Tuesday 5 April 2011

Lillian Russell (1940)

Director: Irving Cummings
Stars: Alice Faye, Don Ameche, Henry Fonda, Edward Arnold, Warren William, Leo Carrillo, Helen Westley, Dorothy Peterson and Ernest Truex

Sometimes I have a love/hate relationship with classic cinema and here's a great example. It's a Hollywood biopic, which rarely fails to translate to anything but fictional fancy, and it's about a great star of musical theatre, hardly my favourite biographical subject. Yet it's a Darryl F Zanuck production with a notable cast, including another major singer in the lead role, Alice Faye, who later quit her film career on a high note, handing her dressing room keys to the studio guard and driving off the Fox lot after Zanuck undercut her in Fallen Angel to highlight his new protégé. She certainly has a pleasant voice, but I was far more interested to see folks like Warren William, a young Don Ameche and Henry Fonda playing a rare second fiddle, just one reason he apparently hated the film. Even down in the supporting credits are folks like Nigel Bruce, Lynn Bari and Una O'Connor, plus a few vaudeville legends playing themselves or family members.

In some ways I found what I expected, but mostly only in the details, which were often untrue. As a studio picture from 1940, the filmmakers were subject to the Production Code, which didn't see truth as more important than the morals it defined, so William Anthony McGuire wrote around as much as he wrote about. As a whole film though, it surprised me. It's far from a musical, though it does contain many musical numbers. It's long and fleshed out, with each scene endowed with a surprising amount of depth, even to characters that have no importance in the grand scheme of things. Most surprisingly though, it's tame. All the characters are consistently nice under every circumstance, whether they're emptying their heart or having a proposal of marriage rejected. Even the rock throwing crowd of thugs are nice, when they congregate outside young Lillian's house after her suffragette mother only earned 84 votes when standing for mayor of New York.

At this point she's Helen Leonard, a nice young girl who sings to her father in their back yard and dreams of making it on the New York stage. She's promptly discovered by Tony Pastor, a very nice impresario who's dining next door at her neighbour's backyard café. He turns her into Lillian Russell, 'the great English singer', partly because Pastor despises the name Helen Leonard and partly because she believes her mother thinks she's at a lesson every night, though she finally comes clean and points out that she's been watching all along. These early scenes are drawn out ones, well expounded but there mostly to underline Helen Leonard as a modest young thing. The other common thread is one of inevitability, as everyone suggests just how important she's going to become, even when not talking about her voice. It's as if there's some sort of destiny in play to guarantee her success, perhaps with her talent as an afterthought.

This is underlined by the romantic angle. Henry Fonda makes a dynamic entrance, saving her and her grandma when the horses leading their carriage are shocked by a suffragette march, but he quickly disappears again. He's Alexander Moore and he returns periodically to punctuate the story, almost always at just the wrong moment to fulfil their obvious romantic destiny. Of course he's a nice young man, as we're constantly reminded. It's a waste of a part for Fonda, especially given what he'd been getting up to at the time, his previous film being The Grapes of Wrath, as important a picture as this isn't. He's soft spoken here, of course, and awkward, but it's mostly through him building his character like he'd build a lead only to find that he doesn't have a part substantial enough for it to mean anything. Alice Faye can't build either. She's obviously a better singer than an actress, reminding me of a young Angela Lansbury but with less magnetism.
Fortunately as she finds fame, more interesting characters join the story. Up till now only Helen Westley as her grandma is worthy of being singled out, even Leo Carrillo seeming too tame as Tony Pastor. We learn that Diamond Jim Brady is the man who has been sending her jewellery for years. We discover that she's been spending a lot of time with The Famous Jesse Lewisohn. During a show intermission she sings over the phone to President Grover Cleveland, with Edward Solomon accompanying on piano. Suddenly the film is interesting. Brady was the first man in New York to own an automobile and he had a legendary appetite for food. Russell apparently matched it. Brady is a jovial Edward Arnold, who had played the part before, in 1935's Diamond Jim, in which Lillian Russell was played by Binnie Barnes. Lewisohn was a racehorse owner, here played by Warren William. Both get trumped for her hand by the pianist, played by Don Ameche.

