Tuesday, August 28, 2007

"White Heat" (1949)

Although he considered it just another throw-away gangster movie, James Cagney put everything he’d learned about acting into his performance in “White Heat.” If you’ve ever seen anything else like it in an American film, you must have been watching a movie made after 1949. “White Heat” is a black comedy for the ages.

By the time he made “White Heat,” James Cagney (1899-1986) was fifty years old and was sicker than ever of gangster and tough guy roles. He’d begged his home studio, Warner Brothers, for a greater variety of characters to play (they gave him a few—Bottom in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” zany screenwriter Robert Law in “Boy Meets Girl,” and hoofer Chester Kent in “Footlight Parade), but he’d washed his hands of Warners and walked away from his contract twice, the latest time being in 1943.

Working as an independent producer, he made four films between ’43 and ’48. None of them are spectacular, but three of them are worth watching. Avoid “The Time of Your Life.” It won’t be.

So by 1949, Cagney was back at Warners with a new contract in hand and a commitment to make yet another gangster movie.He liked to hang out with the writers and the story is that he dropped by the office of scripters Ivan Goff and Ben Roberts, stretched out on the couch and asked, “Okay fellas, what’s it gonna be this time?”

Goff and Roberts, working from an original screen story by Virginia Kellogg and borrowing mobster lore from the careers of Ma Barker and her brood, fashioned Cody Jarrett, easily the most brutal gang leader in Cagney’s repertoire since Tom Powers in “The Public Enemy” (1931). And Cagney, thinking that the entire enterprise was nothing but a pumped up “B” movie, added some touches of his own to the character. The result is the most stunning performance of Cagney’s career and a screen villain that still has the power to make jaws drop open over 50 years later.

Note: There are spoilers galore from this point on.

The opening sequence gives us the Jarrett gang holding up a train. Cody is not a big city gangster, but an outlaw of the open road. Criminal gangs had moved to the Heartland during the Depression. Think John Dillinger or Bonnie and Clyde. During the robbery, a member of the gang slips up and calls Cody by name, necessitating the cold blooded murder of the engineer and fireman. No time is wasted in letting us know that Jarrett is no decent guy forced into a life of crime, a la Eddie Bartlett in “The Roaring Twenties.” Jarrett has “thug” written all over him.

Cody travels with his “Ma” (Margaret Wycherly) and his wife, Verna (Virginia Mayo). Big Ed (Steve Cochran) is the most vocal member of the gang and the only one Ma and Cody suspect wants to take over—and that includes taking over with Verna.

To avoid going to prison on the train robbery and murder raps, Cody confesses to a hotel robbery in another state that occurred at the same time as the train caper went down. The authorities know he’s guilty of the more serious offenses, but they can’t prove anything.

Hoping that Jarrett will let some self-incriminating word slip, they plant an undercover agent named Hank Fallon (Edmond O’Brien) in his cell. Fallon insinuates himself into Cody’s good graces, and when Jarrett breaks out he takes the spy with him.

On the outside, Big Ed has killed Ma Jarrett and taken up with Verna. Cody returns to settle the score and during the climactic robbery of an oil refinery Fallon is recognized by a hood he once arrested. In a fruitless bid to escape, Cody climbs a gasoline storage tank. As flames shoot up around him, Cody, wounded and hopelessly insane, shouts the Jarrett family motto to the ghost of his mother, “Made it, Ma. Top of the world!”

I know. Just looking at the plot synopsis it’s hard to see just how different the character of Cody Jarrett is from Cagney’s earlier mobsters. He’s more savage, and we get the feeling that even if he were not involved in crime, he’d still be a sadistic brute.

The surprises on screen come from a post-war atmosphere of despair—“White Heat” isn’t purely film noir but it’s frequently cited with films noir—from Cagney’s disgust at being given what he saw as the same old same old, and from director Raoul Walsh’s willingness to go along with his star’s crazy ideas for character development.

Cagney decided that if Jarrett was supposed to be crazy, by God, let’s make him crazy. He snarls, he growls, he pounds his forehead with his palms as he drops down with debilitating headaches. (To gain Ma’s attention when he was young, he pretended to have skull-splitting migraines, and as an adult the fantasy has become real.)

One of the film’s four unforgettable moments comes with the first headache. Out of reach of the law in a mountain hideout, Cody’s head begins to throb. He goes into the bedroom so the rest of the gang won’t see him in his weakened condition (Ma’s suggestion). As the pain recedes, Jarrett sits on Ma’s lap as she rests in a rocking chair. It’s momentarily difficult for the audience to accept what it’s seeing. A 50-year old man, beginning to grow stout, sitting on his mother’s lap with his arm around her shoulders. What’s the reaction? Do you wince at the infantile pitifulness of the character or celebrate at the audacity of the actor?

Cagney later wrote that he didn’t tell Margaret Wycherly what he intended to do. Cinematographer Sid Hickox knew, as did Walsh, who approved. I don’t know what audiences in 1949 thought they were seeing, but I think it was a definite step on the road to Norman Bates.

