Black Camel: Chuck Chan in 1931!

DATELINE: Lost Gem

actor legends

 Lugosi with Oland.

One of the first of the Warner Oland Charlie Chan movies is a beautifully restored print from 1931. It has other surprises too. It was filmed on location in Charlie Chan’s home base of Honolulu and uses the scenery to great effect. It is cryptically called The Black Camel.

Fresh off the horror of the year, Dracula, you have two cast members in fine fettle:  Dwight Frye and Bela Lugosi. They play a respective butler and a questionable psychic, all too willing to help Chan.

Lugosi and Frye were scheduled to make James Whale’s Frankenstein after this picture, but when Whale saw this, he thought Bela Lugosi would be too scary for the monster. The part went to Karloff instead.

The film does not hide some white tourist prejudice, compounded because the detective is both Chinese and a policeman. And, the cast of extras includes many Hawaiians.

The dark metaphor of the Black Camel has something to do with kneeling Death coming a-calling. It is one of many little aphorisms that Charlie Chan spouts dryly.

Instead of an irritating older son, this film features an inept young assistant to Chan. We do see Charlie’s family at a large dinner table in one scene, but the cheap sets and low budget formula would come in the next few films.

Warner Oland is masterful, as always, and it is quite a mangled English that we hear from both Oland and Lugosi in their conversations, that are quite witty and delightful.

There are a half-dozen quite credible suspects, and they are indeed all gathered in the drawing room (and dining room) for the big reveal.

This wonderful early mystery is a surprise and delight on every level.

 

 

 

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Windy Conditions for Orson Welles

DATELINE: Citizen Kane’s Bookend

Orson's Last

It’s disorienting to see a new movie that is 35-years old with stars long dead: John Huston, Mercedes McCambridge, Edmond O’Brien, Paul Stewart, and all the usual Orson Welles friends. He also included new discoveries in his films like Bob Random and Rich Little. Orson called it The Other Side of the Wind.

The movie is a mockumentary of a movie made on the last day of the life of a legendary film director named Jack Hannaford.

Huston is Hannaford, playing God again, or the devil to Welles as observed by Susan Strasberg (daughter of James Dean’s acting tutor Lee Strasberg) as she plays a carbon copy of film maven Pauline Kael.

As the insider look at Hollywood develops, those in the know will begin to recognize that Johnny Dale is Jimmy Dean, and that the director appears to be a combo of Nick Ray and George Stevens, the men behind the films Rebel Without a Cause and Giant.

Indeed, two of Dean’s co-stars have roles in the film: Dennis Hopper and Mercedes McCambridge. Our money is on Nick Ray—whose ambiguous sexual relationship with stars seems to be at the heart of the Welles picture. He is giving us the ultimate insider look.

Welles never used nudity in his films until this final movie: he plays to the times, psychedelic sex, which now seems dated. The film made by Johnny Dale is sandwiched within and around the life of Hannaford who dies in Dale’s Porsche Spyder, a copy of Dean’s death car.

All the usual Orson touches and themes are present: betrayal of people, rather than principle. There are no principles in Hollywood. He also has a field day ridiculing all those New Wave European directors.

Movie magic is everywhere because Welles could do so much with so little—and scenes seem seamless, even if shot with body doubles three years later.

Critics claimed he never wanted to finish the picture because it was his raison d’etre. It was also his Swan Song and his testament to Hollywood. It’s brilliant and fascinating with every step of the much-sought divine accident that Welles believed essential to film inspiration. Highly recommended.

Valentino’s The Black Eagle

 DATELINE: Surprisingly Fun Silent

 Valentino Yes, Valentino!

You may well think that we’ve lost what’s left of our wits when we chose to watch a silent movie that is not The Artist of a few years back.

No, we picked one of the lesser well-known works of Rudolph Valentino: it’s called The Eagle, based on an old Russian novel by Pushkin. For those unfamiliar with Russian classics, it’s a Robin Hood tale about a wayward young officer who runs afoul of Czarina Catherine when he rebuffs her advances.

