San Francisco (1936)

San Francisco is one-third musical, one-third catastrophe movie, and one-third religious movie.  The musical third is just a showcase for Jeanette MacDonald in the role of Mary Blake.  We don’t really relate to this movie as a musical, and so we become impatient with her numbers while waiting for the catastrophe, the 1906 earthquake.  Both the music and the catastrophe, however, must take a backseat to the religious aspects of the movie, which are laid on so thick that the movie is impossible to watch without cringing.

Clark Gable plays Blackie Norton, who runs an establishment catering to vices such as drinking, gambling, and ogling pretty women.  Blackie is an atheist, who, according to his friend, Father Tim Mullin (Spencer Tracy), doesn’t believe in anything, which means Blackie is a cynic as well.  However, we also see that he has a good heart underlying his sneering façade, for he shows concern about people getting out of a burning building, offers to make a charitable contribution, pays for an organ for Tim’s church, and plans to run for Supervisor, a political office that will enable him to enact regulations preventing more fires like the one we see in the beginning of the movie.

Tim tells Mary about Blackie’s good heart, saying in general that no one is all bad, an absurdity on which I will not bother to comment.  The important thing about this conversation he has with Mary in this regard, however, is the smug know-it-all look he has on his face, which only gets worse as the movie wears on.  A lot of people suppose that belief in God and moral goodness are linked together in some essential way, and this was especially true in 1936, when this movie was made.  Therefore, Blackie’s atheism in conjunction with his good heart, we are being guided to believe, is unsustainable.

Mary gets a job in Blackie’s nightclub as a singer.  Her operatic voice seems totally out of place in a joint where people want to indulge their vices, but that is sort of the point.  In listening to her, I noticed that I could not understand half the words she was singing, which is not unusual for these opera types.  That caused me to reflect on the fact that operas are often sung in the original language in which they were written regardless of the native language of the audience before whom the operas are performed.  I concluded that it really doesn’t matter, because you just about can’t understand them if they sing in English anyway.  But I digress.

One of the musical numbers sung by Mary during the course of the movie is from the opera Faust by Charles Gounod.  You know the story.  A man sells his soul to the Devil so he can get laid.  Presumably Blackie’s attempt to possess Mary recapitulates Faust’s seduction and ruin of Marguerite, which is why Tim contends with Blackie for Mary’s soul.  After she breaks off her engagement with Blackie, Mary sings in the opera La Traviata by Giuseppe Verdi, about a courtesan who dies from tuberculosis, possibly suggesting the unhappiness that Mary will experience if she goes ahead with her plans to marry a man whom she does not love.

Early in the movie, we see Blackie and Tim in the boxing ring, in which Tim knocks Blackie to the mat, as he usually does, according to Blackie.  It is important to establish that Tim can lick Blackie in a fight, because later in the movie, when Blackie and Tim are arguing over Mary, Blackie punches Tim, who just stands there and takes it with a hurt look on his face, the blood trickling down from his lip.  In other words, Tim is turning the other cheek in spite of his superior ability at fisticuffs.  If the movie had not featured that boxing scene early on, we might suppose that Tim’s reluctance to strike back is out of cowardice and weakness, that he is hiding behind his collar.

Though Mary loves Blackie, yet it bothers her that he doesn’t believe in God.  Blackie responds, “God?  Hey, isn’t he supposed to be taking care of the suckers that come out of the missions looking for something to eat and a place to sleep?”  Some might answer that it is God that inspires the people that run the missions.  But as Mark Twain once noted, “If  you will look at the matter rationally and without prejudice, the proper place to hunt for the facts of His mercy, is not where man does the mercies and He collects the praise, but in those regions where He has the field to Himself.”

This challenge returns to us toward the end of the movie where God indeed has the field to Himself.  In other words, when the earthquake begins, God does nothing to prevent it, and the result is that many people die or suffer crippling injuries.  As Blackie wanders around looking for Mary, he keeps running into people looking for God.  The mother of the man whom Mary was planning to marry says of her son’s death that it is God’s will and that it’s God’s help they both need now.  This brings out the great paradox regarding the connection between religion and suffering.  The more suffering people experience, the more likely they are to turn to God.  And yet, the more suffering people experience, the more we wonder why an all-powerful, loving God would allow it.

