Lance Hunt wears glasses, Captain Amazing doesn’t…

For a variety of reasons, it’s been a busy end of the summer, and an even busier start to the semester.  Some of the explanation for my recent silence involved sojourns to both D.C. and Ohio to view films (more about that in a later post), part of it is work-related, but there’s also the fact that little things can get in the way.  Among those things was a trip to get my eyes checked, something I haven’t done for many years.  While my prescription hasn’t changed from the last time, the experience of being at the optometrist’s (followed, in close succession, by a viewing of The House Bunny) got me thinking about our cultural attitude towards glasses.

Generally speaking, there is one thing we all know from childhood about glasses.  They are worn by weak, precociously smart, nerds.  All-American athletes do not wear glasses.  Homecoming queens do not wear glasses.  Members of the chess club wear glasses.

This connection of glasses and “nerdness” is ingrained as a modern trope, but it also has deep roots in American film.  This is made abundantly clear in a nearly one hundred year old Norma Talmadge vehicle (from 1916) called The Social Secretary.  The plot involves an attractive young woman who has repeatedly been forced to leave jobs where she was groped and manhandled by her male employers.  Instead, she takes a position as the social secretary for a wealthy family (which is gun-shy about pretty secretaries bolting for greener pastures, or trying to make time with the hard-partying eldest son).  She goes to her interview looking like this:

Norma in Glasses

Of course, in her private moments, she is the very flower of femininity, looking like this:

Norma Revealed

Norma Saucy

This transformation raises any number of interesting issues, not the least of which is one which would reach it’s fullest expression several decades later.   I refer to it as the  “Superman question.”  Stated bluntly, “How can everyone not get that Clark Kent and Superman are the same person?” (the applicable corollary is, “How can everyone miss how attractive that person is simply because they’re wearing glasses?”). In a visual sense, no one defined the problem more clearly that Dave Fleischer in the opening to his Superman cartoons (later copied in the 1950’s television show):

Fleischer Kent

Fleischer Superman

By placing Superman and Clark Kent in precisely the same pose, it’s made even more obvious that those glasses shouldn’t fool anybody…and yet they do.

But it’s not as simple as everyone being blind/gullible/just plain not that sharp.  There are two things going on here worth mentioning.  First of all, the audience is certainly not fooled in any of these cases.  It’s part of how the narrative works that we clearly understand something that the entire cast doesn’t.  It’s a simple convention, but an effective one that keeps us engaged.  When and how will everyone else finally understand?  What will the ramifications of that be?  How will the characters themselves respond to that moment when the glasses come off?

And that leads to the second interesting part, which is seeing how an individual actor deals with their eventual “transformation.”  Because deep down, here’s the thing: it’s never about the glasses.  The glasses are a simple way to signify an “undesirable” state and to clearly demarcate a change in character, but that change almost always involves a million other performance decisions made by the actor and/or their director.

Look at those pictures of Norma Talmadge again.  Everything about her has changed.  Her hair, her clothes, her makeup, her expression, her posture – the glasses pale in significance compared to everything else.  But what we seem to fixate on is the spectacles.

Let’s take another example.  Christopher Reeve was a brilliant Superman in the 1978 film, but a big part of that is how he managed to give two completely different performances in the dual role of Superman and Clark Kent.  This guy:

Clark Kent

Cannot possibly be this guy:


Clark is nice, but he’s a little bit sniveling, and his clothes don’t quite fit right, and he’s nervous and awkward about everything.  In short, he’s a glasses-wearing nerd.  But that Superman is something else.  He leaves people (literally) slack-jawed at his debonair good looks, his genial charm, his overwhelming competence, and his dazzling smile.  There’s a scene where we actually see the transformation happen, and it’s a testament to Reeve that he could pull it off:

Clark to Supe

On one side of the street, he’s good old, bumbling Clark Kent, but by the time he gets to the camera position he’s well on his way to being Superman (There’s a remarkable moment in Superman II when Clark reveals his secret identity, which Reeve accomplishes not only by removing the glasses, but through a complete change in his physical demeanor which we see from the back.)