Taking to the hills, the young man becomes an outlaw bent on vengeance for loss of his family estate. It all becomes complicated when he falls for the beautiful daughter of his enemy. All this is done with aplomb and humor, sumptuous sets and delightful underplaying.

Valentino does not dance a tango here, but a minuet. And, the director is one of the greats of Hollywood, Clarence Brown who is best known for The Yearling, twenty years later. He was an actors’ director, especially good with child stars.

Brown could always coax great performances, and Valentino is a surprise with a comedic touch. The ridiculous legend does not do him justice. And, Vilma Banky is the swanky belle with the odd name. She too is perfection. Minor roles, like the Czarina and the chaperone of Vilma, are older women with deft touches in their acting.

A silent of this kind of movie might have failed had we heard Valentino’s accent and voice, but what a shame that we never had the chance.

If a silent film comes your way, this may be the one to sample.

 

 

 

 

Good/Bad &/or Ugly

DATELINE: Leone’s 50-Year Old Masterpiece

Ugly or Bad? Ugly or Bad?

Apart from the title being incorrectly punctuated, the Sergio Leone classic western cannot be judged by any normal standard of movie-making.

It is singular, both hilarious and horse opera bouffe. The Good, the Bad and the Ugly is amazing, now restored and digitally remastered. It never looked better. It is 3 hours of utter charm.

The film starred Clint Eastwood, but he was outshone in every moment by Eli Wallach’s Tuco the Rat. It is a performance that comes once in a lifetime of great acting. It is so over-the-top and looney that it works as perfection. There is some question as to which is the Ugly one. In trailers, it is Lee Van Cleef, and in the movie the word is placed over Wallach’s image.

Scenes are historically inaccurate, overlong, and seem to be in some fantasy world that is not the real west. It does not matter one whit.

If the scenes were not epic enough (Tuco in a bubble bath with guns) or Lee Van Cleef’s Angel Eyes shooting kids, you do have Clint’s nameless character with a nickname of “Blondie,” which Eli Wallach seems to relish.

Scene-stealing should be added to the list of crimes that Tuco commits (the litany includes murder, rape, and cheating at cards).

We have not even touched on the iconic music that dots every panorama and desert viewpoint. The plot has something to do with three mercenaries with no morality and ethics seeking a gold treasure in someone’s grave.

The climax may be the longest stand-off shoot-out in the history of movies with three gunslingers facing off for six minutes.

There may well be deep messages conveyed here, but all that is secondary to the delight and mirth of showing the American Civil War as a dirty business. Indeed, all the major actors have flies on them.  We do learn how Clint took that iconic serape off a dying young blond man who looks like a younger version of him.

This film is a thing of beauty and a joy forever.

Casey & AC at the Bat: Managers in World Series

DATELINE: Field of Dreams at Fenway Again

casey Casey, not AC?

If you were to ask, we doubt we’d have said we would return to watching the Red Sox again. Our last blog on them was several years ago, but it is the World Series in Boston, again.

If you were to ask if writing about the managers might be a possibility,we might shrug. However, we realized that two former Sox players were now in back in Boston as managers:  Yes, there was an aging star Dave Roberts, now with the Dodgers, and his counterpart Alex Cora.

Might we say there is Magic in the Moonlight at Fenway? Well, only because we saw Magic Johnson there in the stands, as an executive braintrust with the Los Angeles baseball team. Wasn’t he part of the Bird-Magic story in Boston?

No, wait, we were thinking of Moonlight Graham playing in Field of Dreams when Kevin Costner was sitting in the stands with James Earl Jones who played Terence Mann, the writer who wanted to play with these same Dodgers.

No, we were shocked to see Alex Cora, or AC as his players call him in the modern familiarity with supervisors and managers. He was running a talent-laden team that had replaced the previous manager for not winning a World Series.

When AC pulled the hot rookie Devers and replaced him with a pitch hitter named Nunez, we were more in marvel at the assortment of beards on the players. Yet, suddenly, AC became a genius before a national audience.

The last time we saw that it was someone in another era by the name of Casey Stengel. He managed the New York Yankees, another talent-laden team that kept winning. Stengel would pick a pinch-hitter out of a hat who would win the game.

