Cleansing the doors of cinematic perception since 2006, or earlater

Sunday, August 31, 2014


Conjuring-from top: Fairuza (The Craft); Kathleen Hannah (Punk Singer);
Sianoa Smit-McPhee (Cheerleaders)
I summon thee, Netflix, unholy ghost streamer.
The Craft and now All Cheerleaders Die wait within you. 
Teenagers sleeping over and swapping blood, giggling over the Ouija, 
love spell chanting and stiff-as-a-boarding.
Magic of entrained hormonal unconsciouses--
north, south, west, east - hands high 4 the money spell - 
Ra Ra Ra.
"It" soon vibrates beyond the girls' control. 
Sometimes through summonings true to the ancient Mothers 
or false to shady Aleister,
sometimes through babble banged out by L.A. hacks
too fussy for the musty tomes.
Goaded by lying boys, and traffic lights,
If no one else, 
this will scare 
your mom.

Director Andrew Fleming,
you made THE CRAFT and BAD DREAMS!
Andrew Fleming,
you seem respectful of women!
Hail to thee, Andrew Fleming! 
Solid and semi-trippy thou, if a tad flat and pedestrian.

 Director Lucky McKee,
Anxiously feminist and brazenly misogynistic, 
Do you still insist, Lucky, that there's a difference?
Don't both overestimate woman's power? 
Don't both underestimate women's power?

Woman's power is nature's power.
Destructive beyond your male characters' fathoming,
Darkness in light! Kali in Shiva! Destruction in creation!
Inhale now the embers of my burning math book sacrifice.
We'll burn all the algebra out of her!
Every suburban mama's frat boy litter
shall be cleansed by blood-rag torch red fire
of her tidal elevator Overlook-ed Period.

Kathleen Hannah:
your 'music' is like love-hate tattoos on Kali's iron fists.
You're Hopi from Love and Rockets in your riot grrl cuteness.
Rail on against the murphs, frat boys, douches, and dickheads.
Retaliate against their ugly and unconscious urges. 
You're hot enough that they have to listen.

Kathleen Hannah!
Sans bitterness, sans pedantry,
sans food co-op meeting sanctimony,
but with fierce tribal howling, smite them!
Kathleen Hannah, make slam dancing safer for women! 
Kathleen Hannah, inspire legions of xeroxed fanzines.
Flinch not as the AOR vultures circle,
or as the jerk-off nuts out from woodwork creep,
 even as nervous exhaustion hides 
a wrongly-diagnosed disease.

Smite your enemies with thy shrill feedback screams, Kathleen Hannah!
 Let your documentary move me to sensitive new age guy tears. (It did)
Guide my hand in smiting too the women-hating wallies,
the backwards baseball-capped unconsciously self-entitled douchebag tools of America.
Deafen them, Kathleen Hannah!
We are with thee, streaming The Punk Singer!
Praying, Chanting for your Re-Rising!

(1996) Dir. Andrew Fleming
Andrew Fleming hasn't made many films but he has a rare gift of getting the ambiguity of hallucinations exactly right: the way snakes seem to be writhing in every shadow as the underlying reptilian cortices of the DNA serpent-tongue universe entwine and unwind within your fever or alcohol-or-opiate withdrawal or mushroom-overdose or lack of sleep. Little turkeys with straw hats dancing in the shattered scream-filled shadows of Bellevue's alcoholic ward, the rats and the bats in the walls, Bim. Terrifying but soothing compared to the convulsions... lost my train of thought. Fleming never does!

The Craft's photography is a little flat, as was the style for teen films of the era, and still is, alas, with the L.A. locations (lots of homeless) throwing the girls into relief against a wall of disappointingly straight-lined moral justice. The swim team black girl (Rachel True) wishes the blonde racist taunter Christine Taylor's hair to fall off, but her ensuing anguish makes True more sensitive to her past taunts and she apologizes, so True feels bad; Neve Campbell's horrible back scars magically disappear so now she's smokin' hot but turns vain and obnoxious; poor white trash punk Fairuza Balk gets rich but her mom wastes the money on a jukebox, etc. Before new girl Robin Tunney showed up they were just three outcasts goofing around with spell books and stolen candles and getting nowhere. Since Tunney's a real witch, descended from her witch mom who died in childbirth, she gives them a magick power boost which they're too immature to handle.

For her wish, poor Robin Tunney doesn't think to wish for deliverance from her crippling phobias and instead indulges her masochistic attraction to one of those backwards baseball cap wearing rapey tools (Skeet Ulrich). Later she lets Balk walk all over her with snake 'glimmers' and some Voodoo god of everything named Manon (pronounced Manos, as in Hands of Fate). Apparently the witchery consultant didn't want them to invoke a real spirit, lest they offend a Wiccan or two, or encourage young girls to summon things they wouldn't be able to control, the way the proliferation of Ouija boards in the seventies led to a glut of summoned demons still keeping investigative ghost shows busy to this day.

With a tight script that never wastes a word on pointless chit-chat, and a stable cast rounded out by Pedro Almodovar regular Assumpta Serna as the white witch new age bookstore owner, there's some troublesome stretches of Tunney running around her house whining and puling, and believing in the snake and bug hallucinations, wherein we root for Balk's then-deranged stalker; and the almost DC comics-level morality hanging under all the karma has a troublesome subtextual implication that teenage girls can't be trusted with any kind of real power, presuming they'll throw it away on petty revenge, vanity, financial gains and douchebag boys. Maybe that's true, but it's not why we're here. We want to see the douchebag boys get thrown out of a second story window, and to see Fairuza tear it up (and she does; she's a real witch in real life and her summoning scenes have a solid orgasmic power). We don't want to see Tunney trailing after the mayhem in judgmental horror, so girls watching will know that taking occult revenge against snickering date rapists is wrong, since you might hurt their feelings. In other words, while it's not quite as grrl-empowering as Night of the Comet, it sure beats Tank Girl!

(2013) Dir. Siri Anderson
A labor of love from some chick named Siri Anderson, The Punk Singer is an adorable little scrapbook-style montage of the life, bands, and illnesses of Kathleen Hanna, the original riot grrl, who wrote "Kurt smells like teen spirit" on Cobain's wall thus inspiring the big #1 track of 1991 and triggering a seemingly random cold cocking by Courtney Love backstage a little later. Cobain was enamored of her smart mix of sexual provocateur (strutting around stage in her underwear) and angry feminist ranting (about the evils of the male gaze). Critics argued that combination sent mixed signals, which was missing the point: just by being attracted to her, we (men) became part of the performance, target and the subject,. like shining a mirror in the face of Bro-Medusa (Brodusa?) and turning him to stone. We had the same eerie frisson listening to rap at the time, which was also coming up in the world in 1991. In a world of pop culture aimed right at us 18-35 year-old straight white males, bands like Bikini Kill, NWA and the Geto Boys gave us a new thrill - that of being the target of justified rage. Endangered, threatened, exposed, even from across the new medium called CD, we drove to or our pharmaceutical corporation mailroom temp jobs, blasting our cassettes and feeling like a horror movie was forming just ahead, women and minorities out to rip us apart, and we loved it.