This is a good scene, with the pair of them making bad assumptions in the rain, but that's it for them for a while, as the young couple head off to London and we're deluged in untruth. The film doesn't mention that Solomon was her second husband rather than her first or that she'd already given birth to and lost a child, to a nappy pin of all things, which was accidentally stuck into his stomach by their nanny. She surprises her husband in London with a daughter, though really she had been born back in the States a year before their marriage. Solomon dies of a heart attack in his study, rather than their marriage ending in divorce after he's arrested for bigamy. It's always frustrating to see untruths in biopics but how much here was prompted by the Production Code and how much was spent merely ensuring everyone was kept nice I really can't say. Even minor things like her fall out with Gilbert, of Gilbert and Sullivan, is simply ignored.

Fortunately back in the States we get more of Edward Arnold and Warren William. Both actors were far more talented than the parts called for, but they're fun to watch nonetheless, a young pair of old men here, albeit the opposite of grumpy ones. They're both nice too, of course, the only hint at the dark side having left the picture with Edward Solomon's death. I've skipped over a few other great actors because they're given even less to do. Nigel Bruce plays Gilbert, but he blusters the way he always blustered. Zanuck could have just used stock footage from one of the pair of Sherlock Holmes films he'd just finished and got the same result. Una O'Connor is fine as Russell's maid but she could play maids in her sleep. She didn't have to wake up for this one. At least the vaudeville folks aren't people we're used to seeing and they're welcome intermissions. Weber and Fields play themselves and have fun. The same goes for Eddie Foy playing his father.

Lillian Russell was nominated for an Oscar, a worthy nomination for best black and white art direction because the film does look good. McGuire's screenplay is well crafted but the heart of the story is just not there. It's missing all the spice from Russell's life and with the exception of Helen Westley, the cast are unable to bring interest to their characters and still remain nice. It can't be good for a biopic to fail primarily because real people were Disneyfied, contorted into saccharine substitutes, but that's what we get here. People who don't know who Lillian Russell was are going to be bored to tears, those who do are likely to be annoyed at the fictionality of it all. At the end of the day the audience could only be those who are happy enough to hear Alice Faye sing, but even those might be disappointed at how few songs are crammed into the over two hour running time. Fortunately there are six other films with Lillian Russell as a character.

Monday 4 April 2011

Mother (2009)

Director: Bong Joon-ho
Stars: Kim Hye-ja, Won Bin and Jin Goo

Transliterating into Korean, the words 'mother' and 'murder' appear the same, as 'madeo', the title of this film. That's because it's about both. The mother doesn't have a name but is played by Kim Hye-ja, an elderly Korean woman who runs a traditional medicine store and administers acupuncture to friends and neighbours without a license, while looking after her 28 year old son. He's Yoon Do-joon and he's a little slow, functional but with obvious mental issues that make it appear like he's high all the time. He doesn't think very quickly and he has a very problematic memory. It's a strange and fascinating relationship, one that unfolds leisurely in plenty of space, which proves a little strange when a young girl called Moon Ah-jung is murdered. Murder stories tend to be dark and claustrophobic, the style often mirroring the the subject matter, but this one refuses to follow that trend early on and that helps it to stand apart, even when the rain comes.

The cops can't even remember their last murder case, so you can imagine how well they're able to investigate. Do-joon was seen in the vicinity, having left the Bar Manhattan drunk and horny, and there's plenty of circumstantial evidence too. A golf ball he wrote his name on earlier in the day is found close to her body. Worst of all, he signs a confession, perhaps incapable of realising just what he's doing. So Nam Je-mon, the lead cop, closes the case, even though he knows Do-joon's mother personally. She hires a lawyer, Mr Gong, but he spends his time actively avoiding her. As nobody remotely believes that Do-joon could be innocent, it falls to her to attempt to clear her son's name. She isn't anything like your usual investigator so this isn't anything like your usual investigation, which unfolds in ways alternately comic and serious. Without training or knowledge, all she really has to go on is stubborn determination and luck.

