The Music Man (1962) and The Rainmaker (1956)

The Music Man is a musical about a traveling salesman, “Professor” Harold Hill (Robert Preston), who is also a con artist.  According to his nemesis, Charlie Cowell, an anvil salesman, Hill’s latest swindle is to sell small towns on the idea of a boys’ band.  After collecting money for the musical instruments and for the uniforms, he leaves without fulfilling his promise to teach the boys how to play because he doesn’t know one note from another.  In so doing, he ruins things for legitimate salesmen like Cowell, who get chased out of town by citizens ready to literally tar and feather them and run them out on a rail.

But, Cowell goes on to say, just as the train that he and other salesmen are on crosses the state line, Hill wouldn’t have the nerve to try to pull that stuff in Iowa on account of the surly, no-nonsense people that Hawkeyes are known be.  Unbeknownst to him, Hill is also on the train, and he cannot resist the challenge, so he disembarks before Cowell and the other salesmen can put their hands on him.

Hill’s first encounters with the citizens of River City make it clear to him that this will be a tough sell, so he needs to create a problem that he can then promise to alleviate by means of a boys’ band.  When he hears that a pool table is being added to the billiard parlor, he creates a distinction between billiards, which improves the mind and builds character, and pool, which encourages sloth and introduces young men to the ways of sin.  A boys’ band, he promises the townsfolk, will keep their sons away from the pool table.

Hill learns that a big obstacle to his plan will be the town librarian, a maiden who gives piano lessons, wears glasses, and will see right through him.  Hill realizes he will have to make love to her to keep her from spoiling his plans, which he will be more than happy to do when he finds out how beautiful she is.  Said librarian is Marian (Shirley Jones), the only person in town of any appreciable intellect. She has somewhat scandalized the town because it is falsely rumored she had an affair with “Old Miser Madison,” an unappreciated philanthropist, who gave the town their library, but who left the books to Marian for their safekeeping.  Many of these books are regarded as being of a salacious nature, though we recognize them as classics.

Marian lives with her mother and her brother, Winthrop (Ron Howard), who is unhappy and withdrawn because he has a lisp.  Her mother is exasperated with Marian’s high standards regarding men, which may result in Marian’s becoming an old maid.  Marian, on the other hand, simply wants a man who will love her and not merely be interested in possessing her sexually.

Marian finds proof in a reference book that Hill is a fraud just as the musical instruments arrive in town.  She is about to expose him, but then she sees how happy Winthrop is, and how he is no longer afraid to express himself on account of his lisp.  She tears the incriminating page out of the book and keeps it to herself.  Moreover, she realizes that everyone in town has become happier on account of Hill’s presence, leading her to start falling in love with him.

Hill and Marian make up a sexually dangerous couple, dangerous in the sense that we fear that he will take advantage of her.  As Cowell says to Marian later in the movie, “That guy’s got a different girl in every county in Illinois, and he’s taken it away from every one of them.”  The pronoun “it” in that sentence has no antecedent, but we may assume it to be their virginity.  Hill and Marian stand in contrast to a sexually safe couple, Tommy and Zaneeta.  Zaneeta is the daughter of Mayor Shinn (Paul Ford), who doesn’t want his daughter having anything to do with the likes of Tommy.  But we know that there is no danger that Tommy would seduce Zaneeta and then abandon her.  Instead, we figure they will end up happily married.

Hill’s only instruction to the boys with their new instruments is what he calls the “think system.”  He tells them to think Beethoven’s Minuet in G.  Eventually, the uniforms arrive, money is collected, and it is time for him to abscond, but not before collecting what he calls his “commission,” which involves some dalliance with Marian.  He gets her to meet him at the footbridge, a rendezvous for young lovers, a bridge where young girls cross over to the other side, as it were.  They start kissing.  But then he finds out that she knows he is a fraud, yet she doesn’t care, owing to the happiness he has brought her and others.  She pulls the incriminating page out of her bosom and hands it to him, saying, “I give it to you with all my heart.”  Soon after, they learn that Cowell has informed the townsfolk that they have been bamboozled.  As a result, they are now looking for Hill to tar and feather him.  Marian tries to get him to run, assuring him that she understands and that it is all right.

