Monday, December 11, 2017

The Story of Mankind (Cambridge Productions/Warner Bros., 1957)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2017 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Charles and I watched one of the downright weirdest movies ever made, The Story of Mankind (“Are you sure we have time for it all?” Charles joked when I announced the title), a 1957 Warner Bros. production by producer-director-co-writer Irwin Allen, who previously had made only documentaries but who would become a major force in the movie business in the mid-1970’s when he specialized in disaster movies with all-star casts and turned out two back-to-back blockbuster hits, The Poseidon Adventure and The Towering Inferno. (Though disaster movies have been made before, it was these two films that established “disaster” as a movie genre.) The Story of Mankind — this project, anyway — began life as a pop world-history book by Dutch author Henrik Willem Van Loon, first published in 1922 and which I remember reading in junior high school (before junior high school got renamed with that awful appellation “middle school”), which became famous not only because Van Loon was able to tell a reasonable approximation of the story of mankind in one slim volume but also because of the clever little drawings with which he illustrated it. (I remember one called “Propaganda” which showed a line of people marching off a cliff, obviously induced to do so by some dictator’s propaganda.)

For some reason Irwin Allen decided there was a movie in Van Loon’s book, and what he and screenwriter Charles Bennett (best known for the six Alfred Hitchcock films he worked on between 1934 and 1940 — indeed I’ve argued in these pages that Bennett was to Hitchcock what Robert Riskin was to Frank Capra, or Dudley Nichols to John Ford) came up with was a framing story in which humankind has invented the “super H-bomb” (I think it was pretty much the same as the “solarbonite bomb” that figured prominently in Ed Wood’s messterpiece Plan Nine from Outer Space), not knowing that its use will mean the immediate destruction of Earth as a viable human habitat. So a “Celestial Tribunal” headed by “High Judge” (i.e., God) Cedric Hardwicke has been called to determine whether humanity should be allowed to destroy itself with the super H-bomb or whether the celestial tribunal should intervene and destroy the bomb before it can be used, thereby sparing humanity indefinitely. The two representatives who appear as attorneys for both sides — “The Spirit of Man” (Ronald Colman, surprisingly dignified and impressive in what turned out to be his final film), arguing on the side of humanity’s existence; and “Mr. Scratch’ (Vincent Price), a.k.a. the Devil (the same pseudonym used for the Devil in William Dieterle’s 1941 film All That Money Can Buy, a.k.a. The Devil and Daniel Webster, in which Walter Huston played him), arguing for our destruction — are allowed to cite various incidents from human history to argue that humans are either good or evil. The trial kicks off with Pharoah Khufu of Egypt (John Carradine) — who has a bone to pick with Mr. Scratch because the latter promised him immortality (I couldn’t help but joke, “And all I got to do was be in terrible horror movies, just like you!”) — who according to the script consigned a million human souls to the Devil by forcing them to build the Great Pyramid. The Spirit of Man cites Moses (Francis X. Bushman) as a counter-example of someone good who came out of ancient Egypt. It goes on pretty much like that from there, with Price denouncing the ancient Greeks and Romans as warmongers and Colman citing the beauty of the art and culture they created as well as the ways they extended scientific knowledge.

Some of the sketches provided to illustrate various parts of human history are pretty risible — Groucho, Chico and Harpo Marx all appear but not in the same scene; instead Chico plays a monk who tries to talk Christopher Columbus (Anthony Dexter) out of his mad plan to try to reach the Indies by sailing west instead of East; Groucho is Peter Minuit, skillfully swindling an Indian out of Manhattan Island for $24 (he’s one of the few stars in this film who actually got to play pretty close to his normal typecasting); and Harpo is Sir Isaac Newton, playing his harp in an apple orchard (his song is Stephen Foster’s “Beautiful Dreamer,” actually written over a century after Newton’s time, and I couldn’t help but wish that a giant ape had come on and picked him and his instrument up as he played) when an apple falls on his head and gives him the idea for the theory of gravity. (This is Harpo’s only color film, so we finally get to see his famous wig the red color it was on stage rather than the “blonde” it looked like in the Marx Brothers’ joint movies.) Peter Lorre makes a quite good Emperor Nero (and Allen and Bennett blessedly avoid letting us hear him attempt to sing) even though he seems to have been patterning his performance on Emil Jannings’ in the 1924 German-Italian co-production of Quo Vadis? (I’ve never seen that movie, but I have seen how Jannings posed as Nero in the stills), but Virginia Mayo as Cleopatra (I’m not making this up, you know!) and Helmut Dantine as Mark Antony seem to be the warmup act for the Liz Taylor-Richard Burton misfire on the same story. The film earned the usual critical brickbats for casting 42-year-old Hedy Lamarr as 19-year-old Joan of Arc (and they had her wear her hair close-cropped as usual in Joan of Arc movies even though contemporary art depicts the real one as having long brown hair), but she’s actually one of the better cast members even though the brevity of the “turns” means it’s unfair to compare the performances here to actors playing the same roles in full-length features about their historical characters.

Agnes Moorehead is surprisingly good as Queen Elizabeth I, though the script for her sequence — William Shakespeare (Reginald Gardiner) reads her a bit of his patriotic poetry and this inspires her to resist and ultimately defeat the Spanish Armada instead of surrendering to it — is preposterous. The French Revolution sequence suffers from the dippy casting of dumb-blonde Marie Wilson as Marie Antoinette, though Franklin Pangborn is marvelous as the Marquis de Varennes — and of course Allen and Bennett couldn’t resist having her say, “Let ’em eat cake,” though that’s been pretty well debunked now (it was a long-standing urban legend about clueless royals and had first appeared in print a century before Marie Antoinette’s time). There’s also the unlikely casting of Dennis Hopper as Napoleon (with Marie Windsor as an appropriately slatternly Josephine), and a final montage sequence of Adolf Hitler, alternately represented by sound recordings of the real one and film clips with Bobby Watson (repeating the role he’d played in To Be or Not to Be and quite a few other World War II-era movies, when he’d been Hollywood’s go-to guy for Der Führer) shown over a backdrop of shots from Leni Riefenstahl’s dark masterpiece Triumph of the Will. That’s hardly the only use of stock footage in this film; we also get clips from Land of the Pharoahs, Helen of Troy, King Richard and the Crusaders, Captain Horatio Hornblower and, I suspect, John Ford’s The Searchers to represent the cruelty with which the Anglo-American settlers repressed and wiped out the Native Americans. (Oddly, this movie is one of the most blatantly pro-Native films turned out by Hollywood before the early 1970’s, when movies like Little Big Man and, later, Dances with Wolves made pro-Native Westerns fashionable; when Vincent Price made the point that the white Europeans in America wiped out the Indians and enslaved the Blacks for a workforce, I joked, “He sounds like Howard Zinn.”)

The Story of Mankind is one of those film projects that seems to have been misbegotten from the get-go — according to an imdb.com “Trivia” poster, when Ronald Colman was asked if the project were based on a book, he said, “Yes, but they are using only the notes on the dust jacket” — one wonders who Irwin Allen and the “suits” at Warners who green-lighted it thought the audience was going to be. And yet it’s good enough it didn’t really deserve the designation it got from the Medved brothers as one of The 50 Worst Films of All Time in their book of that title. Most of whatever quality it has comes from the lead actors, Ronald Colman and Vincent Price; Colman tackles his nearly impossible assignment with grace, dignity and a quite sense of commitment (I can think of quite a few major stars whose last films were considerably worse than this one!), and Price goes into the “camp” mode that was his default setting whenever he had to cope with an especially ridiculous and clichéd script — though there are moments here that evoke memories of the finest performance he ever gave, as Oscar Wilde in his 1977 one-man stage show Diversions and Delights. (I hate to keep mentioning this play, which doesn’t seem ever to have been recorded or filmed and is therefore lost, but I was lucky enough to get to see it and it was magnificent, a daunting challenge to which Price fully and vividly rose. Though he spent decades making increasingly wretched horror films that wasted his talents, Vincent Price could act.) Hardwicke’s presence as the divine judge of the celestial court is also welcome — it’s interesting that at least three of the actors here played major roles in Universal horror films in the early 1940’s (Price in The Invisible Man Returns, Hardwicke in The Ghost of Frankenstein and Carradine in The Mummy’s Ghost) — and overall The Story of Mankind is a compelling movie in its sheer weirdness, even if it’s not “good” in any lasting artistic sense and one can see why one contemporary critic said that if Price’s character had waited a bit longer, he could have cited the movie The Story of Mankind as one more piece of evidence arguing for our destruction.

