Friday, May 29, 2009

At the (old) movies: Mystery times two

Notes from a recent double feature presented by the local cinephile society:

When I was a kid, I think I first knew Peter Lorre as Mr. Moto, so when I got a little older I was surprised to learn that this Japanese detective was really being played by a German guy. That probably wouldn’t happen today.

“Mysterious Mr. Moto” (Fox, 1938) begins as Moto, posing as a prisoner, escapes from Devil’s Island with a prisoner played by Leon Ames. (Ames was one of the unsung utility players of old Hollywood, often playing bad guys, before easing into fatherly and grandfatherly roles.)

By now you’ve probably figured out that Moto has buddied up to Ames because he knows that Ames is Up To Something, that Something being the planned assassination of a diplomat in London – the type of guy whose dialogue is largely variations on “Threats! Pshaw – I get them all the time!”

The movie moves quickly and engagingly enough, leading to an effective climax involving a falling chandelier. The identity of the Secret Mastermind is not much of a surprise if you remember the Mystery Rule of Redundancy: the one character who doesn’t seem to be furthering the story is usually The Bad One…..

“The Mark of the Whistler” (Columbia, 1944) was one of series of B movies based on a radio show called, oddly enough, “The Whistler.” Each week, The Whistler would narrate a story that usually involved a murder and a twist ending. In addition to narrating the story, he would taunt the lead character, saying things like: “So you think you’re in the clear: The police think Aunt Martha’s death was an accident, and even if they didn’t, you have a perfect alibi – everyone saw you pitch that no-hitter at Yankee Stadium, didn’t they? But are you really in the clear?”

And sure enough, there would be one fatal glitch in the murderer’s perfect plan. But I’ve never understood why these hapless killers never responded to The Whistler -- never said, “Ah, shaddup, you glorified staff announcer, you!” My best guess is that they couldn’t hear OR see him. (Kind of like The Shadow in reverse.)

This movie, like almost all of the Whistler movies, stars Richard Dix, who was a big actor in the 1920s and early 1930s but now was winding down his career in B movies at Columbia – as was a similar actor, Warner Baxter, who starred in the “Crime Doctor” movies. Behind the camera was a man whose directorial career was just starting: William Castle, he of “House on Haunted Hill” and “The Tingler” and the Skeleton Appearing Over the Audience’s Heads and the Nurses Standing By In Case Anyone Faints.

Dix plays a down-and-out guy who poses as someone else to get money in an old bank account. The story line is by Cornell Woolrich, who, as the author of “Rear Window,” “Phantom Lady” and “The Bride Wore Black,” seems a perfect author for this noirish film.

Unfortunately, the plot depends too much on The Long Arm of Coincidence, which by the end of this movie is in dire need of a sling. But the movie is watchable, and the female lead – Janis Carter – is kinda cute.

One interesting note for TV fans: Near the end of the film, a car and a truck crash, and the truck’s driver gets out and tells police where to find the folks in the car, who have run away.

I recognized the truck’s driver instantly: Bill Raisch.

Never heard of him? Chances are, if you were watching TV in the late 1960s, you’ll remember him – he was The One-Armed Man whom Dr. Richard Kimble chased for years on “The Fugitive.”

But this movie was made before Raisch lost his right arm in a fire.

I did keep an eye out for David Janssen and Barry Morse. Maybe they were across the lot, in a Crime Doctor picture. (Come to think of it, the “Blondie” movies were shot at Columbia, too: “Oh, Dagwood, we just have to hide this poor man! I’m sure he didn’t kill his wife!”)

Thursday, May 28, 2009

There's always a Captcha-22

A few moments ago I sent a message to someone but, before sending it, I was given a couple of words to type in just to show I'm not some "bot" that goes around stealing people's e-mail addresses and spamming them -- in addition to ripping tags off mattresses and neglecting to floss.

Turns out the term for such pairs of words is "captcha." Who knew? Who would really want to know?

Anyway, in this case the words were "interpreted drinker."

Which made me wonder: Is that anything like "interpretive dancing"?

I suppose we could combine both ideas. Think of the possibilities for the world of ballet:

"Sleeping-It-Off Beauty."

"The Beer Nut Cracker."

And, of course, Anna Pavlova's "The Falling-Down Dead-Drunk Swan."

The night Mayor Fah died

It’s the late 1970s, and I’m on the copy desk.

I’m editing an obit for Walter J. Fah, a resident of a nearby community I’ll call Roundsville.

It’s a two-page obit, taken over the phone by a reporting intern whom I don’t know and, in fact, don’t recall ever seeing in the newsroom before.

