Thursday, January 31, 2013

MEN MUST FIGHT (1933)

Tell me a movie is strange, and I'm interested. Tell me the movie is strange and forgotten, and I'm there. Tell me the movie is strange, forgotten and pre-1940, and, brother, I'm clearing my calendar, breaking out the beer and putting all calls on hold.

The MGM publicity department must have had quite a chore promoting Men Must Fight. For if any movie could rightly be described as schizophrenic, Men Must Fight is it. How do you properly promote a movie that spans the genres of romance, sci-fi, pro-war, anti-war, family drama and social uprising? A movie made in 1933, but takes place in 1918 and 1940? The answer: apparently not very much. I couldn't find one poster or lobby card online. And this from a blog that found material for Inflation, The Devil with Hitler and How Doooo You Do!!! (I never tire of writing that title.)

So much happens in Men Must Fight's 72-minute running time that a simple outline doesn't do it justice. After a three-day affair with a nurse, World War I pilot Geoffrey Aiken is killed during his first flight. The nurse, named Laura, discovers she's pregnant with his child. Edward Seward, an older officer
One man's baby is another man's bad memory.
 who's always been in love with Laura, proposes marriage in order to provide both she and her child a stable, comfortable life. In 1940, Seward, now Secretary of State, sees his peace treaty with the country of Eurasia go up in flames when our ambassador is assassinated. Still haunted by her lover's death, Laura organizes a major peace movement. In turn, her son Bob (who believes that Seward is his real father) refuses a military commission that would see him create a powerful chemical gas to use on the enemy. Only when his hometown of New York comes under attack by Eurasian forces -- and he finally learns his father was a war hero -- does Bob shake his pacifist ways. He accepts the commission after all -- not as a chemist on the homefront as intended, but a pilot on the front lines.

It's the details that make the unjustifiable-obscure Men Must Fight so fascinating. The very first scene is the essence of pre-code honesty: Laura and Geoffrey getting dressed after what was obviously a night of lovemaking.  As for the future, in 1940 people Skype and watch television. Elevators open into apartments. Seward's condemnation of Laura's pacifist speech -- "Any call for peace is not only cowardly but treachery" -- would be echoed in the post-9/11 era. Yet pilots are still flying World War I-era biplanes. Guess the crystal balls in the special effects unit weren't working that day.

Bombs over New York.
But when those old planes are flown by the enemy... well, if you're a New Yorker, just try to watch your city getting blown to bits without certain memories blooming like kudzu. That's the unwitting power of Men Must Fight -- tapping into a fear that few, if any, could foresee in 1933. It's a fear that never quite goes away for the rest of its running time. And that's when the shift from anti-war to pro-war sentiments begin.

Or does it? In the final scene, Bob files off to war as his mother, grandmother and wife Peggy watch from below. Laura and Peggy try to be optimistic, but Grandmother Seward is more clear-eyed, preferring that women rule the world, leaving the men to "crow and strut and be ornamental like roosters. That's the function of the male." Peggy then unknowingly echoes Laura's vow made years earlier: "If I ever have a child, he'll never go through this." Replies Grandma, "Fat luck you'll have anything to say about it. You'll be just another mother." Rarely has a movie ended on a more cynical yet honest line of dialogue. And yet the closing theme, a jolly military march, negates that powerful message. It's as if studio didn't exactly know what to make of its own production.


"I love you, mom -- er, sweetheart."
As with so many MGM releases of its time, the main characters in Men Must Fight are rich, beautiful and speak with continental (or at least stage-trained) accents. For Diana Wynyard, as Laura, that came easy enough, being British and everything. Primarily a stage actress, Men Must Fight was her third of only 14 movies. She has stagey moments -- her delivery can be a little florid for film -- but her eyes often convey emotions unspoken. And unlike many movie stars, Wynyard's character aging over a quarter-century is quite convincing, perhaps because here, even at age 27, she looked... well, let's say "mature" and leave it at that. In fact, her onscreen-lover, Robert Young, looks a decade younger despite being only 26.

(Off-topic: Wynyard's final TV appearance, in 1960, was in a series with what is now my favorite title, Armchair Mystery Theater. Are sofas any more tangible?)


If you believe this photo, Lewis Stone's character is using a Skype that doubles as a time machine: While he's in 1940, his wife is still a nurse in 1918. (In the movie itself, he's talking to his stepson.)




