Wednesday, December 21, 2011

LOCKED UP

locked up
by Douglas Messerli

Julius J. Epstein and Philip G. Epstein (screenplay, based on the play by Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman), William Keighley (director) The Man Who Came to Dinner / 1942

Every year at Christmas time at our home we watch The Man Who Came to Dinner, the wonderful comedy by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart. Even though this film takes place at Christmas, however, the movie has very little to do with the holiday, and is almost as far removed from the happiness of the season as it could be.

    In fact, this time viewing the film I was struck at just how removed this comedy is from any joy. Although it often howlingly funny, underneath, it is more of dark comedy akin to Buñuel's  The Exterminating Angel than it is to the family farce of this play righting pair, You Can't Take It with You! The movie is so popular that I need not, I hope, repeat the plot. Although the film is filled with numerous plot complications, it actually has only one major event, repeated at the film's end: Sheridan Whiteside (inspired by Alexander Woolcott) comes to Medalia, Ohio, presumably to give a lecture, but falls on the ice-filled stoop of the Stanley family's home, whereupon a local doctor declares that he must be wheel-chair bound until he heals some days later.

     Although extremely popular in the media, having a weekly radio show, Whiteside (wonderfully played by Monte Woolley in large, campy gestures) is a tyrant who puts his own welfare over concerns for anyone else; so monstrous is his surface behavior that it is almost impossible to imagine how a sweet woman like Maggie Cutler (played against type by Bette Davis) can stand to be in his employ. As she, herself, comments: "You know, Sheridan, you have one great advantage over everyone else in the world. You've never had to meet Sheridan Whiteside." The poor Stanley family, Ernest, Daisy and their two children (the parents acted by Billie Burke and Grant Mitchell) are horrified by the situation, as Whiteside threatens to sue them, and insists upon taking over their library, living room, and front entrance, while they are assigned a back stairs and confined to their own bedrooms.

     In short, the Stanley family is locked away in their own house, just as Whiteside is locked up in a small hick town which he has not even wanted to visit ('I simply will not sit down to dinner with midwestern barbarians. I think too highly of my digestive system.") The house, in fact, has become a kind of penitentiary, reiterated by the behavior of the completely flustered Nurse Preen (Mary Wickes) and the Stanley children, who, each for their own reasons desire to leave home, the daughter being in love with a union agitator whom her businessman father detests, and the would-be photographer son desiring new scenes and subjects for his art.

      The theme of imprisonment is played out again and again in this work. Whiteside, it is suggested, is fascinated by criminal activity, and invites several inmates from a nearby penitentiary for lunch—much to the horror, of course, of the locked-away Stanleys. Throughout the movie, Whiteside is sent presents—penguins, an octopus, and a mummy case—the first two contained in crates while the latter is itself a kind of coffin.

     Meanwhile, Maggie becomes involved with the local editor of the town newspaper, the affable Bertram H. Jefferson (Richard Travis), and for the first time after years of exciting travel, suddenly seeks to settle down into this small town and marry, another kind of imprisonment—at least to Whiteside's way of thinking. Jefferson has also written "the great American play," which helps Whiteside lure Lorraine Sheldon (Ann Sheridan) from vacationing in Florida to Ohio, hoping she will bollix up Maggie's plans. By the end of the film, having caused a series of disastrous situations, he must also lock away Lorraine and ship her off in a plane.

     Finally, the Stanley home has itself another kind of prisoner, Harriet, an aunt who, as a young woman, killed—like Lizzie Borden—her mother and father. She is also imprisoned in the family secrecy of her past.

     When the penguins escape their crate, they are quickly rounded up and impounded once more by the doctor and nurse. When the children both bolt the home, Ernest Stanley quickly tracks them and returns them home. Suddenly one can comprehend, perhaps, Harriet's childhood actions, and may help explain her strange behavior.

     Only two people, it appears, can come and go at will, but both these, like Sheridan Whiteside, are so self-centered that they cannot escape themselves. Carlton Beverly (based on Noël Coward, performed by Reginald Gardiner) drops by to see Whiteside, but talks of hardly anyone but himself:

 I have very little time, and so the conversation will entirely be about me and I shall love it.

Banjo (inspired by Harpo Marx, wonderfully played by Jimmy Durante) can barely sit still for more than a moment, "Did you ever have the feeling that you wanted to go, and still have the feeling that you wanted to stay," imitating the "I must be going" phrase of Groucho in Animal Crackers. Both visitors conspire to help Maggie to escape Whiteside's grasp so that she might enter matrimonial bonds.

     Even the two servants, cook and butler, hoping to escape the Stanley household by taking up service in Whiteside's home, remain locked away, as Whiteside, finally leaving the Stanley mansion, once again falls on the ice. Like the figures in The Exterminating Angel, no one in this work can leave his self-imposed entrapment.

     With such a marvelous cast, however, who cares? Even though director William Keighley has done little to transfer this stage-bound work into film, we might wish to watch these poor trapped beings play out their destinies again and again.


Los Angeles, December 18, 2011
Reprinted from American Cultural Treastures (December 2011).

Saturday, December 3, 2011

BORN AGAIN
















born again
by Douglas Messerli

George Seaton (screenplay, based on a story by Valentine Davies), George Seaton (director) Miracle on 34th Street / 1947

 I’ll begin by admitting that I absolutely enjoy George Seaton’s and Valentine Davies’ holiday fantasy, Miracle on 34th Street. I have probably watched this film every year of my adult life on Thanksgiving day or during the Christmas season, and I get delight just imagining that I might have been able witness the premiere of this film as a 6-month old baby. 

