Saturday, October 22, 2016

The Thirteenth Guest (1932)

Ginger between the police captain and the private eye.

Ginger Rogers made two films for Monogram when she was 21. Monogram was a "Poverty Row" studio, far removed from Warner Brothers, let alone Louis B. Mayer's blue chip MGM. Later they would make horse operas starring John Wayne, and other cowboy actors. But in 1932, they did A Shriek in the Night and The Thirteenth Guest, both starring Ginger Rogers.

A Shriek in the Night

It is said some people are useful as bad examples. A Shriek in the Night is useful to illustrate why  bad pictures are bad. That makes us more appreciative of good pictures. As entertainment, A Shriek in the Night is unwatchable. The writing is obvious, the dialogue leaden, the timing does not hit even by accident, and the acting is painfully bad.

Actor A speaks. (Tap foot in head.) Actor B speaks. (Tap foot in head.) Actor A replies. It is about as far from the snappy dialogue of a Cary Grant screwball comedy as you can get. Even Ginger cannot escape the grasp of its miserable direction and talentless co-actors.

It is hard to imagine how someone could make this movie and not see everything that was wrong with it. There is literally nothing right with it. MGM's head producer Irving Thalberg would have probably fed the director to MGM mascot Leo the lion. You might be able to do a sort of Mystery Science Theater 3000 with it.

The Thirteenth Guest (Spoilers)

The Thirteenth Guest, on the other hand, is not completely awful. Spoilers follow, but plot points should not come as a surprise to most viewers. It begins with Ginger - looking quite fetching in her smart hat and badger (?) fur stole - entering a house that has been abandoned since a banquet at which twelve guests were present. Or maybe thirteen. Ginger finds it odd that there would be a working phone installed. She is immediately electrocuted when she uses it,

The police - a blow-hard captain and a dimwit detective (comic relief, but mainly just annoying) - enlist the help of a smooth private eye who - annoyingly - finds everything amusing (Lyle Talbot). They find Ginger's corpse sitting upright, hands on the table, eyes fixed in front of her. (Talbot had a long career as a B movie actor, with Plan 9 From Outer Space probably his most famous movie.)

Ginger leads the credits, so it doesn't take much to figure that she's coming back. ("Zombie Ginger!") And so she does, with little time wasted. She is not really a zombie, though. A woman had used plastic surgery to look like her, which, fortunately, got her killed instead of the real Ginger.

As an example of bad directing, there is a scene where Ginger and two other people have a discussion. Ginger is positioned front and center, back to the camera as she says her lines. The studio is paying for her face, not the back of her head! There is no score; another unnecessary expense.

Well, they didn't call it Poverty Row for nothing. Talent was at a premium in Hollywood, and Warner Brothers, Columbia, Paramount, or MGM were always on the lookout for good writers, actors and directors. Film footage cost money, too, and re-takes were probably frowned upon.

After keeping the guests of the long-ago banquet overnight in jail, the captain turns them loose, and puts a tail on each of them the next morning. The dimwitted detective follows a cheerfully hateful woman.

Even this early in her career, Ginger sparks the production, and is already mastering her trademark half-lidded, sidelong glance. The plot is ridiculously convoluted and sketchy. Apparently, the entire family - then present at the banquet - hated one another. Daddy had arranged for circumstances that would demonstrate to his daughter that her kith and kin were untrustworthy, if not murderous.

However, someone else has their own plan. It turns out the creepiest looking guy was the one who was lurking behind the walls, electrocuting everyone with the telephone. This required him to throw an enormous switch, like you might find used for motion picture lighting. Ginger is dragged into the dark lair by the hooded and robed killer. She is rescued at the last moment by the private eye and the police. This scene is not bad, with the use of shadows for dramatic effect. In fact, much of the film is shot darkly, in a sort of pre-noir way.

The Bear does not understand the mystery at all, surely yet another failure of what is, after all, a murder mystery. Near the end, the dimwitted police detective sees everyone staring at his shoes, which he has on the wrong feet. He looks chastened, then says, "well, you told me to tail her." Yuk it up. July 1, 1934 ushered in the era of the Hays Code - enforced.

Friday, October 21, 2016

I Cried When Pope Paul VI Died

Blessed Pope Paul VI
When Pope Paul VI died, the Bear and his bride Red Death were virtually walking out the door to head cross-country for a second assignment to Defense Language Institute for the Arabic Egyptian dialect course. Watching the coverage on the Bear's adoptive parents' television, we both teared up.