Sunday, December 10, 2017

Rogue One: A “Star Wars” Story (Lucasfilm, Allison Shearmur Productions, Black Hangar Studios, Walt Disney Studios, 2016)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2017 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I ran Rogue One, the last DVD I bought at Vons and one I was interested in because it takes place in the Star Wars universe but is a free-standing story and not part of the endless “saga” that began way back in 1977 with the film that was then simply called Star Wars but is now officially known as Star Wars, Episode 4: A New Hope. I must confess that New Hope remains the only Star Wars film I’ve seen except for this one — when it came out in 1977 I liked it enough to see it three times but I didn’t go nuts about it the way a lot of people did, and I missed the immediate sequelae, The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, because when they came out I was with my then-girlfriend Cat and she had hated the first one so much she wasn’t at all interested in the sequel. (Both of us were militant atheists then — we’ve since mellowed out a good deal on the concept of God and the possibility of His/Her/Its existence — and whereas I’d read the obvious religious metaphor of “The Force” as annoying but not disqualifying, she was so put off by it she couldn’t stand the entire movie — but then I don’t think Cat likes science fiction that much as a genre: she also hated 2001: A Space Odyssey and I’d regard that as one of the two greatest movies ever made, Citizen Kane being the other.) Neither Charles nor I were all that interested in the three “prequels” that started coming out in the 1990’s, and so far we’ve bypassed The Phantom Menace or whatever it was called — the one that was supposed to pick up the story after Return of the Jedi ended — and the upcoming episode, The Last Jedi, isn’t exactly on our must-see list either. Charles and I had watched Mark Hamill on Stephen Colbert’s late-night show last week and, while he spent most of his time there savoring the irony that he was there to promote a movie he couldn’t talk about (George Lucas and the mavens at Lucasfilm and Disney having decreed they wanted nothing out about the film’s plot until it’s actually released December 15), he said that he didn’t particularly like science fiction as a genre when he was offered the lead in the first Star Wars back in the 1970’s but he took the part anyway because he was attracted to the humor in it. 

Alas, as the Star Wars saga has continued, spun off and grown prequelae, sequelae and spin-offs like Rogue One it’s taken on a grim seriousness and the moments of levity that livened up the first film have become just silly. About the only laughs in Rogue One come from the robot — excuse me, “’droid” — K-2SO (Alan Tudyk), and he’s just doing a lamer version of the prissy act the original C-3PO did 40 years ago. It took me a while to realize it, but Rogue One is basically a ripoff of World War II commando movies in general and The Guns of Navarone in particular — the bad guys have a super-weapon and the good guys have to send in a commando team to blow it up. That’s about all the plot there is, though there’s an admixture of King Solomon’s Mines in that the lead character is a young woman, Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones), who in the opening scene has to hide out from the Empire’s own commando squad, led by Orson Krennick (a quite nice villainous performance by Ben Mendelson, even though he seems to be channeling Raymond Massey as well as Peter Cushing, who was actually in the first Star Wars in a similar role), which is there to kidnap her father, Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen, the actor who had the hopeless task of playing the villain in the re-remake of the James Bond story Casino Royale, a part previously played by Peter Lorre and Orson Welles!). Galen is a former Imperial scientist who had come close to perfecting the Death Star when he fled with his wife Lyra (Valerie Kane, who bears an unfortunate resemblance to a young Mick Jagger in drag) and became a farmer on a remote planet. Not remote enough, as Krennick’s squad finds him, kidnaps him and takes him back to Empire Central to force him to complete his work on the Death Star. Jyn gets away — her mom is presumably killed, since we never see her again — and she’s raised by rebel leader Saw Guerera (an almost unrecognizable Forest Whitaker, a first-rate actor ill-used as usual: Bird, for which he should have won an Academy Award, and The Last King of Scotland, for which he did, are his only truly great films). Naturally she wants to join the rebellion against the Empire and also to see her father again, so she ends up on the planet where the rebellion against the Empire is headquartered, where she encounters Senator Pamlo (Sharon Duncan-Brewster), political leader of the rebels. 

One of the ironies is that before this film was released, various radical-Right nut-cases in the U.S. decided that this movie was a propaganda piece against Donald Trump and even alleged that just before it was released, the actors were called back for reshoots of additional scenes quickly written after the election result to make the film even more anti-Trump than it was originally. The irony is not only that the film isn’t particularly anti-Trump — the closest it gets is an early scene in which Krennick says that they need Galen Erso back because his weapon will bring peace to the universe, and when Lyra says, “You’re confusing peace with terror,” Krennick says, “Well, you have to start somewhere” — but Senator Pamlo (the only female principal besides Jyn) is clearly an unflattering portrait of Hillary Clinton, anxious to appease the Empire and settle the war while Jyn’s foster-dad Saw Guerera is the Bernie Sanders-esque voice of progressive militancy who arranges for Jyn to fly with captain Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) and a crew of rebel hard-liners aboard a stolen Imperial cargo ship to the planet where the Death Star is being built and destroy both the weapon itself and the plans for it. (One annoying aspect of the Star Wars saga is the ugly names Lucas and his writers have come up with for their characters; as a New Yorker critic noted when one of the later episodes came out, if you’re going to create a universe you have to name everyone and everything in it, and as a linguistics professor in his day job J. R. R. Tolkien had a professional advantage over George Lucas in this department: if you want a name for absolute evil, the New Yorker critic argued, “Mordor” works a lot better than “Sith.”) The original rebel headquarters are destroyed by an Imperial force wielding an early version of the Death Star — it can’t yet blow up an entire planet but it can take out a giant fortress, which for some reason, like all the rebel headquarters in this movie, looks like a Mayan temple: at one point, when this film made one of its repeated and annoying cut-backs from one confusing location to another, Charles joked, “Meanwhile, back at Chichen Itza” — but the commandos get away successfully and eventually, after a lot of boring exposition occasionally livened up by some surprisingly dull “action” scenes, the rebels blow up the original Death Star and Jyn gets the obligatory King Solomon’s Mines reunion scene with her dad just as he’s dying. 

There are cameo appearances by Carrie Fisher and also by Darth Vader, who still speaks with the voice of James Earl Jones (Jones gets a special credit in the final roll) but seems far less imposing and intimidating this time around — Charles was disappointed at how brief Fisher’s cameo was, but I pointed out that Lucas probably has enough outtakes on her he can keep putting her in new Star Wars movies even now that she’s dead (much the way Marlon Brando was still playing Superman’s father, Jor-El, a decade after he died via leftover clips) — and overall Rogue One struck me as being in that middle ground of moviemaking, not good enough to be great but not bad enough to be camp, either (though I suspect the Rifftrax, formerly Mystery Science Theatre 3000, crew could have a good time with it) and hardly the sort of film the hard-core Star Wars devotees would want from the franchise. The script was written by Chris Weitz (director of New Moon, the second film in the Twilight series and, I thought, the best of them) and Tony Gilroy (who for once kept his penchant for jaw-dropping, neck-snapping “reversals” in check) from a story by John Knoll and Gary Whitta (his last name looks like that of a Star Wars character) based on the characters created by George Lucas. The director was Gareth Edwards, whose two previous features, the low-budget indie Monsters and the latest reboot of Godzilla, are, like Rogue One, movies that take a potentially compelling idea and fall short of its potential, but still manage to entertain. But the really big problems with Rogue One are the sense that we’ve seen it all before and the awful, mind-numbing seriousness with which it’s made, almost totally lacking the enlivening bits of campy humor that made the original Star Wars so much fun.

