Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Cinéma Inhabituel for October 1-15

A Guide to the Rare and Unusual on TCM

By Ed Garea


David Niven is the Star of the Month for October. I have always found him a most interesting actor, the perfect personification of the Englishman abroad. From the fragile, debonair figures he played in the movies we would never suspect that he was a career soldier at one point, having graduated from the Royal Military College at Sandhurst. It was there that he acquired the “officer and a gentleman” persona which later became his trademark. But after a few years as a lieutenant with the Highland Light Infantry, he began to chafe under military life and resigned his commission in 1933. He came to Hollywood and found work as an extra and stuntman. Sam Goldwyn spotted him in Mutiny on the Bounty and signed him to a contract. 

Under Goldwyn’s management, Niven blossomed into a star with solid supporting turns in DodsworthRose-Marie, and The Charge of the Light Brigade (all 1936), and leading roles in The Dawn Patrol (1938), Wuthering HeightsRaffles, and Bachelor Mother, with Ginger Rogers (all 1939).

When the Second World War broke out, Niven returned to England and rejoined the Army as a lieutenant, serving in the Commandos. He also served with the Army Film Unit appearing in The First of the Few (1942) and The Way Ahead (1944). He served in France with the “Phantom Signals Unit,” which located and reported enemy positions and kept rear commanders informed on changing battle lines. Niven ended the war as a lieutenant-colonel and received the Legion of Merit, an American military decoration presented by Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower himself.

Niven resumed his film career in 1946, making three highly regarded classics: A Matter of Life and Death (1946), The Bishop’s Wife (1947), and Enchantment(1948). A falling-out with Goldwyn over money led to Niven being barred from Hollywood work in the early 1950s. Instead he found work in low-budget and independent productions, most notably Otto Preminger’s The Moon is Blue (1953), for which he won a Golden Globe.

The Hollywood ban ended in 1956 when Niven won acclaim for his role as Phileas Fogg in Mike Todd’s Around the World in 80 Days. In 1958, he won the Best Actor Oscar for Separate Tables. He would go on to star in another 30 films, including such classics as The Guns of Navarone (1961), The Pink Panther (1963), the underrated Where the Spies Are (1965), Murder By Death (1976), Death on the Nile (1978), and The Sea Wolves (1980).

October 5: Four outstanding Niven flicks. Begin at 8:00 pm with Raffles, and stay for the funny Bachelor Mother (9:30 pm), the thrilling The Dawn Patrol (11:00 pm), and the all-time five-hanky picture, Wuthering Heights (1:00 am).

October 6: Can’t go wrong with Charge of the Light Brigade at 8:00 am and The Prisoner of Zenda at 10:00 am.

October 12: Sit back and enjoy Niven in one of his best films, A Matter of Life and Death at 8:00 pm. Then it’s The Bishop’s Wife, a holiday classic that grows in repute each year, at 10 pm. At Midnight it’s The First of the Few, a wonderful film about the birth of the Spitfire fighting plane, followed at 2:15 am by The Way Ahead, Niven’s other war film and just as compelling. Close out the night with the weepy Enchantment at 3:45 am.


The TCM Spotlight is titled “Trailblazing Women.” What they mean is women directors. 48 women directors will be profiled over 9 nights this month. Directing, like most other roles behind the camera, was a job shut out to women, even though the first film director was most likely a woman.

Alice Guy was a secretary to Leon Gaumont, who went from his camera-making business to found Gaumont studios. One afternoon, Alice and her boss attended a screening of the Lumiere’s Workers Leaving the Lumiere Factory. Alice was gobsmacked by what she saw. Reflecting on the film later she began to see the potential of film if she could move it away from the “demonstration films,” simply scenes of people leaving a factory, or watching a train pull into a station, for instance. What, she thought, if storytelling elements could be woven into the film. She asked Gaumont for permission to make a film. He agreed, but only if she did it on her own time; she was too valuable as a secretary.

Her first film – and arguably the first narrative film – was La Fee aux Choux (The Cabbage Fairy) in 1896. It’s a humorous story of a woman who grows children in a cabbage patch. From 1896 to 1906, she was Gaumont’s head of production, exploring the boundaries of film, producing films featuring dancing, color tinting, and expanded story lines. She also experimented with audio recordings in conjunction with the screen images in Gaumont’s “Chronophone” system, which employed a vertical-cut disc synchronized to the film. She also experimented with special effects with double exposure masking techniques and running film backward. In 1906, she made The Life of Christ, a big-budget production featuring more than 300 extras.

During the early days of silent’s women were well represented in film. Lois Weber, who cut her teeth working for Alice Guy when Guy came to America, made films featuring social significance, questioning society’s priorities. Such films as Where Are My Children? (1916), The Hand That Rocks the Cradle (1917), and The Blot (1921) were box office hits, which in turn made her the highest paid director in the country. Weber was lucky enough to work for Carl Laemmle, the unorthodox head of Universal Studios. Laemmle also employed such as Ida May Park, Ruth Ann Baldwin, Ruth Stonehouse, Lule Warrenton, and Grace Cunard. Cleo Madison starred in and made her own films at Universal.

Gene Gauntier began as an actress, but quickly found her calling as a writer and director, turning out several one-reelers in a single day. Helen Gardner turned from acting at Vitagraph to owning her own production company. Nell Shipman was famous for wildlife adventure films, and Jeanie McPherson, another actress turned from being in front of the camera to behind as she made a lasting mark as the writer of many of Cecil B. DeMille’s epics. And, of course, there was Frances Marion, who directed several films starring her husband Fred Thomason and her best friend Mary Pickford before turning exclusively to writing, finding it far less stressful.

However, as smaller studios went out of business or were incorporated into larger ones, directing opportunities for women also faded. As film found its voice with the coming of sound, women lost theirs. The Depression only made a bad situation worse, as women were now seen to be taking jobs away from men. The only woman director to survive into The Depression was Dorothy Arzner, who in 1936 was the first woman to join the fledgling Director’s Guild of America. She quit in 1943, moving to UCLA to teach directing and screenwriting.

October 1: The silent era is featured, with Alice Guy’s The Birth, Life and Death of Christ one to see beginning at 8:00 pm. Actually, all the featured films are worth seeing, especially The Blot from Lois Weber (10:15 pm).

