Thursday 28 February 2013

Electrocuting an Elephant (1903)

Directors: Edwin S Porter & Jacob Blair Smith
Star: Topsy the Elephant

As a piece of cinema, Electrocuting an Elephant is dire and disturbing. As a piece of history, it's an important document that graphically illustrates in an unforgettable manner a despicable period in modern America that is too often glossed over with bad education and deliberate misinformation. What we get is exactly what the title suggests we might get. A handler walks an elephant in some sort of harness towards the camera. After the only cut in the entire film, we see it standing on its own, secured by ropes. It clearly isn't happy, as it stamps its front right foot and shifts restlessly but, after a few brief seconds, great gouts of steam erupt from the ground and the creature goes rigid. It topples over onto its side and the camera pans to keep its body in frame. A few onlookers move around it, one of whom walks up to it to ensure that he's seen in the same frame, like a big game hunter standing over his kill. 80 seconds in and the whole thing is done.

Anyone stumbling upon this film without any background in its history is likely to be horrified and then wonder who would make such a film and why. Well, the who is inventor Thomas Edison, who had a very deliberate agenda. In the late nineteenth century, he'd pioneered the transmission of electric power using direct current, which prompts the why. He owned a host of patents in DC, so had a vested interest in its rapid adoption as the standard by which America would be powered. Unfortunately for him, while DC was a good technology for which there are still uses today, it was notably inferior in most respects, especially in providing power over distance, to the competing European standard of polyphase alternating current, invented by Nikola Tesla and licensed in the US to George Westinghouse. The ensuing War of Currents was much bigger than just Edison vs Westinghouse, but Edison's emphatically ruthless publicity campaign cannot be ignored.

He didn't just lobby for DC over AC in various state legislatures, though he did that. He tasked an assistant, Harold P Brown, with building an electric chair for the state of New York in order to tie AC to death in the headlines and thus in the minds of the public. When it was obvious that a word needed to be created to describe the act of killing someone through use of electricity, a word we know today as 'electrocution', he even campaigned for it to be known as 'being Westinghoused.' Surprisingly, he was personally opposed to capital punishment, at least of people. He didn't have that concern about animals, as he also tasked Brown, with another assistant, Arthur Kennelly, to conduct a number of public electrocutions of varied creatures with AC, all with the same goal in mind. Most were stray cats and dogs, but there were horses, cows, gorillas and an orangutan too. It must have felt like a godsend when he heard about Topsy the elephant.

Topsy was an Indian elephant, ten feet high and almost twenty long. She had been brought to the US by the Forepaugh Circus 28 years earlier and exhibited across the country, ending up in Coney Island's Luna Park. In 1901 she 'developed a bad temper' as the Commercial Advertiser phrased it in her obituary, and killed two keepers in Texas. She later killed a third in Brooklyn, a trainer trying to feed her a lit cigarette. A well publicised incident in Coney Island saw her ridden down Surf Ave by a drunken trainer, ending up battering her way into a police station. So Topsy was condemned to death. Initially she was going to be hanged, until the ASPCA protested and other methods were considered. Edison suggested electrocution with Westinghouse's AC, which, thanks to Edison, was used in electric chairs from the outset. As only the US used electric chairs and they all used AC, it had been responsible for all human executions by electrocution. Now it was the elephant's turn.

The event took place on an overcast January morning, though 1,500 onlookers braved the cold to watch it all happen. It was a park employee who led Topsy to the scaffold that had been originally built to hang her, at around 1.30pm. D P Sharkey, another one of Edison's assistants, attached a hawser and a set of electrodes to the elephant, who was already clad in sandals lined with copper and who had already been fed carrots laced with 460 grams of potassium cyanide. It wasn't until 2.45pm that the current was activated, sending 6,600 volts of AC through the creature, who died very quickly. Her legacy hasn't died yet, as Edison wasn't only interested in killing Topsy, he saw her death by AC as a banner for his cause, so he ensured that this film reached a wide audience. It may have converted some viewers, but AC had already won the War of Currents. Today, it serves more to highlight the sort of man Edison was, one who saw death merely as a propaganda tool.

Electrocuting an Elephant can be viewed for free on YouTube. If you don't want to sign in to get past the age restriction, here's another version that is stuck on a loop for ten minutes.

Wednesday 27 February 2013

Creature from the Haunted Sea (1961)

Director: Roger Corman
Stars: Antony Carbone, Betsy Jones-Moreland and Edward Wain

Sometimes it seems like legendary exploitation film director Roger Corman wrote the book on how to save money while making a film. He didn't invent every idea he used, but he put them to better use than anyone else. His autobiography is titled How I Made a Hundred Movies in Hollywood and Never Lost a Dime and, while that isn't strictly true, his unparalleled win/loss record is due partly to his ability to make big films with little money, meaning that he could compete with much more expensive pictures with a fraction of their overhead. Trained as an engineer, he thought logically and occasionally went a step too far, like when he optimised lighting setups on Oklahoma Woman by splitting up shots based on which direction the characters were facing and shooting everything facing one way before setting up afresh and shooting everything facing the other. It made logical sense and sped up production but the actors got confused and he discarded the idea in the future.

Other ideas were as logically sound but much more successful. After Allison Hayes broke her arm while shooting Gunslinger, he shot close ups of her looking in every direction while waiting for the car to take her to hospital. He shot other scenes with a body double later to edit in. Even on Five Guns West, the first film he directed himself, he avoided costly and complex scenes in an elegant way, by having a soldier look through binoculars at a band of stock footage Indians on horseback, then explaining that, 'The Indians are over here. Let's head over there.' He shot Atlas against the plentiful Greek ruins for background colour and had a character explain that two centuries of civil war had destroyed everything. For the same film, he donated to the Greek Army Charity Fund to gain five hundred soldiers to overwhelm Thenis in panoramic style. Only fifty arrived so he filmed close ups instead and changed dialogue to reflect a small trained force defeating a large rabble.

Most successfully, he found ways to use or reuse what was already around him to do something cheaply or for free. The burning cane fields in Thunder Over Hawaii were a regular stalk burnoff that he scheduled around, costing him nothing. When he had to burn down the mansion in House of Usher, he found developers about to demolish a nearby barn and paid them fifty bucks to burn it instead while his cameras rolled. When The Raven wrapped a full two days ahead of schedule, he made the best use of his cast, his crew and his magnificent gothic sets that he could: he had them shoot another movie, The Terror. He didn't even have a complete script so he couldn't film the whole thing, but he shot what he could and had assistant directors complete it later. Perhaps his most famous film, The Little Shop of Horrors, was shot on a standing set that another film had left empty, in two days and one night, with three more for rehearsals.

In low budget pictures at the time, the most expensive thing around often wasn't the star or the set, it was the location. A film could elevate itself above its competition simply by sporting exotic locations, but of course it cost money to get to them. So when he was hired in 1956 to direct She Gods of Shark Reef, a South Pacific picture, by a lawyer who wanted to produce, it made a lot of sense for American International to hire him to direct another movie, Thunder Over Hawaii, back to back with it, halving many costs for both companies and gaining AIP an exotic location in the process. Corman took that to heart. When he went to the Black Hills of South Dakota to shoot Ski Troop Attack, his brother Gene came along for the ride to produce Beast from Haunted Cave at the same time and share the costs. His most productive back to back shoot, though, was in 1959 when he travelled to Puerto Rico and shot not two but three pictures back to back.
Originally Corman was slated to produce a war picture called Battle of Blood Island, driven by tax incentives to 'manufacture' in Puerto Rico, but he scheduled in a second, Last Woman on Earth, to maximise the use of San Juan, the Caribe Hilton hotel and the beach house he'd rented. The writer on the latter was Robert Towne, just starting out in 1959 but soon to become Hollywood's most reliable script doctor and later one of its most respected writers, landing a much deserved Oscar for 1974's Chinatown in a very tough year. Then and now, Towne's biggest problem has always been the slow speed at which he writes, not a huge deal when you're an Oscar winner working for a major studio but a showstopper when you're working on a Corman picture. He hadn't finished before the cast and crew shipped out; Corman's solution was to bring him along too, paying his way by not only finishing the script but also playing the third character in a cast of three.

Battle of Blood Island and Last Woman on Earth were both two week shoots that went smoothly. In fact they went so smoothly and morale was so high that a week into the latter, Corman phoned home and asked Charles Griffith to write a third picture, a comedy horror in the vein of the pair of highly successful quickies they'd shot in 1958, A Bucket of Blood and The Little Shop of Horrors. Griffith was experienced writing for Corman and he was as fast as Towne was slow, so faced with writing an entire feature in a single week for a cast that was already on site, he recycled his script for Thunder Over Hawaii to become Creature from the Haunted Sea. It had the same leads as Last Woman on Earth, Antony Carbone and Betsy Jones-Moreland, with Towne thrown in to boot. Not meeting Corman's deadline for Last Woman on Earth therefore got him stuck with two acting roles, both of which he completed under the pseudonym of Edward Wain.

