Monday, June 26, 2017

Myra Breckinridge

Train Wreck Cinema

By Jonathon Saia

Myra Breckinridge (20th Century Fox, 1970) – Director: Michael Sarne. Writers: Michael Sarne & David Giler (s/p), Gore Vidal (novel). Stars: Mae West, John Huston, Raquel Welch, Rex Reed, Farrah Fawcett, Roger C. Carmel, Roger Herren, George Furth, Calvin Lockhart, Jim Backus, John Carradine, Andy Devine, Grady Sutton, Robert P. Lieb & Skip Ward. Color, Rated R, 94 minutes.

"OK...well, fasten your seat belts because you are in for...how shall I say...something really special." – Raquel Welch on the commentary track of Myra Breckinridge.

In 1968, Gore Vidal published a fascinating, irreverent piece of iconoclastic literature called Myra Breckinridge. It is the story of a man who becomes a woman only to be turned back into a man when his silicone breasts explode after getting hit by a car. When "Myron" awakens from his coma, reaching for his tits, he is devastated, but comes to the realization that it is all for the best. "Happiness, like the proverbial bluebird, is to be found in your own backyard if you just know where to look" – a counter-culture, women's lib Wizard of Oz, if you will. Myra's (and Vidal's) vision was for a world where traditional sex roles were completely eradicated; a new race of people where pansexuality was embraced, breeding had ceased (cutting down on the world's overpopulation), and women like Myra were allowed to dominate both sexes.

The novel pulses with an anarchic sense of dual homosexual pride and shame. Myra wants to rape the men of the world, with a dildo no less, to gain revenge on the men who "raped" Myron, the male side of her that relished in sodomy. Through becoming Myra, Myron is able to justify his lust for men without the social ramifications of being deemed a sexual pervert; while Myron as Myra is able to live out his fantasies as a top, seeking some sort of closure for the guilt he feels in his sexual pleasure as a bottom. Vidal's Myra is a complex, contradictory, modern day woman who wants to have it all without realizing that she is a hypocrite. She wants to be treated like a lady, but demands the power to treat men like dogs. We are constantly asked to reassess what it means to be male, what it means to be female, and where homosexual men fit within the traditional paradigm. The novel is smart, witty, thought provoking, and as a gay man, hits very, very close to home.

The film, on the other hand, is an incomprehensible mess.


The film and the novel follow the same basic structure: Myra Breckinridge arrives in Hollywood in the late '60s to collect her dead "husband" Myron's inheritance: half of the land that the Buck Loner Academy stands on, which is owned and run by her late husband's Uncle Buck. While Buck checks out that his "fag nephew" was ever married, let alone to such a devastatingly beautiful woman, he hires her on to teach Empathy and Posture.

The school is a parody of the hippie movement and the Method. Teachers talk about being one with trees and sex is had right in the classroom to "authenticate" the scene. Myra and her classy, Old Hollywood ways are not amused.

While waiting for her money, Myra decides to begin her life's work of realigning the sexes. She sets her sights on the dashing Rusty, a man's man, complete with a Southern drawl. By emasculating him (through rape and stealing his girl), she will emasculate all the men of the world. The rape scene is infamous and is the best scene in both mediums.

Buck and his lawyers prove that Myron wasn't dead and that he was never married to Myra. At which point, Myra climbs atop his desk and shows him her vaginoplasty scar. His gay nephew became his niece two years ago in Copenhagen. He cuts her a check.

She has succeeded! Myra Breckinridge has conquered all! Except for one thing. Mary-Ann cannot love her as she is. "Oh, Myra. If you were only a man." The next day, Myra gets hit by a car and wakes up from her coma as a man.

This is where the novel and the film separate most. In the novel, we are meant to believe that the initial sex change from Myron to Myra actually happened – and that the switch back to Myron was caused by a dangerous rupture in her silicon breasts. The film, however, begins with the first sex change operation, highly stylized in a way that alludes it may be a fantasy. The film also has Myra and Myron appear on screen together and interchangeably to show that they are two halves of the same person. The car accident is actually caused by Myron running Myra down in cold blood (a visceral, yet confusing piece of business) after Mary-Ann tells Myra that she wishes she were a man. Myron awakens in the hospital room reaching for his breasts only to discover that...it was all a dream. Maybe (?) The nurse looks an awful lot like Mary-Ann. And Myra, who looks an awful lot like Raquel Welch, is on the cover of his bedside magazine.

The film adopts the tone and the style of the novel, particularly in the fabulous performance by Raquel Welch as Myra, yet is truncated in a way that only readers of the novel can accurately follow the film's plot and purpose; the test of a horrible adaptation. Director Michael Sarne claims that studio interruptions and an air of "too many cooks" spoiled the stew (as well as his career – he never made another film in Hollywood). He would love to reedit the film and do a Director's Cut (although would this fix the elephantine pacing? I need to get a copy of the original script before it was hacked to pieces....Welch claims there were dozens of rewrites, some up to the day of shooting).

Perhaps Sarne was inept. Perhaps the studio did intervene too often. But I'm putting the blame on Mae West.


West is one of the most indelible film personalities of the 20th Century. I call her a personality because she wasn't really an actress. Her characters are all the same variation on a stock type that she created: the brassy, sex-crazed, too-wise-for-her-own-good broad who turned men into amoebas with a hip bob, a moan, and a double entendre (Bette Midler and Madonna owe their careers to her audacity).