Suddenly there was AC channeling Casey. How appropriate, if not poetic. AC picked the man to win the game with a homer to the Monster Seats. It was a ghost movie for baseball once again.

 

 

 

Coffee Date: Tea for Two

DATELINE: Two Lumps?

check please  Check Please.

You have here a comedy of manners about the hellish life of a man whom everyone presumes is gay. This includes his mother and brother, and sundry supporting characters in the tale entitled Coffee Date.

You have here the classic misunderstanding and crossed identity.

Jonathan Bray certainly is an actor one might presume is gay. We know that his costar, Wilson Cruz, is a well-known gay actor who specializes in playing gay characters anywhere called upon. Here, he is a well-heeled owner of a beauty salon—and an excellent catch for anyone looking for a boyfriend.

Bray grows increasingly indignant and strident that no one will listen to his shrill protests too much and too often that he is straight (including to his ex-wife who insists she had nothing to do with his apparent conversion therapy).

Shirley Kirkland (coproducer and playing the smother) becomes increasingly unsympathetic. Bray’s slob brother (Jonathan Silverman fallen onto hard times) sets him up with an Internet date with unknown sex identity named “Kelly.”  Silverman’s role grows more and more unbelievable.

NO pictures are exchanged on a truly blind online date, as if to heighten the preposterous nature of the film. When Bray meets Cruz, it is amusingly homophobic, but shrill as it continues.

There is some subtext about how a friendship can occur between a straight man and an adoring gay one. If the audience accepts the premise, you have low-brow Oscar Wilde and the importance of being earnest if not disingenuous.

A plethora of cheesy gay films has hit the streaming lists, leading one to wonder how and why they are made: usually about teenagers and first gay love & death. We are spared that tripe here.

We have steered clear of those irksome tales and sampled more mature characters in search of a purpose. This trifle boasts more staying power than most. It is more than tolerable. However, as per usual, we give our caution…

View at your own risk.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

DNA Politics

DATELINE: Not Pocahontas

Pocahontas? Apologies Required?

Nothing can be more dangerous than the latest wave of people and their push to learn about their “roots.”

Roots was a television event in the 1970s that sparked a furor among black American youth who were shocked at the depiction of their past. Many said they had no idea.

Now, we have Sen. Elizabeth Warren, goaded by Trump insults, trying to prove she has Native American blood. It appears, begrudgingly, she may have 1/1000th segment of Indian DNA. That’s about ten generations back—from the 1600s.

She provided no names of these people, no family trees, no paperwork to indicate the actual, physical evidence.

We did our own Ancestry and 23&Me skidoo tests last year, and we discovered that we had 0.02% Native American blood. Who knew? We immediately went to family trees—and started pulling on the genetic strings.

Sure enough, we traced back those with shared DNA whom we did not know, never heard of, and will never meet, to learn that Massasoit was in the mix.

That’s no ordinary run-of-the-mill Indian, but the man for whom Massachusetts is named! How likely is that? We questioned the tree and who falls out when you shake it up. We call this phenomenon “Sitting Bull.”

We also learned we were related to Plymouth/Mayflower names like John Alden and Priscilla Mullens, who were the subjects of a Longfellow poem called “The Courtship of Miles Standish.” Another Pocahontas moment for the family.

We were reminded that movies have been all over the subject of DNA for years. Back in the 1940s, there was a movie called Pinky, about a white girl who learned she was an octoroon. No, that’s not a cookie, but means you had distant black ancestors.

In 1960, Audrey Hepburn appeared in a movie called The Unforgiven, in which she played a girl raised as Audie Murphy’s sister, who was a stolen Indian baby. Her racist family was shocked, but she looked just like the non-Native Americans playing the Indians in the movie.

The Nazis in Germany were big on sniffing out who had Jewish ancestors—and liquidating them. Family trees were the way to root out the condition, as there was no DNA back then.

Mr. Trump should be aware that he could be related to Hitler himself, based on his behavior, and that he may be 1/2000th of a relative to Genghis Khan.