    This year, watching it just before Thanksgiving dinner, however, I had a different, more contrarian view of the holiday chestnut, listed in the National Film Registry.

    Let me start by saying the obvious, a cliché spouted each year by thousands of religious Americans, particularly, one imagines, by those who describe themselves as “born again:” the Christmas season has increasingly become commercialized, and most Americans have lost the sense of the holiday’s true focus, the birth of Christ.

     Admittedly, I am not among those religious or “born again” Americans, but even I was appalled when the Christmas shopping season, it was announced, would began this year not on the Friday morning after Thanksgiving, but at midnight. A local radio station began 24 hour programming of Christmas carols (most of them centered on the holiday festivities instead of the child in Bethlehem) two weeks ago!

     Generally recognized as the emblem of that pagan, commercialized Christmas is Santa Claus, the jolly, fat Dutch gift-giving Sinterklaas. You remember him, the one about whom your parents lied, leading you on to believe that he was the source of all of those lovely Christmas presents beneath the tree until you grew old to appreciate the loving care they had been secretly showing you for all those years? As I have written elsewhere, I came to that realization, almost miraculously one morning, at a far younger age than most of my peers; it didn’t bother me one little bit that there wasn’t any Santa Claus and that my parents had been so nice to me for all those years. But my revelation of that fact to a school friend, sent her off crying into her mother’s arms. I was told that I must never reveal the truth to anyone my age or younger. But even older children, I realized, might not like to hear my discovery.

     Seaton’s work, however, begins almost at the opposite end of the equation. The young girl at the center of this story, Susan Walker (Natalie Wood), has been told by her level-headed mother, Doris (Maureen O’Hara) that there is no Santa Claus, without any noticeable effect in the child’s demeanor. Mrs. Walker, who works at Macy’s, coordinating the all-important Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, is apparently a strong-headed and practical woman, who has, one imagines, tried to remove almost all fantasy and myth from her young daughter’s life. She has told that there are no giants, and the girl is discouraged from reading “fairy tales.” Obviously, the mother has been hurt by what she perceives as the fantasies of her married life. One wonders how she has dealt with Christian myths, including the child born in a stable. But fortunately, for the survival of the film, Seaton has skirted that issue and, indeed, all issues having to deal with the real season’s purpose.

    The film begins with a seemingly pernickety old man scolding a young window dresser for putting the reindeer in the wrong places in relation to his store’s depiction of Santa and sleigh. The man, Kris Kringel (the marvelous Edmund Gwenn), we soon discover, is very particular when it comes to all things about Santa. After all he believes he is Kris Kringel, Santa. It is, as the doctor to the nursing home where Kris lives later assures us, a quite harmless delusion, one that only leads him to do good. But everything is soon made much more complicated when Kris accidentally encounters, during the early moments of the Macy parade, that the man hired to play Santa Claus—the traditional star of the event (even today, as I watched the parade, the bands, floats, balloons, and other theater and vaudeville events, the parade culminated with Santa’s arrival)—is absolutely soused! Reporting the man’s condition to Mrs. Walker, Kris seems a natural to replace the drunk Santa. After all, he even looks like a well-trimmed and tailored Santa. It is almost inevitable that Mrs. Walker should invite him to portray Santa, since, he declares, he has certainly had experience.

     Meanwhile, Doris’ daughter, Susan is watching the parade from a neighbor’s window, from what we might presume is a Central Park West apartment. Today we might worry about the fact that she is watching this with an adult male, Fred Gailey (John Payne)—although we have been reassured by the Walker’s maid that she has been keeping an eye on the girl—who occupies an apartment across the way. The Santa Claus, declares Susan, is quite convincing, far better than the one of the year before. Gailey is a bit troubled by her mature dismissal of Santa, as well as giants, but is not beyond encouraging her to invite him to dinner in the Walker home. Mr. Gailey may be a happy man (the old fashioned meaning of “gay”), but he is represented as bit disturbing in his forward behavior. His “move” on the daughter, clearly, is also a move on her somewhat cynical mother. Nonetheless, he is invited to dinner.

     Kris, meanwhile, not only looks the part of the perfect Santa, but is quickly hired by Macy’s to become their Department Store Santa. Kris is delighted to be able to return to his rightful place, and everyone seems happy with his “acting,” until it is discovered that he has been telling some parents to purchase their children’s gifts at competing stores—even Gimbels. The scene where Thelma Ritter (in one of her first film roles) stops to thank the floor manager for their unusual new policy, where they put the spirit of Christmas, so it appears, before their own financial gain, is one of the most delightful of the film.

       Such radical behavior is, expectedly, met with horror, until both the floor manager, Julian Shellhammer (Philip Tongue) and Mrs. Walker, summoned to Mr. Macy’s office, are surprised to discover that their boss loves the idea, realizing that it will result in even more gift-paying customers. In another assault on the Walker family, Gailey encourages Susan to wait in line to see Santa, before dropping her off to her mother’s office. The girl is skeptical, until she hears Kris speak and sing to a young Dutch orphan in her original language. Doris’s response is predictable: “Susan, I speak French, but that doesn’t make me Joan of Arc.”