She was also an insane megalomaniac, who like Norma Desmond, thought she was still living in her glory days (without coincidence, Wilder offered her the lead in Sunset Boulevard but she turned it down because she refused to play a has-been). Her film She Done Him Wrong (1933) saved Paramount from bankruptcy (as did Gloria Swanson's films in the '20s, incidentally) and she never forgot it (or, presumably, let anyone else forget it). Myra Breckinridge, her first film in 27 years, was to be her comeback. And she was leaving nothing to chance.

Mae, like she always had been, was given carte blanche to rewrite her scenes. You would think the Mae West brand of campy schtick would fit well into a world of trannies and sexual debauchery. But what results are three distinct films: one inspired by Gore Vidal, one interpreted by Michael Sarne, and one written from scratch by Mae West.

The character of Myra is the most Vidal; naturally because the novel is a first-person account from her – much of her dialogue is lifted/heavily influence by the novel, as is Buck Loner's (wonderfully played by John Huston).

Sarne introduced the idea of having Myron included and then hiring Rex Reed (a brilliant piece of type casting) to play him, much to Raquel Welch's chagrin (she took the part largely because she thought she would be playing both roles).

And then there was West's film where she turned Vidal's Leticia van Allen, the Queen Agent of the Casting Couch, into...well, Mae West. Leticia was already full of zing and verve and personality, yet West felt the need to employ her shameless mugging to an already over the top piece of camp. She even gave herself a song, which had no purpose other than to show that Mae still had "it" – which, honestly, as an interpreter of song, she never had. It's really very embarrassing to watch. The 77-year-old West (playing a character who was 40 in the book, by the way) writhing on stage with a bevy of muscle men, touching herself in choppy gyrating motions that are somehow supposed to turn us on(?). Is she laughing at herself? Or does she really think she's still a sex symbol?! Chances are it's the latter. Eight years later, at 85!, she made her swan song Sextette, where, and I am not joking here, men are actually clamoring for her.


West, somehow in her delusional state, was aware that Welch – Hollywood's newest sex symbol thanks to her performance in One Million Years B.C. – was who the boys were coming to see. So instead of playing the gracious legend, knowing that her place in history was secured, Mae came out fighting like a wild cat (or a cougar, as it were; no wonder Madonna worships her). Mae refused to appear in the same shots with Raquel, which when the characters in the novel are best friends precipitates a serious rethinking of Act 3. When Mae learned that Raquel was going to appear in a black dress while she was wearing a white dress (Mae was the only one who could wear a "non-color"), the dress promptly "disappeared" even though legendary designer Edith Head had been brought in just to make Mae's dresses. At the film's premiere, Mae even demanded that Raquel circle the block so they didn't arrive at the same time. And for what? For a film that would be panned from here to Shanghai, disowned by its cast and crew and Vidal, and referred to by Time "as funny as a child molester.”

But is it as awful as legend has it? Well, yes. And no. Discounting the novel, which one must always do when attempting to appreciate an adaptation, the film certainly has a distinct campy charm to it, an unmistakably gay sensibility that still shocks 43 years later. Sarne's stroke of genius was interpolating Myra's love of classic movies ("between 1935 and 1945, not a single insignificant film was made") through classic film clips of Laurel and Hardy, Shirley Temple, and dozens of others to comment on the action and the mood of the film. (Temple and the White House actually demanded her footage be removed because she was a US Ambassador at the time and thought it sullied her reputation, but they lost and the footage from Heidi of Shirley getting sprayed in the face with milk remains.) And the inspired casting, including Farrah Fawcett as the dumb blond Mary-Ann who only wants to settle down and worship her husband's dreams, is his ace in the hole; Welch should have been nominated for something.

The biggest problem with the film is pacing and focus. Too much time is devoted to the ambiance of the school and the foolishness of Leticia van Allen that Myra's mission becomes muddled. The film clips, while fitting and funny, sometimes go on too long and take you out of the action. It's almost as if they were occasionally being used to fill run time when Sarne realized he had unusable footage.

But the most egregious misstep is that we are kept at an arm's length from Myra. We are actually distanced from everyone, but she is the one that matters. Vidal's Myra is a conniving, yet lovable bitch. We root for her in spite of ourselves. Sarne and Welch's Myra is mostly surface. The buried humanity, of which Vidal's Myra surprises even herself in the final third of the book, is almost lost in the surrounding rubbish. Welch gets her moment of semi-catharsis after the rape and pulls it off beautifully, but the context is not as developed in the film. The book gives us Myra as a fully formed fake woman; the film only gives us an imitation of her diabolical nature, which can only yield a fraction of her downfall. Welch is working as hard as she can and makes Vidal's most famous creation come to vivid life, but the film can't support her. And so it crumbles.

In 1974, Vidal wrote a sequel, aptly named Myron. It picks up a few years after Myra Breckinridge ends. Myron and Mary-Ann are happily married, living in the Valley, and running a Chinese catering company. One night, he falls asleep watching Siren of Babylon on TV and wakes up inside the movie in 1948! Once inside, "Myra" begins to resurface, appalled to find that her beautiful vagina has been replaced with a hideous (yet large – and testicle-free) penis. Practically chapter by chapter, Vidal switches between "Myra" and "Myron" as they battle for dominance within the body; Myron as a Republican fag hater desperately trying to get out of the film and back to Mary-Ann, Myra desperately trying to stay in the film and the Golden Age of Hollywood and take over MGM – and regain "her" body to its voluptuous state. Vidal elaborates upon Myra Breckinridge's themes of fluid sexuality and gender (mis)identity with Myra pledging to turn the men of the world into trannies.