Thursday, December 7, 2017

A Very Pentatonix Christmas (NBC-TV, December 6, 2017)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2017 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I watched an alternately moving and frustrating Christmas show on NBC called A Very Pentatonix Christmas — moving when the Pentatonickers were actually singing, frustrating when they were doing just about anything else. My hope that the show would be just an hour (less commercials) of engaging a cappella singing from Pentatonix were dashed early on, when they not only announced several guest stars — some of whom, like Jennifer Hudson and country singer Brett Eldridge (who’d appeared along with Pentatonix on last week’s Christmas at Rockefeller Center show), belonged on a music program, while others (Jay Leno, Conan O’Brien, Kermit the Frog and his evil doppelganger Konstantin) didn’t. The desperately unfunny Kermit/Konstantin sequence, apparently repeated from a previous year’s Pentatonix Christmas special (did someone actually think this was good?), was by far the most excruciating and oppressive segment of this often annoying program. It was more or less redeemed by some lovely singing, though Pentatonix still frustrates the hell out of me because of those damned drum-machine effects that ruin just about everything they sing. (As I’ve noted about them before, I originally thought they were cheating on the a cappella promise and using a real drum machine; later I found out it’s really one of the Pentatonickers vocally imitating a drum machine, but that didn’t make me like the sound any better.) 

They began with an O.K. medley of “Deck the Halls” and “Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!” (“Let it Snow!”3 was also the song they performed on Christmas at Rockefeller Center) and did a short chorus of “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” with Kermit the Frog (whoever’s voicing him now has the inflections of Jim Henson down perfectly), then did “The Little Drummer Boy” reasonably effectively (though for some reason they left out the “Mary nodded/The ox and lamb kept time/I played my drum for him/I played my very best for him” chorus) and did a quite creatively arranged “take” on “Jingle Bells” before dragging out yet another unmusical and unfunny “guest star.” She was Darcy Lynn Farmer (at least that’s the best job I can do right now in deciphering my own notes — my handwriting has got so bad I could go to Congress and write the Republican tax bill!), the winner of the most recent season of America’s Got Talent! (a thoroughly horrible “reality” show I’ve joked should be called America’s Got Plenty of People Willing to Embarrass the Hell Out of Themselves to Get on Television!). She’s a 13-year-old “singer” (quotes definitely merited) and ventriloquist who, along with her dummy Petunia (who looks like the Velveteen Bunny), did an awful parody lyric to “O Tannenbaum” called “O Easter Egg.” (I’d like to reopen Devil’s Island to incarcerate the writer who actually thought this crap was entertaining.) 

Then there was another lame video segment in which computer-animated versions of the Pentatonickers and others did an almost as awful song called “Crusty the Snowman” (unlike Frosty, Crusty doesn’t melt — well, he does but then a sudden cold snap turns him into ice and he survives in that state — I warned you this wasn’t funny!). After that came the high point of the show: Jennifer Hudson in her current slimmed-down state joined Pentatonix for a searing gospel rendition of the old white hymn “How Great Thou Art” which, at least for the first chorus, outpointed even Mahalia Jackson (who sang it superbly but was handicapped by an Abbey Rents arrangement from a white orchestra and choir) on this song. Then they kicked in that damned drum-machine effect and the mood was weakened, if not spoiled completely. Next up came a version of “Carol of the Bells” and then Brett Eldredge joined Pentatonix for “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” — for which one of the Pentatonickers played piano. They closed the show with a cover of John Lennon’s “Imagine” — if they had wanted to represent Lennon on a Christmas-themed show, why not “Happy Xmas (War Is Over)”? — which was absolutely beautiful for the first chorus until, you guessed it, they started up that damned (simulated) drum machine again! The only music heard after that was a brief orchestral snatch of “Silent Night” over the closing credits. I like Pentatonix but I would like them a lot better if they stopped doing the drum-machine effects, and by chance earlier that morning I’d heard an old record by the granddaddies of their act, the Mills Brothers (who were billed as “Four Boys and a Guitar” — the guitar was the only “real” instrument they used; everything else you heard on the records was the Mills Brothers simulating instruments in the ways Bobby McFerrin was considered so innovative for doing in the late 1980’s), which put the whole Pentatonix phenomenon in badly-needed historical perspective.

Monday, December 4, 2017

The Viking (Technicolor/MGM, 1928)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2017 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Charles and I ended up watching something from my backlog of home-recorded DVD’s during the pre-“all-digital” days when you could still record TV shows without paying even more of a ransom to your cable company, and the film was a fascinating one: The Viking, which imdb.com dated 1928 (most sources have 1929, but both are correct: it had a brief issue as a silent in November 1928 and then was taken back into the lab and outfitted with a recorded music score and some sound effects and “wild” voices) and which is unique because it was the only film not only shot in two-strip Technicolor throughout but actually produced by the Technicolor company. Technicolor’s founders, Herbert and Natalie Kalmus (an estranged couple who worked together for 20 years and stayed married even though they weren’t living together or still having a personal relationship; they only divorced in 1948 because Herbert had met someone and wanted to marry her), decided to produce a big, spectacular movie that would serve as an advertisement for how good the two-strip process was. A lot of patronizing crap has been written about two-strip Technicolor and in particular about its most significant technological limitation — it could not photograph blue (though it could get surprisingly close; in a lot of scenes in The Viking the sky is turquoise and the sea is teal) — to the point where many film histories list Becky Sharp (1935) as “the first color feature” because it was the first made in the improved three-strip process. 

Much of the bad reputation of two-strip comes from the sorry state in which many of the films shot in the process survived, but The Viking is in magnificent condition and really makes a great case for the two-strip technology. The interiors have a glowing, burnished quality that reminds one (reminds me, anyway) of Old Master paintings, and while the exteriors are a bit more chancy — one long-shot of the Viking enclave in Greenland, repeated several times in the film, looked to me like it wasn’t Technicolor at all but blue-tinted black-and-white, and it featured a painted clouds-and-sky backdrop of magisterial phoniness — even in a film set at sea, and thereby featuring a lot of sky and sea (things we expect to be blue), The Viking is quite striking visually, a real testament to cinematographer George Cave, “supervising art director” Carl Oscar Borg (no, he wasn’t part of a hive-mind race of aliens from outer space) and “color art director” Natalie Kalmus, who made herself a fearsome figure to generations of moviemakers with her insistence that the Technicolor hues be vivid and colorful. Indeed, I often find a well-preserved example of two-strip more watchable than the earlier films in three-strip, which filled the screen with blue objects (well, now that they could … ) and Mrs. Kalmus’s insistence that the colors be vivid and bright often produced some horribly overwrought visual clashes. As a movie, The Viking — scripted by Jack Cunningham, with titles by Randolph Bartlett (horribly overwrought titles which reminded Charles of Monty Python and the Holy Grail — a sample from the prologue: “A thousand years ago, long before any white man set foot on the American shore, Viking sea rovers sailed out of the north and down the waterways of the world. These were men of might, who laughed in the teeth of the tempest, and leaped into battle with a song. Plundering — ravaging — they raided the coast of Europe — until the whole world trembled at the very name — THE VIKING”), based on a book called The Thrall of Leif the Lucky by Ottilie A. Liliencrantz. 

I’m not sure whether Ms. L.’s book was supposed to be a novel or an attempt at an historical biography of Leif Ericsson, but Ericsson appears as a major character in the movie (played by Donald Crisp, who was still pretty hunky even though later on he got relegated to character-actor status). So does his father, Eric the Red (Anders Randolf), who in the movie’s backstory has led a band of Vikings from their native Norway and set up a Viking outpost in Greenland. Meanwhile, Norway has been converted to Christianity by King Olaf (Roy Stewart) and Ericsson himself has become a Christian, while on Greenland Eric the Red is still practicing the old Norse religion — his hut contains an idol statue of Thor (who looks a good deal more like a Polynesian tiki than the Thor in the Marvel comics!) — and beheading any Christians who happen to cross his path. Actually, once the preliminaries (Bartlett’s over-the-top expository titles and a few scenes of dogs, with their barks reproduced on the soundtrack) are over, the first thing we see is a woman doing needlepoint. She is Lady Editha (Claire MacDowell), and she and her son Alwin (LeRoy Mason) are captured by a Viking raiding party. She disappears and Alwin becomes the slave of Helga Nilsson (Pauline Starke, whose place in movie history is almost exclusively from having replaced Greta Garbo in MGM’s production Women Love Diamonds after Garbo, in the middle of a salary dispute with the studio, said, “I t’ank I go home now” — they thought she merely meant the bungalow in which she was staying in Hollywood, until the next time they heard from her … in Sweden), whose close-ups are luminously beautiful and feminine but who’s also fond of donning a horned helmet and riding with Ericsson’s Vikings on their raids. Ericsson wants to marry her, but of course she derails his plans in that direction by falling in love with Alwin. Ericsson sets off on his voyage to the New World — much to the distaste of his crew, who believe there’s an edge of the world guarded by fearsome sea monsters and they’ll either get eaten by the creatures or fall off — and both Helga and Alwin are on board his craft, which seems to be in a nether world size-wise, too big to be a boat but too small to be a ship (though it has oars and banis of rowers who propel it when there isn’t enough wind for it to sail). Also on board is Ericsson’s Danish navigator, Egil (Harry Lewis Woods), who’s also after Helga and foments the inevitable attempt at a mutiny. 