Another of the great moments comes in the prison mess hall when Cody first learns that Ma Jarrett is dead. Again, Cagney didn’t tell anyone but Walsh what he intended to do. He just asked that the biggest extras be dressed as prison guards and situated at the end of the dining table. Then, on having the bad news whispered in his ear, Cody emits an agonized, feral wail. He grabs the shirts of the men near him. He crawls up on the table and rushes toward the guards, kicking plates and bowels onto the floor. He leaps onto the guards and begins thrashing around like a starving coyote in a hen house. They carry him out of the room as he howls, “I gotta get outa here!” over and over again.

Sometimes when I watch this scene, I laugh. Sometimes I’m scared shitless.

My favorite Cagney moment comes after the prison break when the gang is leaving its hideout. A prison rat who tried to kill Cody at Big Ed’s behest has been brought along in the trunk of Jarrett’s car. The script called for Cody to shoot the man through the trunk lid, but that wasn’t macabre enough for the star.On the day the scene was shot, Cagney had seen one of the crew members gnoshing some fried chicken for lunch. Cagney asked the man if he had a drumstick and, if so, could he have it. The fella was willing to oblige one of the nicest and most decent actors in the business, so Cagney got his drumstick. He saved it for the cameras and is seen nonchalantly gnawing away on the meat as he blasts a man’s life away.

The final scene, with Jarrett atop the gasoline storage tank, is the film’s most celebrated. It’s the culmination of the lead character’s rampaging insanity. There’s hardly anything human left in Cody Jarrett as he laughs hysterically and rushes doom so he can be with Ma once again.But behind Cagney’s last bravura moment in the picture is Walsh’s genius in setting the scene on top of the tank—one that is round, like a globe. A murderous madman stands “on top of the world” as it is engulfed in an inferno of apocalyptic proportions. The atomic bomb imagery couldn’t have been lost on the post-war audience.

Do I sound like a fan of “White Heat”? Uh, yeah. It’s my favorite film and I never tire of it. Cagney’s performance provides the greatest delight for me. I know I haven’t mentioned those of any of the rest of the cast, and I don’t mean to disparage them, but if they are solid and believable, that of the star is astonishing. If you want to see a brilliant example of what can happen when script, direction and acting merge perfectly, this is it, Ma. Top of the world!

Thursday, August 23, 2007

“Clara Bow: Discovering the ‘It’ Girl”

Everybody’s a critic. No, I’m not complaining--just stating what seems to me to be an obvious fact. Everybody has an opinion and most of us have friends or family to whom we can express it. Having an opinion makes you a critic. Telling others what it is makes you--well, I guess that depends on how vociferously you do the telling.

Having said all that, I know you’ve, at some time or other, suffered the frustration of hearing someone tell you that he or she has never seen/read/heard the thing you’re recommending, but “I know I wouldn’t like it.”

Grrr . . . I hate that.

But I have heard it many times because one of my passions when it comes to watching films is silent movies.

Watch out now. Some of you were tempted to click that Favorites icon and move along just on seeing the words “silent movies.” I know the acting style is very different to the naturalistic one developed for sound films--emotions and thoughts that couldn’t be expressed through words had to be made clear through gestures and facial expressions, and when it wasn’t done with a degree of subtly that stuff can be hard to take.

But if you never experience at least the best the silent screen has to offer, you’re going to miss films and performances that would touch you dearly. Trust me on this. You really are.

Some silent film buffs recommend that newcomers to the art begin with the great comedians. That’s not a bad entry point for people who know they want to give the silents a try.

But if you’re still a little hesitant about it all, dip your toe in the water by watching some short documentary films about the star performers of the early cinema. You’ll not only see what they looked like, but you’ll get a notion of what their styles were like and the kind of movies they made. You know, if you get the giggles when you watch a modern heavy-panting, romantic melodrama, you don’t want to start with Rudolf Valentino.

Someone asked me not long ago if I’d seen “Bridget Jones’s Diary” ( I saw the sequel and reached my limit on the spot) and I was reminded of one the silents’ biggest stars. In fact, for much of the later 1920s, she was the most popular star of them all.

Her name was Clara Bow, and she was never less than adorable. She made 58 films between her debut at age 17 in 1922 and her retirement from the screen in 1933. Ten of those films were talkies, and Bow’s voice was just fine despite the “mike fright” which led her to a nervous breakdown in 1931. She even sang.

But Bow will forever be linked to one movie, 1927’s “It.” No, it’s not a horror story. “It” is often defined as sex appeal, but that’s only part of what “It” is. There’s a casualness about that sex appeal, as if it’s not anything to be concerned with. Bow’s character doesn’t vamp by design--she’s too real for that Theda Bara foolishness.

I think “It” can best be thought of as are some Asian philosophies--if you don’t recognize it when you see it, there’s no way anyone can explain it to you.

But whatever “It” is, Bow had it.