Hanna had some fame as the founder of the riot grrl movement via her many 'zines, her bands Bikini Kill, Le Tigre, the Julie Ruin, and so in the film we learn how Hanna's fearless, raw, fuck you attitude was truly empowering to women and the anemic ectomorphs who love them. She'd get in the face of the mesomorphs who'd come to punks shows to mosh and stand in front of the stage to leer at her sexy bod, ordering them to the back so girls could come up and dance in safety. Eventually she married Beastie Boys' Adam Horovitz and is currently recovering from Lyme disease, which was misdiagnosed as exhaustion from her hectic touring schedule. The documentary's pretty short, too, and never repeats itself or wears out it's welcome. Hanna's in good hands with Anderson, and Horovitz seems a very compassionate husband. Their home, by a riverside is modern yet homey. Can the pitter patter of little feet be far behind? That's a joke, son! Power to the childless, for they can say fuck you to maternity's conscripted gender bondage!

(2013) Dir. Lucky McKee

That alt-emo quasi-feminist horror maven Lucky McKee (May, The Woods) and less-successful writer /director Chris Silverton (I Know Who Killed Me) be at it again in this bigger-budgeted remake of their 2001 shot-on-video Pretty Little Liars for the the Deathdreamers joint. It's a year after the accidental death of the cheerleader squad captain, and high school hierarchy is still in disarray, upended by a weird 'not in this reality' bizarro world where the late girl's beau, the narcissistic football captain, aptly named Terry Stankus (Tom Williamson), swears a vendetta against scheming lesbian hottie Maddy (Caitlin Stasey) due to the alienated affection of a pretty blonde (Brooke Butler). Maddy's own ex-girlfriend Leena (Sianoa Smit-McPhee) is a witch who mopes along the sidelines as the alpha dog and hottie lesbo square off. Smash car and a few cuts later, Leena's fishing the cheerleaders out of the lake and bringing them back to life. Now they're cold zombies with different colored gems in their bodies who feel each other's orgasms and blood lusts. But Leena's so stupid she leaves the key to their immortality hanging in an unlocked school locker rather than wear it around her neck (the equivalent of leaving your roll of thousand dollar bills safely on the bathroom floor rather than your pocket where it might fall out).

Parts are more successful than the whole: the blood is tacky cartoon CGI, the glowing colored rocks are corny and there's an excess of all the wrong people getting hurt (Stankus does a lot of really abhorrent stuff yet dies only once, long after our hate of him has turned to indifference to the lot of them). But the whole thing has a nearly Russ Meyer-level of gonzo recklessness--we never know quite what's going to happen next--and Maddy lets loose such a brazen stream of insults at Stankus once can only be reminded of Russ Meyer classics like Supervixens. Too bad he wreaks six pounds of misogyny to every wreaked vengeance ounce (the only approximation to the imbalance would be the South African diplomat in Lethal Weapon 2 and Scorpio in Dirty Harry 1)  and even the murders are undercut in intensity due to the blood's Tex Avery elasticity, making it seem like this movie at one point wanted to court a teen market rather than the Alamo Drafthouse crowd.

Despite the cartoon blood, the disproportionate misogyny ratio and some vaguely skeevy undertaste to the hot girl-on-girl action (unsurprising considering it was written by two dudes), there's some sharp insight to lesbian trials and tribulations, such as how if you're a lesbian you can swoon for a hot chick you see walking by at the gym before you realize it's just you in the full wall mirror, and just as you cannot escape your reflection you can never escape your exes, or her ex, and so on into a long daisy chain of former-lovers peering sullenly over each others' shoulders, or hooking up with each other to get back at you or your current girlfriends, all at your own dinner party (as the lesbian subgroup is loyal and supportive to each other over and above current lovers). In other words, same gender equals double the problems of conventional boring ass straight relationships, in addition to the comforts. And Leena makes a lot of twisted witchy faces which--with her pale skin, black hair, and inch thick black eyeliner--make her quite the future camp horror icon-in-pupae form, despite her 'killing people on school grounds is wrong' ethos, which is sooooo the worst part of Heathers (a clear formative influence on this whole subgenre).

I like a lot of stuff about this energetic film--such as great roving camera that is seldom in the right place at the right time--and look forward to 'part two.' if any. But in the anticlimactic retribution relative to the rampant misogynistic violence makes this a bit like disproportionate payback to the abuse in Jack Hill's Foxy Brown as opposed to Jack Hill's awesome Coffy; another drawback is the ridiculous slow-mo CGI blood, and if the film is way better than the average found-Netflix dreck, it;s still dreck, and very unsteady on its feet as it tries to serve too many demographics at once. So Lucky, hail to thee but in the future don't be afraid to get a woman co-writer, like Deborah Hill on  Halloween or Gale Ann Hurd on The Terminator, or Karen Walton on Ginger Snaps. That way we won't have to pretend to be appalled by your male gaze eye candy, in case Kathleen Hanna is watching us from her crystal oculus. That little hottie really has our number, but McKee, you're still just a very sick girl.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Shat on the Altar: HORROR AT 37,000 FEET, DEVIL'S RAIN

William Shatner, the Hawksian organizer of men in a far-flung future without currency, determined player of crisis-bound priests, rock-like teachers and an Arizona sheriff named 'Dances with Tarantulas.' In the following two films you will see him drink from a flask on frozen airplanes, and bare his chest to preserve a book and drop and lose a protective amulet the minute a Borgesian glimmer spell rolls its 20 sided serpent die his way... He's a relic from when hunky sci-fi guys were brainy, had resonant voices and a certain catlike nimbleness. A tad macho and impulsive, but able to draw on cooler minds to guide him. Shatner is his name. He never lived with common people, but common people are all we have now. Bit in the late 60s-early 70s common people didn't exist. We kids couldn't have been happier about it - Bop Bop! 

I know there are those hardcore Trekkies who are annoyed by Shatner's nimble macho fey arrogance as Kirk, who prefer the dry baldness of Patrick Stewart. They probably also hate There will be Blood and W.C. Fields. I am not them. Stewart can be fun but his captain is a bore. Maybe it was growing up watching Trek with my dad in syndication as a wee nipper. But to me Shatner can do no wrong. Even his terrible toupee is all right with me. Always just a bit hammier than called for, his expressive resonant voice... his unique... pauses...followedby... rapidcascades.... ofwords, have brought decades of amusement to a beleaguered nation. (See: Sex, Drugs, and Quantum Existentialism).

And when starring in dopey films like the ones included here, or artsy experiments like Incubus, he went for broke, lugging Shakespeare-style oratory into the rarefied sphere of cowboys-vs.-Satanists, ancient druid altars 37,000 Feet in the air, with only someone blowing air up a tube snaked under a puddle of hellish light green slime for a monster. And damnit he almost made it work.

1973 - TVM / CBS
In order to earn the prime time slot, a 70s TV movie had to borrow from at least three cinematic themes then in vogue, so here we get: 1) the ancient curse attached to an ancient artifact, i.e. devils, possession, human sacrifice; 2) the social commentary, i.e. Salem witch trials, Monsters of Maple Street; 3) the ensemble disaster movie, i.e. Airport (a welcome form of actor equity: faded 30s-50s stars, aging child actors, nearly-ran and upcoming starlets, and granite-jawed authority figures like Christopher Plummer or David Jansen or Chuck Conners, could all meet as strangers, get picked off and the survivors end as bonded heroes--see also: Day of the Animals). Here these types board a jumbo jet luxury cargo-passenger "airplane" hauling a massively heavy Celtic altar exhumed from its sacred grove in Ireland, and an innocent dog. And the downstairs storage freezes --the dog is frozen solid! Why did we need to go through that, so the studio could show off it's frozen dog prop? And then the plane become suspended at 37,000 feet, trapped in a crossfire of wind tunnels, providing an ingenious explanation of why the plane interiors never once give the impression of movement, or engine roar, or being anything but a three-wall set. Luckily the stewardesses all wear hot white go-go boots. Shat rocks some writerly glasses and a dry-scalp toupee far more natural than usual. That helps.