In the end — as in all the movies about Christopher Columbus — the mutiny is forestalled when the sailors finally spot land, they sail for the coast and put off a party there: Ericsson says he’ll build a stone watchtower because that’s the first thing Vikings do once they conquer some place, and he’ll sail back to Greenland while leaving Alwin and Helga in charge of the Viking colony in the New World. The Viking is scored with a pastiche of classical music, drawing on Grieg’s unfinished opera Sigurd Josalfar but mostly by Wagner: The Flying Dutchman to indicate them at sea, Die Walküre for the growing love between Helga and Alwin (of course I joked that she’d tell him, “You’re not going to turn out to be my brother, are you?”) and the “Dresden Amen” theme Wagner used in Parsifal to indicate whenever Christianity becomes an issue in the plot. (You even hear “wild” voices sing the Steersmen’s Chorus from Dutchman and “Winterstürme wichen den Wonnemond” from Walküre — though you start to wonder why these Scandinavians are singing in German.) In black-and-white The Viking would be a perfectly acceptable silent-era historical romance, with surprisingly little action for a film about Vikings but well plotted and consistently entertaining; the director was Roy William Neill, a capable filmmaker even though his best-known credits were from over a decade later (all but one of the 12 Sherlock Holmes films with Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce for Universal, and his last film, the 1946 Cornell Woolrich-based noir The Black Angel) and hardly indicated he’d be suited for a major costume epic. Nonetheless, The Viking is absolutely gorgeous to watch, beautiful and glowing, and the color adds quite a lot to what would otherwise be a good but routine movie.

Thursday, November 30, 2017

Christmas at Rockefeller Center (NBC-TV, November 29, 2017)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2017 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I watched the annual NBC special Christmas at Rockefeller Center — it’s indicative of how preposterously the holiday season has got stretched out that it isn’t even December and already the Christmas specials are coming on — which turned out to be a pleasant show with a lot of the seasonal classics. With all the controversy surrounding the Left’s so-called “war on Christmas” (President Trump, being the asshole he always is, insisted that during his entire eight-year term in the Presidency Barack Obama had never publicly uttered the word “Christmas,” and of course MS-NBC responded with a long montage of Obama publicly saying “Merry Christmas” throughout his presidency), it was interesting that virtually all the song selections were from the secular end of the Christmas repertoire — only at the very end of the show, when the Harlem Gospel Choir came out to sing “Joy to the World” (they weren’t seen on screen, just heard over the closing credits, and their rendition didn’t sound particularly gospel-ish but it was nice), was there any of that bothersome stuff about Jesus or the Savior or redeeming humanity from its sins or any of the Christian mythos the defenders of “Christmas” in the so-called “war” are supposedly defending. The show opened with Harry Connick, Jr., whose big band was used as the backup for almost everybody who performed, doing a nicely swinging version of Leroy Anderson’s “Sleigh Ride,” following which Gwen Stefani came out for one of the few new songs on the program, “My Gift Is You.” It’s a pretty well-established sub-genre of the Christmas song — the singer tells his or her lover that they don’t have to get them anything because they are the best present s/he could possibly receive — but Stefani wrote and sang it quite nicely (indeed, “nice” seems to be the adjective that most comes to mind describing this entire program). The show followed the usual pattern of these sorts of things — one song per artist, two songs and then cut to a commercial break — and after the first break Pentatonix, an a cappella vocal group that’s become inexplicably popular, did a pretty unsexy version of “Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!” Just about everybody has ignored the pretty obvious sexual implications of this song, but Pentatonix went further than most in de-sexing it. I also continued to be annoyed by Pentatonix’ use of a drum machine — when I first heard them I thought they were cheating and using a real drum machine, Later I found out it’s really one of the Penatatonickers vocally duplicating the sound of a drum machine, but that still doesn’t make me like the sound any better. Then a country singer named Brett Eldridge did “Winter Wonderland” and phrased it almost exactly the way Tony Bennett had when he recorded it — Aretha Franklin’s wild (if ridiculously overarranged) record in the early 1960’s for Columbia might have been a better model for him, but doing Tony Bennett worked just fine, thank you.

After the next commercial break someone or something called Auli’i Cravalho, who’s apparently a minor star on some NBC show or other (and one wonders how she got that multicultural name, which looks like a mashup of Portuguese and Hawai’ian) did an O.K. version of “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” that won’t make me forget Brenda Lee’s version (or the surprisingly good Partridge Family record with the recently departed David Cassidy on lead vocal, which remains my favorite cover) but was still nice — and Connick’s tenor sax soloist duplicated the sax solo on the original record almost exactly. Next up was a young man named Leslie Odom, Jr., an African-American introduced as a jazz singer; he isn’t, really, but his version of “Please Come Home for Christmas” showcased a nice, high voice whose range in itself gave the song a different cast from Charles Brown’s sexy baritone; once again, it paled next to the original but was a nice (that word again!) and thoroughly pleasant cover. The next artist up after the inevitable commercial break was Seal, whom I remember from his explosive debut (and whom I immediately formed an intense crush on!) but whose career pretty much seems to have petered out — he’s resorted to one of the gimmicks a lot of people use when their main career starts to fade, which is to cut a standards album (as Willie Nelson did to great effect and Rod Stewart did terribly — and I have so far chosen not to subject myself to Bob Dylan’s bizarre assaults on the Great American Songbook; in the 1980’s he did “Soon” as part of a PBS gala honoring the memory of George Gershwin, and that was the last time I ever want to hear Dylan singing a standard), and he contributed a version of “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year” which almost uncannily duplicated Johnny Mathis’s phrasing on the song (from one of his later Christmas LP’s: Mathis’s first seasonal album, Merry Christmas, I think is by far his best work; on this album, and especially on the sacred songs that made up side two of the original LP, Mathis turned down that annoying cat-like vibrato of his, dropped his other affectations and sang with more power, sincerity and soul than ever before or since). Then the pop-rock band Train did what appeared to be an original and seemed to be called “Shake Up Christmas” — they aren’t exactly world-beaters but, like so much of the material here, it was nice and engendered good holiday feelings.

After the next break came a Canadian trio called The Tenors — but don’t let the quasi-operatic name fool you: these guys are solidly pop, and their song was announced as “Santa’s Wish” but actually turned out to be the old Coca-Cola jingle “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing” that got released as a single in the early 1970’s and actually became a surprise hit (and inspired the Pepsi-Cola company to commission John Lennon, of all people, to compose a similar pop song extolling their product: ultimately they didn’t use it, but if  you’re curious it’s on Lennon’s 1973 solo LP Mind Games). After that came perhaps the best song of the evening, Jennifer Nettles — who’s so convincing a soul singer that if I’d just listened to this instead of watching her I’d have had no idea she was white — doing “Celebrate Me Home” and pouring her heart and soul into her performance instead of reaching for the bland holiday niceness (that word again!) which contented the other performers. The final break featured the Radio City Rockettes (inevitably) dancing to a song called “Let Christmas Shine” sung by an offstage chorus (probably a recorded one), and the Rockettes are what they’ve always been — though it was nice, and a sign of the human progress we’ve made before the Trump administration reverses it all, that there was a Black Rockette right in the middle of the lineup dancing and kicking up her legs in perfect unison with the white ones. The tree-lighting itself was predictably spectacular, and there was an intriguing announcement that after the holiday season the tree is going to be processed into lumber and donated to Habitat for Humanity so it can be used to build housing for homeless people — a nice (that word again!) example of the altruistic oldthink that won’t be around much longer in the Age of Trump.

