Monday, November 24, 2014

THE POWER OF THE WHISTLER (1945)

Forget about I Love a Mystery and The Shadow Strikes. The movies based on The Whistler are how to bring a radio series to the screen. From their unsettling opening theme music (whistled, of course) to their violent climaxes, the Whistler  B-movies -- ranging from fine to terrific -- put many A's to shame.

The Power of the Whistler, one of the best in the series, tells of the story of fortune teller Jean Lang, who predicts death within 24 hours for William Everest, an amnesiac she meets in Greenwich Village. As Jean and her sister Frances try to put together William's past from the items in his pocket -- a train schedule, lighter, doctor's prescription, and the like -- they gradually discover that the gentle-spoken man isn't quite as gentle as he seems. But as predicted, William keeps his appointment with death right on time.

"I don't know who you are, you don't know
who you are -- come home with me!"
For all its quiet terror, there's a charming, unintended naivete running through The Power of the Whistler. When William has a dizzy spell upon first meeting Jean, she suggests he sit down somewhere close by. "The owner of this car won't object, I'm sure!" she chirps merrily. And when the driver finally does appear, he happily gives them a lift to where they want to go. (This is supposed to be New York, remember.)

That's not a flattering look for him.
Now, say you're a young woman who meets a guy 25 years your senior, and you have no idea who he is. Would you bring him back to the apartment you share with your younger sister so he can stay the night? Of course! There's nothing strange about this, nor how your sister's parakeet suddenly turns up strangled to death when your back is turned. On the other hand, he makes a swell over-easy egg for breakfast the following morning! (The parakeet is just one of three cute little animals who meet a grisly death at his hands. Yeah! That's what I'm talkin' about!)

Frances brings William's scrip to the drug store where it was filled. Turns out it's a prescription for poison. As the druggist says, "There's not much call for it." I would hope not. Is it unusual to fill out a prescription for poison at CVS these days? (William forged the scrip himself, but please.)

William, meanwhile, has strong-armed Jane into accompanying him to visit a "friend" in New Jersey he's suddenly remembered -- the judge who sent him up the river. By now, Frances and her boyfriend Charlie have figured out that William is "an escaped maniac" -- the only kind of maniac they have in these movies. The police were never notified because the prison warden believed William had been cured anyway. That's a very good reason to keep the information from the public. Especially when William sends the warden a birthday cake laced with poison. (Oh, so that's what it was for!)


"Your name's written in ink?
That's good enough for us!"
If that doesn't give you faith in the system, William gets through a police dragnet by offering foolproof ID: a name written on the label of the suit jacket he stole from the prison warden upon his escape. Surely there must be some sort of happy middle between outright incompetence and getting X-rayed at the airport. Fortunately for all, William meets a particularly nasty end in a hayloft that even had my usually-peace loving wife cheering.

Nor have I seen a cop in Central Park
during broad daylight.
Per usual with the Columbia B's, the sets for The Power of the Whistler are drab, but help set the mood. The Central Park scenes, meanwhile, feature ambient studio sounds -- the closing of a door, a chair squeaking on the floor -- I've never heard during my visits. No problem -- at least the actors say their lines correctly! And despite what they say, there are no Dexter or Harris Streets in New York, so don't expect to visit them on your next TCM Movie Tour. 


The Whistler movies appear to be a blueprint for the much-later Twilight Zone. In this case, your host is The Whistler, who always speaks the same introduction: "I am the Whistler, and I know many things, for I walk by night. I know many strange tales, hidden in the hearts of men and women who have stepped into the shadows." He works for the NSA now.
You might want to pay attention to that whistling
shadow behind you, mister.
The Whistler himself -- itself? -- is best described as Fate in sardonic human form, seen only as a shadow with a trench coat and fedora, waiting patiently for the losers in his tales to meet a ghastly end they can never escape.

The other thread running through all but one of the Whistler movies is Richard Dix, one of the most underrated actors of the '40s. Continually described in The Power of the Whistler as "good-looking," he has instead the appearance of a man who's seen too much of life's darker side. He is, to use an archaic phrase, "ruggedly handsome," a description no longer used for today's pretty-boy actors. Just for comparison, Dix is 52 in The Power of
the Whistler, the same age that Tom Cruise is now.
 
Switching with ease from compassionate to terrifying in the bat of an eye, Dix -- as in The Ghost Ship -- gives extraordinary depth to William Everest, a character that other actors would play as a jacked-up nut job. He starts his morning saying grace at the breakfast table. By the evening, he's murderously approaching Jean with a genuinely bloodcurdling expression in his eyes -- and is absolutely convincing both times. By any standard, Richard Dix is the real power of The Whistler.

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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.  

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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.
 

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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.

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