      To back her up, Doris summons their Santa, encouraging him to tell Susan that he is not really Santa Claus, but when he insists that he is, she demands his file, wherein she discovers that he goes under the name of Kris Kringel and declares his birthplace as the North Pole. A visit to the store psychologist is ordered for Kris, who passes all the tests with great aplomb, yet raising the ire of the psychologist, Granville Sawyer (Porter Hall) who throughout the interview pulls at his eyebrows (a trait shared by his secretary), by suggesting that something may be problematic in his home life. In retaliation, Sawyer suggests that Kris may have a latent hostility that could break out at any time. A call to the doctor who heads the Long Island nursing home where Kris has been living, brings reassurances from Dr. Pierce (James Seay), who also suggests it may be easier if Kris can find a place to stay nearer to the store in Manhattan. Before you can say Kris Kringel, Gailey has invited the old man to share his bedroom, further insinuating his being into the Walker’s life.

      As the old gent speaks to Susan, he is saddened to learn that she does not believe in his existence and that she has been spurned by her playmates for being unable to imagine herself as an animal. “But I am not an animal,” she declares, after which he patiently teaches her how to pretend to be a monkey. It is clear that he has taken on the Walkers as a kind of test case:

 …Christmas isn’t just a day, it’s a frame of mind…and that’s what’s
 been changing. That’s why I’m glad I’m here, maybe I can do
 something about it.

 Kris even repeats the sentiments I stated earlier in this essay, disparaging the commercialism of the holiday—a strange thing for that emblem of the commercial to do; but it is clear the director and writer want to both ways.

     Soon after Kris discovers that a beloved young janitor, Alfred (Alvin Greenman) has also been seeing the mean-spirited Sawyer, who suggests that Alfred has psychological problems simply for wanting to play Santa Claus at his neighborhood YMCA. Furious with the abuse of this good-hearted boy, Kris charges into Sawyer’s office, accusing him of malpractice and hitting him over the head with his cane. The violence Sawyer has predicted has, alas, become reality, and Kris is sent to Bellvue Psychiatric Hospital for evaluation, believing that Mrs. Walker has been behind the decision.

     Despairing of the lack of faith she has shown, Kris purposely fails the psychiatric examination, and is destined to be locked away. Almost everyone knows the rest of the story, how Gailey takes on Kris’s case, fighting to convince a disbelieving world and court that Kris Kringel is truly Santa Claus. Even Mrs. Walker and her daughter come round to support his cause.

      The case is miraculously won due, in part, to the political exigencies of court. As the Pol Charles Halloran (William Frawley) puts it to Judge Henry X. Harper (Gene Lockhart):


All right, you go back and tell them that the New York State
Supreme Court rules there’s no Santa Claus. It’s all over the papers.
The kids read it and they don’t hang up their stockiings. Now what
happens to all the toys that are supposed to be in those stockings.
Nobody buys them. The toy manufactures are going to like that; so
they have to lay off a lot of their employees, union employees. Now
you got the CIO and AF of L against you and they’re going to
adore you for it and they’re going to say it with votes. Oh, and the
department stores are going to love you too and the Christmas card
makers and the candy companies. Ho ho, Henry, you’re going to be
an awful popular fella. And what about the Salvation Army? Why,
they got a Santa Claus on every corner, and they’re taking a fortune.

So much for Kringel’s dismay for the commercialism of Christmas! Perhaps no clearer statement of the relationship of the fat, jolly, fellow and money has ever been made. Harper’s children even hate him, and Gailey calls the young son of District Attorney Thomas Mara to testify that his father has told, assuredly, that there is a Santa Claus.

     Even more cynical are the US Postal employees, tired of all the unclaimed mail addressed to Santa Claus, who win the day for Gailey and Kris Kringel by forwarding dozens of sacks of letters to the courthouse, providing the Judge with an easy way out:


Uh, since the United States Government declares this man to be
Santa Claus, this court will not dispute it. Case dismissed.


So, insists Seaton’s film, Santa Claus, despite all evidence to the contrary, is alive and well. Yet Seaton and the original author go even further, demanding of even the adult characters and viewers their utter belief in the commercial emblem. When asked what she might like for Christmas, Susan pulls out an advertisement for a suburban Long Island home. Even Kris Kringel is a bit stunned by her demand, when he suggests, “…Don’t you see, dear? Some children wish for things they couldn’t possibly use like real locomotives or B-29.s.” Her retort is the stubborn insistence of any spoiled consumer:

 If you’re really Santa Claus, you can get it for me. And if you can’t,
 you’re only a nice man with a white beard like mother said.

     The filmmakers hardly pause to take in the significance of what the child has just said, before Kris has sent the three traveling along a route that winds by the house of her dreams. Upon glimpsing it, Susan demands they stop and runs into the home as if she already owned it. How can Mr. Gailey and Mrs. Walker resist such a consumer dream, even if it means giving up their perfectly nice apartments, overlooking the parade route, and now probably worth millions of dollars? They will simply have to marry, move to the suburbs, and build on the little family with which they have begun. The discovery of Kris’s cane left near the fireplace convinces them surely—as “born again” Christian’s zealous rediscovery of Christ—of Santa Claus’ existence, just as the audience is bathed with consumer assurances that this is, in fact, the perfect house.

     Perhaps never in the whole of Hollywood productions was there a more central pitching of consumer products. Even movies with thousands of “product placements” cannot match, Nathalie Wood’s answer to Kris’ question of where she had found the lovely sweater she is wearing: “My mother got on sale it at Macy’s.”

     During an ad between events of this year’s Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, Macy’s proudly quoted that line among other cinematic mentions of the august department store.

     As Susan chants to herself: “I believe…I believe…it’s silly, but I believe.”