Without any real information to help us, we can't do any detective work ourselves, so can hardly see this as a murder mystery. All we really get is the unnamed title character, Do-joon's mother, though that's not the dismissive statement it might sound like. At heart this is a character study, not just of this one woman but of motherhood in general, epitomised in this mother who through circumstance of birth (or maybe not) has a deeper attachment than most to her son. 'You and I are one,' she tells him, at a particularly heartfelt moment in the story, one that truly shocks more effectively than anything else in the story. Kim Hye-ja carries this film with her portrayal, which is deep from moment one and only gets deeper as the picture progresses. As we discover more about her, we discover more about the bond of motherhood as well, something so deep and meaningful that a mere film can hardly do it justice. This one does come closer than most.
I first encountered writer/director's Bong Joon-ho's work with Memories of Murder, a 2003 picture that also handles a murder story in a very unusual way, which impressed me on first viewing and has resonated with me ever since, not only because it starred one of my favourite Korean actors, Song Kang-ho. Then I saw his Korean take on the Japanese monster movie, The Host, which also starred Song and which also impressed me. Mother impressed enough people to win plenty of international acclaim, not least a win for Best Film at the Asian Film Awards. Kim Hye-ja isn't as experienced a film actress as Song, her experience mostly in playing mothers on television, but she provides a blistering performance here, one that won her a bunch of well deserved awards too. She is the heart of everything here, meaning that had she not done such a great job, the picture would have suffered for it. In many ways she simply is the picture.

Memories of Murder resonated because the murder was never solved. What we take away from it isn't a resolution but the absence of one, the flawed characters of those investigating the case and what could have been. Mother is going to resonate because of the resolution, not because of whodunit but because of the flawed characters of all those involved, and yes, what could have been. In this film it isn't as simple as blaming the perpetrator, you find that by the time the end credits roll, you'll be feverishly reevaluating everything that went before to ascertain just where the blame really lies. For a film shot with so much space, in every way, it's amazingly tight and the more you think about it, the tighter it gets. The leisurely pace is deceptive, the score assists it and scenes are often shot long. The frame is frequently sparse, beautiful in the stark way you often see when photographers become cinematographers. It all gives us space to think.
I thought a lot about the connections between characters, which are often surreal and ludicrous, but somehow entirely real. The story focuses on a bond between a mother and her son, the most natural connection in the world, but one with a special history that is mostly only hinted at. This mother connects to much of the town through her unlicensed acupuncture work, and gets better information out of that than through any official connections that ought to be there to help. Her lawyer proves the most surreal, consistently avoiding her until he's willing to talk on his terms, then doing so during a drunken karaoke session of all places. Even schoolchildren connect with each other through very adult actions based on sex, violence and bartered transaction. To get information from them, Do-joon's mother pays Jin-tae, his thug of a friend, who does very well out of her indeed. Does anyone do anything just because it's the right thing to do?

As Kim Hye-ja dominates when it comes to screen time, the rest of the cast serve as supporting actors, even Won Bin as Do-joon, a popular Korean actor appearing in his second huge picture after the phenomenally successful Tae Guk Gi: Brotherhood of War. The simple Do-joon is not the sort of role he would be expected to play, suggesting a versatility that the years may prove. Jin Goo, from A Bittersweet Life and A Dirty Carnival, is a dynamic Jin-tae, who begins the film very thuggish but who gradually becomes deeper and more ambiguous as the story unfolds. I was impressed with Yun Je-mun, who played the lead cop, even though he did so very subtly. Of all those involved though, it's Bong Joon-ho's story, turned into a screenplay in collaboration with Park Eun-kyo, and it's this story that provides Kim Hye-ja with opportunity to create something special. The only unfortunate side is that I can't see anyone in the west making a film like this.

Sunday 3 April 2011

The Daring Dobermans (1973)

Director: Byron Ross Chudnow
Stars: Charles Knox Robinson, Tim Considine, Miss Joan Caulfield, David Moses and Claudio Martinez

The Daring Dobermans may begin with footage from the unusual bank heist in The Doberman Gang, led by Dillinger and his five canine companions, but this is not your usual sequel. Sure, it begins as the previous film finishes, with the dogs running into the countryside with bags full of loot strapped to them, but not one of the cast returns to continue the same story. This time we have a new trio of stars, who are keen to track down that loot. It's what everyone's doing, given that there's $350,000 at stake and the cops and rangers can't find them. This trio have a plan though, because they realise that the dogs were controlled by high pitched sound and so take a motor home out into the country with an oscillator to call them in. It works a charm too, though the money is mostly lost by the time they show up. The new story begins as they realise that it doesn't matter, because they have the dogs and with the dogs they can get anything.