I ain't complaining though, I love a kind of zero point surreal experience where some smoke wafting up from a hole in the carpet and the occasional Val Lewtonian shadow substitutes for any kind of monster or concrete threat (which is great, since the whole point of the 'mounting menace' is to keep you glued through the commercials and then remind you what's been going on when you come back). The strange fascination with sub-zero temperatures on a plane (just touching the door makes pilot Chuck Connors' whole arm go numb) goes well with the array of locked-in ensemble types waiting for their chance at a terse "Why doesn't somebody do something??!" scene or two, all interacting with the reserved unrehearsed confusion of an off-off-Broadway one-act drama table read directed by Rod Serling's slow-witted nephew after too a night of too many cherries in his Manhattan cocktails. A nephew who, incidentally, has never actually flew. And who seems to think stewardesses would confiscate a first-class passenger's flask, and not bring him a sip of champagne.

The sparse passengers include: the baby-voiced Mrs. Pinder (Tammy Grimes), a wild-eyed single lady with straight dirty blonde hair and aversion to fire (she knows all about the stone's colorful human sacrifice-enriched past and who makes the most out of every evil syllable of dialogue); her dog, named Damien, stored below by the altar and clearly given no ketamine, the swines; Chuck Connors as the square-jawed pilot; Shatner the boozy priest who lost his faith (there's always one); Lynn Loring his Mia Farrow-ish wife; Russell "The Professor-and" Johnson; Paul Winfield the nattily-dressed physician whose dogmatic rationalism is put to the test; Buddy Ebsen a cranky millionaire always ready with a homespun witticism. The only real sore spot is Will Hutchins as a spaghetti western B-cowboy with a terrible towhead mop top wig and rodeo shirt and a habit of shouting all his lines. Yeesh! His trying to hit on one of the girls is the most terrifying thing in the movie. Thank 'god' for Mrs. Pinder and her crazy eyes and straight dirt blonde hair, and the Shatner, the granite jaw of Connors, and of course, the Shat, drunk and sneering at his fellow passenger's atheist-in-a-foxhole panic, but then snapping to life when the other passengers contemplate child sacrifice after first trying to pacify the evil spirit with the kid's doll as effigy. As Mrs. Pinder says, it just pisses the evil one off by trying to trick him; he wants the blood of one of his ancestors, the psychic girl (Jane Merrow) whose rich architect husband (Roy Thinnes) brought the altar as a souvenir from her ancestral home, albeit against her wishes. The very fact a cargo plane is flying passengers as well as an 11,000 pound altar seems very odd. Does this kind of flight even exist? Seems like that altar should be shipped by a freighter. But hey, it saves on passenger manifests (i.e. no extras needed) and allows more room for the camera and later, the possible child sacrifice fire set up in the rear by the now frigid cargo hold. will the terrified passengers commit the ultimate transgression (child sacrifice) or be turned into green puddles before the dawn can come up in time to save them? But first a word from Alpo.

Horror at 37,000 Feet moves pretty fast without the commercials, and fans of Italian horror can luxuriate in the colorful red lights of the cockpit and everyone can appreciate the wild-eyed hysteria with which Loring rises to the occasion, furiously cutting off Jane Merrow's hair to wrap in the child's doll and wrapping it up in her clothes. "And some of your fingernails," she raves, as if possessed. When that doesn't work, it's time to actually sacrifice the child! Great hammy stuff with Shatner wobbling around drunk and all the actors wondering what do in this under-rehearsed closed-in space to 'portray' their types. Shatner out matches Buddy Ebsen in the finger bending department. "Here, take another pain killer,' says the co-pilot to Connors, "no pint in saving them." Shat  realizes he can terrify Mrs. Pinder by waving his Zippo lighter in her face. "Fire! To burn witches!" Yikes! He's  not very PC --he even sneers at people who "believe jimson weed will make them immortal!" Dude, no one who does Jimson weed would ever think that, it would be quite the opposite. Take it from an old Jimson weed-head. But Shat should know, having counseled the original teen 'mixed bag' drug addict that same year in Go Ask Alice.

Those of us who were around in the 70s and remember when this first aired are far less likely to care about all this stupidity, or that the film can no longer hide its poverty in an analog cathode ray blur. But those of us who were kids at the time (I was seven) those days when everyone watched the same shows all the time for there were only three channels and no VHS, this is as precious a memento as a family album. Maybe more so. For us, then, this DVD is a must. If only Satan's School for Girls or Death at Love House would one day get the same respectful remastering treatment. May Cheesy Flix die a thousand deaths for its profaning the profane and blurring the Kate Jackson! Still, better than nothing. Though I hear 'nothing' is getting better all the time.

1975 - dir. Robert Fuest
I've seen hellfire and I've seen face-melting rain. I've seen green puddles with air bubbling up through them, and it wasn't impressive, even via nostalgia's glowing tolerance. But if you were a kid in the 70s, The Devil's Rain falls into the unholy and powerful relic category of stuff unseen but nonstop dreamt of. Its TV spots were an inescapable part of local prime time TV in 1975. I was eight and gleefully spooked by the melting faces. I had a bizarre childhood dream about them, and even now there's a lingering prepubescent  jouissance associated with imagining acid rain hitting me and my coven and melting us like candle wax. Even back then we'd heard Devil's Rain was lousy, but my dream was amazing, and if I wasn't so savvy about Satanic cinema even at eight years-old, and it was the 80s instead of the 70s, and a careerist child psychologist heard my dream, he'd probably think I was abducted by Satanists and arrest my parents and teachers. But in the 70s it was anybody's game, a whole Middle America demographic gone to the devil with touchy feely sharing: cocktails, bridge, Jaycees, smoking on planes, turtleneck and medallion conclaves of wife-swappers, communes and encounter groups, all-night block parties leading into softball breakfast picnics of still-drunk adults and kids high on their very first sunrise and sleep deprivation. It was grand indeed, total freedom, and even the devils were cool. And church was just an excuse to act rambunctious doing my devil impersonations, followed by gleeful hearing of plots of devil films by those who were allowed to see them, or even just heard about them from an older sibling.

That sub-sexual supernatural power of not being able to see a film like Devil's Rain as a kid is of course a substantial amount of the appeal for me and my Generation X comrades, the last group who experienced the high of unavailability, of titles being forever out of reach and so projected upon with our most lurid imagination. Just seeing the TV commercial for an R-rated horror movie was enough to give us sexy nightmares and make the world seem full of strange telekinetic magic and unimaginable 'adult' terror. Our constant imagining created a parallel subconscious repository so powerful it later spilled over into our adult reality, dragging us by our budding sexual drives towards a dreaded obsession that finally led to the 'satanic panic' witch hunts of the 1980s and the rise of nervous overprotective brand parenting we're still hurting our children and ourselves with today.