Sunday, November 26, 2017

The Beatles: Eight Days a Week — The Touring Years (Apple Corps, Diamond Docs, Imagine Entertainment, OVOW Productions, Universal Music Group International, White Horse Pictures, PBS, 2016)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2017 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved


The original cover for The Beatles at the Hollywood Bowl

KPBS was showing a film I had desperately wanted to see but had missed in theatres and found the DVD too pricey even for me: The Beatles: Eight Days a Week — The Touring Years. This was a 2016 documentary directed by Ron Howard and featuring quite a few interviews not only with the Beatles themselves (the two survivors, Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr, shot new interviews for the film, and John Lennon and George Harrison were represented in film clips in which they talked about the Beatles’ past) but with a wide variety of social commentators as well as at least one bona fide rock ’n’ roll great in his own right, Elvis Costello. (I remember thinking in the 1980’s that Costello would be the one person who could legitimately have taken John’s place in a Beatles reunion — the glasses, the slightly nasal voice, the slashing wit and the penchant for politically conscious subject matter — and my hopes briefly went up when Costello and McCartney actually collaborated on a few songs in the late 1980’s.) Eight Days a Week — to abbreviate its title to something a little less cumbersome — was released in 2016 to quite a lot of ballyhoo, with claims that it contained previously unissued footage of the Beatles performing live (Howard and his crew actually put out ads asking people who had sneaked movie cameras into the Beatles’ gigs and filmed them live “in the day” to make their footage available, though since it was silent Howard dubbed in Beatles’ recordings and also much of it was colorized — you could tell because the dingy brown color scheme was all too typical of the inept early attempts at colorization, though come to think of it it’s also, regrettably, the default look for all too many films being made today and shot in color — I’ve often written in these pages about what a relief it is to watch an old-time color film and be reminded of when color films were actually colorful!) and an accompanying CD release of the Beatles’ 1964 and 1965 live recordings at the Hollywood Bowl. These originally came out in 1977 as an LP (I remember being at a Wherehouse store in the East Bay and buying it in preference to Elvis Presley’s last album — or at least the last issued during his lifetime — Moody Blue) with remastering by George Martin, producer on nearly all the Beatles’ original recordings, of live recordings originally supervised by Capitol Records’ in-house producers in L.A. (Voyle Gilmore, who in the 1950’s had produced most of Frank Sinatra’s Capitol recordings, in 1964 and someone else whose name escapes me and whom I haven’t been able to find identified online, in 1965), and with a marvelous cover featuring copies of tickets for the two concerts and a lot of artful white space.

The LP was reissued on CD with four more songs included and a re-remastering by the late George Martin’s son Giles, who in justification for his latest reprocessing of the tapes said, “Technology has moved on since my father worked on the material all those years ago. Now there’s improved clarity, and so the immediacy and visceral excitement can be heard like never before.” Alas, instead of the beautiful original cover, the CD reissue had a horribly ugly one to tie in with the poster art for the film. When I started watching Eight Days a Week I had a feeling of skepticism — what more could possibly be said about the history of the Beatles, and in particular how much they accomplished in just eight years (1962-1970) as a recording act — and I heard a lot of well-worn anecdotes about their sudden popularity in their native Britain when, at the end of 1962, their second single, “Please Please Me,” hit #1 on the British pop charts. All of a sudden the Beatles were the biggest musical act in their home country, and British reporters started using the phrase “Beatlemania” to describe the intensity of the fan response — though a lot of people don’t realize that in 1963 they were still playing the rounds of concert halls and movie theatres, and weren’t always the top act on the bill. They did one British tour in 1963 opening for the now-forgotten teenage pop singer Helen Shapiro, who told Beatles’ biographer Philip Norman that during that tour John Lennon and Paul McCartney approached her with a song they wanted her to record, “Misery,” and had the air about them of schoolkids shame-facedly turning in a homework assignment late. They were also doing regular live broadcasts on the BBC, including a show of their own called Pop Goes the Beatles, and eventually these were culled into two CD’s that not only added extensively to the Beatles’ recorded repertory but were must-have material for Beatles’ fans. Then in early 1964 the Beatles’ “I Want to Hold Your Hand” sneaked its way onto the top of the U.S. music charts — astonishing the Beatles themselves, who had always thought of the U.S. as the wellspring of rock ’n’ roll and had never believed a British act doing rock would be taken seriously here.

Philip Norman’s book describes how “I Want to Hold Your Hand” got popular in the U.S. — the girlfriend of a D.J. bought it in England and brought it over, he liked it and started playing it on his show, a few other D.J.’s got tapes of the record and added it to their playlists, and suddenly Capitol Records, the U.S. outlet for the British EMI company whose label Parlophone held the Beatles’ contract, finally decided there was a Beatles record that might sell in the U.S. (The previous Beatles’ recordings had been leased by EMI to other U.S. labels after Capitol turned them down — the first three singles and the first LP, Please Please Me, went to the Black-owned Vee-Jay label and its subsidiary, Tollie, while “She Loves You” ended up on an even smaller and less important company, Swan. This explains how on April 3, 1964, the Beatles managed to hold all five of the top five positions on the Billboar Beatle d music charts — those five records were on three different labels!) The Eight Days a Week documentary moves along pretty familiar tracks — the Beatles break through to the top of the U.S. charts, they appear on Ed Sullivan’s weekly variety program three weeks in a row (the DVD reissue of the Beatles’ four Sullivan appearances — including a return visit in September 1965 — is itself one of the most compelling documents in Beatleiana, showing that the Beatles staged their musical and cultural revolution in the heart of the old established order) and they play a few gigs, including one in Washington, D.C. that was filmed in black-and-white by a short-lived company called Electronovision. (The complete film survives except for the very last song, “Twist and Shout,” of which the last half was lost; I remember having a bootleg LP of the soundtrack in which “Twist and Shout” was replaced by another Isley Brothers’ song, “Shout,” which the Beatles had covered on the British documentary Around the Beatles. This was supposedly a live performance but was actually the Beatles just lip-synching to their records.) Eight Days a Week includes some crudely colorized clips from the Washington, D.C. concert, including a sequence in which the circular riser on which Ringo and his drum set sat is moved by stagehands — the concert was given theatre-in-the-round style and the Beatles were turned around during it so they could be facing each part of the audience for at least part of their set. As it progresses, Eight Days a Week gains strength as it gives us new insights into the experience of being a Beatle and in particular of being locked into a rigid schedule that gave them virtually no time for rest and relaxation.

Anxious to milk the Beatles phenomenon for as much money as they could in the short time they expected the band to be popular, the people around the Beatles rushed them into one gig after another — records, broadcasts, photo shoots, concert tours — to the point where they had virtually no time off. The famous line of Wilfred Brambell’s in the film A Hard Day’s Night — “I’ve been in a train and a room, and a car and a room, and a room and a room” — originally came out of the mouth of a Beatle to describe their hermetically sealed existence and was overheard and appropriated by the film’s writer, Alun Owen. Eight Days a Week includes the famous clip from Richard Lester, director of A Hard Day’s Night and Help!, that when he took on A Hard Day’s Night he was told it would be in black-and-white and would have a seven-week shooting schedule because the film’s producer, Walter Shenson of United Artists, was worried the Beatles would already be on their way out by the time the film was released. Incidentally, the Beatles’ manager, Brian Epstein, comes off much better in this documentary than in some other recent depictions of him (which have presented him as a borderline incompetent whose only interest in the Beatles was the drugs and rent boys his 25 percent of them could pay for); he was actually a quite imaginative manager who refused to steer them into the conventional pathways of success for pop-music acts — the difference between the way he handled the Beatles and the way Col. Tom Parker managed Elvis Presley is ironically depicted in this film in a passing shot of a theatre marquee from 1964 advertising a double-bill of A Hard Day’s Night with Elvis’s latest film, Fun in Acapulco. While Parker was shoehorning Elvis into one crappy formula movie after another (even Elvis started referring to each film, contemptuously, as “my latest travelogue”), the Beatles’ first movie turned out to be a work of art, with their wicked wit expertly captured by screenwriter Owen, their freewheeling existence well dramatized by director Lester, which got great reviews even from older critics not disposed to like anything featuring a rock act aimed at teenagers, and has since had not only 40th anniversary but 50th anniversary DVD reissues. (Anyone remember the 40th and 50th anniversary DVD reissues of Fun in Acapulco?)