Los Angeles, Thanksgiving 2011

Monday, May 16, 2011

ANYTHING FOR LOVE




ANYTHING FOR LOVE
by Douglas Messerli

Frank Pierson (screenplay, based on an article by P. F. Kluge and Thomas Moore), Sidney Lument (director) Dog Day Afternoon / 1975

Sidney Lument's death this month, on April 9th, sent me back to review his 1975 film, Dog Day Afternoon, a work I remember with great fondness.

For the first half of the film, however, it appears that Dog Day Afternoon might be weighted down with the thematic concerns that are so dominant in his oeuvre, focusing on the moral, political, and social issues as in works such as The Pawnbroker, A View from the Bridge, Serpico, and The Verdict. These films are all admirable, and are well-directed. But for my taste there is something almost lugubrious about many of them, as they slowly uncoil, revealing their characters' moral fibre and the social conditions which define them. In some respects, many of Lument's works never seem to be completely transformed from stage plays into cinematic creations, although that is precisely what I love about his Long Day's Journey into Night.

Dog Day Afternooon begins simply as a badly bungled bank robbery, with one young participant abandoning his cohorts even before the two central robbers, Sonny Wortzik (Al Pacino*) and Sal (eerily played by John Cazale) can notify the manager and tellers what they are undertaking. When they do demand to be taken to the vault, they discover that there is no money, it having just been picked up for deposit elsewhere.

The only takings that Pacino has for all his trouble are the teller's drawers, which he carefully empties, making sure that he does not pull all the bills out at once so that he will not trigger an alarm. When offered, by one teller, the wrapped new bills, he refuses, noting that they are marked. Yet for all his carefulness, he is soon called to the phone, where a policeman wants to talk to him, the bank having been already surrounded.

Suddenly we perceive the absurdity of the whole event. The inept robbers are now forced into a standoff with what appears to be, as Sonny later announces, "the fucking militia." Indeed, there are so many policeman, setting up camp across the street, blocking off cars, swarming the roof and the back of the building, and hanging from fire escapes that one would think they were responding to an international terrorist threat. Even though he is now forced to take the tellers and manager as captives, as he himself proclaims: "I'm a Catholic, I don't want to hurt anybody." Even the dense-minded Sal insists he doesn't smoke because "the body's the temple of the Lord."

Before long a large crowd has developed, and the movie appears that it will shift into a work dealing with police brutality, particularly when, on one of his sidewalk discussions with the police coordinator, Det. Sgt. Eugene Moretti (Charles Durning), Sonny invokes the Attica prison riots of 1971, when, after days of negotiations, police killed and caused the deaths of over 39 prisoners. Pacino, brilliantly over-the-top, whips up the crowd for his cause—and assured safety:

Tell them to put their guns down! Put the fucking guns down!
Put 'em down! Put the fucking guns down! Put those guns down!
Attica! Attica! You got it, man! You got it, man! You got it, man!
You got it! You got it! (pointing to different individuals in the crowd
as they should ATTICA! ATTICA!)

Moreover, when Lument briefly inserts scenes showing Sonny's mother (hilariously played by theater director Judith Malina) and his overweight, beleaguered, and not very bright wife, we begin to fear that the film may attempt a psychological explanation for his acts.
But even early on, we suspect that the story has something important yet to reveal, particularly when, after being lied to by the Moretti, the two have the following interchange:

SONNY: Kiss me.
MORETTI: What?
SONNY: Kiss me. When I'm being fucked, I like to get kissed a lot.

Everything soon shifts, in a delicious twist of reality, when we discover the wife Sonny has asked for the police to bring to him is another man, Leon Shemer (Chris Sarandon), and the reason for the bank robbery is Sonny's attempt to get enough money for Leon's sex-change.

Even stranger, it is not Sonny demanding the sex-change, who seems to be perfectly in love with Leon as two gay men, but the psychiatrist's idea:

LEON: I couldn't explain why I did the things I did. So I went
to this psychiatrist who explained to me I was a woman
in a man's body. So Sonny right away wanted to get me
money for a sex change operation: but where was he to get
that? 2500 dollars! My God, he's in hock up to his ears
already.

Before long the gays have joined the crowds surrounding the absurd standoff, Sonny becoming a kind of ridiculous folk hero in an era in which police were hated for their abuse. And Lument has sent his film on a loony and, quite frankly, bravely outspoken path where I am sure some members of the original audience had not been prepared to go. One must remember that the only major American film that had seriously and openly dealt with homosexuality was William Friedkin's The Boys in the Band of 1970, a film so based on gay stereotypes that, even after I had served for a few nights as an usher during its New York run, Howard and I, along with other members of the newly formed gay liberation group at the University, picketed the film outside the Madison, Wisconsin theater where it was shown.

Lument was not only taking on the issue of homosexuality in Dog Day Afternoon, but transgender sexuality, and, even more complicated, the subject of bisexuality, since Sonny was also heterosexually married with two children! Yet Lument allows this subject to be treated seriously, by including the scene where Sonny dictates a will, leaving most of his money to Leon, with only a small amount going to his legal wife.

Even though he is, as he admits, "a fuck-up" and "an outcast," Sonny is also a caring and loving man. As he admits to Sal, "I got all these pressures!" and, at another point, "I got to have all the ideas!"

And strangely and absurdly, he takes those ideas to their logical extension, planning to use the hostages to get an airplane traveling, of all places, to Algeria! When asked to what country he might like to go, Sal replies, "Wyoming." We know, accordingly, that there can now be no turning back, and there will be no way of returning to whatever they might define as normality for these poor, sweet outcasts. The only element of the plot still unrevealed is whether the two will be brutally murdered or simply arrested.