Time for another DNA test.

 

 

 

 

The Man Who Murdered Sherlock?

 DATELINE:  Well, Attempted Murder…

 Watson, We Have a Problem Watson, We Have a Problem!

 

Well, you have a trollish documentary here: The Man Who Murdered Sherlock Holmes turns out to be a misnomer, if not a distortion of logic. It’s elementary to point out this is a headline grabber, not a fact.

Actually, the man attempted murder—and had regrets about it. That man is, as everyone knows, the author Arthur Conan Doyle, who was a doctor in the vein of Watson.

This presentation tries to make a mountain out of a molehill of money. If Doyle chose not to ultimately murder his creation, the fictional detective, the motive was cash. Doyle was offered more moolah than Moriarty had in his crime network.

The film tries to do a hatchet psychology profile on the author, suggesting he had deep-rooted emotional problems: and he took it out on his punching bag, Sherlock.

We all have heard that Dr. Joseph Bell was the model for Sherlock—that medical professor that Doyle studied with. However, this film hints there was a second model for Sherlock, far more nefarious.

It sounds like they film producers can’t tell Moriarty from Mycroft. Dr. Bryan Waller was the other role model: an arrogant and brilliant man who called himself a “Consulting Pathologist.”  Now you’re cooking.

 

Waller was not someone Doyle liked. It seems he was Doyle’s mother’s lover! Yikes. No wonder she loved Sherlock and was dismayed when Conan Doyle killed him off in 1891.

Waller and Mother Doyle were neighbors on his estate where he set her up in a cottage. Now this is the kind of sleazy detail we love to report. TMZ clearly fell down on the job of reporting this.

However, the false charges against the author seem trumped up at best. There never was murder, only mysterious death that was explained years later when Sherlock showed up to collect his royalties.

Of the spate of Holmes documentaries, this one still managed to bemuse us and hold us rapt, no matter what its shortcomings.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Lindsay Graham: “I’m not gay!” with Qualification

DATELINE: The Lady Doth Protest Too Much

Graham Demonstrates Technique It’s All in the Wrist!

Not two weeks after we postulated that Trump is blackmailing Senator Lindsay Graham for his support, Mr. Graham, the Cracker from Carolina, the recently emboldened supporter of Bone Spurs Trump, protested weakly,  “As far as it matters, I’m not gay.”

Whatever does that mean?

Let us try to clarify: in a nutshell, what it means, “As far as it does not matter, I am gay.”

That is Republican-speak for “I am in the closet, and don’t try to drag me out.” It also means he is worried that Trump will out him.

Graham may not be actively pursuing his interests or engaged in any relationship right now. That means it as far as it matters. We cannot imagine a threesome of Rudi Guiliani in drag, Bone Spurs Trump, and Graham Cracker. Well, we don’t like to picture it.

He is not marching in gay pride parades, beating a drum at the Stonewall, or supporting gay legislation, as far as it matters. We have seen Republicans in the past who were exposed for the same stance, or worse, or is that less?

What is Lindsay Graham so nervous about? Well, how about them voters in his home state? He also shared his view that calling someone gay, or outing them, is “belittling people” and he does not think it “funny as it used to be.”

As they say in England, don’t laugh at the Queen.

TMZ is not known for its frivolous exposes. Nor is the National Enquirer. They are sites that reveal sordid and salacious details that some want kept in the closet. Like Lindsay Graham.

Calling Graham gay is like beating a dead horse. Outing Lindsay Graham is like putting jimmies on your ice cream cone. You still have to do the licking.

 

 

 

 

Hope Diamond: 45 Carats & Down-graded

 DATELINE: Hopeless but Not Serious

Your Best Friend? Cold Ice!

The Smithsonian Channel ought to give us some interesting stuff to view. We anticipated that the Mystery of the Hope Diamond might be that bauble of historical documentaries. Instead, they try to debunk their own information.

Ostentatious beyond all blue diamonds, yet still mysteriously cut down after it was stolen in 1792, the Hope Diamond remains a big draw.  And that is despite its legendary curse.

