Monday, November 30, 2009

Now Playing - Shadow of the Thin Man

Before we leave the holiday of Thanksgiving entirely behind us, here is a look at an ad for “Shadow of the Thin Man”, which opened in many theaters on Thanksgiving Day, 1941. In the days before watching football on TV (or watching hours and hours of TCM), the movie theaters were packed on holidays, and Thanksgiving was an opportune release date for a new movie. Probably a lot of sleeping in the theater, with all that tryptophan.

Myrna Loy and William Powell take another turn at Nick and Nora Charles, stylish and witty detectives and social inebriates. Donna Reed plays a receptionist in this film, in what was her second movie.

In less than two weeks, we would be at war. Nick and Nora Charles would soon come to represent not so much modern glitz as nostalgia for the good old days when the modern world was less scary.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Roast Turkey Recipe

On this most American feast of feasts, there are inevitably questions, concerns, if not downright panic over how to properly prepare a Thanksgiving Dinner.

As an aid to our readers, I will elicit the help of two well-known chefs, Barbara Stanwyck, and Alan Hale, who, from “Stella Dallas” (1937), demonstrate for us the proper way to cook a turkey.

Pay attention. Take notes.

First: choose one extremely large turkey that has been hanging in the window of the butcher shop by its feet. Always buy a bird with the feet still on it. That’s how you know you have a good one. Never buy a bird that has been sealed in plastic. They don’t cook as well as an unwrapped turkey that you carry in your arms. This way, bits of fiber from your woolen coat sleeves stick to the skin of the turkey, and they taste good roasted.

Second: Wrestle with the turkey (minimum of two people needed for this step) for a few minutes to loosen the giblets inside.

Third: Shove it into an oven. Never mind stuffing it. Never mind putting it in a roasting pan. Those tactics are for amateurs. Real professional chefs never use roasting pans.

Fourth: Wrestle with the bird some more, taking it in and out of the oven several times before you finally close the oven door. This does nothing to affect the taste of the turkey, but you work up an appetite.

Finally: Close the oven door, leaving the feet exposed. As Mr. Hale remarks, “Of course, the feet don’t get very well done, but then I never cared for feet anyway.”

Try it today, and let me know how your Thanksgiving Dinner turns out.

Now, I’m off to wrestle with my turkey. Must fetch sports bra from the roasting pan.

Happy Thanksgiving.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Boris Karloff in the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade

Boris Karloff, dressed as a pirate, rode down Broadway on a blustery cold November morning, on a float designed to look like pirate ship. In honor of Frankenstenia's Boris Karloff Blogathon, and in honor of Thanksgiving, we have a look today at Boris Karloff's participation in the 1950 Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade.

The New York Times reported the scene in its Friday, November 24th edition the following day. The giant balloons in the sky were nothing that would be familiar to today's cartoon-watching, video-game playing children. Sailing above them, were the un-merchandised and generic Dachshund, a Gnome, a Clown, and a Fish. The St. Bernadette Cadet Corps “blared the approach” of Boris Karloff, “the ‘bad man’ of the films, who, this time, was garbed as the swashbuckling Captain Hook, in command of his pirate ship and flanked by his buccaneers.”

Then the reporter notes that the cheers for Karloff erupted into a huge “din” for Hopalong Cassidy, played by William Boyd, “in full regalia.” We’ll discuss a film that parodied the “Hoppy” phenomenon of the early 1950s at a later time. For now, we have the image of the aging icon Karloff perhaps surpassed by a newer hero. But only temporarily, for Hopalong Cassidy is remembered now only by older Baby Boomers, and Karloff has achieved immortality, curiously not only for the body of his work, but also for the single role of Frankenstein’s Monster that shot him to stardom in middle age.

That was the early ‘30s, but by the late 1940s Mr. Karloff’s career was seemingly on the wane. His last film in the previous year of 1949 was “Abbot and Costello Meet the Killer, Boris Karloff.” Despite the honor of having one’s name actually in the title of the movie, Mr. Karloff’s monster image now was poked fun at, his eerie screen persona perhaps demystified, if not actually debunked. It wasn’t that hard to do, for Mr. Karloff, as many have noted, conveyed a gentleness that brought a depth of humanity to his roles. We discussed Boris Karloff’s humanity, despite his monster image, a few weeks ago in this post. He wasn’t just Frankenstein’s Monster, he was Pagliaccio, Cyrano, and Hamlet, playing Frankenstein’s Monster. If Pagliaccio, Cyrano, and Hamlet did not speak majestic passages but, rather, grunted and stumbled around a lot.