October 6: Dorothy Arzner’s Dance, Girl, Dance (1940), with Maureen O’Hara, is on tap at 8:00 pm, followed by Ida Lupino’s Outrage (1950) at 9:45 pm. Also worth catching is Elaine May’s The Heartbreak Kid (1972), airing at 11:15 pm.

October 8: Try Barbara Loden’s Wanda (1970) at 8:00 pm., and Martha Coolidge’s comedy, Valley Girl (1983), at 11:15 pm.

October 13: Joan Micklin Silver’s wonderful Crossing Delancey (1988) airs at 8:00 pm. Our other recommendation is Euzhan Pulcy’s A Dry White Season (1989), at 11:45 pm).

October 15: It’s Documentaries Night. We recommend Barbara Kopple’s Harlan County, U.S.A. from 1976, which airs at 9:30 pm; Connie Field’s The Life and Times of Rosie the Riveter (1980) at 11:30 pm; and Penelope Spheeris’ take on the L.A. music scene, The Decline of Western Civilization (1981), at 2:45 am.


October 4: At 2:30 am, it’s director G.W. Pabst’s Kameradschaft (1931), a moving film about a tunnel collapse that traps French miners. They are rescued when German miners across the border tunnel in to save them. It was an attempt by producer Seymour Nebenzahl to foster a common unity from the rubble of nationalism that arose after World War I. When the Nazis came to power, they banned the film and Nebenzahl fled to America where he made films for PRC and United Artists. Apart from his campy remake of G.W. Pabst’s L’Atlantide as Siren of Atlantis (UA, 1949), he is most famous for his 1951 Columbia remake of M, with David Wayne in the Peter Lorre role.

October 11: At the odd hour of 3:45 am, it’s Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Mamma Roma (1962), with a breathtaking performance by Anna Magnani as a former streetwalker who tries to save her son from a life of crime and take him to better surroundings.


October 2: A night of haunted house movies. Best of the lot is William Castle’s 1958 opus, House on Haunted Hill (10:00 pm), and Robert Wise’s chiller, The Haunting (11:30 pm). The Haunting is a masterpiece of horror in the Val Lewton vein (Wise once worked for Lewton), proving that the biggest scares come from our imagination.

October 4: At 12:45 am, it’s Lon Chaney in his 1925 masterpiece, The Phantom of the Opera. It’s always worth seeing and Chaney has lost none of his power over the years. Forget the remakes, this is still the one to see.

October 9: Start the day with a mystery that makes no sense, Murder in the Private Car (MGM, 1934), starring Charlie Ruggles and Una Merkel. It’s silly and incoherent, with an ending that comes too late to save it. Ruggles stars as an amateur detective trying to solve the crime that has taken place aboard a moving train. The film tries to be a comedy-mystery, but the humor falls flat on its face. Still, it has lots of camp value and is worth a peek.

A night with the theme “Rogue Body Parts” kicks off at 8:00 pm with Peter Lorre in the excellent and eerie take on “The Hands of Orlac,” Mad Love from MGM in 1935. It’s followed at 9:30 with another great Lorre performance in the classic The Beast With Five Fingers (1946). At 1:00 am, it’s that 1962 laff riot, The Brain That Wouldn’t Die, a film that put the final nail in the career of actress Virginia Leith. What was she thinking when she agreed to star in this one? More to the point, who was her agent? Leith did go on to a fame of sorts when the folks at MST 3000 popularized her character as “Jan in the Pan” and made her a cult figure among bad movie buffs. As ridiculous as it is, it’s a Must See, especially for those who love bad movies.

Finally, at 4:35 am, it’s one of the most exotic and disturbing films from France, Eyes Without a Face (1959). Directed by Georges Franju, it’s the story of a surgeon (Pierre Brasseur) who kidnaps young women and grafts their faces onto that of his disfigured daughter (Edith Scob). It’s a “can’t miss” if you’ve never seen it and a “must see again” if you have. Hell, I even like the Billy Idol song of the same name, a tribute to the film.

October 14: At midnight, it’s the premiere of Stanley Kubrick’s urban dystopia, A Clockwork Orange (1971), the film that made Malcolm McDowell into a star. 

Monday, September 28, 2015

TCM TiVo Alert for October 1-7

October 1–October 7


SCARLET STREET (October 4, 4:15 am): Director Fritz Lang does a superb job with this 1945 film noir that has Edward G. Robinson give a brilliant performance in a role that's different from any other he had in his career. Eddie G. is Chris Cross, a bland, boring clothing company cashier who's never done anything interesting in his life. Business picks up quickly after he saves Kitty March (Joan Bennett), a beautiful femme fatale, being accosted on the street by a guy who turns out to be Johnny (Dan Duryea), her low-life boyfriend. Completely out of character for Chris, he dispatches Johnny with his umbrella and quickly falls in love with Kitty as he's in a loveless marriage with a wife who constantly hen-pecks him. Because he talks of painting, Kitty and more importantly Johnny thinks he's a rich artist. The two work out a plan to make money from Chris' love for Kitty and his ability as a painter. The story, based on the French novel La Chienne (The Bitch), has a number of unforeseen (and excellent) plot twists as Chris' life goes from humdrum to one filled with way too much passion, deceit and tragedy. It's one of Eddie G.'s best and most unique roles.

WUTHERING HEIGHTS (October 5, 1:00 am): It's always challenging to adapt a classic book into a movie, and this 1939 film uses less than half of Emily Bronte's 34 chapters (eliminating the second generation of characters) from her book. But it's still a stunning film directed by one of the true masters, William Wyler. Laurence Olivier gives an unforgettable performance as Heathcliff, showing a wide range of emotions in a complicated role. Heathcliff is bitter, vengeful, conflicted and passionately in love. I doubt anyone else could do justice to the role. Merle Oberon as Cathy is also wonderful as are many members of the cast including David Niven, Geraldine Fitzgerald and Hugh Williams.  


