Wednesday, September 25, 2013

YELLOW CARGO (1936)

Just in case you thought Yellow Cargo was a movie version of "The Banana Boat Song," a quick look at the poster to the left -- specifically the title's font -- should set you straight. As an immigrant official in the movie explains, "Asiatics are being smuggled in by land and water." I Googled the word "Asiatic" just to see if I could find a recent usage in the New York Times, but came up with (that means "zero." There was no Chinese word for "bupkis"). Movies like Yellow Cargo weren't meant to stand the test of time. They exist today as they did when they were originally released -- to entertain, albeit on a different level.



"The problem is, a half hour later they
feel like smuggling them in again. HAHAHA!"




Allan O'Connor, a federal narc, is temporarily assigned to the Immigration Bureau to discover who's behind the Chinese smuggling operation in Los Angeles. As with the hero of Sucker Money, O'Connor is a former actor -- was this a common career move during the Depression or just a convenient way for moviemakers to explain the leading man's, well, leading man's looks?  This particular leading man, by the way, is Conrad Nagel, who often resembles James Spader when you least expect it. (Had things been different, Nagel might have starred in Sex, Lies and Flammable Celluloid.


"You must be an actor; you're always in
the same profile."
Soon after O'Connor arrives in L.A., he discovers the smugglers are operating under the guise of Globe Productions, a phony independent movie production company run by Al Perrelli and Montie Brace, who are even more disreputable than the Weinsteins. Under the guise of making a melodrama about Chinese pirates, Perrelli and Brace ferry 20 white actors (in Asiatic make-up) per day to an island off the coast. After shooting 30 seconds of footage, they pay off the extras and send them home on another boat. Real Chinese illegals are then smuggled back in the extras' place. If you ever wondered how studios stay afloat after releasing big-budget flops, there's your answer. 


Crack reporter Bobbie Reynolds displays her
Star Trek costume while her photographer
looks on in confusion.
O'Connor is aided by wisecracking reporter -- like there's any other kind -- Bobbie Reynolds, who takes a shine to him, probably because he looks like James Spader. She's been trying to do a story on Globe Productions, but keeps getting stonewalled. In an effort to go undercover in their criminal activities, O'Connor almost begs to be an extra in Perrelli and Brace's "movie" but keeps getting the brush-off. C'mon, Allan, the casting couch works for guys, too, y'know!



O'Connor almost gives himself away
by showing his right profile yet again.
Up 'til now, the audience's credulity has been stretched thinner than Gwyneth Paltrow on the Ex-Lax diet. But forehead-palming time really arrives when O'Connor successfully disguises himself as an extra without Perrelli recognizing him from two inches away. Meanwhile Bobbie and photographer Bulbs Callahan start snooping around as well. Soon the jig is up, leading to a chase scene featuring a highway sign reading U.S. 61. Just how they suddenly got on a road that runs from Louisiana to Minnesota is one of Yellow Cargo's many unexplained mysteries.

Two guys in the front seat with a bound & gagged
woman -- no, nothing suspicious here.
All turns out well -- Bulbs sticks a pin in the neck of the driver, which appears to kill him. (No matter how many old low-budget movies I've seen, I'm still pleasantly surprised by the endless ways they make absolutely no sense.) O'Connor, who has been on their trail after getting out of a hospital bed with a gunshot wound, cuffs the bad guys.  O'Connor and Bobbie admit their true identities to each other, Bobbie being yet another Federal agent on the trail of the smuggling gang. If all Feds are as dizzy as her, we can expect a terrorist takeover of the Herald Square Mall any day.