If you watch enough examples of this, it becomes clear that the most important thing that makes a “glasses transformation” work is an actor finding the right level of calibration between the two performances.  In simplest terms, the audience needs to not think of everyone in the movie as some sort of idiot who can’t see that one character has two different personas.  Reeve and Talmadge make things just believable enough by modulating their behavior along with their costumes.  But there are plenty examples of this not working.  In Pin-Up Girl (from 1944), Betty Grable utterly fails to convince us that she could possibly be mistaken for anyone other than Betty Grable.  Yes, she changes clothes with her dowdier friend (and borrows her glasses), but the chief change in her performance is to cross her eyes when anyone questions her dual identity.  So she goes from this:

Grable and friend

To this:

Ugly Betty

Subtle it ain’t.

In the 1999 teen comedy, She’s All That, the filmmakers make the same mistake with poor Rachel Leigh Cook (again, not one of our greatest actresses), but they do it with costume overkill.  The low-point (or high point, depending on what you’re looking for) is her appearance at work at a falafal stand, which definitely contrasts strongly with her “sexily transformed for the prom and not wearing glasses” iteration:

She's All That Falafel


She's All That Red Dress

In either of these cases, the performance can’t quite cut it, and the filmmakers try to lean on something else to make it work.  Essentially, though, the audience just has to run with a silly situation.

My final example (if you’ve gotten this far you won’t mind) is The House Bunny from 2008.  This is a film that has two characters using glasses for diametrically opposed ends.  “Hot” Anna Faris is trying to ingratiate herself with nice guy, Colin Hanks, while nerdy Emma Stone hopes to become more popular.  The “before” versions:

House Bunny #2

House Bunny #3

contrast markedly with the “after” versions (Anna’s glasses strikingly emulate Betty Grable’s crossed-eyes in the first picture, while Emma is the second from the right in the second picture):

House Bunny #5

House Bunny #4

Interestingly, both of these instances involve the kind of excessive alterations which keep a “glasses transformation” from being effective, but that’s actually a function of the narrative.  By the end of the film, both characters realize that they’re trying to be something that they aren’t, so they just return to their “natural” (and happier) states.

Now, I know this may be a bit much to spring from a visit to the optometrist, but I’m o.k. with that.  I know lots of people who wear glasses, and lots of people who are afraid they’ll be stigmatized by spectacles – partly because of a trope of popular culture which is accepted without much actual thought.  So just remember, even in the movies, it’s about how a character acts, not about their glasses.  And you can trust me to see that clearly.  I just had my eyes checked.

Pittsburgh: Ready for the Close-Up

I was watching the very brilliant Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs (2009) for the umpteenth time last week, when a joke about the onset of the “perfect food storm” got my gears turning.  As anyone who has seen the film knows (and that should be everyone) the food storm follows an unusual pattern in which it hits all of the world’s best known landmarks first, before spreading to the rest of the globe.  The most striking element of this is the shorthand used to describe the various affected locales.  England, for example is represented by the following:


Big Ben and umbrella-carrying men in bowler hats tell us all we need to know, despite the fact that the scene bears only a passing resemblance to reality, and there’s certainly more to London than a clock tower.  The same is true of the entire nation of China, which is invoked through the image of the Great Wall:


And of New York City, which rates two shots including four iconic elements (Times Square, the Statue of Liberty, the Manhattan skyline and the Brooklyn Bridge):


It’s perfectly understandable that filmmakers reduce entire cities (not to mention countries and cultures) to easily invoked icons, but it’s more than a bit troubling as well.  It can be even more irksome, however, when you live in a city which isn’t usually reduced to a particular building or landmark, but to a general impression which is about forty years out of date.  Pittsburgh is such a place.  Over roughly a hundred years (from 1880-1980), any discussion of my beloved hometown demanded the use of words such as “smoky”, “industrial” and “dirty,” and those terms were not inappropriate.  For proof, one need only look at some of the early documentary films made by (eventual) D. W. Griffith photographer Billy Bitzer when he came to town in 1904 to shoot footage of the Westinghouse factory in East Pittsburgh.