He could also convey, superbly, heartrending innocence.

Boris Karloff’s stint on the parade route as Captain Hook was a day off from his current gig, which was to play the dual role of Mr. Darling and Captain Hook in the Broadway musical “Peter Pan”, opposite fellow Hollywood escapee Jean Arthur in the title role. “Peter Pan” opened at the Imperial Theater on April 24, 1950. In early October, the play moved over to the St. James Theater, where it remained until January 27, 1951, for a total of 321 performances.

Author Beverly Bare Buehrer in her Boris Karloff: a Bio-bibliography (Greenwood Press, Westport, CT, 1993) notes that the role was exhausting for a man of Karloff’s age (he would be 63 years old on November 23rd, Thanksgiving Day), with six costume changes, and three makeup changes. When the show closed in 1951, he then toured in the road production.

The opening night notices raved in delight at the turnabout for the old monster. The New York Journal American coyly noted, “Boris Karloff’s Captain Hook is no more scary than Boris Karloff’s Mr. Darling, who is no more scary than Tinker Bell.”

The New York Herald Tribune called Karloff “captivating.”

And the New York Times announced, “This is Mr. Karloff’s day of triumph.”

Did the kiddies waving at Captain Hook on the passing float know that? Or, were they just craning their heads, waiting for Hopalong Cassidy, who they knew from TV, a more intimate friendship because Hoppy was in their living rooms and not down at the neighborhood movie house (where he used to be the previous generation).

“He is at the top of his bent,” the Times crowed.

Did the parents of the kiddies pay special attention to the grand old thespian in the pirate costume, batting away the burst of snow flurries with his hook, and whisper to their children, “That’s him! That’s Frankenstein! That’s the Mummy!” while they disbelieved?

“Mr. Karloff is an actor of tenderness and humor, with an instinct for exact inflection,” so the New York Times lovingly paid the old monster tribute on his opening night on Broadway.

At the end of the parade route, Santa Claus, and parade marshal Jimmy Durante, and Hopalong Cassidy, and Boris Karloff extended their holiday greetings to the crowd in front of Macy’s. Perhaps that was the moment Karloff entered the pantheon of giants in the world of children, standing shoulder to shoulder with Hoppy and Santa, in front of a store with an enormous toy department.

He had entertained children before, on the screen, and privately in hospital wards, and on the Broadway stage. The recordings would follow, and his famous turn as the “Grinch”, which is still shown on television where Hoppy once ruled the roost but now no more. Boris’ magnificent “exact inflection” is heard every December by children sitting in front of…the television.

Perhaps in a way, that Thanksgiving Parade, rather than his opening night, was his “day of triumph”.

Happy Birthday, Mr. Grinch, and the same to Captain Hook.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Pride of the Bowery - 1940

In “Pride of the Bowery” (1940), Leo Gorcey and the so-called East Side Kids ( aka Dead End Kids, aka Bowery Boys) in their fourth film leave the urban jungle for a different sort of rough-and-ready experience in a CCC camp.

When we discussed in this post about the seeming lack of coverage in films of the day about the Civilian Conservation Corps, blog reader Tony saved the day with an update that proves the CCC was not entirely ignored by Hollywood. Here is the link Tony provided to “Pride of the Bowery” now in public domain and free for viewing at the Internet Archive website.

This B-movie, only about an hour long, takes the boys out of the city into the rugged wilderness and the rough-hewn CCC camp as more of an escapade than a struggle to find employment. Gorcey plays Muggs, a Golden Gloves boxing hopeful, who gets unwittingly enrolled in the CCC by his pals to provide him with his much desired outdoor boxing training camp, like the pros have.

It’s a difficult adjustment for the bombastic showoff when he must submit to military-style discipline and hard work. We get pick and shovel scenes, and crystal mountain lakes, the regimentation of the mess hall and saluting the flag at sundown.