We knew next to nothing about the man. It never occurred to us to wonder whether he was a good pope or a bad pope. All we knew was that he was the Pope. He was a reserved father figure; a symbol of our identity as Roman Catholics. To be Catholic was to hang a picture of the pope on your wall, probably next to a picture of JFK, as in Red Death's childhood home.

Perhaps if we had been paying more attention, we might have picked up on the controversy over Humanae Vitae. But neither of us had so much of a whiff of anything like that, let alone the intricacies of the second Vatican council.

The Bear cannot help but look upon those days of blessed ignorance with nostalgia. Now, as passengers in the Barque of Peter, the Captain is on the bridge barking commands to rock and knock us between bulkheads, pursuing a punishing zig-zag course as if to dodge torpedoes of orthodoxy.

One can hardly help forming opinions about Francis and what he says. He possesses an overexposure Kim Kardashian can only dream of. No remote father figure he. Francis is more like a carping mother: constantly, constantly criticizing and exhorting. He will not let us alone. He lacks the wisdom to understand why this is bad. That doesn't matter, though, because he lacks the discipline to step out of the spotlight and let the Church proceed upon her stately course. Somehow, Francis has convinced himself it needs every single idea that enters his head to correct course and ensure safe passage.

The Bear has said it before: Francis sees himself not so much as Pope than as Prophet. He is the third source of revelation, along with Holy Scripture and Tradition. Unlike the prophets of old, however, his message is not one of sin and repentance, but worldly opinions and accommodation in the name of mercy.

One day, the world will learn, if there was ever any doubt in anyone's mind but Francis', that the Church can get along without Pope Francis. On the Vatican website, instead of his latest confounding homily, will be the umbraculum of the sede vacante Holy See without a pope.

The Bear doubts anyone in his family will cry for him.

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

An Astonishing Gift

A Wonderful Surprise

A long-time reader has gifted the Bear with an astonishing example of generosity that he would like to share. It is a First Class Relic of St. Maurus, with the accompanying 1959 (if the Bear remembers his Roman numerals) bull attesting to its authenticity, and suitability for both private and public veneration. The Bear knows this must have been terribly hard to part with.

St. Maurus was born in 510, and died in 584. He was educated by St. Benedict, and was the very first Benedictine Oblate. (The Bear and his wife are oblates, which makes the gift extra special.) He was sent to France in 543 to found the order, and served as abbot. He was known as a miracle worker.

The gift will be treasured and honored. It has already been introduced to our boys, and installed on our home shrine. We say we believe in the communion of the saints, but like most things we say, it is sometimes good to actually think about them.

Communion of the Saints

Certainly, St. Maurus is before God, interceding for us. His relic is like the terminus of a wire into Heaven, where he is. All the saints are. But it is also true that Catholics are linked in a common body. Sometimes my wife, or my daughter, and I, will make a phone call to the other at the very same time. We always say "communion of the saints!" when these "coincidences" occur. Sometimes, more seriously, we feel pain in another member. Sometimes we help a brother or sister, and even seem to know just what to do.

The Bear knows how deeply wounded so many of you are by the patent errors of this pontificate. He knows he certainly is. It can be very discouraging to dwell on the crisis in the Church. Sometimes even a Bear needs to take a little break. After 1200 articles in three years, you know it will not be for long. Soon he will be back on his unicycle, juggling copies of Amorous Laetitia while catching salmon in his teeth. He can't do a blessed thing about our mutual misery, except shed a little light, and  maybe make you smile.

There are worse things.

You know, none of us - us ephemerists - asked for this job. None of us enjoys it. (Although the Bear certainly hopes you enjoy most of his writing.) None of us wanted to dislike Francis, and none of us are comfortable in the prophetic role.

And yet here we are. We run real spiritual risks. We are driven - or at least the Bear is - by a belief that it is a good in itself to speak the truth, and no one, least of all the Catholic Church, should fear the truth. There is no doubt about the truth, right? Any institution that need fear the truth is in big trouble.

Sometimes the Bear suffers from spiritual shell shock and retreats into 30s Warner Brothers films. A little USO.

"Thank You" is Inadequate

The following is not (this time) asking for salmon. Every time the Bear gets a donation, maybe $10; maybe more, the value of the encouragement is greater than the money. Every time a new person comments, the Bear feels he has connected with another friend. It sounds corny to say these connections are what keeps him going, but it's true.

The Bear's readers are unusually generous. (They are also the best commenters in Catholic Blogdom. The Bear is very proud of that. If you want to know what kind of ephemeris you are looking at, check out the comments.)