Both happens, as the limousine driver pulls out a gun and shoots Sal, the police arresting Sonny.
In real life, John Wojtowicz served 14 years in prison for the attempted robbery. The $7,500 he received for the movie rights went to his lover, Ernest Aron, for the sex change. Aron became Elizabeth Eden, dying of AIDS-related pneumonia in 1987. Wojtowicz died of cancer on January 2, 2006.

Los Angeles, Easter 2011

________
* I might note that there is a wonderful irony in Pacino's performance, for which he was nominated for Best Actor by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts. In real life, Wojtowicz and his co-conspirator Salvatore Naturile had seen The Godfather, in which Pacino also played, earlier in the day and planned their robbery based on events in the film. John Cazale performed alongside Pacino in The Godfather as Fredo.

THE COMPANY WAY




THE COMPANY WAY
by Douglas Messerli

Abe Burrows, Jack Weinstock, and Willie Gilbert (book, based on the book by Shepherd Mead), Frank Loesser (music and lyrics) How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying / New York, Al Hirschfeld Theater, 2011 / the performance I attended was a matinee on May 7, 2011

I will admit to a certain sentimental attachment to the American Musical Theater, although I feel, given the quality of the musicals for which I care, there is no reason for apology. Most of my friends who cannot comprehend my love of this genre have perhaps never seen a musical comedy before 1970, when the genre, as far as I'm concerned, almost died. The handful of good musicals since that time have been so few (most of them composed by Stephen Sondheim) that one might almost say that the form has died out. Today, except for revivals, musical comedy is for audiences who like songs consisting of three memorable notes, repeated through chorus upon chorus of driveling lyrics sung at very high decibels. But then, we do, from time to time, have wonderful revivals of the older works of this genre that remind us of what the musical theater was all about.

How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying
, the 1961 New York Drama Critics and Pulitzer Prize-winning gem by Frank Loesser, was not, I am afraid, one of the "wonderful revivals." I do not mean to suggest that it was not worth attending, for, at moments, this version was absolutely delightful, but overall it simply couldn't live up the standards of the original and the movie version.

I have never before sat in an audience with so many first-time theater-goers, mostly teenage girls and their slightly stunned families in tow. The girl next to me was celebrating her sixteenth birthday and "just had see" Daniel Radcliffe, this revival's star attraction, "in the flesh." In some senses the freshness of the fans was a treat. And Radcliffe, a trouper already at age 22, was not about to disappoint them.

Radcliffe, who I suspect has by this time quite settled into his performance, was better by far than the critics led audiences to believe. Although, as the New York Times suggested he is not a natural "song and dance man" (I am not quite sure what that means, and when I think of such figures I can only conjure up Robert Preston and Robert Morse, the original J. Pierrepont Finch, neither of them great singers or even able dancers!), he can now belt out a tuneful song and, with the help of the able chorus, jump, leap, and hoof it across the stage quite ably. Once and a while you can still see him grimace a bit, as if muttering deep within, "I'm gonna be great!" And, at moments, he is! If nothing else you have to recognize that Radcliffe is giving his all, which unfortunately, if you have seen Robert Morse in the role—I saw only the movie version, but listened to the original cast recording so many hundreds of times in my youth that the old wax stereo recording is all scratches and scapes—is just not enough.

Oddly, given the fact that he has now been nominated for a Tony for a supporting role (while Radcliffe was ignored), John Larroquette seemed far less engaged in the piece, speeding through his lines at times as if he were trying to catch a plane, and other times performing on cruise control. When Larroquette "woke up" once or twice in his role as J. B. Biggley, as he did in "Grand Old Ivy," he was quite charming, with both him and Radcliffe performing brilliantly. Unfortunately, director/choeographer Rob Ashford could not leave a good thing alone, bringing a whole chorus of football players to dance along, wiping away one the few enchanting character encounters.

Most of the other cast members are quite excellent, particularly Ellen Harvey as Biggley's executive secretary, Miss Jones, Mary Faber as Smitty, and, although a little young for the role, Rose Hemingway (at 27 she seems more a neophyte than Radcliffe). Christopher Hanke makes the nasty Bud Frump almost likeable. And, although her humor switched on and off at times, Tammy Blanchard is basically an hilarious Hedy LaRue.

Perhaps the most serious problem about this revival is that, despite its obvious satirical intentions, the work seems extraordinarily outdated and unnecessarily coy today. For those who have never seen the musical, I'll briefly relay the plot: window washer J. Pierrepont Finch, enters the executive suites of the World Wide Wicket Corporation in search of a job, armed with a little book that promises immediate success, How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying. Within minutes he has literally bumped into the president of company, J. B. Biggley, encountered a woman, Rosemary Pilkington, who falls in love with him at first sight, and captures a job in the mailing room by transforming the unpleasant encounter with Biggley into what the employment head interprets as a friendship.

Finch is highly likeable, even charming, but he is without a single moral principle in his desire to rise up the corporate ladder, and within hours, so it seems, he shifts into the positions of a junior executive, advertising manager, and, even after a disastrous failure, is elected Chairman of the Board, all before you can say, ROSEMARY, the woman with whom, along the way, he has reluctantly fallen in love.

Biggley's nincompoop nephew, Budd Frump, tries his best throughout to trip up Finch, as the other executives, terrified by Ponty's swift rise in the company and fearing the discovery of their own ineptitudes, plot to destroy him; yet Finch (as he reminds everyone F-I-N-C-H) miraculously survives each battle, primarily because he is so self-centered that he fails to see the restless men on the prowl.