"Handsome? Who, me?"

The casting of Phillip Holmes as Bob is sheer genius. Look at that glamorous puss: he really could be Robert Young's son. Bob Seward's relationship with his stepfather, played by Lewis Stone, is genuinely heartwarming, with Edward treating him as his own offspring... until the boy decides war isn't cool. Bob insists that he's following the Seward tradition of thinking for himself, but Edward doubts the kid's perspicacity. He uses the moment to tell Bob the truth about his parental heritage with an honesty best described as brutal: "You have no moral right to use the name Seward. You're a member of this family through courtesy." Courtesy! Oof. Yow. Jeez. And just to make sure the kid gets the message, he adds, "You're not a Seward and you don't belong!" Of course, Bob continues to live at the family's Wrigley Field-sized apartment anyway to continue spouting off his anti-war manifesto.

Not to worry, though -- once Bob volunteers for certain death, he's back in stepdad's good graces. It's an unspoken irony that Edward originally arranged to have him serve on the homefront "where he's needed" rather than in combat. Just another perk of government service! 


Come to think of it, I wouldn't move out of this place, either.
Ironies and contradictions like these abound in Men Must Fight, one of MGM's most genuinely interesting 1930s releases. You have to give credit to a movie for predicting world war breaking out in 1940 -- one year before our involvement in real life. And if that's not some neat prognostication, the peace rally is held at the New York Coliseum, which opened in 1956! Although "credit" wouldn't be the right word to use when the destruction of the Empire State Building resembles that of the World Trade Center. Whatever audiences thought in 1933, viewing Men Must Fight today is alternately a compelling, amusing and, ultimately, eerie experience.

For another example, take the post-movie career of Phillip Holmes. The actor -- who, as Bob, played the pacifist-turned-air corpsman -- volunteered for the Royal Canadian Air Force in 1942. Did it cross his mind that his onscreen father in Men Must Fight died in action while serving in America's corresponding military branch during wartime? 

We'll never know. Holmes died in a mid-air collision while still in training. 

                                                *****************
From Men Must Fight: the bombing of New York.

BETTER THAN THE MOVIE

At some point during my single days, I became a vintage movie poster collector -- that is, the posters were vintage, not me. I quickly got the hang of the lingo (one-sheet, three-sheet, half-sheet, insert, lobby card). Even then, before the market exploded, certain titles and stars were out of my reach financially. Therefore, I started to focus on B-movies from the 40s and 50s, though occasionally I could find some from the 30s. Film noirs, bad girls, juvenile delinquents and exploitation pictures soon started covering my walls like some museum from hell. Friends would drop by, look around and either laugh or run out the door.

Sure, it would've been cool to have, say, an original King Kong one-sheet -- but what was wrong with titles like Rubber Racketeers, Two Dollar Bettor and I Was a Shoplifter? I looked for product from low-rent studios like Monogram and PRC -- they were not only the cheapest but had the gaudiest images and titles -- rarely paying more than $25 for stuff in those pre-ebay days that now go for up to ten times that much. The physical quality of the items can't be described as pristine. Not only are they 70 or so years old, but the lower the movie budget, the cheaper the paper quality. A few are little better than newsprint. That they've survived this long is a miracle.

You've heard of previews that give away the story? This poster does it with six two-word sentences on either side.
I loved it all. Over the course of a few years -- with a big boost from the auction held by the legendary Forrest J. Ackerman, publisher of Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine -- I had a collection to be proud of. 

To hear my wife tell it, she liked that I had a hobby... right up 'til the time we got married. Then suddenly the posters were consigned to closet. Oh, I was allowed a one-sheet (27 x 41) in the dining area, to be changed from time to time, but only with her approval. Briefly, I got to have an insert (14 x 36) up on the wall directly outside the bathroom. At some point, however, the little lady decided she'd had enough. It was only last year she felt pity on me and allowed four framed lobby cards, again in the dining area. I've changed a couple of them from time to time. In fact, just recently, I bought the lobby card featured on one of my previous pieces, How Doooo You Do!!!  (I had to look over at it just now to correctly spell "Doooo.") In the old days, I could've picked it up for five bucks. Now, it was $29.99 -- and cheap at that.

