One Way Passage / Two Seconds

Daydream and Nightmare

Think these are hard times? Try 1932.

It was the worst year of the Great Depression. The economy had already been in free-fall for three years. The latest in a series of oblivious and inept Republican presidents had helped further deregulate markets, which had then spun out of control. Since the crash, Herbert Hoover had been preaching the standard Republican doctrine: self reliance and charitable giving. The tent cities that sprang up all over America to house the legions of newly homeless were named in his honor: Hoovervilles. In June of 1932, when veterans of the previous World War marched on Washington demanding payment of their bonuses, Hoover’s Administration met them with tear gas and bayonets. By the end of the year, 40% of U.S. banks had failed. Drought decimated the Midwest, turning farmland into the “Dust Bowl,” and food was scarce. Some farmers burned their crops for heat, as the coldest winter in history — and a mood of real despair — settled over the country.

Only one thing got better in 1932, and that was the movies. The coming of sound five years earlier had brought a number of technical problems, but these had finally been ironed out. There’s an enormous difference between movies made in 1931 and 1932. The former are static and stiff, with performers who stand and declaim their mostly gawdawful dialogue to the back of the theater. But the movies of 1932 began to move again, with the camera venturing outdoors, the film stock brighter and more textured, and the performers lighter on their feet and acting for the camera instead of imitating stage technique. Movie attendance was down, and so the studios took advantage of the unenforced censorship Code of the time and lured patrons back with sex and violence, to a degree that’s still startling today. And with the economy so bad and life so hard, the movies began to reflect the tough, cynical outlook that was in the air.

Among a bunch of terrific pictures made in 1932, two especially stand out. The first, One Way Passage, is a perfect little daydream of a movie, with the absurd gallantry of the characters nicely set off by the crude pre-Code realism of the settings and details. The other, Two Seconds, is pure Depression-era nightmare.

One Way Passage begins in a Singapore gin joint. To an American audience in its 12th year of Prohibition, the daydream had already begun right there. A bartender is talking to an unseen customer while making a Paradise Cocktail and lovingly describing each step. By the time he makes a flourish out of twisting a lemon rind over the top, you want it as badly as the customer. He turns out to be exactly the actor you’d expect to see at a bar in the 30s — William Powell. The epitome of suavity and sophistication, and that rarest of things: a grown up. He holds the glass out to savor the cocktail and leans in for his first sip, only to be jostled from behind and have most of it slosh out. Turning to curse out the jostler, he finds that it’s a beautiful girl. She’s Kay Francis, an ineffable, strange actress known mostly for being a clotheshorse and for her inability to pronounce the letters R and L. It’s love at first sight, maybe helped by the fact that this was Francis and Powell’s fifth movie together. She smiles brightly and then sees what she’s done.

“Always the most pwecious, the wast dwops,” she comments breathlessly. It’s not just positive thinking. She is, you see, dying of an unnamed but incurable disease. Her doctor has ordered complete rest, but she’s determined to live life to the fullest before she goes. What she doesn’t know, but we soon find out, is that Powell is doomed also. He’s a convicted killer who was sentenced to death in the States and has (as they said back then) taken it on the lam. He can’t stay and chat up Francis, so they drink to their mutual health and then break their glasses on the edge of the bar and lay the stems over each other in honor of their brief meeting. Powell hustles out of the bar, but not fast enough. He’s immediately arrested. A San Francisco cop has been hot on his trail, and plans to take him back to face his fate in the electric chair. His consolation is that he and Francis are on the same boat.

And so romance blossoms, with each aware that doom is around the corner, but neither telling the other. The very real doom that threatened the audience in 1932 is refracted and stylized, but still hangs over the movie and gives it a bitter edge. And the silly old-movie tropes, like the love theme that plays each time Powell and Francis meet, and their ritual of breaking their glasses, pay off beautifully in the final scene. Like the first scene, it’s set at a bar—the movie comes full circle. It’s ridiculous and yet it’s powerfully, hauntingly romantic. You laugh at yourself, but you choke up anyway.

In fact the whole movie is corny as hell, yet it never comes off that way. The actors defuse the sentimentality of the material by underplaying it and playing against it. This includes the supporting cast. Warren Hymer and Frank McHugh, usually quite unendurable little toads, have the good luck to share their scenes with the serenely grounded and generous Aline MacMahon, whose sure touch turns them both into princes. The three of them play, respectively, the arresting cop, a drunken thief, and a phony countess who get involved with the lovers and turn out to be their guardian angels. What’s so wonderful about One Way Passage is the balance between the frankly silly fairy-tale plot and the toughness of the characters. Life has battered these people, and their futures are grim. They respond, ultimately, with integrity and generosity. It’s a beautiful vision of Americans: back them against the wall, and they reveal their best selves.

Or… not. In Two Seconds, the hardship of the Depression doesn’t bring out the nobility of the characters. It brings out fear, greed, lust, despair, and ultimately madness. Two Seconds also features a hero who’s on his way to the Chair — John Allen. A crowd of reporters and jail officials has gathered to watch the execution, and one of them comments that after they flip the switch, Allen will have two seconds of consciousness left. Gosh, says one, in those two seconds he’ll remember everything about what brought him to this moment. They flip the switch. And the rest of the movie is those two seconds.