I believe we are supposed to use our imagination here.  It would be no big deal for a traveling salesman to kiss a woman a couple of times and then leave town.  In other words, it was not merely the page kept in her bosom that Marian gave to Hill, but herself as well.  Only when understood in that way is her telling Hill it is all right for him to leave her of any significance.  Furthermore, the way the scene is filmed is also suggestive of this interpretation.  As Hill and Marian kiss while standing on the middle of the footbridge, and it is a kiss of sensual longing, we see their reflection in the stream below.  Something drops onto the stream, distorting the image to the point that it is just a blur.  This is reminiscent of the fireplace trope, in which the camera pans away from the kissing couple and focuses on the fire, allowing us to imagine that they are having sex.  When the image becomes clear again, their expressions have changed, and they seem to be in the afterglow of sex, as reality slowly begins to set in once more.  Now aware of the cool night air, she asks Hill to walk her home so she can put something on to keep her warm.

The fact that Marian let Hill “kiss” her while knowing he is a fraud causes him to fall in love with her, which in turn keeps him from leaving town before the mob can get to him.  The townsfolk are about to tar and feather him, but they think better of it when they slowly realize, as Marian has, that Hill has brought them a lot of happiness.  Still, he did cheat them out of the money paid for musical instruments and uniforms.

But then the boys’ band appears in their cheap uniforms.  They manage to play a rather sad version of the Minuet in G.  One by one, however, the parents of the boys get excited by the fact that their sons are actually playing in a band.  In their imagination, the boys become accomplished musicians outfitted in brilliantly colored uniforms, led in a parade by Hill, arm in arm with Marian.

At this point we might note that it is not only the dreams of the people of River City that come true regarding the boys’ band, but the dream that Hill has had as well, for earlier in the movie we see him fantasizing about actually being a band leader, and then feeling disappointed that he is not.

What exactly is this movie telling us?  That by being the victim of a fraud we can find happiness?  There is no question but that people sometimes think they have found happiness while they are being swindled, only to be brought to grief when later they discover they have been lied to.  The misery they experience then makes a mockery of their false happiness, which they would have been far better off without.  Winthrop’s tears when he finds out the truth are a gesture in that direction, but Marian is able to persuade him and everyone else that they are better off for what Hill has done.

Or is this movie telling us that as long as we realize we are being victimized, that makes it all right?  Finally, if both the con artist and his mark have the same wish, which is that the promises of the con man actually be fulfilled, will that make those promises come true?  Is that the key to happiness?

Perhaps my saying that the movie is “telling us” something is inapt.  Rather, we might better ask ourselves why this story appeals to us.  Why do we enjoy the fantasy that by succumbing to a fraud we can find love and happiness?  The movie could not successfully tell us this or anything else were we not already receptive to it.

While I was mulling this over, I kept getting the feeling that the movie reminded me of something.  Finally, The Rainmaker (1956) popped into my head.  It has the same formula, so let’s review it first, before trying to understand the message that these two movies have in common.  The con artist in this movie is Bill Starbuck (Burt Lancaster).  His thing is to get farmers to give him money to make it rain.  But just as Harold Hill could not read a note of music, Starbuck has never been able to make it rain.  Hill had to manufacture a problem to be solved, the morally corrupting influence of pool, whereas the problem in The Rainmaker is real, a drought.

Corresponding to Marian is Lizzie (Katherine Hepburn), a woman who is in danger of becoming a spinster.  According to her father and two brothers, she is too intelligent for her own good, which was pretty much the same attitude Marian’s mother had toward Marian.  The idea is that a man doesn’t like it when he meets a woman that is smarter than he is.  That’s probably true.  I don’t know what I’d do if it ever happened to me.  In any event, in addition to being a major reason for still being unmarried, the intelligence of these two women is essential for our believing that they knowingly allow themselves to be taken in by the con.

Lizzie’s older brother Noah (Lloyd Bridges) corresponds to Charlie Cowell.  He is the one who knows Starbuck is a swindler and is the one most against him.  Her younger brother Jim (Earl Holliman) believes Starbuck can make it rain, and he even helps out by beating a drum.  He and his sweetheart, Snookie Maguire, constitute the sexually safe couple corresponding to Tommy and Zaneeta in The Music Man, as opposed to the sexually dangerous couple, Lizzie and Starbuck.

