Friday, January 31, 2014


As they still are today, many independent movies of the past were far more interesting than their mainstream counterparts. Something akin to art could be made without the Cerberus-like studio president, publicist and bookkeeper fiercely barking at the director to hurry it up, make it commercial and account for every last penny. Something like Voice in the Wind, an ethereal drama bordering on noir. As the poster warns, it's "A STRANGE NEW KIND OF PICTURE!" And that's a compliment.

Guadalupe, 1940. A mysterious, amnesiac mute known only as El Hombre haunts the waterfront dives, his only means of communication being his beautiful musicianship on the piano. Brothers Angelo and Luigi are certain El Hombre has sunk their boat in which they falsely promised to transport refugees to the USA, only to rob and kill them at sea. (Nowadays, Royal Caribbean merely makes you throw up violently, then gives you a 50% refund. I'm not sure which is better.) While Angelo nonetheless still has a soft spot for El Hombre, Luigi promises to have his revenge.

We learn through flashbacks that El Hombre is really Jan Volny, a legendary classical pianist from Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia.  Volny puts himself in jeopardy when ending a recital with "The Moldau" by Bedrich Smetana, a Czech composer banned by the Nazis. Knowing he will pay for his "crime," Volny sends his wife, Marya, to Paris, knowing he will  never see her again. While being shipped to a concentration camp, Volny manages to escape and find his way to Guadalupe.

Unbeknownst to Volny, Marya, too, has escaped to Guadalupe with her parents. (Considering I couldn't find Guadalupe on a map, I find their travel smarts very impressive.) Now dying of pneumonia, Marya has heard her husband playing piano in a nearby bar, finding the strength to leave her bed just before she collapses in the street. Volny regains his memory upon recognizing her crucifix around as being similar to the one he's kept locked in a trunk. He's ready to return to her, only to be gunned down by a vengeful Luigi. Angelo, appalled, engages Luigi in a fight that leaves them both dead. Leaving a trail of blood behind him, Volny drags himself to Marya's deathbed where -- and stop me if you've heard this -- he, too dies. The end, brother, and then some.

Obviously, studio fare this was not, especially in wartime when escapism was all the rage. Writer/director Arthur Ripley's bleak outlook was encouraged during his collaborations with film comedian Harry Langdon in the '20s. Ripley immerses Voice in the Wind with darkness, metaphorically and otherwise. Other than the flashbacks, the entire movie takes place during one, fog-shrouded evening where even the interiors feel damp. A ghostly foghorn groans every few seconds for an hour of the film's 85-minute running time, while Volny's relentlessly mournful barroom performance of "The Moldau" provides not so much relief but a soundtrack for the gloomy proceedings unfolding. Yet this desolation pulls you in like a dream too fascinating to awaken from. It's no surprise that Harry Langdon's wife described Arthur Ripley as "morbid" while fellow-director Edgar Ulmer thought him mentally unsound. Frankly, I find these excellent recommendations for a filmmaker.

Being an independent production (released by United Artists when original distributor PRC considered the final cut a little too outré), Voice in the Wind in its current worn state is a little battered around the edges, the muffled soundtrack occasionally obscuring the heavy-on-the-pepperoni accents of Alexander Granache and J. Carrol Naish as Angelo and Luigi. But there's no mistaking Angelo's inner evil when he viciously slaps a hooker into unconsciousness while Angelo and younger brother Marco laugh appreciatively.

Further disturbing violence is provided by the cold yet effeminate Nazi Capt. von Neubach, beating the senses out of Volny for playing "forbidden" music. The actor, possessing the unlikely name of Howard Johnson, seems to be setting the stage for Christoph Waltz in Quentin Tarantino's Inglorious Basterds.

But the movie is held together by Frances Lederer in what must have been an emotionally-draining role, Volny, the mentally-damaged mute who dies twice -- psychologically at the hands of a Nazi, then physically by a sociopath. (No coincidence both sets of killers are Axis representatives.) His is not an easy part, having to sustain a mood of melancholy without ever going overboard. Lederer acts throughout most of Voice in the Wind only with his eyes, a technique almost vanished following the coming of sound.

