Thursday, December 5, 2019

Some Notes on Pre-code Horror: the end approaches… (Part 2 of three)

I rejoin this piece where we left off, at the end of 1932. The pre-code period chronologically ended on July 1, 1934, but, as we shall see in this installment (and the next), the deviant behavior and lurid storylines continued for several months after that date.

The Vampire Bat, 1933, Majestic Pictures, Frank R. Strayer (released Jan '33) Lionel Atwill and Fay Wray proved a good (and economical) team, so they appeared in two more horror films together in the year following Doctor X (see Part 1 of this piece).
Mystery of the Wax Museum was the prestige item, made by Warner Bros. But the “poverty row” studios were keen to steal the luster of the majors, and so The Vampire Bat was produced and rushed out by Majestic Pictures before Museum. It stars Atwill, Wray, and Universal’s mad scientist sidekick supreme, Dwight Frye.

The film is meager stuff, with only Frye’s unhinged performance as a mentally disabled villager qualifying as memorable. The plot involves a series of “vampiric” murders that are pinned on bat-hoarder Frye, who is, as could be expected, a red herring.

Atwill gets some good freakout moments in the third act, but this is the one pre-code horror movie that I do not recommend (unless you’re a Frye fanatic).

Mystery of the Wax Museum, 1933, Warner Bros, Michael Curtiz (Feb '33) The second and last pre-code color horror picture isn’t as well-known as its 3-D 1953 remake, House of Wax, but it should be. It’s a delightfully schizo affair that is both a cool and creepy horror thriller and a newspaper picture with scenes modelled after the ultimate newspaper comedy, The Front Page (although the closing scene foreshadows the famous remake of that film, His Girl Friday).

Glenda Farrell plays a “girl reporter” who lives in the Warner Bros world where everyone speaks a mile a minute — which is a great way to frame these horror movies, since it speeds up the always untenable “young lovers” plot line. Farrell is a “hard-berled” dame who greets one cop at the police station with the query, “How’s yer sex life?” (The pre-code world includes elements you wouldn’t hear/see onscreen again until the late Sixties.)

Farrell’s sequences and those that feature the young lovers — the girl in the couple (Fay Wray) is Farrell’s roommate and the boy is a sculptor in wax — proceed at one pace, and the scenes that focus on crazed wax sculptor Lionel Atwill are slower and menacing, creating a wonderfully weird counterpoint between the two “moods.”

The women in the film are fascinating — in addition to fast-talking, take-no-guff Farrell, there is Fay Wray as her roommate, a young lovely whom Atwill wants to “sculpt” for his wax museum. The other haunting face in the film belongs to Monica Bannister (see image up top), who worked most prominently in Busby Berkeley musicals as a chorine. She plays a murder victim whose corpse is dressed as Joan of Arc by Atwill.

If that last statement made no sense, you obviously have never seen House of Wax (or its several remakes and ripoffs). Atwill’s character (later played by Vincent Price) is a sculptor whose initial wax museum is destroyed in a fire. He then creates a second one but, due to his hands having been injured, he takes the easy way out and simply uses wax-covered corpses in his tableaux. He is a Phantom of the Opera-like disfigured murderer who also has a public “face” (a mask) that allows him to appear normal (or a decent simulacrum of same).

Director Curtiz might not have been Howard Hawks — who made a masterpiece in nearly every genre — but he was indeed an eclectic director who made vastly different, memorable pictures. Curtiz and company hit on a brilliant solution for the problem of wax sculptures melting under the hot lights required to shoot in two-color Technicolor. Actors played the wax statues, and so Atwill’s museum is extremely creepy, since we can see that the figures are indeed real people. Sometimes convenience supplies the best solutions.

The Invisible Man, 1933, Universal, James Whale (Nov '33) One of the more unusual horror movies of the pre-code era, this H.G. Wells adaptation blended fantasy, suspense, and humor while also giving the screen the last new monster of the pre-code era (the next new monster was the Wolf Man, who debuted in The Werewolf of London in 1935 but was refined in the 1941 The Wolf Man).

James Whale, who was allowed to go as far as he wanted by Universal Pictures given the enormous success of Frankenstein, crafted a horror picture that is by turns suspenseful and ridiculous. Invisible Man in fact offers a rough draft for the masterpiece Bride of Frankenstein, which he served up two years later (and which also featured the tiring character actress Una O’Connor as another shouty lady).

In his first movie role in the U.S., Claude Rains gave a consummately deranged performance, while wrapped up in bandages and sunglasses (and black velvet, for his undressing scenes). Rains excelled in every role he was given (from taut dramas to mawkish tearjerkers), but scientist Dr. Jack Griffin is an early high point, as the part allowed him to run a gamut of emotions, from stolid, Nietzschean frenzy to prankish glee.

Rains’ craggy, smoky voice was a beautiful instrument, matched in our era only by the late John Hurt’s equally smoky tones. Here he gets ample time to intone the “mad scientist as rival to God” dialogue with a great deal of relish. He declares to his colleague/rival: “We’ll begin with a reign of terror. A few murders here and there — murders of great men, murders of little men, just to show we make no distinction.”

He later boasts he has the “power to make multitudes run squealing in terror, at the touch of my little invisible finger…. Even the moon’s frightened of me, frightened to death!”

Mad Love, 1935, MGM, Karl Freund (July '35) American horror films of the Thirties had a sizeable number of German and British emigres both in front of and behind the camera. Mad Love was the second and last horror film directed by master cameraman Freund, and it starred Peter Lorre in his first role in the U.S. (his second in English, after Hitchcock’s original The Man Who Knew Too Much). Lorre had already given his career-making performance in Lang’s M (1931), but here he becomes the “American Lorre” — devious, contemptuous, and on the verge of a nervous breakdown.