So you can imagine my surprise when, as Christmas was approaching, she happened upon a vintage movie poster store in the Village. This 1946 six-sheet in the window caught her eye -- as well as it should:
Quite the image -- especially at 81 x 81 inches. I tried picturing it over our couch -- it would've taken up pretty much the entire free space of the wall. I pulled it up online to run it by my daughter, whose first question was, "Is Mom OK with this?" She was stunned that the idea was, indeed, hers -- the same woman who greeted my every poster with a drippingly sarcastic, "Oh, that's uplifting." While my daughter has more adventurous tastes than her mother, this was too much even for her: "I couldn't go into the living room if that was there." 

Had we lived in a good-sized house, it would probably work. But in a typical 19th-century New York brownstone, it was a no-go. But it still had value, for it opened the door for me to put up one of my more acceptable one-sheets. Meaning, not Today I Hang (1942), Enemy of Women (1944), or the succinctly-titled Violence (1947).


Maybe it's me, but I can't find anything wrong with displaying this in our living room. Yes, it's me, alright.

So over the weekend, we went through the posters. Spreading them out on the floor brought me back 25 years. It was an emotional experience, matched only by the potentially-lethal dust spores I was inhaling. Taking photos from a little stepladder was our daughter. I admit to being a little concerned exposing her to some of this material. But she's been around me long enough to be totally blase about snapping shots of classics like Man Bait, Secrets of a Sorority Girl and Chained for Life (the latter starring real-life Siamese twins Daisy and Violet Hilton). Soon, we winnowed it down to three possibilities.

The Crimson Canary (1945) was my choice because of the vivid colors, great tagline ("RHYTHM CULTS EXPOSED!" -- what was this about, couples choosing natural birth control?), an unexpected credit ("JOSH WHITE singing his famous 'ONE MEAT BALL'") and, keeping my wife's delicate sensibilities in mind, low body count (only one corpse). As she asked, "Why are there always dead bodies in these things?" With the musicians featured so prominently, I thought it would make the living room look like a 52nd Street jazz joint. But, to my surprise, our daughter immediately zeroed in on another...




Club Havana (1945), one of the few movies from my poster collection that I've actually seen, is Grand Hotel on a 75-cent budget. Our daughter got a kick out of the floating heads and stick-figure nightclub setting at the bottom. The wife liked the colors used in the title and the awning behind it. As for me, it held a special place in my heart because of the talent involved. Tom Neal (star), Edgar G. Ulmer (director) and PRC (studio): the triumvirate responsible for the greatest film noir ever made, Detour. (Before its re-discovery in the in the mid-80s, you probably could have found Detour one-sheets for a double-sawbuck. Now just the lobby cards alone go for $500 each on ebay. Damn johnny-come-latelys!) I would have been happy with either of these... but then the girls' final choice caught me by surprise...
Mexican Police on Parade (1943), one of the dozens in MGM's Traveltalk series. These Technicolor one-reelers were mini-travelogues shot around the world by documentarian James A. Fitzpatrick, whose dry, stilted narration would be parodied years after they stopped being made. I taped several of these off TNT in the '80s and early '90s; they've always gone over well with the family. (They still turn up on TCM from time to time.) They're great time capsules -- the Los Angeles short has priceless footage of Walt Disney clowning around his studio circa 1935, while the people in featured in the Egypt short are so darned peaceful. In fact, every place covered in the Traveltalk shorts seems far more civilized than they do now. As for why the girls glommed onto the Mexican Police on Parade one-sheet, it was a combination of the Traveltalk cachet, the happy colors and, for my wife, it brought back memories of our recent vacation in Costa Rica. (Yes, I know, Mexico and Costa Rica are different countries, but to her it's the same idea.)

Now it's all a matter of getting a nice frame... and convincing her to put up two more over the couch. I'm thinking of starting with the grindhouse epic Blonde Pick-Up (1951), with the memorable tagline, "Introducing PEACHES PAGE, The Most Exciting Body In Hollywood." Excitement's a good thing, after all.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

HOW DOOOO YOU DO!!! (1945)

Allow me to pitch an idea for a comedy. A bunch of media celebrities are vacationing at a California spa. Their sexual and psychological tension is heightened when the spa goes into lockdown due to a murder. Each having a motive, they soon accuse each other of the crime. The local sheriff is stumped, especially when the body keeps disappearing, so five detectives are called in. Only they’re not real detectives, they play detectives in the movies. Oh, and the media celebrities and movie detective actors are played by themselves (not necessarily flatteringly), thus blurring the lines between fiction and reality.