Starbuck gets Lizzie’s father to pay him to make it rain, while allowing him to sleep in the barn for the time being.  While Starbuck works his gizmos, Lizzie’s father and brothers try to get Deputy File (Wendell Corey) to come to dinner, but he cynically says he does not want to get married.  Lizzie is humiliated when she finds out, and in her frustration turns to Starbuck.  Like Marian, she knows Starbuck is a fraud, but he makes her happy by seducing her.

In the end, Lizzie’s father and Jim realize that Noah was right, that Starbuck is a fraud, but because of the happiness he brought Lizzie, they do not want to press charges, and even Noah goes along with that in the end.  Starbuck gives them their money back and leaves.  But no sooner does he get about a mile out of town than it starts to rain.  Just as the boys’ band is actually able to put on a great performance at the end of The Music Man after the townsfolk are willing to let Hill go, so too does it start to rain in this movie after Lizzie’s family is willing to let Starbuck go.  Just as Hill wished he actually were a band leader, so too has Starbuck wished all along that he could actually make it rain.  Filled with jubilation, he returns, collects the money, and asks Lizzie to come with him.  At the same time, Deputy File realizes he loves Lizzie and asks her to stay.  She accepts, realizing that Starbuck was just for a night, not for a lifetime.  This is, perhaps, the main difference between the two movies:  Hill and Marian are together at the end of The Music Man; Starbuck and Lizzie are not together at the end of The Rainmaker.

Now let us try to answer the question raised previously:  What are these two movies trying to tell us?  That we should allow ourselves to be victims of a fraud because it will make us happy?  That when we know the swindler for what he is, and when he knows that we know, his flim-flam will be transformed into reality, and his dishonorable intentions will turn into true love?  This cannot be the message of these two movies because it is all too obvious that it just isn’t so.

Furthermore, if that were the message, the sexually safe couples in these two movies would serve no function.  Both movies were made before the sexual revolution, a time in which couples were supposed to wait until they got married before having sex.  Furthermore, both movies were set at an earlier period than when they were made, 1912 for The Music Man and in the 1930s for The Rainmaker, in which we may imagine that the prohibition against fornication, especially for women, was even stronger.  In The Music Man, the safe couple in question are so innocent that it would never occur to us that they would actually have sex, but in The Rainmaker, the required sexual restraint is made explicit when Jim tells how he almost had sex with Snookie, but then stopped because he realized that would be wrong.  Therefore, we are supposed to regard what happens with the dangerous couples as being exceptional and not behavior that should be emulated.  And Lizzie’s subsequent rejection of Starbuck’s offer for her to come with him in favor of staying put and marrying Deputy File underscores that point.

Though we pay scant attention to the subplot of the sexually safe couples in these two movies, yet they allow us to indulge the fantasy of giving in to a seduction, first in the form of the sexually dangerous couple, and then in the form of the promises of a swindler in general, by reassuring us that prudence and the moral order still prevail.  Unleavened by the sexually safe couples, these stories might have been taken to suggest that we abandon all reason and live in fool’s paradise.  This we would be unable to go along with, and the fantasy would be spoiled.

Damn Yankees (1958)

Damn Yankees (1958) is a musical about a man who sells his soul to the Devil for the sake of baseball.  It is the dumbest version of the Faust legend I have ever seen.

This is not to be confused with the fact that the story about Faust does not make sense to begin with.  According to the legend, Faust sells his soul to the Devil in exchange for worldly goods, such as knowledge or pleasure, and then, after twenty years or so, he will be forever damned.  Who in his right mind would make such a deal?  Evil may be fascinating, but stupidity never is, and we quickly lose interest in the fate of anyone stupid enough to do that. To put it differently, anyone who sold his soul to the Devil would for that reason have to be mentally impaired, and thus would deserve to be forgiven.  Of course, the Faust of legend is supposed to a great scholar, so that rules out the stupidity excuse.