The film was released after the Production Code had already gone into effect (in mid-1934) but, as we shall see in the third part of this piece, certain horror films got away with deviant plot elements until 1935-’36. 

Mad Love contains fetishism (as Mrs. Orlac, Frances Drake stars in a “Theatre des horreurs” show in which she is tortured onstage), medical aberrations (a hand transplant), and just plain weirdness (a scene where Lorre disguises himself as a “headless” dead man, replete with metallic hands).

The plot of the silent 1924 film Hands of Orlac — directed by Robert Wiene and based on Maurice Renard’s novel of the same title — was flipped here, so that the doctor is the one having the freak-out, rather than the recipient of the hand transplant. 

The reason the film is so impressively menacing (and wonderfully crazy) is because of the talent assembled: Lorre, Colin Clive (as Orlac), John Balderston (who scripted Dracula and a number of other pre-code monster classics), and up-and-coming cinematographer Gregg Toland (whom Pauline Kael maintained reused shots from Mad Love in Citizen Kane; this is not exactly true, but Welles did often say that Kane was as good as it was because of Toland).

Proving that best movies are always part of a continuum, it should be noted that Freund uses a trick from Mystery of the Wax Museum, namely using a live actor to play a wax statue. Lorre’s character purchases a wax mannequin of Mrs. Orlac. When the mannequin is seen in a long shot, it is a dummy, but when it is viewed from the front in a medium shot, it’s played by Frances Drake. This blending of the real and artificial anticipates a creepy moment in Bava’s Lisa and the Devil (1973), where Telly Savalas is holding a mannequin that is replaced by a live actor in the countershots.

Note: I left The Mask of Fu Manchu and The Most Dangerous Game out of this piece because they are essentially thrillers and not horror films (although both are incredibly entertaining). The Ghoul with Karloff was left out because it was made in England (and is incredibly derivative of both The Mummy and The Old Dark House). King Kong, to me, is a fantasy film, not a horror movie. The final part of this piece will deal with the three masterpieces from this era….

Wednesday, November 27, 2019

Now More Than Ever!

When discussing American politics over the last three years I’ve often simply framed things this way: “America is a fictional country.” But the U.S. of A. didn’t just turn into a big ol’ Grand Fenwick in 2016. I’d say we took a turn for the fictional when Ronald Reagan became Pres in 1980. The period before that had some resounding reality to it — after the star of Bedtime for Bonzo became president (hear him say it was a great comedy here), all bets on the country being a serious real-world, present-day entity were off.

The year he was elected was considered the last year of the “Me Decade” — but we all know that Tom Wolfe got it wrong, and that the Seventies were only the beginning of the self-involvement, which further made the country an even more bizarre place where basically anything could happen (but what always did happen made for scenarios that would’ve been thrown out in any good Creative Writing class as being “unrealistic”). Every decade since has been the “Me Decade,” and there is no prospect of the crazed introspection and leisure-time fascinations ever turning back now that the Internet and handheld devices rule us all.

So, why *isn’t* it more than likely that the encounter below will happen again, albeit this time at a political rally, a convention, or a debate? At some point, it should’ve become evident to those of us who watch this clip on an annual basis — nay, who LIVE this clip on an annual basis  that we are all of us Robert Vaughns, and the clowns are ruling the roost. It wasn’t for nothing that this particular event occurred during Reagan’s second term in the White House (the one where he more than likely had the beginnings of Alzheimer’s and the country was indeed run by the VP, a creepy former head of the CIA)?

Remember that the oft-quoted statement by George Carlin was not two lines long  it was three. The third line is often lost on the Internet (which is oddly, completely appropriate).

“When you’re born in this world, you’re given a ticket to the freak show.

When you’re born in America, you’re given a front-row seat.

And some of us get to sit there with notebooks….”

Wednesday, November 13, 2019

Some Notes on Pre-code Horror (Part 1 of three)

Halloween is the single finest holiday in the calendar, mostly because it has no hard-and-fast rules. You can celebrate it any want you want. It’s a DIY holiday that encompasses any behavior that you like — what better time to binge on vintage horror movies, from the era when talkies were a new art form and basically anything could happen onscreen? Herewith, the results of a very, very entertaining binge.

The best-remembered, most-revived monster movies made during the pre-code era were made by Universal. Those titles appear in this piece — in fact, two of the best-ever titles I will list at the end of the second part of this piece were produced by Universal. But I wanted to also tout the horror movies made by other studios, from the prestigious (Paramount, MGM) to “poverty row” productions (Majestic, Halperin Productions).

The three best of the bunch will be preceded by an honor roll of the best from that short period of time when sound was new and sublimely talented craftspeople were working in front of and behind the camera. And the only way to begin is with:

Dracula, 1931, Universal, Tod Browning (released Feb '31) The film that jumpstarted the genre. The German Expressionist films are the undisputed masterpieces of the silent era, and the films starring Lon Chaney offered a portrait gallery of amazingly nasty-looking (yet often terribly misunderstood) monsters and villains. But it was Browning’s Dracula that began the horror craze in earnest and, as such, is the one of the most imitated pictures of all time.

Browning’s film is derided these days for alternating between scenes that are way too talky and way too silent. It has its slow moments, with the dialogue-heavy sequences being a reflection of the debt that early talking cinema had to the stage. The film did, however, introduce the idea of an aristocratic monster — a figure who moves freely in high society while he harbors a deadly secret….

Lugosi is magnetic onscreen, with Browning framing him in truly iconic images that were copied endlessly in later monster movies and dramas concerning human predators.

Frankenstein, 1931, Universal, James Whale (Nov '31) The other seminal horror film of the early Thirties introduced two staples of the genre: the mad scientist (yes, Dr. Caligari and Rotwang came first, but their adventures were, by turns, dreamlike and allegorical) and the misunderstood, misfit monster.

