home any, having permanently damaged his hand when accidentally pushed into a window (it happens all the time to old violinists). Richard sees this as the perfect opportunity to shove off, while Pamela has already eloped with her rich, older boyfriend, leaving their father alone with his severed tendons and a bottle of Schnapps.

Time goes by. So disgusted is Pamela by the memory of her father's career, she refuses to allow her music-loving son Carl to continue with his violin lessons, driving her husband to pay her $75,000 to get lost in exchange for custody of the kid. (This being the middle of the Depression, most people would've said, "Where do I sign?") Meanwhile, Adolph becomes a music teacher, and... oh, hell, I don't have to tell you what happens next and next and next, do I? I mean, I figured it out by the end of the second reel.


Pamela's son wants to know why she
insists on dressing like Nefertiti.

Just to make sure we know whose side we're supposed to be on, the characters have been written with all the nuance of a short-circuited pile-driver. Adolph isn't just a nice man -- he makes St. Augustine look like Ted Kaczynski. Pamela and Richard aren't just ungrateful -- they're a full-fledged bitch and larcenist-in-waiting respectively. And did I say they were adult children? Make that middle-aged. Evelyn Brent, who plays Pamela, was 36 at the time of making Symphony of Living. Sheesh, lady, you don't like living with your old man, move out! Richard, meanwhile, hangs around the house all day in three-piece suits. Well, if you're going to do nothing, you might as well look good not doing it.

You want nasty? It isn't enough that Pamela asks her father to turn off his classical records; she has to sneer, "Muzzle that dirge, will ya?" When Richard, now a full-fledged crook, shows up at his father's music studio after 13 years, his first words are, "Nice little layout you got here" like an underworld enforcer. (He describes himself as "kind of a promoter," code for "crook.") One line of dialogue may be the first example of a particular kind of wisecrack that became de rigueur among jokesters several decades later. Noting the contempt he and Pamela have for Adolph, Richard scoffs, "Nice pleasant little family this is -- NOT!" Had he been born in another time, he'd have been a writer for Friends.


Those kids are actually 40 years old.
Like a lot of low-budget indies of the '30s, Symphony of Living plays fast and loose with its time frame. While the cars, fashion and even radio are vintage 1935, ten minutes into the movie we learn that it's supposed to be 1922. Although it seems like only a few months pass before Adolph becomes a music teacher, it's actually been eight years... until somebody says ten years... before reverting to eight again. Then I think a few more years pass after that, but it's difficult to say, especially when the main characters look the same throughout. Forget about teaching music, Adolph should bottle what ever it is that keeps these people from aging.

So invincible, it went out of
business a year later
What cut-rate high class
looks like.

Symphony of Living is a poverty-row double-header, being an Invincible Picture released by the Chesterfield Motion Picture Corporation (no relation to the cigarette). The New York-based studios give Symphony of Living a low-rent, if ultimately artificial, feel. Adolph and his kids live at 170 W. 210 St., which, while referred to as "uptown," you'll never find on any map of Manhattan. His studio's address is 232 Christopher St. -- which would put it in the middle of the Hudson River. He performs at the Cosmopolitan Concert Hall, located in real life on the Invincible Pictures' soundstage. Pamela's 10 year-old son, however, has a genuine New York accent, despite being raised by parents with impeccable diction. Watch Sweet Smell of Success if you want authenticity.

The big draw here, if you can call it that, is Al Shean as Adolph Greig. Unknown today by anybody except kooks like me, Shean was, from 1912 to 1925, one-half of Gallagher & Shean, one of the most popular stage acts of their time. His portrayal of Greig, a
Al Shean refuses to allow his grandson steal
the spotlight like his damn nephews.
washed-up musician who guides his grandson to greatness, might have hit home just a little too hard. In real life, Shean was the uncle of a bunch of poor, rowdy siblings who entered show business when they saw how much dough he was raking in. Many years later, those same kids were conquering Broadway as the Four Marx Brothers -- just as Uncle Al's career was going into eclipse. (Look closely at Shean in Symphony of Living and you can see a resemblance to Harpo.) 
Four posters and ten lobby cards were created for
the movie -- probably three and nine more
than were used.
Perhaps thinking he was still doing 1920s comedy shtick, Shean insists on speaking with an exaggerated accent (German? Viennese? Ottoman?) that positively screams old-hat vaudeville. This would be fine if Symphony of Living wasn't so intent on being a melodramatic tearjerker that melodramatically jerks your tears. In other words, a tearjerking melodrama.