If the Devil manifested himself one day in my living room, promising me whatever I wanted, pleasure, power, wealth, fame, or knowledge, if only I would sell him my soul, which would then mean suffering eternal damnation once I died, there is no way I would agree to such an offer.  What I would do, however, is spend the rest of the day saying to myself, “Wow!  All that stuff about God and Satan, Heaven and Hell, is true.”  And then I would completely change my life. From then on, I would turn the other cheek, give all my worldly goods to the poor, and never again look at a woman with lust in my heart. Thanks for the heads up, Satan!

I think that would be a perfectly rational choice on my part, for what could be more important in this world or the next than avoiding the fires of Hell?  But is this the reaction that Faust or the later Faustian characters have when they encounter the Devil? No, never, not once do they react that way.  Instead, with only a hint of hesitation, they condemn themselves to eternal torment for a mess of pottage.  In Goethe’s Faust, the title character sells his soul and gets to have sex.  In The Devil and Daniel Webster (1941), a struggling farmer gives it up for seven years of prosperity.  And so it goes.  Why such stories have captured the imagination of people for centuries is beyond me.

A couple of movies have managed to transcend the inherent absurdity of the Faustian premise.  Bedazzled (1967) is religious satire, and it is hilarious.  When a movie makes us laugh, all sins are forgiven.  And Angel Heart (1987) is believable because the Faustian character in that story figured he had a way of cheating the Devil.

But as I said, Damn Yankees is the worst of the lot.  I tried to suspend disbelief, accepting for the sake of the movie that there is such a thing as the Devil and Hell, and I even tried to make allowances for Faustian imprudence on the grand scale. But even so, the thing just didn’t make sense.  It all begins in the living room of Joe Boyd, who is yelling at the television because his favorite baseball team, the Washington Senators, is losing.  In his exasperation, he says he would sell his soul if the Senators had a slugger who could put the ball over the fence, beating the Yankees.  Suddenly, the Devil appears, going by the name Mr. Applegate (Ray Walston), ready to make a deal.  He says that in exchange for Joe’s soul, he will make Joe the greatest baseball player ever, who will help the Senators win the pennant.  He will make him Joe Hardy (Tab Hunter), and he will be twenty-two years old.  Joe has misgivings, thinking for a moment about his job and his wife Meg, but Applegate says this is too big a deal to worry about them.

In the end, Joe deserts Meg.  From the song she was singing earlier, lamenting how during baseball season, which is six months of the year, she is neglected, we gather that she and Joe are now in their forties.  She appears to be a housewife, a common role for women in the 1950s.  And so, after Joe leaves her, she continues in her role as a housewife without the slightest concern that there is no longer any income with which to pay the bills.  In other words, it is not just the supernatural part of this movie that makes no sense.

In making the deal, Joe insisted on an escape clause.  If he changes his mind before the last game of the season, by midnight of September 24, the deal is off. So, we figure that is how he will get out of the deal.  He will play baseball until then, and then back out at the last minute.  But that is not what happens.  To keep Joe from invoking the escape clause so he can go back to Meg, whom he misses, Applegate has a lost soul named Lola try to seduce him.  This results in complications and a few songs, but the end result is that Joe does not back out at the last minute.  He stays with the Senators.  And so, we figure Joe will continue helping the Senators win the pennant and then be dragged down to Hell.

And then, from out of left field, Applegate decides he is going to make the Senators lose the pennant.  But that would mean he would not be living up to his end of the bargain. So, we now figure that when, against all reason, Applegate makes the Senators lose the pennant, Joe will not have to go to Hell, because Applegate failed to fulfill the contract. No, that’s not it either, because in his effort to make the Senators lose the pennant, Applegate turns Joe Hardy back to Joe Boyd, thinking he will not catch the fly ball.  But Joe does catch the fly ball, and so the Senators do win the pennant.  So, that means Joe is going to Hell after all, right?

No, Joe goes back home.  For some reason, Meg takes him back, as if being abandoned didn’t bother her in the slightest. Applegate shows up, we think to collect Joe’s soul, but instead he acts as though Joe is in the clear.  He offers Joe the chance to help the Senators win the World Series in exchange for his soul.  I suppose if Joe had made that deal, then at the last minute, Applegate would have tried to make the Senators lose the World Series, but when he failed and the Senators won the Series anyway, Joe would go back home then too, and once again be in the clear, for reasons that don’t make sense, either in this world or the next.