Whale’s monster movie was remade and reworked over the next four decades. Although the stagey, dialogue-heavy scenes here are clunky as hell, the scenes in the laboratory and the ones featuring Karloff’s monster are as exciting today as they were in ’31.

The two essential elements that distinguished the film have been written about endlessly, but they can’t go unmentioned here. First, the German Expressionist influence found in the lighting, set design (by Charles Hall), camera angles, and editing — outside the brightly lit drawing rooms, all is darkness and menace. The other element that still “sells” the film is the starmaking, mute performance by Boris Karloff, who played the monster as both a clueless child and a vengeful force of nature.

After the box-office success of Dracula and Frankenstein, every studio tried to develop horror/monster pictures. The results were often mixed (or just downright weird), but there were three things that were repeated over and over:

—moody lighting and striking imagery. A decade before film noir, the darkest films in American cinema were horror movies with plots that allowed for all sorts of bizarre and deviant behavior.

—old supernatural tales, alternating or infused with completely manufactured mythologies and science (often in the same package). Yes, Shelley, Stevenson, and Stoker’s novels were written in 1818, 1886, and 1898, and the figures of werewolves, zombies, and mummies had previously existed, but the masterstroke of the Thirties monster movie was to cherry-pick items from ancient myths while also making things up from whole cloth.

—“young lovers” storylines that were included to counteract the abnormality of the films as a whole. As was the case in Golden Age talkie comedies (think of the features starring Laurel and Hardy, and the Marx Brothers), the single most annoying thing about a lot of Hollywood horror movies were the scenes featuring happy young lovers. Even when the male in the couple was a mad scientist, these half-baked romantic scenes are a slog.

Below are capsules about the most notable pre-code horror pics. After a chronological listing of those titles, I will discuss the three best Golden Age horror films (by a wide margin).

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, 1932, Paramount, Rouben Mamoulian (Jan ’32). Jekyll is a prestige, A-budget production that has a lot of beautifully executed moving camera shots and tight closeups. Frederick March enacts great (much copied) transformations from the urbane and good-willed Dr. Jekyll to the savage and simian Mr. Hyde. March was so good he won the Best Actor Oscar, a feat not repeated for a performer in a horror movie until Kathy Bates won in 1991 for Misery and Anthony Hopkins and Jodie Foster won in ’92 for The Silence of the Lambs.

March’s performance is stylized and at first seems dated, but it is positively modernist when compared to Spencer Tracy’s “naturalistic” performance in the 1941 MGM remake of Jekyll — which finds him as a stray American identified as a British doctor. Ingrid Bergman is more memorable in the remake as the “flirtatious girl” — no longer a hooker — who is Hyde’s victim, beginning a long run of Bergman-as-victim performances. (And, as my father attested, the single meanest Hyde of all time was Jack Palance in the 1968 telefilm remake. Jack didn’t even need that much makeup!)

The plot element that most clearly reflects pre-code permissiveness here involved Miriam Hopkins’ hooker character. She is both the victim of a number of beatings from Hyde and also supplies a timeless piece of leg-art fixation, in which she lazily moves her leg back and forth to hypnotize the “innocent,” uptight Dr. Jekyll. Busby Berkeley was allowed to indulge in post-code gam-fetish imagery in later years (Busby got away with a lot), but it was deemed too “lewd” in other contexts.

1932 was the banner year for pre-code horror in Hollywood. Mad scientists, crazed killers (who may or may not have been motivated by supernatural urges) and, yes, smarmy young lovers appeared in profusion. When watched over a short period of time, one gets the impression that Hollywood was in the mood to shock and disturb the American public….

Murders in the Rue Morgue, 1932, Universal, Robert Florey (Feb '32) A schizophrenic piece that combines the “young lover” tedium with astonishingly dark (in tone and hue) scenes involving a mad scientist named “Doctor Mirakle” (played by the great Lugosi) who is looking to mate his gorilla with some lucky Parisian woman. Bela is wonderfully creepy playing the first of his portrait gallery of sadistic scientists. (The American public’s fear of science is clearly reflected in these villainous experimenters with deviant agendas.)

If the film’s surprisingly grim tone and theme of intended bestiality wasn’t enough to make Rue Morgue one of the most intriguing films from the banner year of ’32, then surely the appearance of a “mystery guest star” is. For one of Dr. Mirakle’s victims is a comely “woman of the streets” (that’s her i.d. in the credits), played by later “What’s My Line?” regular Arlene Francis! (above)

White Zombie, 1932, Halperin Productions, Victor Halperin (Aug ’32) Less than two years after his triumph in Dracula, Lugosi had declared bankruptcy (reportedly for overspending on clothing!) and was already starring in “poverty row” features made by smaller producers.

This is one of the most notable of those titles, because Lugosi is in high dudgeon as the voodoo master who holds a group of zombies in thrall, and the film is a decent potboiler, with director-producer Victor Halperin doing a fine job of using his limited budget to up the scare factor.

The zombie rule book (pre-Romero) was written here. This is a vision of shambling slave-creations that can be redeemed — but only if they are the kewpie-doll heroine (part of the picture’s pesky young lover combo).

Halperin used techniques from the preceding horror/monster pics, including mesmerizing close-ups of Lugosi staring straight into the camera, and even tighter close-ups of his eyes (borrowed from Browning’s Dracula). The most impressive steal was the split screen used by Mamoulian, in which a wipe effect stops midway and we see two different images in each half of the frame.

Doctor X, 1932, First National, Michael Curtiz (Aug '32) Lionel Atwill was an all-purpose authority figure in the later Universal monster movies, but first he was a star in his own horror features. The first of these is notable for its combination of mad scientist horror and the standard murder mystery. It also is one of the two earliest color films in the genre (the other one also starred Atwill and will be featured in the second part of this piece).