Surprisingly, but probably fortunately, the film avoids too much cheerleading about the virtues of the CCC and manages to fill the time with subplots of stolen money, revenge in the camp boxing ring against a rival, played by Kenneth Howell, and a day of freedom with a pass into town. At one point Leo Gorcey pushes Howell out of harm’s way when the boy is about to be crushed by a falling tree. The camp’s Captain approvingly remarks,

“I think this camp is going to be the means of you finding yourself.” Which is only about as much CCC propaganda as the film contains, but its enough, along with the occasional reminders that their folks are getting $22 a month, to remind the audience in this seventh year of the CCC’s existence that it was still kicking and still saving boys and their families from starvation.

One boy is pleased to be accepted into the cooks training program, and others are told they will be qualified for jobs in the U.S. Forestry Service when their hitch is up. At the time this film was made, the CCC did not need to be described or explained to the general audience. It would only exist about another year or so, when our entry into World War II provided young men with far more urgent duties.

The camp is given a fictional name, but though we only see sections of the camp, I have to wonder if this was just a set or if it was really filmed at an actual CCC camp? There is an authentic look about it. I haven’t been able to find any information on that yet, and I hope some of you who might know will help clarify that.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Meanwhile, Back At The Blog...

Many of us read many different blogs, and with a crowded blogosphere, it’s easy to miss interesting posts. Here are a few of late that I’ve really liked. I hope you do, too.

David Fiore joins the analysis of “Vertigo” with a terrific essay.

Over at Carole & Company, our intrepid chronicler of all things Carole Lombard leads off with a great discussion of anachronisms in films, and caps with a jaw-dropping clip of Carole Lombard and George Raft doing a tango to Ravel’s Bolero.

Jonas Nordin over at “All Talking! All Singing!” provides his usual impressive research on the early days of sound film with the post “Colleen Bobs Her Hair” about Colleen Moore, which seems as equally touching as it is fascinating. Here again another great clip, of Moore’s terrific comedic talent.

Over at Caftan Woman, a bit of haiku dedicated to Charlie Chan that is just so simple and right it just cracks me up.

Finally, a reminder that next week over at Frankensteinia, the Boris Karloff Blogathon kicks off. Lots and lots of blogs have signed up for this extravaganza. If you’re a Karloff fan or just enjoy spending time with the undead, I hope you can visit some of them.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

This is the Army - 1943

“This is the Army” (1943) is considered not quite as timeless for modern day audiences in comparison to other World War II-era films, like maybe “Casablanca”, made in the same year. In some spots you could say it’s a sticky mess. It has a single one-note message of cheerleading. However, this film contains an array of ironic images and symbols to consider.

It is also valuable for demonstrating that irresistible urge for nostalgia we sometimes have that only glosses over what really was, and turning the previous era into a cartoon, further diminishing our ability to really empathize with it. In “This is the Army” this happens with the characters’ (and director’s and producers’) bemused attitudes toward World War I, which is treated as something quaint. The message of tragedy in earlier films like “All Quiet on the Western Front” (1930) is diminished with an almost “those were the good old days” attitude. Watching the film with today’s perspective, this bemused nostalgia repeats itself with our similar attitude toward World War II and the generation that made this film.

We mark yesterday’s observance of Veteran’s Day with this film because like Veteran’s Day, “This is the Army” tends to make opaque our view of World War I, just as Veteran’s Day has supplanted Armistice Day. There was even a move some years ago promoting shifting Veteran’s Day to a Monday holiday in the tradition of our other Monday holidays, but protest prevented this, and this day that recalls the end of World War I remains as it has always symbolically been, on the 11th day of the 11th month, when at the 11th hour in 1918, the War to End All War ended. Even if it did not end war.

“This is the Army” is a musical review, a biography not of a person, but of a play, of a unique theatrical experience. In World War I, songwriter Irving Berlin produced a camp show fundraiser for Camp Upton in Yaphank, New York, a village on Long Island. The entertainers in the show were all soldiers, and this musical variety hodgepodge of singers, dancer, comics, and various novelty acts went on to the Great White Way. After that, it was on to Europe. When the war ended, the show, called “Yip, Yip, Yaphank” would have remained nothing more than a footnote in theatrical history, except that it was revived, in a huge way, for World War II.

