Sunday, February 28, 2010

They Made Me a Criminal

They made John Garfield a Criminal (1939)
Directed by
Busby Berkeley
Screenplay by Sig Herzigm based upon a novel and play by Bertram Millhauser and Beulah Marie Dix
Starring John Garfield, Ann Sheridan, Claude Rains, May Robson, the Dead End Kids (Billy Halop, Bobby Jordan, Leo Gorcey, Huntz Hall, Gabriel Dell, Bernard Punsley).
Watch the Film on Google Videos


John Garfield never seemed to get the breaks. Which may be why he always seemed to play characters who never seemed to get the breaks. As a young actor, Clifford Odets wrote the play Golden Boy with him in mind for the lead, but the Broadway production starred Luther Adler.  He left Broadway for Hollywood, and got an Oscar nomination for his first major role in Four Daughters.  So Warner Brothers decided it was time to make him a star, and the result was The Made Me a Criminal.

In it, boxer Johnny Bradford (Garfield) celebrates winning the championship, but in the mayhem, a reporter is killed. Bradford is the prime suspect.  His manager steals his watch, car, and girl while Johnny is passed out drunk, and then dies in a car crash.  Johnny is officially dead and the case closed, except that he can't access any of his money and can't reveal he's alive.  So he bums around the country, ending up at the fig ranch of Goldie West (Ann Sheridan) and her grandmother (May Robson). Goldie also takes care of a group of incorrigible teens (the Dead End Kids), keeping them out of reform school.  Bradford (now known as Jack Dorney) goes to work on the farm and turns over a new leaf.  But a New York detective, Monty Phelan (Claude Rains) knows that Johnny is not dead, and goes after him in order to prove vindicate his own judgment.

Garfield plays a tough guy, as was often the case in his career. But he always had a softer edge than other movie gangsters; you could sense the toughness was only a shell, and he was not so bad underneath.  In the film, he slowly changes, learning that there are more important things in life than being tough, or being thought a "sucker."

John Garfied (dark hat), Ann Sheridan, the Dead End Kids

The movie also featured the Dead End Kids. You may be familiar with them in a series of comedies where they were billed at "The Bowery Boys."* These comedies were pretty weak programmers, with slapstick and malapropism their mainstays and only brightened by the interplay between Leo Gorcey and Huntz Hall. 

However, the original Dead End Kids were far from it. None of them had had any acting experience when they were cast in the play Dead End on Broadway, where they were the original rebellious teens.  Dead End was a big hit, and they moved to Hollywood for the film. Warner Brothers knew they had stars, so they featured them in several very successful slice-of-life gangster films before the boys started going elsewhere. They Made Me a Criminal was during the period they were still considered serious actors -- comic relief, of course, but with some depth.

Film buffs may have noted the name of the director.  Busby Berkeley is, of course, one of the major names of film, and one of the five big names of film dance.**  This was a departure for him, though he moves easily into the genre.***

The film should have made Garfield into a major star, but it didn't seem to happen.  He quickly became typecast in similar roles, and often in supporting ones. Garfield also was an independent minded actor with a strong left-wing social conscience, factors that hurt his career, especially in the early 50s when he was blacklisted.**** The stress of the blacklist is also credited to causing the heart attack that killed him in 1952 at age 39.


*Or "The East Side Kids" or "The Little Tough Guys." The actors moved from one group to another and back again as they were offered better deals.  I remember them best as "The Bowery Boys" due to the fact that those comedies were broadcast every Saturday out of WOR-TV in New York while I was growing up. 

**Along with Fred Astaire/Hermes Pan, Gene Kelly, and Bob Fosse. 

***One nice touch in the film is Huntz Hall's singing "By a Waterfall," one of Berkeley's most famous dance numbers.

****He wasn't a Communist, but spoke out against McCarthyism and refused to name names.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Root Boy Slim (music)

Root Boy dares you to be fat
Wikipedia Entry
Official Website

For years, I used to subscribe to the National Lampoon. A favorite feature was their "True Facts," which would report the type of news stories that would now be shown on One particular item was discussing how some officials in the Jimmy Carter White House were spending time going to concerts by a group with the bizarre name of "Root Boy Slim and the Sex Change Band."

Not long afterwards, I actually heard their music.  My opinion of the Carter White House improved immensely.