If LAX looked like this today, I'd live there.
For a movie that's supposed to be about human smuggling, Yellow Cargo's most interesting moments are those that have nothing to do with it. The location shots in and around L.A., so prevalent in budget-minded movies of its time, are always entertaining. (The original Los Angeles Airport looks more like a hacienda.) Too, the  subplot offers what are probably pretty accurate representations how fly-by-night studios operated, even if they weren't criminal fronts. And there's plenty of shoptalk, too. Bobbie wonders why a movie producer like Montie Brace doesn't want any publicity: "He's hiding something -- third dimension, color processor, another Garbo." Yes, they were talking about 3-D movies in 1936.  But the line must have hit a little too close to home for Conrad Nagel. Early in his career, he played Garbo's lover in M-G-M's extravagant The Mysterious Lady. Now here he was stooging for an actress with a Bronx accent (in L.A.?) in a Grand National programmer. But perhaps Nagel accepted his fate, if this quote is any indication:

"What, another freaking movie?!"
I was never a big star, so I never had a role like Moses or D'Artagnan. But being assigned to 31 pictures in 24 months, I had an opportunity to play every type of part. The variety, though, didn't keep me from becoming a drug on the market. My wife would say, "Well, let's go out and see a movie tonight." We'd get in the car and discover that I'm playing at the Paramount Theater. And I'm playing at the Universal Theater. And the MGM Theater. We couldn't find a theater where I wasn't playing. So we'd go back home. I was an epidemic.

Thirty-one movies in two years! I've known actors who would destroy any vaccine to be an epidemic like that.

Per usual, it's the character actors who steal the show here. Vince Barnett (Bulbs Callahan) was the archetypal mousie guy who could trip over his own shoelaces even if he wore loafers. He's given several slapstick bits in Yellow Cargo, including sitting on a miniature cactus -- hilarious only because it's so abruptly edited. (You have to see it to understand.) Working well into the 1970s, Barnett's greatest on-screen credit was in 1954's Red Planet Mars where he played Seedy Man Listening to Radio, a part that resonates quite deeply with me.

You wouldn't expect Al Perrelli to be played by an actor named Jack La Rue. But it starts to make sense when you realize he was born Gaspere Biondolillo. La Rue kept pretty busy in B-movie gangster roles, never really graduating to the A-league. You might say he didn't have the range of his contemporaries. Couldn't sing and dance like Cagney or play empathetic like Bogart or cultivate an air of refinement like Robinson. But in his own way La Rue's more convincing than all of them because of his limitations -- I mean, did John Gotti have a lot of range? Jack La Rue looks and talks like an honest-to-God hoodlum. (He's terrifying in the pre-code shocker The Story of Temple Drake.) And if Matt LeBlanc from Friends had entered crime instead of show business, he'd have looked just like him.

It's always interesting to see movies like Yellow Cargo -- that is, those made in pre-enlightened times -- just to hear how casually language deemed insulting today was not only accepted but part of the common vocabulary. The extras portraying "coolies," for instance. Bobbie, trying to remember a Chinese official's name, jokingly comes up with "Long Hot Poo." That's the kind of jape I use at home just to get a rise of out the missus and to make our semi-politically correct 17 year-old daughter laugh in spite of herself. This should give you further evidence, as if any was needed, of my emotional (im)maturity. 

So yes, times change. At some point, probably when it was sold to TV in the '50s, the title Yellow Cargo was considered disparaging enough to warrant a change. Take a look at the title credit of the prints now in circulation. If you were Chinese, would this make you feel better about yourself?




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

Friday, September 20, 2013

APOLOGY FOR MURDER (1945)

Maybe it's just my dumb luck, but I never met a woman who convinced me to murder her husband. It seemed to be all the rage in '40s movies, though, to the point where the studios were flirting with copyright infringement. 

Picture the dingy office of Sigmund Nuefeld, the president of PRC Pictures. Surrounded by clouds of cigar smoke, Nuefeld is sitting across the desk from his brother, director Sam Newfield. (If you don't want to be accused of nepotism, make the name change just a little less obvious, bub.) They're discussing the studio's next round of releases. 

SIGMUND: I was thinking -- remember Double Indemnity?

SAM: What, with Stanwyck and whatshisname, Freddie Murray? 

SIGMUND: Fred MacMurray. Yeah. It made a mint. Why don't we just do another version?