Taken together, this kind of imagery defined the city.  Burly, hard-working men, manhandling steel and machinery in nondescript, ugly work sheds, surrounded by the castoff remnants of industrial production.  Fifty years later, that image was STILL defining the city in Gordon Douglas’ I Was a Communist for the FBI (1951):


Work sheds, rail yards and belching smoke, all in the service of a story of communist infiltration into the lives of those very same burly working men (who were sometimes of ethnicities which made their American loyalties suspect).  Though we do get a brief shot of an image with the potential to displace (or at least modify) the generic impression of all that smokiness:


The confluence of the Allegheny and the Monongahela isn’t “The Point” as it would later be known, but at least it’s geographically distinctive in a way that offers some promise of better things.  Unfortunately, it remains pretty industrial, and Pittsburgh’s first “Renaissance” was still in the early stages.  So let’s fast forward a few years.  Surely all that “smoky” business must be a little bit relieved by 1983, right?  After all, Pittsburgh was massively cleaned up, and altered by a variety of major building projects, during the Sixties and Seventies.  That’s got to be reflected in the city’s public image.  Except…not so much.  Adrian Lyne’s Flashdance was one of the most successful films ever shot in the city, and is probably the most popular film ever set in Pittsburgh.  So how does the city look?  Well, here’s the main character at her day job:


And here are a few shots of her place of employment:


Here’s how the city looks on her way to work:


And here’s where she lives:


Not exactly the happiest or friendliest of environments.  Clearly no one had yet given up on the image of Pittsburgh as “hell with the lid off.”  My point here is that it’s ridiculously difficult to change these entrenched images once they’re established.  Whole books have been written about how the city of New York, for example, is used in film, but the operative word here is “used.”  New York City is not a glowing paradise where the streets are paved with gold.  On the other hand, it isn’t a human cesspool either.  It is, however, shorthand for “American urban-ness” and that has made it an iconic beacon for audiences who yearn for life in the “big city.”  People who’ve never been there worry about the “scary” subway system, want to experience the “glamour” of Times Square, the “romance” of Grand Central Station and the “exotic” streets of Chinatown.  The fact that the connection of each of those adjectives to each of those locales is highly debatable doesn’t alter the fact that they seem to stick for general media usage.  But back to the problem of Pittsburgh…

Those of us who live here know that what we see on screen has frequently not reflected reality, but after thirty years things may finally be turning around.  The most prominent evidence of this consists of two very entertaining recent films, She’s Out of My League (2010) and (one of my favorites from last year) Jack Reacher (2012).  Both take an entirely different view of Pittsburgh as a place, utterly ignoring the “smoky city” tropes of yesteryear, even when they might suit their respective narratives.

She’s Out of My League is a mostly charming, occasionally raunchy, romantic comedy about an airport worker who falls into a relationship with an attractive woman who leaves her phone behind in the security line.  It’s not a major work of art, but it redefines what “Pittsburgh” means on screen.  Keeping in mind the images from Flashdance, here’s where the main character works:


And here’s where he lives:


The girl’s place (somewhere downtown) is a little more upscale:


While we don’t see either of them on their way to work, there are establishing shots of the city, scattered throughout the film:


There are many more examples (the city couldn’t buy better imagery), but even more surprising is that Jack Reacher, a much darker film, takes a similar approach.  Though it begins with a sharpshooter driving to the spot from which he will kill five people, the filmmakers go out of their way to make the city look amazing:


A brief shot in a vaguely industrial space is about as “welcoming” as such a shot could get:


And even shots of the city at night are miles away from the “smoky urban” aesthetic:


Even more significant is that this positive visual approach is factored into the storytelling.  When the couple in Flashdance go for a romantic stroll, it looks like this (that’s them behind the smoke):


But in She’s Out of My League, it looks like this:

LEAGUE #23    LEAGUE #18  LEAGUE #12

Jack Reacher may not have a lot of romance, but here’s a shot of the site of the killings that kick off the film:


And here’s Reacher on his way to a home where he’ll almost be killed by thugs:


In both of the Jack Reacher shots, no one would condemn the filmmakers for taking a darker view of the environment, especially in a city defined by gritty industry – but it doesn’t happen.

I’m not suggesting that the transformation of Pittsburgh’s image is complete.  The Point has never quite managed to become the visual representative of the city that it could be, and anyone who visits Mount Washington can hear visitors expressing their shock that the view isn’t shrouded in smoke and filled with flaming furnaces.  When they take a minute to look around, however, they realize that this dour view up the Monongahela (from Flashdance, with the Jones and Laughlin plant still visible up the river):


Is more properly replaced by this rosily romantic one (from She’s Out of My League):


Same view, world of difference.