Her life was never a pleasant one, from the agonizing poverty and abuse of her childhood in Brooklyn through her years of stardom to the eventual fear that she might end up like her mother and grandmother, who both spent years in the same mental asylum. “This is a funny game,” she once said about Hollywood. “Here and today and gone tomorrow. Let’s have a drink.”

Spend an hour with Clara Bow by watching the documentary “Clara Bow: Discovering the ‘It’ Girl.” I think you’ll find both the film and its subject fascinating.

If not, please keep your opinion to yourself.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

"Ab-normal Beauty" (2004)

“Ab-normal Beauty” (Sei mong se jun), written by Oxide Pang and his twin brother Pak Sing Pang, and directed by Oxide alone, explores ground already investigated by Alfred Hitchcock, Michael Powell and, almost concurrently with “Ab-normal Beauty,” Takashi Shimizu (whose “Marebito” was released a few weeks before Pang’s film). “Rear Window” and “Peeping Tom” both present metaphors for our fascination with seeing on film things too awful to see in person. The camera, like a murder weapon, is neutral until a use is found for it.

Jiney is an art student living with her mother. Her best friend—and we come to suspect more than best friend—is Jas. They are both photographers and the roam about the city of Hong Kong snapping pix of whatever catches their attention. A young man named Anson (Anson Leung) has a crush on Jin. She rebuffs him gently; Jas tells him to bugger off.

Jin’s mother leaves town on a business trip, planning to be gone about a month, and left alone at home Jin allows her boredom with life to show. One day she happens upon a fatal car crash. The appearance of corpses on the street overwhelms her and she begins to take pictures furiously. Jas helps her develop them and is repulsed by the images of blood and injury. “Death,” Jin says, “is the ideal photo—scary and exciting.”

She starts to unravle. She makes a skin-tight mask—when worn, it is death’s face. She begins to see blood where these isn’t any blood. Visiting an outdoor market, Jin pays a butcher to kill chicken after chicken so she can photograph them as they die. Her darkroom becomes cluttered with shots of dead birds, dogs and fish. Her excuse to Jas is that she just wants to add a new element to her work.

She buys a collection of death photos gathered together in a book. She thinks the pictures are beautiful. “Pressing the shutter is like death in that it stops the subject.” Her greatest thrill comes from seeing a potential suicide atop a tall building. When the girl jumps, Jin follows her descent, snapping pictures all the way to the sidewalk.

Why, suddenly, has this passion for death seeped to the surface of Jin’s psyche? She tells Jas about the time when, as a young girl, she was molested by three boys and her own mother’s failure to believe her story. But is that enough to make the change we see in her believable? Is it just the sight of bloody death by traffic accident that sets this terrible change in motion?

When we hear, and see in flashback, the story of her youthful rape, we expect the film will move along with that new plot element to explain what is happening with this lovely and talented young woman, but suddenly the picture takes a sharp turn into more standard thriller country.

Jin finds on her doorstep a video tape. “Take a look” is scratched on the box, and when she does she sees a moment right out of “feardotcom”—a young woman is chained to a chair, begging for release, when a masked man (we assume) beats her to death with a length of lead pipe.

We’ve been jolted as severly as Jin has. What has this movie become? Are we to think, as the girls do, that Anson is responsible for some kind of sick joke? Is Jas secretly a sadistic killer? Is Jin, or is the masked man on the tape a reflection of her own madness? Jin has already expressed the fear that she might lose control and really kill someone for the sake of taking pictures of the body. The sudden shift in plot emphasis is jolting, but perhaps the Pangs are telling us that it takes a change from art to reality to shake us out of our routine existence.

The Pang Brothers insinuate themselves into the film by casting sisters in the roles of best friends/possible lesbian lovers. Race Wong, as Jiney, and Rosanne Wong, as Jas, are the two halves of the Cantopop music duo “2R.” As their characters become involved in reproducing life in photography and painting instead of living it, so have the Pangs made a similar choice.

Strictly on the level of thriller, the film has nice moments during the first story line as we watch Jin’s descent to madness and wonder what will happen to her, and others during the last third or so as the gore level increases considerably and the intellectual pondering of the first part give way to a more visceral reaction.

And the Wong sisters are superb as Jin and Jas. Apparently, Jin (the younger of the two) is having a more successful film career, although they have made films as co-stars. One made a year before “Ab-normal Beauty” is a parody of the international hit cop thriller “Infernal Affairs,” recently remade by Martin Scorsese as “The Departed.” The Hong Kong comedy is entitled, sublimely, “Love is a Many Stupid Thing.”

But here in “Ab-normal Beauty” the sisters are terrific. They are both quite lovely, but neither of them relies on looks to win our affection. More often than not, they appear just like students, attractive but not made-up or dressed to kill. They sell the friendship and, on another level of unease, the more-than-friendship convincingly. Jas is not just the disposable friend of the protagonist about whom we really don’t care too much. She works her way into our affection as completely as does the character with the interesting problem.