The hum of the electric chair blends into the noise of a riveter. Two men are standing on the girders of an unfinished skyscraper. It’s John and his best friend Bud, played by Edward G. Robinson and Preston Foster. They’re a couple of young guys who are making good money in the Depression, but only because they’re doing this frightening and dangerous work. Bud is a hedonist who blows the money on gambling and women, but John is an idealist. He has big dreams for himself, and he’s picky about women. The truth is he’s the runt who gets stuck with his studly friend’s castoffs, and as the movie proceeds like dirty water swirling down a drain, his aspirations and airs of superiority get thrown back in his face in breathtakingly and increasingly cruel ways.

At first, Preston Foster is slightly hard to take as Bud. He had recently played the role on stage, and he’s still a bit “big” for the movie. I always thought Foster was a lousy actor until I found out that he was also a guitarist and composer; essentially he was a proto-beatnik, and maybe too hip to take seriously the cardboard roles that usually came his way. Despite his overemphasis, he’s intensely likeable as Bud. His love for John is the motor of the movie and one of its few grace notes.

The other grace note is Edward G. Robinson. You wouldn’t think he could play John Allen, who is a muscular, working class, somewhat stupid young guy who gets in way over his head. But Robinson was one of the most skillful of all performers, and he does much more than play the character. He takes you on a journey. I can’t improve on Mick LaSalle’s description, in his book Dangerous Men, of Robinson’s final speech as he’s being sentenced to die. “This is Robinson, great American actor, in the most intense minutes of his film career. He endows the speech with the shape and size of melodrama but maintains the precision of a ballet dancer. Remaining true to his core and so in control, he goes to a deep place, without fear, hesitation, or bluffing, using himself unflinchingly. No movie star ever looked like Robinson, and he’s beautiful.”

I don’t want to say any more about the plot. We know from the beginning that Robinson is going to fry. The drama is seeing the steps by which his ordinary life, and ultimately his mind, comes completely unraveled. As with One Way Passage, the sense of fate closing like a trap is clearly a metaphor for the Depression, and the feeling that ordinary hard times were deepening into something more existentially threatening and terrifying. The movie itself changes from stark realism to near-abstract expressionism. And the ending hits you with the force of a brick hurled in your face. This nightmare offers no salvation, except the sweetness and humanity of Robinson’s art. That’s more than enough.

Each one of these movies runs about an hour, and each packs more story, more honesty, and more maturity into that hour than 90% of the movies being made today. Maybe hard times were good for something.



Originally published on Edward Copeland on Film.

Lucky Lady

Blog Art - Lucky Lady2

In advance of a DVD release, Fox Movie Channel showed Lucky Lady one afternoon recently — the first airing of this unlucky movie anywhere in my experience since its premiere in 1975. I saw it back then, when I was — ahem — in my teens, and I thought it was pretty good… my strongest memory was of Liza Minnelli playing a Bessie Smith record (“Young Woman Blues”). I’d never even heard of Bessie Smith, but her deep growling and wailing on the soundtrack made a huge impression on me. And any movie that introduces you to Bessie Smith can’t be all bad.

So I was pretty excited to see the movie again after 35 years. As a movie buff, it’s always nice to discover a “forgotten” film and tell people about it. Maybe it would turn out to be a lost treasure. They’re out there — great little movies that most people have never heard of, and you read about them on the blogs sometimes… Two Seconds, Desert Fury, Strangers When We Meet, No Down Payment, Daisy Kenyon, just to name a few that you can find rapturous little posts about here and there.

Alas, this won’t be one of them. Lucky Lady was supposed to be Fox’s big Christmas hit of 1975: Minnelli’s first movie since Cabaret, co-starring the biggest star of the decade, Burt Reynolds, plus Gene Hackman fresh off his Oscar for The French Connection. It was only a couple of years after The Sting, which had been a hit of immense proportions, and this was an imitation — another story of darling, roguish crooks set in the Roaring ’20s, with cutesy ragtime music and movie stars grinning with cigars in their mouths.

It was even a bit daring for its time: the stars play a floozy and two bums during prohibition, and as they bicker and laugh their way from down-and-outers in Mexico to filthy rich rum runners, they eventually become a ménage a trois… we even see them in bed together. You can tell that the filmmakers were trying for an update of the old ’30s MGM Powell-Harlow-Tracy formula, with a raucous tart battling a tough guy and a mug. Lucky Lady, by the way, is the boat they use to transport hooch up and down the California coast, chased by the Coast Guard and murderous yet comically inept rival bootleggers.