The other reason a third picture was viable was because Corman's assistant, Kinta Zabel, flew in with money left over from another movie Corman was financing back home. The Wild Ride came about when Harvey Berman, who taught high school drama and ran a film class, suggested that he could shoot a juvenile delinquent film with his students for a tiny budget. Corman agreed but looked over the first day's footage and found it amateurish, so he sent his art director and a pair of his stock actors, including Jack Nicholson. He gave Zabel a $30k cheque to cover all costs and asked him to bring whatever remained to San Juan. Enough was left for five days of production. Griffith's script arrived on the last Thursday of the Last Woman on Earth shoot; Corman rewrote parts of it that night. They photocopied it on the Friday and gave it to the cast, Zabel locked in locations on the Saturday, they planned shots on Sunday and began shooting on the Monday.
What resulted was a bad movie but a fun one. It doesn't have the unlikely substance of A Bucket of Blood or The Little Shop of Horrors, but it unfolds well for the most part and doesn't get boring. The story revolves around a strongbox full of gold stolen from the Cuban treasury as Castro took over. Surviving Batista officials spirited it away but, needing a way to get it out of Cuba, unwisely decided to trust an American gangster called Renzo Capetto. They'll give him a quarter of it and use the rest for their counter-revolution, but you won't be surprised to find that Capetto promptly conjures up a plan to keep all of it. He and his henchmen will slowly bump off the Cubans at sea, while blaming their disappearances on a sea monster. They use a plunger to leave sucker tracks and a rake to leave claw marks. The catch is that there really is a sea monster and it kills Cubans as fast as they can in exactly the same way, leading to some fun confusion.

I'm sure you can imagine the sort of sea monster built with this sort of notice. Stuck designing it was Beach Dickerson, who like everyone in Corman's company ended up doing whatever needed to be done at the time. Primarily an actor, throughout a four decade career he also produced and directed, but he'd laugh to find that IMDb lists his most famous work as 'Costume Department, Creature from the Haunted Sea'. There to handle sound for Last Woman on Earth, he handled that role for this film too, played one of Capetto's henchmen and was tasked to build the monster, even though his experience with monsters was scuttling around in a crab suit in Attack of the Crab Monsters. He turned five helmets from Battle of Blood Island into one large head with tennis balls for eyes and table tennis balls for pupils. He stuck moss and brillo pads onto a wetsuit with black oilcloth to look slimy and pipecleaners for claws. It's utterly ridiculous but in a fun way.

After all, there's no way anyone could take this movie seriously; the introductions we're given to Capetto's gang hammer that home. He's 'the most trusted man ever to be deported from Sicily', whose pseudonyms range from Zeppo Staccato to Shirley L'Amour. He was 'rejected by the Navy, Marines and SS'. Anthony Carbone riffs on Humphrey Bogart and he's fun to watch. Betsy Jones-Moreland treats his moll, Mary-Belle Monahan, to an outrageous southern drawl. She wiped out a police chief convention at the Hollywood Bowl with a tommy gun and dealt heroin at Boys Town. Her brother, Happy Jack, developed a muscle spasm from watching too many Bogie movies. This part was written for Corman but in such a way that he couldn't play it. He cast Bobby Bean, who had been in The Wild Ride and flew to San Juan just in case there was something for him to do. As Pete Peterson Jr, Dickerson is like the fourth Stooge, a half retarded animal imitator.
Handling the introductions is Robert Towne, who showed in Last Woman on Earth that for a writer he wasn't a bad actor, but you wouldn't believe it from this evidence. He wildly overplays his role as Sparks Moran, an inept American spy known as XK150. His part was bulked up in 1963 when Corman had Monte Hellman shoot additional scenes in Santa Monica to pad the film out to a TV friendly 74 minutes. The opening scenes with Hellman's wife as fellow spy XK120 are surreal and hilarious, even though he's reminiscent of Nicolas Cage trying to look surreptitious. He kisses her goodbye suavely then trips over the staircase; the acting is terrible but the timing is awesome and they play it all delightfully straight. Griffith's script is flawed in the extreme but it has a lot of wit. Later in the film, Moran woos Mary-Belle outrageously, with no success. Jones-Moreland has great fun rejecting both him and the Cuban general, Tostada, with delightfully snarky rejoinders.

Looking back in an interview with Tom Weaver, she suggested that the movie 'started out to be a takeoff on everything Roger had ever done before. It was to be a comedy, a laugh a minute. Then all of a sudden, somewhere in the middle of it, that got lost and it got to be serious!' The second act is certainly lacking, but the third hints at slapstick as characters fall for other characters in a daisy chain of unwanted advances. Happy Jack wants Carmelita, discovered at a sorority house; Carmelita wants Sparks; Sparks wants Mary-Belle and Mary-Belle wants and has Renzo Capetto. Of course, the monster wants everybody. The poster asks us to 'not give away the answer to the secret' but it's that the monster wins, in Corman's favourite of all his endings, which he dictated over the phone to Griffith. With most of the cast dead, it survives, sitting on the strongbox at the bottom of the sea in a brief shot that has led to this film being called Corman's most personal.

In his autobiography, Corman states that 'the craziness of the shoot showed in the finished film,' and I'd heartily agree. The serious pulp story Griffith wrote for Thunder Over Hawaii and rewrote for Beast from Haunted Cave doesn't stand up in the slightest as a parody of those films, but the energy is palpable. The leads were making their second of two films back to back, while some of the crew were making their third in five weeks, but nobody shows signs of flagging. The movie is held together with little more than goofy energy but that's precisely what they aimed for, spicing up many shots with delicious narration and dialogue heavy ones by adding movement. One has characters throwing a coconut around a palm grove while they talk like it's an American football. Tommy Wiseau must have been paying attention, though clearly not to Corman's money saving ideas. 'Nobody was making movies like these,' said Corman, but that's because only he could.

Saturday 23 February 2013

Cuban Rebel Girls (1959)

Director: Barry Mahon
Stars: Beverly Aadland, John MacKay, Jackie Jackler and Marie Edmund

The last line of Errol Flynn's infamous memoirs, My Wicked, Wicked Ways, reads, 'The second half-century looms up, but I don't feel the night coming on.' He dictated that in late 1958, at the age of 49, while living in Jamaica with his girlfriend, Beverly Aadland, as she turned sixteen, but the night came on quicker than he thought, as he died of a heart attack in Vancouver only a year later. It's unlikely that it was a surprise to anyone else, as a lifetime of hard living and harder drinking had turned him from the swashbuckling icon of Captain Blood, The Adventures of Robin Hood and The Sea Hawk into a bloated parody. He hadn't been healthy for years, rejected for service in 1942 as 4-F for an enlarged heart, chronic back pain, malaria, tuberculosis and a set of venereal diseases. His liver began to fail in 1952, as he contracted hepatitis. Heavy smoking had caused Buerger's disease, thrombosis of veins and arteries. His second half-century lasted less than four months.

It's not unusual for Hollywood stars to deteriorate, slowly or quickly, and die before their time, but usually they fade away. In Flynn's case, what makes it unusual is he did the opposite. 1959 might even count as his most fascinating year, even had he not died towards the end of it. He survived a bout of food poisoning earlier in the year, after eating a mixture of uncooked hamburger meat and raw egg yolks. He was plagued by the IRS, who eroded his finances so far that he was heading for bankruptcy, though his lifestyle continued as if he was still one of Hollywood's highest paid actors. His third wife, Pat Wymore, was finally divorcing him, which made his teenage girlfriend happy, as she was eager to become his fourth. Even his career was notable again, his three 1957 and 1958 films, The Sun Also Rises, Too Much, Too Soon and The Roots of Heaven, praised for some of the best acting in his career. Yet his final two, shot in 1959, were perhaps his worst.

Conversely, they're also two of his most interesting, as he found himself in the right place at the right time to meet a variety of personal needs. The place was Cuba, which he knew well, having long enjoyed the hedonistic lifestyle made possible by Fulgencia Batista's openness for wealthy tourists. The time was just before Batista, Cuba's president and dictator, was overthrown by the guerrilla revolution led by Fidel Castro and his 26th of July Movement. Revolutions had long been a magnet to the idealistic Flynn, who once wrote, 'Ever since boyhood I have been drawn, perhaps romantically, to the ideas of causes, crusades.' He joined the Abraham Lincoln Brigade during the Spanish Civil War and condemned Gen Franco in Madrid, as he aimed 'to follow in Hemingway's footsteps' as a wartime correspondent. With a new Cuban cause, he took to the hills to report it for the New York Journal-American, a Hearst publication. He wrote at least two features.
Clearly just as important to Flynn as this serious reportage was the need to repair his finances, so he took the opportunity not only to write about the revolution but to film it too, making two rather different pictures that went on to have rather different histories. The one that nobody knew about for the longest time was Cuban Story or The Truth About Fidel Castro Revolution, as it saw a world premiére in Moscow before disappearing for four decades, finally being rediscovered and screened in New York in 2001. A supposed documentary, it's closer to propaganda, clearly taking the side of the rebels, with whom Flynn and film producer Victor Pahlen, felt kinship. Pahlen, a Russian born American, met and befriended Flynn in Havana in 1956. They both knew and loved Cuba under its dictator, but were well aware of problems that Castro claimed he would solve, after seizing power, like restoring elections and press freedom.