Saturday, June 24, 2017

Wonder Woman

Dinner and a Movie

By Steve Herte

Wonder Woman (WB, 2017) – Director: Patty Jenkins. Writers: Allan Heinberg (s/p). Jason Fuchs, Allan Heinberg & Zach Snyder (story). William Moulton Marston (characters). Stars: Gal Gadot, Chris Pine, Connie Nielsen, Robin Wright, Danny Huston, David Thewlis, Saïd Taghmaoui, Ewen Bremner, Eugene Brave Rock, Lucy Davis, Elena Anaya, Lily Aspell, Lisa Loven Kongsli, Emily Carey, Ann Wolfe & Ann Ogbomo. Color, Rated PG-13, 141 minutes.

Ever since Gal Gadot's appearance in Batman versus Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016) I’ve been anticipating this movie. I know, technically, it’s not a long time, but to a fan it’s almost an eternity. When I first saw her I knew this version would expose the television series as candy-coated cartoon. 

In the ‘70s, we accepted Lynda Carter as a really close approximation of the DC Comics original right down to her star-studded satin hot-pants. We even bought the cheesy disco theme song which, heard today, makes “Ghostbusters” sound like a masterwork. Not this time.

Diana, princess of Themiskyra, daughter of Zeus and Hippolyta (Nielsen), queen of the Amazons is no smiling do-gooder who mugs for the camera every chance she gets. She is serious about helping mankind, even when they do not deserve it. (And this caution is repeated by several characters, including Hippolyta.) We see her as a child of eight (Aspell) watching the women train to fight and mimicking their moves, though the queen disapproves. Eventually, the queen relents and instructs Antiope to train Diana until “she’s better than you.” Diana excels beyond her trainer’s dreams.

The background story told by Hippolyta to young Diana is that Ares, the god of war, killed off all the other gods and battled Zeus to the death. But before Zeus died, he gave the power to kill a god to the Amazons and moved them from an area in present day Libya to the island city of Themiskyra, placing a shield around the island to make it impossible to find by sight. Hippolyta shows Diana the sword, called “the god killer” in its special tower. 


Now an adult, Diana (Gadot) witnesses a plane crashing through the protective barrier and into the sea near her island. Pilot Steve Trevor (Pine) fails to unlatch his seat belt and is in danger of drowning. Diana dives in and saves him. He’s the first man she’s ever seen. He tells her about The War to End All Wars (World War I) being fought outside the barrier as the German soldiers follow his plane into the invisible shield. Bad idea. They are slaughtered to a man by the Amazons on the beach (bows and arrows against guns, these gals are good) but Antiope is shot mortally.

Hippolyta knows she cannot stop Diana from returning to the war with Steve – she’s already swiped the sword, shield, armor, and the lasso of truth from the tower – so she makes her a gift of Antiope’s headdress (which is never used as a boomerang in this film) and kisses her goodbye. Diana sees her mission as simple: find Ares, kill him and stop the war. Of course, it’s not that simple for she is entering a world where women are secretaries like Etta Candy (Davis), or stay at home mothers or, in the rare case, evil scientists like Dr. Isabel Maru (Anaya), whose physical disfigurement must have set her on the path to create a deadlier form of mustard gas that not only kills instantly, but melts any gas mask created to protect against it.

Steve has stolen Dr. Maru’s notebook and takes Diana to the British High Command in London. The stodgy group of men refuse to let her into their confidence until she proves she can read ancient Sumerian. But it’s still not that simple, for there is an armistice being drawn up and the end of the war is in sight. Not so, however, for General Erich Ludendorff (Huston). Convinced that once Dr. Maru’s gas is perfected and successfully demonstrated, Germany can win the war. When she learns this, Diana is sure that he’s really Ares. Her mission is clear, but she needs some help.

With the financial assistance of Sir Patrick Morgan (Thewlis), Steve gathers up a team consisting of Sameer (Taghmaoul), a spy and master of disguise, Charlie (Bremner) a hard-drinking Scottish marksman with PTSD and The Chief (Brave Rock) a smuggler working both sides of the war. “Great,” says Diana, “a thief, a liar, a drunk and a smuggler!” The five arrive at the western front in Belgium and with Wonder Woman drawing the German fire, manage to break through the lines into enemy trenches. Now they only have to find and destroy the factories making the gas and stop Ludendorff from flying an enormous biplane loaded with the gas into London.

Several things about this movie were revealing and enjoyable. The prolog scene at the beginning shows Diana Prince, working at The Louvre in Paris, and receiving a special briefcase from “Wayne Enterprises,” which turns out to be the glass plate photograph taken of her, and Steve’s team when they freed the people of a small town called Veld. It links up nicely to the previous movie as well as to Batman and the Justice League (still to come). During the film, it mentions that the Germans were losing the war because ammunition was running out, and so was food and water for the soldiers.

Still, the time flew by, with lots of action, ninja-like slow-motion fight scenes, amazing stunts and 3D special effects. Gal Gadot combines the incredulous reactions of Barbara Eden in I Dream of Jeanie with a strong, single-minded drive to accomplish her goal. She’s funny, lovable, extremely sexy and dangerous. Chris Pine is delightful as the man who is learning that he doesn’t have to protect this woman (though he still tries to) and is falling in love with her. Lucy Davis is a jewel that sparkles with humor each time she’s on screen and Danny Huston would make a great X-Men mutant, though I never believed he was German at any time in the film.

If you loved the television version, you might be shocked by this one, but if you think of Lyle Waggoner’s character being Steve Trevor Jr., you might find that it links up (with slight timeline problems). I had a great time watching this film. I would buy this one for my collection.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5 martini glasses.


Maggie’s Place
21 East 47th Street, New York

New York City has a reputation for guaranteed change. Nothing old is new again, except on Broadway. For instance, I’ve dined at the same address six times with six different cuisines in the space of ten years. To find a place that’s been in continuous operation for forty-five years is rare. Maggie’s Place tells the romantic story of its owners on the menu with a certain charm. Its two-story charcoal grey street façade, with a terrace trailing ivy from potted pansies speaks of old world comfort.