Root Boy Slim was born with the decidedly un-rockstar name of Foster McKenzie III.  He grew up in North Carolina and, after attending Yale,* moved to the Washington DC area**, where he started the Sex Change Band, which played in bars in the area.  It was a quintessential party band and Root Boy was the life of the party.  The band recorded a couple of demos, one of which, "Christmas at Kmart" caught the ears of executives at Warner Brothers***, who signed him to a contract.

"Christmas as Kmart" was a funny antidote to the more serious songs of the season as Root Boy sings of the "joys" of spending the time in a downscale department store.

Their album was filled with similar songs -- blatantly juvenile humor cheerfully sung in Root Boy's Captain Beefheart-like growl**** "Boogie 'Til You Puke" was a jaundiced look at the disco scene (and also Root Boy's own party heritage), while "Dare to Be Fat" dealt with Root Boy's own weight.

The album created some buzz, but was passed off as a comedy album and didn't sell all that well.  Warner Brothers dropped them, and the group broke up.

Root Boy continued to tour, though with different lineups.*****  He continued to record on various independent labels, but pretty much vanished outside of the DC area.  The band played live gigs though the mid-80s but slowly faded away, dying in 1993.

While Root Boy and the band are certainly not big name rock stars, they are the foremost band in their particular niche of wacky bar bands.


*As a frat brother of George W. Bush.  Bush later banned the group from campus after a particularly rowdy party.

**And was diagnosed with schizophrenia, something he battled all his life.

***Reportedly brought to them by Donald Fagin of Steely Dan.

****Beefheart was, of course, a greater talent by far, but there were certain similarities in their voices and the fact that both bands had members using bizarre pseudonyms.  But the Captain was an avant garde absurdist, while Root Boy was only out for a good time.

*****He once did a gig here in the Albany, NY, area as "Root Boy Slim and the Black Silk Stockings."

Sunday, February 21, 2010

The Wrong Box (novel)

By Robert Louis Stevenson and Lloyd Osborne
Libravox Audio Book
Project Gutenberg e-text

Book Cover Art for The Wrong Box by Robert Louis StevensonComedy doesn't travel well, either over time and distance.   At best you can appreciate the humor, but usually it still doesn't make you laugh out loud. That's one reason why The Wrong Box is such a delight.

The book is based upon the financial plan that probably was the basis of more fiction than any other:  the tontine. This was basically a life insurance plan where a group of people put money up in an investment. The last person left alive got all the money.* Mystery writers loved the concept, because it gave a greedy investor a motive to murder the others.**

I admit I was expecting this to be the major point of the book, but discovered it hadn't been structured that way. In it, the Finsbury brothers -- Masterman and Joseph -- are the last two surviving members of a tontine.  Masterman is in seclusion, cared fro his son Michael, a lawyer.  Joseph is still hard at work in his failing leather business, a figurehead for his two sons Morris and John.  Morris needs some extra money, and comes to the conclusion that his uncle has died, and the fact concealed by Michael, keeping Morris from the money that's rightfully his.

When Morris and John take their father out, they are caught in a terrible train collision. They find a man in Joseph's coat, his face horribly mangled, and realize they must keep this a secret or lose any chance at the tontine money.  Ultimately, they put the corpse into a barrel and ship it back to London.  But the barrel goes astray.

Meanwhile Joseph, who you've probably guessed is not dead, is glad to be out from under the control of his sons, sets out for a life of his own. Joseph is hilarious literary character -- a know-it-all bore who lectures anyone within earshot about his own philosophy and life.  Here's a favorite passage of mine:

'I have examined all the theatres in London,' he [Joseph] was saying; 'and pacing the principal entrances, I have ascertained them to be ridiculously disproportionate to the requirements of their audiences. The doors opened the wrong way—I forget at this moment which it is, but have a note of it at home; they were frequently locked during the performance, and when the auditorium was literally thronged with English people. You have probably not had my opportunities of comparing distant lands; but I can assure you this has been long ago recognized as a mark of aristocratic government. Do you suppose, in a country really self-governed, such abuses could exist? Your own intelligence, however uncultivated, tells you they could not. Take Austria, a country even possibly more enslaved than England. I have myself conversed with one of the survivors of the Ring Theatre, and though his colloquial German was not very good, I succeeded in gathering a pretty clear idea of his opinion of the case. But, what will perhaps interest you still more, here is a cutting on the subject from a Vienna newspaper, which I will now read to you, translating as I go. You can see for yourselves; it is printed in the German character.' And he held the cutting out for verification, much as a conjuror passes a trick orange along the front bench.