None of it works. There’s no chemistry, for one thing. Hackman was a late replacement for George Segal (who wisely bailed at the last minute). He turned it down also, until the studio offered so much money that he couldn’t refuse, but he looks shamefaced, as if he knows he shouldn’t be there, and as the movie progresses he seems to almost disappear while you’re watching him. Burt Reynolds has a more interesting role, as a klutzy puppy dog with a sad little crush on Minnelli. He’s convincing as a total boob, but not very funny or appealing. You expect Hackman and Reynolds to do the movieish thing and scrap over the woman they both love, but nobody in the movie shows enough feeling to suggest any emotion, much less love.

You couldn’t be in love with Minnelli’s character anyway. Sour and snarling one minute, emotionally vulnerable the next, she’s pigeon-toed and graceless and utterly unappealing. Abrasive boorishness worked for Harlow because her wisecracks were witty and you could feel the joy she took when she told somebody off — she was our heroine, a no-class gal giving the snooty swells a big fat kick in the rear end. Liza Minnelli is (or was…) a very talented woman, but she can’t pull off this particular act. Four or five minutes into the movie, she’s in a dive cantina in Mexico, singing a frowzy fake-cynical Kander and Ebb song, wearing a Harpo Marx wig and a gaudy print dress, and you get the dismal but unmistakable sense that you’re watching a flop.

Not that Fox didn’t try. They poured $13 million into the movie, and there are spectacularly mounted scenes of boats racing along, gun battles, explosions, etc. Some of the sets are huge, though the Teflon-coated fake art deco looks more mid-’70s disco than Jazz Age. They shot three different final scenes, too, after test audiences rejected the original “serious” ending. One of the several attempts found the three characters many years later, still in bed together; this hastily discarded scene of the three actors in lousy old-age makeup is a minor inside-Hollywood legend.

Blog Art - Lucky Lady

Most catastrophically of all, the director Stanley Donen (or someone; the movie reeks of too many chefs) opted to shoot the film using “flashed” cinematography. This technique lets some extra exposure in as the film is being processed. The result washes out the colors and details, puts a smeary haze around the edges, and brightens and softens everything. Basically, it makes the movie excruciating to look at. Have you ever awakened hungover on the deck of a boat in the glaring midday sun? Well Eddie has, kids, and I can testify that that’s how Lucky Lady looks, for two solid hours.

There’s one saving grace note… watching again 35 years later, I was still enchanted for the brief moments when Minnelli put Bessie Smith on the gramophone. Here was the real voice of the 1920s: smoky and defiant, steeped in rueful experience, but joyful, free and bracing as a shot of bootleg gin. When she belts out her timeless lowdown blues, the contrast with the phony, uneasy little movie surrounding her couldn’t be greater.

Cyrus, A Single Man, Life with Father

Small Movies, Big Movie

I watched three movies in the past week, two of them new and one of them 63 years old. The two new ones, Cyrus and A Single Man, have pretty much vanished from my consciousness like breath on a mirror. The old one, Life With Father, is still running through my mind.

Cyrus and A Single Man aren’t much alike, at least superficially. The former is about a lonely slob (John C. Reilly) who finally meets a great woman (Marisa Tomei) at a party, but finds his relationship cockblocked by her clinging, obese, devious 20-year-old son (Jonah Hill). The film sets up this kind of creepy incestuous situation but then chickens out and dribbles away, maybe because the actors did a lot of improvising. It’s also damaged by the fact that you have to spend an hour and a half looking at Reilly and Hill, not the prettiest of specimens, and wondering how the hell a woman like Marisa Tomei got mixed up with them.

The latter is about a professor (Colin Firth) struggling to get over the death of his longtime male companion. He plans to commit suicide, and during his last day on earth, he encounters his old lover and best friend (Julianne Moore) and a flirtatious student (Nicholas Hoult) who wants to get closer to him. Directed by fashion photographer Tom Ford, it’s a meticulously designed GQ photo spread come to life, with the camera lingering endlessly on impossibly beautiful male faces. Firth is great at suggesting the gravitational pull of enormous grief, though, and Moore is funny and inventive as always.

What they do have in common is their scripts. Both keep close to a tight little interpersonal situation, with a troubled protagonist slowly fighting his way to some sort of meaningful connection with others. The dialogue is functional and uninspired, and you’d be hard pressed to remember a single line from either. Both depend on the actors to give them depth and make the audience give a damn about the selfish, closed-off characters.

Life With Father couldn’t be more different. It was based on a play, the longest running non-musical play in Broadway history (still). Set at the turn of the century, it’s a big semi-ironic valentine to the Victorian era, with loud blustering supremely know-it-all Father (William Powell) subtly thwarted at every turn by sweet, not-as-rattlebrained-as-she-seems Mother (Irene Dunne). It was shot in bright Technicolor (though the prints are very bad, since it’s never been restored). The performances are very “big” — this was a hit movie based on a hit play, and the actors sock every line out into the depths of the cavernous movie palaces of the 1940s. The script is a beautiful piece of work, right down to the last line… a funny, clever laugh-with-a-tear-in-it that the entire movie has carefully been setting up.