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.  But this catastrophe, in turn, merely provides the basis for its religious themes of sin, suffering, and redemption.

Clark Gable plays Blackie Norton, who runs the Paradise Club, 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 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.  Soon she is offered a chance to sing in the Tivoli Opera House.  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 Jack Burley for his money and social position, a man whom she does not love.  Also, Burley will allow her to continue to sing at the Tivoli, while Blackie wants her back at the Paradise.

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, for when the earthquake begins, God does nothing to prevent it, and the result is that many people die or suffer crippling injuries.  Of course, we are probably supposed to understand this earthquake as Old Testament style, wrath of God punishment for the Barbary Coast.  As Blackie wanders around looking for Mary, he keeps running into people looking for God.  Mrs. Burley, 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 let them suffer.

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 pain and misery 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.

Now, I know what you’re thinking.  All this devastation brought about by the earthquake doesn’t prove there’s a God.  At most, it only proves that people need God.  But that nice distinction exceeds the critical acumen of those that made this movie.  More to the point, 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.

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 seem to be holding up remarkably well, all of which testifies to the power of faith and the glory of God.

The Phantom Empire (1935)

The Phantom Empire is the greatest serial ever made.  It runs for 245 minutes, and footage from this serial was edited down to 70 minutes in order to make a movie out of it, alternatively titled Radio Ranch or Men with Steel Faces.  The movie version loses much of the camp value of the serial, however.  Also lost is the way it cheats with the cliffhangers, letting us think something terrible happened, only to show something different at the beginning of the next chapter.  Subsequent chapters after the first begin with a stirring piece of music that sounds almost too good to be 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 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 kids are encouraged to visit the ranch and join the club, or they can start their own local fan club and get patterns so that their mothers can make Thunder Rider costumes for them.

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.  Perhaps not so much anymore, but there was a time when children would see a Western at a theater on Saturday morning and then want to play cowboys and Indians that afternoon.  This serial took that one step further by having the children within the story playing at what the grownups were doing, even to the point of becoming involved with the grownup story itself, thereby making it easier for the children in the audience to imagine they were part of the story when they acted out the parts later on.

Meanwhile, a bunch of men fly in by airplane, who we quickly figure are up to no good.  One of them, Professor Beetson, believes that somewhere underneath Radio Ranch is Murania, populated by descendants of an ancient city, who moved underground to escape the glaciers a hundred thousand years ago.  Beetson believes that if they can locate Murania, 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 by causing him to miss a broadcast, which will result in the loss of his radio contract.  Or they can just kill him.  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.  Muranians cannot breathe surface air, so they have to wear helmets that supply them with oxygen whenever they leave their city.  (Don’t look at me, that’s the explanation that is given.)  And yet, although Muranians cannot breathe surface air, surface people have no trouble breathing Muranian air.  Also peculiar is the mixture of ancient and futuristic technology.  The Muranians have television, allowing their ruler, Queen Tika, to see and hear what is going on anywhere on the planet.  They have all sorts of advanced weaponry, such as guided missiles and ray guns, 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, especially when she declares that their civilization is not only advanced, but also serene.  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.  In fact, she routinely condemns her officers to the “Death Chamber,” after which their charred bodies are sent to the “Cavern of Doom,” so we wonder just how serene her subjects can be under the circumstances.  She wants Autry captured so that she can drive everyone off Radio Ranch, because she fears that surface people will discover Murania and invade it.  Of course, it is Autry’s very presence at Radio Ranch that is preventing the discovery of Murania by Beetson and others, as she well knows from watching that television of hers, which allows her to overhear Beetson discussing his plans.  But she figures on getting rid of Autry’s Radio Ranch first, Beetson’s gang later.