Blue diamonds are considered the least happy for those who want a date with carbon facets. This one, purportedly, served as the eye of an Hindu goddess unceremoniously snatched by a thief.

Yes, like King Tut’s tomb, the Hope Diamond gives its owners a run for their lives, and their money. It cost Marie Antoinette her head as she so admired it.

There are gaps in its history—long disappearances—as we do not know who cut the diamond down to its present 45-carat size. It once weighed in at 70 big carats.

And we can’t say that fool who pared it down was toast soon thereafter. We presume so, based on this pedestrian documentary astutely narrated by Kim Basinger.

Of all the intriguing details that pop out of this 46-minute featurette, it is that in the 1960s, scientists discovered that ultra-violet light has a weird effect on the diamond:  causing it to glow in the dark like a red ember.

Size does not fit all curses: speculators think size makes the red shine last longer than most diamonds sitting in the dark after basking in ultra-violet light. Who knows when it comes to cursed stones?

The curse may take longer than six months to hit the owner, but when it does, look out. It’s a tough nut for sure, about the size of a cheap walnut.

Right now, the crown jewel of diamonds is housed in a bullet-proof and bomb-proof case at the Smithsonian, donated there by Harry Winston because you can’t get a good price for the damn thing on the market.

The Hope Diamond is named after a greedy banker named  Hope, not Bob, one of its cursed 19th century holders. It now is on display and has as many visitors as Mona Lisa every year. Look, but don’t own up to it.

The film falls on its own lightweight when it tries to prove the curse of the diamond is fake news. Their expert insists only old people (already apparently facing death) have expired upon owning it. This undercuts their own information about the young family members who were collateral deaths from ties to the diamond.

This diamond is nobody’s best friend.

Mid-Trip Crisis

DATELINE: Coogan & Brydon in Italy

Italian job

The Trip to Italy is the middle piece of the trilogy of mockumentaries by Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon. The Trip to Italy is directed by Michael Winterbottom again, and he condenses the film to the best bon mots uttered during the two-week business holiday.

These minor British TV stars are on the verge of making it big in American movies, and they are thrown together for another series of adventures by the media. They are temperamental actors who seem not to enjoy each other’s company.

However, they are amusing together. It’s said that Abbot and Costello were not friends but were a business association. So, it is here. This is the business of growing older with wit and aplomb.

The conceit of the journey is to visit great Italian restaurants and trace the expatriates Byron and Shelley along the way.

Coogan and Brydon compete over everything, especially to show which one has more talent and is more successful. They do imitations of Hugh Grant, Roger Moore, Michael Caine, and Sean Connery, over dinners to die for in exotic coastal Italian tourist spots.

Not much is sacred here in their barbs, not even the dead at Pompeii.

You may not be used to intelligent conversation like this. You certainly wonder how they could not enjoy their mid-life crises while living La Dolce Vita.

Not everything is fun, as there is a downbeat inner core to the cavorting. They might die happy in one of these spots, but we doubt it. They sabotage their own trip, their friendship, and seem to have a grand time of indifference, their personal existential crises.

We are happy to have a chance to be a fly on the walls of their discontent.

 

The Outrageous Sophie Tucker

DATELINE: Red Hot Mama!

Sophie & Tallulahwith Tallulah!

Without Sophie Tucker, you would never have her descendants in music and entertainment. She was the originator of the styles of Bette Midler, Barbra Streisand, Lady Gaga, and Mae West too.

She preceded them by decades. She first burst on the scene in 1903, and the loving documentary on her called The Outrageous Sophie Tucker was directed and written by people who never knew her personally. Yet, she left many people thunderstruck—and she knew them all in show biz from Jolson, Cantor, to Garland and Sinatra.

Sophie was the first and last of the Red Hot Mamas. She could do jazz renditions like Bessie Smith, leaving many black people to think she had soul. She was a Jewish girl from Hartford, daughter of immigrants who ran a kosher restaurant.

She ran through three husbands in short order, but also dominated three media—radio, television, and music recordings. Movies were a cameo away.