Wait, wasn’t that a plotline from season three of Curb Your Enthusiasm? Perhaps – I don’t have HBO, so I wouldn’t know. What I can tell you is that I’ve just described How Doooo You Do!!!, a bizarre 1945 movie that manages to be both an accidental and deliberate parody of itself and the musical-comedy B-picture genre in general. That it came from PRC Pictures -- my favorite low-rent studio, and whose movie posters I used to rabidly collect -- makes it all the more worth watching ("worth watching" being a relative term).

As with TV today, many radio actors branched out into movies. (You can read an earlier post about Meet the Baron here to see how that turned out for Jack Pearl.) This being a PRC picture, however, How Doooo You Do!!! features not superstars Bob Hope and Bing Crosby but second-stringers Bert Gordon and Harry Von Zell. That alone was enough to make my mouth water in anticipation.


The subtle ways of Bert Gordon
As Eddie Cantor's stooge, Bert Gordon was the pop-eyed, Brillo-haired, chimpanzee-eared dialect comedian famous for his catchphrases, "Do you mean it?" and, of course, "How do you do?" (Readers of a certain age will remember those lines impersonated in several Warner Brothers cartoons.) During his career he was officially known as Bert Gordon (The Mad Russian). And throughout How Doooo You Do!!! he's addressed as "Russian" as if it were his legal name. Further clouding the issue is that he was American-born and speaks with more of a Yiddish than Russian inflection (although I hear traces of Greek, but I'm no dialectician, so don't go by me ).

Hey, look-a me! I'm on the radio!

Harry Von Zell, another member of the Eddie Cantor cast, was the Ed McMahon of his day, a jolly announcer who took part in whatever shenanigans were happening at any given moment. Possessing the personality of non-fat milk, Von Zell was inoffensive enough to land "real" acting roles as well. He's the only straightman ever to land a series of comedy shorts at Columbia.



Cheryl Walker, sleep with
Harry von Zell? I think not.
The other "as themselves" radio refugees are Claire Windsor, Cheryl Walker and Ella Mae Morse, the latter still riding a wave created by her hit single, "Cow-Cow Boogie." For reasons never explained, she's supposed to have a mad crush on the Mad Russian. Meanwhile, Von Zell's wife (never seen) is convinced that Cheryl Walker has the hots for Harry -- absurd, since Cheryl's clearly out of his league. Claire Windsor's raison d'etre is something of a mystery, since she adds nothing to the production other than a paycheck. (It was her first movie in seven years, and would never make another.)



But it's Bert Gordon that the studio was really promoting here. His style of comedy now extinct, watching him in action is like observing movie footage of a Cro-Magnon going about his business. Gordon's delivery is difficult to put into words. He opens his mouth as little as possible when speaking, avoids contractions and slurs most his dialogue in that whatever-the-hell-it-is singsong accent. (In my 30-plus years as a New Yorker, I've never heard anyone pronounce "funny" as "fun-yah.") Malaprops abound: "Rats sinking a deserted ship." "Hunky-punky" for "okey-dokey." "We are going for a little stroll. Would you like to be joining us up?"


Bert Gordon anticipates the hipster style by seven decades.
No one watching a movie called How Doooo You Do!!! is expecting S.J. Perleman, but, man, it must have taken a lot of thought on the part of Gordon and his writers to figure out how to misspeak every time he opened his mouth. I finally gave in when he asked Cheryl how she was so sure about a decision:

CHERYL: My feminine intuition tells me.
BERT: Why do you listen to your relatives?

Yes, I laughed at loud. A one-note laugh, but a laugh nonetheless. Again, it's all in the delivery, the way he usually puts the emphasis on the first syllable, then goes flat for a while, then repeats the process: "WHY do you LISten to your RELatives?" Now try it with a chimerical Eastern European accent, with your mouth half-closed and your ears sticking out like the doors of a Studebaker. It's fun-yah, goddammit!

And let's not forget the music. Who needs show-offs like, say, Cole Porter to liven up the score when you've got songs like "A 12-Hour Pass, A Gallon of Gas and You" and "Drink to Me With Only Thine Eyes ('Cause I'm On the Wagon Tonight)"? I don't care if they're lip-synching; I'll take How Doooo You Do!!! over Les Miserables any day.