So many American horror films are concerned almost exclusively with dying and dying badly. “Ab-normal Beauty” is about preferring a bad death to an even worse life.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

"Putting Pants on Philip" (1927)

The first dialogue card in “Putting Pants on Philip” (1927) informs us that we are about to see “The story of a Scotch lad who came to America to hunt for a Columbian half-dollar -- his grandfather lost it in 1893,” but that’s not what the film is really about.

Yes, Stan Laurel is Philip, fresh off the ship from Scotland, but the printed narration is a diversion. The real joke is Philip’s kilt. You’ll be relieved to know that he does sport underwear beneath. We know because at one point, he loses them.

This two-reel farce has frequently been billed as the first Laurel and Hardy picture, but that’s misleading, too. They’d appeared in over a dozen shorts together by the time this one was shot. If anything, PPOP is the first time they were beginning to develop the characters we know as The Boys. We see the famous nitwit duo here only in flashes. There are times when we can actually see them thinking.

Stanley is much more aggressive in the film, and Ollie is more dapper and capable of living in the real world. But is this the real world? The street scenes, of which there are plenty, look like a mid-sized, middle class area of Los Angeles or one of its near neighbors, but if Philip has just arrived by ocean liner from Scotland, he wouldn’t be docking on the west coast.

Of course, no subliminal message was intended by the filmmakers--it’s just the usual marriage of convenience and economics—but it presages the moments of mini-surrealism for which Laurel’s gags would become famous.

We open on the Hon. Piedmont Mumblethunder (Hardy), who is waiting on the docks to meet his sister’s son, Philip, arriving from Scotland. We see that sis has sent a letter by way of introduction and she warns her brother (hereafter called Hardy because if I have to type Mumblethunder too many times I may just forget the whole thing) that Philip (Laurel) has but one weakness—women.

Philip disembarks with another Scotsman, and the ship's doctor (an uncredited Sam Lufkin) insists on giving him a quick physical. As the doc probes and gropes him and tries to search his hair for lice or worms, the crowd on the pier begins giggling. This crowd includes Hardy who, despite the fact that he knows he’s meeting a Scot and Laurel is wearing a kilt, pities the poor sucker who's stuck with meeting his nitwit. Ollie's slow realization who the sucker is, is vintage Oliver Hardy.

Other than the kilt, there is no joke in their appearance. Hardy is in a natty sports coat and boater. Laurel is wearing a tam, but both of them have clothes that are clean and well-fitted, unlike the tight suits that Hardy will later adopt.

Pulling his nephew away from the chortling crowd, Hardy asks Laurel what he wants to do, when SHE (Dorothy Coburn, uncredited) walks by—and She is a leggy flapper with bobbed hair and a pert attitude. Laurel, instantly smitten, delivers the first of many scissor-jumps and Hardy has to grab him to keep him from pursuing her.

Walking down the street, Hardy insists that Laurel stays several steps behind him as he is an influential citizen and he doesn't want anyone to see him strolling along with a man in what looks like a dress. Every time Laurel catches up to him, he links arms with his uncle and the following crowd erupts in laughter. When Hardy asks a cop for help in keeping the crowd from ridiculing them, the cop laughs, too.

Then She passes by again, up jumps Laurel, and the chase is on. This time it ends with a slightly larger crowd gathered in the middle of the street. Hardy drags Philip away again, and as Laurel walks over an air vent in the sidewalk, his kilt flies up (a la Monroe in “The Seven Year Itch”). This happens a couple of times before Hardy moves him away from the vent. Laurel then decides to take a sniff of snuff and when he sneezes, his drawers, unnoticed by anyone, fall down.

Cut to the crowd. We can't see what happens to Laurel and his kilt, but several women pass out or move away in horror. Note that this action takes place in front of what I assume is a pub called "The Pink Pup." The boys could be risqué when it suited them. And it suited them more often than you may remember.

A passing stranger retrieves Laurel’s underwear—how times have changed—She returns, another scissor jump, more pursuit.

Hardy has had enough and he takes Laurel to a tailor to get him fitted for trousers. There is some foolery with measuring the inseam, with Laurel's reactions becoming more exaggerated each time. As the tailor (Harvey Clark, uncredited) becomes more and more frustrated, Hardy offers to help. Eventually, all three of them wind up rolling around on the floor.

Getting serious, Hardy removes his coat and follows Laurel through some curtains hanging in a doorway. He chases Laurel back and forth, the doorway being used as a frame for their action. Finally, Hardy emerges disheveled. His vest is pulled up and he has to straighten it. Then Laurel emerges, also mussed up. His tie is loosened. Here Laurel indulges in some superb silent face acting.

You can see his despair as his uncle has "undone" him. He has been seduced and betrayed. Laurel sits on a chair screen left, and Hardy stands beside him on his left. Their attitudes and expressions superbly parody melodrama of the she-is-more-to-be-pitied-than-censored variety.

The tailor brings them the pants, and Laurel goes into a dressing room to put them on. He sees HER legs pass by (he can see out a basement window at eye level), and he goes after her, still in kilt.