I couldn't find any reviews of Symphony of Living from its original release, which isn't surprising. Mawkish pieces of entertainment like this were made for the masses who wanted a good, cheap cry, not the elites over at the Times. Maybe that was good enough for Al Shean, now that his salad days had wilted. But he must have wondered, after toiling away at the bargain-basement Invincible Pictures, how his nephews wound up making the classy A Night at the Opera at M-G-M the same year. Symphony of Just Existing would be closer to the mark.

                                                   *******************

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

MR. ARKADIN (1955)

Hey, remember that Orson Welles movie about the mysterious, manipulative, all-powerful yet ultimately self-destructive tycoon? The one told in flashback? With the deep-focus black & white cinematography, striking close-ups, and memorable character actors in supporting roles?

It can be only one movie: Mr. Arkadin. Right?

Written and directed by Welles during his lengthy European sojourn in the 1950s, Mr. Arkadin is the probably the most obscure movie the great man ever made; it certainly appears to be the most low-budget. Alternately sloppy, brilliant, inexplicable, and hypnotic, Mr. Arkadin tells the story of the titular character -- played by Welles -- who claims not to remember his life before one winter's evening in 1927, when he suddenly found $200,000 in Swiss francs stuffed in his wallet, from which he started his financial empire. 

Arkadin hires Guy van Stratten, a low-rent criminal with underworld connections, to find out who he (Arkadin) really is and how he got that all that money. As Guy travels around the world digging up information, he finds Arkadin's past becoming even more puzzling. Especially when Arkadin himself starts tailing Guy -- and as the people Arkadin knew back in the day start winding up dead.

For all Mr. Arkadin promises -- and delivers -- its weakest link is front and center. As Guy van Stratten, Robert Arden gives the worst performance since the introduction of sound. Just what Welles, usually impeccable when it came to casting, saw in him is a mystery greater than the movie itself. I mean, Arden doesn't even move convincingly. It comes close, in fact, to becoming a parody of bad acting.

To be fair, however, Welles' script does Arden no favors. Guy's "hard-boiled" dialogue is closer to weakly-poached  -- again, nearly a film noir parody. Too, Welles appeared to have re-written some of Aden's lines after he completed filming, so that his own dubbed dialogue often doesn't match what he was originally saying. 

Then there's Welles' flamboyant performance. Not only does he speak with an accent difficult to identify -- which was perhaps the point -- his theatrical make-up is never quite believable. Thanks to his many close-ups, the phony nose, rouged-up cheeks, stiff beard, and hairnet under the wig are evident. Had he been onstage, it would be no problem. But three inches from a movie camera, he often appears to be what he really was: a 40 year-old playing a much older man.

And as long as we're talking about distractions, what do we make of Paola Mori as Arkadin's daughter Raina? Arkadin's obsession with her becomes that much more interesting when you learn that Mori was Welles' real-life wife. As for her acting skills, well, she's right up there with co-star Robert Arden.


Don't get me wrong.  Mr. Arkadin is never less than fascinating. For Welles understood the very look of cinema better than any director of his time. Not even the great Alfred Hitchcock was so visually consistent and fascinating. The scene with Arkadin and Guy's drunk girlfriend Mily in a rolling yacht; the grotesque close-ups; Arkadin's bizarre costume party. And, of course, there's the story itself, which pulls you in the same way Arkadin pulls in everyone around him.


Once the the boy genius of movies, Welles was, by the time of the Arkadin shoot, an outcast, thanks to his working style. Just give me your money, appeared to have been his typical pitch. In return, I'll go over-budget and over the scheduled shooting time. Then I'll disappear in the editing room for months on end -- and get distracted with another project -- until you get fed up and release it before I'm ready, which will probably be never, anyway. Look up the phrase "own worst enemy" and you'll see a picture of Orson Welles.

And so Mr. Arkadin's producer removed some scenes while re-arranging others, releasing it in Europe as Confidential Report, where it was immediately hailed as Orson Welles' best movie yet. A few years later, French cineastes named it one of the 12 greatest movies of all time. Now, you're likely to get a "Qu'est est ce Confidential Report?" from their grandchildren.