Mind you, there is actual wit to be found here. Early on, Harry Von Zell exchanges some funny verbal backscratching with his equally-pompous fellow radio announcer Harlow Wilcox. And a lengthy scene near the beginning is an interesting recreation of a real radio broadcast of the time.

James Burke, Leslie Denison, Keye Luke and Benson Fong
look at nothing in particular.

The appearance of the detective actors as themselves -- including Charlie Chan's #1 son Keye Luke -- is a major treat, too. (When one of them, Fred Kelsey, is reminded that the last "crime" he solved was only a picture, he's replies proudly, "Pretty good for a B-movie!") It's easy to feel that these guys are getting a kick out of the whole enterprise -- putting on themselves, the studio and the audience.

Bonus points, too, for Charles Middleton -- a/k/a Ming the Merciless from the Flash Gordon serial -- as the sheriff. As with many B-movies of its time, How Doooo You Do!!! is awash with familiar, interesting middle-aged faces you rarely saw in any production with a budget over $100,000, but who deliver the goods every time. (Did I say "middle-aged"? Charles Middleton was born in 1874 -- nine years after the end of the Civil War!)

As for the climax, it would take something mighty strange to top what's gone on before. And it does. After three people confess to the murder of a certain Mr. Thornton, he suddenly appears, having only been in a drug-induced coma to cure his heart disease. (You don't go to the movies for medical advice, do you?) As THE END appears, we pull back to discover we're in the PRC screening room, where the principal cast members have just watched the movie. They believe they've got a hit on their hands, while the studio executive gravely warns them that it's unreleasable -- the audience prefers a story "formula," he claims, and will demand a murder victim.

Bert Gordon asks that the movie be rewound to the final scene. Once again, Thornton makes his entrance. He barely has a chance to open his mouth when Gordon (in the screening room) pulls out a gun and fires at the screen. Thornton falls dead. The onscreen cast shrieks in horror. Gordon turns to us and, with a smile, says, "And they lived happy ever after." You, on the other hand, are left to ask aloud, "What the hell did I just watch?" That's my kind of movie.


Yes, a pseudo Russian-Yiddish-something-or-other accent.
The studio must have considered How Doooo You Do!!! almost an A-picture since it has better-than-usual production values and runs 82 minutes (which, by PRC standards, is akin to Gone with the Wind). Still, How Doooo You Do!!! didn't doooo much for Bert Gordon's movie aspirations, although he continued to be a presence on radio and television for years to come. Harry von Zell is best remembered now as the neighbor on the Burns & Allen TV show (which, like How Doooo You Do!!!, used the anomalous story-within-a-story concept).

For my money, How Doooo You Do!!! is more entertaining than many A-movies of its day because it's not trying to be anything other than what it was meant to be: a ridiculous, low-budget picture with more out-of-the-box thinking than most comedies the major studios were turning out at the time. And you can bet it turned a profit. (With PRC's budgets, that was never a problem.)

As for its place in 20th-century culture, the AFI will never pay for a digital restoration of it, nor will it make the Library of Congress' National Film Registry. Big deal. Do you really want to watch government-approved entertainment?

And just to show you how much I enjoyed and respected How Doooo You Do!!!, I typed out that damn title each time, carefully counting the o's and exclamation marks, rather than taking the easy copy-and-paste route.

I know what you're thinking: Do you mean it?



Mad right to the end.


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

The original trailer for How Dooo You Do!!! What would you have made of it? And why?


Thursday, January 10, 2013

INFLATION (1942)

The economic debate -- or rather, non-debate -- in Congress for seemingly the past triple eon has made Americans feel they've been dragged the roots of Hell. If you were conspiracy-minded, you'd probably think that Satan himself was behind the whole mess.

You'd be in good company, for in 1942 that's exactly what was implied when MGM released the short, Inflation. In just 15 minutes, audiences were given a crash course on the then-current economic crisis -- what inflation was, how it grows and how you, the American public, could put an end to it. And if you didn't pitch in, it was because you, the American public, were in the grips of the Devil himself. Literally.


It doesn't take much to amuse Satan.
The Devil makes his entrance proving he enjoys a good time as much as anyone, roaring with laughter as the
Axis-invaded nations go up in flames. But his fun is interrupted by a phone call from Hitler. The Fuhrer demands that something be done about America's gung-ho spirit. Not to worry -- the Devil, with the help of his sexy Executive Assistant, has just the thing to wreck the USA, just the way it did Germany in the early 1930s. Tainted sauerkraut, you  might think? Bad folk dancing? A shortage of blood sausage? No: inflation!

