Wednesday, August 26, 2015

"Hell's Angels on Wheels," or Diff'rent Spokes

This time around on Motion Pictures Told Through Still Pictures with Goofy Captions we look at the 1967 film "Hell's Angels on Wheels," or as I like to think of it ...



Who is this fine, upstanding citizen? Kindly Father Harrigan
of the local parish? No, it is only Psycho -- er, Cycle Sid,
a member of the upstanding Hell's Angels. 

The Angels are a fun-loving group, dedicated to making
things better everywhere they go!

Jack is providing outstanding customer service at the local
gas station when he decides to join the Angels.

He leaves with his boss's blessing.

At first he alienates some of the members ...

... but Jack proves his mettle by giving a rival gang member
a swirly in a ladies' room toilet.

As a Hell's Angel, Jack receives continuing education
in subjects such as auto safety ...

... art appreciation ...

... guest speakers ...

... swimming ...

... and animal husbandry.


Then someone uncovers Jack's terrible secret ... he can't draw.

The revelation rips the Angels asunder and Jack
has no choice ... 

... he joins a rival group.




Thursday, August 20, 2015

Pre-Code vs Post-Code: "The Criminal Code" and "Convicted"

The title of the 1931 film"The Criminal Code," based on Martin Flavin's 1929 play, refers to two different codes -- the one in the law books, cut and dried and in black and white, administered by men like district attorney Martin Brady (Walter Huston). The other is the unofficial code among prison inmates to protect each other, even if it leads to physical abuse or solitary confinement.

Bob Graham (Phillips Holmes) is one of those inmates. He was sent up the river by Brady, and when Brady is named warden of the prison where Graham is serving his time, their paths cross again, as do the paths of Graham and Brady's daughter, Mary (Constance Cummings).

The 1931 film, directed by Howard Hawks, has an Oscar-nominated screenplay by Seton I. Miller and Fred Niblo, Jr. And it's a much bleaker view of prison life, with morally dicey characters to match, than its 1950 remake, "Convicted." (Miller and Niblo are also credited with the screenplay of "Convicted," along with William Bowers.)

In "Convicted," Broderick Crawford is the D.A.-turned-warden, here named George Knowland. And Glenn Ford is the inmate, here named Joe Hufford. Dorothy Malone plays Knowland's daughter, Kay, even though in real life Crawford was only 14 years older than Malone.

The characters of Brady and Knowland are similar on the surface -- assured, self-made men who believe in the system and in the sanctity of the law. But Brady has rougher edges -- he smokes stogies as opposed to Knowland, who prefers a more professorial pipe. And Brady is a bit of a politician -- he is given the warden's job as consolation for a losing race for governor, and he's always worried how things will look to his enemies. By contrast, Knowland is more able to see life's gray areas, if just barely.

The movie begins with a death -- the son of a prominent political figure has been killed by accident in a nightclub fight. The character played by Holmes and Ford -- we'll call him Bob/Joe -- is the "killer," although both prosecutors know that the act was accidental and in self-defense.

"Tough luck, Bob," Brady tells Bob in the 1931 film, "but that's the way things go ... you gotta take 'em the way they fall."

But Bob doesn't have to take 'em that way, and Brady knows it -- but he doesn't tell Bob.

"If that kid belonged to me," Brady tells his assistant (and no one else), "I'd make a plea of self-defense and fight it out. I'd get him out ... he'd never serve a day. A thing like this is liable to happen to anyone."

Brady is content to "let things fall" and let Bob face the music. Bob's counsel is just this side of incompetent -- he's a corporate attorney, hired by the brokerage house Bob works for, who knows nothing about criminal law. And Brady offers no guidance whatsoever.

In the 1950 film, Knowland at least advises Joe's attorney to hire a criminal lawyer. But it's for naught.