The two-strip Technicolor process in which the film was shot winds up making it look oddly menacing; it emphasizes the shadows in the street scenes and the electrical sparks in the laboratory scenes. It thus offers a look at what Frankenstein might’ve looked like, had it been shot in color (which it thankfully wasn’t).

The plot is pure pre-code sleaze: A killer who is cannibalizing his victims is sought by the police, who have narrowed down the list of suspects to a group of eccentric scientists, led by Dr. Jerry Xavier (Atwill). He in turn decides to reveal the killer by conducting a group experiment that will heighten the guilty man’s homicidal tendencies while the participants are handcuffed — the thought that the culprit is one of the few un-handcuffed people in the room occurs to the quirky eggheads a bit too late.

The Old Dark House, 1932, Universal, James Whale (Oct '32) Is one of the most curious and wonderfully deranged creations of the ’32 horror onslaught. James Whale gave us a glimpse of the over-the-top sensibility that permeated Bride of Frankenstein (see below) in this picture, which is both a legitimate horror movie and a bona fide spoof of the “dark and stormy night/old dark house” horror pics (which were affectionately spoofed in Curt McDowell’s amazing Thundercrack!, and the biggest cult movie of all time, The Rocky Horror Picture Show).

Whale had been a stage director, so he knew the importance of a great ensemble to sell the material. In this case he gave us two sets of young lovers (although Melvyn Douglas always seemed quite older than the average “boy lead”), but also a solid assortment of character people, including one of the greatest camp archetypes in movie history, Ernest Thesiger (here playing a character named “Femm”). Also a “monster” in the form of the family servant, a grunting gent with a misshapen face played by Karloff.

Even Whale couldn’t enliven the young lover sequences, but he included many inspired touches — a Manchester braggart, played by Charles Laughton (in his first American film), an old family patriarch played by an old woman (playing an old man), and the real homicidal menace in the house, a relative named “Saul” (Brember Wills), who is the oddest individual in the whole film.

The Mummy, 1932, Universal, Karl Freund (Dec '32) Like Dracula and Frankenstein, this is a beautifully crafted film that, unlike those films, shows the “monster” only briefly at the beginning. Karloff carries the entire enterprise as an ancient Egyptian variant on the Dracula character. He incarnates a wholly sympathetic monster, who has lived centuries simply to be reunited with his princess soulmate.

Screenwriters John Balderston (who wrote the play Dracula and worked on nearly all of the key Universal monster pics in the early Thirties), Nina Wilcox Putnam (who wrote children’s books and comics, and helped create the 1040 tax form when she was an accountant!) and veteran scripter Richard Schayer concocted a series of plot elements that became “mummy lore,” assembled out of bits of older tales.

Director Karl Freund, one of the greatest cameramen ever (from German Expressionist silents to the “I Love Lucy” three-camera shoot), did a superb job of mixing suspense and melodrama. It’s a shame Freund directed only two horror movies (this one and Mad Love), as both are testaments to his talent for the macabre and menacing. He preceded these two films with camerawork on Dracula and Rue Morgue, and then, after Mad Love in 1935, never worked on another horror film.

Island of Lost Souls, 1932, Paramount, Erle C. Kenton (Dec '32) Arguably the best, and definitely most disturbing, of the ’32 horrors was this adaptation of H.G. Welles, which is one of the most warped films to emerge from Golden Age Hollywood. The primitive nature of the makeup jobs done to create the film’s “manimals” and the sheer sadism contained in the plot put this on a par with the best of Universal’s monster movies.

First of all, there is the plot — Dr. Moreau (the wonderful Charles Laughton) is a scientist creating half-human, half-animal creatures in a remote jungle area on an uncharted island. His “experiments” become citizens of the island, or (if their “fusion” went awry) they are put to work doing manual slave labor. Actors of various ethnicities play some of these creatures, so an unspoken subtext about Anglo imperialism appears throughout.

Two of the manimals are unforgettable. The first is the “Sayer of the Law,” played by the very busy Lugosi. He delivers the “law” in the film and speaks the line that gave Devo their lyric and first album title, “Are we not men?”

The other creation is the only female in the bunch, the Panther Woman. She looks Asian but was played by an Irish-American actress, Kathleen Burke. Her small, thin body is an unusual sight in a Hollywood film (when glamour was all). Even more jarring is the fact that Dr. Moreau is trying to pimp her off on the film’s hero (Richard Arlen) to see if she can have sex and give birth.

Laughton’s sublimely wicked performance as Moreau combines two of the elements that appeared in most of the pre-code horror pictures. First, there is self-proclaimed godhood. From Drs. Frankenstein and Jekyll onward, the mad scientists in horror movies proclaim their divinity and equal status to God himself. Lost Souls was banned in England until the late Fifties (when it had to edited to get a release certificate; the cut scenes were restored in this decade!). This was based on a few items in the film, not the least of which was Moreau’s line “Do you know what it means to feel like God?”

The other common element of the mad scientist characters was a sadism little seen in cinema outside of domestic abuse dramas, addiction sagas, and, yes, s&m movies. The sadists in monster movies express sheer delight when another character is in pain, presumably because it is within their purview as gods-on-Earth to deliver punishment.

The grimmest and most memorable aspect of Laughton’s performance is this delight, reflected in the broad smiles he sports when discussing  his “house of pain” (the laboratory where he creates his manimals) and his plans for breeding new races of creatures.

The films discussed above can be found on DVD/Blu-ray (the Universal "Legacy" series of collections is exemplary) and often for free on YouTube, Daily Motion, Archive, and To be continued...