A FACE IN THE CROWD (October 1, 10:00 am): Budd Schulberg wrote and Elia Kazan directed this prescient look at celebrity and media-made pundits in the story of Larry “Lonesome” Rhodes (Andy Griffith), a drifter discovered in jail by the hostess (Patricia Neal) of a morning radio show in Pickett, Arkansas. Through the sheer force of his “down home” personality, he eventually makes his way to New York, where he becomes not only an entertainment superstar, but a respected wielder of opinion; powerful enough to make a nondescript senator into a formidable presidential candidate. Rhodes, however, is rotten to the core, and as his fame and power increase, the monster within him begins to break out. It’s up to Neal, as a letter-day Frankenstein, to destroy the monster she created before he destroys us, and she does it in a quite unique way. Neal, of course, is superb as usual, and Griffith gave the best performance of his career, playing against type and should have gotten the Oscar. But he wasn’t even nominated, in due to the less than stellar box office of the movie and the liberal backlash against director Kazan for supposedly “naming names” before Congress. (In reality he didn’t name anyone that wasn’t already named again and again.) What eventually brought critics around to giving this film another look was Francois Truffaut, who championed the film as a modern-day classic and a warning.

CITIZEN KANE (October 7, 10:30 pm): Disappointed that I recommended this? Seen it before? I truly hope so. Well, it’s always worth watching again (and again, for that matter). It’s been written about and praised into the ground, but still retains its magic. It’s the story of modern America through the eyes of a truly flawed man; a man responsible for shaping public opinion through his media empire who found everything but love. This is the feature film debut of such great actors as Agnes Moorehead, Everett Sloane, Ruth Warrick, and the renowned Joseph Cotten, as well as the starring and directing debut of Orson Welles. It was both an artistic triumph and a curse to Welles. If you haven’t seen it, now’s the time to check it out.


ED: B-. This was the first, and best, of the sequels to Planet of the Apes and one that Charlton Heston only agreed to do if his character was killed off early. In a sense they granted his wish by having his character disappear after the early scenes and only reappear at the end to die. They filled in the middle by casting James Franciscus as an astronaut sent to find Heston, and who also dies at the end. As with the vast majority of sequels, it’s not as good as the original; at times it seems as if the original is being played over again, this time with Franciscus. However, it has plenty to recommend it as an entertaining film. The idea of mutants surviving an earlier a-bomb blast and living in an underground civilization in the ruins of New York City has plenty to recommend it to psychotronic fans. The writing, by Paul Dehn and Mort Abrahams, is excellent, with a great downbeat ending we might not have expected. That’s all on the plus side. On the minus side is the cheapness of the sequel, which caused the ape make-up to look less effective than in the original, and the needless replay of the events of the first film, this time with Franciscus instead of Heston. Because of this, only the last 15 minutes is devoted to the search to stop the bomb the Mutants worship, when it should obviously be the focal point of the film from near the beginning. And while the quick pace of the film is a plus, there are times where some points are sacrificed to the pace, which gives it an uneven quality at times. For sci-fi fans and fans of the series, this film will meet their standards, but others may find it all a bit awkward.

DAVID: A-. First, a disclaimer: I'm a huge fan of the original Planet of the Apes five movies, particularly the first one, which is among the most enjoyable films I've ever seen and has the greatest ending I've seen. So I come with a bias. Could Beneath, the first sequel, have been better? Sure. The budget was cut in half, and per his contract, Charlton Heston's role is kept to a minimum. However, it is the story that carries this film, and makes it so enjoyable and so dark. The apes decide it's time to go into the Forbidden Zone. It's called that for a reason. The Lawgiver, who in Apes history wrote the Sacred Scrolls, warned them to stay away. There are mutant survivors of a post-apocalyptic nuclear war who live underground in what once New York City. The atomic bombs used to destroy society has scarred the mutants, but has also given them incredible psychic powers. They wear masks to look like normal people. They reveal themselves in the presence of their god, what Heston's character Taylor calls a "doomsday bomb." Kudos for whoever thought of having the bomb in St. Patrick's Cathedral. The bomb is capable of destroying the world, and as Taylor is about to die, he "pushes the button" that sets off the bomb and blows up Earth. The best part of the original Planet of the Apes franchise is the endings are extraordinary. They're dark, unique and often shocking, particularly the first time you see them. As the film ends, a deep-voiced narrator (Paul Frees, who did many voices including Boris Badenov) says, "In one of the countless billions of galaxies in the universe lies a medium-sized star. And one of its satellites, a green and insignificant planet is now dead." But don't worry, there are three more sequels. The only one that matches this one is Conquest of the Planet of the Apes, which is even more dark. In Beneath, James Franciscus is fine as Brent, the astronaut who is sent to "rescue" Taylor and his now-dead crew. As he was in the original film, Maurice Evans as Dr. Zaius is amazing. While his role is small, Heston is still the best.

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

Friday, September 25, 2015

Employees' Entrance

Films in Focus

By Ed Garea

Employees’ Entrance (WB, 1933) – Director: Roy Del Ruth. Writer: Robert Presnell, Sr. Cast: Warren William, Loretta Young, Wallace Ford, Alice Whiter, Hale Hamilton, Albert Gran, Allen Jenkins, Ruth Donnelly, Frank Reicher, Charles Sellon, & Marjorie Gateson. B&W, 75 minutes.

Department Store Girls – This is your picture, about your lives and your problems! See what happens in department store aisles and offices after closing hours! Girls who couldn't have been touched with a 100-ft yacht – ready to do anything to get a job! Beautiful models who whisper their dread of the "Boss" who can "make" or break more women than a sultan!

 – Ad copy for the film.

About seven months after MGM released Skyscraper Souls with Warren William, Warner Bros. released this similarly themed flick also starring William. The MGM film was concerned with the behind-the-scenes doings in a huge skyscraper; Employees’ Entrance is concerned with the behind-the scenes doings is a huge department store. William was the ruthless boss behind the shenanigans in Skyscraper Souls, as he is here. In Souls, Maureen O’Sullivan plays the young naïve worker deemed by Williams as just ripe for the plucking. In Employees’ Entrance, Loretta Young is the young, naïve object of William’s lust. Of the two films, Employees’ Entrance is the far better of the two, as Warner’s was much more comfortable dealing with the problems of the working class.

William is his usual villainous self as Kurt Anderson, the hard-driving general manager of the Franklin Monroe Department Store. The film opens as we see sales rise through the 1920’s and we quickly led to infer it’s because of the dynamic leadership of Anderson. A corporate hot shot brought in as general manager, his strict adherence to his philosophy of profit over people makes him the hated target of all. He’s also introduced among a montage of complaints from both employees and suppliers, while superimposed over those complaints is the story of the store’s rise, from $10 million in annual sales to $25 million in 1925, and $100 million in 1929. We see the store’s namesake and top executive, Franklin Monroe (Hamilton) issue lame apologies with the explanation that Mr. Anderson makes all the decisions.