As propaganda, Cuban Story is a mess, a paeon to an ideology that didn't exist, awkwardly pro-Castro but not pro-Communist. The rebels fighting Batista were comprised of different factions with different agendas, including anti-communists; even after taking control, Castro came to the States to deny he was communist. In 1965 he became First Secretary of the Communist Party of Cuba, but Flynn saw that writing on the wall in 1959. 'It is one thing to start a revolution, another to win it and still another to make it stick,' he said, 'and as far as this writer is concerned it ain’t sticking,' adding that 'the police state in Cuba is not very different from that of its predecessors.' What Cuban Story really has is amazing footage, chronicling the changes in Cuba from the very beginnings of the revolution to after its success. When it finally resurfaced, even the head of the Cuban National Archive told Pahlen's daughter that he had never seen it before.

As it wasn't all shot in 1959, clearly Pahlen was responsible for the footage, or at least most of it, with Flynn peripheral in the grand scheme of things. Maybe he helped get Pahlen and his camera into some of these places, but he doesn't appear on screen much at all. He's there at the outset, apparently ad libbing an introduction whilst under the influence, locating Cuba on a globe that he literally tosses throws away to bounce audibly off screen. He's there early on playing cards with Aadland at the Casino de Capri in Havana, partly owned by George Raft. For a shot of Flynn with Castro though, we have to settle for a photograph. While Flynn clearly gives the introduction, it just as clearly isn't him providing the narration, though the film claims that it's 'reported by Errol Flynn' and it's told in the first person as if it was. It has been suggested that it's Pahlen himself, who has the writing credit, though the accent is British with a Scots tinge, rather than Russian.
The footage in Cuban Story is valuable to historians of Cuba: Batista in his palace, rebels dead in the streets after the failed attack on the Moncada Barracks, Castro preparing for exile in Mexico, demonstrations, rebels hiding in the hills, Che Guevara liberating Santa Clara, former president Carlos Prío, Castro's first speech in Havana with a dove alighting on his shoulder, destruction of Batista landmarks, trials of officials, even a firing squad. The other film Flynn shot at this point is also Cuban but valuable far more to historians of Errol Flynn himself. It's Cuban Rebel Girls, which purports to be a dramatised documentary of rebel life with his girlfriend, Beverly Aadland, as the star. She was a budding actress and underage showgirl in Las Vegas when he met and seduced her on the set of the Gene Kelly movie, Marjorie Morningstar, in 1958. She was fifteen at the time, though she looked much older. He may or may not have believed she was eighteen.

Why Flynn made Cuban Rebel Girls is open to debate, possibly because it was for many different reasons all at once. He knew and loved Cuba and was caught up in the revolution unfolding there. He wanted to meet and report on those behind it, perhaps seeing Castro as a hero of the people. Being out of the country also meant that he was out of reach of the IRS, at least temporarily. He'd already spent the advance for his autobiography, which he hadn't delivered yet, as well as much of what he'd borrowed from backers for a film he planned to make but perhaps didn't even exist outside his sales pitches. As some of these backers may well have been 'less than reputable', it's hardly a stretch to see him connect the dots and decide that shooting a cheap quickie in Cuba would be the best thing all around. It would deliver the film he'd promised, neatly serving as a tax write-off in the process, unfold in exciting fashion amidst a real revolution and make his girlfriend a star.

While that sounds like a winner on paper, Cuban Rebel Girls is a loser on almost every front. How much money he had left to finance it is open to question, but it obviously wasn't a lot, given who he put to work on it. The only major name was his own and he didn't have to pay himself, so he's prominent, writing the script and providing narration, for real this time. He's obvious early on as 'The American Correspondent', flying into Havana where he's shuffled from contact to contact to get him closer to the rebels, then vanishing from sight for long periods at a time, resurfacing in the hills where he visibly struggles in the terrain. To direct, he hired Barry Mahon, a fighter pilot and POW camp escapee whose experience in movies was restricted to co-producing a couple of Flynn's indie pictures in the early fifties. More importantly, he had been Flynn's personal pilot for years and had more recently become his manager. Success was clearly in his interest too.

And of course there's Beverly Aadland. Her mother Florence was a dancer who had lost her leg in a car accident, so lived vicariously through her daughter. Beverly was posing for adverts at six months, eventually becoming the Ivory Soap baby. Dance classes followed as soon as she could walk and she was doing bit parts in movies at three. Some reports suggest she was doing a good sight more than just acting, as she'd bloomed quickly to a 34-18-34 figure at the age of twelve and was allegedly willing to use it for a hundred bucks. Flynn's exploits with the ladies were not far removed from those of the characters he played, leading to the phrase, 'in like Flynn'. He also clearly liked the young stuff, though when he was brought to trial in 1943 by two underage girls for statutory rape, he was cleared of all charges. However, reading what she's written between the lines, it may well have been Aadland who seduced him rather than the other way around.
The catch is that however much experience Aadland had on stage and film, this one makes it very obvious that she wasn't a good actress. Amidst all the true and supposedly true material conjured up for Flynn's script, there's a hokey fictional subplot to provide her with a part and the film with a dynamic title. She's Beverly Woods, an American girl whose boyfriend is Cuban and fighting in the hills with Castro. Her friend is Jacqueline Dominguez, Cuban herself, and about to mount an arms run to the rebels, so she goes along for the ride. Flynn immediately plays them up. 'Some people can put idealism ahead of their own personal losses,' he tells us, as they fly to Miami with $50k in their handbags, drive to Key West and hire shifty looking Capt Alvarez to sail them to Cuba. Some of this is interesting. Boxes are gradually sneaked into the hold and regular fishing trips disguise the odd run across the Straits of Florida under the eyes of the coastguard. Mostly it's ham fisted.

The action is poorly staged and poorly written: one bunch of inept rebels literally walk outside to be arrested when the polizia arrive, except for Maria who climbs out of the window and escapes slowly over the rooftops. The direction is what you'd expect from a man new to the director's seat and whose career would lead him to the heights of International Smorgas-Broad, Fanny Hill Meets the Red Baron and Prostitutes Protective Society. Worst of all, the acting is poor to begin with and gets worse, especially from Aadland, who doesn't seem to realise what tone is appropriate in a rebel camp. Life is jolly, it seems: natives sing songs, the girls take baths in inlets and they all talk about military equipment. 'Sounds like fun,' says Beverly. 'Maybe I'll get to shoot somebody.' She pouts a lot, she blinks a lot and she always sticks her breasts out to pose while she talks. Most of her dialogue is about getting to see her Johnny. She clearly doesn't care about the revolution.

Her performance makes the poor drama even more tortuous. There are slight hints at suspense, strategy and action, but mostly there's only Beverly and Johnny mooning over each other. 'Now I'm a rebel girl, I think I'll think about war too,' she proclaims. She's like a transplant from a teen drama to a war movie, like The Steel Helmet with Hannah Montana. Of course, the only common ground between The Steel Helmet and Cuban Rebel Girls is that they both have three word titles and they both contain shooting. The continuity is terrible, making it easy to lose track of who and what and why. Everyone's a terrible shot too, making this somewhat like Imperial stormtroopers battling Imperial stormtroopers except that occasionally people die. Flynn reappears on occasion to say something chipper while looking like Walt Disney. Beverly gets radio duty on a radio that never talks back to her; she talks, frogs croak and birds tweet and it's otherwise silent and surreal.

One scene literally stops so Beverly can sew up a hole in Flynn's trousers because he scraped his knee on the way up to the camp. Bizarrely, it's the most believable scene in the film, the truest to reality in this supposed dramatisation of real revolution life. With Flynn in bad shape, he needed a lot of care and Aadland tirelessly gave him that, nursing him through recurring bouts of malaria. It was Aadland who found him unconscious in Vancouver, attempted mouth to mouth rescuscitation and called for medical assistance. Flynn had suggested to Stanley Kubrick, casting for Lolita, that he and Aadland play the roles on film that they were living at the time as a surprising but devoted couple. That didn't happen. Neither did her inheritance, as the will which Flynn wrote before going to meet Castro that left her a third of his estate in Jamaica was declared invalid. In the end, what she got was the leading role in her lover's last film. It was a quickie in every way.