Life With Father isn’t a good movie, exactly, but it’s like a pyramid or an old ornate bank building: an imposing example of dedication and craftsmanship that isn’t possible anymore. It’s really built. Nobody has the time, money, or theatrical know-how to create something like that anymore, and even if they wanted to, it’s gone way out of style. The movie was made for (and reached) a wide popular audience, so it’s broad and obvious, but the clueless man vs. loving wife stuff that worked in 1947 still works. And the timbre of William Powell’s voice is still ringing in my ears.

Cyrus and A Single Man, like most movies now, are made for fragmented audience segments — in this case a few hundred mumblecore fans, or the gay-friendly NPR-listening art house crowd. You either like them or you’ve never heard of them, but either way their lack of inclusiveness is part of what makes them so worthless. Years of test marketing and focus groups have done this damage, and not just to movies but to politics, literature, education, music… everything. Cyrus doesn’t work and A Single Man does, but either way they’re both tiny movies that will be forgotten in another year or so. Whereas Life With Father, if someone bothers to restore and preserve it, will probably be playing forever.


George Castanza’s Dream Comes True in Cyrus

A couple of years ago, watching Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, I was seriously offended on behalf of Marisa Tomei for her having to participate in some fairly explicit sex scenes. The problem wasn’t Tomei, who looks more devastating than ever in her 40s. The problem was that she was in bed with the last actor on earth who should be seen unclothed (even a little bit): Philip Seymour Hoffman. Though Hoffman was great as always, the physical disconnect between them made it impossible to suspend disbelief… she was acting all turned on by him, and man, that was some acting.

Now, three years later, here is Tomei cast as a “sex angel” to the lumpish, skeevy John C. Reilly in Cyrus. She hasn’t had a relationship in years, the movie would have us believe, but she’s attracted to Reilly. Uh-huh, as my father used to say when something or someone was full of shit. To add insult to injury, Tomei also plays the mother of the spectacularly bloated and unattractive Jonah Hill. The unlikelihood of either of these gentlemen getting anywhere near a woman like Marisa Tomei isn’t the main problem with Cyrus, but it was the one that irritated me the most.

Reilly plays John, a film editor who has been divorced for several years and lives alone in a messy apartment, eating junk food and staring at his computer screen. As with the heroes of so many of today’s slacker movies, whether mumblecore or not, John is a slovenly loser with no looks, physique, hygiene, money or career prospects… and who yet manages to have giddy, happy sex with a hot woman who responds to his sincerity, or basic decency, or something. Cyrus opens with John’s unbelievably non-acrimonious ex-wife Jamie interrupting him in the middle of masturbation; later he meets Tomei while peeing in some bushes. Are these the sorts of moments that bring hot women into a man’s life? Only in the minds of male screenwriters who have spent way too much time staring at their computer screens.

So John and Tomei’s Molly hook up, and things are going great until he meets her son Cyrus. Fat and beady-eyed, Cyrus is an antisocial lout who has an unhealthy Oedipal obsession with his mom and no intention of sharing her with a boyfriend. (Hill, by the way, looks more like the child of Danny DeVito’s Penguin than that of Marisa Tomei, but let it go.) The first third of the movie is standard comedy-of-social-awkwardness as this situation is set up, but as John moves closer, and eventually into Molly’s house, Cyrus begins a passive-aggressive campaign to break up the relationship. For a while, with the handheld camera moving through the bluish darkened rooms of the house, it’s like a horror movie, and you half expect Cyrus to pop out with a knife like Norman Bates. Then for the last third, the movie makes another shift in tone, and goes all soft and sensitive as we see how much Cyrus is hurting, and he and John forge a tentative reconciliation.

This is one shift too many for the audience, whom I felt were ready for something darker and edgier. There are suggestions of an incestuous relationship between Cyrus and Molly — she spends the night in his bed when he’s upset, he uses the bathroom while she’s showering, etc. But these scenes don’t go anywhere, and Molly is ultimately portrayed as a sane, sweet earth mother who has evidently played no part in making her son a borderline psychopath. Like Mildred Pierce, her only sin is loving her child so much that she’s blind to what a monster she’s created. Or hasn’t created. Again, these are screenwriter contrivances — everything that happens in the movie is for an immediate effect and has no grounding in psychological truth.

The performers are left to make the movie work, and it must be said that Reilly almost pulls it off. He’s a very likable actor, maybe because of the glints of suffering in the little raisin eyes set too close together in his doughy face. We’re with him all the way, and when Cyrus begins his campaign of lying and manipulation, we want John to come up with some clever strategies to beat the little bastard at his own game. But although the movie makes a couple of feints in this direction, evidently the writer/directors Mark and Jay Duplass aren’t up to writing a battle of wits. In fact, much of the movie was improvised by the performers, and several scenes have that repetitive, vamping tediousness that improvisation gets when there’s no inspiration behind it.

Catherine Keener fares particularly badly — she has now officially tilted her head, squinted compassionately and laughed unexpectedly in one too many movies. She plays Jamie, the ex who dumped John several years previously, but still hangs around solicitously, trying to get him to socialize and find happiness in a new relationship. Uh-huh. Cyrus is like a loser’s daydream in which he doesn’t have to change a thing about himself: everybody loves him anyway. Even Marisa Tomei.