Irving Berlin was also involved in this new production, pulled out his old songs, gathered some new ones, and some new soldiers, and put on the new Broadway show, “This is the Army” at the Alvin Theater (now the Neil Simon Theater). After touring, the idea, and much of the cast, went on to Hollywood.

Hollywood required a bit more than a song and dance review, so these numbers were strung together by a thin plot. George Murphy is a hoofer who gets drafted into World War I. George Murphy played another hoofer who was a doughboy in World War I in “For Me and My Gal” (1942), seen in this post. He just had that kind of face, I guess, that belonged to Tin Pan Alley and the trenches. George Tobias (you might remember him better as the long-suffering neighbor Abner Kravitz on the television show “Bewitched”), and bugler Charles Butterworth, are a couple of his pals who all perform in the show “Yip, Yip, Yaphank.”

Fast forward to World War II. Ronald Reagan is George Murphy’s son, who is sweet on Joan Leslie, Charles Butterworth’s daughter, but Reagan is hesitant to marry her because he has been drafted and does not want to leave her a war widow. She spends the rest of the movie trying to change his mind. The old-timers set up a new show, the Army approves, yanks men out from various units, and they put together a new Broadway review called “This is the Army,” stage-managed by Reagan.

The movie is like a crazy quilt of images, but no coherent message except one of patriotism, and one of unintentional irony.

The World War I segment of the film shows us an immigrant neighborhood with hurdy-gurdy music and fruit stands, a cliché of a simpler world. It depicts that dramatic real-life moment when the men ended the stage show “Yip, Yip, Yaphank” one night by filing out of the theater and marching directly onto the troop ships when they received the call to go overseas.

“That’s not the way they rehearsed it!” Rosemary DeCamp cries, “It’s real! They’re going!”

Then we follow the boys to that mysterious location always called in movies “Somewhere in France”, where back lot trenches are exploded, and after George Murphy’s leg is permanently injured, the Armistice is signed, the world now safe for democracy.

Then the World War stopped being that penultimate and almost holy experience when it stopped being the World War and became World War I by default.

This movie, made in the troubled year of 1943 when the Allies had not made much headway to defeating the enemy, treats the current war as the penultimate experience, where sacrifices are honorable, and the ecstasy of duty in the young ones is observed with sad knowledge by the old-timers.

The only bridge between the two eras we are given is the bombastic Alan Hale as a drill sergeant in both wars, who provides stern warnings and comic relief. He is as stalwart as the Republic he serves, and just as horrified by change. But he changes. He goes along with the tide because it is for the greater good. Including dressing like a portly maiden in a chorus number.

Frances Langford stops by for a song. Some of the film’s striking images include Kate Smith singing, “God Bless America”, which Irving Berlin threw out of “Yip, Yip Yaphank” 25 years earlier and revived for this show. It became Miss Smith’s signature tune.

Irving Berlin himself sings “Oh, How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning” in a WWI uniform and his thin, raspy voice. This beloved little man who took Tin Pan Alley lyrics and molded love songs to his adopted nation brings tears to one’s eyes at the very sight of the fragile little guy.

The juxtaposition of the minstrel show scene and the scene by African-American soldiers performing a song called “What the Well-Dressed Man in Harlem Will Wear” is a strange but telling segment in the film.

First, it could be noted here that the men who performed in this stage show that came to Hollywood were all active servicemen. Most were uncredited in the film, but we know that future stars Private Gary Merrill, and Richard Farnsworth were among them. The black performers, including Sgt. Joe Louis (who, as the World Heavyweight Boxing champion was the leading celebrity of the group and the most famous cast member black or white) were also all soldiers. This stage show, made into a movie featuring a cast of actual servicemen, was technically the only de-segregated unit of the Armed Forces during World War II.

The minstrel segment was a part of the original “Yip, Yip, Yaphank” and Irving Berlin wanted it kept for the new show, despite attempts to persuade him that such entertainment was passé. The “Mandy” number performed by white men in blackface could have been performed without the minstrel makeup (as it was in "White Christmas" 1954). Performed with pretend glamor like something from a Ziegfeld show-stopper, it seems less exaggerated than the buffoonery of this scene in “Holiday Inn” discussed in this post.