However, the Depression has come and it’s hit not only the store, but also the entire industry quite hard. We meet the directors at a board meeting where Monroe is more concerned about chairing the Mayor’s Welcoming Committee. His cousin and toady, Denton Ross (Gran), dutifully seconds his every word. Anderson sits there sneering before demanding his salary be doubled along with total control. But the directors are in a panic, telling Anderson that he can stay, but only under supervision. He scoffs at the offer, replying that he and he alone is responsible for the store’s growth, and if his terms are not met, he’ll leave and sign a contract with their biggest competitor. With that Monroe walks out to welcome some Trans-Atlantic flyers, and the directors, now alone, buckle and agree to his terms.

And if we think he’s tough with the board of directors, wait until we see him with the suppliers. The new clothing supplier, Garfinkle (Reicher) informs him that part of the large first order of swagger coats the store was counting on for a big sale will be delayed three days because of labor strife, and he can supply only a fraction of the order for now. He pleads that he has $30,000 invested in the deal and is already taking a loss to insure future business. Anderson is angered and cancels the entire order, telling his secretary to sue for damages. Garfinkle continues to plead, telling Anderson, “It’s my life.” “Merchandise is the life of this store,” Anderson retorts. “When you promise to deliver on a certain day and don’t do it, you threaten our life!” But, Garfinkle continues, “It only happened once. It can’t happen again.” No soap. “It can’t happen once!” Anderson screams. “Now get out of here!”

Interestingly, when Anderson is later walking the floor, he notices a new employee – none other than Garfinkle himself, who has taken an entry-level position at the store. Garfinkle tells him, “It’s men like you who crush that succeed.” But if he was expecting Anderson to fire him for the remark, he was dead wrong. Instead, Anderson is so flattered that he pulls out his checkbook and begins to write Garfinkle a check for $5,000 in return for a half interest in any business he goes into. The broken man refuses the help, though, tearing up the check. Anderson is still impressed and orders Garfinkle’s salary to be doubled. “You’ve got the right idea now,” he tells him.

However, all work and no play males Kurt a very dull boy indeed. One evening as he is leaving, he meets Madeline Walters (Young), beautiful young woman who he discovers hiding in the store’s model house. She tells him that she’s broke and unemployed, and that hiding in the store can ensure she’s first in line the next morning for a job. He offers to take her to dinner and she agrees, later spending the night at his place. The next morning, she’s the store’s new model.

At the next day’s meeting with the department heads, Anderson notes that because the Depression is cutting into business, he is cutting executives' salaries (including his own) by 10% and is looking for new ideas from his staff. His second-in-command is an older man named Higgins (Sellon). Higgins has been with the company since 1906, but makes the error of voicing his preference of retrenchment. Anderson, disgusted with what he’s heard, turns to Martin West (Ford), an employee in the men’s clothing department and the youngest man in the room, for suggestions. West suggests selling men’s drawers to women. Anderson is intrigued and asks Higgins what he thinks. Higgins replies, “Fantastic. Not at all in line with the policy of the store, and I’ve been 30 years in this business.” It’s a fatal error. Anderson turns to him. “Higgins, get out,” he explodes. Higgins begs him not to do it like this; that is, publicly. “Publicly or privately, you’re through. You’re too old,” Anderson retorts, calling Higgins dead wood and throwing him out the door. Anderson now promotes West as his assistant, but with the caveat that he stay single – this is no job for a married man and he must devote himself solely to business if he’s to get ahead.

But – wouldn’t you know it – Martin and Madeline fall in love and secretly marry, which later places a strain on their relationship because Martin is always at Anderson’s beck and call. They can’t let Anderson find out about their situation, lest they both lose their jobs. When it comes to women, Anderson is a complete cynic, believing that the only thing women are after is financial security. Not that they don’t have their uses. Being as Monroe Franklin is away once again, Anderson doubles the salary of employee Polly Dale (White) to keep Franklin’s interim executive, Ross, occupied and out of Anderson’s hair.

Meanwhile, Higgins has been desperately trying to get in to see Anderson in hopes of getting his job back. But Anderson has written him off and won’t see him. Despondent, Higgins goes up to the ninth floor and jumps out the window to his death. Informed of Higgins’ death, Anderson can only say, “When a man outlives his usefulness, he ought to jump out a window!”

The strain on the Wests grows to the point where they quarrel at the company party, with Martin drinking himself into oblivion with the boys and passing out. This leaves Madeline vulnerable to Anderson’s entreaties. But this time he gets her drunk and invites her to rest awhile and clear her head at his hotel suite. She passes out on the bed and we seen him enter later. The next day, Madeline again rebuffs him in his office, telling him that she feels “like someone you’d pick up on the street.” She asks why he chose her. Anderson answers that he finds her attractive, adding that she also has an exemplary sales record. What a charmer. During their argument, she lets slip that she’s married to West, which surprises and angers Anderson. They both betrayed him. She then begs him not to tell Martin. All Anderson can do is spit out, “I’ll take care of it.”

And does he take care of it. First, he tries to get Polly to seduce Martin, but Polly won’t hear of it. Angered, he wants to fire Polly, but is stopped by Ross, who is totally infatuated with her. So it’s on to Plan B: He has Martin sitting at an intercom in an adjoining office while he calls Madeline back in. During their conversation he manages to coax the information about their two nights together from Madeline, telling her that, “You women think an affair with you is the most important thing in the world.” Then – clearly for Martin’s benefit – he adds, “A man’s work and his success is.” He dismisses her, “You women make me sick.”

Both Martin and Madeline are emotionally crushed. She leaves her husband a farewell note, saying that she has failed him as a wife. Later, Martin learns that she took poison in an unsuccessful attempt as suicide. Martin is fit to be tied and is itching for a confrontation with Anderson.

However, Kurt Anderson has bigger problems. Despite his efforts to get things moving again, sales at the store are still plummeting and Commodore Monroe is way from the store on a yacht. This leaves the voting interest of the company in the hands of the bankers, who have turned on Anderson. They want to replace him with someone who will cut back and retrench in these hard times. This forces Anderson into an alliance with the dimwitted Ross – he needs Ross to get Monroe to grant him proxy if he’s to defeat the bankers.