Under its original title, Mr. Arkadin saw its New York debut in 1962 before quickly disappearing. The American edit, told in flashback, is closer to what Welles had envisioned. But what was it really supposed to look like? Who knows? All I can tell you is that Mr. Arkadin, like The Lady from Shanghai, is an alleged "lesser" Welles production that despite its faults -- like the quite audible whirring of the camera on at least one occasion -- is worth repeated viewings.


No doubt Welles identified with the grand, larger-than-life puppet-master Arkadin. Most of his close-ups are shot from below, allowing him to loom over us like God. Outtakes reveal Welles giving precise line-readings to his actors, going so far as explaining how to hold their mouths after finishing their dialogue. You want to talk about a control freak? Welles dubbed in his own voice for at least 18 actors in the movie. Orson, lay off the caffeine for five minutes!


Welles' outlandish make-up itself might be a deliberate ruse. As written, Arkadin has done everything in his power to remain hidden from the world, even refusing to remove his mask at his own costume party or allowing himself to be photographed. After my second viewing, it hit me: Welles is supposed to be playing Arkadin in obvious disguise!... Or is he? Again I ask, who knows?

No surprise that his final movie, F for Fake, was a playful documentary about the art of fooling the public for fun and profit. Unlike Arkadin, however, Orson Welles had too much of the former and not nearly enough of the latter. 

PS: The name is pronounced Ar-KAY-din, not ARK-a-din. I made the same mistake, too

                                           *********************

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

THE PRESIDENT'S MYSTERY (1936)

James Blake has a bad case of the guilts, thanks to being a mouthpiece for George Sartos, the ruthless owner of National Cannery. After lobbying Congress to kill a proposal that would help small businesses at the expense of National Cannery's profits, Blake decides to cash in his $5,000,000 investments and fake his death. 

Leaving behind his faithless wife, Ilka, he moves to Springvale, a town negatively impacted by his lobbying, to revive the local co-op cannery. Ilka, meanwhile, is killed by Sartos' chauffeur, Roger. Just as Blake's succeeding in rebuilding Springvale, Sartos tracks him down. When Blake refuses Sartos' blackmail, he's arrested for Ilka's murder. The kindly sheriff lets Blake out of jail in order to prevent a mob -- paid by Sartos -- from destroying the cannery. Roger confesses to Ilka's death, and Sartos himself is arrested for inciting a riot.

I know what you're thinking. Where's the president? And where's the mystery? In the title, that's where. As the on-screen prologue explains:

How the hell do I know? You're the President.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt, talking with a magazine editor on one of his favorite subjects - mystery stories - advanced the question: "How can a man disappear with five million dollars of his own money in negotiable form and not be traced?" Challenged by this, the editor enlisted the aid of six famous authors. The result was a thrilling story. The same problem intrigued the producers of this photoplay, and in another form is now brought to the screen. The proceeds of the sale of the plot, both for publication and motion picture rights, have been given voluntarily by the publisher to the Georgia Warm Springs Foundation.  

Someone should tell Liberty that there's a
difference between "Plot By" and
"Shooting the Breeze with a Friend Over Drinks."
Well, that was a very generous donation. I only wish the screenwriters had been half as generous as donating a real mystery. In fact, the only mystery is why it's called a mystery. 

I've never read the original novel, but I would hope it's more "thrilling" than the movie. Hero James Blake isn't even smart enough to come up with the ol' fake-death-and-disappear routine on his own. He gets the idea from the latest copy of Liberty magazine where -- well, whaddaya know! -- The President's Mystery is prominently featured. Meta movie, 1936-style.
"Hey, I use a cigarette-holder like FDR.
I must be a good guy!"

If The President's Mystery is interesting at all today, it's because how ruthless and almost nihilistic businessman George Sartos is. An SOB whose corporate philosophy makes the Walton Family look like the Little Sisters of Mercy, he literally doesn't care about the effect his business practices have on anybody, as long as National Cannery's profits keep going north. 

James Blake's lobbying is shown in a montage that features everything you hate about Washington: boozing, schmoozing, golfing -- let's call it what it is, legal bribery -- interspersed with a series of screaming newspaper headlines: SMALL INDUSTRIES DOOMED! FEDERAL LOANS OUT! Hey, capitalist pigs gotta eat. 