Flynn at Sea

Probably no actor ever got luckier with a first starring role in the movies than Errol Flynn. At the age of 25, he was given the lead in Captain Blood on the basis of his looks, intense lobbying by some well-connected lady friends, and the fact that the film had no leading man and an imminent start date. At the time, Flynn’s experience amounted to a year of repertory theater in England and minuscule roles in about four B-movies. Raw-boned and gauche, he acquired authority and panache as filming went on, so much so that the first sections of the movie were re-done at the end of the shoot.

But what made Flynn lucky wasn’t just the opportunity. Captain Blood is still the greatest pirate movie ever made — thanks to clever, dynamic direction by Michael Curtiz, a stirring score by Erich Wolfgang Korngold, and a strong cast including villainous brigand Basil Rathbone and 19-year old leading lady Olivia de Havilland. De Havilland had as little experience as Flynn, but as Rathbone wrote almost 30 years later, “a more enchantingly beautiful young girl it would be impossible to imagine.”

A big hit, the movie was nominated for the best picture Oscar (it was beaten by the far inferior sea epic Mutiny on the Bounty) and made Flynn a huge star overnight. More than that, it established a template that Warner Bros. followed, more or less, for the next couple of decades. Flynn made 12 movies with Curtiz, seven with Korngold, three with Rathbone, and eight with De Havilland. But as fate would have it, he made only one more swashbuckling pirate movie for Warners: The Sea Hawk, which debuted 70 years ago today.

Among movie buffs and Flynn fans, The Sea Hawk is highly regarded. There’s a lot to like about it: Flynn, here at the peak of his career, has far more acting authority than he’d had in Captain Blood; Curtiz and Korngold are back with their typically first-rate work; and Warners poured almost $2 million into the production at a time when a movie could gross half that amount and be a hit. In fact, the studio built a huge new soundstage and tank just for this film, as well as two full-scale sailing ships that were moved by hydraulics. The movie also re-purposed huge, vaulting sets and beautiful costumes from the previous year’s Flynn vehicle, The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex.

But as good as it is, The Sea Hawk doesn’t quite make it onto the list of truly magical movies. The cast and crew are in there pitching, and everyone does a professional, workmanlike job. Swords clash, sea shanties are sung, hordes of sailors swarm over the riggings, dark deeds are plotted in castles, galley slaves mount an escape…and yet you don’t particularly care about any of it. The reasons, I suppose, lie in the script and a couple of crucial casting mistakes.

Captain Blood was based on a novel by Rafael Sabatini and had a literary and beautifully structured screenplay by Casey Robinson. The Sea Hawk was ostensibly based on another Sabatini novel, but in fact used only the title. The original screenplay was by Seton I. Miller and in fact had a different title — Sabatini’s was used as audience bait (his name still meant something in 1940) and because, well, it’s a great title.

Miller’s screenplay was rewritten and sharpened by Howard Koch, a fine writer who had an instinct for how to punch up scenes with intelligent, ironic dialogue. Koch had the idea to make the story more timely by turning it into a metaphor for real-life events — England was already at war with Nazi Germany, and in the two years before the U.S. joined them, there was a widespread effort at solidarity and support in Hollywood. Koch’s angle was to turn Phillip of Spain into a Hitler intent on conquering the world, and Queen Elizabeth into a Chamberlain who attempts appeasement and then a Churchill who fights back openly.

Flynn’s character, Geoffrey Thorpe, is a gentlemanly sea captain who turns pirate in order to covertly serve the Queen and her political needs. Thorpe isn’t a great character like Peter Blood, a foppish doctor sold into slavery who becomes a pirate out of outrage and a desire for revenge — Thorpe is more like one of the anonymous G-men from innumerable Warners pictures of the era. While that may have satisfied the politics and censorship demands of 1940, it robs the movie of some fun…these are the cleanest and most morally upright pirates you’ve ever seen. Flynn, who wanted to be a serious actor and resented swashbuckling roles, plays the role in a restrained and almost dignified way, and you wonder why the inevitable haughty wench on board (the Spanish ambassador’s niece) doesn’t see what a great guy he is right away.

The haughty wench is a problem, too. Maureen O’Hara perfected this part in the 40s; it’s too bad she didn’t meet up with Flynn until 1952, when his lifestyle had begun to seriously erode his enthusiasm. Here, the wench is played by Brenda Marshall. Who? Exactly. This movie was Marshall’s big chance, and it must be said that she muffs it. Her acting is wooden and totally conventional, her face a mask of pouting unhappiness that seems more related to her own personality than to the role. Marshall can’t even make you smile at a line like “Uncle, my jewels!” as her bedchamber is invaded by pirates.

Where’s Olivia de Havilland? At the time, she was fighting Warners for respect and better roles, and wanted something more than to be Flynn’s leading lady. She only played with him a couple more times before going on to prestige movies and a couple of Academy Awards. In her old age she seems to have realized, like Ginger Rogers and Myrna Loy, that her romantic partnership onscreen is her greatest claim to immortality. De Havilland and Flynn had a beautiful rapport as actors — his rashness and boldness seem to excite and offend her at the same time, which is quite funny; her gentle sweetness brings out a sensitivity in Flynn that almost seems to surprise him. “I really believe that he was deeply in love with her,” commented their co-star Bette Davis, and the feeling was very evidently mutual.