The usefulness of stereotyped geographic icons is well-established, and they make perfect sense as a shortcut through narrative exposition.  The problem is that (like all stereotypes) they can create and cement expectations which eventually bear little relation to reality (assuming they bore such a relation initially).  Pittsburgh is a case study in the pitfalls of this approach.  Those of you have been here already know that, but in an ever-shrinking world it’s a useful thing for all of us to keep in mind – preferably while watching She’s Out of My League and Jack Reacher!

What Is the Sound of a Pig Dancing?

While I’d always like to think that I most closely resemble Ronald Colman (who wouldn’t?), I tend to fear that I come off closer to Snitz Edwards (feel free to look up pictures of both on-line and you’ll see what I mean).  With that in mind, I haven’t actually WATCHED this recording of a lecture I delivered in February as part of the annual CFA “WatsOn Arts Festival.”  It was reasonably well-received as far as I could tell, so I offer it now for your perusal.  Enjoy (I hope)!

Let’s play “Find Erville Alderson”!

Last month in Columbus I saw a minor little B-picture from 1940 called Queen of the Mob, part of a series of four which were based on a book credited to  J. Edgar Hoover.  It was a competent and entertaining film, but not anything especially noteworthy – nor was it intended to be.  What made it remarkable, however, was that EVERYONE was in it.  Every other scene had me saying, “Oh, look, it’s (fill in the name here)!”  Credited cast members included Blanch Yurka, Ralph Bellamy, Jack Carson, J. Carrol Naish, Jeanne Cagney, Hedda Hopper and Billy Gilbert, while the uncredited cast included people like Brooks Benedict, Lloyd Corrigan, Paul Fix, Edward Gargan, Raymond Hatton, Charles Lane, John Miljan and Robert Ryan.  You know all of those people, right?  Well, maybe not by name, since most of them were never major stars (though some were).  If you watch enough films from the Classical Studio Era though, you’re pretty much guaranteed to have seen most of them at one time or another (many of them also have a lot of credits in early television).  My favorite example of this phenomenon is character actor Erville Alderson (205 films to his credit) seen here in one of his biggest roles in D.W. Griffith’s America (1924):


That’s him on the right, as the father of Carol Dempster (in the middle) a paramour of D.W. Griffith who starred in many of the director’s less successful films, and along with then-rising talent Neil Hamilton (who would have a solid starring career from the mid-Twenties to the mid-Thirties, before being reduced to non-credited roles in films like…Queen of the Mob!).  Dempster disappears from film history along with Griffith, but Hamilton is perhaps more familiar to later audiences as Police Commissioner Gordon on the Batman television series.  Erville, however, builds a thriving career as a character actor in studio films over the next thirty years.  He pops up all over the place, in all sorts of roles, sometimes with a speaking part and other times just as a walk-on.  Here’s pretty much his entire performance in Love Finds Andy Hardy (1938) (that’s him whispering into the judge’s ear):


Here he is as a displaced shopkeeper encountering the Joad family in John Ford’s The Grapes of Wrath (1940):


And here’s basically his entire role as one of several handwriting experts in Frank Capra’s Mr Smith Goes to Washington (1939):

Erville MR. SMITH

His characters weren’t always so anonymous, of course.  In Raoul Walsh’s Objective, Burma! (1945) he plays General Stilwell (to whom he bore a resemblance):


And playing Jefferson Davis in Michael Curtiz’ Santa Fe Trail (1940) he got to intimidate cadet George Armstrong Custer as portrayed by Ronald Reagan:


Perhaps his finest hour, is as the underhanded Nate Tomkins in Howard Hawks’ Sergeant York (1941):


Under the studio system there are lots of people like Erville, of course.  It was a benefit of the way things worked that in-house loyalties sometimes allowed actors to continue as employees beyond their prime years.  Cecil B. DeMille was famous for keeping people on the payroll, and many actors who worked with him in the silent era can be glimpsed as extras throughout his later films.  Of course, for some performers this was a major comedown, but it kept them fed.  Robert Warwick, for example, was a stage idol and early film star who made the mistake of leaving Hollywood for a few years just as Talkies were introduced.  When he got back he was anathema, so the majority of his 244 credits are for playing parts like “Board Member” in Female (1933).  For others, stardom was never on the radar.  Charles Lane is perhaps the leading light of the dedicated character actors, with 361 credits.  He also lived to be 102 (dying in 2007), so he had longevity working in his favor.  John Qualen, H.B. Warner, Russell Simpson….trust me, you know these people.

