American Pop Culture Saves Democracy: The Phynx (1970)

You know that dream where you discover a room in your house that you never even knew existed? Well, imagine that room filled with various 1930’s movie stars (including Joan Blondell, Ruby Keeler, Butterfly McQueen and Pat O’Brien to name just a few) as well as Joe Louis, Ed Sullivan, Dick Clark, Richard Pryor, Busby Berkeley, Rudy Vallee and Colonel Sanders (yes, THE real Colonel Sanders), serving up his famous buckets of fried chicken while a young Monkees-inspired rock band restores everyone’s faith in America.

No, this isn’t a dream. This is The Phynx (1970).

The Phynx (1970) has been called the “Holy Grail” of bad movies but it’s not bad at all – in fact, I’d argue that it’s actually pretty groovy. The film was released in May of 1970 but Warner Bros.-Seven Arts pulled the picture after only a few screenings. As it was shelved so quickly, no movie posters were created (hence the banner photo of my physical DVD of the film, in lieu of a proper poster image). It would languish in obscurity in the vaults for forty-two years before Warner Bros. finally released the film on DVD in 2012, as part of their manufactured-on-demand Archive Collection.

But why did Warner Bros. pull this movie when so many worse films have seen wide release? Why, some may ask, did Warner Bros. make the picture at all? Fifty-one years later and counting, the riddle of The Phynx remains unsolved.

Continue reading “American Pop Culture Saves Democracy: The Phynx (1970)”

Once Upon a Time…Fritz Lang Made a Romantic Comedy (You and Me, 1938)

you and me

“The Big Shots aren’t little crooks like you. They’re politicians.”

If Karl Marx baked a birthday cake and laced it with marijuana, the results would probably be very similar to You and Me (1938), a delicious grab bag of a movie which combines humour, film-noir, romance, musical numbers and a social message all to delightful – and dizzying – effect.  But what did Paramount expect when they asked Fritz Lang, the German director best known for his Weimar-era expressionist films such as Metropolis (1927) and M (1931), to direct a romantic comedy?

Continue reading “Once Upon a Time…Fritz Lang Made a Romantic Comedy (You and Me, 1938)”

A Savage Detour into Hell: Review of Detour (1945), the (Tough) Mama of Film Noir.

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“There oughta be a law against dames with claws.”   

Straight out of Poverty Row, what Detour (1945) lacks in budget, it makes up for in style. Written by Martin Goldsmith (The Twilight Zone) and starring Tom Neal and the inimitable Ann Savage, Detour is to film noir what The Public Enemy (1931) is to the gangster flick: it isn’t the first in its genre but it’s certainly one of the most definitive and influential. In A Pictorial History of Crime Films (1975), author Ian Cameron calls Detour “well in the running to being the cheapest really good talkie to come out of Hollywood.”

There’s no Public Enemy-style grapefruit in Detour but if there was, it would undoubtedly be Ann Savage smashing the breakfast fruit into Tom Neal’s face and not the other way around. As Vera, the unhinged hitchhiker whom our wide-eyed protagonist Al Roberts (Neal) has the misfortune of picking up, Savage is the most dangerous of all film noir dames: the femme who puts the “fatal” in femme fatale.

Continue reading “A Savage Detour into Hell: Review of Detour (1945), the (Tough) Mama of Film Noir.”

Riot Against the Machine: Review of Speedy (1928)

Speedy 1

By Heather Babcock, 2019

A few years ago I was waiting in line at my neighborhood independent dollar store; an elderly woman was in front of me and as the cashier (a young man in his twenties) was handing over her change, he wished her a good day. “I’m 85 years old,” the woman replied. “It’s never a good day for me, all my friends are dead.” The young man reached over and held out his hand to her. “Listen,” he said kindly, “I’m your friend. If you ever feel like you need a friend, just come down here and see me.”

I have thought about this interaction often, as I see more and more self-checkout machines taking the place of human beings. I think about how – when it comes to technology – it is not just about what we gain but also about what we lose, in this case the simple pleasure of human interaction. I thought about this again as I watched Speedy (1928), a Harold Lloyd silent comedy about a habitually unemployed young man named Speedy who makes it his mission to save New York City’s last horse-drawn trolley-car, owned and driven by his girlfriend’s grandfather, Pop.

The delightful comedy follows Speedy as he loses job after job. Pop explains the problem: “Speedy gets plenty of jobs – but he’ll never keep one while his mind is full of baseball.”  Indeed, Speedy’s only requirement of his employers is “that their store be within phoning distance of the Yankee stadium.” After his baseball-on-the-brains obsession causes him to be sacked from his job as a soda jerk, Speedy shrugs. “Aw Jane,” he says to his flapper girlfriend, played by the fetching Ann Christy, “Why worry about losing a job on a Saturday when we can go to Coney Island on Sunday? Besides you know I always get a job on Monday.”  This in turn leads to a dazzling extended sequence at Coney Island’s Luna Park. I’ve never visited Coney Island and have no idea what it’s like today but the fun park is featured prominently in plenty of 1920’s movies, notably Clara Bow’s It (1927) and Lonesome (1928) (the latter boasts one of the most beautiful early two-strip Technicolor scenes I have ever seen). Wearing heels and a swell dress, flapper Jane doesn’t care if you can see her underwear as she joins Speedy on the “Human Roulette Wheel”, the “Double Dip Slide” and the “Revolving Drum”, giving modern viewers a lesson in the fabulousness of 1920’s women’s undergarments.