Two young ladies with lilting Irish brogues greeted me and gave me a choice of dining downstairs at the bar or upstairs. I chose upstairs and was delighted to get one of two tables on the second story terrace. I’m a people-watcher and this was a perfect location. Kelly, my server, saw my reaction and let me settle in, before returning to take my order for the perfect martini.

The menu stated that the chef is an alumnus of The Culinary Institute of America, which interested me. The appetizer list offered several intriguing selections and Kelly cited a nice soup of the day. But the entrees didn’t call out to me, so I asked Kelly for help. She suggested either the roasted chicken or the grilled rosemary chicken. Sadly, I’m rarely in the mood for chicken and I wasn’t that night. Then she noted the most popular dishes and I had my choice made.


My “thinking dish” was the Über Bavarian Pretzel, with “mother’s milk” mustard and IPA (India Pale Ale) cheese sauce. Pretzels are one of my guilty pleasures and this one was heaven. The mustard was a bit too sharp but the cheese sauce was divine. Kelly held off my second course until I was ready. I broke up the remainder of a pretzel (it was impressively large, but warm, soft, and delicious) and made my own bread plate out of it.

Then Kelly brought my wine. A 2015 Pulenta La Flor Malbec from Mendoza, Argentina, it had a woody aromatic nose with a touch of spice, a medium body, fruity and earthy. A surprise for a two-year old Malbec. It went wonderfully with the next course, yellow split pea soup. A special of the day, it was filled with vegetables, had a nice thick consistency and a good hot temperature.

The BBQ Baby Back Ribs – Slow Roasted (“Till they fall off the bone”), served with their own fresh Idaho potatoes (fries) and creole cole slaw, was my choice of entrée. It looked marvelous on the plate and the pork really did fall off the bone. It was tender and tart and crispy on the outside. After the first few bites, however, I found myself reaching for the wine and my water glass for moisture. The meat was dry. I asked Kelly for more barbecue sauce. It only helped for a little while, as the sauce became too much. I finished the spare ribs and the cole slaw but left half of the fries, which became uninteresting. Maybe I should have chosen one of the chicken dishes.


Up until then everything was fine. Kelly cited two desserts and I chose the Crème Brulée. It’s been a long time since I’ve had one and it was very nice, creamy, sweet with a thin, glassy caramelization and topped with a juicy strawberry. I accompanied it with a double espresso, my usual. Later, I saw that they touted their Irish coffee at the bottom of the menu. Maybe next time. I ordered a shot of Jameson’s Irish whiskey as an after-dinner drink. Smooth.

I was very comfortable at Maggie’s Place and Kelly was very helpful. Maybe next time I’ll go with a dinner of appetizers and bar fare (where the pretzel was).

For the Dinner and a Movie archive, click here.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

TCM TiVo Alert for June 23-30

TCM TiVo ALERT
For
June 23-June 30

DAVID’S BEST BETS:

TOP HAT (June 23, 1:00 pm): As a general rule, I don't like musicals, especially those with dancing. (Don't confuse that with movies with great music in which people don't suddenly break out in song. I like a lot of those.) So what's different about Top Hat? At the top of the list is Fred Astaire. As with most musicals, the plot is secondary. He's a dancer who wakes up the woman (Ginger Rogers) living in an apartment below him with his tap dancing. He falls in love, there are a few misunderstandings, and the two eventually get together. Astaire has great charisma and charm, and his dancing is so natural looking. He makes it look as easy as walking. The storyline is typical of a good screwball comedies from the 1930s (this one came out in 1935). But it's the dancing and the memorable songs, written by Irving Berlin, such as "Cheek to Cheek" and "Top Hat, White Tie and Tails," that make this movie a must-see and among my favorite musicals.

CAGED (June 26, 2:45 pm): Unlike nearly all the others in the unusual but often-visited women-in-prison film genre, Caged is well acted. Eleanor Parker was nominated for a Best Actress Oscar as the young innocent Marie Allen, Agnes Moorehead is great as warden Ruth Benton, and Hope Emerson was nominated for a Best Supporting Actress Oscar as the deliciously evil matron Evelyn Harper. Almost anything bad you can imagine happens to Marie: her new husband is killed in a robbery, she ends up in prison because she is waiting in the getaway car, she's pregnant while serving her sentence, she's victimized by other inmates and Harper, she has to give up her baby for adoption, and finally becomes bitter and hardened from all of her bad experiences. The story is similar to other women-in-prison movies minus the T&A. We still get a shower scene (no nudity as this is during the Code era) and the stereotypical prison lesbian. But there's a huge difference between Caged and the women-in-prison films of the 1970s. It's not only the excellent acting, but the powerful dialogue and actual plot – it was nominated for a Best Writing Oscar – that makes this gritty, stark, realistic film stand out among others in the genre.

ED’S BEST BETS:

THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE (June 27, 12:30 pm): This is the original – and the best – version of James M. Cain’s classic novel (which also inspired Albert Camus, by the way). When it comes to noir, one would think that the MGM gloss was off-putting, but I think it actually helps the film. Garfield has never been better and Turner has never been more gorgeous. Not only can we see that they’re going to hook up, we can understand why they must hook up. The performances from the supporting cast are superb, the photography by Sidney Wagner is sharp and inviting, and Tay Garnett’s direction workmanlike, as he keeps the characters and the story in constant play. Despite the complaints of the changes in Cain’s original story (for censorship purposes), the film still outdoes the 1981 Nicholson-Lange remake in terms of the heat between the stars, not to mention the fact that Turner, while hardly a serious actress, ran rings around Lange’s performance.