Martin finally confronts Anderson, threatening to kill him. Anderson, already under pressure facing dismissal if the proxy voters don’t come through, dares Martin to do it, even tossing him a gun. Martin fires, but only manages to inflict a minor wound on Anderson. Other employees, hearing the shooting, burst into the office, but Anderson assures them that nothing really happened. Martin quits and leaves.

Meanwhile, Ross has managed to contact Commodore Monroe, and get his proxy just in time for the vote of the board of directors. Anderson keeps his job. Martin and Madeline reconcile and decide to look for new jobs away from the Monroe Franklin Department Store. As for Anderson, having survived the vote, he resumes his job with his new assistant. It’s none other than Garfinkle, embittered and now just as ruthless as his new boss. 

Employees Entrance is a pretty shocking Pre-Code movie with a surprising relevance to today.
 Although based on a play, it has the feel of the typical Warner Bros. “ripped from the headlines” movie. According to Brian Cady, writing for TCM, Variety speculated that the story referred to Klein's department store in New York, which had enjoyed an unaccountable success during the Depression. Monroe Franklin, Hale Hamilton's character, with his many political connections, was thought to be based a politico who was dubbed “Mr. New York” and served as its "official greeter," Grover Whalen.

It’s also a film that can’t be made today. Not because of the subject matter, but because of the locale. At the time Employees’ Entrance was made, department stores occupied a much more exalted position in the American outlook. They were early versions of fantasylands that appealed to those who believed in the American Dream. The common perception was that anyone could get a job and rise up the economic ladder on hard work and dedication. It was also a place where aisles of luxury goods stood next to those of necessities; shopping wasn’t simply an activity, but an experience that could take hours – even the entire day – as people dressed up and strolled the aisles languishing over the latest necessities and moving over an aisle of two to gaze at luxury items they could only dream of affording.

There were roughly 40 movies made in the ‘20s and ‘30s where the plot revolved around a department store. The best known include It with Clara Bow as the girl who steals; Safety Last, starring Harold Lloyd; and Our Blushing Brides, where working girl Joan Crawford wins the heart of the store owner’s son, played by Robert Montgomery. Employees’ Entrance changed things a bit by making William’s Kurt Anderson, the general manager, and not the owner, of the store, his power resting not in his wealth, but his ability to control his employees’ wealth.

Anderson fit the ideal for the Depression times – a strong man who could take change and get things moving. Make no mistake the man is a monster, perhaps the embodiment of capitalism in his ruthlessness. Everything he does is based on exploitation; even his relationships are exploitative. And if he has to destroy someone he does so willfully, for the goal is to make money. But even though the film showed the damage a dictator like an Anderson might do, his persona takes on the quality of an anti-hero when compared to the owner and the board of directors. The owner, when he’s not absent, is a cold fish whose idea of leadership is to send telegrams to the store’s employees quoting such platitudes as Thomas Paine’s “these are the times that try men’s souls.” His cousin, who is second-in-command, is a fat toady, unable to think for himself. And the board is composed of bankers who are only satisfied when there are plenty of profits.

Anderson, on the other hand, despises them. In his words, they are not producers. He, on the other hand, is a self-made man who rose through the ranks on ability and merit alone, as he alludes to Martin West in what passes for a tender scene between them. There was a girl he loved back in Minnesota, but there was no way he was going to settle down with a wife and bring a child into the sort of poverty he experienced. Now that he has money, he is determined not to lose it. And one of the ways to lose it is through romance and marriage, hence his misogyny. Women are for play only; they are there to be exploited.

Exploitation is the right word for the relationship between Anderson and Madeline, and it exists on both sides. When he discovers her hiding in the store’s home display, she is at first hesitant to speak with him until she discovers who he is. Then and only then will she allow him to buy her dinner and then go back to his apartment for the night. Once she falls for Martin, she tries to avoid Anderson any way she can until the night of the office party. After Martin deserts her for a night of inebriation with the boys, Anderson spots her and they have drinks. While she is getting more and more soused with each sip, he, as always, keeps his head about him. Finally, drunk and confused, she accepts his invitation to take the key to the room he’s reserved and lie down for spell while he waits back at the party. But before we see Madeline collapsing on the bed, Anderson is already sauntering down the hall and letting himself into the room. As she’s lying on the bed, clearly passed out, he closes the door and spends the night. We can only second the view of Mick LaSalle in his book, Dangerous Men: “It’s tantamount to rape. She’s practically in a coma.”

However, there is another side to Anderson that, despite all his villainy, endears him to the audience, especially an audience during the Depression. Anderson saves jobs. The bankers on the board want to cut jobs and retrench. Anderson, on the other hand, realizes the lifeblood of the store rests with its workforce. When the board tries to force him out for not cutting back on the workforce his answer is to find the wandering owner rather than back one millimeter on his stand. He tells the board to their faces that they “make him sick.” “You’re a banker, not a producer, “ he tells one. “All you have is dignity and today you can’t get one thin dime for it.”

While he will brook no nonsense from the executives or suppliers, he takes a slightly softer line with his employees. When his secretary, Miss Hall (Donnelly), is caught spending her salary on a dress from one of the store’s competitors, Anderson is fit to be tied. “Whose money?” he asks. “Who pays that to you?” He’ll make an example and embarrass her, but he will not take her livelihood away. It’s the same with store detective Sweeney (Jenkins). He catches one of the customers, Mrs. Hickox (Gateson), supposedly in the act of stealing a purse, but it's her own purse. Taken to his office, Anderson tries to charm her, but to no avail, especially when she informs him that her husband is the editor of one of the city’s larger newspapers. At a loss, Anderson asks her if there might be some item in the store she would like to have as a token of apology and to keep the story out of the papers. There is, she says: a grand piano, which he lets her have. After she leaves, he turns his wrath on Sweeney, telling him that the piano is coming out of his salary at the rate of $10 a week. When Sweeney protests that it will take him the rest of his life to pay the debt, Anderson answers, “I doubt if you’ll live that long. Get out.” But he doesn’t fire Sweeney. Anderson is the example of the perfect Depression manager: a ruthless businessman who will fight for each and every dollar, without recourse to any sort of emotion, be it sentimentality, tenderness, or pity. It’s exploit or be exploited, the perfect person for these Social Darwinian times.