Friday, October 25, 2019

Simplified and Painless: Deceased Artiste Marshall Efron

You never quite forget the things that blew your mind as a kid. It could be real-life experiences or things in the media that seem not to follow the rules and speak directly to you. As a Catholic school student who was losing the faith pretty quickly in my grammar school years, one such experience was the oddball children’s show Marshall Efron’s Illustrated, Simplified and Painless Sunday School. It was a wonderfully off-kilter comedy show that retold stories from the Bible, but in a gloriously threadbare, gag-filled manner.

The show was the brainchild of two great comedy writers: Alfa-Betty Olsen and her partner, the late, great Marshall Efron, who died at 81 three weeks ago. Efron seemed to be everywhere in the early Seventies — or maybe it was just that he inhabited “the cool places” on television and in the movies. In the Sixties, he had come to the attention of comedy fans in NYC on a radio station that VERY sadly left the airwaves around the time that Marshall died, WBAI-FM, which was part of the fabric of our lives here in town. (I can personally list several important life-changing moments I heard on WBAI, and the importance of its shows to friends and my father; the station's local programming has been supplanted for the present by national Pacifica shows.)

BAI mixologist Peter Bochan included two clips of Marshall in his “All Mixed Up” mix for Oct. 7, found here. The first is at 35:05; the second at 36:45.

Once Marshall jumped into the movies (after appearing in a NYC-shot short with a then equally-unknown Charles Durning, found here), he played a number of small roles in memorable pictures that were part of the “maverick” movement of the early ‘70s. The first of these titles was Robert Downey’s wonderful absurdist comedy Pound, in which every character is a breed of dog in human form. It’s one of those films that could only have been made in that time (1970) in that place (NYC) with a killer cast of character people and a truly deviant theme song.

Check out the theme music at 48:56 and one of Marshall’s best scenes at 9:12:

The most celebrated film Marshall was in at that time was George Lucas’ feature debut, THX:1138 (1971). He also had a supporting role in the well-remembered drama, starring Robert De Niro and Michael Moriarty, Bang the Drum Slowly (1973).

While he was playing supporting parts in films, Marshall was also doing regular segments for the legendary (and still terrific to this day) PBS series The Great American Dream Machine. Although the show lasted only two seasons (1971-73), it was a phenomenal creation that mixed short documentaries with smart comedy sketches, song and dance segments, animation, and short comedy films — all created by top talent in their respective fields: Albert Brooks, R.O. Blechman, the Alvin Ailey dance company, Kurt Vonnegut, and… Marshall, in segments co-written by himself and Alfa-Betty Olsen.

Marshall’s segments on the show are priceless. Some were more generic “lectures” on absurd topics:

But most of Efron’s contributions were “consumer guide” segments, in which he would compare similar products — usually to show how awful some (or most) of them were. Or he would prepare a meal:

After he was involved in the ‘70s comedy “boom,” Marshall remained busy and duly employed by doing a number of cartoon voices in the Eighties. He participated in several high-profile cartoon shows as a voice talent, and thus his friendly, bizarre range of voices is probably rattling around in the heads of those who were kids during that era.

I’m a bit older than that generation, so I have strong and very affectionate memories of Marshall’s Seventies Sunday School series, about which there is little info on the Net. I’d like to rectify that by making available two episodes on the bottomless pit that is YouTube and providing brief quotes from one of the more prominent articles that was written when the show was on the air (which is cited in various places as ’73-’77, but a complete list of episodes is available nowhere online).

Marshall's only comedy LP,
"Neutrino News Network."
The Sunday School was a national show, produced by (oddly enough) CBS News. It was an odd amalgam of a children’s educational show (a playful one — along the lines of the recently formed Children’s Television Workshop) and the great no-budget cult shows like Soupy Sales’ many programs and Uncle Floyd’s local NJ/NY show. Efron performed stories from the Old and New Testaments as a one-man cast, playing all the roles. He used costumes, makeup, props, mannequins, illustrations, odd backdrops, stock music and footage, and state of the art special effects (which were top of the line for a low-budget show in the mid-Seventies).

The show was generally intended for younger viewers, but it also was a lot of fun for adults. I originally saw the series when I was a kid in the Seventies but was lucky enough to catch it again in the Eighties, at the time I had (finally) scored a VCR. It was then I realized why I remembered the show so fondly — firstly, because it was so charming, and secondly, because it was indeed filled with oddball references that Efron would toss into otherwise pretty faithful retellings of Biblical tales. For instance, the moment in the video below where he has the Jews in Exodus declaring “Oh, show us the way to the next waterhole, oh don’t ask why...”

The tie-in book by Marshall
and Alfa-Betty
The show is beloved by those who remember it, but it apparently didn’t gather all that much attention when it first appeared. By 1975, though, it had acquired enough of a viewership to be written up in an article in TV Guide where veteran writer Neil Hickey made note of how sporadically the show was appearing on the air:

“The show is a sometime thing, airing with no fanfare at all on occasional Sunday mornings when channel-hopping children might encounter it and become enmeshed in its zaniness. (It will be visible for the remaining Sundays of April on CBS at 10:30 A.M. ET.) Although it was created as entertainment cum uplift for kids, Painless Sunday School has a hard-core following of adults with a yen for sketch comedy and a taste for the mildly irreverent.” (“Marshall Efron’s Painless Sunday School,” TV Guide, April 12, pp. 15-16).