As expected, Bob/Joe is convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to 10 years in prison. In the 1931 film, Brady stands stoically by as the sentence is passed and a bailiff picks his teeth. Bob's useless attorney blows off the whole thing with a simple "the best man won, I'm afraid" as Bob is taken away to the big house. In the 1950 film, Knowland at least shows some pangs of conscience -- he tells off Joe's lousy lawyer -- and his humanity is further emphasized by having daughter Kay with him, noting his sadness:




In prison, Bob/Joe makes friends with his two cellmates. One plans to escape; the other (Boris Karloff in the 1931 film, Millard Mitchell in the 1950 film) wants to off the yard master. Seems the head bull caught the prisoner, just after he was paroled, having a beer. Thanks to that parole violation, the prisoner is back in stir -- for 12 years. (That's one heck of a beer.)

Despite all that, Bob/Joe's best friends are his cellmates, and between them they illustrate that other criminal code -- the one that isn't in the law books.

Bob has been in prison, wasting away, for six years before Brady becomes warden; in the 1950 film, Joe has only been in for three years before Knowland's arrival. Because Brady/Knowland is responsible for putting so many of the inmates behind bars, they greet his arrival with "yammering" -- a long, loud series of growls. Both men decide that the only way to deal with the uprising in the prison yard is to confront the yammerers:




Meanwhile, Bob has been falling apart in prison. He works every day in the prison's dirty, dusty jute mill, spinning fiber into burlap. Then he receives word that his only contact with the outside world -- his mother -- has died. This leads to a breakdown in the jute mill and, after a doctor's intervention, Brady appoints Bob as his chauffeur.

In "Convicted," Joe is close to his father. and while he's in stir, Kay visits the old guy, creating a bond between she and Joe even before they meet. As opposed to Bob's stint in the jute mill, Joe works in the prison laundry -- not a perfect setting, but at least it's cleaner. Joe's breakdown occurs when he learns of his father's death, and as a result he's put into solitary -- it isn't until he's released from there that he joins Knowland's staff as chauffeur.

Still, Joe's time in solitary doesn't seem to affect him as much as Bob's. In general, in fact, Holmes looks like hell for a good part of this movie, while Ford looks like ... Ford.

As the prison chauffeur, Bob/Joe spends more time driving around the warden's daughter than he does the warden himself. And things start improving as prisoner and daughter are drawn to each other.

Then comes a crisis, one involving both of Bob/Joe's cellmates. One attempts to escape, only to be shot and killed because one of his co-conspirators was a stool pigeon. The other cellmate -- the one determined to kill the yard warden -- also sets his sights on the stoolie.

Warden Brady/Knowland is hiding the stoolie in his office.

"I gotta get him off my hands," Brady says to the head of the parole board. "Pardoned, paroled transferred -- anything!" So he has no hesitation about letting the guy go. Knowland is more principled -- he wants the guy transferred, but not set free.

This guy doesn't need Frankenstein makeup.
But it ends up being a moot point very quickly, because Bob/Joe's cellmate, who works as the warden's cook, sneaks into the warden's office and knifes the pigeon. (Karloff is supremely scary as the cellmate in the 1931 film; in the 1950 film, Millard Mitchell seems a lot more comfortable as a convict than he does as a studio head in "Singin' in the Rain.") The only witness to the murder is Bob/Joe, who won't talk, and he ends up in solitary, as much to save the warden's pride as anything.

It falls to the warden's daughter to set her father straight:




Bob/Joe is released from solitary and paroled, and the "happy" ending fits each film's tone -- Brady looks a little uneasy at the idea of his daughter marrying a convict, even a noble one; and Knowland and Joe joke about his picking up the daughter as nonchalantly as if it was a Saturday night date.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

The Charles Sellon Film Festival: "Bright Eyes" and "It's a Gift"

"Bah!"
Of all the actors and actresses who appeared in 1930s films, Charles Sellon (1870-1937) was certainly one of them.

A native of Boston, Sellon made his stage debut in 1901 and his film debut in 1923. He was rarely the lead; skinny and with a long face, with a mouth usually in a frown or scowl, he often played narrow-minded small-town types in roles of authority. In the 1925 silent film "The Monster," for instance, he was the ineffectual constable responsible for catching Lon Chaney as Dr. Ziska, a mad scientist who engineers car accidents so he can experiment on the survivors. He also played a cop who unsuccessfully tried to get the goods on Rudy Vallee in the latter's debut film, 1929's "The Vagabond Lover." He played a newspaper editor in several films, as well as druggists, mayors and justices of the peace.