When the men rush offstage, a pleased George Murphy says, “And you kids were worried about a minstrel number being too old fashioned. Why, it went just as well tonight as it did in the old show.” The words sound a bit hollow. This line might have been thrown in to appease Mr. Berlin, but the following number shows that if the minstrel scene wasn’t as painful to watch as the one in “Holiday Inn”, it was certainly made irrelevant by what followed.

The black soldiers come on next with the swing rendition of “What the Well-Dressed Man in Harlem Will Wear” referring to Joe Louis punching the bag in his Army uniform. It is a patriotic offering, (Joe says, “I’m in Uncle Sam Army, and we on God’s side.”) and the men dance and sing in their uniforms, all with great energy and soldierly precision. These men are not goofing around, they mean business, and that is their message.

A later number set in a stage door canteen appears to be the only scene in which the white soldiers and the black soldiers appear together. That their musical numbers are separate through most of the show may have a message, too.

Another curious image is of the soldiers performing dressed as women. For practical purposes, the men, just as in Shakespeare’s day, had to perform women’s roles because women were not part of these all-male units. If the armed services were segregated by race, they were also separated by gender.

In some numbers the “women” are buffoonish, intended for comedy, and in other numbers they are meant only to represent females. One of the old-timers in the audience remarks to an officer sitting near him, “That’s my son, the fourth from the left.”

The officer replies affably, without a trace of sarcasm, “Very pretty, isn’t he?”

He is quite pretty.

In the number performed by the African-American soldiers, one man likewise plays a woman, jitterbugging with another soldier. Then we see him rush off to wings, where he hurriedly strips off his dress and returns in uniform, completing the row of soldiers tap dancing in unison, as if to reassure us this business of dressing as women is all a matter of course.

The most startling scene of cross dressing comes when two men impersonate the stage actresses/divas Jane Cowl (for more on Jane Cowl’s run-in with James Stewart in Boston, see my post at Tragedy and Comedy in New England), and Lynn Fontanne.

These two men are not just putting on dresses and clowning around. They are female impersonators, and they are very good. In a movie that is otherwise rather naïve and simplistic, this is a stunning bit of sophistication, one most of us might not expect from films of this era.

Back to the raspy-voiced Irving Berlin, of whom it was famously said, “Irving Berlin IS American music.” Is the movie valid for purposes of our study today as an expression of patriotism during World War II? It evidently was considered so once, as this was the highest grossing film of 1943, extremely popular despite quickly becoming a museum piece. It moved people to do great things at the time.

Joan Leslie gets The Speech about what we’re fighting for at the end of the movie, still haranguing Ronald Reagan (actually reserve officer Lieutenant Ronald Reagan in real life) to marry her, telling him that his fear of leaving her a widow is not a reason not to live the life they have together now,

“Why do you act like we’ve lost the war?” Such a horrific slap in the face back in the day.

Perhaps the film’s most ironic image is its finale, where row upon row of soldiers sing with heroic determination that “this time is the last time”, a reference to the Armistice of 1918 that didn’t stick, and that they would remedy, “So we won’t have to do it again.”

They could not have known there would be an armistice for the Korean War ten years later, and a withdrawal from Vietnam, and other geopolitical compromises necessary to fighting so-called “limited” wars of the future.

If it was a “last time” for anything, it was the last time for segregated armed services.

“Then we’ll never have to do it again” they sing lustily as they march off stage.

They seem to make invalid the World War by their bold declaration, relegating the World War to clichés and a scrapbook of silly songs about the Kaiser, men in old fashioned uniforms, and the assumption of a generation’s naiveté. Like the double image of Veteran’s Day over Armistice Day.

But, what goes around comes around. When today’s young people were interviewed about what they knew of World War II at the time Ken Burns’ documentary series premiered on public television (see my post on Burns’ The War here), they demonstrated a condescending dismissal over what they viewed as that generation’s naiveté.

One of the most striking elements of Ken Burns’ documentary series on World War II is the absence of the use familiar popular images we have of the war, which mostly come from the movies. Perhaps the movies of that era are what give today’s younger generations the impression of a more simplistic, naïve people. Hopefully, watching Burns’ excellent series taught them better.