Marshall and Flynn, in contrast, have zero chemistry. And so you’re left to ponder the rote quality of so many old movie romances: hidden attraction, conflict, cleared-up misunderstandings and declarations of love, separation, longing and heartbreak, reconciliation, kiss, fade-out. The situation isn’t lost on Curtiz, who resorts to director’s tricks to make this non-romance come alive. When the two are parted, he alternates shots of them looking longingly into the distance as Flynn sails away — the movie seems to be shouting “LOOK, THEY’RE IN LOVE WITH EACH OTHER!!!”

The villains aren’t much better. Claude Rains returns from Flynn’s Adventures of Robin Hood, but he has no memorable lines and lets his evil haircut and facial hair do his acting for him. In Captain Blood, Lionel Atwill played basically the same role and gave it dark hints of sexual obsession and sadism (OK, maybe it wasn’t too much of a stretch for him). Rains just coasts here. In Robin Hood, he was beautifully paired with Rathbone, who played the fiery man of action to his sly rascal. Here, the Rathbone role is filled by Henry Daniell, and that’s a pale carbon copy. Flynn’s chemistry with Rathbone was as magical as his rapport with de Havilland — they had the same energy level, and when they hurled challenges and insults at each other, you felt an underlying respect and affection. At some very elevated level, they were playacting, and every scene they shared crackles with exuberant antagonism.

Daniell, on the other hand, apparently was the cold fish he always played, and as an actor he had only one note of sneering superiority. And in fatal contrast to Rathbone, the best fencer in the business, he couldn’t handle a sword. A studio memo from the middle of production reported that “Mr. Daniell is absolutely helpless and his closeup in the duel will be mostly from the elbows up.” As in all Flynn swashbucklers, the climax is supposed to be the big duel to the death, but Daniell seems to barely be in the scene. As with the romance, Curtiz is forced to use director’s tricks to make it come off. Longshots, doubles, heavy shadows, furious cutting. Workmanlike, but unmagical.

Many commentators on The Sea Hawk have also noted the absence of Technicolor, but the movie does have strong black and white photography. This was an economic decision which allowed Warners to re-use battle shots from Captain Blood and a couple of other older epics…It also allows for a nice effect during the movie’s best sequence: a trap laid for Flynn and his men in the jungles of Panama. Sepia gives this sequence a real feeling for the heat of the swamps and the misery that our heroes endure, and it helps break up the movie as well — at more than two hours, it’s rather a long journey. Finally, England is once again purged of treason; the lovers are reunited, the trumpets flare, and the Warners’ shield announces The End. You’re left admiring the craftsmanship that went into mounting this sea epic on a soundstage, but you haven’t ever really sailed away.


Originally published on Edward Copeland on Film.

The White Album


One of the best events in Orlando is “Classic Albums Live.” This is a concert series where they play a single classic rock album all the way through, note for note and word for word. It’s often like meeting an old friend, in that the totally familiar rubs up against the new and strange. Also, no matter what the album, having it performed live opens it up to a third dimension… you kind of walk into the record and poke around in it, making discoveries.

The one I looked forward to most was The White Album, which has always been a favorite record of mine. For one thing, it’s just got a lot of songs, and more Beatles is better, right? Um, right? More to the point, the group was more fragmented personally than at any other time, and the contrasts and dissonances make it an edgy, almost uncomfortable listening experience. One song will assault you, the next will soothe you, over and over. It’s the only record on which the Beatles weren’t trying to be cheery, upbeat lads. Or even a band, in the old sense. The seams are showing.

At the concert itself, the man behind me was offering his friends a garbled, inaccurate version of the album’s history, especially the influence it had on the Tate-LaBianca murders. And indeed Charlie Manson is a presence… not just in Helter Skelter and Piggies, but in the whole gestalt of the record (did I really just use the word gestalt? Sorry….). I was only a kid in 1968, but young as I was I recall the bad vibe of that year — the cities on fire, the assassinations (there seemed to be dozens), the war and the war protests leading the evening news every night. The holiday dinners when my “greatest generation” dad, uncle and grandfather would come back from hunting to rant about the goddamn hippies and their long sissy hair. Thanks, Grandpa — can you pass the plate of doves you just shot?

None of this came back at the concert, though. Time has passed; we have new atrocities on the news, and a new soundtrack for them. At the live concert experience, I just noticed many awesome moments: the guitar solos on While My Guitar Gently Weeps, the shredding vocals on Why Don’t We Do It in the Road?, the haunting beauty of I Will and Julia, the despair of Yer Blues and I’m So Tired, the soured rinkydink of Rocky Raccoon and Honey Pie. The profusion of sounds and styles. Lennon’s brutal honesty and McCartney’s evasive cleverness. The sheer authority of every song, even piddling little nothing songs. It’s like a cathedral, the White Album — but a deserted, haunted cathedral with rats scuttling in the corners. Enter at your own risk.