ISLAND OF LOST SOULS (June 28, 2:15 pm): A gruesome and unsettling adaptation of H.G. Wells’ The Island of Dr. Moreau starring Charles Laughton at his most fiendish as the mad doctor isolated on a remote island who is conducting experiments transforming jungle animals ostensibly into human brings, but in reality coming up with half-human abominations. Moreau's theory is that evolution can be sped up through experimental skin grafting. The man-beasts who populate the island know his laboratory as “the house of pain.” When Richard Arlen, the sole survivor of a shipwreck, arrives at the island Moreau wastes no time in trying to mate him with his most successful creation, a panther woman (Kathleen Burke). But Moreau’s empire comes crashing down after the arrival of Captain Donahue (Paul Hurst) and Parker's fiancee Ruth (Leila Hyams) who have come for the missing Arlen. The finale is equally gruesome as Moreau gets a taste of his own medicine from his creations. Banned in England, many film historians credit it with helping to speed enforcement of the Code.

WE AGREE ON ... THE MOST DANGEROUS GAME (June 28, 1:00 pm)

ED: A. The original, and of the 18 remakes (!), still the best version based on the classic short story by Richard Connell. Said to be the second most used plot device (boy meets girl is the first), it’s about psychopathic hunter Count Zaroff (Leslie Banks), who has hunted every species on earth except for one: Man. On his isolated island, surrounded by coral reefs, he hunts any luckless person who happens to crash on his shores, adding them to his trophy case. When renowned big-game hunter Robert Rainsford (Joel McCrea) is marooned there, the game takes on a new life, as McCrea finds himself turned from honored guest to hunted prey. Fay Wray and Robert Armstrong are brother and sister, previous shipwreck survivors who are kept on the estate at Zaroff’s pleasure. Director Ernest B. Schoedsack keeps the action and the suspense moving without a let up. (Irving Pichel is listed as co-director, but it was Schoedsack’s film. Pichel worked more as a dialogue director.) Banks makes an excellent Zaroff, and when photographed at certain angles by cinematographer Henry W. Gerrard, he makes for an even more disturbing presence. (Banks had been wounded in the First World War resulting in a partially paralyzed face on his right side.) McCrea is his usual excellent self and Wray adds the required sex appeal. If the sets look somewhat familiar, it should come as no surprise, for the film was shot at the same time as King Kong (which was released later due to the time needed for special effects). One reason Schoedsack was interested in making the film was to show the futility and cruelty of hunting, and what better way for him to make his point? A note to bad film fans: Bloodlust, the 1961 remake, is featured as an episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000.


DAVID: AThis is a fast-moving 63-minute movie that has famous big-game hunter and writer Bob Rainsford (Joel McCrea) on the other end of the hunt. He is the lone survivor of a yacht that wrecks – we later find out it's not the first and it's no accident – and blows up in a pretty good bit of special effects for a 1932 film. After everyone else on the yacht is eaten by sharks, Rainsford ends up swimming ashore to a small island owned by Russian expatriate Count Zaroff (played deliciously evil by Leslie Banks), who lives there with a few henchmen and a pack of hunting dogs. Zaroff recognizes Rainsford and introduces him to two other previously shipwrecked guests, siblings Eve Trowbridge (Fay Wray) and her very drunk and clueless brother Martin (Robert Armstrong). That Martin gets it about 25 minutes or so into the film is a good thing as Armstrong's drunk schtick is the lone annoyance of this film. It turns out Zaroff is also a big game hunter, hunting the biggest game of all – he says ominously as he rubs the scar on the top of his head – man. He wants Rainsford to join him, but Rainsford is outraged and refuses. So the would-be hunter becomes the hunted. He and Eve are sent to the jungle to see if they can survive what Zaroff calls "outdoor chess." The action during the hunting part of the movie, filmed at night on the King Kong set, is nonstop and a lot of fun to watch. As Ed wrote, the storyline has been remade countless times, including episodes of TV comedies Gilligan's Island and Get Smart.

For the complete list of films on the TCM TiVo Alert, click here.

Monday, June 19, 2017

The Sin Ship

Film In Focus

By Ed Garea

The Sin Ship (RKO, 1931) – Director: Louis Wolheim. Writers: F. Hugh Herbert (s/p). Keene Thompson & Agnes Brand Leahy (story). Stars: Louis Wolheim, Mary Astor, Ian Keith, Hugh Herbert, Russ Powell & Alan Roscoe. B&W, 65 minutes.

A cursory glance at the title might lead one to think the film is about a floating bordello/casino/opium den loose on the waters. But it’s nothing of the sort. It’s really about the redemption of two people who have gone astray.

The film opens in the captain’s cabin of the ship, where Captain Sam McVey (Wolheim) is deep in conversation with First Mate Charlie (Herbert). Charlie wants to settle down. McVey laughs him off, “I don’t say no prayers, I don’t help no cripples and I don’t fall in love.”


Once on the dock they spot a comely women (Astor) walking alongside her minister husband. McVey is immediately taken: “A woman’s woman, ain’t she? And that’s the kind I like.” Charlie tries to splash a little water on the fire, “A little pretty for the likes of us.”

Later, at a seaside bar, the minister approaches McVey about giving them passage to Mexico. Getting another look at his wife standing outside, the captain quickly agrees.

The party soon shoves off, and while the minister and his wife enjoy the sun on the boat’s deck, McVey is figuring how to lure her down to his cabin. He sends Charlie to invite her to tea. As she enters the cabin McVey locks the door behind her. When she asks why he did that he replies, “Just a little idea of mine.” When she demands he open the door, he answers, “Do you think I was letting you and that husband of yours ride free because I was getting holy?”