As with Skyscraper Souls, the film revolves around, and is dominated by, the persona of Warren William. Ironically, William was not the studio’s first choice for the part. That was Edward G. Robinson, who turned the part down, causing a small rift between him and the studio. But William turned out to be the right choice. No one played the hard-hearted cad as well as he did, or as charmingly, which made him even more dangerous. Simply put, he’s so good at being so bad. No actor could play this part today; it’s just too cold-blooded. There would have to be some mitigating factor in place to explain why he is the way he is and give him a chance to redeem himself at the end.

It’s always interesting to compare the Pre-Code Loretta Young with the Loretta Young of the ’40s and ‘50s, when she became the poster girl for devout Catholicism. Before she became St. Loretta she was quite the Wild Child. Born Gretchen Young in Salt Lake City, Utah, in 1913, she, along with her sisters, had been appearing on screen as extras since she was four. Eventually, the extra work led to small parts, which in turn led to supporting roles, such as in Laugh, Clown, Laugh (MGM, 1928) with Lon Chaney. Warner Brothers-First National signed her in 1928, and in 1929 she had her first lead role in the early talkie, The Girl in the Glass Cage. From 1928 to 1934, she made almost 50 films, most of them for Warner Bros. with titles like The Truth About YouthBig Business GirlPlay-GirlWeek-End MarriageThey Call It SinMidnight Mary, and Born to Be Bad, among others. In 1930, at the age of 17 she fell in love and eloped to Yuma, Arizona, with her co-star in The Second Floor Mystery, Grant Withers, who was 26. The marriage was a stormy one and lasted only nine months before they divorced. The next film they starred in, Broken Dishes, was due to be released after their divorce, so the studio renamed it Too Young to Marry

In 1934, she jumped ship and signed with Fox, where she went on to become one of Hollywood’s leading ladies. During the filming of The Call of the Wild (1935) with Clark Gable, the two had an on-set affair, which resulted in Loretta becoming pregnant. Because of the morality clauses in their contracts, and the fact that Gable was married, the studio fixers saw to it that the only person outside Gable and Young who knew was Loretta’s mother. Loretta and her mother left for Europe where Loretta delivered a healthy baby girl on November 6, 1935, whom she named Judith. Studio publicity said that Judith was adopted while Loretta was in Europe on vacation. If Barbara Stanwyck could be said to be the Queen of the Pre-Codes, then Loretta Young was its Princess.

Young’s work in Employees’ Entrance was in fitting with her other film work at the time – outstanding. I have never seen any actress of that time play a drunk as well or as convincingly as Young, and the chemistry between her and William was superb, making the fact that she hated him quite believable. Alice White, making a return to the screen after a nearly two-year absence, is pleasantly surprising as Polly Dale, Anderson’s “sex torpedo,” using her to destroy business rivals. Her scenes with William are priceless; the two trade barbs and circle each other like two hyneas as they are but two different examples of the same species. White was being groomed for major stardom by Warner’s in the late silent/early sound era, but her limited acting skills, combined with a full-blown case of “divadom,” led her to walking away from the studio. Sadly, just as he career was finally getting back on track, a scandal later that same year ruined any chances she had to a comeback. Wallace Ford is given more to do here than he was in Skyscraper Souls, and although his scenes with Young are nothing to write home about, his scenes with William are excellent, reflecting the intensity between the two characters. Ford was in interesting actor: during the ‘30s he was a featured player in A-pictures and a leading man in the B’s before settling down as a character actor in the ‘40s and ‘50s.

Employee’s Entrance is an engrossing, yet hard movie to watch, mainly because of the character of Kurt Anderson. Yet, it’s Warren William’s performance as Anderson that makes the film so lively and fascinating. He’s a monster, and revels in being such. Nor does the movie seek to make excuses for him. No, he is a self-made monster, and Williams does a masterly job in playing the monster with a mixture of hostility and sublimated sadness. It was directed in usual assembly belt fashion by Roy Del Ruth, whose Pre-Code films always manage to find a raw nerve and focus on it, which is why his films are so interesting.


Polly Dale: Hello, Mr. Anderson.

Kurt Anderson: Oh, it’s you. I didn’t know you with all your clothes on.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials

Dinner and a Movie

Hokey Sci-Fi and Haut Korean

By Steve Herte

When we moved into our neighborhood back in 1957, we met and knew everybody on three sides of our block and everybody on our street (which wasn’t difficult because our street is only two blocks long). 

One by one, however, our friends moved out and now, mine is the only family left of the originals. Yes, there are new friends, different friends, but more people keep to themselves. Every house has more than one car and, traffic is almost constant. No children play in the street now. It’s too dangerous.

I recently went to a wake. One of my former neighbors who moved to Nassau County had passed. Thanks to my sister, my Dad and I could get there and it was worth it. I haven’t seen some of these friends in over 30 years and there wasn’t enough time to catch up on all the history. It was draining, but it was good. I was ready for a positive experience after.

The next morning, I noticed a large, strange, white mushroom growing in several lawns on my block. I’d never seen it before, but I took a photo of it for later identification. Little did I know that these mushrooms were an omen of good things to come at dinner that night. As for the movie? No mushrooms. Enjoy!

Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials (20th Century Fox, 2015) – Director: Wes Ball. Writers: T.S. Nowlio (s/p), James Dashner (novel). Stars: Dylan O’Brien, Aiden Gillen, Ki Hong Lee, Thomas Brodie-Sangster, Dexter Darden, Alexander Flores, Kaya Scodelario, Jacob Lofland, Patricia Clarkson, Rosa Salazar, Giancarlo Esposito, Terry Dale Parks, Lili Taylor, & Barry Pepper. Color, PG-13, 131 minutes.

In a post-apocalyptic world where the bad guys belong to an organization called WCKD (pronounced “wicked”) and most people over teen-age are afflicted with a global pandemic called “The Flair,” which turns them into snarling, black-mouthed zombies (called “Cranks”), you know you have the makings of a class-A “B” movie. For those who hate abbreviations like I do, WCKD stands for World in Catastrophe: Killzone Experiment Department. You can’t make this up.

Add in some familiar scenes from Planet of the ApesDune and Cloverfield, sprinkle in trite, predictable dialogue and make sure the cast delivers their lines in the corniest way possible, just for fun. Then do this for over two hours and you have the makings of a possible disaster. Lastly, make it perfectly obvious at the end of the movie that there’s going to be another one and you’ll have everyone under 15 in wild anticipation.