But most often in the movies, Sellon was somebody's uncle. He played a character named Uncle Henry in three films -- 1923's "The Bad Man," 1925's "Old Home Week" and 1930's "Borrowed Wives." He was Uncle Joe in 1923's "Woman-Proof," Uncle Bill in 1924's "Lover's Lane" and, above all, he was crabby-but-lovable Uncle Ned in 1934's "Bright Eyes."

Yes, if you remember "Bright Eyes" at all, then I guarantee that you remember Sellon.

"Bright Eyes" is the Shirley Temple movie with Jane Withers (right) as Temple's bratty nemesis and the one where Temple sings "On the Good Ship Lollipop":


Temple is a tomboy named, um, Shirley. Her father, a pilot, was killed in a plane crash and her mother works as a maid for a snooty rich family with a bratty daughter played, you should excuse the expression, balls to the wall by Withers.

Shirley spends a lot of time with her godfather, also a pilot, nicknamed Loop (James Dunn), and his fellow flyboys at the local airport.

When Shirley's mom is hit by a car (!) on Christmas Day (!!) while she's taking a cake to the airport holiday party (!!!), a custody battle develops over her. On one side is Loop, and on the other side are Uncle Ned and another nice relative who was once engaged to Loop. Whoever will win?

"Bright Eyes" is the Shirley Temple movie I remember most vividly from when I was a kid, and I think it's for two reasons. One is this great scene between Temple and Withers:



And the other is Sellon, spinning around the mansion in his 1930s wheelchair, with a wicker back that's as long as his face. He's actually pretty darn good at maneuvering that thing -- in one scene no one will help Uncle Ned get downstairs so he rolls down himself a few steps at a time.








Despite his crabby exterior, Uncle Ned really loves Shirley, and in one scene where she kisses him on the cheek under a sprig of mistletoe, darned if his expression doesn't melt your heart.

In fact, "Bright Eyes" is pretty satisfying in a basic, fairytale way. Cinderella Shirley triumphs through plain old spunkiness, and yet she's allowed to act like a real kid -- when her mother is killed, it falls to Loop to tell Shirley, so he takes her up in his plane so that she can be closer to heaven, and she just cries. Period.



As lovable as Sellon is in "Bright Eyes," he's in another film, made the same year, as one of the most particularly unpleasant people in W.C. Fields's world of particularly unpleasant people -- Mr. Muckle in Fields's great "It's a Gift."


Again, if you remember "It's a Gift" at all, then I guarantee you remember Sellon. Mr. Muckle is blind, deaf and bitter. Today he'd be the target audience for Fox News. He is one of the many banes of the existence of grocer Harold Bissonette (Fields), who is besieged on all sides each day -- shrewish wife, obnoxious kids, incompetent employees, clueless customers.

What we have here is a failure to communicate.
Like pretty much all of Fields's films, "It's a Gift" unfolds in a loosey-goosey manner. There are three main sequences -- Bissonette (pronounced Bi-son-ay, as his wife would tell you) having a hard time at his store, trying to get some sleep on his back porch and on the road to California where he's bought an orange grove, much to his wife's displeasure, thanks to an inheritance from dear dead Uncle Bean.

Mr. Muckle is so wonderful because he's so awful. He goes against all the movie stereotypes about the handicapped. He's just an irritating guy who can't see or hear. And as he wreaks havoc in the store, Harold's efforts to keep him still escalate, as does his pleading -- "Sit down, Mr. Muckle! Sit down, honey!" (Side note -- on the animated series "Rugrats," Stu Pickles's boss was named Mr. Mucklehoney.) Anyway, here's the scene:


After appearing in a handful of movies in 1935, Sellon retired; he was 65 and it was time to start collecting that sweet, sweet Social Security that had just become law. He died two years later.

Thursday, August 6, 2015

Awkward Early Talkie Theatre: "Lights of New York"

The opening exchange of the 1928 film "Lights of New York," a conversation between two gangsters in a hotel room, goes something like this:

Gangster 1: The bootleg rap against us has been dropped -- and we can go back to the big town tomorrow.