Random Thoughts on Hamlet

Saturday, we went to see Hamlet at the Orlando Shakespeare Theatre. Nicely staged, some good performances, but as so often with Shakespeare, I found myself listening past the actors to the words.

When you read annotations of WS, you discover that there are layers and layers of lost meaning: puns, allusions, references that are so packed into every line you get dizzy. Yet even without catching half of what he’s saying, he’s still a riveting dramatist because he gets at primal emotional dilemmas: the intersections of love, betrayal, trust, ingratitude, selfishness, idealism, ambition. Even a callow actor like the kid playing Hamlet was able to put across the character’s shrewd intelligence, his confusion and vulnerability, and his impotent rage.

Maybe it’s impossible to fully act Shakespeare, at least a whole play. When you see an actor really connect with the part and put all the meanings across, it’s a thrilling experience. Brando standing on the steps eulogizing Caesar, his passion bursting through his finely chosen ironic words… Basil Rathbone as Tybalt, sneering at Romeo as his challenges go unanswered (he practically mouthes the word “pussy”)… Olivier staring at the camera and forcing you to identify and empathize with Richard’s bitter self-justifications… Howard Keel’s strutting, vain, hilariously overconfident Petruchio realizing he isn’t nearly the badass he thinks he is.

One of the best biographies I’ve ever read is Michael Morrison’s “John Barrymore, Shakespearean Actor.” Using various sources he meticulously recreates Barrymore’s legendary 1922 performance of Hamlet, taking you through the entire play so vividly that you feel you’re sitting in the front row watching it. Miraculous writing. This was the first production to take Shakespeare out of the old declamatory tradition and ground the play in modern psychological meaning. Stylized minimal sets, simple costumes. The operating principle was that this was a brand-new play no one had ever seen.

What people loved most about the performance was that Barrymore played Hamlet as a Prince — noble, proud, charismatic. That aspect was completely missing the other night: the kid played Hamlet more like Adam Lambert having a sustained snit (maybe I’m getting more crochety as I get older).

Yet, listening through to the words, I felt in some ways I was seeing a brand new play, or at least seeing it through new eyes. For the first time, I felt intense compassion for this idealistic, smart but fatally innocent young man reacting a few beats too late to the careless treachery of the older people around him. I know this kid, I thought. I am Hamlet. But I’m also way too much like Polonius for comfort, and I discovered that I have more than a bit of Claudius in me too.

If the purpose of playing is to hold a mirror up to nature, then wow… ouch.


Just re-watched the film of the same name, starring the Beatles back in 65, at the height of Beatlemania.

“We were extras in our own movie,” complained Lennon a few years later, and he wasn’t far wrong. There are long tedious stretches of faux-Indian faux humor featuring Leo McKern, who would have to place high on any list of the world’s most repellent and unfunny comedians. And too often the Beatles just cavort meaninglessly in the snow or the surf or the countryside, as anonymous as stop-motion puppets.

Still in the edges it’s a fresh and relevant movie. The director, Richard Lester, was trying to turn the four of them into modern Marx Brothers, and while he pretty much failed, it’s amazing how close Lennon came to being like Groucho. When he looks at the camera and waggles his eyebrows, he makes the same kind of connection with the audience — the smart guy who isn’t taken in, who knows bullshit when he sees it, who rolls his eyes scornfully at piousness and cliche. Just like Groucho, Lennon cuts through the intervening decades and is right here with us now.

Ringo makes a connection, too — he’s a lovable doofus, and a great camera subject. There’s a musical number where he’s playing drums with a cigarette dangling from his lips, and he’s just effortlessly cool. The movie is built around him and his rings, and despite the corny cutups he comes through with his dignity intact, and the same kind of wry sweetness he had 25 years later guesting on The Simpsons.

George and Paul don’t fare so well. George was 22, and while he too was effortlessly cool, he doesn’t have a lot of personality… and clearly the writers and director couldn’t care less about him. As for Paul, he’s a great artist but his busy Gemini brain always makes him look twitchy, phony and cold on camera. He can’t cross his legs without seeming calculating and manipulative. However, even half a century later, you can almost hear the little girls screaming over his handsome little piggy face.

There are glimpses of swinging London, too, and they remind you that once upon a time, there was art and excitement happening somewhere. Change was in the air, and every one of the songs seems to be announcing it. Every ringing chord seems like a rebuke to this empty age we’re living in now. Help — I need somebody! Not just anybody…

All these years later, I know just what you mean, Johnny.

My Life in Bond Movies


In honor of Quantum of Solace, here’s a short history of my life, measured out in Bond movies.

Goldfinger. Wow, a toy car that has guns and an ejector seat! I am a little kid and nothing could possibly be cooler. Not even robots.

Thunderball. It’s all about the Aston Martin. Even the producers know it, because it makes an appearance in scene one, bizarrely shooting water out of its exhaust pipes. I am seven now and this is cool, cool, cool. But the movie is long, long, and half underwater. I fall asleep.