But all the characters are wonderful.  There's the fretful Morris, trying to scheme and failing miserably; Michael, who sails blithely through life; Gideon Forsythe, the timid schoolmaster whose life is turned into chaos by the box.

The book is usually described as being "black humor," and it certainly has those element (mostly the missing corpse).  But most of the humor is from observing the characters and seeing their personalities clash when being confronted with a situation they've never had to deal with before.  Only Micheal seems to be unbothered by matters, which means, of course, is that he only makes things worse.

Stevenson, of course, is still known today for works like Treasure Island and The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. His hand at comedy is surprisingly sure for someone best known for more dramatic work.  Osborne was his son-in-law and wrote the first draft, though Stevenson actively revised it. A movie was made in the book, but the casting just doesn't seem right.  Peter Cook, for all his brilliance, is just not Morris, and the plot changes quite a bit from the book. Since the original is available free, you should go to the book if you can.

In addition to recommending the book, I want to recommend the Audiovox recording I've linked to.  The reader, Andy Minter, truly brings the book to life, using different accents and styles for each character and turning it more into a radio play than an audiobook. If you like to listen while you commute, this is the way to go.


*It looks like in an actual tontine, all living investors got dividends over their lifetimes, the amount increasing as the others died off.  But this is rarely mentioned in the fictional version.

**Though, of course, making it all look like accidents, since the killer would be pretty obvious at the end.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

The Bedford Incident

The Bedford Incident(1965)
Directed by
James B. Harris
Written by James Poe, from a novel by Mark Rascovich
Starring Richard Widmark, Sidney Poitier, Eric Portman, James MacArthur, Martin Balsam, Wally Cox.
IMDB Entry

In the early 1960s, Columbia Pictures produced three cold war films that were sometimes referred to the "nuclear disaster trilogy."  Dr. Strangelove is the most famous and is rightly praised as one of the great films of all time.* Fail-Safe was the other side of the coin -- instead of a black comedy, it was a tense thriller.  But the third of these was a more obscure film: The Bedford Incident.

The movie was more realistic than Fail-Safe. It followed the action on the US destroyer Bedford, on patrol near Greenland and led by its captain Eric Finlander (Richard Widmark). On board is a reporter, Ben Munceford (Sidney Poiter), and the NATO observer Wolfgang Schrepke (Eric Portman).  Both Munceford and Schrepke have their reasons for observing Finlander, who doesn't particularly like having them on his ship.

You see, Finlander runs a tight ship. He keeps his sailors hopping, feeling that hard work is the best way to keep things running, and that criticism is what makes you stronger.  He is especially hard on Ensign Ralston (James MacArthur), a young man just out of the academy who can't seem to do anything right.

But when they spot a Soviet sub, Finlander goes into action.  He shadows and harasses the sub, ratcheting up the tension for the crew, and putting things on the edge of disaster.

Finlander is no madman.  He's tightly wound, but doesn't particularly want to start a fight with the Russians.  Nor does he want them to poke there noses in places where they shouldn't be.  But his insistence on what makes a good officer leads to tragedy. Richard Widmark brings his usual intensity to the role; it was a perfect bit of casting

Sidney Poitier is there to give the opinions of a civilian** on the proceedings.  What's also interesting is that race is barely an issue; I suspect he liked for once to be able to play a part where the role has no racial overtones. James MacArthur*** is also good as a man who wants to please his boss, but can't get anything right.

The film did OK, and won no awards and now is far overshadowed by the other films in the trilogy. But it's a great piece of cold war drama, with Widmark especially outstanding.**** Dr. Strangelove went for absurdity, but The Bedford Incident portrays things as the way they most likely would have happened, making it a chilling experience.


*When I first saw it, I decided it was the best film I'd ever seen. I was only 12 at the time and I'm still amazed that I had formed that opinion when most others my age were more excited by cowboys or Disney.