Once more, uncle, nephew and She end up together on the sidewalk. She has tried to slip unnoticed past the two men. She does get by them and when Laurel attempts pursuit once more, Hardy grabs him and, in an attempt to sooth his nephew's passion, asks him if he wants to meet the girl. Yes. Hardy strolls over to her as only he can stroll, and in that overly polite manner with which we will become familiar, is chatting her up when she thumps his nose and walks away.

She marches to the place where the sidewalk meets the street at an intersection. There is a large puddle in the street. Laurel rushes over to her, takes off his kilt and spreads it over the puddle. "An old Scottish custom," he tells her. She makes a quick leap over the kilt and puddle and we cut to her on the sidewalk on the opposite side of the street. She performs a scissor-jump, and walks away laughing.

Hardy comes up to Laurel, chortling. When Laurel bends to pick up his kilt, Hardy stops him with one of his grandiose gestures and indicates that he will go first. "An old American custom," he says. When he steps on the kilt, we see that it covered a waist-deep pit and Hardy goes completely under before re-emerging, soaked to the skin top to bottom. As he stands in the pit, chastened, a crowd comes running over, this time to laugh at him.

He has become what he least wanted to become.

The film’s pace is brisk and the jokes run the gamut from the expected to the oddball. Clyde Bruckman directs with a sure hand. Now remembered only by aficionados of early comedy, Bruckman was once at the forefront of screen farce. He worked again with Laurel and Hardy on “Battle of the Century,” and with W.C. Fields on “The Man on the Flying Trapeze” and “The Fatal Glass of Beer.” He’s the credited co-director with Buster Keaton of “The General,” and he made three talkies with Harold Lloyd.

The end was not kind. In 1955, after eating a meal in a restaurant that he could not pay for, he shot himself with a gun he’d borrowed from Keaton.

This film’s supervising director was Leo McCarey, who would win two directing Oscars. It was photographed by George Stevens, who would also go on to claim two Oscars for directing, and the intertitles were written by H.M. (Harley M. “Beany”) Walker, who wrote stories, titles and dialogue for 309 pictures.

Film historian William K. Everson once listed what each of the great movie clowns was best at, and he wrote that what The Boys did best was deliver more laughs per reel than anyone else. No sentimentalizing, no intellectualizing—just funny.

This is where it started, folks. This one’ll kilt ya.

Monday, August 13, 2007

"Tarzan of the Apes" (1918)

I was right there for the big Edgar Rice Burroughs boom of the early 1960s. When I was 13 years old, no one could have convinced me that ERB wasn’t America’s greatest writer. And when the movies were in their adolescence, Burroughs first came to the screen in “Tarzan of the Apes,” directed by Scott Sidney, who directed 69 films before his death in 1928. No, you’ve never heard of any of the others.

The fact that you have heard of #33 on the list owes everything to its source novel and little to Sidney’s skill. If ever a director made a negligible contribution to a finished product, this is that director and this is that product. The film’s only memorable visuals are several shots in silhouette, presenting the central images as it they were interior illustrations from one of the pulp fiction magazines in which the Tarzan stories were first published. Other than that, the pictures are mostly dull, static medium shots, the acting is bombastic, and the plot has been stripped of any psychological interest it might have contained.

John Clayton, Lord Greystoke (True Boardman) sails to Africa to put a stop to the Arab slave trade there. Accompanying him is his wife Alice (Kathleen Kirkham). A mutiny occurs on their ship and the two passengers are set ashore on a jungle coast. One of the sailors, Binns (George B. French) argues with the mutineers for their safety, but he is ignored and later returns to England.

Lord and Lady Greystoke build a small cabin but they soon succumb to the rigors of their castaway status. Alice dies in childbirth and John soon follows her. In death, not childbirth.

In a cross story, Kala, the great ape, loses her child. She hears the young Greystoke heir crying for food. Curious, Kala enters the hut and, seeing the helpless human baby, exchanges the corpse of her own infant for the human. Named Tarzan by his adopted family of apes, the boy has no idea that he is any different from his primate clan until as a boy he sees his reflection in a pool of water.

Here it’s time to pause and point something out to the movie trivia buffs. Elmo Lincoln, who plays the adult Tarzan in this picture, is not the first actor to essay the role. The boy actor who portrays the young ape man is Gordon Griffith and he is actually the first screen Tarzan. He’s also more energetic and convincing than Lincoln. Keep his name in mind and you can win some bar bets with it.

So Tarzan finds the ruined hut of his parents, with its picture books and, more importantly, a knife. He discovers the use this tool has and suddenly he is as dangerous as any of his primate fellows.

Back in England, the guilt-heavy Binns convinces a group of Greystoke’s relatives and a party of scientists to travel to Africa on a rescue mission. Remarkably enough, they land on the coast just where John and Alice had been abandoned and find the cabin. One of the group, Greystoke’s nephew (Colin Kenny) proposes to the young woman Jane Porter (Enid Markey), but she rejects his affections. In a rage, he makes to attack her. The adult Tarzan reaches through the cabin’s window, grabs the young man, and shakes him.