Hickey discusses the show’s audience, saying that “Some of the most enthusiastic responses have come from the Bible belt. A number of orthodox Sunday schools time their own classes so that the children can watch the show as a group and then discuss the Bible stories afterward. Other church groups ask CBS for tapes of the show.” (ibid)

Marshall and Alfa-Betty
Hickey punctuates the piece with quotes from Alfa-Betty Olsen (apparently he spoke to her but not to Efron). “Says Alfa-Betty, ‘We have no ax to grind as regards doctrine. We treat the stories as stories without trying to make any doctrinal point. And we’re very careful not to alter the substance of the stories. We try to find new, fresh ways of telling them.’ Olsen and Efron admit that neither of them is a church-goer, nor even noticeably pious. But both are fascinated by the Bible’s art, lore and drama.” (ibid)

I’m very happy to share these two episodes of the Sunday School with fellow fans. I recorded a scant few of these shows, and these are two that work on their own (at one point, Efron did the story of Joseph and the Coat of Many Colors for something like three shows). It may or may not work for today’s youngsters, but for those looking for even more evidence that the early Seventies were a very wild time in the media, this show fits the bill.

The first episode features the story of the Exodus and Zacchaeus the tax collector. The second contains the story of King Solomon’s wisdom (you know, the bit about cutting the kid in half) and the “parable of two debtors” (with a film piece about the twelve apostles that is definitely the most normal thing on the shows).

Fare thee well, Marshall. You were a better religion teacher than I had in 12 years of Catholic education….

Sunday, September 29, 2019

Legends, allegories, and fairy tales: the later work of Ermanno Olmi (Part 2 of two)

The last three and a half decades of Olmi’s career were comprised of a fascinatingly diverse array of work. The only problem was that once he was able to make whatever he wanted, thanks to the tremendous success of The Tree of Wooden Clogs (1978), he made at least a few thoroughly bizarre choices and, while still using non-professional performers and real locations, he decisively moved away from neorealist (read: modern, urban) plotlines in favor of period pieces, allegorical dramas, and fairy tales.

The first project after Trees was the equally epic but far less absorbing Keep Walking (1983; out of print on DVD), a reworking of the tale the Magi. Olmi’s retelling is framed by the notion that the story is being told by a local church group as a Christmastime play.

Given that frame, it’s not surprising that this saga has little resemblance to the “three wise men” tale told to Christian children. In this version, the wise men each travel with a caravan and meet each other on the way to see the Messiah. Their eventual encounter comes about almost randomly, as a woman in the camp just happens to see the famous star heralding the birth.

Here is the meeting with Joseph and Mary and their newborn (with English subs):

And Olmi’s conclusion is very different from the happy-go-lucky version of events in standard theology — here, the caravan is terrified of Herod’s order to kill them, so they flee back to their respective homelands. In the process, they bury bread that they were given by Joseph. This causes the tribe’s translator to tell off the high priest — in his rant, he condemns the priests for cowardice and also for concentrating on death rather than celebrating the Messiah's life (clearly Olmi’s central message about the Catholic church).

The most surprising element about the film — besides its outsized running time — is the strain of humor that runs throughout it. There are (mostly mild) curse words, some bits of physical shtick, and a light tone in certain sequences — until we witness Herod’s slaughter of innocents, and the conventional dark side of the tale returns for the finale. The conclusion of the film is here, without English subs:

Very much the opposite of Walking, the oddball allegorical comedy Long Live the Lady! (1987) is a low-key, very Bunuelian satire of bourgeois etiquette. The film centers around a formal dinner party thrown by “Her Ladyship” in which corporate affairs will be reviewed and celebrated.

The cast of characters is comprised of the strange-looking dinner guests — including a priest in a body cast and a young “angel” of indeterminate gender — and the young wait staff, for whom this dinner is a baptism by fire for their future careers.

Olmi could be a very funny filmmaker when he chose to be, and here he invests the dinner with a number of amusing and outlandish elements. A rather creepy old woman is the person who welcomes the young people to the castle in which the meal is held (this lady happens to look quite like “Her Ladyship”). A plague of frogs occurs at one point; at another a gigantic fish is served to the diners. And a fleet of TV sets are rolled into the dining room to show how well the corporation has been doing.

Olmi was clearly intent on changing his style from film to film in the Eighties and Nineties, and Lady is one of his bolder, more entertaining experiments. The finale finds the geekiest of the wait staff (whose working-class dad visited him at the castle in an earlier scene) doing what we’d want to do — he bolts from the premises, seeking to get away from Her Ladyship and her castle full of rich and powerful weirdos. His flight looks to have succeeded, after a set-to with an angry guard dog, as the film ends.

The beginning preparations for the wait staff and the memories of our geeky antihero start here (clip without English subs):

The best of Olmi’s post-Clogs films is The Legend of the Holy Drinker (1988; available on DVD from Arrow), an impressive picture that didn’t get U.S. distribution at the time of its release in Europe. It broke with his usual method, as the leading characters were played by professional actors; the supporting characters were played by non-pros. (The only previous occasion on which Olmi used professionals was a film he renounced, A Man Named John (1965), where Rod Steiger starred as Pope John XXIII, opposite a cast of pros including Adolfo Celi.)

Novelist Joseph Roth, an Austrian Jew who fled to Paris when the Nazis came to power and converted to Catholicism while living in Paris, wrote the novella on which the film is based. Roth was an alcoholic, and Holy Drinker is without doubt a film that is about self-ruin through alcohol, among other topics.

The plot hinges on a fairy tale occurrence: A homeless man (the late, great Rutger Hauer) living under the bridges of Paris is given a “loan” by a helpful stranger (Anthony Quayle). The stranger requests that, when he is solvent again, he repay the loan to a statue of St. Thérèse during a mass in a local church.

Thus, begins a pre-Groundhog’s Day trope in which Hauer’s character struggles to pay back the loan and, for various last-minute reasons, continues to miss mass over and over. In the first half of the film, this occurs because he meets benefactors; in the second half he is fleeced by malefactors.

Holy Drinker is a tale that can be interpreted in a number of ways. The two themes that seem to apply whether one views the film through a Christian lens or a secular one are these: in our world good luck seems to beget more good luck and bad luck only bad luck; and that it is incredibly hard to sufficiently pay back a person who has done you a live-saving good turn.