C'mon, cheer up. Think of how happy
the corporate shareholders are!
And movie audiences gotta get romantic subplots, like the one James Blake has with Springvale Cannery owner Charlotte Brown. After meeting cute in a trout stream, Blake follows Charlotte back to the Springvale town meeting, where he discovers just how destructive his lobbying has been. This gives its citizens a chance to drive home how unchecked capitalism, crooked politicians and Godzilla-sized businesses can ruin entire towns. How nice that America has learned its lesson since then. Oh wait. (James and Charlotte are played by British-born Henry Wilcoxin -- a favorite of Cecil B. DeMille -- and Betty Furness, whose appearance is trumpeted on the credits as "Courtesy MGM". It must have been something of a drag for both to get loaned out to Poverty Row's Republic Pictures for a low-budget B-movie like this.)

Some of the movie's political theatre might be courtesy co-screenwriter Nathaniel West. Yes, the author of Miss Lonelyhearts and The Day of the Locust was better known -- make that better paid -- as a screenwriter, first at Republic Pictures, then later at RKO Radio. West might have painted a grim picture of Hollywood in Locust, but when you make a grand total of $1,280 from your novels (according to West bios), well, the movie factory looks pretty good. Great writers, like the aforementioned capitalist pigs, gotta eat, too.

Note FDR's quote on the upper left --
not exactly a ringing endorsement of
his own idea.
Over the years, The President's Mystery was one of those obscure movies I'd always wanted to see, just for its bizarre origins. A story written by six authors, each taking a different chapter, from an idea suggested by the sitting president. The film version co-written by a man almost unknown in his own day, but would later be renown as the author of two of the more trenchant novels about the underbelly of American popular culture. President Roosevelt himself gets a "Story Conceived By" screen credit.

And the result? A not-bad 52-minute movie which, had its origins been more humble, would have become even more forgotten than it already it is. It's remarkable, in its own way, that The President's Mystery successfully tackles so many different topics -- capitalism, quasi-socialism, murder, economics -- in less than an hour. In that respect, it would make a great double-bill with the still-relevant Washington Merry-Go-Round. And it still leaves time for a wedding engagement at the climax. 

Don't think I spoiled the ending -- that was no mystery, either.

                                                       ************************
 To read about Washington-Merry-Go-Round, go here.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

DR. KILDARE'S STRANGE CASE (1940)

If you find yourself in need of medical attention the next time you're in New York, you can't do any better than Blair General Hospital. That is, if you like soap opera shenanigans, gossipy switchboard operators, violent ambulance drivers, smokers outside the operating rooms, and ethically-dubious procedures.


Dr. Kildare's Strange Case, starring B-movie leading man Lew Ayres, was the fourth entry in M-G-M's popular series about the dreamy diagnostician learning his craft at the side of the crotchety cripple, Dr. Gillespie (the crotchety cripple Lionel Barrymore). By now, enthralled audiences were getting to know these people better than their own families. Kildare's growing love for nurse Mary LaMonte; Gillespie's life-threatening melanoma; Kildare's parents dispensing wisdom the way pharmacists do Valium; and all the other supporting characters who seem to be paid to stand around and yak all day instead of doing their jobs. If all hospitals were this much fun, I'd go to med school right now.


Joe Wayman looks forward to physically
abusing Sally after work.
But not all is well at the House of Blair. Molly Byrd, the Superintendent of Nurses, is giving Gillespie a hard time. ("If I don't drink one glass of milk a day," he grouses to Kildare, "she hides my cigarettes.") Ambulance driver Joe Wayman is known to smash the skulls of alleged miscreants with an industrial-sized monkeywrench. And Dr. Gregory Lane, a supposedly brilliant brain surgeon, has been on something of a cold streak lately, his nickname around the hospital being "The undertaker's best friend." (Wouldn't you like to work in a warm, supporting atmosphere like that?) Lane himself bitterly comments after his latest botched surgery, "The operation was a success, but the patient died!" Good to keep a sense of humor at times like this. 

Lane redeems himself by saving the life of an unidentified hit-and-run victim. Unfortunately, the surgery appears to have left the guy a babbling idiot, yelling "Friday!" incessantly. Kildare decides to save Lane's career by proving that the patient was a babbling idiot before the surgery as well.