What prompted me to ruminate on these unsung actors, however, isn’t just Queen of the Mob, but a viewing of The Longest Day (1962) the following week.  For those who don’t know it, the latter film is a recounting of the events of D-Day from both the German and American perspectives.  Producer Darryl F. Zanuck pulled out all the stops, which included hiring every major star he could lay his hands on to play some sort of role (no matter how minor).  It’s a common enough tactic when there’s a lot of money on the line, and it can be seen in plenty of other instances, like the Cinerama opus How the West Was Won (1962) and George Stevens’ The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965).  But here’s the interesting thing.  On their release, each of these films was faulted for being “spot the star” epics that distractingly crammed a galaxy of well-known faces into their running times.  After all, how can you take it seriously when every other person on the screen is someone you’ve seen in a hundred other films, fan magazines, radio shows, etc., etc.?

Well, you tell me.  We’ll start small.  Here are a couple of fairly random images from The Longest Day:


Any luck?  The first one is a bit harder for those not up on their French films, but the woman is Arletty and the priest (on the right) is Jean-Louis Barrault – arguably two of the most well-known faces in the history of French cinema.  How about the G.I.’s?  On the left is singing sensation Paul Anka, and on the right heartthrob Robert Wagner (now perhaps best known for his role as “Number Two” in the Austin Powers films).  Keep in mind that none of these people is on-screen for more than about two minutes total.

Maybe How the West Was Won will be easier:


Yes, no?  The major stars here (from left to right across the two images) are Karl Malden (in the black hat), Agnes Moorehead, Debbie Reynolds, Carroll Baker, Gregory Peck, Thelma Ritter, Robert Preston and Debbie Reynolds (again).  O.K., one more, from The Greatest Story Ever Told:


It’s a little hard to pick him out, but we start with Roddy McDowell on the far left, then Gary Raymond (with the walking stick), Van Heflin (wearing white in the middle), Dorothy McGuire and Sal Mineo.

Now, the point of this is not that I watch way too many movies, so I know most of these people (I’m already aware that my mind is filled with lots of….umm….esoteric information).  The point isn’t even that time is a great leveler that makes everyone equivalently anonymous (eventually) – though film is certainly a constant, concrete reminder of that fact.  The increasing anonymity of once popular stars actually benefits “spot the star” films because it removes the distraction of constantly recognizing people from other contexts.

To my mind, though, there’s something even more interesting going on here, and it involves asking one more question.  Which of the above mentioned movies have you seen?  The Longest Day, How the West Was Won and The Greatest Story Ever Told all have their boosters, but none is considered a masterpiece.  They don’t necessarily appear on popular “top ten” lists, and certainly aren’t well-regarded by serious film scholars.  But guess what?  The Grapes of Wrath, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and Sergeant York actually are taken seriously, both in a scholarly context and (at least as far as the first two are concerned) in the popular canon.  So guess who has the last laugh?  Erville’s on-screen life may be reducible to a sort of parlor game, but his years of plugging away make him at least as recognizable as people who were showered with much more attention during their careers, and the results of that fortitude should be a little lesson for all of us.  So keep in mind that someday (sooner than you think) the entire cast of The Avengers will be reduced to background players while a few fanatical students of 21st century culture will be playing “Find Henry Cavill.”  If those actors are anywhere near as lucky as Erville…

Columbus, Gem of the…Movies

As I have many times before, I spent Memorial Day weekend enjoying the glories of one of the cultural capitals of the world.  I refer, of course, to Columbus, Ohio.  The annual Cinevent film convention has been going on for 45 years, and I’ve been a regular attendee for the last 15 of those years.  Columbus has a fair number of good restaurants, and there’s a dealer’s room full of movie memorabilia (and movies) to peruse, but the real reason to go is the search for otherwise unavailable films, projected on a screen (and with live musical accompaniment for the silent films).  Cinevent is actually the most “newbie friendly” of such events, carefully balancing better-known and more readily available titles with otherwise impossible to see gems, and this year was no exception (the full schedule is available on their website:

I’ve written up a few comments about this year’s highlights, and five of my six favorites are impossible to see if you aren’t at a festival or an archive.  Those favorites included:

Crossed Swords (1954) – This was Errol Flynn’s first attempt at an independent production, and while the plot is fairly average, the production itself is pretty jaw-dropping.  They clearly spent a TON of money on costumes and location shooting, and the photography (by Jack Cardiff) is eye-popping.  It really made me wish that I could see the footage from Errol’s late, abortive attempt to make a film version of the story of William Tell.  This film is apparently trapped in “rights hell” given its status as an independent, international production, so it’s almost never screened.