Eventually, Blackie finds a place where the injured are being cared for, where Tim is offering them comfort.  One might expect that in the face of all the death and destruction that has befallen the city, Tim would look as grief stricken and overwhelmed as everyone else including Blackie.  But no, Tim has a look of serenity on his face when Blackie sees him, and that look stays on his face right through the end of the movie.  Earlier in the movie, when the Barbary Coast was indulging in all its wantonness—drinking, gambling, carousing—Tim’s facial expression was often grim and disapproving.  But now, with all the misery and suffering around him, Tim is in his element.  As the city burns, as people die before his eyes, as he hears people cry out for the loss of their loved ones, Tim is truly at peace.  This is especially so when he sees Blackie.  Now, at last, Blackie will see.  There must be a God after all.

“Wait a minute!” you say.  “How does this prove the existence of God?”  Well, actually what it proves is that people need God.  And if people need God, then they need priests like Tim.  For years, Tim had to endure all of Blackie’s scoffing and sneering, but now the day of triumph is at hand.  Blackie is truly humbled, confused by all the suffering and misery that he does not comprehend, as he stands before Tim, who has known all along that this day would come, and whose heart is filled with joy.

When Blackie asks Tim if he has seen Mary, Tim takes him to a place outdoors where survivors of the earthquake have found refuge.  There is Mary, singing “Nearer My God to Thee,” accompanied by those around her, while a mother holds her dead child in her arms until others gently take him away from her and she collapses in tears.  It is all so heavenly.

When Blackie sees Mary, he says to Tim, “I want to thank God.”  And then we see it, the spectacle that exceeds even the earthquake:  Blackie Norton, on his knees, tears in his eyes, giving thanks to God, while Tim looks on smiling sweetly.

One has to wonder, though.  Suppose Mary had died.  Would Blackie have taken the same attitude as that of the woman who said the death of her son was God’s will?  Or would he have become even more convinced than ever that we live in a godless, uncaring universe?  Could Tim have maintained that smug look on his face if Mary’s brains had been bashed out by a falling building?

When Mary sees Blackie on his knees in prayer, she comes to him, and now we know that Blackie will finally have Mary’s love.  Just then, someone yells that the fire is out, at which point everyone becomes happy, shouting that they will rebuild San Francisco, marching over the hill, back to the city, as they sing “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.”  When you consider that within less than the length of one full day, husbands have lost their wives, wives their husbands, parents their children, and children their parents, they all seem to be holding up amazingly well.  God be praised.

The Phantom Empire (1935)

The Phantom Empire is the greatest serial ever made.  It was edited from the 245 minute serial into a 70 minute movie titled Radio Ranch or Men with Steel Faces, but the movie version loses much of the camp value of the serial.  Also lost is the way the serial cheats with the cliffhangers, letting us think something terrible happened, only to show something different at the beginning of the next chapter, which typically begins with a stirring piece of music, although there is no indication as to who scored it or whether it was original with this serial.

Gene Autry, playing himself, is half-owner of Radio Ranch, where people come to stay as paying guests and from which Autry broadcasts a radio program every day.  In the first chapter, after singing a song, he introduces Frankie Baxter (Frankie Darro) and his sister Betsy Baxter (Betsy King Ross), his partner’s children, who head a club for teenagers sponsored by Radio Ranch called National Thunder Riders or Junior Thunder Riders.  They tell about how one day they saw a bunch of men with capes and helmets riding horses that sounded like thunder, though they do not know who those men were.  Nevertheless, Frankie and Betsy formed the club, the members of which wear capes and helmets modeled after the ones worn by the original Thunder Riders, as they call them.  Other teenagers are encouraged to visit the ranch and join the club, or they can start their own local fan club.  Then Autry narrates the next installment of a serial within this serial in which the Junior Thunder Riders ride to the rescue to save a man and his wife from a bunch of bandits.  You might think that since this is a radio serial, only dialogue and sound effects would be involved, but they actually act out the parts, almost as if it were being filmed, which, I guess, in a way it is.

Meanwhile, a bunch of men fly in by airplane, who we quickly figure are up to no good.  One of them, Professor Beetson (Frank Glendon), believes that somewhere underneath Radio Ranch is Murania, populated by descendants of the ancient city of Mu, who moved underground to escape the glaciers a hundred thousand years ago.  Beetson believes they will find valuable deposits of radium and secrets that have been lost to the world, technology based on their knowledge of radiation.  Their plan is to get rid of Autry, either by killing him or by causing him to miss a broadcast, which will result in the loss of his radio contract.  Either way, they figure the ranch will become deserted, giving them the freedom to look for Murania without being disturbed.  This plot point leads to several ludicrous situations in which Autry is fleeing from the Thunder Riders or from the scientists, in danger of losing his life, and right in the middle of it all has to worry about getting back to the ranch in time to sing another song.