To say that this sequel of the original Maze Runner (2014) lived up to the negative stereotypes of typical sequels would be a gross understatement. It really is not as good as the first one. The really great mechanical creatures – called “grievers” – only appear once, in a drug-induced dream sequence and the only excitement happens in several chase scenes. For those who love the Die Hard series, you’d hate this one. Not enough things blowing up.

At least the creators give us a short background at the beginning of the film. The scene is murky and the air is filled with a snow-like ash as Tommy’s mother hands him over to the authorities of WCKD because he’s an “immune.” Then we relive his teen-age elevator ride up to the center of “The Glade” – the beautiful pastoral living area in the center of the colossal maze – and his subsequent escape from the maze with his five comrades.

Now, it seems they’ve been rescued from WCKD by Janson (Gillen) and are given decent sleeping quarters with real bunk-beds, and meals they don’t have to scrounge for in a cafeteria-like setting with dozens of other teens like themselves. Minho (Lee), Newt (Brodie-Sangster), Frypan (Darden), and Winston (Flores) are happy with their new surroundings and the promise of getting to the “safe area” – a paradisiacal place they’ve dreamed of going to – somewhere beyond the mountains. Thomas (O’Brien), however, is still suspicious, especially when he sees Teresa (Scodelario), the sixth member of their maze-surviving group, being led off to another location.

One day, in the cafeteria, Thomas’ friends point out the only kid who doesn’t associate with any others, whose name is Aris Jones (Lofland). Aris is a lot like Thomas. When he sees eight teens “chosen” daily to get out of the cafeteria and supposedly are taken to the safe area, he wants to know what’s on the other side of that formidable door. One night, Aris accesses Thomas’ dorm room through the ventilation shafts (how many movies have we seen that before?) and he leads Thomas to an overhead grid where they see the “nurse” wheeling something that looks like a cross between a coffin and a cryogenic chamber into another sealed area of the complex.

The next day, Thomas makes a fuss with the two guards at the door after the “chosen” eight are led out and he steals a swipe card. That night, he and Aris make their way to the sealed area and find rows and rows of teens in a semi-coma, hooked up to machines that are distilling the immune DNA from their blood (one of them is Teresa). They learn that Janson is working for WCKD and, in particular for Ava Paige (Clarkson), who put them in the maze to begin with. They haven’t been rescued; they’ve been played.

If there is a running gag in this movie – and if it were funny – it’s the repeated line, “What’s your plan?” – always asked of Thomas. Well, he comes up with a plan for the entire group (with a rescued Teresa) to escape Janson’s clutches and head towards the mountains hoping to find the resistance group called “The Right Hand.” The first chase scene ensues and they escape, climb an enormous sand dune and watch as the searchers look everywhere for them but in the straight-line direction they took. Hmmm.

The sandstorm covers their tracks and they come upon a deserted dwelling that appears to have been occupied recently. It has dishes, food, water, clothing and power. Thomas concludes that this must have been a way station for survivors going to the mountains. Of course there are some Cranks living there and one of them scrapes Winston’s abdomen. Second chase scene. They quickly gather up whatever supplies they can carry and run off through The Scorch, basically a desert, which takes them through a ruined version of New York City (complete with a sand-mounded George Washington Bridge) toward the distant mountains (which are far too craggier than the Appalachians). Winston’s injuries cause him to catch The Flair and begrudgingly, they leave him with a gun to commit suicide before he turns into a Crank. (Can you sing the song from Peter Pan, “I Don’t Wanna Grow Up?”)

One night, Thomas wakes up and sees lights in the distance, as well as a fierce lightning storm edging up behind them. The third chase scene. They run as fast as they can toward the lights, but not fast enough. Minho is struck by lightning. The rest have to prop him up and drag him to safety where he recovers with a “What happened?”

They now find themselves in another complex with Cranks in chains to act as guard dogs, where they meet Brenda (Salazar) and Jorge (Esposito), the man in charge. As soon as he learns they escaped from WCKD, the dollar signs light up in his eyes. But when WCKD attacks his installation, he agrees to take the group to the mountains. Fourth chase scene. But escaping the complex is not easy and Thomas and Brenda get separated from the rest and wind up in the sewer system.

I ask you, if confronted with a clean tunnel with a light at the end of it branching off from a tunnel overhung with blood-red root-like growths, which way do you go? “What are those?” Brenda asks in curiosity. When a lame rat gets attacked by one of the growths and a Crank emerges from it and eats the rat, we kind of get the idea. Fifth chase scene. This time it’s all up the side of a skyscraper that has toppled onto one across the street from it – a la Cloverfield. They escape and rejoin the others, but Brenda’s been scraped by a Crank.

The group just barely makes it to the foothills (where they are sniped at in a mountain pass by two girls who, strangely, know Aris) and meet Carl (Parks) and his reduced army of resistance fighters. When Brenda collapses in front of them, he wants to shoot her before she changes, but Mary (Taylor), who knows Thomas from childhood, has a way of making an antigen using Thomas’ blood and distilling out the immune factor.

Brenda gets better, but Teresa is a fink and rats the group out to WCKD, who swoops down and decimates the small army and flies away with Teresa. (Last chase/action scene.) Thomas has another plan. Go back to WCKD and retrieve Teresa; (Seriously?) hence, another movie. As Frypan says while in the desert, “I miss the Glade.” So do I, Frypan. So do I.

Rating: 2 out of 5 Martini glasses.

Gaonnuri (Gah-ohn-noo-ree)
1250 Broadway – 39th floor (32nd Street)New York

The name means “Center of the World” and Manhattan-wise the location is virtually correct, bordering on Herald Square. The main attractions of this sleek, upscale Korean restaurant is its sweeping west and north views of the Hudson River and New York skyline, plus its incredible menu.

1250 Broadway is similar to many skyscrapers in Manhattan; lots of glass and steel rising straight up from the sidewalk, with the main lobby is on the 32nd Street side. Currently, the entire ground level is swathed in a gauzy construction curtain, which makes the entrance harder to see. To the left of the main reception desk of this Spartan white marble lobby is a small lectern with “Gaonnuri” printed on the wall behind it. A young lady at the lectern will check the reservation and use her swipe card to let you through the turnstile to the elevator bank. There, on the left, are the only two elevators that go to the 39th floor.