Under Pressure (1935) – This is the film I was most pumped about going in, and director Raoul Walsh and acting duo Victor McLaglen and Edmund Lowe did not disappoint.  Being a “sandhog” and digging a subway tunnel under the East River is clearly THE most exciting, adventurous job ANYONE could EVER have in the HISTORY OF MANKIND!!!  Floods, fires, the bends, paralysis, brawls with Charles Bickford – you name it, this movie has it.  Enormously entertaining, but 20th Century Fox doesn’t really care.  They apparently find it easier just to leave it in the vault.

The Sea Beast (1926) – O.K., it really wasn’t very good, but it gets at least an honorable mention for sheer chutzpah.  This was basically an “origins” story – for Captain Ahab!  Over half of the film is made up stuff about how Ahab lost both his leg and his beloved Dolores Costello, then we sort of get to the actual Moby Dick part (massively altered to reflect the first hour), and it ends with Ahab in heaven/New Bedford where his lost love is awaiting him.  Kind of has to be seen to be believed, but even then it’s hard to grasp what they were possibly thinking…  The Warner Archive will probably release this eventually, and I believe it may have aired on TCM at some point.  When I was in high school someone had a party to watch John Huston’s version of MOBY DICK in lieu of reading the book, but I can only imagine the essays which would result from trying that with this version…

Pardon My Past (1946) – Fred MacMurray plays a dual role as a just-mustered-out soldier (who plans on starting a mink farm with buddy William Demarest – that’s right, A MINK FARM) who is mistaken for his long-lost, weasely, rich twin brother.  Akim Tamiroff is the highly cultured bookie who initiates the confusion when he tries to get the wrong Fred to pay off a gambling debt.  The wisecracks came fast and furious, and any film where the bad guy is willing to take his pick of first editions from the family library as payment (all the while tutting over their disuse) earns my affection out of the gate.  Harry Davenport also had a hilarious turn as the disgruntled grandfather of the rich Fred, desperately trying to get the bookie to beat some sense into him (literally).  A real gem – and we can only hope that someday Sony/Columbia decides it’s worth giving the world another chance to realize that.

Hold That Co-Ed (1938) – This sort-of, kind-of musical featured George Murphy as the new football coach at “State”, distressed to find that the Governor (John Barrymore) has cut the school’s budget to nothing.  When he marches on the capital with the student body (performing the “Limpy-Dimp” no less) they convince the Gov that there are votes to be had from college athletics, and he immediately promises (and delivers) on the best facilities, team and schedule in the country.  Eventually, the election for Senator of the state becomes a wager between Barrymore and the other candidate over the outcome of a football came.  Daffy, yet completely trenchant, displaying equal amounts of cynicism for higher education, college athletics and politics, this was a real blast.  Not to pile on 20th Century Fox, but I’d buy a dozen copies of this to distribute as gifts if they saw fit to release it.  It was THAT entertaining.

The Mob (1951) – Broderick Crawford starred as a cop who goes undercover to bust organized crime on the docks, and boy, does he.  This was as hard-bitten as it could be, and had an unexpectedly great script, as well as a couple of nice twists, making it a solid, involving piece of work.  Sony is to be commended for getting this out there on DVD, though if you aren’t paying close attention you’ll miss the third film noir box set altogether.

None of these were exactly throw-away productions, and they’re all well worth seeing, so it’s sort of depressing to realize that their audience has been reduced to a few hundred people sitting in the basement ballroom of a hotel in Columbus, but that’s the way this works.  This year there were a few younger people, but that term is relative, and the average age of attendees remains somewhere in the upper fifties.  I can never understand why there aren’t more actual academics at these events, though many academics are clearly a lot more comfortable with the narrow boundaries of received canon than they would publicly admit.  Any of the main film conventions is a clear rebuke of the ridiculous notion that “everything is available on the internet” and they always point up just how much of our own cultural history is hidden from view.  As I said, Cinevent actually does a decent job mixing in better known films (this year’s more relatively common titles included The 5000 Fingers of Dr. T and The Bitter Tea of General Yen), so it’s a good place to get your feet wet before advancing to more “hardcore” venues like Cinesation (  If you’re at all interested and have never been to such an event give it some thought next year.  It’s a pleasant way to pass a weekend – and you might need a break from the mink farm…