Called "dark and distressing" by Bosley Crowther in his original review for the New York Times, Voice in the Wind is utterly unlike other wartime dramas, demanding not only patience but a sensitivity rarely found in audiences then or now. It's a subtle, somber film whose moments of hope are as fleeting as, well, a voice in the wind. No doubt many found, and will continue to find, the film a curious evening's entertainment. Others might miss the point entirely, like the aforementioned Mr. Crowther, who sniffed that the producers could have "spent more money on lighting their sets. It might help matters slightly if you didn't have to strain your eyes to see what goes on." 

Some works of art demand more than just eyes to see "what goes on." If a movie could also be considered a tone poem, Voice in the Wind is it. 


Friday, January 24, 2014


If anyone wants to see the outcome of genius denied, the notorious What! No Beer! provides the perfect tutorial. One of the top-drawer comedic actors in movies, Buster Keaton had forsaken independent production in 1928 to sign with MGM, believing that he would continue to make movies the way he always he had. Instead, he quickly found himself just another cog in a studio factory that had no understanding or appreciation of his style. Faster than you can say "Ars Gratia Artis," Keaton sank into morass of depression, divorce and drinking. And any Keaton fan watching his MGM features will ultimately do likewise. 

Having immersed myself in Keaton's silent movies in the early '70s, I was struck not only by his breathtaking physical comedy -- he once broke his neck without realizing it -- but his strangely-modern deadpan countenance. While optimistic contemporaries like Chaplin and Harold Lloyd were always ready with a smile, Keaton looked defeated even when triumphant. Watching his movies at a time when America was still reeling from Watergate and the Vietnam War, Keaton appeared to tap into a zeitgeist about 75 years before anyone knew what the hell that word meant.

Durante does MGM's bidding by finishing off
Keaton once and for all.
Once talkies arrived, MGM decided the best way to present Keaton was to put him into dialogue-heavy comedies. Make that "bad dialogue-heavy comedies." Because who would want to watch somebody just do stuff when they could hear him talk? Ultimately some studio genius got the bright idea of pairing him with MGM's other new hire, Jimmy Durante, for three movies, each worse than the one before it. Their final picture, What? No Beer?, was the bottle, as it were, that broke Keaton's back.

There's no point in recounting What! No Beer?'s story. Keaton and Durante play a couple of nitwits who become bootleggers during Prohibition's dying days -- that's all you need to know. What's sadly fascinating is how MGM deliberately placed Keaton in a situation that called for little of his comedic gifts, forcing him to simply feed lines to the bigmouthed Durante. Even worse, he plays straight to a trio of hobos-turned-brewers who play their scenes like a flashmob in a cemetery. (I wonder if their roles were originally intended for the Three Stooges, who were signed to MGM at the time.) It's like watching Edward Hopper having to paint generic billboards for Wonder Bread. It's nice he's getting a steady paycheck and all, but goddamn-mighty-damn it's a tragedy to watch.

While always a Durante fan, I nonetheless watched him more stonefaced than Keaton himself ever was. 
Run away, Buster, as fast as you can.
Playing against Keaton, he's the cinematic version of the schoolyard bully, completely overwhelming his helpless partner not with physical but verbal abuse. Only 37 but looking 50, the once-great Keaton is drunk -- I mean really drunk, not acting -- throughout What! No Beer?, slurring his words and and barely focusing his dark, haunted eyes. He gets a couple of chances at his physical comedy -- nobody can slide down a beer-slicked stairway like him -- but those moments only illuminate the sickening dismay that both we and Keaton find ourselves experiencing. It's the original version of Night of the Living Dead.
Gagman Keaton compares notes with the Marx
Brothers on how MGM destroyed their
To Keaton's horror, the worse his MGM movies got, the more money they made -- more, perhaps, than his good movies in the '20s. (Sometimes it isn't always a good thing to give the people what they want.) Shortly after What! No Beer?'s release, he was fired by MGM for insubordination, sending him spiraling into years of severe alcohol abuse. Ever wake up in Mexico with a woman you had no memory of marrying the previous day? Just another day in the life of Buster Keaton. In a typically vindictive move, MGM would later rehire him as an uncredited gagman at $100 a week. And while he lived another 33 years, What! No Beer? would be his final lead role in an American movie. Hooray for Hollywood, hunh?