Adding to Speedy’s time-capsule appeal is a hilarious cameo by Babe Ruth, whom the title card announces as “the idol of American boys – little and big.” Hailing a cab to take him to Yankee Stadium, the Babe has the misfortune of getting picked up by Speedy, in his latest stint as a cab driver. Beside himself with excitement, super fan Speedy gushes: “Even when you strike out, you miss ‘em close!” Sweating in the back seat as Speedy narrowly avoids crashing into oncoming traffic, the Babe replies “I don’t miss ‘em half as close as you do!”

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It isn’t all fun and games for Speedy though: upon finding out that a streetcar magnate is trying to railroad Pops into giving up his horse-drawn trolley tracks, Speedy organizes their blue collar friends and the film climaxes with a literal class war between the “little guys” and the evil streetcar corporation.

Watching Speedy through the lens of 2019 is interesting: the film was released in April of 1928 – just over a year and a half before the Wall Street Crash of 1929. You can almost hear the ticking of the clock: in just a few years, during the height of the Great Depression, Speedy’s carelessness towards employment would seem more ludicrous than charming. Yet even if Speedy might have seemed dated to Depression-era audiences, its central themes are completely in touch with today: like Speedy and Pop, many of us are feeling the anxiety associated with modern technology. With more and more human jobs being replaced by machines (“Office jobs are the next to go in the AI revolution”, the Financial Times recently predicted), a war between the robots and the humans is looking less like a Will Smith action movie and more like reality. Smart phones, Alexa, automated checkouts, self-driving cars: it’s amazing how blasé – and even gleeful – human beings are participating in their own extinction.

Yet Speedy shows that these anxieties surrounding technology have been around since at least the turn of the twentieth century.

In my novel Filthy Sugar (to be released in May 2020 with Inanna Publications), my protagonist Wanda’s daddy is a milkman who “doesn’t trust the automobile” so “when the other milkmen traded in their horses for trucks, Daddy doggedly held on to his beast; a gentle white and grey mare named Sadie”:

“Ya can’t trust anything that doesn’t need ya,” Daddy explained to me one day, as he filled Sadie’s feedbag with oats. “This girl needs me as much as I need her. Now what mess of steel and rubber is goin’ ta beat that?”

I think Speedy and Pops would agree with him.

Heather Babcock, 2019

They Call It Sin (1932)

they call it sin poster

“When I first started playing my music on the church organ, a committee of outraged citizens went to the minister and wanted me discharged. They said my music was inspired by the devil.” – Marion (Loretta Young), They Call It Sin (1932).

In the early ‘90s, I’d spend my Saturday afternoons at Zellers poring over their vast selection of the True magazines: True Story, True Confessions, True Love and True Romance. Only the covers bearing the most salacious headlines would I deem worthy of my five dollar weekly allowance.  Cover stories such as “I’M CHEATING – MY HUSBAND TOLD ME TO!”, “MY HUSBAND CALLS ME A TRAMP – AND IT’S TRUE!” and “I WAS THE MAIN COURSE AT THANKSGIVING DINNER!” piqued my pre-adolescent curiosity. However the actual stories never lived up to the promise of their titles. So when my father reprimanded me for reading “such trash”, it was with no small measure of disappointment with which I informed him that the stories within were actually quite chaste.

This is also true of the 1932 film They Call It Sin, a movie whose title is much more risqué than the film itself. Although the movie – made during Hollywood’s naughty Pre-Code era and starring the doe-eyed beauty Loretta Young and cutie-pie comedienne Una Merkel – certainly has its tantalizing moments, namely what I like to call “the Pre-Code Peepshow”: a scene requisite to Pre-Code films in which one or more of the leading ladies slowly undress, for no other purpose but to titillate the audience (for modern viewers, these scenes also give us a delicious fashion lesson on 1930’s undergarments).  But for all of its dressing and undressing, They Call It Sin has some feisty feminist underpinnings.

The story centers on Marion Cullen (Loretta Young), an aspiring musician saddled with a strict family in a small minded town. Resplendent in a wide brimmed Easter bonnet and a long lacey dress with sleeves so puffed they’d make Anne Shirley green with envy, Marion is playing the organ in her parent’s church when she catches the eye of a handsome businessman from the big city.  After a whirlwind romance at the soda fountain, Marion follows her beau to New York where she discovers that the cad is actually engaged to a high society gal.  Her dreams of love dashed, Marion pursues her career ambitions and lands a job as an accompanist for a lecherous producer who ends up stealing her music. After a tragic accident, Marion stands falsely accused of his murder.