Eight Days a Week is a fascinating film that gets better as it goes along, less because there are any stunning revelations in the script by Mark Monroe and P. G. Morgan or the interviews with people who, if anything, have been interviewed to death for previous Beatles’ projects (including people who have indeed died since, like George Harrison, George Martin and the Beatles’ road manager and, later, their business manager, Neil Aspinall) as well as people who are now celebrities but then were just fans. Besides Elvis Costello (who belonged not only because as an aspiring teen rocker he was naturally influenced as well as moved by the Beatles, but because for all his associations with punk rock and the late-1970’s “new wave” he was really in a lot of ways John Lennon redux and, as I noted above, I long thought he would be the one person who could actually take John’s place if the Beatles had attempted a reunion in the 1980’s) the interviewees included Sigourney Weaver, who saw them at the Hollywood Bowl and at least thinks she recognizes herself in the extant film of the concert; and Whoopi Goldberg, who was surprised when her mom took her to the Shea Stadium concert in 1955 and who found the appeal of the Beatles so transcended the color line she saw them, not as white boys trying to sound Black, but as beyond racial category. The show traces the Beatles’ involvement in the political and social controversies of the day, and one of the things I hadn’t known about them before watching this movie is that as early as 1964 they were taking a quiet, behind-the-scenes stand against racism. One of the Beatles’ stops on their 1964 U.S. tour took them to Jacksonville, Florida, where they were supposed to play at the Gator Bowl — which, like most public accommodations in the pre-civil rights South, had separate sections for white and “colored” patrons. The Beatles quietly had inserted a clause in their tour contracts that read, “Artists will not be required to perform to a segregated audience,” and they held the promoters to that — so when the Beatles played the Gator Bowl in 1964 the venue was racially integrated for the first time in its history.

Naturally Howard can’t resist intercutting the footage of the Beatles’ U.S. tours with that of the John F. Kennedy assassination (a lot of writers about the Beatles have savored the irony that their second album, called With the Beatles in the U.K. and Meet the Beatles in the U.S., was released in Britain on November 22, 1963, and have suggested that the Beatles’ sweeping popularity worldwide was largely because audiences wanted an “upper” after the horrible “downer” of the Kennedy assassination), the civil-rights marches and race riots, and the Viet Nam war and the protests against that. Though it wasn’t until the Beatles were at the end of their run that John Lennon became openly political (and Paul McCartney followed after John’s death, as if John had willed him the social conscience), the Beatles found themselves on the cutting edge of a new youth culture that rejected a lot of the values the older generation not only held dear but regarded as timeless truths. During the years of the big world tours, 1964-1966, the Beatles not only became more radical politically, they became more radical musically as well, quietly introducing more complex lyrics and deeper emotions into their songs. Late in his life John Lennon mocked the early Beatles’ lyrics as “she loves you, you love her, they all love each other” — though as early as the Beatles’ first album John in particular was writing songs that revealed an astonishing level of emotional trauma and pain — notably the first Beatles’ song I really liked, “There’s a Place.” I couldn’t relate as a kid just about to enter puberty (and with little or no idea what that would entail) to songs about holding hands and going, “Yeah, yeah, yeah” about a girl who “loved” me, but to a shy, introverted, intellectual kid (I probably would have been called a “nerd” if the term had existed yet) the words of “There’s a Place” struck me like a sledgehammer: “There’s a place/Where I can go/When I feel low/When I feel blue/And it’s my mind/And there’s no time/When I’m alone.” I suspect the emotional depth of the Beatles’ song came largely, at least at first, from their admiration for Buddy Holly — though the Beatles gave the requisite praise of Elvis in their interviews, it was clear that the white rockers of the 1950’s who had inspired them most were Holly and Carl Perkins, the only two 1950’s white rock stars who wrote most of their own songs; and Holly not only inspired the Beatles’ name (the name of Holly’s band, The Crickets, led John to name his own band after an insect) but anticipated the subtlety and complexity with which they depicted human relationships even when they were still writing love songs almost exclusively. 

Eight Days a Week also depicts the bind the Beatles were in economically because after a year of desperately searching for a record company that would sign them, he had accepted a wretchedly bad deal from George Martin at Parlophone by which their royalties increased every year — by a farthing, a denomination worth so little that by 1963 the British Mint had stopped producing coins for it. Since they weren’t making any money to speak of from their records, they had to tour almost constantly to have any income at all, let alone enough to sustain a burgeoning organization. Brian Epstein’s management of the Beatles has been criticized because he didn’t squeeze every last dime out of the industry for them than he could have, but you have to remember that the Beatles’ long-term success was totally unprecedented and Epstein can hardly be considered incompetent for missing out on revenue streams neither he nor anyone in the business in the mid-1960’s dreamed would ever exist. And in late 1966 Epstein did renegotiate the Beatles’ contract with EMI, Parlophone’s parent company, and got his act enough income from their records they no longer economically needed to tour— a key point in their decision to stop touring that is curiously unmentioned in the film. What Howard does a good job of is depicting how the relentlessness of their schedule — just about every day of their lives was booked well in advance, either to record (and to write songs so they’d be ready to record, which is why a lot of the Beatles’ classics from the touring years were written almost literally at gunpoint in hotel rooms under deadline pressure), to do photo shoots, to play live or to make movies. The Beatles took to regarding the recording studio as their oasis, the playground where they could experiment with their music and concentrate on playing instead of performing — and performing before an audience that was so busy screaming at them as to render them nearly inaudible. Later, in an interview clip that isn’t included in Eight Days a Week but could well have been, Paul said it was like trying to play rock ’n’ roll on an airport runway while a 747 parked behind you and warmed up its engines for takeoff. 

The original cover of The Beatles at the Hollywood Bowl showed the Beatles trying to fill that enormous space with three little amplifiers that by 1977, when the record was first released, would have been the sort of thing you’d expect a high-school garage band to have, not a set of internationally famous superstars playing to an audience of tens of thousands. For the 1965 tour Vox developed a new set of amplifiers that went up to 100 watts — which is nothing today (the real revolution in amplifier design that made heavy-metal possible was done by James Marshall for Jimi Hendrix, who worked out a set of “stacked” amplifiers that allowed Hendrix and the people who followed in his wake actually to be heard by their audiences) — and instead of theatres the Beatles found themselves playing stadia, mainly (as explained in Eight Days a Week) because local police departments in the cities where they were planning to play told them and Epstein flat-out that they couldn’t guarantee security for fans if the Beatles continued to play smaller venues. After at least one riot in Manchester, England after the box office for a Beatles appearance closed and the disappointed fans who hadn’t been able to get tickets lost their temper and went crazy in the streets, local police and concert promoters in the U.S. started insisting that the Beatles play stadia so they could sell enough tickets that everyone who wanted to attend a Beatles’ concert could do so — even if they were too far from the stage either to see or hear much of anything. The Beatles’ live recordings at the Hollywood Bowl, which as I noted above were first released on LP in 1977, dropped from the catalogue in 1985 and not issued on CD until the 2016 release of this film, posed a major technical problem and went through three generations of filtering to try to turn down enough of the screaming so you could actually hear the Beatles’ performing. One other basic piece of equipment modern-day bands take for granted that the Beatles didn’t have was monitor speakers — the speakers that point away from the audience towards the stage, which are there so the performers can hear themselves. Without them, the Beatles frequently had to read each other’s lips to stay together in the song — and Ringo in this movie recalls taking his cues from watching Paul’s, John’s and George’s asses. 