As if the tale up to this point hasn’t been melodramatic enough, the movie explodes from here like a bombshell packed with implausibilities. They are all pure Burroughs, but reading them doesn’t create the same urge to head-scratch and grin stupidly as the seeing them enacted by third-rate thespians. Binns is captured by Arab slave traders, and escapes, and teaches Tarzan the basics of readin’, writin’, and ‘rithmatic. Jane is captured by the local native tribe, the leader of which smiles like Gene Simmons and has to be taught his place by the White Lord of the Jungle. Jane is rescued but then is just as terrified by the hulking Tarzan as she has been by everything else that crawls, growls, flies, swims, bites, or has rape on its mind.

She will come to appreciate Tarzan’s manly and noble qualities, of course. “His great love’s courage shielded her from all harm,” a title card reads. Yeah, that and his knife. Lincoln actually killed a lion when it got a little too rambunctious during one of the wrestling scenes. The producers had it stuffed and it made the publicity tour.

All this jungle jive comes from Burroughs’ novel, there’s no denying that. ERB’s imagination always operated at the most elementary level. Hell, the man died in 1950 while reading a comic book in bed. But one approaches a Burroughs book—at least, one does the second time—with an expectation of the wildest kind of escape-and-capture pop fiction. The author’s magic lay in the fact that he could make the most absurd fantasy seem possible for the length of time it takes to read the book.

Movies can do the very same thing, but this “Tarzan of the Apes” doesn’t pull it off. Everything about it is pedestrian at best. If it had been made 20 years later, you’d swear it had been cobbled together from bits and pieces of other movies. There is no cohesion.

You can overlook the guys from the New Orleans Athletic Club who donned grotesquely inadequate ape costumes to play the tribe of Kala, knowing that nothing else could have been done in 1918. But Lincoln doesn’t look right. Hell, he’s not even tanned. (Truly frightening is the report that Clark Gable was considered for the part for the 1932 version that eventually starred Johnny Weissmuller. Gable was deemed too unknown. Whew. Hollywood.)

“Tarzan of the Apes” should be seen by fans of the character and lovers of silent movies, but be warned that it is impossible to take it seriously. One always hopes that a silent film can be approached in the spirit of its times and enjoyed as more modern pictures are, but this one, unfortunately, will only generate condescending laughter. Too bad. That magnificent pop genius Edgar Rice Burroughs deserves a better adaptation. Thank goodness he later received it.

Wednesday, August 8, 2007

"The Mask of Fu Manchu" (1932)

Ravening hordes of (gasp, choke) ORIENTALS are amassing in Asia with but one goal—to take over the world. Wait, make that two goals: take over the world and despoil white women while they do it.

Yes, it’s the pulp-infected world of Sax Rohmer brought to the screen for the 27th time by 1932, when “The Mask of Fu Manchu” was unleashed by MGM. Rohmer’s trashy but surprisingly readable novels and stories have provided the basis for over three dozen films, serials, and TV programs (Stephen King has him beat by over 50 titles, but King may not have the staying power.).

There are powerful stirrings in the East and British authorities fear that if a potent symbol of Oriental unity is discovered—say, oh, the legendary lost mask of Genghis Khan—unstoppable waves of the Yellow Peril will flow over the West and Civilization As We Know It will be submerged for generations to come.

Note right off the bat that the mask of Fu Manchu is really the mask of Genghis Khan, but we can’t let little things like that stand in the way of a good time.

Anyway, Scotland Yard worries that the mask could fall into the hands of the arch fiend, the insidious Dr. Fu Manchu, Devil Doctor, Chinese genius, doctor of philosophy, medicine, theology, and just about every other damn thing you could be a doctor of, so top cop of the Empire, Nayland Smith (Lewis Stone) is sent to find the mask first.

That last sentence was long enough so I didn’t add the parenthetical thought “before James Bond” to the idea of the top cop, but the relationship isn’t that far off base. Watch Nayland Smith and Fu Manchu try to outwit each other and then think about Bond and Dr. No. You’ll see what I mean.

Okay, so Nayland Smith sets out with a team from the British Museum to find the mask and bring it back to London while Fu Manchu and his “insignificant daughter” Fah Lo See (Myrna Loy) want to use it to encourage their followers to take over the western world.

To this end, they lie, cheat, steal, murder, kidnap and torture (she’s especially fond of this as the pain of men brings her at least to the point of orgasm).

What happens will come as no surprise to anyone who’s ever sniffed the pungent aroma of decaying pulp magazines, and whether or not you enjoy the journey to film’s conclusion will depend greatly on your appreciation of or tolerance for 1930s melodrama that is more camp than a field full of tents.

“The Mask of Fu Manchu” was one of nine pictures Boris Karloff made in 1932, and the evil genius was his first horror movie role after “Frankenstein” the previous year. He and Loy, 18 years his junior, are famously on record as saying that neither of them could take anything about the film seriously, and many’s the take that was ruined when one of the other of them got a fit a giggles over the script’s ludicrous dialogue.