“This is the Army” is not meant to objectively document an era; it is pure cheerleading. Despite this, it does manage to document quite a lot, and one may wonder about how Irving Berlin could have thought “God Bless America” a dud of a song in 1917? It sprouted wings during World War II. It enjoyed an emotional revival after 9/11.

One may wonder about the desegregated entertainment unit in a segregated Army.

One may wonder about the distant shot of an actor playing President Franklin Roosevelt in the theater balcony box (after a stirring rendition of “Hail to the Chief” at his entrance), who is shown being able to stand and sit easily. This was not something FDR could ever do without help, and demonstrates that in 1943, the extent of his paralysis was not known to the general public.

One might consider that Irving Berlin was awarded the Army’s Medal of Merit by General George C. Marshall at the direction of President Harry Truman in 1945 for “This is the Army.” He was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal by President Dwight Eisenhower in 1957, and was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Gerald Ford in 1977 for “God Bless America.”

Kate Smith was awarded this same honor for her rendition of “God Bless America” in 1982 by her former cast member in “This is the Army”, now President Ronald Reagan.

Many of the men who performed in this unit gathered for reunions over the years, the last was for their 50th reunion in 1992 in New York’s theater district. How valid was this movie to them?

Seventeen years after that last reunion, another November 11th goes by, for another generation of veterans, who in yet another generation’s time may suffer the humiliation of being regarded as quaint.

For more on the story of this Army unit that performed around the country and around the world during World War II, have a look at this excellent four-part article at the National Archives website by Lawrence Bergreen, who uncovered a great wealth of detail on this unit when writing a book on Irving Berlin.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Waste Not, Want Not

If the ballroom on board ship in “A Blueprint for Murder” (1953), covered here last month, looks familiar, perhaps you remember it from another movie released earlier that year, “Titanic” (1953). Here, Brian Aherne holds court at the Captain’s table on the Titanic.

Where Joseph Cotten and Jean Peters met towards the movie’s end for romantic subterfuge and a potentially fatal showdown, Clifton Webb and Barbara Stanwyck met to condemn a failed marriage. Coincidentally, both men were to have sneaked onto the ship at the last minute to surprise their ladies. It’s interesting to look at the set from different angles.

Joseph Cotten in “A Blueprint for Murder” ballroom.

Jean Peters approaches Joseph’s Cotten’s table.

A similar vantage point in “Titanic”.

Clifton Webb greets his son in “Titanic.”

Reportedly, this set was also used for shipboard scenes in “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” and “Dangerous Crossing”, both of which were released in 1953. Quite the year for going on a cruise.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

The Singing Cowboy - 1936

“The Singing Cowboy” (1936) didn’t exactly invent the genre, if we can call it that, of the singing cowboy kind of B-westerns, but it certainly cemented it.

Gene Autry, ever afterwards called The Singing Cowboy, starred as himself. Like Roy Rogers a few years later, Gene almost always played a character called Gene Autry, though unlike King of the Cowboys, Mr. Rogers, Autry was really his last name. I suppose if you just always play you in the script, you don’t have the aggravation of trying to remember your character name.

This is a Republic B-western in the grand old sense, meaning rustlers, happy-go-lucky ranch hands, a hero, a stupid sidekick, the hero’s horse who is smarter than the stupid sidekick, a certain amount of lassoing, shooting of cap pistols, and saving pouty virginal ingénues on runaway horses. You can’t beat that for entertainment. At least not for 10 cents at a matinee.

Gene and his stupid sidekick Smiley Burnette, who co-wrote the songs in this movie, live with a bunch of happy-go-lucky and very musical ranch hands. Their boss’s daughter, a moppet who adores Gene is something of a cross between Jane Withers and Jane Withers, only played by Ann Gilles (also billed as Gillis). We see a cathedral-style radio in the bunkhouse, which seems quaint when we consider the more futuristic technology to come later on in the plot.

The ranch boss has a partner, played by Lon Chaney, Jr. who is the villain of the piece. Mr. Chaney, Jr. will have a better break in his career playing the sadly tormented wolfman in a few years, and the tragic Lennie in “Of Mice and Men.” Right now, he doesn’t have too much to do. Except steal horses from his partner. It’s the Great Depression and Lon, Jr. has to pay his bills.