Friday 22 February 2013

The Conqueror (1956)

Director: Howard Hughes
Stars: Jack Beutel, Thomas Mitchell, Jane Russell and Walter Huston

Howard Hughes had a knack for making money so strong that it could almost be called a Midas touch, but occasionally even he lost it. The Conqueror was a rare financial flop for him, though it did tie Rebel without a Cause for the 11th place in box office rentals in 1956, earning $4.5m. The catch is that it cost $6m to make and, apparently feeling guilty over some of the decisions made during production that may have cost the lives of many of his cast and crew, he shelled out $12m more to buy back every print of the film. After initial release, nobody saw The Conqueror except Howard Hughes himself until 1974, when he allowed it to be broadcast on television. Reportedly he watched it a lot, screening it and either Jet Pilot or Ice Station Zebra continuously during later reclusive years, in which he may well have suffered from allodynia, pain from being touched, so distracted himself by stripping naked and watching movies continually.

Virtually everything associated with The Conqueror was unmitigated disaster, but most disastrous was the choice to shoot on location in the Escalante Desert near St George, UT, downwind from the Nevada Test Site where the government had conducted Operation Upshot-Knothole in 1953, only a year earlier. There were other problems too: Susan Hayward's black panther attacked her, Pedro Armendáriz's horse threw him, breaking his jaw, a flash flood nearly wiped out production and sweltering 120° heat made the fur costumes unbearable. Yet these fade into insignificance compared to the the acutely radioactive sand of Snow Canyon, into which clouds of fallout from eleven above ground nuclear tests in Nevada had funnelled, exposing the filmmakers for thirteen full weeks. You might think that this situation couldn't have been made any worse, but Hughes shipped sixty tons of this radioactive Utah dirt back to Hollywood to give retakes authenticity.

It's often been stated that Hughes simply accepted the government's assurances to the locals in St George that there was no danger to public health and that later on he felt 'guilty as Hell' that he had risked the lives of his cast and crew for a movie. However, Charles Higham's biography of Hughes highlights that this isn't fair. He was running RKO Pictures in 1953, as it produced Split Second that focused on the dangers of radiation in Nevada. It was actor Dick Powell's directorial debut, which he followed up with this. Hughes contracted to the government and the military, so uneasy with their ongoing testing that he delayed building any factories in Nevada. He was also notoriously germophobic, using tissues when picking up objects and requiring others to remove dust from their clothes. Tellingly, he never went to St George, which perhaps he only chose for being a Mormon town; he had long hired only Mormon aides to be sure they didn't drink.

The production numbered 220 cast and crew on location. By 1981, 91 of them had contracted a form of cancer and 46 were already dead of the disease, including many of the key players: John Wayne, Susan Hayward and Agnes Moorehead all died of cancer in the seventies, director Dick Powell in 1963 and Pedro Armendáriz the same year, by shooting himself in the heart to bypass suffering from terminal cancer. Half the residents of St George had contracted the disease by this time, and eventually, over half the cast and crew would too. While it has never conclusively been proved that the tests were a factor in these deaths and many victims smoked heavily, including the Duke, who survived lung cancer in 1964 before succumbing to stomach cancer in 1979, it's still likely, given a statistical anomaly of instances over three times higher than would usually be expected and wide variance in these instances, not restricted to lung cancer in the slightest.
Today, we don't look back at The Conqueror and see radioactive fallout, we look back at one of the most insane casting choices Hollywood ever made. There had been others, not least a trio of roles for Katharine Hepburn, whose impeccable Bryn Mawr accent inexplicably voiced backwoods girl Trigger Hicks in Spitfire, Mary, Queen of Scots in Mary of Scotland and, worst of all, Chinese peasant girl Jade Tan in Dragon Seed. Yet John Wayne is perhaps the most iconic American film star of all time, forever associated with rugged, hardworking, heroic types. Here he's tasked with playing Temujin, later known as Genghis Khan, which is as utterly ludicrous as it sounds. In later years he stated that the moral of the film was 'not to make an ass of yourself trying to play parts you're not suited for.' It's the most ridiculous part he ever played, eclipsing his brief performance as Longinus in The Greatest Story Ever Told, speaking, 'Truly, this man was the son of God.'

The reason the Duke took the part to begin with is the stuff of legend. Studio releases suggest he demanded the part, having seen the script lying around somewhere. According to the Medveds' book, The Hollywood Hall of Shame, this took place in the office of Dick Powell, who had already been assigned to shoot Wayne's third and last RKO picture. They were discussing script choices, when Powell was called away for a few minutes. On his return, he found Wayne engrossed in the script for The Conqueror and insisting that the part be his. Powell attempted to dissuade him in vain, later explaining, 'Who am I to turn down John Wayne?' Some reports suggest that Powell intended to discard the script, others that he already had and the Duke had retrieved it from the bin. Perhaps he seriously felt it was a good choice for him to stretch his acting muscles, or maybe he just wanted to make a movie, perennial RKO delays affecting his work for other studios.

To me, it's an iconic story that explains well how such an awful script could make it to production. A leading man since 1930, Wayne was arguably at the peak of his powers in the 1950s. Recent successes like Fort Apache, Red River and She Wore a Yellow Ribbon under his belt, he kicked off the decade with Rio Grande for his favourite director, John Ford. His best non-western, The Quiet Man, came in 1952, and one of his personal favourites, Hondo, in 1953. His most acclaimed film, The Searchers, was released in 1956, so that year saw both his best and worst movies. No wonder Wayne would become the industry's biggest star, topping Quigley's list of all time money makers. It's no stretch to see that a simple 'yes' from him might be enough to turn a discarded screenplay into a six million dollar picture and an emphatic one might guarantee it. Certainly, he was serious about the rôle once it was his, going on a crash diet that included Dexedrine four times a day.
While John Wayne's 'yes' to play Genghis Khan appears to have been a personal choice, the 'yes' from his leading lady took a lot more persuasion. Howard Hughes saw Susan Hayward as perfect for the part of Bortai, the fiery Tartar princess taken forcibly by Temujin but who gives herself to him willingly in the end. After all, she wasn't just a talented actress, Oscar nominated in 1947 for her role in Smash-Up, the Story of a Woman, she was also a fiery character in real life, something Hughes knew well as he was having an affair with her at the time. He constructed this film around her as much as around John Wayne, however much she hated it. He literally wouldn't take 'no' for an answer, even offering Darryl F Zanuck, who owned her contract, a million dollars under the table to release her for this film. Zanuck threatened to suspend her and her rising divorce costs forced her to accept. Still, she hated the script, the costumes, the heat, everything about the film.

It's easy to see why. It's unintentionally hilarious from moment one, looking utterly like a western in every way except for the props and costumes. It opens with Temujin, with slanted eyes, a hint at a moustache and a falcon on his arm, riding down with his men to discover why Chief Targutai is crossing his land and discovering Bortai, the chief's haughty third wife to be. 'I feel this Tartar woman is for me,' he tells his Mexican sidekick. 'My blood says take her!' Take her he does, in a raid that sparks war between Mongols, Tartars, Merkits, Karkaits and whatever other races show up in the form of local Navajo indians who didn't even wear make up to hide their ethnic origins. Bizarrely, much care was made to construct twelfth century villages from ancient drawings, but nothing else looks remotely authentic. Even the desert, described in the opening text as 'harsh and arid' is remarkably green, the Escalante a poor casting choice for the Gobi.

Admittedly, some actors fare better than others. The ever-reliable Agnes Moorehead is capable as Hunlun, Temujin's mother, her only failure the fact that she speaks in English like everyone else. Lee van Cleef is prominent in the background, always doing something without ever doing much. If anyone's needed to fetch a fur, deliver a present or just ride a horse out of frame, it's him, but he gets maybe one word in the entire film. Relying on his looks, which served him well for many ethnicities, works fine. The great Wang Khan's shaman is played by John Hoyt, a western staple, especially on television, but he goes all out, like Basil Rathbone playing Fu Manchu, and in doing so finds a slot in the long line of surprising white actors who aren't entirely terrible in yellowface make up, such as Peter Lorre and Boris Karloff. These are rare exceptions, as most cast members fail to treat this as anything but just another western, which in most regards it is.
It's often said that Kurosawa's films, which he freely acknowledged had roots in John Ford's, were Japanese westerns or easterns, if you will. At least he adapted Ford's techniques to fit essentially Japanese settings, populating them with samurai and historical authenticity. The Conqueror ought to feel like such an eastern but it doesn't. It feels irrevocably like a western, somewhat like a play put on during a down moment on a cattle drive. If Buffy the Vampire Slayer can go musical, then the cast of Red River could stage a biopic of Genghis Khan just for fun, right? Hey, I could be the great conqueror, says the Duke. My frequent Mexican co-star could play my brother and the red haired Irish lass over there could be my bride. Maybe in an alternate universe where the Nazis won the war and occupied the US, the cast of a Paramount western are thrown into a POW camp and bide their time with frivolities like this. Think the play in Grand Illusion turned on its head.