The whole film is currently hiding in plain sight on YouTube. This is the English-language version – the film was shot in English, with brief French exchanges left intact in both the English and Italian versions:

In the supplements found on the Arrow DVD, Rutger Hauer says that he was told by Olmi that Holy Drinker would be an action film (Hauer’s specialty), but that “the action will take place on your face.” Hauer is indeed terrific in the lead role, which is surprising, since he is playing a homeless man but is still the same physical powerhouse he was in genre films.

Given the chance to play a meaty role (something he was rarely given, outside of the work of Paul Verhoeven and Blade Runner), he excels here as the clochard, embodying him with a  sense of both solitude and sadness. Olmi was always a master at filming dialogue-less scene that are things of beauty, and there is one here, in which Hauer and other homeless drinkers stay inside a café for an entire evening during a torrential rain storm.

The Secret of the Old Woods (1993) is the second Olmi epic after Clogs and perhaps the most disposable of his “personal” works. An eco-parable about a man intent on having trees cut down that contain spirits, Secret is an extremely lightweight idea that goes on too long.

Still, anything Olmi made is better than, say, the best works of Ron Howard (damning by faint praise, I know). But live-action films with actors supplying the voices of trees, birds, and forest animals, wear out their welcome at any length over 90 minutes (and Secret runs 134 mins).

This is the original Italian trailer, which gives a flavor for the weirdness of animals and trees talking:

Genesis: The Creation and the Flood (1994; available on DVD from Shout! Factory) was a work for hire, but one that Olmi approached in his usual way, by using non-professional Bedouin actors, shooting in real Moroccan locations, and by presenting the action in a low-key, non-Hollywood manner.

The first in a series of Bible TV movies, the film has a frame device in which a grandfather tells his grandchildren the stories of the Garden of Eden, Cain and Abel, and Noah’s Ark. Paul Scofield’s narration for the English version is stirring and perfectly “guides” the events, which are, again, at their best when there is a minimum of dialogue and the faces tell the story. The soundtrack blends an original score by Il Maestro, Ennio Morricone, and anachronistic pieces like a tune played by Max Roach. (Footage from the Iraq War is seen in a passage on war.)

Here is the DVD trailer, from Shout! Factory:

The Profession of Arms (2001) is a period piece that thankfully is not of epic length. It involves the “military de’ Medici,” Giovanni. It’s one of the more staid Olmi films, plotted and shot in a very straightforward, old-fashioned style. Giovanni, however, remains one of the most singularly unlikeable leads in Olmi’s work. 

Olmi worked best in humanist drama and light comedy, but here he does a fine job with a period battle scene:

Profession and Olmi’s next film contains sexuality, something he had to that time veered away from. (Holy Drinker contains several sequences when Hauer’s character has sex, but we see none of the “action” and only oblique views of the performers’ bodies). In Profession, there is a sequence with a topless woman being nuzzled by her lover. This is, of course, a film set in the Renaissance, so Olmi clearly felt he could bend his own rule for the de’ Medicis and their scheming contemporaries.

The full film is up on YT with English subs, in pieces:

Even during his “experimental” phrase following the success of Clogs, Singing Behind Screens (2003) was most certainly a major departure for Olmi — a retelling of a Chinese legend, acted by a primarily Asian cast and shot in two very different “modes.” Just in case that isn’t a strange enough prospect, Singing is narrated by a pirate played by none other than Bud Spencer, star of many an Italian action movie with his partner Terence Hill.

The film’s plot revolves around the widow (Jun Ichikawa — no relation to the director) of an infamous Chinese pirate, “Admiral” Ching (Makoto Kobayashi). When he dies, his wife takes over his ship and battles the government – which is actually fond of pirates in this tale because they keep the economy moving through the process of acquiring “trans-shipped goods.” (A great politician-speak term for stolen booty.)

The widow’s message to her crew of rapscallions is a very modern one — making this an odd feminist revamp of the conventional pirate movie that just happens to be made by an old Italian filmmaker. The widow makes it clear that she will not only not deal with the government (as her husband had started to do), but that all of her sailors are forbidden to mistreat women, of whom there are a number on her ship.

In his most atypical film, Olmi made a very unusual choice — to vary the action on the pirate ship between a patently artificial setting (as a play staged in a seemingly enormous brothel) and on location in a real ship on a real body of water. The latter sequences adhere to Olmi’s neorealist approach, but they don’t work when counterpointed against the sequences that are shot in the artificial setting. 

In the brothel, the film makes a bit more sense and resembles Seijun Suzuki’s later, deliriously artificial Princess Racoon (2005). In the real outdoor setting, the film resembles little more than an Italian approximation of a Shaw Brothers film. Here is a sample (with English subs):

One very interesting thing about Singing: the film features nudity in the artificial sequences. One assumes the farther Olmi moved away from Italy, Catholicism, and neorealism, the more comfortable he was with sexuality.

Here is the trailer for English-speaking audiences:

Olmi's last three films deal with big themes, but return to his strengths: working with non-professional performers, crafting small-in-scope character studies, and editing films down to reasonable running times. The first of the trio, One Hundred Nails (2007), is the most curious, as it begins as a whodunit and quickly becomes a murky parable about the loss of human communication.

The opening scenes offer a good approximation of TV police procedurals, as a crime is discovered — giant nails have been driven into 100 priceless books in a Catholic university library. The crime is so esoteric that one is immediately drawn in, but Olmi solves it in short order by revealing the culprit, a handsome, bearded philosophy professor (Raz Degan) who wants to go back to nature.
Olmi directs Raz Degan.

He abandons his sports car (a philosophy prof with a sports car?), tosses his phone in a river, and gets rid of his i.d. cards. He keeps his laptop and one credit card, which becomes necessary later in the plot. He then begins to rebuild a small hut to live in near the beach area outside of a small town.