His ideas of seduction, however, are quickly extinguished by his prisoner, who goes on the attack. “I know what’s wrong with you,” she says. “You’re soaked in liquor. Your mind is warped. You could be fine if you wanted to be. You’re the captain, You’re supposed to be better than your crew.”

As she sees she has him on the ropes, she continues. “You’re being the worst. The captain is the police, the judge and jury of his boat. He should protect his passengers. He’s supposed to have honor. But not you. You’re an animal. You have no fine feelings. Clean up your mind, your body, your soul. Then you’ll think better, live better.”

If she’s going down, it won’t be without a fight. However, she’s made her point. McVey throws the key on the table and tells her to leave. “Women are not all alike, Captain,” she says as she grabs the key to leave.

When she returns to her cabin she bursts out laughing. “McVey,” she tells her husband, “our noble captain, just pulled the 'Hairy Ape' gag on me. His man asked me if I’d like to have tea with him in his cabin. New idea, no? So I pulled the outraged good woman gag on him. Did I put on an act! Gosh, I almost believed it myself. And he fell for it! I left him groggy.”

Her husband reverts to his real self as he tells her to go easy, lest anyone discover they are really bank robbers Smiley Marsden and his wife, Frisco Kitty. “Wouldn’t be so good if he found out that you’re Frisco Kitty and these clothes are phony,” he says while pulling on his holy garb. “You seem to forget that they’re looking for Mr. Smiley Marsden, the man that cracked the Liberty National Bank in Seattle, accompanied by his dear wife.”

The next morning his crew sees a new Captain McVey one that has given up the bottle and is wearing a clean white shirt. They are stunned, to say the least. This isn’t the captain they know. One remarks, “Maybe he thinks he’s going to croak.”


Once in Mexico and ridden with guilt, McVey composes a note of apology to Kitty and gives it to Charlie to deliver. Later, in their cabin, Smiley reads the note. At the end McVey says he’s returning to San Diego. This unnerves Smiley. He tells Kitty that McVey leaving port so soon might lead the police to investigate and discover who his passengers were.

He tells Kitty that she must play up to McVey to stall him. For his part, Smiley will sabotage the engine so they can’t leave. She leave a drunken Marsden in his cabin that night to make her date with McVey. The complacent captain tells her how she’s changed his life. His apology is so effusive and sincere that she is clearly taken aback. Later, when she returns to Smiley, she declares that she just couldn’t go through with it.

Smiley sabotages the engined and McVey and crew are stuck. Things are beginning to fall apart. McVey invites Smiley and Kitty to the boat for dinner. She shows, he doesn’t. Kitty makes apologies. When she returns, Smiley is jealous that she went to see the captain.

The crew is beginning to blame their captain for the misfortune. At a showdown the crew tells their captain they believe it was he who sabotaged the engine so they would have to stay in Mexico. They also hint to him that Kitty may come to a bad end.

The plot climaxes when McVey saunters over to the hotel to warn Kitty and Marsden. Smiley angrily reveals his and Kitty's true identities. McVey, taken totally aback, denounces Kitty and knocks out Marsden just as an undercover police detective conveniently bursts into the room to arrest him for the bank robbery. While Kitty is being held in the hotel, McVey sneaks back to her room. He accepts both her apology and her declaration of love. Kitty and McVey vow to wait for each other, but it’s unnecessary as the detective all too conveniently shoots and kills an escaping Marsden and grants Kitty her release to be with her captain.

Afterwords

This was the only film directed by Wolheim before his untimely death from stomach cancer at the age of 50 on February 18, 1931. The Sin Ship marked his final appearance on screen and was released after his death. Shortly after he finished the film he was quoted as saying that this was his first and last film as a director and in the future he would concentrate on acting. Had he lived, I think it would be easy to say that he would have developed into one of the dominant character actors of the ‘30s. 

The Sin Ship overall is an enjoyable movie, with much more emphasis on character than plot. The cast is small, with the romantic triangle between Wolheim, Astor and Keith dominating the movie. Herbert provided a nice attempt at being comedy relief and it’s nice to see him in his early days before he typecast himself with the “Woo hoo hoo” nonsense. The best performance comes from Astor, who made the film while still mourning the death of her husband, director Kenneth Hawks (brother of Howard) in an airplane crash filming action scenes for the film Such Men Are Dangerous on January 2, 1930. Her evolution during the course of the film from the hard-edged Frisco Kitty is believable, though she could have benefited from a few extra scenes to further develop her character.

Ian Keith, as Smiley, has the juiciest role and he makes the most of it. He began his career on the Broadway stage before making the jump to moves in the Gloria Swanson vehicle Manhandled (Paramount, 1924). By the time he died in 1960 of a heart attack he had amassed 119 credits in film and television. His best-known role was that of Joan Blender’s alcoholic husband in Nightmare Alley (20th Century Fox, 1947). He also played John Wilkes Booth in D.W. Griffith’s Abraham Lincoln (U.A., 1930), Octavian in DeMille’s version of Cleopatra (Paramount, 1934), and was one of the actor originally considered for Universal’s Dracula after the death of Lon Chaney.


The weakest portrayal in the film comes from Wolheim himself. As the film progresses he frequently looks distracted, possibly the result of wearing two hats – that of an actor and that of a director. His direction is workmanlike and he was helped by the absence of action scenes. The appearance of the undercover detective at the end was a little too pat and the evolution of his captain from hard-drinking lout into reformed delinquent also strains credulity. When Astor is laughing as she tells Smiley about her encounter with McVey, she mentions him pulling “the hairy ape gag” on her. This is an inside nod to the fact that Wolheim became a star on Broadway playing the character of Yank in the original stage production of O’Neill’s The Hairy Ape in 1922. There is more than a little irony in the line muttered by one of the crew after McVey cleans himself up: “Maybe he thinks he’s going to croak.”