The most famous song of the musical is Finch's love song to himself, sung into a mirror of the men's room as he shaves:

FINCH: Now there you are;
Yes, there's that face,
That face that somehow I trust.
It may embarrass you to hear me say it,
But say it I must, say it I must:
You have the cool, clear
Eyes of a seeker of wisdom and truth;
Yet there's that upturned chin
And that grin of impetuous youth.
Oh, I believe in you.
I believe in you

Women in this male-dominated world are all secretaries, whom the males are reminded, should are not be treated like toys—but nonetheless are. In today's world, it is clear that the efficient and trustworthy Miss Jones, the smart Smitty, and the quick-plotting Rosemary would be at the head of the World Wide Wicket Company instead of out bowling or wickedly spinning webs to find husbands. But in 1961...well, those gender lines were at the musical's satirical heart. Today the plot appears somewhat as a stale joke with little resonance.

For all that, I think the audience was willing to overlook the datedness of the piece if only the actors could come together and enjoy their own spoof. But time and again, it seemed, Radcliffe was not the only one grimacing. Everybody seemed to be playing it "the company way," refusing to get excited about anything. Two of the best dance numbers of Lambert and Fosse's original, "Coffee Break," (such a difficult number that the movie dropped it), and the sprightly "A Secretary Is Not a Toy," seemed lackluster in Ashford's staging, while at other times, as I mentioned, the director seemed to suck all the attention away from the actors through the introduction of gratuitous routines.

Finally, despite Radcliffe's pluck and elfin charm, I kept missing the puckish comedy of Robert Morse, the silly imperiousness of Rudy Vallee, and the jazz inflections of Michele Lee's voice.
One piece, alone, came to life and created for its few minutes the magic that might have stood as a beacon to these young performers. The last full number of the musical, "Brotherhood of Man," was so richly sung, punctuated by Ellen Harvey's coloratora soprano, and so thrillingly danced that it almost redeemed everything else. If only the cast might have realized that "brotherhood" earlier in the show, How to Succeed might have gone straight to the top!

In the end, however, it didn't matter. The young girls and their families stood up in celebration and absolutely roared (I've never heard as loud an applause) as Radcliffe bowed appreciatively to his fans.

Los Angeles, May 13, 2011
Reprinted from Green Integer Blog (May 2011).

Friday, March 25, 2011

SIX DEGREES OF INSANITY






SIX DEGREES OF INSANITY
by Douglas Messerli

Alice Goodman (libretto), Peter Sellars (director), John Adams (composer) Nixon in China / The Metropolitan Opera, New York / the production I saw was a live, in HD, screening at the Rave Theater, Westchester, California

Although most of the critics who I read (Mark Swed in the Los Angeles Times, Anthony Tommasini in The New York Times, and Anne Midgette of The Washington Post) agreed that the Met's new production of Nixon in China was excellent and long overdue, there was a sense among the three that the plot of the work was static and that one character, in particular, Henry Kissinger (sung by Richard Paul Fink) was a figure of parody whereas the others were treated more seriously. In a piece by Max Frankel, published in The New York Times a couple of days before the live HD airing, the former editor of the Times—who was with Nixon in China and won a Pulitzer Prize for covering the trip—squarely asked the question which the other reviewers only intimated:

...Why bother, as in Nixon, to lure us to a fictional enterprise with
contemporary characters and scenes from an active memory bank?
Why use actualities, or the manufactured actualities of our television
screens and newspapers, to fuel the drama?

The answer, he feels, is "obvious but also treacherous," that the use of actual characters helps to "overcome the musty odor that inhabits many opera houses," drawing new audiences into the theater. But, Frankel continues, it brings other dangers with it:

The danger is that despite the verisimilitudes of text, setting and
costume, a viewer's grasp of events may not match the fabric
being woven onstage. What the creators intend to be profundity
may strike the knowing as parody.

Most of the reviewers agreed that the composer, writer, and director did give their figures a range of emotions, both serious and comic, and between acts, Winston Lord (of National Security) assured us that much of the talk between Nixon and Chairman Mao in the First Act was close to what actually was said in their meeting; but all also felt that the opera did move to a kind of parody in the Second Art performance of The Red Detachment of Women, in which Fink, the singer-actor who played Kissinger, also plays a lecherous, Simon Legree-like landowner who has stolen away a young maiden. Fink sings:

She was so hot
I was hard-put
To be polite.
When the first cut
—Come on you slut!—
Scored her brown skin
I started in,
Man upon hen!

Some characterized this scene as surreal and the last act as psychological, as if they were somehow different in tone from the more historicized events in the First Act.

If nothing else, there was a sense that Nixon in China, without a narrative arc, was a bit of a rocky ride. Certainly, at times, while always enjoying the shimmering glory of the music, I too felt that way while watching it. Yet now that I've pondered it for while, I believe I was mistaken, that, in fact, the opera is highly structured and fairly coherent in its tone and presentation of characters.

First of all, John Adams and Peter Sellars are never going to present something that works as a Verdi opera might. Although all may work with a complex weaving of historical events, Verdi's sense of drama is highly embedded in narrative, while Adams and team, postmodern in their approach, eschew what we might call "story."

Nixon in China has "events," but there are presented in a series of tableaux, not unlike some medieval musical productions. Each character gets the chance to reveal his or her selves. But what Alice Goodman, Adams and Sellars are interested in is not so much the outer faces they present to the world, but what these figures are thinking and imagining within. And I think they would have to admit that every figure on their stage is, in one way or another, a bit unhinged; these are, after all—with the exception perhaps of Pat Nixon—people desperate for power. And all are on the edge of insanity.