Turns out, in real life, seeing it now on DVD as an adult, I realize the film is too strange, too 'off' and too slow to be scary, but with its daytime afternoon Satanic ceremonies in the Arizona desert, the boarded up church in the middle of a nowhere ghost town, the upside down pentagram stained glass window, the ultimate futile weakness of Shatner's character in the face of Borgnine's magic, it all generates a collective creepiness, as does the idea of looking for your parents and finding only life-size animated black-eyed wax effigies urging you to bring them 'the book'.

Earnest Borgnine is an odd choice for the head Satanist, but Shatner is great as the cowboy whose parents are sucked into the coven, which has taken over the whole ghost town. Meanwhile Joan Prather is psychic for no good reason except to allow her to 'see' the flashback (via looking into coven member John Travolta's dead black eyes) and to provide an interesting scene where she performs an EKG for a crowd of psychology students while Dr. Eddie Albert explains that ESP is very real and he's in the process of discovering what brainwave controls it. Tom Skerritt is her husband and eventually wrests the lead away from Shatner like Sylvia Miles in Psycho. 

I love lots of things about this screwy picture, from the ESP angle right down to the way Scientology and plastic surgery are subtextually critiqued by the sight of a ceremonial robe-clad very young John Travolta's face melting in the rain. Any film that gives Hieronymus Bosch and Anton LaVey screen credit deserves some halting respect. My only complaint is the unnecessary, depressing final 'twist' so I try to remember to stop watching beforehand, like somewhere during the last 20 minutes which is all just rain and melting. I still like it better than Fuest's higher praised work, like Dr. Phibes. Mighty Shat makes shit shows like this soar, son! Drink to that... or be damned like a black Cadillac chasing James Brolin through the dusty desert... with no driver!! Now that's a movie, even if it ain't got no Shat screaming on the Satanic altar.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014


Alongside Warren William, Lee Tracy is one of those guys who is largely forgotten by mainstream film lovers but revered by those in the pre-code know. Unlike Williams, the Big Bad Wolf of sneaky industry captains and unscrupulous womanizers, Tracy's doesn't ooze authority and charm, but he gives great amphetamine crackle to a coterie of wiry Hollywood press agents and snoopy reporters, gossip columnists, and crime beat morgue haunters. He takes some getting used to, even by seasoned campaigners, perhaps because the Lee Tracy 'type' led to several imitators, none of whom matched his mix of spooked nerve, rattled newsprint panache, and speed patter. So don't let the imitations turn you off --Tracy's the craziest, sharpest, most cynical actor of the code's all-too-brief era. Now he's on TCM - don't miss these!

1932 - ***1/2

Tracy's frequent Warner's co-star Ann Dvorak is one of those girls doomed to give up her sweet blonde child while tumbling down the social ladder, lower and lower, with the bad luck to be dating a two bit hood who shoots a cop while she's in his stolen car with a naive bellboy she wrangled. The crook is shot, Molly hides out in an apartment that shares a phone with Tracy as a fast-talking journalist. Soon he's stealing her from the kid, making plans and meanwhile trying to get Molly to come into the cops by playing up the sob sister angle, broadcasting her child is sick and needs her. It all ends with a dizzyingly amphetamine-fast police station-press room race around which makes the one in His Girl Friday seem like a Rohypnols commercial. Has Tracy ever been faster, better, sleeker, continually winding and unwinding? His 'knowing about women' spiels around his neck and heart and others until a final confessional monologue leaves us whirling, and other films paling.

1932 - **1/2

Here's Lee Tracy doing what he does best: motormouth speed-talking through long scenes of unscrupulous flim-flam: first he's a carny barker hawking Lupe Velez's uninhibited fan dancer; second, hawking a blonde hotel maid who partners with Eugene Palette as wild, untamed nudists. Or is it reverse? I fell asleep, but TCM's print was too washed out, or was that me? Palette as an ersatz wildman is enough of a consolation that this wasn't written was by Ben Hecht, but on the other hand it probably it lacks gallows wit, and what's Tracy without it? There's also Frank Morgan as a Broadway impresario who eventually winds up in bed with Velez, thus opening himself to Tracy's blackmail, I think.  Some rare moments of real connection exist, though, like the reunion of Pallette, Tracy, and a handful of sawdust which Tracy pours through his fingers asking "can you imagine this stuff running though your veins?" Tracy's own painful awareness of the cliches by which he's bound make me think he was far more than just an amphetamine-tongued con artist. He was also a drunk, and therefore a poet.

1932 - ***1/2

Douglas Fairbanks Jr. stars in this one as a columnist who tangles over Francis Dee with generic gangster Lyle Talbot; fellow scribes Tracy and Dvorak are hep enough to know their boy's getting taken to the cleaners by slumming Dee, but they keep their yaps shut like true pals. Dialogue is pitched at such a darkly cynical height that censors ears clearly weren't fast enough to catch it: "Looks like you been up at Sing Sing looking at a burning!" is a typically grim remark, and sex is everywhere, as when Tracy and Dvorak are out at a nightclub eating dinner and she says "if you loved me half as much as you love that steak I'd break down out of self-pity" (meaning throw him a sympathy fuck, yo!) Fairbanks describes Dee--to her face!--as having "a beautiful can." and that she's "as pretty as a little red wagon." Lots of phone calls are made and received. The TCM print looks real nice. There's nothing quite like this film's unambiguously cynical ending, the sort of loose-ended defiance of the crime-must-pay adage only possible in pre-code conditions. William Wellman directed it... like a punch to the gut.

1933 - ****

Playing a loose conglomerate of Clara Bow, Thelma Todd, and herself, Jean Harlow comes through in metatextual spades here as an overworked MGM starlet, earning her place at the top of the spitfire heap with rapid fire slang-filled dialogue pouring in satin torrents from her tongue as she goes zipping, 8 1/2-style, through a carnival of blustery studio heads, make-up artists, insurance fraud grifters, drunken joneser fathers (Frank Morgan), an accented gigolo lover, an infatuated director (Pat O'Brien), and Lee Tracy as, what else?, an unscrupulous publicity agent.

1932 - ***1/2

If you've been always a bit cold on Lee Tracy this is the film that will make you warm up. Here he's like Jimmy Cagney crossed with an adenoidal scarecrow as the quintessential fast-talking gossip columnist, ushering in a new low in journalism via the ratting out of 'blessed events' - i.e. children born less than nine months after the couple's been married, or outside of wedlock, or etc. Remember when that was a scandal? Me neither. Highlight: Tracy bluffs Allen Jenkins' mob hitman via a monologue about an electric chair execution he witnessed that brings Barrymore in TWENTIETH CENTURY-worthy manic pantomime to some balls-out ghastly places, such as his imitation of the wobbly walk to the chamber, his voice cracking with hysteria, body spazzing sharp and jerky like a Zulawski gangster as he describes the anguish of waiting in hopes of a reprieve, puking up the last meal, the rigor mortis and hair burning. It's the sort of thing that only the pre-codes could delve into, and this delves so deep you're quaking along with Jenkins by the end, and all traces of your dislike of Tracy have been obliterated.

Roy Del Ruth directed and the rapid patter pace is awesome except when Dick Powell's lame songs slow things down. Edwin Maxwell, Ned Sparks, Frank McHugh, Allen Jenkins, Ruth Donnelly, Jack La Rue, and Rita Cunningham all come over to the table, adding plenty of moxy. Add un-PC dialogue ("Do you know many Jews there are in New York?" - "Oh, dozens!") and a wild-eyed girl 'in trouble' played with deranged ferocity and desperation by a ragged-looking creature named Isabell Jewell (above), and you have a whipsmack pre-code that makes your scalp stand on end. PS - You will also come out of this film learning what 'nadir' means.