He bonds with the townsfolk and becomes their advocate in a battle against a corporation that wants to build on the land they live on. He is summarily found and arrested for the "100 nails" crime. The rest of the film consists of him explaining his crime — he feels that books and received wisdom teach us nothing about life, and that having a cup of coffee and chatting with a friend creates a more profound connection with humanity than studying old, dusty volumes of philosophy and “valuable” knowledge.

Here is the crime (subtitles are not needed):

Bibliophiles will certainly take issue with the main character’s choice of protest, but Olmi clearly had something specific to say, and this dreamy prof (who scores a nice relationship in the small town with a rebellious young woman) serves as his mouthpiece, given the prime placement of his final speeches — which sound both thoroughly reasonable and overly simplistic, in a Unabomber fashion.

Our antihero is likened to Christ by the townspeople, and the film's poetic but curious conclusion (in which the townspeople wait for him to come back, and he never does...) reinforces this comparison. Ultimately it’s a shame that Olmi didn’t work with a coscripter, as there are two very interesting films at war here and the collision produces a major head-scratcher of a drama.

The whole movie can be found here. Here is the trailer for the film (no English subs):

The Cardboard Village (2011) is a tight, moving character study that tackles important issues in a subdued way. An old priest (the always superb Michael Lonsdale) won’t accept that his church is being closed down. As his superiors confront him about the impending closing, he has other visitors – illegal immigrants from Africa — who build a “village” of cardboard boxes in one part of the church. The priest initially rejects the outsiders but then begins to protect them from the authorities.

Here is a scene between Lonsdale and an immigrant boy (no English subs):

Olmi crafts a thoroughly involving work while avoiding the sentimental clichés that would’ve made a Hollywood version of the same scenario nausea-inducing. The non-professionals playing the immigrants are excellent, while Lonsdale is the emotional center of the film as a man who can’t let go of the past — physically (the church) and mentally (his memories of the one girl he clearly loved, long before he became a priest). “Holy Drinker” Rutger Hauer also returns to Olmi’s universe as one of the priests trying to convince Lonsdale’s character to leave the church.

Olmi explores Christian theology again by introducing characters for whom the church is a literal refuge. A discussion that Lonsdale has with one of the immigrants impresses because of its sheer simplicity – Lonsdale asks the most eloquent of the immigrants “Why are you doing all this?” The immigrant answers, “You’re a priest, you should know better than me.” And, of course, the notion that places of worship make a perfect place to store refugees and society’s cast-offs gets right to the root of the concept of Christian charity.

A scene featuring the immigrants (with English subs, in the Closed Captions):

Olmi’s final film, Greenery Will Bloom Again (2014), was a typically modest tale of WWI, based on stories that Olmi’s father had told him about his experiences in that war. It’s a fitting conclusion to a career that went in several directions thematically — a story about young men in in a fatal situation, told by an old artist who heard it from a survivor of “the war to end all wars.”

The film successfully recreates the claustrophobic atmosphere of a bunker occupied by Italian soldiers who are quantified at intervals by their appearance at mail call. Lighter moments – an Italian soldier singing on a hill, applauded and cheered on by Germans soldiers, who can hear him across the trenches — are balanced by moments of war psychosis (soldiers suffering panic attacks in their bunks).

The soldiers are depicted as capable of rebellion, as when one soldier refuses to comply with a command (which he aptly calls a “criminal order”) and desperation, when a soldier shoots himself rather than expose himself to fire from the Germans or being taken prisoner. In the last third of the film, it becomes apparent that the bunker will soon be destroyed, as not only are the Germans bombing them laterally, but they are also digging underneath it to explode its foundations.

Greenery showed Olmi taking on new challenges in filmmaking at the age of 83. He shot the film on 4K video and made sure that it was extremely small in scale. The result was a work of pure cinema that was of a piece with the best of his previous work.

The great humanist went out on a perfect note — an anti-war drama that has both documentary and fantasy elements (the latter occurs when a soldier sees a tree that has turned gold) but is also all about memory. Not a bad place for an immaculately emotional portraitist to conclude his life’s work.

Here’s the Greenery trailer, with no subs (but they’re not really needed for this kind of drama):

At this moment in time it’s hard to find online interviews with Olmi that are subtitled. One that is (for reasons other than film scholarship) is at 10:30 in this video short about how the set of Greenery was part of a protocol by the Edison Company (Olmi’s old employer and a sponsor for the shooting of the film) to be more ecologically chaste:

It was indeed difficult to find any English-subtitled interview clips of Olmi while assembling this piece. I did find this “triple whammy” short interview with Olmi, speaking in Italian, Rutger Hauer, speaking in English, and Michael Lonsdale, who is fluent in English but here chooses to speak in French because he says he “lacks the vocabulary” in English.

The three men are together for a screening of Cardboard Village at the Venice Film Festival in 2011, but the questions they are asked are more generic. Lonsdale says he was happy to work with Olmi because his film united all races. Hauer declares that his jump from action cinema to working for Olmi is a simple one: “You take on another coat, and you dance…”

Michael Lonsdale in The Cardboard Village.
Olmi talks very seriously, as one could expect. He is asked if he would make a film about politics and he says that the current Italian government doesn’t’ “deserve” a film about it. He is also asked who his favorite filmmakers are, and he notes that, if he were forced to watch the best films, he would “see a few minutes of” Rossellini, Fellini, Pasolini (“and that’s only Italian cinema”), and Elia Kazan, Orson Welles, and others (I wish he had kept going with his list).

It’s an interview that finds all three men seated, but it clearly was done on the fly at a film festival and would’ve been amazing if there had been more time for all three to gather their thoughts (and there had some translation done for each of them, since one gets the impression that each gent is not fully aware of what the other is saying).