An astonishing gift like this tells this disreputable old show Bear that something else is going on. A First Class Relic does not come into one's care without reason. "Thank you," seems not only inadequate, but does not completely recognize the very real, gritty, connection between Catholics who are having a conversation that goes: "Here, you need this;" and "Yes, I do, very much." When you're out of ammo and your buddy hands you fresh magazines, you don't say "thank you," as if it were a present.

I am probably not saying what I mean to say. For once I am at a loss in putting words to my meaning. I am certainly grateful, and suppose I should just say "thank you."  At the risk of complicating things, however, maybe something of what I'm trying to say that is more will come through.

The Bear needed a spiritual kidney. He found a donor without even looking.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Gold Diggers of 1933 (1933)

Ginger in steampunk mail armor from a game
5 out of 5 Fresh Salmon for Gold Diggers of 1933. A conventional plot is enriched by surprising social commentary about the depression's forgotten men. Busby Berkeley numbers that range from the demented to a surprising finale that is gritty, full of heart, and genuinely moving.

PROGRAMMING NOTE: Very soon, articles like this, as well as my official author blog for Judging Angels and other fiction (?!) will have a different home. SCB will be about Church matters, and a new blog will be for everything else the Bear writes about.

Gold Diggers of 1933 was made at the very same time (or immediately after, according to Ruby Keeler) as 42nd Street. In fact 1933 was a busy year for the dog we last saw being held by Monocle Ginger, a.k.a. "Anytime Annie." Guy Kibbe plays the same portly, comic rich guy whose head can still be turned by a pretty girl, and Dick Powell the same boyishly good-looking juvenile crooner. Both films star Ruby Keeler. Here, Warren William is Powell's controlling older brother.

A lot was going on in 1933. It is remarkable to recall that the Warner Brothers had only ushered in the talkie in 1927. The technology had to be refined and theaters wired for sound. Clearly films like 42nd Street and Gold Diggers of 1933 were already making full use of sound a mere six years after its introduction. Risk-taking studio heads like Harry and Jack Warner were overcoming a skeptical public, and industry experts who predicted talkies would never catch on.

1933 was the year of RKO's King Kong. (Ginger Rogers was considered for Faye Wray's role. Fred Astaire was probably the better partner.) The 30's was a decade of explosive creativity, and bigger-than-life personalities: both in front of and behind the camera.

The film opens with the well-known song, "We're in the Money," sung by Ginger Rogers wearing what is less a costume than a contraption, literally made of money. Then, as the camera dollies in until her face mercilessly fills the screen, she doesn't so much as blink as she delivers the same lines in pig Latin!

Ironically, the rehearsal ends with the show being closed down because the producer doesn't have any money. New Deal optimism is not putting money in people's pockets. Ginger is seldom seen after that, even though she remains one of the gold diggers. They are four now-unemployed actresses. Ruby Keeler, Joan Blondell, Aline MacMahon, and Ginger.

Howard Hughes and Ginger Rogers

In a life-imitates-art coincidence, Ginger is seen as Howard
Ginger & Howard 1933
Hughes' date on the red carpet of 42nd Street's opening. Despite Hughes' notoriety for sleeping with actresses, 1940 would find the pair engaged. Hughes employed elaborate methods to keep his affairs secret from the other women, but Ginger was informed about 16-year-old Faith Domergue.

Ginger angrily threw all the jewelry Hughes had given her into a sack. Then she drove to the hospital where Hughes was recovering from a head injury sustained in an auto crash, and shoved it all into the pit of his stomach.

Ginger also had reservations about Hughes' mental illness, and believed he would try to control her life. Perhaps the weirdness was enhanced by his purchase of property next to the "H" in the Hollywood sign, on which he intended to build a castle for his bride. (It's still for sale, by the way, if you have an extra $300 million or so.)

The Gold Diggers of 1933

A young man across from the four girls' apartment - Dick Powell - is playing a song he composed. It is heard by the producer, who loves the music. The producer (Ned Sparks) wants to make a tribute to the "forgotten man" of the depression, and believes the kid has the talent. In exchange for a leading role for Ruby Keeler, Powell makes the improbable promise to finance the production.

In a familiar trope, the lead is incapacitated, and Dick Powell has to step in at the last minute. Of course, the show is a hit. It blows his cover, however, and brings in his older brother (Warner William) and family lawyer (Guy Kibbe) to save the family from scandal. Particularly from marrying a showgirl.

Taking advantage of mistaken identities, the three girls - minus Ginger, who remains a mostly unseen, circling menace, like a shark - play an elaborate scheme with older brother and the family lawyer. By the end, Aline MacMahon has wound up with Guy Kibbe's family lawyer (The Monopoly Banker from 42nd Street). Joan Blondell gets the older brother. And, of course, Ruby Keeler weds Dick Powell. 