1933 - ****

I watched this film a lot when I was really, really, really beginning to descend into the round-the-clock drinking abyss, and I'm glad it was there to sink into the mire with me. If you drink along with the Depression era-sorrow and small triumphs and wallow in your own self-pity like the swine you are the film glows like a lamp in a flop house doorway, especially if the girl you're pining for happens to be named Paula and look a lot like Madge Evans (above), who plays a Paula pining for John Barrymore, near end... a swell funhouse mirror reversal! I watched this every night, drinking and retching along in sympathy as Barrymore's shakes continually threaten to rear up and destroy him... until finally he beats them to the punch.

First though, you can nod out during the long, drawn-out conversations with an ill shipping magnate Lionel Barrymore asking former siren of the stage Carlotta Vance (Marie Dressler) to not sell her stocks to a corporate raider (bullish Wallace Beery). The raider's wife meanwhile is a hot-to-trot bimbo (Jean Harlow in some truly shiny sleepwear), with a yen for her doctor (Edmund Lowe), who'd rather not but likes the promptness of payment. And, oblivious to all the suffering and real time issues going on around her, Lionel's chirpy wife Billie Burke freaks out because she "got the Ferncliffs" and the aspic isn't just right and all the other stuff that bourgeois pretension-suffering dinner guest scribes like Herman J. Mankiewicz and Frances Marion wrote for her to say until you just want to punch her and shout "your shrill pettiness is killing your husband and your daughter Paula's chasing after a drunk former rock star named Erich, I mean John, I mean, Larry Renault!!" By then of course, there will be one less at the table.

1933 - ***1/2

Time and digital re-colorization has been kind to the early 2-strip Technicolor hues of DR. X. What used to look blurry and muddy and depressing now glitters with glowing emeralds, murky pinks and streaks of deep red that make it like a candy fountain of shadowy death. Fay Wray is the daughter of Lionel Atwill, who gets lots of ham time as the titular Dr. Xavier, out to trap the "full moon killer" amongst his atmospherically-lighted collection of scientific colleagues: Dr. Welles has made a 'study' of cannibalism and keeps a heart alive in an 'electrolysis solution' but his missing arm preempts further suspicion; Dr. Haines on the other hand was shipwrecked for years on a desert island and his tasty, plump colleague was never found; Dr. Rowen studies lunar rays' effects on criminal minds but notes that "the lunar rays will never effect you and me, sir, because we are 'normal' people."

And dig the post-modern self-reflexivity of the the climax, with the doctors all chained to their chairs, their pulses linked to vials of blood that overflow like a buzzer at the top of a Coney Island strength tester when they're aroused by the murder tableaux staged before them, just like you in the audience! Scream ladies and gentlemen! The Tingler is in this theater! In the subtext, the duality inherent in language gets a lot of subliminal attention too: Xavier's outrage over each of the new accusations of his colleague belies its antithesis: "Dr. Rowen could never never be the guilty one," means the opposite, while Lee Tracy regularly promises not to do something while then turning around and doing it, as expected by the morgue attendants and security guards he bribes to look the other way. Meanwhile, Xavier's grave pronouncements include: "There can be no doubt about it, gentlemen - this is cannibalism!" And now that you're not annoyed by Lee Tracy anymore (see BLESSED EVENT) maybe you wont want to tear his picture apart with your bare hands when you learn he gets Fay Wray in the end. Chained for your own amusement, indeed.

1933 - ***

Tracy's a journalist! The magic year of 1933! He's the kind of dirt digger who travels the world worming his way into the dens of the most dangerous men and angering the snobby New York Times journalist who's always too late for the big story because he's too busy trying to arrange Tracy's downfall. It's kind of silly but there are typically big-budget MGM scenes as Tracy and entourage head to Russia to report on the 15th Anniversary of the Communist Revolution. Una Merkel as a flighty baby-talking mistress who follows Tracy around at hotels across the street is very reminiscent of both Susan Alexander Kane and Marcello's mistress in 8 1/2. Benita Hume is a fellow reporter who had an off-on affair with Tracy. After awhile you'll wonder how he ever survived so long by making so many self-defeating choices, i.e. when in a dangerous country, don't antagonize a fellow reporter just for fun, especially if he's aces manipulating governments into throwing you into jail, and if you must cart around a baby-talking Merkel, make sure she's not your boss's. 

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Micro-Manager Munchausen: THE STRAIN, SHARKNADO 2, and a little bit THE LEGO MOVIE

Heroes used to dread their appointed hour. They'd dart around town begging help from civilians instead of saddling the heroic measure. They'd turn away from the call, citing 'reasons' like poor marksmanship or their Quaker faith, or Ingrid Bergman sticking them for the cost of a train ticket back in Paris, or all the droids or cows needing repair back on Uncle Ned's farm. But now, in today's crowded sci fi/horror climate, well, just try and stop him from rescuing you, no matter how safe you are, or how much you'd prefer to wait for a qualified professional. Cops, parents, ex-wives, children, all regard our new brand of hero as a Munchausen Chicken Little, especially since he's nearly always a deadbeat dad with a history of micro-management heroism that's already cost him his wife, house and perhaps even joint-custody because, even if he just passes a crying kid or distraught mom on the street on the way to divorce court (proximal morality), he has to force his help upon them instead. These new crazy 'heroes' run around like William Shatner with gremlins on the plane, grabbing lapels of bewildered pedestrians, blocking ambulances, yelling "Don't you get it?!" at overstretched EMTs. They've only ever been the villain in two movies: STRAW DOGS and THE LEGO MOVIE. And in one most people presume he's the hero since he's played by Dustin Hoffman, and in the other he eventually lightens up. But in two major TV events this summer--THE STRAIN (the new FX show from the mind of acclaimed sci fi horror maestro Guillermo del Toro) and SHARKNADO 2: THE SECOND ONE (the Syfy original sequel that's far inferior compared to the original [see here])--these micro-managing ex-husbands are just obnoxious. Even as the world ends or CGI sharks fly through the air, they run around with humorless unshaven urgency, saving everyone in sight, whether they like it or not.

THE STRAIN begins with the story of NYC health officer Dr. Ephraim Goodweather (the usually bald Corey Stoll) refusing to listen to his superiors when a plague-infested plane lands at JFK. Most passengers are dead. Four survivors are anxious to get home and start spreading the 'news' and he wants to contain them in a makeshift hazmat lab. Meanwhile a savvy old Jewish pawnbroker tries to advise him on what's going on, but Goodweather has the man arrested for having a sword in an airport terminal. Almost immediately, our urge to see the world wiped out just to spite this twit is insurmountable.

It doesn't help that the bad guys (led by Thomas Eichorst, left) are far cooler: they honor their deals, pay in cash, do their research, invest heavily in make-up and black market organs; their urge to see the world end is indicative less of greed and more of simply of being turned on by chaos. Hell, I say let these long-tongued vamp zombies have a crack at planet custodianship --they couldn't possibly leave it worse off than they found it.