You'd be pissed-off like Nurse LaMonte
if you were stuck between a chain-smoking,
wheelchair-bound grouch and the dreamboat
who won't give you a tumble.
It wouldn't be a Kildare movie without enough subplots to fill a cemetery, and this Strange Case is no exception. Gillespie diagnoses a woman's rash as a reaction from the lacquer on her mah-jonng tiles. Joe the ambulance driver gets Sally the switchboard operator drunk at the local hash-house.

And this being only the fourth movie in the series, Kildare, still an intern, hasn't made a major move on Mary LaMonte yet, thanks to his meager $20-a-month salary. (And you wonder why your medical bills are so expensive!) Yet, he turns down a chance to work at the prestigious Messinger Institute at $6,000 per annum, just so he can continue stick around with Gillespie, and to watch Dr. Lane date the horny Nurse LaMonte. Audiences in 1940 were supposed to approve Kildare's decision, but looking at things from a 21st-century perspective, all we can think now is, What a 24-karat sap!

But whence the strange case we've been promised? Well, remember the hit-and-run patient? Kildare has a theory that the guy is suffering from schizophrenia -- or, as he pronounces it, "SKEEZ-o-frenn-ya," like the punchline of a joke about a crazy Irishman. Going behind Gillespie's back, Kildare consults with his own father, a small-town doctor, about the possibility of curing the patient via insulin shock therapy. Kildare père has seen the effects of the procedure first-hand: "One of the most terrifying things I've ever seen in my life!" Insulin shock therapy, he explains in an off-handed way typical for the Kildare pictures, "causes patients to go backwards through evolution -- ape, bird, lizard, and so forth." What. The. Fuck.


Even for a Kildare movie, this is some weird medical shit. So of course Kildare fils is eager to jump into it. Moving the patient to a private room without permission, Kildare convinces Mary LaMonte to help him perform a procedure better suited to Island of Lost Souls. Mary, being the only sane person at the hospital, demands an explanation. "Buried deep in the brain," Kildare says gravely, "is the brain of our human ancestors." Also the brain of anyone who thinks this is a good idea. 
"Man, I love torturing people for my own
professional edification!"

What follows the insulin overdose is the strangest sequence in the entire Kildare series. Filmed partly in silhouette, the patient indeed goes back in time to his Alley Oop origins and beyond, twisting, shuddering and squirming in agony, his eyes popping out as if being pushed from the inside, like something out of a Universal horror movie. 

There's no accompanying music, just Kildare doing a quiet play-by-play for the terrified LaMonte. "The hands are beginning their first primitive movements... The body is trying desperately to obey the impossible demands of the brain..." That sounds like me every morning. Audiences probably thought this bizarre scheme was S.O.P. in hospitals at the time -- they trusted doctors to pull off stunts that would get their licenses revoked today.

But guess what. It works! The patient, who now identifies himself as Henry Adams, went haywire when his wife left him five years earlier. But she had a change of heart and was going to return on Friday -- only Adams was too far gone to understand. Kildare brings the wife to his bedside, where the couple reconciles. And Adams' post-surgery regimen? About a gallon of glucose administered intravenously, followed by jelly sandwiches and milk. Had he remained a neanderthal, he would have been served a bronto-burger and a bill for services rendered.

Kildare performs an emergency
appendectomy on Gillespie while
Nurse LaMonte applies

 anesthesia

To recap: This is a hospital where the chief diagnostician is a heavy smoker; the ambulance driver is a sociopath; the chief brain surgeon keeps his job despite killing patients; and an intern seriously ignores protocol and performs a procedure out of Dr. Mengele's notebook.  

And people loved it! So much so that five more Kildare movies with Lew Ayres followed, before Lionel Barrymore's Gillespie continued on his own for another five. In 1949, they re-teamed for a radio series, The Story of Dr. Kildare. I shudder to think of the misguided men and women who were inspired to enter medical school by these quacks.

                                                       ******************** 

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

THE SNIPER (1952)

Long before he was the producer of "message" movies both treacly (Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, A Child is Waiting) and self-consciously serious (Ship of Fools, The Defiant Ones), producer Stanley Kramer made a film noir "message" movie, The Sniper. And instead of tackling the issues of race, religion or Nazis, The Sniper took on psycho killers. Don't tell me that doesn't sound better. 


"No, I'm not Shepard Smith!"
Terrifically directed by Edward Dmytryk, The Sniper follows a week or so in the life of ex-con Eddie Miller (played with the perfect combination of angst and pathos by Arthur Franz) a guy who's had it with women abusing him, even if it's all in his mind. I mean really had it, like shooting all brunettes who cross his path. Since this is taking revenge a step too far, the public and the press start pressuring Police Lt. Frank Kafka (what a name) to catch this guy before he starts turning his rifle on blondes. Now that would be a loss.