The Kitschiness of Taylor

A few weeks ago I spent a goodly chunk of a weekend doing something that would make a lot of people groan.  I settled onto my couch and watched two films which were intended to rule the 2012 box-office, and introduce a dominant new star into the Hollywood firmament.  It said so.  Right on the front page of “Entertainment Weekly.”  The emergent star was Mr. Taylor Kitsch, and the films were Battleship and John Carter.  Alas, EW’s prognosticative powers were not confirmed by either film, and rather than blaze a path to immortality, each quickly became synonymous with bloated, boring, can-you-believe-they-even-made-that-anyway, career-ending failure.  The question before us is: why?  Much time, money and effort were expended by intelligent and creative people to bring these films to the screen, so how do they manage to flop so irredeemably?  If I could answer the question definitively I’d be the new ruler of the industry (and – dare I say it – the WORLD!), but absent that, it’s still worth kicking the question around a little bit.

Many fingers could be pointed with regard to the failure of either film, but both clearly faced uphill battles right out of the gate.

Edgar Rice Burroughs created John Carter at the same time he created Tarzan (in 1912).  Both were successful on the page, but Tarzan made a fairly quick leap to the big-screen, while John Carter never quite got off the ground.  The most famous abortive attempt at a movie version was an animated proposal by Warner Brothers animator Bob Clampett in 1936, footage of which can be seen here:

Separate attempts at live-action in the Seventies and Eighties also fizzled, which is to say that despite a long history of success in print, the world was not exactly clamoring for a John Carter movie, nor was he a well known character outside of certain circles of sci-fi/fantasy enthusiasts.  That created problem number one for the recent film, since most people just have no idea who the character is or what he’s all about.  This was in no way helped by problem number two, a rather obtuse advertising campaign, including trailers and posters which provided absolutely no background for the uninitiated.

Within two minutes the guys in marketing sort of make the film look like a re-hash of Star Wars: Attack of the Clones by way of Conan the Barbarian, featuring the creepy guys from Fringe.  None of which is fair to a venerable character by a well-known author which anticipated all of the things it looks like it’s imitating.

Battleship faced an entirely different set of problems, but name recognition wasn’t really one of them.  The board game remains popular, and is well-known to a whole generation of people who remember either of these (or their successors):

Fundamentally, however, it was reasonable to assume going in that a film based on a board game would be something less than compelling.

But a funny thing happened on the way to what look like two really problematic ideas for expensive summer blockbusters.  They’re both pretty good films.  Maybe they aren’t all time classics, but there are WAY worse films, and you could make a pretty good case that they’re better than any of the Transformers films, or something like Thor (and I preferred them to any of the recent Batman films).  So why did they both flop so badly?

Well, there is an obvious possible weak link here, and that would be former star-of-tomorrow, Taylor Kitsch.  The trailers for both films immediately demonstrate that he’s something less than a magnetic personality, though his persona isn’t exactly unfamiliar to modern audiences.  The Battleship trailer devotes almost half it’s length to the “drama” of Kitsch’s character, and it just fizzles out on screen:

But angry young men are never really out of fashion, and his flat performance style is in keeping with recent preferences.  So is it all his fault?  As much as I found him problematic in both films, it’s really not fair to saddle him with the blame, but that seems to be part of what’s happened.  His upcoming projects are budgeted at much lower levels, and he doesn’t exactly have prime positioning in the credits.  The buildup from the EW article evaporated with the poor box office results of both films, and a later turn in Oliver Stone’s Savages did little to resuscitate his career hopes.  While it might be premature to write him off, his biggest chance may have passed, and that’s kind of what interested me most about watching these titles back to back.

Can you imagine being the guy who was the public face of a half BILLION dollars worth of flopped filmmaking (and those budgets certainly play a role in the actual categorization of either as a failure)?  Even when the deck was stacked against both films from the outset?  Even when the films are actually pretty darned entertaining?  I can’t help but wonder how it feels to start the summer on such a high, and end it on such a low, especially when it could portend the end of your career just when it should be taking off.