Goodweather disagrees, or rather hasn't thought that far ahead, being obligated by his little taste of power as a CDC agent to grab those passing lapels. He's so self-righteous and negligent that he even ignores the edicts of his superiors and winds up under arrest, yet still invites himself to tromp all over the rights of others as he attempts to be on time just once to his hearing over joint custody for his 'yawn' little son. There's a word for this type of guy, Munchausen by-proxy, or rather, as I call them, 'dad of great adventure'. They can't admit their insecurity and ambivalence about their roles as second class citizen in the modern family unit, and so refuse to either leave the family unit or stay with their wife; they can neither stand to be with or to abandon their kid, and are more determined with each passing missed court date to convince mom and child that he wants to be with them more than anything but you know, um.... he has to force himself on a world that doesn't want saving, or at least it doesn't want to be saved by him, and who can blame it? So wait right here, judge, somewhere a child is crying.

Naked white/grey monsters are always played by limber, sinuous dancers. 
Anyway, we know from the start that Goodweather's showing good sense in trying to quarantine these survivors but at the same time, we would hate to be unable to get home after a lengthy cross-Atlantic flight, forced to wait in a sterilized plastic cube for weeks while he tinkers with our blood samples and stammers excuses to the court stenographer. Plus, why would we root for Goodweather to stop the spread of a plague when that's going to be the whole show? I love a lot of del Toro's art design and I admire his willingness to kill children, but I've always winced when he goes too far with his saintly Catholic family mi madre es mi vida bullshit and the whole business with the giant worm tongue leaping out of the monster's faces is too familiar, thanks to his already using it in MIMIC and BLADE II that even Paul W.S. Anderson it used it in RESIDENT EVIL. We've seen it, bra.

Meanwhile there's this idiot woman whose husband is infected and he's barking at her to run away while she can; their dog's blood is dripping from his mouth and she just stands there like a moron, frozen in 'terror', well within striking range of his forked tongue. He's telling her to run and we're screaming at the screen for her to run and she just stands there, until we wonder how she ever lived past the second episode. But then the next scene she's burying the dog and after the neighbor complains because he still hears growling she pushes him into the shed to feed her now-chained husband so we're back into thinking she's awesome. It's that kind of show, and typical of del Toro, for every corny Mexican soap moment there's two kickass touches, or vice versa.

Last year, The Asylum (the offshoot of Concord which was the 80s version of New World which was the 70s version of AIP) gave us the surprise meme hit SHARKNADO (see: Wronger than the Storm). Now we got the the sequel, bound for much tweeting, and therefore of great interest to fading actors in need of being seen by the young 'constant-texter' generation. Aye, matey, to trod bravely before the green screen curtain and be eaten in style, knowing for sure your every flubbed line will earn a hundred winky tweets...

But there's the rub, for in intentionally courting camp, what crap may come.

Chicken Little of the Sea

We start off right in the thick of it as Fin (Ian Zering) and his re-united family (ex-wife Tara Reid and his son and daughter) get stalked by sharks on a plane. Fin, ever the hero, gets the plane down safely, but no one bothered to tell him that NYC is blessed with a stalwart network of first responders, and anyone who mentions needing to build a bomb to a Muslim deli owner in Times Square should be turned into Homeland Security, not helped in his mission. Unlike most sensible people, Fin doesn't find shelter, or take an Ambien and go to sleep 'til it's all over, he runs around trying to find the other members of his traveling party and components for his homemade bomb --which he plans to throw into the wind to save us all. Dude, this ain't California, you can't just drive anywhere, subways and ferries aren't good during tornados.

As Dennis Weaver put it in Touch of Evil: it's a mess. It's a stinkin' mess.

I know our cops have problems with quick response in certain neighborhoods but not, my friends, in midtown, so their lack of presence when he amoks around Broadway is suspicious. No one is attacked unless seen first by Fin as he races past, clocking them for B-list celeb status (included in his posse, slightly used versions of: Vivica Fox, Kelly Osbourne, Judd Hirsch, Judah Friedlander, Biz Markie, Downtown Julie Brown, Billy Rae Cyrus, Rachel True, Andy Dick, Mark McGrath), at which time they're either devoured by a passing shark, or rescued by his quick thinking and thus obligated to join his panicky parade of running down his errant brood. Matt Lauer, Kelly Ripa, and Al Roker look on from the TV screen, rolling with the sharknado concept as a fact barely worth an eyebrow raise (just avoid making seal-like movements, no big deal).

Fin's hero complex was perfect for LA in the original because he had to protect the valuable clientele of his beachfront bar, and it's at a beachfront bar, we can imagine, that the notion of a sharknado first developed in some sloshed screenwriter's mind. Who amongst us hasn't drunk deep from a sandy beer after a long day body surfing and imagined how badass it would be if sharks came through the window and started chasing people around the pool table, or swam in the air, or that the rec room floor was water so you had to jump from couch to couch?

That Fin was an ex-lifeguard gave him an excuse for his chronic rescuing there, and as a deadbeat dad his desire to rescue his family was offset with a Hawksian sense of real time, stretching the action across L.A. From the beach to the hills, over the course of one well-modulated tidal wave of inland momentum, the vibe in the getaway car was like one of those great drunken parties wherein everyone at the bar becomes an instant tribe, attuned to the wipers and radio announcing traffic delays, and marches off to some second location, singing at the top of their lungs and ready for anything: the drunken regular (John Heard) was comic relief, bashing sharks with his barstool; barmaid Nova (Cassandra Scerbo - above left) was the stealth warrior, brandishing a shark scar (with its own Quint backstory) and a shotgun; wingman Jason Simmons helped with the heavy lifting. Together they raced with the inward tide of a gigantic wave rolling in first through the bar windows, and then up the hill, filling the streets and stalled highway traffic with sharks and flotsam, leading to exit ramp winch rescues, and various members of his party being eaten, such as his daughter's douche bag boyfriend as the shark water fills living rooms but leaves driveways merely damp as if from a distant rain machine. And as Fin's UV-damaged ex-wife, Tara Reid was perfect. Embittered, hungover but still with some vague torch for old Fin, she veered the Hawksian dynamic towards a weird comedy of remarriage, with Nova as the Marilyn Monroe and Reid as the Ginger Rogers (in Hawks' MONKEY BUSINESS).

In short, SHARKNADO had a lot of things going for it, as a Corman-affiliated film it conjured up the good old days of movies like ATTACK OF THE CRAB MONSTERS, IT CONQUERED THE WORLD and CREATURE FROM THE HAUNTED SEA. In short, it turned its budgetary limits into an asset, which SHARKNADO 2's NYC location simply will not permit. Gone is Nova, the badass barmaid with the sexy scar, so there's no interesting sexual dynamic (that Fin's too noble to sleep with her provided the previous film's emotional core), and there's no bar, no tide rushing in-- the way the tidal surge in the original. The first film had a flood first, then the tornado, so it made more sense. And New York is too real, too concrete, there's no time for grandstanding or defying gravity; when Fin drops into the city to find his family, he's indignant at having to wait in traffic. Jud Hirsch is his cabbie, and Fin seems to think he should find a secret route. This is important! He has to run to Queens to rescue his family from the baseball game. If you're a NYC resident, his grandstanding is painful. Without the setting of surreal LA enhancing the CGI phoniness, this sequel is less like a surprise so-bad-it's-great entry amid a deluge of crappy CGI monster-bad weather hybrids and more a 'too aware everyone is tweeting about me' shitshow, as prefab and empty as a string of commercials for Shark Week during a Jay and Silent Bob film edited for content and watched on TNT by a mid-life crisis-having unemployed divorcee pothead after coming home, buzzed and alone, from lunch at the Wal-Mart parking lot Hooters.