When the captain fails a second time, she commands Lord Argo 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.  Though Queen Tika has people whipped or executed for merely failing to carry out her orders, despite their best efforts, yet when she 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 is on the side of a mountain.  Just as we see only one female in Murania, Queen Tika, so too is there only one female in the Junior Thunder Riders, Betsy.  In one sense, however, the parallel is one of contrast:  while the Junior Thunder Riders consist only of children, the Muranians seem to consist only of adults.  Of course, that might make sense if the Queen is the only woman in the place.  In any event, she refers to Frankie and Betsy as “undeveloped surface creatures,” almost as if the very idea of children is one unfamiliar to Muranians.

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, all of which makes that daily broadcast a bit challenging.  Fortunately, he has the Junior Thunder Riders to help him in that regard.

Eventually, Autry is captured and brought to Murania, but he escapes.  Later, Frankie and Betsy are captured and brought to Murania, but then they escape too.  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 its chest, an infraray tells it if someone is trying to pass, at which point it comes down repeatedly with its sword.  So, when Frankie and Betsy are trying to escape and are blocked by that robot, Frankie presses the off button on the robot’s chest, and then they go right past it without a problem.

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 wiped out by the latest advance in weaponry, an atom smasher capable of destroying the entire universe, but which ends up destroying itself instead.

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, other than for slow songs, 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, which takes place in a nightclub on V-J Day, 1945, 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, while 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 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.  Rhett Butler suffers from this same delusion regarding Scarlett in the movie Gone with the Wind (1939), and even more so in the novel.

Francine goes on to be a big movie star, while Jimmy manages to have some minor success owning his own nightclub, 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 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.

The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964)

Early in The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, two men argue about which is the better form of entertainment, operas or movies, with one guy saying that he prefers movies, because he doesn’t like all that singing in operas.  The joke is that what we are watching is both a movie and an opera, for every line in the movie is sung.

In a typical musical, most of the dialogue is merely spoken, with songs being sung occasionally for some special reason.  One of the things about opera that is strange is that people sing about ordinary stuff that hardly seems to warrant musical expression.  For example, at the very beginning of this movie, Guy (Nino Castelnuovo), who works in a garage as an auto mechanic, is just about to leave for the day when his boss asks him if he can work overtime.  He says that would be inconvenient, and he suggests Pierre instead, who says he can stay late.  All this mundane conversation is sung to music, whereas it would only be spoken in an ordinary musical.  Fortunately, the music is pleasant and easy to take.  As in any opera, however, there are special musical pieces that stand out from the rest.  In this case, two songs in particular have been translated into English and recorded, which are “I Will Wait for You” and “Watch What Happens.”

Jacques Demy, who wrote and directed this movie, is often said to have borrowed the plot from Marcel Pagnol’s Marseilles Trilogy, plays that were made into movies, especially the first two of the three, Marius (1931) and Fanny (1932).  However, there are differences between these early movies and The Umbrellas of Cherbourg that are so striking that they render the actual similarities superficial in comparison.

As for the story in The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, Guy and Geneviève (Catherine Deneuve) want to get married. However, he is drafted to fight the war in Algeria. On his last night before leaving, they make love for the first time. And you know what that means. When a woman in a movie has sex with a man just once, she gets pregnant. We then figure that either Guy will be killed in the war, or he will forget about her and fall in love with someone else. Either that, or she will be so desperate about covering up the shame of her pregnancy that she will marry another man. At first, Geneviève’s mother, Madame Emery (Anne Vernon), is a little distressed about her daughter’s pregnancy, but after a while, neither she nor Geneviève seems unduly concerned about it.  In other words, there is not sufficient desperation on the part of Geneviève to compel her to marry anyone.

Already we have several differences between this movie and corresponding parts of the Marseilles Trilogy.  In the latter, the two lovers are Marius and Fanny.  However, Marius is not forced to leave Fanny.  He simply would rather go to sea and satisfy his wanderlust than marry her, and Fanny sacrifices her happiness and lets him go.  As noted above, Guy would never have left Geneviève had he not been compelled to do so, for he wanted to marry her more than anything else.