Ringo had said elsewhere that as the tours continued and the Beatles got more bored with them, he wasn’t bothering to play on every beat — he just drummed the afterbeats — and there are a few performance clips where he can be seen doing that (on the Beatles’ final Ed Sullivan appearance in 1965 he starts “Ticket to Ride” playing only the afterbeats, but quickly gets caught up in the spirit of the song and starts drumming normally), but for the most part the Beatles were conscientious musicians who did the best they could under virtually impossible conditions. They (or three-quarters of them, anyway, since Ringo didn’t join until 1962) had honed themselves as a performing unit in the basement clubs of Liverpool and especially Hamburg — it can be said that while the individual Beatles were all from Liverpool, the band was really born in Hamburg, playing under arduous conditions and for ridiculously long periods of time (seven days a week, eight hours a night — 45 minutes on and 15 minutes off — except on Sundays, when they played 12 hours). We have very little recorded evidence of what the Beatles sounded like then (there’s a live tape from Hamburg that was issued on LP but which Paul McCartney has successfully kept from being issued on CD, but it was made on December 31, 1962, after the Beatles had already recorded their first two singles and Ringo had permanently replaced Pete Best on drums), but we can hear the incredible tightness and indomitability in the Hollywood Bowl recordings and the other recorded live shows from the touring years even with the audience screaming and either wittingly or unwittingly trying to drown them out. Ironically, Eight Days a Week also hints that it was the end of the touring years that started the Beatles on the path to one of the most acrimonious band breakups in music history; as they worked together in the studio and created masterpieces like Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and Magical Mystery Tour, they also went off in different directions creatively, and the whole “Four Musketeers” us-against-them spirit that had held them together on the road started to dissipate. (Eight Days a Week includes a famous archival clip from John Lennon talking about Elvis and saying that what he thought did Elvis in was that he was totally alone — he had his entourage but no one who was actually sharing the experience of stardom — whereas the Beatles had each other and therefore had a support network Elvis lacked.) 

There’s also a long coda to Eight Days a Week that shows just how the experience of touring wore the Beatles down — in 1964 they were getting insipid questions at their press conferences and became famous for giving flip answers that reinforced their lovable images; by 1966 a reporter in Hamburg (the town that, as I mentioned above, could legitimately claim to have “made” the Beatles) was calling them “snobby” and they got defensive and not at all funny. And there’s a fascinating glimpse of one of the early clashes between the youth revolution and the counterrevolution when John Lennon made his famous comment that “we’re more popular than Jesus now” to British reporter Maureen Cleave (who was also one of his girlfriends), and while the British readers didn’t make an issue of it, when the American magazine Datebook bought the U.S. rights to the story it became a cause célèbre among what would become the U.S. radical Christian Right. D.J.’s in the South organized events at which disgusted Christian ex-Beatle fans could bring their Beatles records and memorabilia to be publicly burned — how Joseph Goebbels! — and John had to issue a public apology saying that he hadn’t meant to imply it was a good thing that the Beatles were more popular than Jesus and his remark wasn’t meant as an attack “on Jesus as a person, or God as a thing, or whatever” — it’s clear from this famous clip how uncomfortable he is and how much he desperately wanted to joke his way out of the controversy as he’d been able to do before, and how much he realized the stakes were way too high for him to make light of it. (What isn’t generally realized is that when he said the Beatles were “more popular than Jesus now,” John was literally signing his own death warrant. His killer, Mark David Chapman, was not — as he’s usually been portrayed — a “deranged fan” or a schizo who thought he was John Lennon and the real one was an impostor; he was a Fundamentalist Christian who had never forgiven John for saying he was more popular than Jesus, or for writing a song that included the line, “Imagine no religion.” Chapman had even been in a prayer group that prayed, “Imagine, imagine John Lennon dead.”) 

Eight Days a Week is an inspiring and unexpectedly complex retelling of a story that continues to fascinate not only because the Beatles broke so many trails artistically, socially, politically and economically (after them pop music was Big Business in a way it hadn’t been before), but they did it in such a short period of time — eight years between their abortive audition for Decca Records in January 1962 and their final session as a group in January 1970 — and advanced so much musically in that period and rewrote the expectations of how long a pop group could last and how they could sustain success without having to compromise or rework their acts to appeal to older audiences the way previous teen idols — Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley — had done. What the Beatles accomplished in those eight years — making music that so dominated the world’s culture almost everyone in even remotely developed areas was listening to the same thing — hadn’t happened before and it’s come close to happening again just once (when Michael Jackson’s Thriller album had the same kind of overwhelming worldwide success the Beatles had achieved routinely). One interviewee in Eight Days a Week claims that John Lennon and Paul McCartney were the greatest songwriters since Mozart and Schubert, and though that seems to me to be overstating the case a little, certainly in terms of the overall quality of their output they’re among the best of rock songwriters and rivals to the great pre-rock standards writers like Berlin, Porter, Kern and Gershwin — and I suspect it’s both the overall quality of the songs and the creativity and musicianship with which they played them that have kept the Beatles so popular for so long

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Godzilla, King of the Monsters! (Toho Studios, Jewell Enterprises, Transworld, 1954/1956)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2017 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night we turned on the TNT channel to a showing of the original Godzilla, a tie-in to last Wednesday’s official release of the massive high-tech remake by Dean Devlin and Roland Emmerich of Independence Day. (This is at least the third version of the original Godzilla story — there was a big-budget Japanese remake in 1985 as well.) This, of course, is the 1956 American version in which footage featuring Raymond Burr as journalist “Steve Martin” (it occurred to me that it would have made a marvelous in-joke for Devlin and Emmerich to cast Steve Martin in their version and have him play a character named “Raymond Burr”!) was rather crudely shot in Hollywood and added by American distributor Dave Kay, who was interviewed in yesterday’s Los Angeles Times. He said he spent $30,000 for the rights to the original 1954 Japanese film, Gojira, and $100,000 shooting the new footage with Burr — he also couldn’t remember the name of the person who suggested changing the name of the title character from “Gojira” to “Godzilla” but said he accepted the suggestion because “it sounded more rough and menacing.” Inoshiro Honda was the original Japanese director (and also co-scenarist with Takeo Murata), while a low-budget director named Terry Morse did the additional scenes for the American version, and L.A. Times writer Marla Matzer said, “Kay deftly wove the new footage and the old to the point where a lot of people thought Burr was in the film when it was first shot.” It may well have fooled people who had no way of knowing that Burr wasn’t in the film when it was first shot (there was even one amusing sequence in which Burr was intercut with a Japanese actress he was supposedly talking to, and Morse inserted a reverse-angle shot of an American actress with her back to the camera, wearing a matching costume, to heighten the illusion that the two people had been in the same scene), but if you’re looking for the differences between the two sources of footage you can easily spot the join lines — the original work by Japanese cinematographer Masao Tamai (Carlos Clarens’ An Illustrated History of the Horror Film lists only credits for the Japanese version but co-credits the cinematography to Tamai and someone with the distinctly un-Japanese name of Guy Roe) is soft, gray-toned and a bit grainy, whereas the American footage is hard-edged and almost noir (there’s one surprisingly haunting shot in which a Venetian blind casts a shadow over an Oriental-looking actress who’s in the same scene as Burr — obviously this one, as well as the other scenes in which Burr interacts with Asian-looking people in the same frame, was shot in the U.S. with Asian-American actors).