Wolheim’s death seems to have sunk The Sin Ship, as its studio, RKO, didn’t seem to have gotten behind it. Cliff Alperti, writing on the movie for his site, Immortal Ephemera, notes the film got mostly middling reviews, “which usually didn’t even bother to mention the death of its star and director, while playing across the country throughout half of 1931.”

In her autobiography, A Life on Film (Delacorte, 1971), Astor doesn’t have much good to say about the The Sin Ship, writing that due to money problems after the death of her husband she had to sign a contract “for which I had little enthusiasm” with RKO. The Sin Ship was one of eight films she made that year. I had the feeling reading the book that this was a time Astor preferred to forget for personal and professional reasons. She did manage to rebound in both areas: In June 1931 she married second husband Dr. Franklyn Thorpe, just a couple of months after the film’s release and she regained her career momentum with a meaty role in Red Dust (1932) for MGM with Clark Gable and Jean Harlow.   

Trivia

Alperti quotes Film Daily as saying that RKO hired out speedboats at $500 per day to keep other ships from interrupting their work in the area of Catalina Island where they filmed.

Although some blogs say otherwise, screenwriter F. Hugh Herbert and actor Hugh Herbert are not one and the same. The screenwriter's full name is Frederick Hugh Herbert. He was born on May 29, 1897 in Vienna, Austria-Hungary. Actor Hugh Herbert was born on August 10, 1884 in Binghamton, New York.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Adam West: In Memoriam 

By Ed Garea

Of all those who have donned the cape as Batman, none fit the role so well as Adam West. But what seemed like a blessing came to be a stranglehold, for he became so identified with the character that he ended up being horribly typecast, even though the show only lasted two and a half seasons.

West died on June 9 in Los Angeles at the age of 88. The cause was attributed to leukemia.

He was born William West Anderson on Sept. 19, 1928, in Walla Walla, Washington. His father, Otto, was a wheat farmer; his mother, Audrey, nee Speer, was a pianist and opera singer. He moved to Seattle when he was 15 with his mother after his parents' divorced and his mother remarried.     

Graduating from Whitman College in Walla Walla with a major in English Literature, West served in the Army, where he worked as an announcer on American Forces Network television. Later he worked as the station manager at Stanford while a graduate student.  
   
He moved to Hawaii on the advice of a friend, where he co-hosted a two-hour live variety weekday show called The Kini Popo Show, One co-star was a diaper-wearing chimp named Peaches. While in Hawaii he got a bit part in the Boris Karloff B-horror, Voodoo Island (1957).    


In 1959, West moved with his wife and two children to Hollywood, where he took the stage name Adam West. In his autobiography, Back to the Batcave, he explains he chose "Adam" simply because he liked the way it looked and sounded with “West," his middle name.    

He landed a contract at Warner Bros., paying him a grand sum of $150 a week. He spent his time there as a guest star in such fare as the TV series Colt 45BroncoLawmanMaverickHawaiian Eye77 Sunset StripCheyenne, etc. He also appeared in two Warner Bros. movies (both in 1959): The Young Philadelphians (as Bill Lawrence) and The F.B.I. Story (uncredited). 

After years of this sort of knocking around he split from Warner Bros. and got a break when he was cast as Detective Sgt. Steve Nelson on Robert Taylor’s ABC/NBC series The Detectives (1959-62), joining the cast when the show expanded to one hour in color.

After The Detectives was canceled, West appeared in such  forgettable film fare as Geronimo (1962) starring Chuck Connors, Tammy and the Doctor (1963) with Sandra Dee, The Three Stooges film The Outlaws Is Coming (1965), and Mara of the Wilderness (1965), in which he had the lead with Lori Saunders (Bobbie Jo Bradley on Petticoat Junction). He also traveled to Italy to star in a spaghetti western called The Relentless Four (1965).

Back in the United States, his fortunes were about to change. Producer William Dozier spotted him in a commercial for Nestle’s Quik, playing Captain Quik, a James Bond-type character with a sailor’s cap. West returned to the States, where he read the pilot script for Batman and signed a contract on the spot, asking only that he be allowed to approve who would play his sidekick. He selected Burt Ward, who had a brown belt in karate, but no acting experience.    

Batman, which premiered on ABC in 1966, was based on the popular comic book character created in 1939 by Bob Kane and Bill Finger. He was the crime-fighting alias of Bruce Wayne, a bachelor millionaire in Gotham City, and was soon joined by a young sidekick, Robin the Boy Wonder, aka Dick Grayson, Bruce Wayne’s ward. 

The show was an immediate hit, quickly spawning such imitators as Mr. Terrific (CBS), Captain Nice (NBC) and even a Broadway musical titled It's a Bird...It’s a Plane...It's Superman. When West appeared in costume on the cover of Life magazine, it marked the highest tribute to national popularity at the time.    


The series, filmed in color in an era of black-and-white, featured a revolving cast of villains headed by the Riddler (Frank Gorshin), Joker (Cesar Romero), Penguin (Burgess Meredith) and Catwoman (Julie Newmar). As the show ran on, new guest villains were added. It aired twice a week; the opening episode, a cliffhanger episode, played Wednesday nights, with the cliffhanger resolved the next night. “Same Bat-time! Same Bat-channel!” the narrator intoned. It was originally planned as an hour-long show, but ABC split it up when it found it had two time slots available on its primetime schedule. The ratings attested to its popularity: the Thursday installment was No. 5 in the Nielsen ratings for the 1965-66 season, and the Wednesday edition was No. 10.     