SAM: A remake? Paramount owns the property.


"Hey, didn't MacMurray and
Stanwyck meet on the stairs, too?"



SIGMUND: No, not a remake. Just -- the same, only different. Dame puts the moves on some sap, gives him a song and dance about her mean rich husband. Convinces the sap to knock him off so they can collect the shekels and run away. Only instead of an insurance agent, the guy's a reporter. And the Edward G. Robinson part, the insurance investigator who smells a rat? We make him the newspaper editor who smells a rat. 

SAM: Sig, you're a genius. Say, you've got Hugh Beaumont and Ann Savage under contract. Squint your eyes and they look like Murray and Stanwyck.

SIGMUND: MacMurray. Think you could finish it by Friday?

SAM: Gimme an extra C-note and you'll have gift-wrapped on Thursday.

SIGMUND: Whaddaya trying to do, break the budget?

One of the most shameless unofficial remakes ever made, Apology for Murder entertains whether you've seen Double Indemnity or not. In fact, it may be even more entertaining if you have, just to marvel at how they got away with it by making the smallest of changes.

Don't do it, Hugh! She isn't worth it!
Like instead of the sap cracking the husband on the skull before making it look like he fell off a train, the sap in Apology for Murder cracks him on the skull before making it look like he drove off a cliff. Oh, and the sap is typing his confession when his boss walks in on him at the office in the middle of the night rather than speaking it into a Dictaphone when his boss walks in on him at the office in the middle of the night. Things like that kept the Paramount lawyers away from the door.


I knew there was a reason why I once referred to Hugh Beaumont as the Poverty Row Fred MacMurray. Not only is there a physical similarity, they sound pretty near the same as well. He even keeps calling Ann Savage "baby" the way MacMurray does Stanwyck. They probably could've traded their roles in Leave it to Beaver and My Three Sons without anyone noticing the difference.

The grief-stricken widow poses for a
shutterbug.
Come to think of it, that leads to another similarity --  the initial shock of seeing a baby-boomer icon of family sitcom fun as a killer. But a key difference is that MacMurray, in Double Indemnity, is a sleazeball right from the get-go, more than happy to start an affair with a married woman, even if it means sending the husband on a one-way trip to the morgue. Beaumont, on the other hand, as affable newspaper reporter Kenny Blake, is led to believe that Toni Kirkland (Ann Savage) is single until their affair gets red hot. Kenny looks for an out, but once Toni flashes those baby-blues, pickers her lips and gives him the ol' song-and-dance about her terrible husband, they start brainstorming their matricide machinations. 

It's hard for a reporter to maintain his
objectivity when he's the real killer.
Once hubby is over the cliff, things start to go awry. Kenny's editor assigns him to cover the husband's death, which, despite having the aura of an accident, has more than a whiff of murder. Something of a drinker already, Kenny really becomes friendly with Jim Beam when the boys from Homicide pin Harvey's death on a business associate, Craig Jordan. While Toni is delighted that Craig is going to take the rap all the way to the gas house, Kenny is conscience-stricken. Adding insult to psychological injury, his editor discovers that Toni's having an affair with her lawyer, Allen Webb. "Anyone who'd go for a phony like her," the editor confidently tells Kenny, "can't be very bright." Ouch! (In one of those only-I-would-notice things, Kenny's editor is named Ward, which was Hugh Beaumont's character on Leave it to Beaver. To those who say there are no coincidences, I say... Eh.)

A man can take just so much from a dame, so when Kenny decides to pay Toni a visit in order to catch her with Webb, guns are drawn. ("You raise murder to a high degree of efficiency," Kenny tells her almost admiringly.) In short order, all three are plugged, with Kenny living long enough to drive back to work in order to write his confession. Frankly, it was no more convincing when MacMurray did it in Double Indemnity.