You Only Live Twice. Takeme takeme takeme! No? Why the hell not? I fume with impotent rage in the backseat of our Chevy Impala as we drive past the theater. Aw Daddy, doncha love your little Eddie?

Dr. No/From Russia With Love. Reissued with Goldfinger. Mom and Dad dump me at the Saturday matinee… undoubtedly to get rid of me for six hours. Excellent plan. It’s a win-win.

OHMSS. Doesn’t have Connery, so who cares? It’s the end of the 60s. We have all the time in the world.

Diamonds are Forever. Connery is back; this is big. Now I’m 13, and my father takes the whole family. But it’s Easter Sunday and I am sitting next to my grandmother, who is also a minister. Awkward. You know something? Dad can be kind of passive aggressive.

Live and Let Die/The Man with the Golden Gun. Watergate, the weary end of Vietnam, cutesy ragtime music on the radio, and Roger Moore as James Bond. Nobody who lived through the 70s will ever be nostalgic about it.

The Spy Who Loved Me. Wow, a submarine Lotus. I’m a jaded teen now, but this is hot. Ditto Barbara Bach in her black dress. Plus I am old enough to drive myself and my friends to the movies. Things are looking up.

Moonraker. I see this on my first big travels alone, in a grimy grindhouse on a drizzly, icy summer day in San Francisco. The audience is 90% homeless and drunk and happy to be indoors, even watching this gawdawful movie.

For Your Eyes Only. Bonding with Sean MacFalls, who I meet working a loading dock and who is as big a fan as I am. Around this time I see Thunderball on TV while stoned and notice how badly made it is.

Octopussy. Roger Moore is assuming the leathery appearance of an old satchel. Sean MacFalls calls the movie an All Time Low. Little do we know that next up will be…

A View to A Kill. I am married now. Rebecca yells rude things at the screen about Roger Moore’s lack of sex appeal. That’s my girl.

The Living Daylights. Tim Dalton is a breath of fresh air. The new Aston Martin has some cool gadgets… The Pretenders song at the end is terrific. Things are looking up again.

License to Kill. I’m a dad now. Can’t be bothered, except to note that Dalton looks shamefaced about being in this crappy movie. The violence is sickening; the sex is non-existent. Oh, right, it’s the Reagan era.

Goldeneye. Six years have passed. We’ve moved to New Jersey. My coworker does a hilarious impression of Tina Turner growling out the title song. She also imitates Connery’s lascivious Bond. I have a pretty big crush on my coworker. But I skip the movie.

Tomorrow’s World is Not Enough and Dies… whatever those Brosnan movies were called. As a martini drinker, I notice Pierce orders them wrong. I realize I am more sophisticated than the man playing James Bond. And that’s just not right.

Die Another Day. It’s cold and rainy outside the theater. Manhattan is a bleak, sad, empty place after 9/11. Tough room… but then, every single man in the audience groans in unison as Halle Berry wades out of the Cuban surf. And we feel better.

Casino Royale. As played by Daniel Craig, James Bond is battered, vulnerable, and at long last a real man. This is the first Bond movie that Rebecca actually likes. Afterwards she asks me to make her a Vesper. Once you’ve tasted it, that’s all you want to drink.


Have you read anything by Studs Terkel? He was the epitome of a Chicago writer — a stogie chomping, whiskey drinking tough guy, with the bullshit detector always on. Looking the hard truth right in the eye without fear and with quiet, steady, understated outrage.

“I never met a picket line or a petition I didn’t like,” he once said. Like the great lyricist E.Y. Harburg, he was a lifelong, unapologetic left-winger, and his politics was driven not by either idealism or grievance, but by intimate knowledge of how real people actually live, and how government policy actually affects them.

And the best, most beautiful thing about Studs was that he went out and talked to those real people, interviewing them with great love and patience until they had given up their “gold,” as he put it… and then he used his own writer’s gifts to edit and shape their words to reveal their eloquence. He once commented that Americans have a natural intelligence and wit, which is true, but it takes a shrewd man to see that, and a great man to put his own gifts in the service of it.

When Studs was 89, about seven years ago, a young journalist went to talk to him — and found him halfway through a cigar at 10 a.m. Studs offered him a glass of scotch because, he said, it was too early for martinis. They talked about the art of turning an interview, with its garbled syntax and false starts, into readable prose. Among other things, Studs said this:

“A guy stopped me once—I did Working, and had all kinds of portraits, and one is the portrait of a waitress, Dolores Dante, she used to work at the Erie Cafe, when it was an expense-account joint. She was great. She talked about the day of a waitress. So one day this guy stops me on the street, and he corners me, on Michigan Boulevard Bridge—you know, people stop me now and then, not celebrity, just me, you know, they know me. He says listen, I want to tell ya—since I read about that woman Dolores in your book Working, I’ll never again talk to a waitress the way I have in the past. I’ll never again. Well that’s pretty good. That means I’ve touched him.”

I love ya, Studs. Rest in peace.