"We can't afford it -- let's buy it!"
Up on earth, Joe Smith has decided to blow his paycheck by taking the little lady on a spending spree. Four dresses and a fur coat later, Joe's ready to splurge on some new duds for himself. (In typical detached-from-reality movie manner, Joe, a construction worker, hankers for a top hat, walking stick, six ties and a bunch of jackets.) Just as he's ready to purchase a new radio, Joe's brought down to earth when President Roosevelt's dulcet voice comes over the air. With the ease of a Harvard professor, FDR explains the new economic facts of life: Quit spending so much! Joe decides he's done enough damage to the checkbook for the day.

The Devil is only momentarily discouraged before bouncing back. He and his assistant go to earth to personally drive American consumers to the dark side. Soon, people are buying silk stockings on the black market. Hoarding food. Cashing in War Bonds to buy cars. Toasting marshmallows without a permit. (I made up that last one.)

We're not talking preparing for the
Macy's parade, bub.
That does the trick. The Devil gleefully prepares Hitler for what's going to happen next to these greedy Americans.  Goods will disappear and prices will skyrocket, causing a Depression worse than America has just experienced. Wounded soldiers will never receive medical supplies. Mass hysteria will break out like a bed bug infestation on the Lower East Side. And all because you wanted an extra can of Crisco, you traitor.

Finally noticing the audience, the Devil generously invites us to move to his bailiwick: "You know, we have a lot to offer here. Parades. Guns. Racial superiority, heel-clicking, heil-calling. And the joy and glory of slaving and dying for a fuhrer."

Well, it's hard to turn down a solicitation like that -- how do we sign up? "Complain about taxes," he advises, "beef about price ceilings and wages and rents." (Welcome to New York!) "Do these things and you and I will get together much faster. Do these things and oblige my friend." He nods to the phone, where we hear Hitler screaming, "Sieg heil! Sieg heil! Sieg heil!" Per usual with long distance, the landline makes for a better connection than a cell.


He's one hell of a dresser.
Long-time character actor Edward Arnold plays the Big Evil Guy himself. As with Alan Mowbray in The Devil with Hitler, the Devil dresses in formal attire and is the most cultured, well-mannered guy on the block.  Too, he possesses what can only be called a wicked sense of humor -- speculating that his new guests, German soldiers, will enjoy some warmth after fighting on the freezing Russian front.

And talk about articulate! When speaking to Hitler, the Devil makes sure to pronounce the "L" in "Adolf." If he ever wanted a career change, he could easily be a narrator on the Metropolitan Museum of Art's podcast tours.



In Hell, every room's a smoking room
Despite the movie poster atop this page, it's not at all clear that Hitler is really pulling the strings. The Devil, in fact, appears to be humoring his freund Adolf, letting him think that he's running the show.  But it's the Devil's chain-smoking assistant (played by Vicky Lane) who comes up with the whole inflation gag. To the Devil's credit, unlike many bosses he's open to suggestions. And if I had an assistant like her, I'd be open to anything. (Insert Bob Hope growl here.)

Despite the overall fantasy concept of Inflation, Mr. & Mrs. Joe Smith's shopping spree unwittingly captures a true-life marriage situation. See, the wife has no problem with Joe buying her a closet worth of new clothes on the installment plan. But as soon he starts treating himself to a couple of things, suddenly he's spending too much. Atta girl! You get yours and to hell with hubby! 

The only thing we have to fear is
profit itself.
Good thing the president sets them straight. In the calm, measured tones of someone who never had to look at a price-tag in his life, FDR explains that the cost of the war will mean higher taxes, wage and price controls, fewer goods and "heavier taxes [to] keep personal and corporate profits to low, reasonable rates." Just what counts as "reasonable," he never explains. What would you consider a reasonable profit for you, dear reader?


Esther Williams onland --
I didn't recognize her
with her clothes on.
As with other studios, MGM used its short subject department as something of a farm league for their newly-signed players. If they made a good impression, they'd get bumped up the B-movies. A few more hits and it was the A's. Inflation was no different, introducing swimmer Esther Williams (as Joe Smith's clotheshorse wife) to the movie-going public. She has a great moment at the electronics store, trying to convince Joe that the radio they currently own is good enough. No; the new one, he says, has better "pick-up." She quietly mutters "pick-up" with an exhausted shake of her head and roll of her eyes, like countless wives who just don't get their husbands' obsession with the latest gadget.