It looks like a western in eastern clothes, guns swapped for swords, stetsons swapped for ornate eastern headgear, horses swapped for, well, horses. If props and costumes were swapped back, only the dancing girls in Wang Khan's palace would feel out of place in a western. The woman of Samarkand doesn't dance like a saloon girl in her outfit of Christmas tinsel, protected from the Breen Office by a flesh coloured bodysuit underneath. It sounds like a western too, Victor Young's score much better than what he gave Hughes for The Outlaw, but just as inappropriate, without even of a hint of eastern flavour. The language Oscar Millard puts into the characters' mouths is Elizabethan. Kurosawa adapted Shakespeare to the east; he adapted the east to Shakespeare. 'While I have fingers to grasp a sword, and eyes to see your cowardly faces, your treacherous heads will not be safe on your shoulders,' pronounces the Duke, 'for I am Temujin, the Conqueror.'

It's all about as authentic as Carry On... Up the Khyber, but without tapping into any underlying truth. Like The Outlaw, its only success lay in being sumptuous to the eyes, the cinematography from Joseph LaShelle, an Oscar winner for Laura, being accomplished. None of this mattered to Howard Hughes, of course, whose many action packed but nonsensical pictures suggest that he's the classic equivalent of Michael Bay. Maybe he didn't screen it over and over for decades out of guilt. Perhaps, as Higham suggests, he identified with the conqueror, having dated most of the leading ladies of the golden age, not least his own fiery princess, Susan Hayward, who he could forcibly take over and over again by simply rescreening the movie. In a way he already had, by forcing her to say 'yes' to the part. The Conqueror would have been horrible in any form, but its legendary badness is due to John Wayne. The 'yes' that he volunteered was its death blow.

Thursday 21 February 2013

The Outlaw (1943)

Director: Howard Hughes
Stars: Jack Beutel, Thomas Mitchell, Jane Russell and Walter Huston

Bad movies aren't always made by people without enough money to make good movies. They can also be made by people with more money than they know what to do with, like Howard Hughes. In 1941, Hughes was well established in the movie industry, having inherited the family fortune at 18 and taken his millions to Hollywood a year later to produce films. He found quick success, with his second picture, Two Arabian Knights, a hit with the public and the critics, winning Lewis Milestone the Oscar for Best Director (Comedy) of 1927-8. An experienced flier who would set a number of world speed records later in the thirties, Hughes spent almost four million dollars on his 1930 aviation epic, Hell's Angels, which saw his first credit as director, although he had uncredited assistance from Edmund Goulding and a debuting James Whale. His second would be The Outlaw, thirteen years later, which would prove just as controversial, if for different reasons.

With Hell's Angels, the controversies were many. For a start, there was Jean Harlow, eighteen year old platinum blonde bombshell. She'd been working solidly in uncredited roles since 1928, but this launched her to stardom, after the advent of sound overtook the film's long production and Greta Nissen, the Norwegian leading lady, was no longer viable when her role became a speaking one. Production delays also prompted a law suit, as Hughes feared that Darryl F Zanuck's The Dawn Patrol would steal his film's thunder before he could finish it and sued to stop its release. On a darker note, Hughes crashed a plane while shooting a scene his stunt coordinator refused to allow his men, World War I pilots all, to do. He got away with facial surgery, but four other members of the crew, three pilots and one mechanic, lost their lives during production accidents. With The Outlaw, there was only one controversy, spun deliberately for publicity: Jane Russell's bust.

And that's really what The Outlaw is about. Ignore all the many suggestions to the contrary, this entire film exists so that Howard Hughes could show as much of Jane Russell's bust as possible. Sure, the screenplay was by massively experienced writer Jules Furthman, who had been Oscar nominated for his screenplay for the 1935 version of Mutiny on the Bounty. Sure, there were also uncredited contributions by versatile producer/director Howard Hawks and his long term writing collaborator, Ben Hecht, who had met while working on 1932's Scarface for Hughes and ended up working together on nine films, including Twentieth Century, His Girl Friday and The Thing from Another World. Jean-Luc Godard called Hawks 'the greatest American artist'; Richard Corliss called Hecht 'the Hollywood screenwriter.' Hecht won the first Oscar for best original screenplay and ended up with two from six nominations. These aren't minor names.
Neither are those they wrote about, the story revolving around wild west legends Pat Garrett, Billy the Kid and Doc Holliday, perennial Hollywood subjects in the forties, after odd earlier portrayals: Edith Storey played the title role in Billy the Kid in 1911, with Garrett and Holliday both originated on screen in 1937, Robert Homans playing the former in Jim Hanvey, Detective and Harvey Clark the latter in Law for Tombstone. Billy the Kid was especially popular, Bob Steele playing him six times in 1940 and 1941 and Buster Crabbe thirteen between 1941 and 1943. The actors giving them life here are even more prestigious. Garrett is played by Thomas Mitchell, whose Oscar was for 1939's Stagecoach, but could equally have been for any of four other classics he made that year. Holliday is Walter Huston, who didn't win until The Treasure of the Sierre Madre in 1949 but had already landed three nominations. Only Jack Buetel was new to the screen as Billy the Kid.

Well, Buetel and Jane Russell, both of whom became stuck under Hughes's thumb for seven years. The Outlaw was originally shot in 1941, but spent two years in limbo because of how prominent Russell's breasts were in the film. While Hughes initially bowed to the requirements of those who administered the Production Code and cut half a minute of footage, his distributor, 20th Century Fox, cancelled their agreement. In response, Hughes orchestrated a counterintuitive campaign to build public outrage about his unreleased film, fuelling the fires beneath a controversy about his 'lewd picture' until the demands for it to be banned generated enough publicity to reach screens in 1943. However it only lasted a week before its violations of the Production Code prompted its removal. When it finally saw wide release in 1946, Buetel and Russell had been stuck promoting for six years, locked into contracts for Hughes that disallowed them from making other movies.

Looking back from today, it's almost unfathomable how this happened. Russell doesn't get naked in the film; she doesn't even get topless. This was Production Code era Hollywood and that simply wasn't allowed, whatever imaginative publicity Hughes might have generated. She merely shows a decent amount of cleavage, but that was shocking enough. A great review at IMDb talks about how a fourteen or fifteen year old youth sneaked in to see it on original release. His friends were eager to know how fast Billy the Kid was, who shot who and how. 'All I wanted to do was describe Jane Russell,' he said. It's a telling anecdote, but it's not merely a reflection on Russell's charms, which gave their names to pairs of mountains across the globe and prompted Bob Hope to joke that 'culture is the ability to describe Jane Russell without moving your hands.' It's also a nod to how there's nothing else here to see. The time honoured stories are told at their most ridiculous.
For a while, you might think that the story is all about Doc Holliday's strawberry roan, which has been stolen. It's 'about thirteen hands high and cute as a bug's ear,' as he describes him and he catches up with him in Lincoln, NM, where it arrived in the hands of Billy the Kid, who swears he bought him fair and square. Given that Doc's old friend, Pat Garrett, is working as the sheriff of Lincoln County, we get to meet all three of them quickly in perhaps the best scene of the movie. They're shot well, hardly surprising as the cinematography is by Gregg Toland, at the peak of his career after Wuthering Heights, The Long Voyage Home and Citizen Kane. Unfortunately, he's the only one impressing. Huston isn't bad in his awful chequered trousers but he gets progressively worse as the film runs on. This is already the worst I've ever seen Mitchell, usually such a reliable actor, and he gets worse too. Buetel never gets the chance to impress, but this is his best scene.

Worst of all is the script. Already it's clumsy and occasionally cringeworthy, but it gets far worse than any of the actors. From this pivotal scene, it plays out like a love triangle, but one between three men. Garrett describes Holliday as his best friend and he reacts to the growing friendship between Doc and the Kid with what can only be regarded as jealousy. Each scene heightens the homoerotic undercurrents until they reach ludicrous level and then continue on regardless. That strawberry roan and the schemes and counterschemes to win him feel like a metaphor for their friendships. Just in case we might take any of this seriously, the score underlines that this is all a cartoon, complete with wah wah wah noises for every disappointment. Bizarrely the music is by Victor Young, a composer who was also at the top of his game. He never won an Oscar in his life, but landed 22 nominations, sometimes four of them in the same year, like 1940 and 1941.