In the process of trying to sell some of her jewelry to pay the bills, Madame takes Geneviève with her to a jewelry store, where they meet a jewelry wholesaler, Roland Cassard (Marc Michel), who immediately falls in love with Geneviève. Because he is rich and respectable, Madame wants Geneviève to accept his eventual proposal of marriage. She never really liked the idea of Geneviève’s marrying an auto mechanic, and in an effort to disparage Geneviève’s love for Guy, she earlier told her that she (Geneviève) did not know what love is all about, that it is more than becoming enamored with someone’s face.  This is ironic, because whereas Guy and Geneviève had gotten to know each other very well, all of Cassard’s love for Geneviève is based on his doing exactly what Madame ridicules, becoming enamored with someone’s face.

Surprisingly enough, instead of Guy forgetting about Geneviève, she starts forgetting about him. After only four months, she says it feels as though he has been gone for years, and that she is losing the feeling she had for him. She has to look at his picture to remember what he looks like. It is true that she has only received one letter from him in four months, but you have to figure that a man fighting a war might not have the luxury of writing regularly (in fact, he is wounded by a grenade).  In any event, in the letter she receives from Guy, he writes that he is looking forward to coming home after his military service is over, marrying her, and seeing their child.

This is another big difference between the Marseilles Trilogy and The Umbrellas of Cherbourg.  Fanny never stops loving Marius, even after she marries another man.  But Geneviève’s love for Guy simply fades away in spite of her efforts to hold on to it.

As a result of her waning feelings for Guy, Geneviève ends up marrying Cassard. The movie could have given her the standard motive of a woman desperate to cover up the shame of her pregnancy, as in Fanny, but it does not. It is unlikely that she would have married Cassard had she not been pregnant, but we still get the sense that her decision to opt for a marriage of convenience was made possible by the brute fact that her love for Guy had died.

Before Guy and Geneviève separate, they sing “I Will Wait for You.” The lyrics in the movie are a bit different from that of the popular recording of that song in English, but the thrust is the same. The two lovers express their undying love for each other. It reminds me of the movie Oliver (1968), in which Nancy sings the song “As Long as He Needs Me,” referring to her lover Bill, who has no need for her at all, and ends up murdering her. We have a similar irony with the song “I Will Wait for You.” Although the lyrics in the American version of the song say, “If it takes forever, I will wait for you,” Geneviève does not even manage to wait more than a few months.

Before being drafted, Guy was living with his dying aunt Élise (Mireille Perry), who was being tended to by a caregiver named Madeleine (Ellen Farmer).  After Guy returns and discovers that Geneviève has moved away and married Cassard, he talks to Aunt Élise to see what she knows about Geneviève.  He comments on several letters that were exchanged between Geneviève and himself, but most of them must have been written after she had married Cassard, since she earlier said she had only received one letter from Guy and that she did not know where to write him.  In these subsequent letters, she apparently could not bring herself to tell Guy about her marriage. In the course of his conversation with his aunt, he expresses surprise that Madeleine is still taking care of her.  “Hasn’t she married yet?” he asks, to which Élise offers as an explanation, “You know how well-behaved she is.”  Come again?  That’s a pretty cynical remark, even for a French woman.  In any event, he eventually marries Madeleine, who we sense has been in love with Guy all along.

Guy and Geneviève finally meet again when she pulls into the filling station that he now owns. She says she never expected to see him again, and that it was just by chance that she decided to pass this way. She offers no explanation as to why she married someone else, and he does not ask her why she didn’t wait for him to return. She asks him if he would like to meet their daughter Françoise, who is sitting in the car.  When he shakes his head No, we get the sense that this is neither from bitterness nor from any feeling that seeing his daughter would be painful for him.  Rather, his feeling for their daughter is like the love he once had for Geneviève, something that is simply gone.

In Fanny, when Marius returns and finds out what happened, he wants the child, but Fanny’s husband won’t give him up, and Fanny, who still loves Marius, stays with her husband, once more sacrificing her happiness for that of others (i.e., for her husband and her child).  But in The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, when the former lovers finally meet again, Geneviève no longer loves Guy, Guy no longer loves Geneviève, and he is indifferent to the child they had together.

After Geneviève leaves the filling station, Madeleine and their son, who had been out Christmas shopping, return to the station, and we see that they are a happy family.

There is no villain in this movie.  No one is to blame for what happened.  That is just the way love is, a beautiful illusion that we think will last forever until it doesn’t.