In the next few months Hollywood will roll out a whole new slate of summer films, some of which will flop (despite being worth watching), and some of which will succeed (despite being dreck).  But all of them involve the hard work of people putting their careers on the line in a very public way – a way most of us can’t remotely comprehend.  So the lesson of my Kitsch-y weekend is this.  Before accepting word-of-mouth reports, remember to give those films a fair shake before writing them off (and yes, that includes visiting John Carter and Battleship if you haven’t already).  It’s only fair, and I’m sure Taylor would appreciate it.



Music hath charms…

I recently watched my copy of William Seiter’s 1935 musical Roberta.  The film stars Randolph Scott and Irene Dunne, and introduced the song “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes,” but it also contains one of my favorite Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers musical numbers.  I’m frequently accused of giving short shrift to the entire musical genre, but I don’t think that’s quite fair.  There are many musicals I enjoy immensely – they just aren’t the ones that might be foremost in many people’s minds (I’m also frequently accused of being a bit of a contrarian).  At the same time, I have a fairly low threshold for excessive fluffiness – something in which many musicals revel.  There are however, plenty of pleasures to be derived from well-made musical numbers, and I thought I might pass along a few of my favorites.  If you don’t have time for them all, feel free to come back later.  All of them are worth watching.  The clips are from YouTube and the sources may be questionable, but I legitimately own copies of all of these, so I’m just going to tell myself that the links are a fair shortcut.

As I mentioned, I love this clip from Roberta, in part because both Fred and Ginger seem to be having so much sheer fun.  They may have practiced until her feet bled, but it still comes across an expression of simple joy:

The same is true of this jaw-droppingly energetic number from Hellzapoppin’, which make me fear for the safety of the dancers even though I’m sure they’re all well-past being hurt by trying the same moves today:

That same energy is seen in one of America’s favorite musicals, though with a much more serious purpose.  West Side Story may be a collection of overwrought melodramatic moments, but I’ve always thought this particular number is its unquestionable highlight:

Of course, part of the appeal for me is that it’s a very serious song which matches exuberance with social criticism, and that’s a regular prejudice of mine.  I feel the same way about the musically deft depiction of a historical event, as in 1776:

Or Show Boat’s stylized comment on the vagaries of life on the river:

Actually, the seriousness doesn’t have to be that portentous.  It might just revolve around two people falling in love while walking in the park, as in The Band Wagon:

Sometimes it’s not the gravity of the subject that gets me, but my sheer awe of someone’s talent.  Certainly Fred and Ginger fall into that category, but one of the great, underappreciated (at this point) musical stars is Deanna Durbin.  Partly, she was just charming, but even more she was immensely talented.  One of my favorites is her performance with a Russian choir in the seldom seen His Butler’s Sister.  I don’t know what she’s saying, but it doesn’t matter.  She’s clearly saying it very well, singing it brilliantly, and feeling every note.  It’s heart-breaking and joyous in equal measure, and it puts a little lump in my throat to see it:

Another unmatched performance is Robert Preston’s portrayal of Professor Harold Hill in The Music Man, and I sometimes end up singing this to myself just because:

The other kind of musical number which fascinates me is the item which is so weird that it can’t possibly be ignored.  I saw Karl Freund’s (yes, the director of the original The Mummy) Moonlight and Pretzels at a film festival years ago, and I can still hum along with the completely bizarre concluding number, which self-consciously tries to sum up the first half of the Great Depression:

At a more recent festival I was favored with one of the greatest novelty songs ever, performed by a collection of film legends including both Cliff Edwards and Jimmy Durante (the copy here is terrible, but it’s STILL worth it!):

Finally, they aren’t true movie musicals, but nobody had a better ear for music than Jim Henson, and he proved it repeatedly.  The following summarize all of the above in succinct three minute clips.  The “Show Tunes Medley” shows an unforgettable performer just enjoying herself, “This Frog” is hilariously off the wall, the minstrel song always puts the thing in my throat, and Rowlf and Fozzie bring us full circle, by always making me happy just by their sheer exuberance:

Muppet Show Tunes Medley

Kermit: This Frog

Kermit: Minstrel Song

Rowlf and Fozzie Piano Duet

As I said, there are a lot of clips here, but I don’t really see that as a problem.  Music is good for you, and if Roberta reliably made me smile, maybe one of these will get your own toes tapping.  Just don’t ever let it be said again that I have some sort of bias against musicals!  It’s just a matter of finding the right ones…