(Long pause, during which Lindbergh flies the Atlantic)

Gangster 2: Great! And what are we gonna use for money when we get there? Our bootleg joint is empty and we need dough!

(Long pause, during which Alexander Fleming invents penicillin)

Gangster 1: I've been taking care of that! You know that barber downstairs? He looks like a cinch to me. And after the talks we've been having, he thinks that joint of ours is a regular barber shop and not a speakeasy!

Billed as the first 100% all-talking film, "Lights of New York" should also get credit as a 100% all-pausing film. There are large cushions of air between every line of dialogue, and sometimes between words. And to include exclamation points in the dialogue is kind of misleading -- it implies that the actors deliver lines with some sort of emotion, and for the most part they don't.

But it didn't really matter. The film's novelty assured its financial success -- it was the second-highest grossing movie of 1928, beaten only by Al Jolson's "The Singing Fool." Still, even contemporary reviewers were less than impressed. Wrote Variety:

"It's that kind of a sappy mixture, the kind that recalls the mellers [melodramas] of ... ages ago. ... In a year from now everyone concerned in 'Lights of New York' will run for the river before looking at it again. ... [S]till, this talker will have pulling power, and the Warners' should get credit for nerve even if they didn't do it with a polish."

"Lights of New York" is the story of two small-town barbers -- Eddie (Cullen Landis) and Gene (Eugene Pallette). They are plying their trade in a hotel run by Eddie's mother. But they have dreams -- dreams of being big-time barbers in the Big Apple! Shearing scalps in the city that never sleeps! Scraping their straight razors across the mugs of Babe Ruth! Herbert Hoover! Fanny Brice! Here they discuss it, at length:


As illustrated above, people don't just say their lines in this movie -- they recite them. There's a lot of standing and proclaiming, and a lot of hooking of thumbs into vests. And there's music -- always music. In movies like this, a soundtrack is something to fill up, and music incessantly plays on the soundtrack whether or not it has any relation to the action.

Anyway, Eddie and Gene get a loan from Eddie's kindly mother and they set out for the concrete canyons. Six months pass, and Gene and Eddie realize they've been had. "About the only thing I shave around here are labels off bottles," sez Gene. (In fact, these guys never have any customers in the small town or in the big city. Maybe they're just lousy barbers!)

Eddie has rekindled a relationship with Kitty (Helene Costello), a girl from his hometown who works at a nightclub run by the evil bootlegger Hawk Miller (Wheeler Oakman). In a scene set in what we're told is "Central Park," Eddie and Kitty bemoan their fates. This clip has a little bit of everything -- cheesy sets, a line flub, bad acting and deadly pauses:



Then we hie to the nightclub, where we meet owner Hawk Miller and his mistress, Molly . They've been together a long time, and Hawk is starting to ogle the chorus girls, particularly Kitty.

Molly (to Hawk): You're a hound for chickens, ain't ya? You might get indigestion from too much chicken.

(Long pause during which wood turns to coal)

Hawk: Well, if I will, it won't be from an old hen.  
Hawk has killed a cop in the process of transporting illegal hooch, and he plans to frame Eddie for the murder. But when he confronts Eddie at the barber shop, a shot is fired! And the Hawk is grounded in one of the clumsiest death scenes you'll ever see.

And just when you think things can't any worse, enter Det. Crosby (Robert Elliott), whose slow cadences make everyone else seem like they're on cocaine. Molly the mistress confesses to the killing of Hawk, and Crosby stretches ten words into what seems like ten minutes:


The film careers of the romantic leads, Cullen Landis and Helene Costello, were kaput by 1930. Gladys Brockwell, who actually acts a little as Molly, was killed in a 1929 car crash. The only folks whose careers survived "Lights of New York" were Pallette; the cop, Robert Elliott (who went on to play dozens of cops); and Tom Dugan, who played comic bits in dozens of movies and, during World War II, found himself playing Hitler or Hitler surrogates in movies such as "Star Spangled Rhythm" and "To Be or Not to Be."