These three leads are more ambiguous than Eddie and his henchmen were in the first film. They were crooks, pure and simple, whereas these three are opportunists. Steve Crandall is the man with the ideas, and while Charles Knox Robinson had been acting since the early sixties, he's a very seventies leading man. He'd return to the doberman subgenre, if it could be called such a thing, in 1980 for a TV movie called Nick and the Dobermans, that looks like it was a pilot for a series that didn't happen. Like Eddie in the first film, he's the most obvious bad guy, not just in how he treats the animals but in how he treats other people, especially Claudia, the closest thing to a leading lady here. She's an older lady he latches onto at a party when he realises that Cyrus W Markham, her boss, is the campaign fund manager for a politician, one with two million bucks in his office safe from secret contributions, the sort that he might not report if it were stolen.

His colleagues are Greg and Warren, again very seventies faces, but ones with more character development than the henchmen in the first film. Unlike Steve, they're very likeable, so it's easy to see them as anti-heroes, especially when you factor in where the money is coming from this time around. Opportunists liberating dirty money from a politician is more morally ambiguous than crooks planning a bank heist, after all. It's certainly easier to identify with Greg and Warren than anyone in the first film. Would you break your moral code if nobody got hurt and there's a couple of million dollars to split three ways? Greg is David Moses, a black Canadian actor who surprisingly didn't act on the big screen again for twelve years, given the blaxploitation craze of the time. Warren is Tim Considine, returning to a dog film after playing the young skirt chaser in The Shaggy Dog in 1959. Both are reliable support for Robinson.

The story is at once more detail oriented and less focused than the first film, but otherwise plays out much the same way, even down to some of the same little touches. It's notably less carefully done though, as while the first film stayed vague enough that the various plot holes could easily have been explained away by scenes we simply didn't see, here they're a little less acceptable. Watching as a double feature with The Doberman Gang works well, so I can forgive a lot, but if someone came on this one alone and watched without the context of what came before, it would be pretty laughable. The acting is better, and the dogs are even more magnificent to watch, but the story elements that had validation in the first film don't here. In particular, to replace Barney, the former USAF dog handler who trained the animals in the first film, we get an Indian boy who likes the dogs and apparently that's enough to account for them learning whole new routines.

Part of the problem may be that like the cast, the writers didn't return from The Doberman Gang. This time out, the story and screenplay were written by Jack Kaplan, best known for animated TV shows like Speed Buggy and Goober and the Ghost Chasers, and Alan Alch, a lyricist whose main claim to fame is the theme tune to Branded. Mostly, though, it's that they didn't even attempt to bring anything to this film that the original didn't do better, beyond a little more showcasing for the dobermans, who once again are the stars of the show. There are five of them here, renamed to generic dog names: Fido, Rover, Prince, Spot and Rex. This time out they get to do a few tricks and jump from roof to roof. By the time they spring into action for the main setpiece of the film, we're certainly not watching the human actors, even if they include Joan Caulfield, the favourite actress of Joss Whedon. She gets very little to do here except be exploited.

A disappointing sequel, it nonetheless plays reasonably well as a companion piece, making a fun Sunday afternoon double bill with its predecessor. Mostly it just built up my interest level for the third film, The Amazing Dobermans. With nothing remotely new to offer, this should have been the end of the doberman gang, but three years later, Byron Chudnow brought them back again, with another completely new cast, one that included much more major names than here. Fred Astaire plays the lead, late enough in his career that The Towering Inferno was two years earlier. Supporting him are James Franciscus, Billy Barty and the lovely Barbara Eden, after I Dream of Jeannie but before Harper Valley PTA. I wonder how that third film came about, let alone with such an enticing cast, and given how enticing it is, I wonder why Chudnow couldn't get a fourth film off the ground, instead settling for a TV movie in 1980, Alex and the Doberman Gang.

The Doberman Gang (1973)

Director: Byron Chudnow
Stars: Byron Mabe, Hal Reed, Julie Parrish, Simmy Bow and JoJo D'Amore

My wife has long talked about a pair of films she remembers with pleasure from her childhood that starred doberman pinschers. One was They Only Kill Their Masters, with James Garner and Katharine Ross, which TCM screened in 2009; and the other was this one, which I finally tracked down through the Warner Archive Collection, a sort of print on demand service for movies, that enables Warner Bros to make more obscure films available to the public without the usual cost of a full release. I bought this as a double pack with its first sequel, The Daring Dobermans, and I'll certainly be back for more. Beyond meeting my wife's long standing wish to watch these films again, The Doberman Gang is especially notable for two reasons. It carries the first of many end credits from the American Humane Society to pronounce that 'no animals were harmed' during the making of the picture, and it marks Alan Silvestri's first motion picture score.