Unlike most of the obits my paper runs, Mr. Fah’s sendoff has what we call a “display headline” – two lines of 36-point type, as opposed to a 12-point headline that would just say “Walter J. Fah.”

I soon realize the reason for the 36-point headline: Mr. Fah was once mayor of Roundsville and thus, according to the Great Obituary Chain of Being, deserves a display hed.

But as I go over the list of survivors, I notice that he has two sons who have the last name of Smith.

Well, anything’s possible, but it’s always best to check.

I call the undertaker, and our conversation goes something like this:

“Hello, I’d like to check something on the obituary for Walter J. Fah.”


“You mean Smith, don’t you?”

“No. Fah. Walter J. Fah.”

“Don’t you mean Smith?”

Another pause.

I say, “Was this guy mayor of Roundsville?”

“Yes! Walter J. Smith!”

… I’m certain there was more to this conversation, and I’m equally certain that I’m happy to have completely forgotten it.

After getting off the phone, I walk over to the managing editor and tell him that we very nearly ran a headline saying “Former Mayor Fah Dies.”

Within minutes, but not within my earshot, the night city editor asks the intern about this.

This is an era in which news stories as well as obits are often dictated by phone, and the intern’s response is similar to what some non-intern reporters have told me when I’ve questioned them on a dictated story:

“That’s the way they gave it to me over the phone!”

Thirty years later, I still haven’t figured this out.

And I haven't seen that intern since.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

One reason I'm glad I no longer edit news

From The Associated Press:

WASHINGTON - Greed is good. A world without nukes is better.

Actor Michael Douglas, whose performance as the conniving Gordon Gekko in "Wall Street" won him an Oscar in 1987, spent part of Wednesday evening focused on a more critical cause -- ridding the world of nuclear weapons....

Memo to AP: Michael Douglas never said "Greed is good." Gordon Gekko, a character played by Michael Douglas, said "Greed is good." Gordon Gekko never said "A world without nukes is better." It's Michael Douglas who -- oh, never mind....

But just for future reference, AP: As far as we know, Mr. Douglas' father, Kirk Douglas, still has both ears intact.

Monday, May 18, 2009

At the (old) movies: 'Rose Marie'

Notes from a recent gathering of the local cinephile society:

Some years ago I attended a wedding reception on the second floor of a movie theater in my town. It’s not just any movie theater – it was built in the late 1920s by the folks who owned MGM, and it’s one of the last great movie palaces.

A younger co-worker, sitting across the table, looked at our surroundings and said something along the lines of, “Geez, this seems like a really fancy place to go to just to see a movie!”

Upon which I very nearly said something along the lines of “You *%#%#* moron!”

Instead, I patiently explained that way back when, people didn’t go to this place “just to see a movie” – there were live acts, possibly an orchestra, and newsreels, cartoons and maybe other short subjects. People who were down on their luck could spend a few cents and be transported to another world, if just for a little while.

I thought of this as I was watching MGM’s “Rose Marie” (1936), which doubtless played that very same theater when it hit our town during its original run.

I especially thought of how the movie’s production values matched the theater’s opulence. MGM was the preeminent studio of the time, and after the execs previewed a film with a test audience, they thought nothing of ordering retakes or shooting other footage to improve it. MGM put a lot of money into its movies, and it showed. Even its B movies seemed at least a step up from other studios’ B pictures; it was almost as if, when it came to making B movies, the studio wasn’t really trying.

This philosophy of “make it better (and perfect, if possible), no matter the cost” paid off big time 70 years ago. And, for that matter, so did MGM exec Irving Thalberg’s theory that the Marx Brothers’ careers could be saved if their movies included a romantic subplot with two contract players. Problem is, these ideas haven’t traveled well into the 21st century; just as no one rents “A Night at the Opera” to satisfy a craving for Allan Jones and Kitty Carlisle (charming as they are), the spend-all-you-need-to-spend production values of “Rose Marie” make the movie seem rather overstuffed, almost too well put together – unless you imagine yourself back in the ‘30s, watching it in one of those fabled movie palaces. Then it works perfectly.

On the other hand, 1930s films from the less prosperous studios often have a seeming offhandedness that travels much better. This seems especially true if the studio in question (I’m thinking Paramount, for example) was teetering on the edge of receivership or bankruptcy or some other financial catastrophe.


“Rose Marie” is the Quintessential Mountie Musical – “Indian Love Call” and all – featuring, of course, Jeannette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy, with an up-and-coming contract player named James Stewart as MacDonald’s brother, who is on the run after killing a mountie.

At this point, you might expect me to make fun of MacDonald and Eddy. And heaven knows it would be easy enough to do that, as so many people, over the years, already have.