**And of the audience.

***Now remembered, if at all, as the person being told to "Book 'em, Dano" in Hawaii Five-O.

****He produced the film, so clearly wanted to play the role.  It also was the first film role for Donald Sutherland.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Night of the Generals

Night of the Generals (1967)
Directed by
Anatole Litvak
Written by Joseph Kessel and Paul Dehn, based on a novel by Hans Helmut Kirst
Starring Peter O'Toole, Omar Sharif, Tom Courtenay, Philippe Noiret, Donald Pleasance, Charles Gray
IMDB Entry

The Night of the Generals has a terrific start. A prostitute in Nazi-occupied Warsaw in 1942 is brutally murdered. There is one witness: a terrified Pole who has only seen one thing:  the killer's pants leg as he walked down stairs.  Not much to go on, except that the let had a red stripe down it: the sign of a German general.

The movie starts out as a mystery, but quickly moves on to something much different. Major Grau (Omar Sharif) believes the story -- because the witness would be a fool to lie about something like that. It turns out that there are three German generals in Warsaw whose whereabouts are unknown at the time of the murder:  General Tanz (Peter O'Toole), General Kahlenberg (Donald Pleasance), and General von Seyditz-Gabler (Charles Gray).

Despite the discouragement of his superiors, Grau looks into the case. The generals, of course, have to be handled delicately, but Grau -- who believes in justice, even for prostitutes -- plays a neat game of cat and mouse to try to find out who might be responsible. 

The identity of the killer is made apparent early on, and I think a look at the cast list would give it away.*  But I'll observe the etiquette of spoilers and not do it here.  But the film shows how the killer is unbalanced and just this side of mad (including his being affected by the famous self-portrait of Vincent van Gogh).  He cannot control his urges, but is clever enough to cover up the results.

The main point of the film is watching Grau closing in on the killer.  He is a man who believes in justice, even when it cuts across the class lines between a prostitute and a German general.  At the same time, he is only a Major and, in the stratified world of the German army, it makes his job all the more difficult. When he begins to get too close to the killer, he is promoted and transferred to Paris -- a dream for most German officers, but a disappointment for Grau.

However, eventually, the other generals are also transferred to Paris, and the investigation continues.  His dedication gains the admiration of Inspector Morand (Philip Noiret) of the French police, who, despite being a member of the underground, still sees that Grau is an honorable man. The plot dovetails nicely with the history of the period and has some very surprising twists to make up for learning the killer early on.

This is one of Sharif's best roles.  His Grau is smart, ironic, and well aware of the difficulties he faces. Peter O'Toole is always excellent and the rest of the actors make the best of their roles.

Director Anatole Litvak had had a long and successful career when he made this films, usually psychological dramas like Sorry, Wrong Number; The Snake Pit, and Anastasia.  He shows this background, as well as his background in early gangster films, to good use. This was Litvak's next to last film, and one of his best.


*Assuming my comment isn't misconstrued.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

A.E. van Vogt (author)

(1912-2000) A.E. Van Vogt
Wikipedia entry

Back in the mid-1940s, if science fiction readers were asked to name the top writers in the genre, four names would definitely come up:  Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, E.E. (Doc) Smith, Ph.D., and A. E. van Vogt.

Back in the early 1970s, I took the first-ever science fiction course at Union College. When setting it up, the professor asked various people he knew with an interest in the field to suggest books for the course. One particular list, though, left him unimpressed at the critical judgment of the person who he had asked.  I can still remember the professor saying, "He recommended Van Vogt," the last two words dripping with scorn, as though the recommender was out of his mind.

So what happened?

Alfred Elton van Vogt was born in Manitoba, Canada and grew up writing.  In the 1930s, his work started appearing in American pulp magazines, usually true confession magazines,* until he switched to writing in a genre he loved:  science fiction.  His first story, "Black Destroyer," was the cover story in Astounding and it sometimes considered the starting point for the Golden Age of (pulp) Science Fiction.** He continued selling short stories and published his first novel in 1946.

SlanThe book was Slan.  It was an instant classic of the time, the story of the next step in evolution:  superhumans with psychic powers.  The book was considered one of the major works of the field for 20 years. For years, the slogan "Fans are slans" showed up at science fiction conventions.

He went to work on his Null-A series, adventures stories with characters based on non-Aristotelian logic, and the Weapon Shops of Isher series.  His book Empire of the Atom was about the intrigue and plotting among the aristocracy of a galactic empire.  Voyage of the Space Beagle took "Black Destroyer" and several other stories he had written about the same ship and turned it into a "fix-up" novel -- one of the first to use that term.