Even before we meet any of the major characters, the people of China speak in a strange manner that we comprehend is not quite rational thought, as they sing from the text of "The Three Main Rules of Discipline and Eight Points of Attention":

Prompt delivery directly to authorities of all items
confiscated from landlords.
Do not damage crops.
Do not take a single needle or piece of thread from the masses.
Pay for everything you damage.
etc.

As they chant, "The people are the heroes now," even if these "heroes" are highly manipulated and controlled.

Out of the sky drops the Nixons' Spirit of 76, and no sooner does the President descend the airstair, shaking the hand of Premier Chou En-lai, than he begins inwardly calculating the great results of this journey as the filming catches him just in time for the evening news broadcasts in the USA, he hilariously singing out his fascination with his own acts: "News! News! News!

News has a kind of mystery;
When I shook hands with Chou En-lai
On this bare field outside Peking
Just now, the whole world was listening

James Maddalena, who has now sung this role in hundreds of performances, is an amazing actor, who brings off those jowl-shaking absurdities quite brilliantly.

Nixon's and Kissinger's meeting with Premier Chou (Russell Braun) and Chairman Mao (Robert Brubaker) in the next scene is perhaps the most absurd of the entire opera, as the two powerful leaders speak in a series of alternating gnomic jokes, apothegms, and, in Nixon's case, simple American verbal blunders. As Mao becomes more and more incomprehensible ("Founders come first / Then profiteers") in sayings parroted by a wonderful trio of assistants, Nixon attempts his linguistic twists spun from what he believes the Chairman might be saying. It all reminds me, a bit, of the other Peter Seller's performance as the totally innocent and ignorant Chance in the film Being There, where he spouts meaningless sentences interpreted by others to be full of profound significance. Mao and Nixon, one a bit senile, the other humorless and often depressed, hit it off beautifully in their mindless chatter, while the more rational Kissinger proclaims to be unable to understand anything, and the Premier sits silently in sufferance.

What that meeting accomplished, an issue clearly of importance in this opera, is questionable. But surely we can feel, and, in Adams' delicious scoring, we can hear the growing friendliness of all figures as they swill down Mai-tai after Mai-tai with toast upon toast. Again, non-drinker Kissinger misses out on all the glorious insanity of the evening.

In Act II we get a chance to see Pat Nixon at the edge. She begins the morning, in fact, downing a couple of needed pills. Like Premier Chou she is in sufferance, and, although excited by the whole trip, she is also exhausted and, we feel, not at all comfortable. The most American of this opera's figures, she flaunts a bright red coat. Flawlessly played by Janis Kelly, Pat comes off as somewhat frail and slightly terrified being as she is rushed through a glass factory (where the workers award her a green elephant) and classrooms in which the students have clearly been told what to say and how to behave, before stopping by the Gate of Longevity and Goodwill, where she sings her touching and slightly pathetic paean to the world she loves:

This is prophetic! I foresee
A time will come when luxury
Dissolves into the atmosphere
Like a perfume, and everywhere
The simple virtues root and branch
And leaf and flower. And on that bench
There we’ll relax and taste the fruit
Of all our actions. Why regret
Life which is so much like a dream?

Yet the homespun images she spins out of her sense of momentary joy—lit-up farm porches, families sitting around the dinner table, church steeples, etc.—are right out of Norman Rockwell paintings and is just as absurd of a vision as are her husband's darker mumblings.

That evening's presentation of The Red Detachment of Women ballet, written by Chiang Ch'ing, Mao's wife—as she so shrilly reminds us later—is experienced by the now overwhelmed Nixons less as an objective performance—in reality the evening ended with enthusiastic praise by the President and First Lady—as from a psychological, inner viewpoint. It is clear that Nixon, as he suggests several times in the opera, admired Kissinger's mind, but he also mocked his ways and apparently disliked the man personally. Accordingly the Nixons both conjure up the evil landowner in their tired travelers' minds, to be, or, least, to look like Kissinger.* Like many an innocent theater-goer, the Nixons become so involved in the story of a poor girl who is saved and then destroyed by refusing to obey Communist doctrine that they confuse drama with reality, breaking into the action of the ballet itself to save and protect the young dancer.

Mark Morris, using some aspects of the original choreography, nicely stages his orderly squadrons of young military dancers against the chaos of events. This is perhaps the most difficult part of the opera, and I am still not sure whether or not it truly succeeds, but it is crucial to our witnessing the truly mad person behind Chiang Ch'ing (Kathleen Kim)—who in real life may have been responsible for hundreds of deaths and had, herself, erratic nerves and severe hypochondiasis—as she proclaims in the noted aria, "I am the wife of Mao Tse-tung," angrily declaring that all be determined by "the book." After Mao's death, we should recall, Chiang Ch'ing committed suicide.