A few years earlier, fellow movie comedian Harry Langdon found himself in a similar situation. Having come to movies from vaudeville far later than his contemporaries, he was soon compared favorably to Charles Chaplin. But after firing his writer/director Frank Capra -- a move which Capra never stopped bitching about until, and probably after, he died -- Langdon started to focus more on the dark, bizarre humor that fascinated him. (In Long Pants, Langdon, having fallen for a sexy temptress, spends the rest of the movie plotting to murder his fiance. It's a comedy.) By the end of 1928, he was for all intents and purposes washed-up. Langdon had been in movies for all of four years.

But in 1930, Warner Bros. cast him in a strong supporting role in the World War I comedy, A Soldier's Plaything. Nothing more than a loosely-connected series of comedic vignettes, the 59-minute feature is by no means a classic. A laid-back fan of early talkies might consider it "OK, nothing special" and leave it at that. However, compared to What! No Beer? (how sick are you of reading that title?), it's another Duck Soup. And it's due only to second-billed Harry Langdon.

Although their approach to comedy was different, Langdon and Keaton were similar in two key ways. Unlike the universally-beloved Chaplin and Harold Lloyd, Langdon and Keaton even at their best -- especially at their best -- were acquired tastes. Too, their onscreen characters never seemed quite of this world; while Keaton was an unemotional cynic, Langdon was more like a confused seven year-old boy trapped in a grown-man's body. It's no surprise that Langdon and Keaton play better to contemporary audiences than they did to those in the 1920s.

Ben Lyon warns Harry Langdon
to stop stealing the movie from
underneath him.
A Soldier's Plaything allows Langdon to display both the childlike and bizarre sides of his personality. Unfortunately, so dependent is Langdon on his subtle reactions that describing his best scenes really doesn't do him justice. You need to see him mindlessly following orders as he marches through a window, into the general's office and smack into a wall. It's not enough to tell you that he tries wooing a beautiful French woman, only to discover that she's deaf. It's his impossible-to-describe stunned, babbling reaction, climaxed by hitting himself on the head with a bottle, that makes it laugh out loud hilarious and proof that he could have easily reignited his career in A's if given the right material, a sympathetic director and the chance to contribute to his role. 

Alas, like Keaton, Langdon was at the mercy of an industry that just didn't get him. Apart from the occasional supporting role in A-movies, he was relegated to low-budget B's and shorts, a far cry from the days when he was mentioned in the same breath as Chaplin and carried thousand-dollar bills in his wallet for spending money. And again like Keaton, Langdon made it through the lean years as a gagman, working with Laurel & Hardy at the Hal Roach Studios. While Langdon died in 1944, Keaton lived long enough to experience a late-in-life career resurgence thanks to TV and movie producers who let him do what he wanted, which was all he ever asked for.

Louis B. Mayer would be baffled that Buster Keaton and Harry Langdon silents continue to run at museums and film festivals. But they're strange. And they aren't classy like Metro pictures! So the next time you see a preview for a comedy that makes you wonder Who the hell thought this was a good idea and why did they pay this guy $20-million to make it?, say a prayer for the two otherworldly talents cut off at the knees in their prime by studios run by men whose allegiance to the bottom line was equaled only by their fear of genius.  Ars Gratia Quaestus.


Friday, January 17, 2014


Allotment Wives is kind of like Rubber Racketeers, only the rubber here would be put to better use than tires, if you get my drift. During WW II, allotment wives were dames who married a soldier or two or three, often simultaneously, strictly to collect the benefits. If the "wives" were lucky and hubby got blown to bits on the battlefield, they'd receive a juicy death payout, too. I know what you're thinking: Where has this nefarious racket been all my life? 

Sheila Seymour, on the surface an upstanding pillar of the community, runs a military canteen for soldiers on leave. They're treated to donuts, Cokes and babes who seduce and marry them before the doll-dizzy doughboys are shipped overseas. That seems a better basis for a reality series than Duck Dynasty.