The Brangelina of Poverty Row. 
Where Apology for Murder surpasses Double Indemnity is the stars' sexual heat. Lacking Billy Wilder and Raymond Chandler's brilliant dialogue, Beaumont and Savage have to rely strictly on their own personal style, and it's more than enough. Fitting of their Hollywood status, neither resemble A-level movie stars; nor do the slightly grungy sets scream glamor. But as many a B-movie has proven, sexual steam rises higher when it mirrors real life.


Ann in a not-so savage moment.
Much of that heat is freely emitted by Ann Savage, the greatest of the Poverty Row bad girls. Just watch her here when she first realizes that Beaumont's the Class A-1 pigeon she's been waiting for. No words are spoken -- just the look in her eyes and a razor-thin, humorless smile telegraph what she has in mind. I've always had a thing for film noir dolls, the kind you don't know whether to kiss or kill. And Beaumont ultimately does both, muttering, "You're not to fit to live" as he pulls the trigger after she's shot him. Yet even as life drips from him, he lovingly whispers to her corpse, "Wait for me, baby. I won't be long." Despite being played for the king of fools, he still can't get over her. And apparently, neither could movie director Guy Maddin, having cast Savage in the lead of his black & white noirish release, My Winnipeg in 2007, a year before her death at 87. What a doll. 

PRC director Edgar G. Ulmer supposedly claimed that the studio's original title for Apology for Murder was Single Indemnity, which is either a good joke or a shamelessness unmatched even by Hollywood standards. But as film historian Michael Price pointed out, before the TV-era there was usually no way you could ever see your favorite movie again once it left town. These low-budget copycat releases helped you re-live the experience. (Today's studios, however, have no excuse.) Taken strictly on its own terms, Apology for Murder is a fine hour's entertainment.  While the dialogue isn't as hard-bitten as Double Indemnity's, it's certainly well chewed by its stars. Jack Newfield's direction makes sure the pace never flags. Best of all, Hugh Beaumont and Ann Savage are no less mesmerizing than their A-list counterparts. Apology for Murder has nothing to apologize for.

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

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

TURN BACK THE CLOCK (1933)

Anybody who says, "I have no regrets" is either a liar or Ivana Trump, who made that grand pronouncement at the age of 17. (Being born to a multi-millionaire and whose future was assured when she was still an embryo -- and she had no regrets?  My hat's off to her.) Everybody plays the old "what if" game. I do it all the time. What if I hadn't started losing my hair 30 years ago? What if I had become an over-priced plumber instead of a blogger? What if I had been one of the cool kids instead of watching old movies that no one else my age had the slightest interest in?

At this point, my wife is probably wondering, What if I had thought twice about accepting a first date with my husband? And so the fantasies begin, spinning like a pinwheel, creating a new life where all is perfect, every move is charmed and each strand of hair in place. In movies, however, the fantasies turn out badly so as to make the audience feel better about themselves -- and the moviemakers better about their great lives. I can't swear Turn Back the Clock was the first "if I could do it all again" picture, but I'd have to go back in time to be sure.

Joe Gimlet, the owner of a cigar store, is visited by an old friend, Ted Wright, now a multimillionaire banker married to Joe's former girlfriend, Elvina. When Joe's wife, Mary, refuses Ted's offer to invest their $4000 savings for a
"There's no place like the past... there's no place
like the past..."
"guaranteed" $20,000 return, Joe walks out and is hit by a car. While under anesthesia, Joe gets his drunken wish to live his life over again. (The visuals for Joe's trip to dreamland would be replicated in The Wizard of Oz six years later -- minus the tornado and Toto.) If this had happened to me every time I was visited by a rich friend from the old days, I'd have my own wing at New York Presbyterian Hospital. That's why I stay home and curse the bathroom mirror.

Joe gets to return home and get nagged
by Mom all over again.
One by one, Joe's wishes come true. He marries Elvina, becomes a partner in her father's real estate business, and focuses on making money. Lots of money. Enough to give away a million dollars to veterans, which doesn't sit well with Elvina. Joe's predictions of World War I land him a job as a presidential advisor... which he loses when he starts stepping on the toes of war profiteers. (Presidential advisors have not repeated that mistake since.) But so busy has he been trying to make money that Elvina begins an affair with a banker named Holmes, with whom she secretly invests her and Joe's life savings right before the '29 Crash -- the Crash that Joe warned her was coming. Message to you ladies out there: Your husband knows best. Listen to him.