But, despite his popularity, van Vogt's critical reputation was eroding. The first shot was fired by Damon Knight. Knight was a one of the field's first great critics, someone who started taking science fiction seriously as literature.***  And one of his first important essays was a critique of The World of Null-A in an SF fanzine.  He later rewrote and reprinted the essay with a new title:  "Cosmic Jerrybuilder:  A. E. van Vogt."

Knight ripped into the book, pointing out that it made no sense, that the plotting was all over the map, that the characters got involved in overly convoluted actions when a simple solution was obvious, and much more.  It was, in many ways, unprecedented:  fanzine reviews of the time tended to be people raving about books they loved, not critiquing popular books.

And people started looking at van Vogt differently. 

The review didn't cause immediate harm to his reputation; it came out in 1945, and was rewritten in 1950 after van Vogt rewrote the book to try to answer many of Knight's criticisms.  Van Vogt remained popular during the 50s.

But his reputation started to fade.  It wasn't just the review, it was a change in how people looked at science fiction. Because Knight was right:  van Vogt was a cosmic jerrybuilder, slapping together plots out of whatever pieces that were available.  His science was shaky and often nonsensical.  He often resolved plots by pulling a deus ex machina out of a hat.

When I first came across van Vogt, it was in a collection called Destination: Universe.  I must admit many of the stories left me cold. Then I happened upon a comment from van Vogt to the effect that his stories were dreams, that they followed their own dream logic and not necessarily a realistic step-by-step plot.  And then it all clicked.

Van Vogt's stories are dreams. They aren't meant to make logical sense (the use of Null-A clearly indicates that van Vogt isn't interested in standard logic). They have a sort of internal logic, but questioning them verses reality is like questioning why you dream about taking a test even though you've been out of school for years.

In addition, there is a dollop wish fulfillment in his work -- Slan shows how an ordinary boy is really a superman, for instance. 

On story I liked a lot was something called "A Can of Paint."  Knight took issue with the story, since it starts out with a scientific absurdity that sounds clever but makes no sense (and is forgotten by the end). The story is about an astronaut who pilots his own homemade ship to Venus only to be doused in a can of Venusian paint. He can't remove it, and discovers this is supposed to be an intelligence test:  if he can remove the paint -- which is like liquid mercury and flows over him as he tries to remove it -- humans will be allowed to visit.

Knight ridicules the ending because it comes out of nowhere.  In a sense, he is right -- the reader has no idea what the solution really is, as it introduces something that has barely been mentioned. At the same time, it doesn't matter.  The astronaut works out the solution; it's just that van Vogt chooses something super-scientific sounding instead of more mundane possibilities. But, for me, the story works despite all its flaws because the dream logic behind it all makes sense.

Van Vogt's lack of logic worked against him, and the "Cosmic Jerrybuilder" label stuck. He also was briefly connected to L. Ron Hubbard's Dianetics movement, which hurt his credibility (plus he claimed that Hubbard's followers harassed him once he left the movement).

Van Vogt continued to publish into the mid-80s, though he never regained his early stature.  He seemed stuck in his space opera mode, and space opera was passe (though Doc Smith still remained in print). Toward the end, he suffered from Alzheimer's; he published nothing for the last 15 years of his life.

There are signs of some revival of appreciation. No one would ever accuse van Vogt of being a great stylist, and sometimes not even all that original (Empire of the Atom is almost a direct rewrite of Robert Graves's I, Claudius). And I think that the wish fulfillment fantasy of Slan is a bit dated, especially since psychic powers are no longer considered science fiction.  But those with a libertarian bent tend to like the Weapon Shop stories, whose motto is "The right to buy weapons is the right to be free."****

Maybe van Vogt wasn't a great writer, but he doesn't deserve to be a forgotten one.


*Which, despite their name, never published nonfiction.

**The story -- about a monster terrorizing a spaceship -- was highly influential. Van Vogt got a settlement from the producers of Alien after he sued them for stealing his story (whether they did or not was not determined; they may have just paid to make him go away). The table of contents for the issue is notable for stories by Isaac Asimov and C.L. Moore.

***His In Search of Wonder is still a fascinating volume that I recommend to any aspiring SF writer out there (worth reading if only for the line "'This eloquent novel,' says the jacket of Taylor Caldwell's The Devil's Advocate, making two errors in three words.") And Knight also was a fine fiction writer and something of a father figure to science fiction, since he founded the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America. 

****Van Vogt is stacking the deck a bit here.  His weapons are designed so that they only work in self-defense. I think if that were possible, there would be no real call or need for gun control.