American Experience Fails H.G. & Orson Too

 DATELINE: War of the Worlds

orson  Orson, not H.G.

We can usually count on American Experience documentaries to give us intelligent and insightful looks at history.

Nobody is perfect, and an attempt to look at the 1938 radio broadcast that made young hotshot Orson Welles a household name is disappointing. War of the Worlds probably owed more to the idiocy of audiences and their unsophisticated and non-critical thinking skills.

In some ways, not much has changed when it comes to the public and its media habits. However, radio as the first big democratic source of info learned that it’s not nice to fool people, even on Halloween.

Half-way through the broadcast, executives wanted to stop Welles, but Orson had a head a steam up—and he ignored his producer John Houseman and his writer Howard Koch. He did it his way: and it won him a contract in Hollywood. Houseman thought it was a terrible idea and that Welles never read Wells.

In his own rash dash style, Welles came up with a mimic newsreel approach to the topic, eschewing the real H.G. Wells for his own personality. After all, this was the man who put on Macbeth in Harlem with an all-black cast and set it in 19th century Haiti. He dared convention.

Welles provided a contrite and unbelievable apology next morning. It must rank as the worst performance he ever gave. He hardly could hide his smirk.

As for the documentary of the event, the film uses bad actors, emoting and faking, pretending to be people in 1938 (wearing period clothes in black and white film) who talk unconvincingly about their experience listening to the program. These imbecilic comments were based on real letters.

The technique fails miserably and demeans the entire hour-long episode of American Experience. Five weeks after the broadcast of 1938, the FCC fully exonerated Orson for his folly.

 

X-Ray Milland with X-Ray Vision

DATELINE: See-Through?

Rickles Stares Down Milland Stare down between Rickles & Milland!

One of the first major box-office-poison stars who won an Oscar was also one of the first to go to American International’s low-budget junk division to continue his career when others simply faded away.

Man with X-Ray Eyes is a sight to see.

We think of Ray Milland as a man with an expensive toupee and a weary face.  His career as actor and director fell into the skids after playing the lush DT-suffering alcoholic in the film The Lost Weekend. His Oscar led to a lost career. In this movie, he makes an equally ludicrous choice when he character decides to cheat at cards in a Las Vegas casino.

Milland liked to work, and he was not about to let trashy scripts and bad TV stop him. Here, he plays Xavier, or X-Ray Milland, the savior of mankind gone all wrong.

Milland often transcended much bad material by finding something a cut above:  such was the case with Roger Corman’s delightful X-Man with the X-Ray Eyes.

Oh, it is filmed in lurid, eye-popping color, with boiling hard-boiled eggs standing in for bloody eyeballs in a glass specimen jar.

The film is actually quite modern and quite intelligent, dealing yet again with a researcher (Milland) who uses himself as the guinea pig—despite friend’s (familiar costar Harold J. Stone) objections.

Don Rickles is also around for the cynical laugh part as a carnival barker, perfectly cast as an unlikeable, greedy insulter.

The doctor starts off by seeing through paper folders to read messages or seeing through some clothes to see a missing button. Then, it becomes more sinister and more licentious. Yup, the thrill of voyeurism gives way to seeing bare bones beneath the sexuality.

There is a sense of medical come-uppance in Corman’s morality film that manages to hit on all the sensational aspects but presents them with a sensibility of political rightness. (Our woman doctor colleague demands respect—before the women’s movement in 1963).

You may be surprised that the exploitation elements are actually intriguing issues of ethics. Milland’s performance was regarded as scraping the barnacles off his once-high-toned acting, but in retrospect, he is professional and classy.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Soylent Green Revisited

DATELINE: Ben-Hur Takes on The Rifleman?

soylent

In 1973 came a prophetic movie about greenhouse gas and environmental calamity in the ruse of a murder mystery. Its cast stuns:  Charlton Heston, Edward G. Robinson, Joseph Cotten, Chuck Connors, and a raft of familiar second bananas like Cyril Develanti and Whit Bissell.

Apart from the all-too-soon prediction, suggesting the calamity arose by 2022, the film is prescient. We think it may be the world of New York in 2073 when crowds teem the streets and heat and lack of supply dominate the lifestyle.

Only the rich have soap and beef. When Heston the cop goes investigating, he is awestruck by the luxury.

His roommate (perhaps college professor mentor of years past) is Edward G. Robinson in his final acting role.

Chuck Connors has a wig also as outrageous as that on Heston. You keep wondering why it never fell off during those crowd scenes.

From its opening montage of fossil fuel guzzlers and growing population, the film has several bravura sequences. Reminiscent of Nazi liquidation and final solution, there is a “home” base where people go to die.

Cue up the Tchaikovsky symphony “Pathetique,” used also in Howard Hughes’ movie called The Outlaw.

It remains a highly prized movie by aficionados of the genre, making it the second act of sci-fi flicks for Heston after his epic heroes like Moses and Ben-Hur. This one is less known than Planet of the Apes.

You don’t have to be clairvoyant to figure out the problem with soylent green, the new foodstuff. And, it all seems quaint in the age before computerization. An early computer game is played in 1973, a half-dozen years before the craze caught on.

 

 

 

 

 

So-So-Soviet Solaris

DATELINE:  Solaris (1972, Russian version)

solaris  Breughel painting

The original Andrei Tarkovsky film called Solaris has been hailed by many sci-fi fans as the greatest fiction ever made. This is the Soviet version of 2001: A Space Odyssey, according to many.  It was remade with George Clooney in recent years to great jeers.

This Soviet three-hour epic drama of dreams and memories takes place mostly in a space ship orbiting a mysterious planet called Solaris. There an ocean of living mass can take human minds and create ghosts or hallucinations of flesh and blood to haunt the three cosmonauts.

We must be losing our touch because, though the film deals with quantum physics and string theory decades before they were discovered, the Soviet film is largely a snooze-fest.

Parts of the film are intriguing, and much of it is highly cerebral. However, there is a 90-minute movie lurking among the ponderous and pointless scenes of traffic jams and nature walks.

Made before computers changed the landscape, the film manages to ignore the Kubrick innovations with computers, a film made several years earlier. Both films share an existential crisis or two, and puzzling moments of metaphysics, if that’s your thing.

One might laugh at the notion of shooting thousands of books into outer space nowadays. The payload must have been a killer. There is quite a library aboard the Russian spaceship.

Our favorite scene must be the three-minute sequence that lingers silently on one of our favorite paintings by Breughel, ‘Hunters in the Snow’, which hangs in the Soviet ship as some kind of commentary on the difficulty of survival. We have a copy in our library and ponder it now and then.

The payoff of the film is hardly Twilight Zone worthy and may not satisfy the previous exposition. Yet, maybe you are among those who will see this as a great movie. We, alas, are standing in the other line, waiting for Godot.