In another film, Doc's strawberry roan would be the MacGuffin of the piece. Certainly owning him is the primary motivation throughout for both Doc and the Kid, which means that it becomes one important factor for Pat Garrett too, yet we don't care about him in the slightest. What makes the film so surreal is that all this continues unabated even when Rio McDonald shows up no less than eighteen minutes in. This is a rather unique film because it has a pair of different MacGuffins, one for the characters and one for the audience. Even as these legends tussle over Red the roan, the viewers are wondering when Jane Russell is going to show up. After all, it's her on the posters, her on the publicity stills and her that Howard Hughes had been pushing at the public for years, in a shirt that looks like it's held up only by the power of art but would fall off if she breathed. Hughes had even designed a brass bra for her, to push up those breasts and highlight that cleavage.
Well, we don't see her until the eighteen minute mark and then not enough to know she's female, let alone Jane Russell. She's just someone trying to kill Billy the Kid one night in a dark barn. Two minutes later they tussle in the hay, but even when she's revealed, she's fully clothed, shirt right up to her neck. After she tries and fails to kill the Kid for the last time, in revenge for the death of her brother a town or two back, it's hinted that he rapes her there in the hay. 'Hold still, lady,' he tells her, 'or you won't have much dress left.' That's it for Rio McDonald though for quite a while. We have more homoerotic love triangle stuff to struggle through, Doc taking the Kid's side when Garrett tries to stop him leaving the scene of a deadly shootout. That spurs a sequel, Doc taking down Pat's gun and Billy two of his deputies. With a through and through to the side though, he's in bad shape and Doc takes him straight to Rio's house. Rio, it seems, is his girl.

Now, we have to pause for reevaluation here, because this is the point the script finally gives up the ghost. Rio attempted to revenge her brother by killing Billy the Kid on her own, even though she's sleeping with one of the most legendary gunslingers in the west. She didn't ask Doc to take care of it for her, she tried it herself, failed and got raped in the process, but Billy's unconscious body in her bed is all she needs to realise that she's in love with him. She does wield a knife in a threatening manner, but decides to just use it to cut his clothes off, so she can nurse him back to health, even climbing into bed with him to keep him warm. Doc's gone for a month, but when he returns, he discovers that his new friend has taken his girl as well as his horse. The Kid graciously offers him one of the two, while Rio stands there dumbstruck, and he has the bad taste to argue with him when he picks the horse. He doesn't even kiss her goodbye.

It's a strange thing when every bit of publicity material revolves around Jane Russell's twin assets but the story itself really doesn't care about them in the slightest. They're the only reason she's in the film, as her acting talent is hardly notable here and her perpetual sneer is often painful to see. Maybe it's a pout, but it's hardly sexy, even if it smoulders. I wondered if the wind had changed on her. It turns out to be her Blue Steel: it's disdain, defiance, disappointment, every emotion from D to D. So she's here to show off as much cleavage as the Production Code would allow. For a while, her dresses get more and more revealing until a full 45 minutes in, she leans over the Kid's body and both he and we get a great view. From then on, the 1946 audiences dreamt of a fast forward button to see how much more she'd show and how soon. Her best scene has her tied up outside with leather straps soaked so they'll shrink. The world lusted. Doc and the Kid didn't notice.

The Outlaw is a stunning failure in almost all regards. The performances are embarrassments to the talents of the actors. The story is such a stinker that Hawks and Hecht must have been truly thankful to have been uncredited. The music is the most inappropriate score I've ever heard in a Hollywood picture. Only Gregg Toland's cinematography emerges unscathed, and even there it suffers from some awful rear projection shots. Russell didn't even wear the cantilevered bra that Hughes had carefully engineered with structural steel, instead secretly modifying her own a little and pretending. The film would have been a great candidate for the Razzies, had they existed at the time. Yet The Outlaw was also a box office hit that launched Russell's career as a global sex symbol and built her 38D-24-36 figure into the latest sensation. The publicity worked in ways the film itself couldn't dream of. Sometimes all you need is sex, and it doesn't have to be in the film.

Wednesday 20 February 2013

Polk County Pot Plane (1977)

Director: Jim West
Stars: Don Watson, Bobby Watson, Big Jim, Paul Weiner, 'Sandy' St Armour, Edward Smith, Bob Deyton, Debbi Washington and N67038 (DC-4)

We've all had good ideas for movies, just like we've all had good ideas for band names, but most of us have never shot a movie or formed a band. Georgia State Representative James I West is the exception, because a good idea for a movie literally landed in his metaphorical back yard and he made it happen. In August 1975, someone flew a Douglas DC-4 into Polk County under cover of night and landed on the top of Treat Mountain. Designed for runways over 3,000 feet, it stopped in only 500 on a landing strip cleared by bulldozers mere hours before and lit up with strips of 100 watt light bulbs. It had clipped pine trees on the way in and needles were still stuck in the prop. It was carrying 3,260 pounds of marijuana and 75 pounds of hashish, which were mostly recovered by authorities from a rental truck a few miles away. Many were arrested but most were released, including the plane's owner, Robert Eby, as nobody could prove he was flying it at the time.

While it was a talking point all over Georgia, Jim West saw a good idea for a movie. Fortunately for us, he did everything right in turning it from the former into the latter. The federal authorities had seized the plane as evidence but couldn't figure out what to do with it, as it clearly couldn't just fly out again. Eventually they auctioned it off to the highest bidder on the courthouse steps. Ahead of the auction, West bought the 300 acres surrounding the plane, fenced it off and set armed guards to stop potential buyers from inspecting it. Once he won the plane, he hired a crew to expand the runway to 3,500 feet and flew it out himself using JATO bottles for added lift. With the set and the biggest prop in hand, he formed a production company, Westco Productions, wrote a screenplay and set to persuading everyone he knew to take part, as cast, crew or both. Previous experience was not required and clearly didn't exist for the most part.

What's most amazing to me, beyond the background to this story itself, is how far West managed to get. His dedication must have been absolute and his word trusted implicitly. His neighbour was a house mover, so he promptly hired him to play a house mover who sets up one of the biggest stunts in the film. Howard Smith and Bob Deyton play the Clayton County police chief and sheriff purely because that's what they were. When Oosh and Doosh, the lead characters, are lifted off the roof of the Clayton County Jail by helicopter, they really are lifted off the roof of the Clayton County Jail by helicopter. What's more, like everyone else in the film, they perform their own stunts, as presumably West just didn't know any stuntmen. These are not minor stunts and we can't forget that these folk aren't even actors, let alone stuntmen. For the more dangerous stunts, they were liquored up with 'liquid courage' first. As far as I know, nobody was hurt.

Of course, West himself was as experienced as a filmmaker as anyone else involved, which is to say not at all. This was the only film he made and it shows. While he's only credited as producer and director, it has been said that anywhere there's a Jim or a James in the credits, it's really him, from Jim Clarke the writer to Jim Young the camera operator. I don't know if that's really true or not, but it's certain at least that he's Jim Whozitt as Big Jim Elliott, the pilot who flies in the DC-4 for its initial landing at the beginning of the film. He does a capable job, very naturalistic as you might expect, but believable, and it sets the pace for the acting throughout, which is similarly shorn of any real acting in favour of authentic southern accents and conversational tone. This is actually much appreciated, one of the charms of the film, along with the relentless stuntwork and chase scenes. The film's biggest success is that nothing in it pretends to be anything it isn't.
If it wasn't clear beforehand, it becomes absolutely clear during the first chase scene that there's no effects work going on here at all, not just no CGI but no effects at all. When we see Oosh and Doosh driving their camper van full of pot at high speed, they're doing just that. When we watch them nudging cop cars off the road, that's what they're doing. When their camper van nicks the blade of a bulldozer on the back of a truck going the other way and half the top gets ripped off, that's precisely what happened. It feels rather surreal that we're watching a fictional story that's leading up to a reenactment of a true event, but in doing so we're watching something very real indeed. The only reasons this doesn't play out like an episode of America's Funniest Home Videos are that they kept getting away with these stunts and because editor Angelo Ross was one of the few professionals on the crew. His other editing job in 1977 was Smokey and the Bandit.

There is a plot unfolding, but that's one of the weaker parts of the affair. Oosh and Doosh work for Joe King and they're good boys the boss doesn't want to lose. They're dumb enough to get all four of their crew caught and locked up in the Clayton County Jail, but they're bright enough to talk the sheriff into allowing them all to work on the roof the very next morning with their regular clothes underneath their jail outfits. They promptly escape by helicopter, with Oosh and Doosh hanging onto the landing skids for the duration of the ride, presumably without harnesses or safety nets or anything except that 'liquid courage'. They get back to King's place to find that he's been deposed offscreen by Sandy, who shoots the helicopter pilot and puts Oosh and Doosh right back to work, this time picking up a new load from the DC-4 in an eighteen wheeler, which is promptly chased by state troopers. These cops are apparently really quick, both to find crooks and to let them go.

What follows contains a little bit of story, a little bit of humour and a little bit of violence. There's no acting talent or character building to speak of. Mostly it contains a lot of vehicles. It's a ninety minute feature but a full third of that is taken up with car chases and associated stuntwork. This would be reasonably impressive in any film, both in quantity and quality, but it's eye opening in this film because of the lack of stuntmen. Remember, if we see it, they did it for real. When a cop car crushes itself under the back of the truck, that's what it did. When another drives right under the truck and loses its top, that's what happened. And when the eighteen wheeler speeds right through a prefab house parked in the middle of the road, that's absolutely what happened. How much of the budget went on 'liquid courage' I have no idea, but most of it was surely spent on vehicles. Every time I watch I forget to count how many get trashed, but it's a lot.