Shelia tries distracting Pete by wearing
a trashcan lid on her head.
In addition to her harem of cutie-pies, Sheila also commands several stooges who collect the benefit payouts and hire more future "wives" for her marriage factory. Too bad for Sheila,it's all about to get kamakazied. Army Col. Pete Martin is going undercover to bust the gang. One of Sheila's gunsels, Moranto, wants to set up his own harem of allotment babes. And her old childhood chum Gladys helps a hoodlum named Spike to kidnap Sheila's daughter Connie, an ungrateful boarding school bitch who has no idea of Mom's real occupation. What's a gangsteress to do?

How many men out there have gotten this same
you're-so-sweet-let's-not-ruin-it-with-sex crap?
One thing is certain: Sheila Seymour didn't need Sheryl Sandberg to learn how to Lean In.  Allotment Wives is refreshing in that a strong, secure woman runs a business operation with an iron fist. It would make Sheila kind of sexy if she wasn't 40 years old. (Kidding, kidding, kidding!) Indeed, her second-in-command, a dashing older gent named Whitey, is besotted with her, although she doesn't want to hand over the goods to him. Like a 40 year-old has any choice. (Again, kidding!)

It could be that Sheila's nursing a broken heart. When asked if her husband is dead, she replies, "Africa." Either he was killed in combat on the dark continent or she's speaking in a code not even the Enigma machine could break. Tonight when my wife asks me if I brushed my teeth, I think I'll reply, "Antarctica." Let her figure it out.

"If you need me, I'll be hiding behind the wall near the
pedicure bowl."
Collecting military benefits doesn't pay the bills for Sheila's fancy digs, so she uses a beauty parlor for a front. But as usual with B-movie criminals, secret panels and false walls abound, allowing Sheila's gang to come and go without being seen. You'd think the interior designers might have suspected that there was more than shampoo sinks and heel scrubbers at play here. By the way, does anyone outside of old movies have hidden passages at their workplace?

Shelia's daughter Connie has her own issues -- sex, drinking, sex and drinking being the mainstays. She's already played hooky
Momentarily possessed by Satan,
 Connie attempts to suck Sheila's soul
 from her.
from prep school to engage in these activities, but Mom promises to take her on a vacation if she just stays in school until graduation in the spring. But when Spike and Gladys kidnap Connie from her dorm, it's already August. (Where's the continuity girl when you need her?) Connie's taken on a bestial three-week spree that, according to an examining doctor, leaves her in a state of "psychosomatic." Someone take away his license to practice English. Col. Martin is no better, using the word "psychohysteria," a word that isn't even in the dictionary. But, speaking as a man who lives with a wife and teenage daughter, it ought to be. 
"I knew I should have quit smoking!"
A pack of Gauloises (product placement!) is the vital clue linking Sheila to the gang. In order to spare Connie further humiliation, Sheila commits suicide by cop, proving that cigarettes can kill you, especially if you have about five guns aimed at you. Connie can now safely return to her sluttish ways without worrying about getting chewed out by Mom.

On its face, Allotment Wives was something of a comedown for former A-star Kay Francis (Sheila Seymour). On the proto-feminist side, however, it was part of her three-movie production deal with Monogram Pictures, a rare case of a woman calling the shots in Hollywood, then or now. Perhaps the role of a woman bossing a roomful of men resonated with her, even if Sheila was a criminal. At her 1930s peak, however, Kay Francis was Warner Brothers' number one lisping leading lady, possessing a neurotic sexiness I find sickly irresistible. 

Co-star Paul Kelly (Col. Pete Martin) had his own real life brush with the law two decades earlier, serving time at San Quentin for manslaughter (a drunken fistfight over a jane, of course). The woman at the center of the altercation, Dorothy Mackaye (later Kelly's wife) served time as an accomplice. Her jailhouse memoirs eventually became the basis of the previously-discussed Lady Gangster. Everything's connected on this damn blog.