I sadly admit my grasp of economics is so poor that I learned more from Inflation than I had in my entire life. Other people are quick learners. Like Al Gore. The New York Times reported that the former Vice-President was eager to sell his laughingstock cable network Current TV to Al-Jazeera by December 31, 2012. Otherwise, he'd have had to pay higher taxes on his -- ahem -- reasonable profits.

Al Gore, deliberately avoiding paying higher taxes at the cost of the nation's good? The devil you say!

                                                  ******************
For another example of Hollywood's take on the close, personal relationship between Hitler and the Devil, see my previous movie post here.

Monday, January 7, 2013

CALLING DR. GILLESPIE (1942)

Attention, ladies! If your boyfriend registers displeasure by bashing in a puppy's skull with a rock, do you:
A) Call a cop?
B) Run like hell in the opposite direction?
C) Stick by his side until he murders three people and tries for a fourth?


While Marcia looks forward to
marriage, Tod has his eyes on a
cocker spaniel.
If your answer is (C), then you're ready to check into Calling Dr. Gillespie's Blair General Hospital, where the crustier-than-stale-farm bread Dr. Leonard Gillespie runs the show from his wheelchair with an iron fist and a hot temper. With the help of  Dr. John Hunter Gernide, the old bird decides that Roy Todwell, fiance of Marcia Bradburn, needs help. Or, as Gillespie sympathetically tells Todwell's parents,"I'm sorry to say, but your son is a mental case." Not to worry, though -- a psychological trigger, he assures them, can turn anyone into "a homicidal maniac." (My former boss would probably agree.) 

 Roy's parents are in denial -- perhaps they have friends who smash puppy's skulls in on a regular basis -- as is their know-it-all family doctor. Even after Roy inexplicably smashes a storefront window, jumps around like an epileptic Mexican jumping bean and swears to kill Gillespie, all that's prescribed is a good nap. Son of Sam wishes he had such understanding people around him. 

Look at him -- I told you the maniac's doctor was a know-it-all.


"Darling, where'd you learn to handle the scalpel so well?"

But thanks to the ol' palming-the-sleeping-tablet routine, Todwell makes his escape, first to Boston, then to Detroit, all the while dropping Gillespie the occasional threatening postcard. (Weather beautiful. Toured the Chevy factory. I'm going to slash your throat.) After knocking off a couple of car dealership employees -- and is that really a crime? -- Todwell returns to Blair General where he kills a visiting doctor and assumes his identity. This being called Calling Dr. Gillespie and not Calling Precinct 14, the cops guarding the hospital are of no use. It's Gernide who hatches a scheme to lure Todwell into being captured, and Gillespie's bodyguard who nails him on the head with a well-aimed monkey-wrench. Blair General can resume its usual routine of receptionists cracking wise, interns tripping over their shoelaces and nurses flirting with wealthy cardiac patients.

Calling Dr. Gillespie was to have been the ninth in MGM's enormously popular Dr. Kildare movie series, which began in 1938. These are the kind of movies where deafness is cured with a vitamin B shot and schizophrenia by putting the patient into insulin shock. In Calling Dr. Gillespie, Dr. Gernide figures out that the sound of train whistles set off Todwell's murderous rages. (Times were much simpler then.) And unlike many other movie series of the time, the Kildare films had continuing storylines so that audiences felt involved in the characters' lives. Think of them as a B-movie Berlin Alexanderplatz. Go ahead, I dare you.


Phillip Dorn:
"I'll make you forget your
draft-dodging Kildare!"

Barrymore demands that Ayres get out of
his camera range.
Lew Ayres, the title star, upset the Kildare cart by declaring himself a conscientious objector after our involvement in World War II. Even Ayres joining the Medical Corps and serving on the frontlines -- unarmed -- didn't sit well with the public. Having already filmed the movie as Born to be Bad, MGM reshot Ayres' scenes wth Dutch actor Phillip Dorn (who looks like a cross between Fred Allen and Frank Sinatra) as Dr. Gernide. This allowed Lionel Barrymore, as Kildare's mentor Gillespie, to chew the scenery even more than usual, enough to wear down his molars. This is not a slam against Barrymore -- I find him to be extremely entertaining, often more than his brother John. I mean, if I'm watching an actor, I want to see him act! And boy does he ever -- shouting, snarling, snorting, chuckling, squinting and whatever other gerund you can think of. 

