Wednesday, February 25, 2015

WHERE DO WE GO FROM HERE? (1945)

You'd think a movie with a script by Morrie Ryskind (A Night at the Opera) and a score by Ira Gershwin and Kurt Weill (no credits needed), would be long-considered a classic. But the answer to the musical's title, Where Do We Go From Here?, is "down the memory hole."

It's certainly an unusual concept for a musical, being the story of Bill Morgan, a 4-F scrap dealer who wants to impress the soldier-crazy slut Sally Smith, while blind to the affections of the good-girl Lucilla Powell. An inept genie in a magic lamp tries to grant Morgan his wish to join the army, but succeeds only in sending him back and forth through time -- the American Revolution, Christopher Columbus' voyage to the New World, and 16th-century New Amsterdam -- while encountering Sally and Lucilla's ancestors along the way.

Fred MacMurray tries unsuccessfully
to look down June Haver's dress.
Alternately refined and juvenile, lively and tedious, Where Do We Go From Here? feels like a Broadway show that 20th Century-Fox decided would make a swell Technicolor movie instead. Gregory Ratoff's directing style consists of long, unedited takes without the panache of, say, Alfred Hitchcock or even Laurel & Hardy. While it works for the astonishing USO production number "Morale," it tends that much more to make the movie resemble a filmed play.

Not that Where Do We Go From Here? is without charm. Fred MacMurray, the man least likely to sing Kurt Weill, does a nice job with the dreamy "All at Once" and "If Love Remains" -- two numbers that are probably Cafe Carlyle staples even today. "The Nina, the Pinta and the Santa Maria" (guess which scene), on the other hand, is a 10-minute mini-opera that impresses for its sheer audaciousness. 

But the score's overall sophistication is so far out of step from other '40s movie musicals and its own silly script that Where Do We Go From Here? probably bewildered its original audience. Sometimes bizarre is good. Other times it's just... bizarre.

Anthony Quinn and Fred MacMurray get cozy
while ignoring the hot squaw on the rug.
Along with MacMurray, the cast is something of a ragtag bunch. Joan Leslie and June Haver are beautiful but bland second-tier leading ladies. Mexican-born Anthony Quinn is a fast-talking 15th-century Indian chief who threatens to scalp Morgan, before selling him the island of Manhattan -- which already has Times Square street signs. (If you love relentless anachronistic humor, Where Do We Go From Here? is for you.) 

Gene Sheldon goes back
in time so he can refuse to
make this movie.
Stage actor Gene Sheldon speaks more dialogue as the idiot genie than he probably did in the rest of his career. If you're old enough, you may remember Sheldon on TV as either Zorro's mute sidekick, or variety shows playing banjo while making funny faces. Actually, you probably don't, but I do.

Where Do We Go From Here? has some trappings of an A-picture but with a B-movie running time of 74 minutes. (A sequence featuring Roy Rogers and Gabby Hayes, presumably set in the Old West, was excised before its release.) Too, its May 1945 release date -- rather late for a flag-waving, World War II-themed picture -- suggests that it had been sitting on the shelf for at least a year. Like Fred MacMurray's character, Where Do We Go From Here? was probably never in quite the right time or place.

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Anyone interested in watching the lengthy "Nina, Pinta and Santa Maria" production number can go here.

The demo for a deleted song, combining tongue-twisting lyrics and insulting Native American humor, can be heard here performed by Gershwin & Weill.
 

Monday, February 2, 2015

THE WHITE GORILLA (1945)

One of the most popular movies at this year's Sundance film festival was shot on an iPhone. The White Gorilla outdoes this DYI style by consisting mostly of footage from a movie made nearly 20 years earlier. The only way the moviemakers could have been lazier would have been to simply release it without the newly-shot material. In fact, it would have been better.  

The White Gorilla uses "highlights" from the 1927 serial Perils of the Jungle as flashbacks narrated by Steve Collins, a hunter recounting his African adventures with a friend, Bradford. 

"Let's you and him fight."
Well, not exactly with Bradford. You see, the actor playing Bradford is running around in 1927 while the actor playing Collins is skulking behind bushes or atop trees in 1945 allegedly watching the action unfold before him. No matter how much danger anyone is in, Collins uses every excuse in the book to avoid getting involved ("With the lions between me and the shack, there was nothing I could do but sit tight.") This is supposed to explain why the two actors never appear together, but actually makes Collins look like a coward. So much for the brave white hunter.


"If only someone from 1927 could save me!"
The moviemakers further try to hide the antiquity of the silent footage by badly dubbing in sound effects, music, and the occasional cry of "Help!" (which Collins, of course, never responds to). This doesn't rationalize, however, the drastically different fashions or brief scenes where characters' mouths move but no dialogue is heard. Even for undemanding B-movie fans of the '40s, The White Gorilla must have been greeted with flying popcorn boxes by everyone except kiddie matinee attendees. 


Ofay the Jungle Boy.
The "flashback" scenes, however, are good for reminding us of the classic jungle movie cliche of the white interlopers holding sway over the natives. The Perils of the Jungle footage takes it once step further by presenting some five year-old white kid as the ruler over anyone with skin darker than a coconut. They even kiss the brat's hand. Al Sharpton would love this picture. (The one "African" in the 1945 footage speaks with a Southern patois. South Africa, perhaps?)


My wife would love a coat like that.
But wither Konga, the titular white gorilla? He's in the 1945 footage, courtesy actor/stunt man/ professional gorilla imitator Ray Corrigan. Konga's bad attitude is due to being rejected by his darker-skinned "tribe." If you think the screenwriter intended The White Gorilla to be a social metaphor, don't bother. The movie was merely cashing in on the popularity of a similar movie then in release, White Pongo. Yes, there was a white gorilla movie craze in 1945. 

Grown men got paid to do this.
In addition to impersonating Konga, Ray Corrigan also plays hunter Steve Collins, thus giving him the chance to chase himself onscreen for a moment. When they come to fisticuffs, however, a double appears to step in as Collins. (Corrigan was quite protective of his monkey business.) Konga is later killed in a fight with another ape, which looks more like a bad wrestling match between two drunks in, well, monkey suits. 

This new footage runs less than half of White Gorilla's 60-minute running time, accounting for its alleged 3-day shoot. The scenes at the trading post which appear throughout the movie look like they could have been shot between breakfast and lunch. Make that breakfast and coffee break.

Yet I can't help but admire the moviemakers' chutzpah in promoting it as "The Greatest Wild Animal Picture Ever Made!" (Never trust a movie whose opening credits lists two actors followed by "AND AN ALL-STAR CAST.") And since producer Lou Weiss was responsible for both Perils in the Jungle and The White Gorilla, he didn't have to pay anyone for the rights to the old footage, thus lowering the already cut-rate budget. 

Don't give Harvey Weinstein any ideas. Given the chance, he'd happily find a way to combine the next Quentin Tarantino picture with Shakespeare in Love.

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