But this being a Stanley Kramer production, we learn early on that Eddie Miller's problem is a lack of proper psychiatric treatment. Eddie, you see, wants to be locked up. He calls his old prison shrink for help, but the doc's analyzing a nine-iron at the golf course. He even deliberately burns his hand on a stove as a failed signal to the e.r. doctor that there's something wrong with him. What's a rejected guy to do but keep killing women?

Dr. Kent tries to figure out if chopsticks
are phallic symbols.
While the local yokels are readying the hot seat for the still-unknown sniper, police shrink Dr. James Kent has other ideas. What this boy needs, he says, is help. In fact, he insists, that's what all these psychos need before they go shooting women from rooftops. Dr. Kent being played by Richard Kiley, the original star of Man of La Mancha, you expect him to sing "The Impossible Dream" to get the public on his side. 


A fastball thrown by the
screwball.
Lt. Kafka initially doesn't buy into Dr. Kent's theories, but is soon won over when he receives reports of a fellow at a carnival who's a little too eager to throw fastballs at a woman in a dunking cage -- one of the many creepy moments found in The Sniper. Seems Eddie Miller, who has already become a suspect, was known to be fast with the balls in his day. If only he joined the majors -- then he'd be shooting up steroids instead of dames.

"Bet you don't recognize me
without the 'stache, eh, kid?"

Perhaps Stanley Kramer knew that the idea of an almost-sympathetic killer was going to be a tough sell. Why else would the world-weary, seen-it-all Lt. Kafka (I laugh every time I write that name) be portrayed the usually-debonair, audience-friendly Adolphe Menjou? Minus his dashing mustache for the first time since puberty, Menjou can't completely disguise his urbane demeanor -- he speaks too articulately for a cynical cop -- yet is great fun to watch because he's playing against type. You almost expect him to break out a bottle of Ruinart Blanc de Blancs, vintage 1889, when he finally captures Miller.

...while the cops say, "We're busy
working, bub."
Kramer, not surprisingly, lays on the "society is to blame" spiel a little thick now and then in The Sniper, starting off with a pre-credit prologue. Dr. Kent gets two soliloquys on the matter, while Lt. Kafka makes with the Freud routine eventually. Yet two women who set Miller off on his killing spree -- a woman slapping her young son, and Eddie's harridan of a supervisor at work -- are so hideous that you're sorry that he didn't shoot them instead. Next time, Eddie, choose your targets with better care. 


Edward Dmytryk and cinematographer Burnett Guffey make great use of the San Francisco locations, especially the shadowy nighttime sequences. One of their recurring visual motifs is Eddie Miller taking aim while normal life continues behind him, whether it's at a carnival sharpshooting gallery or on a rooftop. In a particularly startling moment, an elderly woman removing towels from an indoor drying line near a window reveals a police sniper on the next door roof, but doesn't notice him herself. The madness, Dmytryk seems to be saying, is so prevalent that people don't even see it anymore.

It's always important to keep on the lookout for familiar faces in old movies, and The Sniper is no exception. The legendary Charles Lane (left) appears briefly as a barfly annoying a lounge singer moments before she's killed by Miller. (That's noir queen Marie Windsor, co-star of Two Dollar Bettor in a small but important role.) The sympathetic intern in the e.r. is Sidney Miller, whom I immediately recognized as Warner Brothers' stock Jewish kid from 20 years earlier. You can see him when he was 18 years-old in the previously-discussed bootleg-toothpaste drama, The Big Shakedown. (His character names from those Warners' days include Sanford Nussbaum, Issadore Marks, Maurice Levy... and George Washington. That's comedy, folks.) 
 
It's a pity that The Sniper is pretty much ignored these days, especially compared to Kramer and Dmytryk's other 1952 production, the appallingly-overrated High Noon. To my narrow-vision eyes, he never made a better, tighter movie. (His rare venture into comedy, It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, crawls 3 hours and 40 minutes.)  If I have to be fed a message, let it be a quick, tasty one like The Sniper.

                                    ****************************

To read about Two Dollar Bettor, go here.
To read about The Big Shakedown, go here.