Nominated for the Emmy Award for outstanding comedy series in its first year, it lost to CBS’ The Dick Van Dyke Show. To take advantage of its burgeoning popularity, 20th Century Fox commissioned a movie, directed by Leslie H. Martinson. Rushed into production, it played in theaters during the summer before season two kicked off in September 1966.

What made Batman so appealing was that it was a comedy disguised as a drama; it was essentially played as a farce. The show’s brightly-colored costumes and sets, along with off-kilter camera angles, superimposed ear-popping dialogue balloons for fight-scene sound effects, and the wealth of irresistibly wacky gadgets that would get them out of any situation were among the elements that would later lead it to be seen as high camp. Winks, nods and double entendre jokes are strewn throughout, but are played straight. Even its theme song, one that only offered a single word repeated by a chorus, was itself campy. 

Added to all this was a Batman who was extremely clean-cut, a milk-drinking, wholesome-living model citizen who might exclaim “Darn it!” at times of extreme stress. West underplayed his part, leaving the histrionics to Robin, and leaving the villains to supply most of the camp.

In an interview conducted almost 40 years after the end of the TV show for an article in The Independent of London, West said that he played Batman “for laughs, but in order to do [that], one had to never think it was funny. You just had to pull on that cowl and believe that no one would recognize you.” He continued, “What I loved about Batman was his total lack of awareness when it came to his interaction with the outside world. He actually believed nobody would recognize him on the phone when he was Bruce Wayne, even though he made no attempt to disguise his voice.”   

By 1968, however, the allure wore off, and the show began to tank in the ratings. Batman – despite adding Yvonne Craig as Batgirl in order to boost ratings – was canceled in March 1968 after 120 episodes.

Suddenly West found himself unemployed with no prospects in sight. As Robin might have said, “Holy typecasting, Batman!” For a time, he made a living doing personal appearances as Batman, including an appearance in the Memphis, Tennessee-based wrestling territory, where he engaged in a verbal feud with Jerry “The King” Lawler while dressed in the cowl and a track suit. As these dried up, he did the only thing he could do under the circumstances – swallow his ego. An actor acts. 


He moved his family from the plush Pacific Palisades to Ketchum, Idaho, and went back to the days of guest shots on television shows interspersed with forgettable movies such as The Marriage of a Young Stockbroker (1971), The Specialist (1975), and The Happy Hooker Goes Hollywood (1980). He even appeared in a softcore porn movie, Young Lady Chatterly II (1985), starring Harlee McBride, wife of actor/comedian Richard Belzer.    

He also lent his voice in such cartoons as The New Adventures of BatmanLegends of the Superheroes, and SuperFriends: The Legendary Super Powers Show. He also voiced Batman in an episode of The Simpsons. His contribution to the animated Redux Riding Hood (1997), helped it receive an Oscar nomination for best short film.

But despite his formidable array of guest shots, he was never able to parlay them into another hit series, as, for instance, William Shatner, who, after Star Trek, found stardom on T.J. Hooker and later, Boston Legal.       

His fortunes took a decided turn for the better after Tim Burton’s 1989 film starring Michael Keaton as the Caped Crusader revived interest in the character. (West was considered to play the role of Thomas Wayne, Bruce Wayne's father, though originally, he wanted to play Batman.) Though he never appeared in any of the theatrically released Batman franchise motion pictures, West later had a recurring role as the voice of Mayor Grange in the WB animated series The Batman (2004). He also voiced Batman for the CGI-animated short film Batman: New Times (2005), co-starring with Mark Hamill, who voiced The Joker.


Throughout it all West continued to accept guest shots, movie parts and voice-overs. His voice-over work culminated in a long guest run (2000-17) on the animated series Family Guy playing Mayor Adam West, who could best be described as sadistic, corrupt, vacant, clueless, but utterly charming. In 2014, Warner Bros.’ DVD release of ABC’s Batman brought him back to his old fans and made him new ones. As late as last year he appeared in an episode of The Big Bang Theory playing himself. Hired to appear at a private birthday party where everything goes wrong, he utters the best line: “I still get paid, don’t I?”   

For his work, West received a few honors. In 1985, DC Comics honored West in their 50th-anniversary publication Fifty Who Made DC Great for his work on the Batman series. And in the documentary Starring Adam West, the film ends with him receiving a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 2012.     

In 1994, with Jeff Rovin, West wrote his autobiography, Back to the Batcave, which was published by Berkeley Books.  

West married three times: to Billie Lou Yeager (1950-56), Ngahra Frisbee (1957-62), and Marcelle Tagand Lear in 1970, who he met when they posed for a publicity photo at Santa Monica Airport with him in his Batman costume. She survives him, along with their two children, Nina and Perrin West. He is also survived by two children from his second marriage, Jonelle and Hunter Anderson; two stepchildren; five grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.     

For better or worse, he remains for many the only Batman that ever mattered, permanently associated with the part in a way that others who played the role are not. That he came not only to realize this, but to accept and embrace it, is illustrated by a speech he gave at the 2014 ComicCon: “When Batman was canceled, “The only thing I thought is that it would be the end of me, and it was for a bit. But then I realized that what we created in the show...we created this zany, lovable world. I look around and I see the adults – I see you grew up with me, and you believe in the adventure. I never believed this would happen, that I would be up here with illustrious people like yourselves. I’m so grateful! I’m the luckiest actor in the world, folks, to have you still hanging around.”