More than just knock-out looks, Marion also has plenty of “can’t knock me out” resilience: when the two-bit producer plagiarizes her music, she literally fights him – with her fists. “Dixie,” she says to her best pal, a charming showgirl played by Una Merkel, “my music’s all I have left and I’m not going to let him have it!” to which Dixie replies “Let him have it – right on the nose!”  Although she came to New York with the ambition of finding love, she stays for her career. This is something that many women in 1932 could probably relate to: with WW1 having tragically wiped out a great deal of eligible bachelors, many women were carving out their own path – a path that was very different from the wife and motherhood lifestyle that they had grown up expecting.

Call it sin? Maybe not. But this Pre-Code gem, available on Warner Bros. Forbidden Hollywood Collection Volume Four, is a fun, feminist romp that’s well worth watching. And re-watching.

Reviewed by Heather Babcock, 2019

 

 

Youth Derailed: William A. Wellman’s Wild Boys of the Road (1933)

wild boys of the road

By Heather Babcock

 “You say ya gotta send us to jail to keep us off the streets. Well that’s a lie. You’re sending us to jail because you don’t wanna see us.” – Eddie (Frankie Darro), Wild Boys of the Road (1933).

When it comes to Depression-era movies, we tend to picture splashy musicals, Fred Astaire’s tap shoes and Shirley Temple’s dimples.  But there were many films of the decade which chose instead to turn away from the glitter in favor of the grit: movies that had their noses planted in the newspaper headlines of the day and their feet in the dirty streets. Films like I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1932) and Heroes for Sale (1933). These are movies that came out of Warner Brothers, a studio which prided itself on catering to a working class audience. For a brief moment in time blue collar workers, taxi drivers, waitresses, maids and the unemployed could see images of themselves up on the silver screen. These images usually came in the voluptuous mold of Joan Blondell or the firecracker form of James Cagney. But they were there, just the same. Warner Brothers, home of the gangster flick and Busby Berkeley musicals, strove to tell stories “ripped from the headlines of the day” – the main rule being that the stories never be boring. Darryl F. Zanuck, Warner’s then-head of production, wrote a letter to the Hollywood Reporter in 1932 advocating these types of films which, as he wrote, “must have the punch and smash that would entitle it to a headline on the front page of any successful metropolitan daily.” One of those films – which definitely packs one smash of a punch – is Warner’s Wild Boys of the Road (1933), directed by William “Wild Bill” Wellman.

It is a crying shame that Wellman is not better remembered today. He directed a whopping seventy-six films in his time including the influential gangster picture The Public Enemy (1931), the original A Star is Born (1937) and the first winner of the Academy Award for Best Picture, Wings (1927). Even just one of these movies would be an enviable accomplishment! It was however his 1933 film Wild Boys of the Road, about a group of young train hopping waifs, which held a special place in his heart: his son, William Wellman, Jr., wrote in his 2015 biography Wild Bill Wellman: Hollywood Rebel that the film’s story reminded Wellman of his own troubled youth. His son has said that of all of his movies, the director counted Wild Boys of the Road (1933) among his top ten favorites.

The plight of homeless people is often romanticized in the media. In the 1930s, newspapers couldn’t resist the adventurous stories of down-on-their-luck individuals who “rode the rails” in the hopes of finding work. In an article published on July 15th, 1931 the Globe newspaper wrote: “As a general rule, the hobo is on the road because a cog slipped earlier somewhere in the machinery of his life…The lure of the road has gripped him, and in the morning he must be off to new scenes.”

But those “new scenes” and adventures were often filled with misery, violence and trauma. Wild Boys of the Road (1933) rips apart the headlines of the day and admirably turns its unflinching eye on the brutal crush of poverty. Continue reading “Youth Derailed: William A. Wellman’s Wild Boys of the Road (1933)”

Silent Film Review: The Big Parade (1925)

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“No love has ever enthralled me as did the making of this picture. No achievement will ever excite me so much. No reward will ever be so great as having been a part of ‘The Big Parade’. It was the high point of my career. All that followed is balderdash.”John Gilbert

The Academy Awards were not around in 1925 however if they had been, MGM’s WW1 epic The Big Parade would easily have won Best Picture. In fact, if the film were released today it would arguably be the best movie of 2019. Or of any year.

Directed by the legendary King Vidor, The Big Parade tells the story of three American buddies – one wealthy and two working class – who are sent to France to fight in “the Great War”.  The film’s protagonist is Jim Apperson (played by the dashing John Gilbert), the spoiled son of a wealthy businessman. Swept up by the big brass band and romantic patriotism during a recruitment parade, Jim eagerly jumps forth from the sea of waving flags to join his buddies to enlist.  He is not the only one dazzled by the day’s war propaganda, with its promise of heroic adventure: “You’ll look gorgeous in an officer’s uniform!” his fiancée gushes. “I’ll love you more than ever.”  Jim, like many young men, sees the war as his chance to travel and experience adventure; sadly his dreams of romantic heroism will mutate into real life nightmares of unspeakable horror and loss. Continue reading “Silent Film Review: The Big Parade (1925)”