Depression Era audiences must have enjoyed watching the jobless, but plucky gals put one over on the rich stiffs. The Busby Berkeley numbers are technically impressive, one involving electrically-lit violins carrying the added thrill of potential immolation. However, it is really the bookend numbers of the film that you'll remember. Ginger gives a fearless performance of "We're In the Money," and Joan Blondell sings over the massive production number, "Remember My Forgotten Man," at the end. 

Remember My Forgotten Man

The final number does indeed embody Sparks' producer character's vision of the forgotten men of the Depression, "marching, marching!" The Busby Berkeley number is not in the least hokey, but surprisingly affecting. WWI soldiers are remembered, too, despite the end of the Great War being well over a decade in the past. It is a surprise to see a choreographer known for fluff and titillation to create real social commentary. It is far removed from the bizarre number "Pettin' the the Park," which includes a mischievous dwarf (Billy Barty) dressed as a baby.

150 extras were used in Busby Berkeley's unusual and powerful finishing number,
"Remember My Forgotten Man."

Of course, Berkeley's numbers are impossible fantasies as theater productions. One has only to see one of his trademark overhead camera numbers with a kaleidoscope of legs. They are cinematic visualizations of stage productions. But here we get a glimpse behind the scenes as the soldiers are marching with the aid of a treadmill. It plays with our perception by flipping us back into theater mode. It is suddenly more real, and grittier. At another place, a cop is telling a bum to move along, and a woman grabs the "bum's" lapel to thrust a medal in the cop's face. 

The previous year, there had been a march by veterans, known as "The Bonus March." Tens of thousands of veterans and supporters gathered in Washington D.C. to demand payment of "bonus certificates" that were not due until 1945. (Ironically, the year the Second World War would end.) There was gunfire from police, and one of the marchers was killed. In "Remember My Forgotten Man" Blondell transcends herself, and Berkeley unexpectedly demonstrates the subversive potential for elaborate musical productions in popular film. These are sore issues he is giving expression to.

"We're in the Money," as the very beginning of the show no doubt generated some hoots and sardonic chuckles from depression era audiences. They were not in the money. The "Forgotten Man" number at the end no doubt left few dry eyes. The film is not escapism at all, but a conventional musical comedy that socks the audience at the end with gritty realism in the service of social issues by none other than Busby Berkeley. The film recognizes the reality the audience has stepped out of for a short time, and to which they will still be returning. It is brilliant.

Pettin' in the Park & Shadow Waltz

Billy Barty, Founded "Little
People of America" 1957
"Pettin' the Park," on the other hand, is pure fluff. Aside from the naughty baby scampering about like a monkey,  a sudden shower has its predictable pre-Code effect in the chorus girls' wardrobe. The the audience is treated to a silhouette strip tease. When the girls come out, they are wearing ridiculous metal outfits that stymie the boys. Enter the baby with a can opener, which is immediately put to use. Make of that what you will.

"The Shadow Waltz" features chorus girls pretending to play violins with neon-lit instruments and bows. The number includes the trademark Berkeley overhead camera. The Long Beach Earthquake struck during filming, playing havoc with some of the neon props, and blacking out the lights. Berkeley was nearly thrown from a camera boom, and some of the actresses were caught 30 feet up on a totally dark set. 130 people died in the earthquake, but none on the set.

Pre-Code Silhouette strip tease from "Pettin' in the Park"


Perhaps in no other film is - what shall we say... Busby Berkeley's excess creativity? - more on display than in Gold Diggers of 1933. "We're In the Money" is almost a self-parody, if Berkeley could be parodied. He turns a conventional story into social commentary. Powell is always likable as the juvenile. All of the "gold diggers" pull their weight. Aline MacMahon is funny as "Trixie,;" Joan Blondell is great as "Carol," the singer (and puts her soul into "Remember My Forgotten Man"); and Ruby Keeler is likable as the young actress vaulted into the lead. For whatever reason, Ginger is not much used after the memorable beginning, but singing "We're In the Money" in skimpy chainmail armor made of coins - in pig Latin, no less - should be enough for any actress.

This was another hit for Warner Brothers and its relatively new asset of Busby Berkeley. It remains as entertaining, and moving today as it did on opening night in 1933. Funny, though. Might not one fairly call the girls "gold diggers" after all? It started as a game of mistaken identities, but ended in three actresses getting married to three rich men, one of whom - Guy Kibbe's portly, comic lawyer - seems to have little to offer other than his money.

Gold Diggers of 1933 indeed.