All this is on the surface.  Meanwhile, twenty-five thousand feet below the ranch is Murania, where the original Thunder Riders live, when they are not galloping about on the surface for whatever reason.  There are, of course, the expected absurdities in this lost city, such as that everyone speaks English.  More interesting is the mixture of ancient and futuristic technology.  The Muranians have wireless telephones, and they have television, allowing Queen Tika (Dorothy Christie) to view what is going on anywhere on the planet, mostly in America.  They have all sorts of advanced weaponry, such as guided missiles, and yet the guards carry spears.  They have robots to perform the manual labor, but the ones that are armed have swords.  Moreover, when the Thunder Riders need to enter or leave Murania, they have a robot turn a crank to open the door, instead of simply having the equivalent of a garage-door opener.

Their government seems to be a bit of a mixture as well.  As noted, there is a queen who rules over her subjects.  However, she refers to one of the wounded soldiers as a “comrade,” a term not normally used in monarchies, but which would have suggested a communist state like the Soviet Union in 1935.  And there is reference to the “secret police.”  When she watches the television to see what is going on in the world, she is contemptuous of the insanity she witnesses, calling the surface people fools, who are always in a hurry, their lives full of death and suffering.  You might think from this that Murania must be an enlightened utopia, but when the captain of the Thunder Riders fails to capture Autry as she commanded, she starts to put him to death for incompetence, but then decides that lashes with a whip will be a better punishment.  She wants Autry captured so that she can drive him off Radio Ranch, because she fears that surface people will discover Murania and invade it.

When the captain fails a second time, she commands Lord Argo (Wheeler Oakman) to put him to death in the Lightening Chamber.  But once inside, Argo tells the captain that every time someone is supposedly put to death (thirty-seven so far this year), he saves him so he can be part of the rebellion he is planning.  The captain agrees to join the rebellion, and so his execution is faked.  When Queen Tika, who has people whipped or executed for merely failing to carry out her orders, despite their best efforts, finds out about the rebellion, she cannot understand why people are turning against her.  After all, she knows she has been a good queen, because that is what her underlings tell her when they are asked.  Later, Betsy says what most of us have been thinking, that Queen Tika reminds us of the one in Alice in Wonderland, always shouting, “Off with his head.”

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, the Junior Thunder Riders have parallels to Murania beyond merely fashioning themselves after the Muranian Thunder Riders.  Frankie has a secret laboratory on the second floor of a barn in which he invents gadgets, just as scientists in Murania continue to develop new technology down below.  While the Muranians have wireless telephones, the Junior Thunder Riders can be summoned to the secret laboratory with a light bulb moving up through the roof blinking on and off in Morse code.  While the Muranians below the surface watch the world on their television, the Junior Thunder Riders watch what is happening on Radio Ranch with a periscope that peeps through that same hole.  And just as the Muranians live secretly underground, the Junior Thunder Riders have a secret underground passageway beneath the barn leading out of the side of a hill much as the entrance to Murania leads out the side of a mountain.

And just because these are not enough plot complications, Autry is framed by the scientists for killing his partner, and so in addition to being hunted by Beetson’s gang and the Muranian Thunder Riders, he is also being pursued by the sheriff, with only the Junior Thunder Riders to help him.

Eventually, Autry is captured and brought to Murania, but then escapes.  Later, Frankie and Betsy are captured and brought to Murania.  To block the path of anyone not authorized to pass by, there is a robot standing off to the side with a sword held erect.  When activated by a button on his chest, an infraray tells it if someone is trying to pass, at which point it comes down with its sword.  So, when Frankie and Betsy get to that robot, Frankie presses the off button on the robot, and then they go right past him without a problem.  That’s Yankee ingenuity for you.

The rebels do not intend to establish a democracy, but rather simply want power, which promises to result in an even more repressive society than the one run by the queen.  As a result, Autry and his friends team up with the queen, who aids them in their escape.  However, in the course of the rebellion, all of Murania is destroyed by the latest advance in weaponry.

Back on the surface, Beetson confesses to killing Autry’s partner, daring Autry to try to prove it.  However, thanks to a piece of equipment Frankie brought back from Murania, the confession is caught on television, and the bad guys are arrested, after which Autry makes it back to the ranch in time for his final broadcast for the season.