Movies like Allotment Wives and Rubber Racketeers should put to rest the myth that World War II made every American citizen a true-blue patriot who gave all to defeat the Axis. As one cop describes the gang, "They're like Japs and Germans: rotten to the core and incurable!" Sheila's silk pajamas even sport an absurdly large SS monogram for no reason other than to suggest Nazis (unless she likes being reminded of her initials when she's asleep). Good for Kay Francis for sticking her neck out by playing a such a despicable, nasty, unpatriotic woman. Damn, is she sexy.

Personal aside: At one time or another, the original posters for Allotment Wives and Rubber Racketeers graced our dining room wall. You should have seen the look on my wife's face when she first saw them. Talk about psychohysteria! 

To read about Rubber Racketeers, click here.
To read about Lady Gangster, click here.

Saturday, January 11, 2014


It's a question not asked in polite circles but... aren't there some people who meet unhappy ends that, y'know, are just asking for it? The Great Flamarion has enough to field a basketball team: four saps and one no good dame. 

The titular Flamarion (sap #1) is a sharpshooter touring vaudeville with two assistants, Connie (the no-good dame) and her dipso husband Al (sap #2). A sociopathic grifter from way back, Connie seduces Flamarion into "accidentally" killing Al during their act one night. Once a cold-hearted loner, now hopelessly in love, Flamarion sees his plans for marriage go kablooey when Connie suggests they split up for a few months in order to divert suspicion. When she doesn't show up at a pre-arranged time and place -- and his telegram to her is returned with a taunting "ADDRESS UNKNOWN" -- Flamarion realizes he's been had, and spends his last dollar tracking her down, eventually finding her in a Mexico City vaudeville theatre. Connie's now an assistant to her latest lover, Eddie the trick bicyclist (sap #3), while putting the moves on an acrobat (sap #4). Startled by Flamarion suddenly shooting out the lights in her dressing room, Connie gives him the ol' Honey-where-were-you routine to no avail. Grabbing her own gun, Connie shoots Flamarion, who has enough strength to strangle her to death before he himself dies onstage after falling from the rafters. If only show business was really this exciting.

A surprisingly sophisticated noirish drama from Republic Pictures -- whose releases tended
"The drink's on me! Or is it you?"
to be B-Westerns with the likes of Roy Rogers -- The Great Flamarion provides a tremendous showcase for Erich von Stroheim (Flamarion), Mary Beth Hughes (Connie) and Dan Duryea, whose portrayal of the perpetually hammered Al veers from irritating -- as Connie asks him, "Can't you stay sober long enough to stooge for a couple of guns?" --  to boorish to, eventually, pathetic without missing a beat. He's the kind of alky who generously offers to buy a drink for the guy from whom he just borrowed five dollars. 
Load your pistol, Erich, before it's too late.
But this is von Stroheim and Hughes' show all the way. Once one of Hollywood's outstanding directors and character actors, von Stroheim -- who seems to have been born wearing a monocle -- was now punching the clock on Poverty Row. Imposing (despite his 5'7" height) with a gleaming head, a neck the size of a concrete pillar, a guttural Austrian accent and perpetual scowl, von Stroheim -- "the man you love to hate" -- seems out of place in the seedy world of vaudeville, making his descent into the arms of a deceitful jane that much more pitiable. By the time he's fatally shot, both you and he are relieved just to see him put out of his misery. It was a rare, perhaps unique, chance for von Stroheim to portray vulnerability and, as such, was probably one of his more challenging career moves -- even more than just walking through the lowly Republic gates to begin with. This was a guy who, while directing a period picture at MGM over twenty years earlier, ordered monogrammed silk underwear for his lead characters -- clothing that would never even be seen by the audience. Von Stroheim's descent to Poverty Row must have enhanced the humiliation that the role of Flamarion called for.