But although the two are not my favorite performers, making fun of them would, well, be too easy, and they do have their fans, even today. There must be some reason for that.

So, to give them their due, the two of them certainly know how to sing, though it’s not my favorite kind of music. And they do have a certain chemistry. They know what their fans want, and they give it to them, without pretending to be anything else than exactly what they were. It also helps that the script of "Rose Marie," by Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett (two of the best screenwriters of their day) and Alice Duer Miller has enough wit to amuse those of us who feel that even the merest snippet of “Indian Love Call” goes a long, long way.

In addition, Stewart makes more than do with the little screen time that he has. As Eddy is taking him away to be tried and hanged, he’s so likable, and even moving, that you almost forget he’s a cop killer.

Finally, the cast also includes a pretty much forgotten performer named Gilda Gray, who became famous in the 1920s for popularizing a dance called “the shimmy.” She isn’t given much to do here, and I suspect a lot of her performance is still shimmying on the cutting-room floor.

Friday, May 1, 2009

At the (old) movies: '7th Voyage of Sinbad'

Some notes from the local cinephile society’s latest presentation:

“The 7th Voyage of Sinbad” (Columbia, 1958) is one of those movies that are mostly famous for their special effects. Ray Harryhausen is justly renowned for this film, in which he gets great performances out of such stop-motion creatures as a Cyclops and a dueling skeleton.

Unfortunately, the producers apparently wouldn’t let Ray anywhere near the actors, some of whom perhaps could have used his help. Then again, this isn't supposed to be the type of film that caters to audiences who hunger for in-depth demonstrations of Stanislavski’s theories.

One performer who does stand out is Kathryn Grant, later to become more famous as Mrs. Bing Minute Maid Crosby. Here she is charming as Princess Parina, who is Sinbad’s main passenger – and fiancée – as his ship heads from Chandra to Baghdad.

Our story gets under way as Sinbad (Kerwin Matthews), who apparently left his Triple-A guide at home before setting sail, makes the mistake of stopping for supplies at an island where a magician with a magic lamp is being pursued by a Cyclops. Sinbad, his crew and the princess escape – but the lamp falls into the hands of the Cyclops.

The magician (Torin Thatcher) is not pleased. Once in Baghdad, he tries to persuade the Caliph (the father of the princess) to give him a ship so he can return to the island. Yep, that wizard wants that lamp, and he wants it bad – so bad that there’s something disturbing about it, especially when you consider that the wizard is a middle-aged guy and the genie of the lamp is played by an actor (Richard Eyer) who was about 13 years old at the time.

But Sinbad persuades the Caliph that the return trip isn’t really necessary. The magician then puts on a magic show for everyone in which he turns Parina’s handmaid into a snake woman (terrific animation, but given the handmaid’s general personality, not much of an improvement), and makes yet another plea to the Caliph for the return trip. He eventually ticks off the Caliph so much that the Caliph banishes him, warning that if he doesn't get out of town within the next couple of days, the magician’s eyes will be poked out. (And you thought those New York critics were tough.)

So that night the magician sneaks into Parina’s bedchamber and casts some kind of spell that shrinks her.

And Sinbad finds her that way.

Now you would think, wouldn’t you, that if your future father-in-law banished and threatened someone who has more than a few tricks up his sleeve, and if you found the next day that your fiancée, with no prior history of glandular disease, was now only a few inches tall, you wouldn't need a slide rule to put two and two together, and you would then go after that magician and give him what for.

Our man Sinbad dutifully tracks the magician down – then tells him what happened to the princess and pleads with him to help. (Oh well. He was known as Sinbad the Sailor, not Sinbad the Mensa Member.)

The magician tells Sinbad that to help the princess they need a piece of eggshell from a bird that lives on that very island where the Cyclops hangs out. And Sinbad swallows this. (Hmm. I think I have a bridge I’d like to sell him. Several bridges, actually.)

So they head back to the island. The Cyclops reappears, Sinbad blinds and kills him (I did feel sorry for the big galoot -- I mean, Sinbad invaded his turf, not the other way around, right? Or did I miss something?), the aforementioned skeleton takes on Sinbad (perhaps the most impressive set piece) and a dragon squashes the magician after being nice enough to wait until the wizard has brought the princess back to her normal size.

In short, it’s the old Hollywood formula: Boy gets princess, boy loses princess (well, most of her, anyway), boy gets fully restored princess, along with lamp and genie and the Cyclops’ treasure.

But is that all there is to the story? After all, that poor Cyclops must have had some relatives. I guess we’ll just have to wait for the sequel, “The 7th Lawsuit of Sinbad.”