The boss catches him, and throws us a heap ‘o plot exposition with the line, “So, it’s my old partner who’s been stealing the stock! Figure you could bankrupt me, make me sell off my share of the ranch to you! Is that it?”

Yeah, that’s it. This is one of the fun things about B-westerns. We don’t have to wait too long for the plot to unfold. They just spill it in first few minutes, like an ansty little kid bursting with a secret.

There is a fight. (“You’re nothing but a double-crossing skunk!”) The boss gets shot (dies in Gene’s arms and gives him guardianship of the moppet). A fire starts in the barn. The moppet runs inside to save kittens, and gets trampled by panicked horses.

So, let’s see. In the first ten minutes you’ve got a villain out to get the ranch, a murder, arson, and a moppet totally paralyzed from the neck down (except when she forgets and moves her arms), who needs a $10,000 operation. YE GADS! And the healthcare bill is still being debated in Congress!

But in lieu of national healthcare, Gene has another idea. He and the ranch hands are going on the radio and get rich and famous!

It doesn’t work. Radio doesn’t want them. They start on Plan B. Television.

Keeping in mind this is a 1936 movie, it’s really quite charming to see what they imagined television would be, if were there such a crazy thing. In some ways their idea of the future medium was really remarkably…stupid. Like the broadcast station inside the chuck wagon they haul from town to town. There are a couple of antenna on the floppy canvas chuck wagon roof that look like either leftovers from some Crash Corrigan serial, or maybe some old Christmas decorations. You could do better with aluminum foil and a wire coat hanger.

The other really interesting, really stupid, aspect is the apparent fact that you do not need television cameras to broadcast on television. There are never any cameras on Gene and his singing ranch hands while they perform their shows everywhere the broadcast chuck wagon stops. They just magically appear on television screens. Nor does television apparently require electricity.

The screens, large flat things mounted on the walls of everywhere, from the sponsor’s office (Chuck Wagon Coffee), to the moppet’s hospital room, look almost like our flat screens today. Well, they got something right, anyway.

Their sponsor (another thing they got right about future television), has a runaway daughter, played by Lois Wilde, who wants to be a singer. She is the pouty virginal ingénue whom Gene saves from a runaway horse. She joins the troupe of contestants on the amateur hour TV show on which Gene stars. Another group trying out for the show is a trio of black cowboys headed by Fred “Snowflake” Toones. Though they are as silly and cartoonish as everybody else on this TV show, it is one of the few times during this era where African-American performers are not demeaned, though there is some coy banter about referring to these cowpokes as being very sunburned. “Snowflake” gets to be a musical cowboy in this movie. In just about all his other many films, he was a porter or a bootblack.

Speaking of complexions, one can’t help but notice that Gene Autry’s lip makeup is just a tad too heavy. In some scenes he could give Pola Negri a run for her money.

In one funny scene, the ingénue is hiding from her rich daddy’s henchmen who want to bring her back so she can marry a drip. Gene helps her hide. She dons cowboy clothes and starts smearing shaving cream all over her face, pretending to be one of the boys shaving when they interrogate Gene. Hiding in plain sight is always a good gag. After they leave she of course exclaims in relief,

“Gee, that was the closest shave I ever had!”

Yes, I laughed, and I’m not ashamed.

Gene also makes a funny remark when he fails to earn enough for the moppet’s operation and doubts he can borrow it, “Banks don’t loan money on bad risks.” Sure they don’t.

Lon Chaney, Jr. pops back around with his mean hombres to sabotage the show, but Gene performs various acts of courage, like leaping off his horse, Champion (who gets his own screen credit), onto moving autos, driving the runaway broadcast chuck wagon over treacherous mountain roads, and a dangerous amount of yodeling.

This being a move about The Singing Cowboy, Gene or somebody else bursts into song about every minute and a half. By the end of the hour, he saves the ingénue (not only from bad guys, but from her drippy fiancé and mostly from herself), gets the cash for the moppet’s operation, and sings another song.