A full-figured girl, she made her size of zaftig a marketing bonanza. She could do self-deprecating humor with Berle, Durante, or Bob Hope. Sophie also believed that simply being friendly to fans was the best marketing gimmick in the world: she spent hours sending off notes and going out to dinner with local dignitaries on all her tours.

She told soldiers during World War II to write to her—like a mother figure she was, and she answered.

She was friends with Al Capone—and J. Edgar Hoover. Indeed, Hoover and Clyde Tolson came out to her. He asked for one of her sequin dresses—and she joked with him “You’ll never get into it.” She later swore off men—and had a series of female companions; perhaps platonic, perhaps not.

If you don’t know Sophie Tucker (she died in 1966) after a career spanning seven decades, you might want to spend 90 minutes reprising her life in this wonderful documentary.

 

 

 

 

Hollywood: In the Beginning

 DATELINE: James Mason & Kevin Brownlow

intolerance

Intolerance Anyone?

To find the 1979 Kevin Brownlow documentary series on the origins of Hollywood is a treat. With the stirring music of Carl Davis, adapted to so many styles over the episodes, you have Brownlow’s research to find many lost clips and footage. The limited series was called simply Hollywood.

Of course, for us, the best part of the series was the narrative voice of James Mason, lending a kind of grandeur to the proceedings.

The first episode, In the Beginning, does indeed have a Biblical echo. After all, film pioneer D.W. Griffith’s epics, like Intolerance, put Hollywood on the map.

The story begins with gangsters in New York and New Jersey disrupting independent filmmakers around 1903. These producers and studios were under constant threats as the Edison company wanted exclusivity.

This led to many film producers to look for a place far from the East Coast unions and controls. It took them to California, to a spot outside Los Angeles, where orange groves dominated the mountain backdrop.

They could find every conceivable film set location within a few miles: from snowy mountains, to deserts, to mountains, to oceans.

In addition, movies required sunshine, as most films were made outdoors (even indoor sets) with open roof for light. Since Los Angeles had over 300+ days of sunshine every year, they had found nirvana.

Within a few years, the world knew the streets of Hollywood from movie settings. It became more enhanced when movie star mansions became the Newport of a new aristocracy. Pickfair was the West Coast Buckingham Palace with Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks as the ersatz American royalty.

If you want to see how the United States and its silent film industry took over the world of film art, you have Kevin Brownlow and David Gill to thank for this insightful series.

Other episodes looked at morals clauses in the budding business, stuntmen, Westerns, and comedians like Chaplin and Keaton and Arbuckle. If you love movies, Hollywood is the best series on its advent.

God, Man, & Drunks @ Yale

 DATELINE: Patriotic Republicans in Youth

 march of time news

The cold-heart of the GOP and National Review founder was author of a conservative book that became a bible of sorts. William F. Buckley, Jr., went to Yale, just like Brett Kavanagh, though a generation earlier.

It would appear that Yale prepared young Republicans by having them indulge in binge drinking to the point of belligerence. It may be why so many of these young political hacks went into politics, via public service.

Law seemed a good choice after a privileged life of undergraduate misfeasance. Having taught at a college of privileged young and rich for many years, we saw first-hand the problems they swept under the rug.

Now they are a middle-aged generation of deadbeats who have either run their family business into the ground or become high -ranking members of our American government.

They thought nothing of using women as sex toys, passed around their social circles. We could tell hair-raising stories of their violence and anti-intellectualism at Yale or other standby private colleges for the privileged few.

Let’s all stand for the National Anthem, deadbeats. Why, isn’t that friend in a bar fight with Kavanagh the man who ran for governor of Oregon in 2010 as a Republican? He doesn’t remember much from his drunken undergraduate days either. Chris Dudley is a patriot, even with a drunken violent past he shared with Kavanagh.

Nor does he want to talk to the FBI. If they don’t remember their blotto nights out, we doubt they learned much in the classroom except how to cheat their way through. You might say Kavanagh and Dudley minored in AA and Gamblers Anonymous, while charter members of the college Republicans.

Pardon us for our cynicism. We watched this generation of low-life (as their President might say) up close and know of what we observed.