Oh well, we still have the original and the great untold shark story present in Tara Reid's weary face as the wife who steps back into the eye of the Munchausen storm, booting the far more interesting Nova out of the sequel, leaving no extraneous air to breathe. So while Fin runs around building bombs and leaving suspicious packages on subway platforms, it's Reid who provides the real scary story here. You can read it in her skin, an epidermal horror story in slow mummifying motion: how a hundred young and glowing B-list actors went into the sun twenty years ago and came out looking like bad taxidermy. Botox and collagen took the rest.

Anyway, they delivered the bomb.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014


1933 - dir. William Wellman
One of the punchier gutsier entries in the 'tycoons through the ages' sagas that unfurled tight and fast on the pre-code Warner's lot, this tale of a bug-eyed entrepreneur/Chicago stockyard founder reeks of greatness. It begins in the 1850s when Aline MacMahon and Donald Cook settle in the Dakotas, to form the backbone of a small farming community so isolated that they don't even learn about the Civil War until its over. Paul Muni plays their ambitious son, who lights out for Texas, there to round up wild steer and drive them north to the railroad, setting up the first stockyards with Guy Kibbee in Chicago. They make a fortune, running the herds both west to California and east to New York, but Muni's insane with profit margin expansion, so he keeps re-investing until he invents the refrigerator car, so all the slaughtering can be done right there (as opposed to shipping live cattle) and the stench and profits rise and rise. McMahon looks on dolefully eastward from her Dakota porch, for truly no man was ever meant to have that much money, anymore than cattle aren't meant to grow up knee deep in their own shit.

She's right, and so is Mary Astor, his snobby wife who reacts to his profession with constant horror and disgust. Both the women are right, the Chicago stockyards represent one of human civilization's great horrors, and in karmic retribution Muni's kids grow up snotty and spoiled and Astor goes Lady Macbeth over the realization her privileges are paid for in oceans of abattoir run-off, shit and blood commingling and Muni wading in with a bucket to collect the pools of fat off the surface to feed back to the stock and the stench of her husband's clothes chokes her high society airs at the root, and every morning he's still stomping through the manure and mud and measuring ways cattle can be crammed in closer and closer to make more and more money and more and more and cattle tighter and tighter, more more!. And Chicago gets bigger and bigger and one is very grateful this isn't in color or smell-o-vision.

Only at Warners and only in the pre-code era would a film about the Industrial Revolution be so anti-capitalist and pro-small farming, and so not preachy or sentimental, even as the century turns and the frilly pre-Depression ostentation needle hits the top. I wouldn't be surprised if the film was labeled Socialist propaganda in the 50s and barred from re-release except maybe in the Soviet Union. Muni (later blacklisted) gets hammy in spots but his energy is infectious; his every line of dialogue is a slow strangled clockwork crawl towards spittle-flecked hysteria We watch him age through the Great Depression and in the end Aline McMahon swoops in to rescue the only two grandchildren who seem worth saving, and carting them back to her Edenic old school agrarian co-op. McMahon's frontierswoman spirit is such that not only can you believe a whole community would spring up around her, you might have a hankering to leave the city yourself, and find your own patch of land and some goats near a MacMahon type matriarch of your own. If only Monsanto would loosen our chains, but that won't happen 'til the last gasp of the Earth is copyrighted and God sued for infringement. Seven generational thinking man. Our great great great great great great grandchildren will one day appreciate our careful recycling of paper and plastic, through all eighteen of their mutant orifices. And Paul Muni and Paul Robeson will rise from their graves, like a thousand automated plowshares, like the commie rats they are!
1931 - dir. Alfred E. Green

Deep in the sweltering tropics, a British colony of overdressed prudes gossip about homewrecker Hugh Daltrey (William Powell), a bounder who left Rangoon the previous year, with one of the colonist's wives and has just returned... alone. Phillipa (Doris Kenyon) meanwhile is the newly imported wife of a different colonist (Louis Calhern) a doctor who isn't a man and a lover but "a machine of cold steel, as cold as the instruments you use to probe the bodies of unconscious patients on operating tables... " And now that he has her more or less marooned down in the tropics, he doesn't need to wast time with woo. Needless to say, this ain't no Hope-Crosby picture. That Road is a decade or so off. Instead this is pre-code scandalizing in the veigng of the then-hugely popular W. Somerset Maugham style commonwealth scandal dramas (ala RAIN, THE PAINTED VEIL, THE LETTER), wherein a cold British husband and the jungle heat combine to leave a wife ripe for infidelity, and the racist audience is so relieved the other man in the picture is white they let it slide. And what else are the ceaseless throb of native drums for if not to loosen colonial inhibitions, especially amongst the wives, down there with nothing to do but play bridge and gossip while their men treat cholera patients and tap rubber plants. As Calhern notes, it's a fever that overtakes women down there, the heat activates their sexual hormones. He sure doesn't have that problem; likable enough, at times, we have to smile indulgently when he gets all excited about some new tumor he finds (his excuse for missing the dance). When the patient dies, his hot sister notes, "perhaps you'll find another disease, with a much longer name, right here at home." He'd rather shoot Daltrey than get his freak on, he considers honeymooning childish, and presumes that--since she was his nurse during a stint at a London hospital where they met--that Phillipa will be as keen about tumors and deformities as he is, and way less about sex, dancing and romance. But she gives not a whit --she's horny, and as for nursing, "she's never going back to it, not for a moment." But he's snoring away before she even finishes her sentence.

If you know the genre, you can guess the story but there's some novel issues being discussed that make the film worthwhile anyway: Phillipa's sullen horniness clears like a fever during a scene dissolve (we know what that means), as for Daltrey, he doesn't know if he's seducing her because he can or because he really is in love with her. When we first meet him he's a bit of a skeeve, arranging all sorts of shady tricks to get Phillipa back to his pad. That they have the eloquence to bring this point up amongst themselves let's you know this is more mature than the average soapy triangle.

Powell is great in a complex role where he's not entirely sympathetic. We find his charming but we're made aware of the damage charm like his can wreak, and--for the first time maybe--so is he, and man he's a drunk. Calhern is a real surprise as the cold fish husband, rather than a stereotype he's played as a man too intelligent to really buy into his own inflexible moral prudishness, trying to mask his sexual terror by bashing on Daltrey. As his younger sister, the lovely Marian Marsh does wonders even with very unflattering riding breeches (but holy shit she looks great in a very inviting pre-code negligee), she's so fuckin' luminous I get weak in the knees and wonder why on Earth he'd throw her over for her older sister-in-law. "When men like you say no, they really mean yes," she tells him, a kind of reversal of what he was pulling on Phillippa when they arrived.