(While we're on the subject, my daughter noticed the similarities between Barrymore's Gillespie and Hugh Laurie's Dr. Gregory House. Both are cranks; have problems getting around; play piano; are the Sherlock Holmes of the sawbones set; and have utterly ridiculous medical theories which inevitably prove correct.)


Calling Dr. Gillespie goes into territory previously unexplored in the Kildare series; i.e., homicidal mania. Harold S. Bucquet, the series' regular director, must have enjoyed the change of pace, as he shoots some scenes bordering on film noir. Running close to an hour and a half, Calling Dr. Gillespie is about 15 minutes longer than the previous Kildare movies as well, as if the studio decided to go the extra mile to make up for the loss of Lew Ayres. Yet it still finds time to cram in many of the usual characters, including the Sally the smartass receptionist, Nurse "Nosey" Parker and, my personal favorite, ambulance driver Joe Wayman, played by Nat Pendelton, whose lifelong onscreen characters could all be described as "professional dumbbell."

You'd trust this guy behind the wheel of
an ambulance, right?

The Kildare series also proved a training ground for new MGM talent, including Red Skelton and Van Johnson. For Calling Dr. Gillespie, it's Donna Reed as Todwell's clueless fiancee. And, to my welcome shock, an unbilled Ava Gardner as one of the prep school students. (Even with only a couple of lines of dialogue, 19 year-old Ava radiates the charisma that would turn her into a full-fledged star.)
Irony alert: Dr. Gillespie on
a cigarette trading card.

Just in case any fans wondered if the series would continue without Kildare, an onscreen announcement following the closing credits assures them them the next chapter in the series would be Dr. Gillespie's New Assistant. It was pretty obvious by then that the real star of the series, the one that audiences were paying to see, was Lionel Barrymore. People loved the gruff-on-the-outside-soft-on-the-inside guy who put the "Unc" into avuncular. 

That wheelchair wasn't a prop, either, Barrymore having both arthritis and a fractured hip keeping him off his feet. At the time, it was a well-kept secret that his pain was alleviated by daily cocaine injections. MGM boss Louis B. Mayer was thoughtful enough to supply the coke himself, although deducted the cost from Barrymore's weekly salary and, presumably, declared it a tax write-off. (By the way, Dr. Gregory House is a Vicodin addict.)

Don't be fooled by
that boyish smile.
But there's one actor -- the only one I've seen in any of the Kildare/Gillespie movies -- that really interested me other than Barrymore. And in Calling Dr. Gillespie it's Phil Brown. In his first moments as Roy Todwell, Brown appears to be your typical B-movie leading man: young, charming, bland. But the moment he kills the puppy, Brown becomes the creepiest guy in town, even when putting on the nice-guy act. With eyes half-shut and a smile that says Oh boy, I can't wait to kill again, Brown takes charge of all his scenes, elevating the movie from its B-movie settings. To me, his performance is the blueprint for all the movie stalkers that were to come in later years. I kept asking myself, Who is this actor and why haven't I seen him anywhere else?


It's a long way from Blair General
Hospital to Tatooine.
Well, it didn't help that Phil Brown was one of the many victims of the HUAC investigations of the '50s. (Destroying as many non-Communists as not, HUAC was Congress' very own assault rifle.) Brown continued his career in the UK. Further research showed  that I had indeed seen him at least one other time. Thirty-five years after Calling Dr. Gillespie, he had the small but pivotal role as Luke Skywalker's Uncle Owen in the original Star Wars. From then until his death in 2006, Brown was a welcome presence at sci-fi conventions and autograph shows everywhere.

Calling Dr. Gillespie is my favorite kind of old movie, one that delivers far more than expected. Had I seen Calling Dr. Gillespie in my younger years, I'd have gotten my hands on a poster featuring Phil Brown's creepy image and attended one of his conventions. As I slipped it in front of him, I'd sigh, "You were one of my favorite mental cases ever!" I'd like to think he'd have appreciated it.


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It has nothing to do with the movie, but here's the Gene Krupa Orchestra performing "Calling Doctor Gillespie."