A minute later, the elevator doors open on a warm glow of golden light on dark wood paneling and I am in Gaonnuri. I turned to the right, saw the Captain’s Station (there were two couples already there), and announced my reservation. The young lady asked me to have a seat and I took a moment to admire the floor-to-ceiling wall of a wine-rack separating me from the main dining area.

I only had time to take my bag off my shoulder and doff my cap before she returned and led me to a table in the center of the raised platform forming the center of the restaurant. I had an excellent view of the cityscape outside as well as the diners sitting by the windows. I have to admit that I was impressed. The chair was comfortable but there was nowhere to put my legs. Why? A little history of Korean restaurants is helpful at this juncture: All of them feature a tabletop barbeque and the tables are equipped with a stove in the center support column. To protect the diners from the heat, the support column is built wide, thus depriving tall people of legroom. I adapted. The tabletop is bare wood polished nicely, with a plastic woven mat covering the heating element.

With the wine/cocktail list standing open on the table to my left and the food menu lying to my right, all was ready. As I was placing my napkin in my lap when my server, the tall, thin Jaesang, appeared and took my water preference (which he already held in a frosty pitcher). I had had time to peruse the drinks list when he asked if I wanted a cocktail. I chose the Fiery Julep – absinthe, Woodford Reserve bourbon, mint leaves, hand-squeezed lemon juice, and simple syrup. I’m not sure what made it “fiery” but it was delicious in spite of the mint leaves (which, fortunately, were not over-powering).

The dinner menu is an amazing selection, featuring Hot and Cold Appetizers, Table Barbeque, Side Orders and Entrees, as well as a Fall Tasting Menu. I saw so many dishes that I’ve never eaten (I’ve only been to seven or eight Korean restaurants in my whole history – each with a different negative experience – and I’ve been reticent ever since) that eventually, I called Jaesang over and told him I decided on the Tasting Menu because, as I said to him, I was unfamiliar with most (I said “all”) of the dishes. He asked if I had any food allergies and I said no. He noted my order and I studied the wine list while he went to put the order in.

I saw the 2012 William Fèvre Chablis from France and immediately knew what I wanted. It would go superbly with every dish on the Tasting Menu, and I haven’t had Chablis in a long time. It’s one of my favorite whites. When Jaesang brought the wine I was finishing up the amuse-bouche, a lovely little mushroom cream soup with a delicate, nutty flavor. The chablis was indeed bright and crisp in flavor and I thought, while it was chilling in the ice bucket, I would have a second julep.

Soon, the first course arrived – Gujeolpan, a platter of nine delicacies. In neat little piles were shredded short rib meat, shrimp, Pyogo mushrooms, cucumber, zucchini, egg, and radish, all arranged like clock points around delicate, flour paper wraps (delicate pancakes) with a deep orange sauce that tasted both fruity and a little spicy. Jaesang instructed me to make any combinations I liked with the sauce on the pancake, roll it up like a burrito, and eat it as finger-food. It was great. No matter what combination, it was a delightful sensation. There were only four pancakes and not enough room for all the fillings. No problem. I ate the remainder with my silver chopsticks (How’s that for posh? I’m glad I wore a jacket.)

The second course was octopus Moochim – tender octopus toasted in a garlic-soy sauce with cabbage and red leaf-lettuce served on an elegant avocado-green plate. As meticulously placed as the first dish was, this one was arty. I almost didn’t want to disturb it. But once I tasted it, it was hard not to go into a feeding frenzy. I’m always amazed when octopus is tender. And the greens were crisp with a light spicy vinegary dressing.

Course number three was almost erotic. The mushroom Bokkeum – stir-fried baby portobello, king oyster, enoki, pine and pyogo mushrooms with a pear-garlic soy sauce – was a woodsy fantasy! Each mushroom had its own character, sweet, nutty, earthy, savory and succulent. I commented on how much I liked this dish to Jaesang and he agreed. He even stated that it was his favorite. It was difficult to eat this dish slowly and savor every bite.

The fourth course, called crab gamejeong, was a crab shell (actually a slice of cucumber) mounded with crabmeat, chopped short rib, onions, green bell peppers, and carrots and floating in a small lake of bright red Korean pepper paste soup. I recognized the fiery soup from a previous dining experience where I had ordered a bowl of it and the spice was too much for me (I was not warned). Here, it was just an accent to the lovely crab/short rib combination. I was determined for this restaurant to be a new experience and I never let on that I knew the soup. I just enjoyed it.

In the fifth slot was smoked marinated Galbi – smoked prime beef short rib marinated in Gaonnuri’s signature sauce. Presentation was everything: The dish was covered with a cylindrical glass and I could see the smoke inside. Jaesang invited me to take a picture as he removed the cover and the smoke escaped. I did. It reminded me of a cocktail I had at Hakkasan – an upscale Cantonese place. The smoking did wonders for the tender, juicy beef. Whatever was in their signature sauce, it was wonderful, sweet and savory at the same time. I took my time.

The main course was mushroom Bibimbap and Doenjang Jjigae – a Kimchi fried-rice dish mixed with oyster, portobello, pyogo and king oyster mushrooms (I can’t get enough of mushrooms and this was the motherlode!) and sided with more mushrooms, radish, Kimchi (the Korean national dish, a spicy cabbage) and a lovely vegetable stew. I finished everything. What I couldn’t pick up with the chopsticks, I devoured with the silver spoon they provided.

Fortunately, dessert was included. Called “La Figue,” it was an olive oil cake with dulcey (sweet) cremeux (a fluffy pudding), black mission figs, candied walnuts and Mascarpone gelato. The whole presentation resembled a Chinese boat with two chocolate sails and raspberry sparkles on the waves. It was fabulous! A cup of Peachy Oolong tea finished off this feast perfectly.

Finally, after forty-two years of dining out, I’ve found a Korean restaurant where I had attentive, caring service, no one went ballistic over a faux pas I made, I was able to connect with the servers, and every detail I needed was filled in. A classy, wonderful dining adventure in a beautiful ambiance, with something on the menu to please everyone, the choice to barbeque or not, and an impressive wine list with both affordable and exotic selections, that’s Gaonnuri. I’m now cured of my Korea-phobia!

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