After witnessing these six individuals'—Richard Nixon, Mao Tse-tung, Chou En-lai, Pat Nixon, Henry Kissinger, and Chiang Ch'ing—mental dramas, we can only breathlessly watch as they slip into sleep. Kissinger shacks up with one of Mao's translators before disappearing into the bathroom. The Nixons share their disappointments, the President for being misinterpreted by the newspapers, Pat silently suffering, with tearful eyes, from her husband's inattention and having herself to attend yet again to what may be his ritual recounting of an attack he endured in World War II. Mao also finds relief in the hands of one of his translators before threatening his wife for having made political mistakes, until he falls with her into a lustful embrace upon their bed. Chou En-lai, clearly already in pain from the bladder cancer which would kill him 4 years later, awakens early to return to his never-ending work, drawing a close to all the madness with the most profound question of the opera: "Was there any point to any of it?" The "it" may refer, obviously, to the Nixons' visit, but it also suggests another possibility of meaning: "Was there any point to all their madness, to their desperate struggles to hold onto any power they might have over others?" All ended their lives in disgrace and shame, except for Pat; but even she almost disappeared from the public eye after the death of her husband, suffering a serious stroke the same year that Chou En-lai died.

In some respects, I now wonder, despite its occasional comic elements and always lush sonority of sound, if this isn't one of the darkest of operas. But then, aren't the young and the old—represented by the US and China—usually at the heart of the tragic, Romeo and Lear?

Los Angeles, February 19, 2011

_____
Coincidentally, in my 1990 "opera for spoken voices," The Walls Come True (Los Angeles: Sun & Moon Press, 1995), I included Dr. Kissinger in my "Twelve Tyrants Between Acts: Mundane Moments and Insane Histories," based on the paranoia and ridiculous accusations he expressed in his Years of Upheaval (Boston: Little Brown, 1982) when, in 1973, he was in Hanoi attempting to negotiate the Paris Accords.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

FLOPPING AROUND






FLOPPING AROUND
by Douglas Messerli

Preston Sturges and Ernst Laemmle (writers), Preston Sturges (director) The Palm Beach Story / 1942

One the funniest of films about the institution of marriage, Preston Sturges’ The Palm Beach Story, almost did not get made. The script, originally titled Is Marriage Necessary?, was rejected by the powerful censors at the Hays Office several times—despite continued changes—for its “light treatment of marriage and divorce,” along with its “sexual suggestive” situations.

It’s hard to imagine what those revised situations might have been, but they certainly would have had to involve Mary Astor’s man-hungry character, Princess Centimillia, who criticizes her would-be lover, Captain McGlue (Joel McCrea) (in the film’s reality, Thomas Jeffers, the husband of Geraldine [Claudette Colbert]), who accuses him, at one point when they are dancing, of “letting her flop around.” This is a woman who has been married, in the original script, eight times (plus two annulments), and she wants most definitely to be held tightly.

But letting her “flop around” might also be Gerry’s complaint of Tom, who, because of his inability to support her, lets her slip away to flop where anyone will let her, staying one night in a train car filled with gun-toting, drunken millionaires of the “Ale and Quail” Club, and literarily losing all her clothes. She has escaped the Club’s railroad car because of because they have taken up target practice with their rifles; the engineer orders the car that car to be uncoupled and left. By the next day at the she has been invited to be a guest in the palatial estate of America’s richest man, John D. Hackensacker III (Rudy Vallee), an obvious jibe at John D. Rockefeller.

Tom is a ridiculous dreamer, an architect who is trying to build airplane landing nets that hang over downtown city streets! If he could only raise $99,000 to test it out!

Before her amazing voyage from New York to Palm Beach, the couple was about to lose their glamorous apartment, with the grocery bill is growing larger every day. Gerry, a long-legged beauty, insisted she could do something about it and packed her bags to prove her theory. Apparently, she was right, for just by standing in her bathroom in her wrapper the hilariously near-deaf Wienie King (Robert Dudley) handed her a substantial amount of money, and on her second day out Hackensacker has purchased an entire wardrobe for her, including a diamond bracelet, agreeing to invest in her brother-husband’s absurd invention. He’s clearly fallen for her, and when Tom shows up to claim his wife, Hackensacker’s sister, the Princess, is just as determined to claim Tom for herself.

The only problem is this irreverent marital comedy is that the two, Tom and Gerry, are still in love. The propulsion of the movie, accordingly, hinges on the strange question: What are we going to do about it? Who could resist the life styles of such rich and famous beings?

Fortunately, the would-be lovers are as ridiculously outsized as the comic-book pair at the center of this tale. As Hackensacker observes of the Princess: “You know Maude, somebody meeting you for the first time, not knowing you were cracked, might get the wrong impression of you.” Even she admits “Of course, I'm crazy, I'll marry anybody.” Her former “lover” Toto (the marvelous Sig Arno) gives evidence for that!

The more reserved Hackensacker is almost as hilariously absurd when he reveals to his sister that he determined to “bundle” with his wife just to test her out. His idea of romance is as ridiculously ancient as the actor who plays him, crooning to his sweetheart outside her window in the dark.

Tom and Gerry are not just a bit “screwy” because of their refusal to accept their marital bliss, but, as those viewers who have stayed attentive during the credits, they are perhaps not truly who either of them think the other is. By film’s end we come to realize that they are both identical twins, and that the intended wedding couple was hijacked from their own marriage plans. As in Mozart’s Cosi fan tutti, by film’s end we truly don’t quite know who was married to whom, as Tom and Gerry call their twins to their rescue, who marry the wealthy Hackensacker and Princess in their steads.

In such a world perhaps there is no true need for marriage, just love and sex. In the “real” world the Hays Office let the movie proceed only after its director-writer, Preston Sturges, reduced the number of Princess Centimillia’s marraiges to three (plus two annulments). One has to ask, is the film world or the real world more like a screwball comedy? For Sturges’ characters get everything they wanted: love, sex, and wealth! Or—as the film itself asks—do they? At least Tom can build his airport!

Los Angeles, January 16, 2011
Reprinted from International Cinema Review (January 2011).