This is exciting but then these are the exciting scenes. The catch is that surrounding them are other scenes of vehicles that aren't exciting in the slightest. While a third of the film is taken up with chase scenes and stunts, another third of it, if not more, is taken up by vehicles not being chased and nothing else happening that requires 'liquid courage'. We see cars driving down the road, trucks driving down the road, armoured vehicles driving down the road. We watch loading and unloading, we even watch parked vehicles waiting for someone to show up. We see cop cars waiting for something to happen. We see bulldozers at work. We watch vehicles following other vehicles, pushing other vehicles, nudging them in new directions. We're shown shots from the helicopter and the DC-4 and aerial shots of the helicopter and the DC-4. Sometimes it feels like the action was choreographed by a six year old boy playing with his hot wheels.
In some ways it's refreshing that this isn't just another seventies action flick, even just another seventies hicksploitation flick. Because nobody knew what they were doing, the film doesn't feel like anything else and that's always a good thing, even if the end result is fundamentally flawed. The building blocks may be clearly phrased like the memories of films or TV shows, but generally they're put together in whole new designs that apparently just seemed like they made sense at the time. Whole swathes of this film are completely dialogue free, occasionally accompanied by old timey music that helps set the scene as silent slapstick comedy. It's a heist movie when Oosh and Doosh rob an armoured car to pay back Sandy for the losses and damages they've incurred. It's a chase movie in its heart and in truth it's a snapshot of the seventies south, Georgia accents all the way, jeans so tight you can see the testicles and hairstyles right out of Lynyrd Skynyrd.

Eventually all this preliminary padding gets us to the point of the film, dramatised of course. Big Jim wants to bring in the biggest shipment ever seen and, despite their track record, wants Oosh and Doosh to be his ground crew. He's going to fly in ten million dollars worth of pot and cocaine from Colombia and he'll give them a quarter of a million each to make it work. He needs a 2,500 foot runway carved off the top of Treat Mountain in Polk County and five two ton trucks to carry away the drugs. And he needs it in three days. Nobody does their job right, the ground crew not clearing as much as they should and even Big Jim arriving a couple of hours ahead of schedule, but that just means that we watch the plane fly in, clipping trees as it did in reality, wondering how Jim West managed to get away with everything he put in this film without a single stuntman on the payroll. The picture's motto is clearly, 'Just do it!' and that's what they did.

Presumably the aerial shots we see during the finalé were the first filmed, of the real plane in the real location before Jim West bought the land. They could even be news footage taken after the event, just as the radio announcements by real Atlanta DJ Van Q Temple may well be recordings from the time. Yet, as tends to be the case with this unique film, reality morphs into fiction that is in its own way, new reality. When Jerry Burnam and his bulldozer crew clear land for Big Jim to fly onto Treat Mountain in the story, it's really Jerry Burnam and his bulldozer crew clearing land for Jim West to fly off the mountain with his new purchase and so make the rest of the film possible. When he flies back in, he's reenacting the real event in the real plane in the real location. We're impressed with his skill as a pilot, assuming he's actually flying the plane, but we're even more impressed with the unknown pilot who did it first, at night and with much less runway.

The more I see Polk County Pot Plane, later reissued as In Hot Pursuit, the more I love it. While it's not a good movie, clearly an amateur affair through and through, Jim West was bright enough to know every one of his limitations before he even began and he worked around them throughout. He knew he was working with amateur actors because they were friends, family and presumably whoever said, 'Sure, I'll be in your movie, Jim,' so he wrote scenes that didn't require acting. He knew he didn't have stuntmen so he persuaded his cast with a politician's silver tongue to go for it and do amazing things. The result is so intrinsically honest that it's surreal. We're conditioned to know that films are fake, but this one isn't. It's as honest as they come, not because West wanted it that way but because he didn't know how to do it differently. He saw an opportunity, grabbed it and didn't let go until he had what he wanted. Maybe that 'liquid courage' was really for him.

Tuesday 19 February 2013

Strange Interlude (1932)

Director: Robert Z Leonard
Stars: Norma Shearer and Clark Gable

When this project morphed from being about classic bad movies into why classic bad movies were made, Strange Interlude was an immediate choice. It wouldn't have fit well with my other reviews that were mostly of genre flicks, often low budget in nature, a basic sampling of what people have traditionally called the worst movies ever made. By comparison, this was a big budget production from the biggest studio of them all that featured many major names. Yet the reason for its rather spectacular failure fits perfectly here, because it has to live or die on its gimmick, a scenario that it shares with many of those low budget genre movies. Not only does it die, it dies horribly in ways that would have swept the Razzies, had they existed in 1932. Even back then, this must have felt horrible, but the passage of eighty years has only worsened it. Now, it's frankly impossible to see this quintessentially serious picture and not laugh. Well, laugh or cry.

Like many pictures from the early thirties, when sound technology was still in its infancy, Strange Interlude was sourced from a play. It's an experimental piece from the groundbreaking American playwright Eugene O'Neill, who wrote it in 1923, with two Pulitzers already to his name for Beyond the Horizon and Anna Christie, though it wasn't staged until 1928, when it won him a third. He'd make it four with Long Day's Journey into Night. While O'Neill was established as a playwright, he wasn't yet well represented on film, perhaps because of the talky nature of his work, four of the five screen adaptations of his plays made earlier than this being of Anna Christie, including the famous 'Garbo Talks!' film in 1930. Strange Interlude played for 426 performances on Broadway, even though its nine acts meant a four hour running time that became increasingly broken up over two nights or with a break for dinner halfway through.

While the Hollywood of the thirties was drawn to popular plays like a kid to candy, you might have thought that it would have paused for thought at such a length. While epic films are nothing new, D W Griffith's The Birth of a Nation and Intolerance each running over three hours even in the mid-1910s, this isn't an epic story, it's a melodrama. MGM hacked it down to 100 minutes. You might have thought it would have baulked at the subject matter, which had often led to the play being censored or banned outright. Even in the relatively free days of the precodes, films were allowed less than plays. This material was all cut, prompting O'Neill to call it the adaptation he liked the least and that MGM had 'censored it into near-imbecility'. Most of all, you'd think that they'd have seen flags in the gimmick, which to my eyes is an idea inherently rooted in the stage and utterly unsuited to film, except in parody, as Groucho Marx ably demonstrated in 1930's Animal Crackers.

This gimmick is a modern adaptation of the soliloquy, a theatrical convention that allows an actor to temporarily remove himself from the body of the play and speak his thoughts aloud. It's an age old convention well used by Shakespeare, who wrote some of the most famous soliloquys, such as 'To be or not to be' in Hamlet or 'Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou, Romeo?' in Romeo and Juliet. Usually grandiose in nature, it mostly disappeared from the stage when playwrights moved more towards realism, but O'Neill brought it back with a vengeance. Rather than give his characters a few long soliloquys, he wrote them many brief ones, more like asides not aimed at the audience, and they pepper the dialogue continually. To avoid staginess on film, they were provided here in voiceover, as the actors pause to look pensive and act out their thoughts with facial movements or body language. Unfortunately, this breaks the flow, prompts overacting and looks stupid.
Revisiting Strange Interlude after almost a decade, it looks even more stupid than before, because now I realise just how important these actors are. When I first saw it, I didn't have much of a clue. I had seen May Robson in Lady for a Day and Bringing Up Baby and Maureen O'Sullivan in Tarzan movies, but I only really knew Clark Gable at this point and even there I hadn't yet realised what importance his precodes had, as he redefined the concept of masculinity by slapping his co-star here, Norma Shearer, a year earlier in A Free Soul. Now, I realise that this was a major cast, not only Gable, who would literally be voted King of Hollywood in 1938, but Shearer, the epitome of the liberated woman on film and the wife of MGM's wunderkind, Irving Thalberg; Ralph Morgan, a perennial screen villain who co-founded the Screen Actors Guild and served as its first president; and Robert Young, who later found fame on TV in Father Knows Best and Marcus Welby, MD.

Unlike some critics, I don't believe the actors were miscast, even Gable clearly there to serve as the masculine ideal, as he did so often in the precodes. However they're as clearly hamstrung by the gimmick as the film is by its relentless bowdlerisation. The story revolves around Nina Leeds, who begins as a histrionic young lady pining for Gordon Shaw, a World War I flier shot down and killed in action. In turn, a family friend, Charlie Marsden, pines for her but can't confess his love. She decides to honour Gordon's name by caring for disabled servicemen in a sanitorium, only to turn into a tramp. She marries Sam Evans, a likeable but forgettable soul, but is then warned by his mother that hereditary insanity in his family means she shouldn't have kids. So she bears the child of Dr Ned Darrell, his best friend, whose career can't afford a relationship, while pretending that it's Sam's. As you can imagine, she falls for Darrell and heartrending melodrama ensues.