Mary Beth Hughes, with her sexy-girl-next-door style, is like a silver dollar gleaming in the gutter. No matter how beautiful it shines, once you pick it up you're covered in muck. Initially
Hey ladies, wouldn't this turn you on?
resistant -- "Your personal feelings do not interest me in the least" -- Flamarion gradually succumbs to her faux-charms. Connie breathily claims to be aroused when he shoots off the strap of her dress onstage, murmuring, "Every bullet is a caress." (This is another compliment I've yet to hear from my wife.) Of course it's all a lie, a far cry from her final insults before her death: "Why, you poor sucker! How can anyone love you? That fat bald neck, the squinty eyes. You're old, you're ugly. Even the touch of you makes me sick!" I wonder how von Stroheim -- who, frankly, looks exactly the way he's described -- felt while hearing those words spat at him by a woman who, in real life, would have probably said the same thing.  
The Great Flamarion overflows with great noir dialogue. One exchange is almost a textbook example of the seedy B-movie world. Connie, already having hooked Flamarion, is at a bar planning to run away with Eddie when Al stumbles over.

AL: I was lookin' for ya. I need some dough.
CONNIE: I don't have any with me.
AL: Well, what did you do --
CONNIE: What did I do with it? How much do you think is left in the grouch bag after the way you've been kicking it around? 
AL: For the love of Mike, cut out the preachin'. (to bartender:) Hey George, gimme a bourbon. And see what the boys in the back room will have. Better make mine a double bourbon, George. (glaring at Connie:) I'm in kind of a hurry. 
CONNIE: Y'know, no matter how fast you can drink, the distilleries can stay way ahead of ya.
AL: Yup. But by next week, I'll have 'em workin' nights to do it. (Connie tries to take Al's drink; he slaps her hand away.) Some day you're gonna do that and not pull back anything but a stump!

Now that's a conversation. Did people really talk like that in the '40s? If so, they were a lot more colorful than today's dullards, who describe everything as "amazing" and "mad crazy." And while we're on the subject, were these noirs about unfaithful women playing on the fears of American soldiers overseas during the War? Or were all dolls really two-timers back in the day? If nothing else, years of watching B-movies go along way to explaining my issues involving trust.  

Flamarion spills his guts in
more ways than one.
Much of the credit for The Great Flamarion's success has to go to director Anthony Mann, still at the beginning of his career before his elevation as a film auteur in the '50s. Telling the story in flashback from Flamarion's dying confession, Mann uses the kinds of interesting camera angles and lighting that make a movie like this stand out from the rest of its kind. He's got a good way with the cast, too, allowing the actors long takes to speak their dialogue without abrupt edits. It really goes to show what some thought and care will do for a project that other directors would've considered a one-take quickie. Just as an example, Mann gives von Stroheim a wonderful moment the actor probably never experienced in any movie before or after.
The man you love to hate to love to
Waiting for Connie to arrive in his lush hotel room after their three-month separation, Flamarion has been primping and preening, arranging flowers just so, when he suddenly breaks out into a solo waltz like a lovestruck teenager preparing for his first date. It's charming, hilarious and very sad all at once; he has no idea that Connie's currently shacking up with Eddie somewhere in Central America. Just call him Erich von Sucker.

Wilder, von Stroheim, Hughes,
Duryea and Mann try to ignore
Billy Wilder's insults.
Just how much input producer W. Lee Wilder had is difficult to say. He was once endorsed by his brother, the legendary writer/director Billy Wilder, as "a dull son of a bitch." A former handbag manufacturer, W. Lee Wilder's other movies include Phantom from Space, Killers from Space and, in a welcome change, The Snow Creature. What The Great Flamarion lacks in his brother's Double Indemnity production values ultimately quadruples in the overall sap quotient. Never have so many marks been preyed upon by a woman in one movie -- and in only 77 minutes. 

Unfortunate for a movie perfectionist like me, the original credit sequence on circulating prints of The Great Flamarion was replaced by a generic opening by TV-Pic, the distribution company that sold it to television in the '50s. The saving grace, however, was that TV-Pic appeared to have used the original negative; the movie is excellent for a public domain B-production, with faces popping out from shadows like the bullets Flamarion fires onstage. As with many other movies dissected here, The Great Flamarion has been unjustly forgotten, probably due its orphan status. However, being available for free on YouTube can only help revive its stature for new generations of fans of film noir, B-movies, treacherous dames and the Second Amendment.