The Jazz Singer (1927)

Once you strip away historical significance of The Jazz Singer as the first “talkie,” in which audiences were able to hear musical numbers in a movie for the first time, you are left with some pretty heavy melodrama. Forced to choose between a long Jewish tradition from the old country and the individualism and freedom of America, Jakie Rabinowitz (Al Jolson) chooses the latter and is disowned by his father, a cantor from a long line of cantors who wants his son to be a cantor. This goes on through the whole movie and it wears you out. But then, on the opening night of his first big break in the theater, Jakie finds out his father is dying, and there is no one to sing in the temple on the Day of Atonement. He agonizes and agonizes over the choice he must make between family and career. But what was he worried about? Didn’t he know this was a Hollywood movie where people get to have it both ways? He chooses to sing for his father, and then goes on to sing in the theater too, becoming a great success.

The Concert for Bangladesh (1972)

The Concert for Bangladesh is a musical documentary about the first benefit rock concert. The concert starts off with a real downer. Ravi Shankar and three other Indian musicians get set to play on their weird Indian musical instruments. But first, Shankar informs the audience that they must be quiet while he is playing, because this is the kind of music you have to concentrate on. And then he tells everyone not to smoke while he is playing. The audience is quite chastened, and they clap politely after the first number. But it wasn’t a number. The musicians were only tuning up their instruments. But with that kind of music, who can tell? They could have played the wrong notes on instruments out of tune, and nobody would have known the difference.

Once that is over, and the Western musicians start playing normal music, things get a lot better, especially when half the musicians start smoking, letting the audience know that Mrs. Grundy has left the stage, and everyone can loosen up.

Rock Around the Clock (1956)

In this movie, a lifeless and somewhat ridiculous plot acts as a frame story to showcase some rock-and-roll bands when that kind of music was becoming popular in the 1950s. Young people in their rebellious stage like to shock their elders, so naturally we have a scene in which Bill Haley and the Comets perform at a prestigious and very proper girls’ school, which scandalizes the matronly chaperones. The Comets wear suits and are clean-cut, singing songs without suggestive lyrics, but no matter, because the beat alone is indecent. So the movie has it both ways, allowing teenagers to enjoy the fantasy of shocking their elders, while the real elders watching the movie in the theaters would be reassured that rock and roll was quite harmless.

Part of the plot of this movie is that dancing is on its way out, by which is meant ballroom dancing. But the dancing done by teenagers to rock and roll is alive and well. It is basically jitterbug (also known as swing, boogie-woogie, and the bop). In a sense, however, this died too. Once the twist became popular in the early 1960s, partner dancing, in which couples make contact with each other, pretty much came to an end, to be replaced by various forms of free style, in which couples never touch each other. To see partner dancing any more, you either have to go to a country-western nightclub or to a dance studio where ballroom dancing still lingers on.

Partner dancing in the movies is one of two kinds: either the dancers are professionals, or they are just barely able to shuffle around the dance floor. The reality would be somewhere in between, with amateurs doing a fairly decent job of cutting a rug. In this movie, the brother and sister who dance together are obviously professionals. They become part of the act with the Comets, the idea being that they will show teenagers at the performances how to dance to rock and roll, to break the ice and get others on the dance floor. Of course, all those supposedly novice teenagers who venture onto the dance floor are professional dancers themselves. In fact, having that brother-and-sister team dance like that in real life would intimidate ordinary would-be dancers, making it less likely for them to get out on the floor.

Unfortunately, most of the songs performed in this movie are not that good, and in several cases, no one dances at all, usually because the beat is too fast, even for professionals. There are a couple of good numbers from the Comets and a couple from the Platters. The rest are mediocre, which, when combined with the boring plot, makes the movie a disappointment.

New York, New York (1977)

At the beginning of New York, New York, when Jimmy (Robert De Niro) is trying to pick up Francine (Liza Minnelli), the first thirteen words out of her mouth are the words “No.” That would have been more than enough for most men, but Jimmy is so pushy that he keeps at it, getting nowhere. However, through a bizarre coincidence, Francine ends up with Jimmy the next day at his audition as a saxophone player. He flops. She tries to give him some advice, and he gets angry. Being a professional singer, she encourages Jimmy to accompany her in a song, and the manager is so impressed that he hires them as a boy-girl team. She agrees to meet Jimmy the next day, but when she gets back to her hotel, she finds out that her agent has a good singing job lined up for her, which means going on the road. But she has to leave early in the morning if she wants the job. As she has no way of breaking her date with Jimmy before she leaves, she simply takes off, giving her agent a letter to give to Jimmy explaining what happened.