As a general rule, that kind of insistent corpsing (theatrical slang for laughing on stage during serious moments) is amusing for about five minutes and then becomes a pain in the ass, but none of Karloff’s and Loy’s incredulous amusement wound up on the screen.

Which is not to say that you can’t see any of it. Both of them try so hard to sell their characters’ villainy it must be because they know that if they can’t make themselves believe in their own decadence, no one else will, either. They snarl, they leer, they open their eyes as wide as Cecil Holland’s slant-eyed makeup will let them. Karloff waves his opulent fingernails gracefully and Loy quivers with the expectation of torturing white men before turning them into sexual playthings.

The film is an acquired taste, but once acquired it becomes a cornucopia of period movie delights. Truly is it said that some pictures you come to love not in spite of their weaknesses, but because of them.

Most films that have aged this badly have disappeared. This one survives because it has Karloff in it. Loy is always a plus, and it’s a treat to see her in one of her pre-“Thin Man” exotic vamp roles, but most of the movies in which she played the wicked seductress have gone to that great celluloid recycling dump in the sky.

Rohmer’s Fu Manchu books have managed, just barely, to stay in print, but the interest of readers alone wouldn’t have kept a movie this dated alive and on television for over 70 years.
No, I suspect it’s Karloff’s presence combined with Cedric Gibbons’ simple but evocative art direction—and the repeated reproduction of curiosity-inducing stills from the film in early 1960s issues of “Famous Monsters of Filmland”—that have kept this one’s pulse thumping.
“The Mask of Fu Manchu” is still entertaining, even if, for most viewers, it’s entertaining for all the wrong reasons. Unfortunately, it remains today what it always was: a pretty lousy movie.

But if you still get a kick, or even a small thrill, from “Doctor. X,” “The Mystery of the Wax Museum,” or “The Vampire Bat,” and you can overlook the painful stereotypes and clichés that make up the Yellow Peril subgenre, Rohmer’s criminal genius may be able to cast his spell on you.

Monday, August 6, 2007

"Freaks" (1932)

“Freaks” is a movie that has to be seen more than once. It generates a kaleidoscope of reactions when seen for the first time, and it’s impossible to sort them all out. A single viewing will overwhelm you emotionally, but it takes repeated visits to this surreal masterpiece to determine an intellectual response.

It’s a movie that's rich with anecdotes. One has Irving Thalberg, the film’s uncredited producer, telling director Tod Browning that he wanted to make the horror movie to end all horror movies, and then saying, when he saw the finished product, “Well, I asked for it and I got it.”

One story has it that F. Scott Fitzgerald, who was under contract as a writer at MGM when the picture was made, bolted from the studio commissary and threw-up when the unusual cast came in for lunch. Another version has it that Fitzgerald felt more at ease with the cast of “Freaks” than he did with the studio big shots and so sat with them and lunched at their table.

Some say that Tod Browning exploited the cast (only Olga Roderick, the Bearded Lady, went on record later as saying she regretted her participation in the production) while others claim that Browning, a former circus and sideshow man himself, befriended the performers and set them up for life by turning them into international celebrities.

One thing is certain: no other Hollywood movie has ever generated legends like these.

As the story opens, we are moving slowly through a sideshow. The indoor talker, who bears a striking resemblance to Tod Browning, begins to tell his audience the back story of the show’s most unusual attraction. He and his audience gather around to top of a walled pit from the interior of which a light is shining up. Then we slip into the past . . .

A well-tailored dwarf named Hans (Harry Earles, who had worked with Browning in the silent version of “The Unholy Three”) is engaged to Frieda, another dwarf (Daisy Earles, Harry’s sister in real life). Despite his betrothal to Frieda, Hans is smitten by Cleopatra, the circus’ star aerialist (Olga Baclanova). Cleopatra encourages the little man’s attentions because he is willing to loan her money and buy her presents.

Cleo’s casual cruelty is the talk of the circus. Everyone knows that she is playing Hans for a sucker except Hans, who continues to harbor the delusion that she likes him.

Unknown to Hans, Cleo is actually romantically involved with Hercules, the strong man (Henry Victor). We first see Hercules as he wrestles a bull, the animal’s horns representing both the phallus and the traditional crown of the cuckold.

Finally, Frieda confronts Cleopatra and begs the big woman to leave Hans alone. She lets slip that Hans has inherited a fortune and we can see on Cleo’s face that she decides to change her amused encouragement of the little man to a determined attempt to woo him. She soon maneuvers Hans into a proposal, which she accepts with a plan to poison him and steal his money.

The wedding feast provides the background for the film’s most celebrated and quoted scene. Cleopatra, Hercules, the freaks and the other normals with the circus who have befriended them are gathered around a large table under the big top. Cleo and Hercules think the event is one huge joke, knowing as they do what they intend for Hans.