Joe, by the way, figured out that Elvina was having an affair when he found one of Holmes' shoes in their living room -- which means the guy must have walked out with one shoeless foot. Speaking strictly as a movie fan, this was a plot device, I believe, that could have used a little work.

"You dressed a little better
when we were married, but
I forgive you."

Joe finally realizes how how badly he's messed up his life when he drops by his old cigar store -- now owned by Joe Wright, who's, of course, married to Mary. Joe, it seems, never really quite stopped loving Mary. And it's Mary he turns to when his banking partners, who have been ripping off the business, hang him out to dry when the Feds come calling. That's like a man, right? When the chips are down, go back to the woman that you dumped for the hot cookie. Joe wants her to run away with him to Athens (Athens?), but Mary -- who's always loved him -- refuses to leave her stogie-salesman husband. Message to the men: You're all the same, you bastards.

The Cabinet of Dr. Gimlet
In the resulting nightmarish, layer-upon-layer montage that wouldn't have looked out of place in an old Ufa psychological drama, Joe is chased by what appears to be every Tommy-gun-toting cop in New York. After escaping a firing squad, Joe runs into a cabal of cops who proceed to beat the living crap out of him... just as he awakens in his hospital room with Mary, Ted and Elvina at his side. Relieved that he's still married to Mary, he sighs, "I wouldn't change places with Ted Wright for a million dollars." Easy for the writers to say.


Much of Turn Back the Clock's success is attributable to Lee Tracy (as Joe Gimlet), the cynical, fast-talking actor previously discussed in Washington Merry-Go-Round. Possessing a nasal twang that sounds like W.C. Fields on amphetamines, Tracy, while forgotten by all but the most diehard movie fans, is ironically probably the most representative of the early '30s acting style: snappy, sardonic, self-confident -- James Cagney without the rough edges. Somebody give this guy a film festival.
 

Not just knuckleheads.
A welcome surprise is the brief appearance by The Three Stooges as the singing trio performing at Joe and Elvina's wedding -- a rare M-G-M appearance without their mentor, Ted Healy. It's the closest they came to a "straight" part -- no comedy, just the three-part harmony Stooges fans will recognize when they would occasionally break out into "You'll Never Know Just What Tears Are," a parody of barbershop-harmony tearjerkers they wrote with Healy. Here, Moe and Larry sport early 20th-century haircuts while Curley, as usual, is tennis-ball bald.

At least one star of Turn Back the Clock, Peggy Shannon (Elvina), might have wanted to turn back the clock herself. Her entry on imdb.com is something out of Hollywood Babylon: "From 1937, her career was increasingly afflicted by alcoholism. On May 11, 1941, Shannon's second husband, Albert G. Roberts, and his friend found [her] slumped over the kitchen table dead with her head down on her arms, a cigarette in her mouth, and an empty glass in her hand. 19 days after Shannon's death, Roberts fatally shot himself right on the spot where she died."


Turn Back the Clock's cast and fascinating script (by Edgar Selwyn and Ben Hecht) are superlative, even if its basic storyline contains nothing really surprising: Man is tired of his middle-class life, wishes he could live it all again a different way, realizes he had it better before. You could reach into a box of Twilight Zone episodes and find the same thing. It's the movie's little details still ring true today: Discussions regarding high unemployment, low wages and war profiteers. Investors ripping off their clients. The lead character complaining, in the very first line of dialogue, about the President fixing the economy by "trying to get the banks out of a jam -- what about the rest of us?" If nothing else, Turn Back the Clock proves that absolutely nothing has changed in the last 80 years. Message to everybody: We're screwed.

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

To read about Lee Tracy's savage political exposé Washington Merry-Go-Round, click here.