This first sequence of events is a harbinger of all that is to come, and so it is worth pausing here to see what this represents. First of all, Jimmy is a snob about the kind of music he plays, and thinks he is too good to take advice from anyone. Francine, on the other hand, is casually great, a natural, someone who sings the kind of songs people want to hear, and does so with a lot of personality and polish. This reminds me of The Way We Were (1973), when Katie (Barbara Streisand) works really hard, desperately trying to write the best essay in the course she is taking. Instead, the professor reads aloud the essay written by Hubbell (Robert Redford), who probably just dashed it off the night before. And just to rub it in, the essay is about a man for whom everything came too easily. Katie is devastated. But at least she has the strength of character needed to admit that his essay was better, and to tell him so with a smile. Not so with Jimmy in New York, New York. He can’t stand the fact that Francine has more talent than he does. He resents her for it, and he begrudges every concession he has to make to her.

Second, Jimmy is obnoxious, arrogant, and pushy, and Francine is submissive and passive, to the point that a lot of people see her as a victim. But Danny Peary, in his Cult Movies 3, argues that “it is Francine who constantly victimizes Jimmy and who ultimately destroys (their professional and personal) relationships. He may do bad things, but she is the villain.” Regarding the sequence of events already discussed, Peary argues that she promised Jimmy to perform with him, and that she knew that without her, he would lose the job.

Well, the fact that Jimmy is not good enough to hold down the job on his own is not her problem. She was willing to help him out as long as she had nothing else going on in her life right then, but when something came along that was really important to her, she was not about to sacrifice her own career for someone she just met the day before, especially someone to whom she had said the word “No” thirteen times in a row. In other words, what people like Jimmy do not understand is that people like Francine only appear to be submissive and passive because they are good natured and easy going. And so it comes as a great shock to Jimmy that Francine really is not under his thumb after all, but is capable of bending that thumb back when it comes to the things she cares about. Call her a “villain” if you want, but let this movie be a cautionary tale to those like Jimmy who think they can dominate women like Francine.

Danny Peary is my favorite critic, which is why I have given his Francine-as-villain analysis so much attention. He gives several more examples of what a villain she is, but this one really floors me: “Francine became pregnant without discussing it with Jimmy.” In other words, I guess Francine should have discussed it with Jimmy before she decided not to use a condom.

Jimmy’s pushiness arises from an egocentric delusion. He thinks that what he wants, what will make him happy, will therefore make Francine happy. If she is reluctant to do what he wants, it is only because she just does not understand what is best for her. And so he just cannot believe that she stubbornly keeps wanting to do things her way, when he just knows that her true happiness lies in her doing exactly what he tells her to do.

She goes on to be a big movie star, while he manages to have some minor success owning his own night club, finally giving him almost enough self-confidence to tell her that he is proud of her in her dressing room where there is a party going on celebrating her successful return to New York. I say “almost,” because in his inimitable, small-minded way, he immediately qualifies the remark about being proud of her by saying, “in a way.”

He goes down to a payphone and calls her, asking her to meet him, because there is something he wants to talk to her about. Impulsively, she agrees. But then she gets to thinking about the important thing he wants to talk to her about, which obviously is about their getting back together. Not wanting to go through another scene of telling him “No,” God knows how many times, she goes home instead. When she does not show up, he realizes that she does not need him and just wants him to go away, which is what she tried to tell him at the beginning of the movie. At long last, he finally learns to accept this brute fact.

Hair (1979)

It sure must be great to be such a free spirit that you don’t have to work for a living because you can always beg from people who do. And it sure must be great to be such a free spirit that you never have to wash your clothes or take a bath. And it sure must be great to be such a free spirit that you do not have to worry who the father is if you get pregnant, or, if you are a man, worry about supporting the woman you abandoned when she turns up with your child. And it sure must be great to be such a free spirit that you can display your superior attitude toward life by stomping all over the food that people were going to eat at a dinner party. And it sure must be great to be such a free spirit that you can steal a car just because the guy who owns it is uptight and therefore deserves to be treated with contempt.

What an insufferably sanctimonious bunch these lowlifes are! My flesh crawled all through this movie Hair. Thank goodness people do not put up with this nonsense in real life.