I tried to imagine how this would all play out without the gimmick. Back in 1932, it would surely have been much better, audiences generally being far more accepting of melodramas. Nowadays, it would still be improved, though the result would be painful nonetheless. Perhaps going back to the original play might work, as the 253 minute television adaptation for American Playhouse did in 1988, but I haven't seen it or the play, so I can only assume that it all unfolds better as O'Neill wrote it rather than as Hollywood crippled it. One major problem here is that there isn't a single character worth caring about or rooting for. O'Neill is known for his pessimistic realism, so it may be that he's as responsible for that as the Hollywood screenwriters who attempted to adapt his work. Certainly the soliloquy gimmick enhances the pessimism, almost every voiceover thought being negative, if not downright bitchy, and I'm talking about the men too.

If it would be a poor film without the gimmick, it's a truly abysmal one with it, as highlighted by the few scenes that are fast paced enough to disallow the possibility for thought. The best scene in the film is probably the one where Nina's mother-in-law explains the insanity in the family and rushes her upstairs to look at Sam's crazy cackling aunt. Without time to think, this is traditional and capably shot, but it doesn't run long, and any dramatic tension it builds is lost with the first thought that follows. You see, every thought means a pause, not just by the actor who's thinking but to the action unfolding or the conversation in motion. We discover in the very first scene that two characters can't think at the same time because they would interfere with each other, so the thoughts unfold in serial rather than parallel. Soon afterwards, there's a thought conversation in which Darrell and Marsden politely take turns thinking while the actors mirror it all in facial tics.
Perhaps the definitive scene of the picture has the four main characters fall into thoughtful poses in close quarters, while Nina thinks about her 'three men'. It's a well composed shot, beautifully put together, and Nina's thought underlines how picturesque it all is: 'That makes it perfect!' she thinks. The catch is that it's not the result of happy characters thinking happy thoughts, it's the result of miserable characters thinking miserable thoughts, so it becomes a perversion of the picturesque, a parody in which three of the four characters look utterly downtrodden. Only Sam, apparently immune from such misery, is happy and in being so, appears to have photobombed the scene. The definitive scene for the gimmick is the one when Marsden becomes Sam's silent partner entirely as a dig at Darrell, after figuring out his and Nina's big secret through a surreal Mexican thought standoff. Thoughts here are musings far less often than they're weapons.

While the gimmick has aged terribly, the film has aged even worse, though not always on its own merits. While melodrama has been out of style since the 1940s, the sort of story that feels like it's being depressing for the sake of being depressing has been out of style since the 1970s, after the kitchen sink drama ran its course. Those films succeeded because of their grounding in working class struggles, eliciting at least some sympathy at the plight of others. This kitchen sink drama is from an era where the characters never need to see the kitchen, let alone the sink, and there isn't any sympathy in their misery. They dug their own holes and frankly, we don't want to see them climb out. We don't care about characters like this any more, who spend years sick because they don't want to be well, flounce around for sixty years not declaring their love or describe falling in love and getting pregnant as 'that scientific afternoon', even if only half of it was planned.

Some of it is pure coincidence and utterly not the fault of the filmmakers at all, but still telling to posterity. When Robert Young tells Clark Gable that he ought to spank him, it isn't just sexually inappropriate, it's the punchline to a cinematic joke that hadn't been written yet. It's as wrong as Jackie Chan having to fight Peter Fonda. Ralph Morgan cornered the market on polite heels who were less gentlemanly than those given to George Sanders, but his endless scheming in thought makes him reminiscent of Jonathan Harris in Lost in Space. Suddenly Good Old Charlie becomes Sinister Dr Smith and any power in his acting is gone. Even worse, translating the play's gimmick to voiceover as actors pause for effect feels like a gift to Mystery Science Theater 3000. As each thought is more histrionic than the last, as well as the speech that preceded it, it's increasingly difficult to avoid hearing these thoughts as inserted comments by Joel and the bots.

Some of it is less forgiveable. Having Shearer get more and more melodramatic, even as she says, 'I can't feel anything at all,' sounds like deliberate irony, but it isn't. It's incompetent writing. When she falls into Charlie's lap and confesses that she's been bad and wants to be punished, that may have been free of sexual innuendo in 1932 but it certainly couldn't lead to Charlie telling her that she should marry Sam in anything but a bad script. Given that Shearer brought life to a vast array of Adrian's famous gowns in MGM movies, her truly awful dress here that serves only to highlight that she isn't wearing a bra is a major mistake. Perhaps aging the adult characters two decades for every one young Gordon Evans grows is a deliberate commentary on how misery adds years but I doubt it. It's just overdone makeup, even if it gave Gable his first screen moustache. Above all, the gimmick isn't forgiveable at all. Even William Castle couldn't have made it work.

Thursday 14 February 2013

La Lucha (2012)

Director: Aaron Kes
Stars: Finley Forsberg, Laura Berger, Tyler Warren and Brad Wiatr

While Titus won best feature at the IFP Masterpiece Challenge in November, I'd have voted for this one instead. It's a much quieter movie, far less action packed, even though half of it is built out of ninja battles, and with a lot more space to breathe. It's shot well with some beautiful composition of frame, especially against the sun, director Aaron Kes having a keen photographer's eye with a cinematographer's sense of motion. He says he's 'Christopher Nolan minus the budget and talent' but he's underselling himself. What sold me though was the glorious subtlety of the piece, rooted in the script by Mark Broeske. The point of the story takes some time to manifest itself but, when it finally does, it rooks us between the eyes in the best possible way. It's clearly a short film that deserves multiple viewings, though I sadly haven't been able to return to it yet, but it impressed from moment one and it's stayed in mind far more than any of the other submissions.

Like many of the best films, it initially doesn't appear to be much at all. It's just a kid called Andy going to play in the park, while his mum reads 50 Shades of Grey and keeps an eye open for him. He has a good fight with the air, cleaving it with a big stick, while we're intercut to the white clad ninja in his imagination battling his black enemy. It's great fun to see, child actor Finlay Forsberg doing a solid, mildly hesitant, job as Andy and Laura Berger adding a neat sense of humour as his mum. And then we realise what a few mild hints were pointing to, which naturally I can't tell you without spoiling the piece. Let's just say that every fun aspect, and there are many of those, has a fundamental grounding in seriousness and there's an impressively strong message underpinning the whole thing. To me, this was not only the best film of the five submitted for competition, but the best film shown by far. Titus was a good short, but this was a great one.

It did win something, thank goodness. For a while it seemed like Titus would win everything, with the exception of best ensemble, which was hardly a difficult win for Letters Home. However, Laura Berger won as best actress for La Lucha and the film took home the audience favourite award too, which was a good way to close the evening. This was my introduction to Silly Grin Productions and my lack of background with their earlier work is a state of affairs I aim to remedy as soon as I can. There isn't much online to tell me what they've done but the cast and crew have other credits on other films, enough that a pair of them, T J Houle, who co-wrote and co-produced, and Aaron Kes, who did likewise and also directed the film, have become co-directors of IFP Phoenix. That means that they got to help judge the Breakout Challenge, so I doubt we'll be seeing anything from them in future challenges. I just hope that they'll continue to make movies of this quality elsewhere.

La Lucha can be viewed for free on Vimeo.

Titus (2012)

Director: Robert Garcia & Nicki Legge
Stars: J P Frydrych, Emmy Boucher, Kelley Rence and Devon Garcia

Talking with some of the more experienced folk at the IFP Breakout Challenge last week about the chances of others, a few mentioned Jump Ship Productions, a newer company on the AZ block who are doing good work and snapping at the heels of their established competition. They nailed it, as Jump Ship took home five awards for The Face of Innocence, including the audience favourite and the runner up slot for best film after Mission Control. The first time I saw a Jump Ship film, a similar thing happened: Titus landed six awards at the Masterpiece Challenge, winning for best film, best director and best actor for J P Frydrych. Both films won for technical achievement and music too. Before that, The Duel, which I haven't yet seen, did well at Beat the Clock last year, winning for best actress and coming in third overall against tough competition. No wonder people are paying attention to these guys. Who knows what they'll be doing by next year.

Titus is certainly an accomplished piece with a lot of ambition. The look is 35mm, with the colours and flicker looking old. What's cool is that this is futuristic, set in 2060 in a world with little oxygen and toxicity levels run scarily high. 92% explains the calm voice calling for people to evacuate to shuttles, which is what our protagonist is trying to do, but he has to find his daughter, Samantha, first. She's flitting around, playing some sort of game, and without an oxygen mask. The energy of Titus is palpable and the crew obviously tried to make a movie that did more than its competitors. The performances are solid, it looks very good indeed and the twist to the story is very agreeable. There are flaws, as it runs long and ends quickly, but it's strong generally. What stood out most for me though was Nile Popchock's score, which constantly reacts to the plot, speeding up or slowing down, adding beats or dropping back to piano. He'll win a lot more awards yet, as will Jump Ship.