Played by Doris Kenyon, Phillipa on the other hand, looks a bit haggard; her nose and chin are weak, clearly there's weight fluctuation under those hot lights, but man she can act. The lighting is rich in that exotic pre-code way where palms and ferns cast long shadows, and the panama hats glow, and couple to everyone speaking slow and measured for the crude microphones (and because of its stage play roots) creates the uncanny familiarity of a kind of abstract dream. Some people don't go for that kind of thing, but I love it --it's 1931, baby, and the air is thick with black and white magic, smoke, and the constant throb of of native drums. As for mating, with guys like Calhern for competition, for Daltrey it's like shooting fish in a barrel. And for ballast, Allison Skipworth in a tiara and fan, showing Powell all the laters tango steps. What the speaking and movements lack in dramatic fluidity they make up for in daring, reflecting a time when leaving a bad marriage and running off with William Powell showed courage (for both character and studio) rather than loose morals.

1931 - dir. Sam Wood
The title is a quaint term for a deputy sheriff's assistant in London, since part of the job is remaining at a house that is in foreclosure, making sure the debtor doesn't try to sell their stuff and run off and keep the money. Since it's based on a PG Wodehouse play you can guess the rest. Wodehouse can be tough to get just right in American hands: it's 90% Noel Coward and 10% Monty Python. The mix doesn't work unless it's at that exact ratio, luckily that's the exact ratio here. Being pre-code helps, as does Robert Young, perfectly cast as a well-groomed but criminally under-funded Cambridge alum whose first assignment under the debt collector's tutelage is to remain at the posh house of sexy Irene Purcell, who wants to fool a man coming over for dinner that night into thinking she's rich. She convinces Young to pose as her butler since he's there for the night anyway. Naturally they fall in love. "I'd lie for you, I'd steal for you, I'd even work for you," was the line that got the biggest laugh out of me, but my jaw was on the floor after the surprisingly frank sexual hook-up. Purcell has lovely little bare arms, reminiscent of Norma Shearer's and I kind of swooned. They loved little naked alabaster arms back then and Purcell's got them. She's pretty damned sexy once she gets rolling. There's a really risque fade-out and loads of clues the next morning making light of the fact that 'the butler indeed 'did it.' It's so frank it's genuinely shocking, and as such proves one of the best of all PG Wodehouse adaptations.

 And as he proved the same year with Shearer in Coward's PRIVATE LIVES, Young takes to such terrain absurdly well, like he never quite, but almost, gets the jokes, which is the perfect tone for Wodehouse. The tight little cast includes C. Aubrey Smith as his harumphing mercantile class father and Reginald Owen as one of those stuffy stooges with an umbrella that would eventually be played by Ralph Bellamy. Beryl Mercer is the long-suffering mother; Charlotte Greenwood a surly maid; Alan Mowbray the rich womanizing Sir Charles, who deserves better than to be dicked around just because he dicks around. After all, he tips Purcell's servants handsomely and later bankrolls 'The Dump,' Godfrey Parks' nightclub, and if the whole concept of a high-living 'heiress' winding up married to her butler doesn't remind you of MY MAN GODFREY (1936) then go see both film again at once.

At once, do you hear me!?

Alan Mowbray--the best friend a bum ever had.

1932 - dir. William Deterle
Directed by William Dieterle, with maximum class and reefer humor, JEWEL ROBBERY (1932) is a gem (get it?) about a dashing jewel thief who catches the eye of bored thrill-seeking diplomat’s wife (Kay Francis) in scenic pre-Nazi Vienna. It’s the high class people doing naughty things sort of European froth that Hitler’s war machine would soon blow off the beery surface of the earth's frail mug, but here it still sparkles and bubbles and everyone is high, literally, since Powell passes out joints to his robbery victims in order to cloud their memory and make them docile. You’ll think you’re high too when you see longtime sourpuss character actor Clarence Wilson smoke one of these thinking it’s an ordinary cigarette, and Francis will blow your mind with her weird V-shaped smile and eyes that glaze over with turned-on glee with the thought of being kidnapped by the dashing Powell. As with the next film under discussion, their chemistry is so electrically charged you feel like they’re kissing each other even when they’re on opposite ends of the room. See it at once! At once, do you hear me??

1932 - dir. Tay Garnett
The chemistry between Francis and Powell was so good in JEWEL ROBBERY it's small wonder Warners re-teamed them the same year in ONE WAY PASSAGE. Almost a sequel to the first film, with Powell a caught criminal sailing home to face execution and meeting, and falling in love withh the similarly urbane Fances at a bar. He's unaware her character is dying and only has a few weeks to live, she's unaware he's a convicted murderer on his way back to be executed. Their impending fates make their time together electrifying and beautifully tragic, like a very expensive cognac warmed by the fire, almost Hawksian in the sense of impermanence making life so sweet.

Romantic comedies nowadays are full of children in grown up bodies, trying to make each other over into their parents before love wears off and they once again grow lost in unconscious consumerism and self-righteous denial. This film by contrast, is laden with grown-ups, and not a drop of stuffy morality or mush taints their beautiful inherent decency as they walk to their deaths like it’s just another ocean voyage. One of the best recovered jewels in the TCM canon, it’s a testament to humanity’s lack of progress in the past 70 or so years that characters this warm, dashing, cool, romantic, witty, sweet and clever– “whole” people full of confidence, bravery and emotional gravitas--are so rare in movies.

Aline McMahon and Frank McHugh are the comedic second leads and great as usual, with Warren Hymer the cop who turns out to have a heart, et al.'

1934 - dir. Sam Wood
If you're a fan of TWENTIETH CENTURY (1934) imagine if that annoying college boy in Lilly Garland's train car--the one Barrymore convinces to stomp off, "without a word, like the Reverend Henry Davidson... in RAIN."-- only pretended to leave, and proceeded to keep ardently wooing until finally, against her better sense and our wishes, Lily Garland actually fell in love with him. That's STAMBOUL QUEST for ya, a WWI romantic spy film that dances ably along the censor's razor but still dives into their arms once the length is run.

As the real-life WWI spy code named Fraulein Doktor, Myrna Loy is slinky and exotic as usual and wears a fabulous dress in the climax, a big finale which leaves us with the notion, at least for awhile, that ardent Loy-wooer George Brent has been shot by a firing squad. Hinting at the steep 'price one must pay' as a hot female spy in Austrian counter-intelligence, she starts the movie ratting out Mata Hari for falling in love with a Russian officer --fatal for a femme fatale. Alas, we know from her strident position on the subject (and since Ben Hecht isn't writing it) that 'Fraulein Doktor' has jinxed herself. Too bad for us it's the naive whimsicality of George Brent that woos her away from trapping double agents, and he treads all over her sublime machinations with his muddy American bungler feet.

In case you can't tell, I loathe George Brent. Why? Maybe it's the weirdly condescending trill in his voice, the way he talks to everyone like they're a three year-old girl who just skinned her knee, or his stupid face that kind of leans out with his nose, or his wholesale buying into terrible romantic lines. It's not that I think he's a bad actor, and I'm glad women loved working with him, but especially in a role like this, he's unbearable, playing one of those guys that thinks just because you kissed him he has the right to stalk you and sabotage all your shady business, the sort of guy for whom restraining orders were invented. And every time a girl relents, responds to that treatment after much resistance, it's another signal to creeps everywhere to just keep trying, keep barging in on her at work, and calling and hanging around, and eventually.... she'll surrender. "In Your Eyes."

On the plus side, at least before all that happens we get to see her in operation, and Loy is up to the challenge of a nefarious role. She's way better--in my mind--than Garbo in Mata Hari, and several levels of intellect above everyone else in the picture, that is, until old Georgie Boy crashes in. Oh well, maybe next war. When the world is much darker. And Joseph Breen gassed in the cradle.

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