It's a heist picture, though one with a difference. Eddie is the leader of a trio of crooks, the brains of the operation, but he's hindered by what he calls 'the human factor'. People make mistakes, like Jojo, who throws their take from a bank heist into the open trunk of the white car outside, not realising that their car is the white car parked in front. Eddie tells them that he wants to run a job with robots that can be programmed, but this is 1973. He finds an equivalent by accident, while walking one night: he sees three lowlifes climb a fence into a junkyard, to be promptly cornered by the trained dobermans that the owner has guarding the place. So he puts his plan together, slowly and surely in the relaxed style of a seventies TV movie. This is very much a product of its time, so there's much that's lighthearted, there are a few songs to accompany the scenes that don't need a lot of dialogue and the action scenes don't come every six minutes.

This was a theatrically released picture, the only film made by Rosamund Productions, but the folks who made it weren't your usual filmmakers. They all had experience, but mostly from TV or exploitation film. Byron Chudnow is the key name, as he didn't just direct this one, he directed all its sequels too: two other films, The Daring Dobermans in 1973 and The Amazing Dobermans in 1976, and a 1980 TV movie called Alex and the Doberman Gang. He's part of a film family: his father David was a prolific Holywood composer and music supervisor, who served as a producer on the first three doberman films. His son is continuing the tradition, working as an editor today, mostly for television. That was where Byron was known too, editing TV shows as far back as an episode of The Lone Ranger in 1953. His only directorial experience prior to this was on a mondo movie in 1964, Kwaheri: Vanishing Africa about a medicine man performing skull surgeries.
The star is officially Byron Mabe, who plays Eddie and who was a filmmaker himself, though not in family friendly fare like this. His sixties output was mostly in sexploitation films like She Freak, Space Thing and The Acid Eaters, on which he served as producer, director and sometime actor and editor. Simmy Bow and JoJo D'Amore, appropriate henchmen for Eddie here, were starting out in film but went on to decent careers. Bow's last movie was Beetlejuice. As June, the waitress Eddie picks up, Julie Parrish is a lovely leading lady, again best known for TV, but with early roles in a few Jerry Lewis films. She was a student in The Nutty Professor. Of the main cast, that leaves Hal Reed as Barney, the former USAF dog handler who Eddie hires to train the dogs he steals to rob a bank. He's the least of the actors but he has a natural charm that lends itself well to his role. He wouldn't act again but he racked up a few other varied credits as the years passed.

Really though, we're not here to watch the human actors. My wife remembers that dobermans were a popular breed in the States around this time and the films that featured them capitalised on the love/hate relationship that people had with them. In turn the different takes on the breed shown in They Only Kill Their Masters, The Doberman Gang and Trapped enhanced that. While Barney is a good guy sucked into a bad situation and June elicits a little sympathy, we soon focus on the dogs. There are seven, trained by Karl Miller and supervised by Lou Schumacher, both of whom supplied and handled the animals for all three films mentioned above, suggesting that they may even be the same dogs. There's a bulldog named J Edgar Hoover, and six dobermans with colourful names. How did Barney not realise what was going on earlier when he's training dogs called Baby Face Nelson, Pretty Boy Floyd, Ma Barker, Bonnie and Clyde and Dillinger?

As a heist movie, it's not particularly suspenseful, though there is a little tension in the bank. It's a family friendly heist movie, a consistent tone that makes the few gratuitous shots of the dogs biting people rather out of place. There's a little ambiguity built into the characters, but not a lot. We hardly spend any time at all with anyone outside of the main core of the cast, so the morals are pretty clear cut too. The story is rarely surprising and it didn't end up far away from where I expected it to, even from the early scenes, but it flows along without any effort. It was written by Louis Garfinkle and Frank Ray Perilli, from their own story. It was Perilli's first credit but Garfinkle had written a number of films, including the massively underrated Albert Band picture I Bury the Living. This isn't his best work, but it has a great deal of charm and I can see why people like my wife remember it so well from childhood. Inevitably for such a film, it's currently being remade.