Besides that, Godzilla deserves credit for at least attempting to introduce some intellectual depth to the monster-movie genre. One of the Japanese characters is an atomic scientist who has invented a weapon called the “oxygen destroyer,” but — fearful of what happened after the atomic bomb was invented — he doesn’t want anyone to know about the existence of this weapon, nor does he ever want it used. Eventually, his girlfriend leaks its existence to the authorities, and he agrees that it be used this one time to kill Godzilla — but he also destroys his plans for it and sacrifices his own life to kill Godzilla with it at the end, so the weapon will no longer exist. (Such issues of conscience almost certainly occurred to these filmmakers because their country is the only one that has actually been victimized by atomic warfare; Clarens noted the irony that “Japan, the only nation on earth to have actually suffered from atomic warfare, has become the world’s foremost producer of filmed holocausts.”) The opening scenes are also eloquent, excellently staged in their use of World War II-era newsreel footage to represent Tokyo in the aftermath of Godzilla’s destruction of the city — and, as all Godzilla buffs know, the monster was brought back to life in the first place as a result of the U.S. H-bomb tests in the South Pacific. That’s about all anyone can say in the positive side about Godzilla — in all other aspects of its production, this film is so cheesy and silly it makes The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (an American production in the same genre made at the same time) look like a masterpiece by comparison. Not only is there way too much stock footage in this film (there’s one clip of Godzilla rising up out of the water — with the same two toy boats between him every time he appears — that is used often enough to evoke Ed Wood comparisons; and while the opening sequences use World War II newsreel footage quite effectively, elsewhere in the film it’s clearly being spliced in only to pad out the running time and represent the futile use of conventional military equipment against the monster), but Godzilla himself is totally unconvincing. Ray Harryhausen's brilliant model work in The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms actually made the title character seem credible; the monster in Godzilla is all too obviously a human actor wandering around miniature sets, smashing balsa-wood buildings and severing fishing-line electrical cables, and lumbering around in an overstuffed and unbearably heavy costume that makes him move so slowly he’s about as menacing as a glacier. (Only when he breathes — he has the capability to emit either fire or dry ice from his mouth — does he look even remotely dangerous.) Godzilla and its sequels, in fact, became cult classics precisely because of their cheesiness and cheapness — to the point where Japanese cities would compete with each other, lobbying Toho Studios for the honor of being the next city Godzilla would destroy in his subsequent films — which would seem to make the idea of a state-of-the-art high-tech remake seem rather beside the point. But (unlike my roommate) I’ll reserve judgment on the new Godzilla until I actually have a chance to see it … — 5/23/98

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I decided to break out my DVD set of the original Godzilla from the Criterion Collection, which contains both the marvelous original Japanese version of the film — Gojira (1954) — and the American version from two years later, rather crudely dubbed into English and featuring quite a few new scenes directed by Terry Morse (who’d made some unusually interesting “B” movies for Warner Bros. a decade earlier) and featuring Raymond Burr as an Anglo character named “Steve Martin,[1]” a reporter who was on his way to Cairo for an assignment when he stopped in Tokyo for a little R&R — given what we now know about Burr’s real-life sexual orientation one would think he’d first head for all the Gay bars, but instead he’s hoping to see his old friend Dr. Serizawa (Akihito Hirata, a quite interesting actor who apparently made no other movies) when he gets caught up in the whole destructive madness involving Godzilla, a huge prehistoric monster who’s revived underwater by U.S. H-bomb tests in the Pacific. I wanted to run this now because two nights ago I’d seen the original Gojira for a second time at the Vintage Sci-Fi screening in Golden Hill (http://sdvsf.org/) after Charles and I got this DVD set containing both versions in 2015, ran the Japanese original and were knocked out by it — and with the original Gojira fresh in my mind I wanted to see the American reworking again for a point of comparison with the Japanese version. The two actually track fairly closely, and director Morse and his cinematographer, Guy Roe, do a quite impressive job of matching the new footage they show in Hollywood with Burr and several Asian-American actors (often standing with their backs to the camera as they talk to Burr so they could impersonate the different cast members from the Japanese original) with the original scenes by director Ishirô Honda and cinematographer Masao Tomai. Only the more creative, almost noir-ish lighting of the Japanese sequences, and a certain graininess about them compared with the crisper but also less dramatically lit U.S. scenes, gives the game away. 

What’s really wrong with the U.S. Godzilla is how much of the subtext got drained away in the reworking: the 1954 Japanese Gojira has an extraordinary sense of pain about it, as if Japan was going through a sort of collective national post-traumatic stress disorder from the relentless bombing they’d undergone from U.S. aircraft in the last year and a half of World War II. First there had been a succession of raids with incendiary bombs dropped by planes launched from the islands of Saipan and Tinian (in Martin Caidin’s book A Torch to the Enemy he talks about how U.S. Army Air Corps General Curtis LeMay pressured the Navy and the Marines to attack this island group, which also includes the larger and more famous island of Guam, two years ahead of schedule because he needed them as a base to get his planes close enough to Japan to launch bombing raids), which destroyed 50 percent of Tokyo and wreaked similar havoc on other Japanese cities, then the atomic bomb raids on Hiroshima and Nagasaki (picked because there were so few “virgin targets” that hadn’t already been largely decimated by the fire raids). There’s even one remarkable sequence in the Japanese original in which just before Gojira attacks the elevated train (one of two sequences, along with the sacrificial dance the natives of Odo Island do as they await the coming of the monster, Honda and his writers cribbed from the other truly great giant-monster movie, the original 1933 King Kong), one of the passengers announces that she survived the Nagasaki bombing and now she’s facing the terror again. Though the Japanese original has less specifically anti-American content than has been reported — the U.S. is never named as the source of the H-bomb tests that awakened Gojira/Godzilla — clearly the monster, like the real-life bombers that had terrorized Japan a decade before the film was made, is a U.S. product because the U.S. was the only country that was doing H-bomb tests on islands in the Pacific Ocean. (The Soviet Union was the only other country that had an H-bomb, and they were doing their tests on land, on their own territory in Siberia.) The most annoying aspect of the U.S. Godzilla in comparison with its Japanese counterpart is actually the narration by Raymond Burr; like Castle of Doom (the God-awful U.S. butchering of Carl Theodor Dreyer’s 1931 horror masterpiece Vampyr), Burr and whoever was voice-dubbing Momoko Kochi as Emiko, the woman who’s torn between her arranged engagement to Dr. Serizawa and her attachment to the young naval officer Ogata, played by Akira Takarada, give us long, tendentious explanations of plot points that were easy enough for us to “read” without the help of a narrator in the Japanese version. 

Charles wondered when we saw Gojira if any footage from the Japanese original not involving Godzilla made it into the U.S. version, though actually quite a lot did, including the scenes on Odo Island in which Japanese paleontologist Dr. Yamane (Takashi Shimura, who was billed fourth in the Japanese version but second, just below Burr, in the U.S. cut) takes a Geiger counter to Godzilla’s giant footprint and thus proves that the monster is radioactive; and the sequence late in the movie in which Dr. Serizawa watches a telecast of a memorial service for Godzilla’s victims in Tokyo and hears a children’s choir sing a lament (a quite haunting composition by Akira Ifukube, whose score is otherwise pretty variable: a rather inappropriate gung-ho “military” march accompanies the Japanese naval vessels that set out to do battle with Godzilla, but some of the scenes of destroyed urban environments — I suspect many of these were stock footage of actual destroyed Japanese cities from World War II newsreels — get quite impressively doleful music), which decides the reluctant Serizawa to use his fearsome “oxygen destroyer” to kill Godzilla. There are shards of the original film’s pacifist and anti-nuclear message in Serizawa’s reluctance to use the weapon he’s developed for fear it will just make future wars even more destructive, and his insistence once he decides to use it not only to burn all his plans and notes for it but to sacrifice his own life to destroy Godzilla so the secret of how to make the “Oxygen Destroyer” will die with him. Otherwise the U.S. Godzilla is a perfectly acceptable giant-monster movie but one which is a pale shadow of the surprisingly intense original Gojira (the name, incidentally, is a mash-up of the Japanese words for “gorilla” and “whale,” and the original intent was to make the monster just that — a visual mash-up of a gorilla and a whale — but at the last minute Honda and his effects crew decided it would look more believable and scary to make Godzilla a giant dinosaur instead), though enough of the Japanese version’s depth and veiled anti-nuclear message remains that the 1956 U.S. Godzilla can at least be taken more or less seriously instead of turning into the camp-fest later Godzilla movies became, especially given the slapdash dubbing they were given in their English-language versions. Surprisingly, much of the footage from the 1956 Godzilla that was retained from the Japanese original wasn’t dubbed at all: instead we get a lot of untranslated Japanese with Burr and the woman who dubbed Emiko explaining to us what the actors were originally saying. It seems that only the professional Japanese scientists and military personnel rated voice doubles; the Japanese proletarians in the movie didn’t — how classist! — 11/21/17


[1] — I remember that when the first U.S. Godzilla reboot came out in the 1990’s I thought they should have done the in-joke of hiring Steve Martin for the cast and having him play a character called “Raymond Burr”!