But then another dwarf stands on the table and brings a loving cup to everyone gathered. They each take a sip while chanting the words that make Cleopatra a member of their community--“Gooble gobble, we accept her, one of us.” When the loving cup is thrust toward Cleopatra she rises, the full horror of what they’re saying dawning on her. “You. Dirty. Slimy. Freaks!” she screams, stilling the crowd.

Obviously, the party is over and soon the only ones left at the table are Hercules, Cleopatra and Hans. The drunken strong man lifts Hans from his bench and puts him on Cleo’s shoulders telling the woman to give her new husband a horsey ride back to his wagon.

Hans soon falls ill, but the freaks have overheard the plotting of Hercules and Cleopatra. Off screen they tell Hans what his wife and her lover are up to and one dark stormy night the freaks take their revenge.

The film ends back at the indoor sideshow. A woman looks down into the pit and screams. Then Browning shows us the nature of the freak’s revenge. Cleopatra is now a freak herself, the Human Duck Woman. Legless and covered with feathers, she stands on her hands and emits quacking sounds.

Absurd? Oh yeah. Effective? You better believe it.

An overview of the plot, which is a standard morality/revenge tale, does nothing to prepare you for viewing the film. The cadre of freaks is made up of dwarfs, microcephalics (referred to in the movie as “pinheads”), Siamese twins, people who are armless and legless—and in one case, both—a bearded lady, an hermaphrodite, and persons the description of whom are beyond my vocabulary.

The characters play their reaction to the sideshow performers several ways. Some of the normals abuse them. Some are casually cruel and some are deliberately so. Other normals befriend the freaks. Wallace Ford and Leila Hyams are Phroso the clown (a name used by Lon Chaney in Browning’s silent “West of Zanzibar,” also with a circus background) and Venus, the bareback rider, who, while sometimes a bit patronizing, are intended to represent acceptance.

More problematic is Browning’s attitude as evidenced in the film. We first see the freaks, described as “children” although several of them are anything but, frolicking on a picnic. As they skip around in a circle they look all the world as if Browning wanted to parody the fairies in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” Of course, Max Reinhardt’s film of that play wouldn’t be made for another three years, but the suggestion of Arcadian fantasy turned into a sick joke is inescapable.

In fact, any joke involving the freaks must come across as black humor. One of the Siamese twins, Daisy Hilton, is married to a clown (Roscoe Ates) and the second twin, Violet, becomes engaged. The two men ask each other to bring their wives over for a visit.

But sometimes the joke is used to suggest that there isn’t much difference between one world and another. We first meet the half-man/half-woman Joseph Josephine as s/he strolls between the wagons and Roscoe is changing out of the costume of a Roman lady. The male/female combination is emphasized.

And occasionally the humor is just as bizarre as the visuals. When Phroso comforts Venus, who has just broken up with her boyfriend, she tells him, “Say, you’re a pretty good kid.” “You’re darn right,” he responds. “You should have caught me before my operation.” Whatever that may mean.

There really isn’t much of horror in this horror movie, although there is a lot of unease beginning when the freaks figure out that Hercules and Cleopatra intend to murder Hans. Everywhere the big woman turns, there are two or three of her unusual enemies watching from the shadows.

Things turn more grotesque during the climactic storm when the wagons carrying Cleopatra and Hercules tip over in the mud. One of the little men throws a knife at the strong man, dropping him and allowing several more freaks to attack him. Cleopatra rushes off into the woods before she is brought down.

Originally, Browning intended a tree to fall on Cleo, thereby giving the freaks the opportunity they need to carve her up. Hercules was supposed to be seen in the epilog singing like a counter-tenor, having been emasculated. As the film now stands, Hercules is last seen being swarmed under. Only Cleopatra survives to become truly, “one of us.”

But perhaps as shocking and horrifying as the appearance of the freaks to audiences of 1932 is the film’s sexual innuendo. Cleopatra is blatantly sexual. When Hercules comes to her wagon, she offers to cook some eggs for him. She turns to him, puts her hands on her hips, thrusts her breasts toward him and asks, theoretically about the eggs, “How do you like them?”

Pre-code audiences were used to stuff like that, but they hadn’t been exposed, in mainstream films at least, to the necessity of public sex when Siamese twins cohabitate with their husbands. The idea of a dwarf and a “big woman” having a sexual relationship can still generate some ribald snickering, but there’s undeniably off-putting in the mental image as well.

Part of this problem springs from the tragic gut-feeling that the freaks are somehow less than human, a delusion that the movie tries so hard to correct. But the question is: can it? Can any film move audiences completely beyond the unwanted and unwarranted notion that there is something unnaturally wrong with people who look so different?

Browning’s camera jumps in and out, and tracks with the movement of the characters with a freedom he had rarely allowed himself previously. But during those last moments, when the freaks wreak their vengeance, the camera stands still, their faces lunging at us in close-up, and even the most sensitive ones among us are likely to push backward in our seats to put as much distance as possible between us and the grotesque image on the screen.