One aspect of this movie, and movies like it, is the fond familiarity with the kind of dialogue used. You’ve heard it before. Remember where? It sounds like the kind of dialogue we used as children when mimicking these scenarios. It was always “they got me!”, “reach for the sky,” or “say your prayers” (which Yosemite Sam also used to warn Bug Bunny he was about to shoot him).

I can recall rather elaborate backyard plots of make believe mayhem, complicated by sudden and previously unknown patches of quicksand at the bottom of the back stairs, or interrupted by kid brothers who didn’t die like they were supposed to (or forgot to count to 10 before getting up), the dog who ran away with somebody’s red felt cowboy hat in his mouth, or mom hollering for us at suppertime.

I’ve watched children play these days with various space toys, like the light sabers from the Star Wars franchise, and mostly what they do is slash at each other and run around, laughing and running, and whacking each other. There is very little dialogue. I can remember seeing some kid with a Harry Potter getup, carrying a wand and I thought, ah, now we’re going to see some real daytime drama. But no. All he did was run up to the other kids and whack them on the head with the wand, and run away, laughing.

Our games, back in the day, were so drawn out (sometimes over the course of an afternoon, sometimes over the course of the summer), because we had so much dialogue we had to make up. (“No, you don’t say that! I say that! You fall down! Then you take Joey to jail!”)

There was a protocol to those B-movie or television serial pantomimes that required justice being somehow served, and there was a solemnity to the proceedings. We carried this playacting to the very edges of what we knew as reality, like pet funerals. I don’t think there was anything more solemn as a child-orchestrated pet funeral. Especially the part where the guests step up to “say a few words” as Henry Fonda put it in “The Grapes of Wrath” (1939) when they buried Charley Grapewin on the side of Route 66.

(Boy takes off his ball cap, puts it over his heart. “He was a good turtle….”) and then perhaps a sloppy and off-key rendition of “The Star Spangled Banner” or humming “Taps” through kazoos.

Maybe those silly B-westerns taught us the protocol of consequence. “The Singing Cowboy” was slim on plot, but had bucketsful of consequences. For every action, good or bad, there was an almost immediate consequence.

That Gene Autry actually would get his own real television show in the early 1950s, and sell a prodigious amount of merchandise to kids, may or may not have been coincidental. I don’t think even Gene, as canny as he was, could have predicted that in 1936. But he made a huge impact on kids, and maybe the money he made off them evened everything out.

Consider that in response to children who were his biggest fans, Gene Autry took the rather kindly responsibility to draw up a code of conduct for them, if they really wanted to be his special hombres. It was called The Cowboy Code:

The Cowboy must never shoot first, hit a smaller man, or take unfair advantage.

He must never go back on his word, or a trust confided in him.

He must always tell the truth.

He must be gentle with children, the elderly, and animals.

He must not advocate or possess racially or religiously intolerant ideas.

He must help people in distress.

He must be a good worker.

He must keep himself clean in thought, speech, action, and personal habits.

He must respect women, parents, and his nation's laws.

The Cowboy is a patriot.

Gene joked about himself, that he was not the best singer, or a very good actor or even horse rider. Some movie stars take themselves way too seriously. Some, like Gene, take their stardom seriously.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Mohawk Theater - North Adams, Mass.

On November 5, 1938, some 71 years ago, the Mohawk Theater opened in the small western Massachusetts town of North Adams. These days, the community is anticipating, and actively involved, in its future re-opening.

Once part of the E.M. Loew chain in New England, the Art Deco movie house was the third theater in North Adams, and the only one that remains today. It is a downtown icon there on Main Street, one of the few remaining late Art Deco style movie theaters in the U.S. Originally a single balcony theater with a capacity of 1,200, the Mohawk operated until the mid-1980s.

For a few years after 1987 it was owned by a private investor who occasionally screened films or opened the theater to concerts, but it closed again in 1991.

It would likely have been demolished or transformed into retail space, just as the two other movie theaters in town had by this time, but for the community that decided to step in and save it.

That process, of getting funds and all the construction logistics in place to enable the theater’s restoration is continuing. It is hoped to reopen the Mohawk again to its Saturday afternoon matinee audience, as well as to enable live plays, concerts, and recitals, as well as other community events to be staged here.

For more on the Mohawk, have a look at this website.

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