Tag Archives: Dick Powell

CINEMATIC CONTROVERSIES: THE CONQUEROR (1956)

Weirder (and ultimately more lethal) casting than as a frogman doing a yoga number with the Bride of Frankenstein is casting as… Genghis Khan!

Not only is The Conqueror (1956) one of the most embarrassing moments in Wayne’s career (right up there with the1952 pro-Joseph McCarthy film Big Jim McLain, the Duke in a Roman toga at the foot of Jesus’ cross in 1965’s The Greatest Story Ever Told, and the 1968 pro-Vietnam war film Green Berets) but this notorious Howard Hughes production literally (and ironically) killed the reigning star of Americana, along with its director , co-stars Susan Hayward, Agnes Moorehead, Lee Van Cleef, John Hoyt, Ted De Corsia, and Pedro Armendariz. Shot in Utah’s Escalante Desert, which had been previously used for atomic bomb testing, over half of the cast and production team (approximately ninety people) paid the price for unleashing this bomb with cancer: fifty, fatally. Over half the residents of the nearby St. George also were exposed to high levels of radiation and died of cancer, as did an undocumented number of the film’s Native American extras. Production photographs later surfaced of Wayne operating a Geiger counter on location. Apparently, it eventually dawned on cast and crew to be a tad concerned about being exposed to nuclear fallout.  Critics referred to the film as “An RKO Radioactive Picture,” and one of the scientists overseeing the atomic testing was later quoted (in a “People” interview) as saying, “Please, God, don’t let us have killed John Wayne.”

Hughes certainly blamed himself. Already having fallen down the rabbit hole of mental illness, he was reportedly wracked with guilt, buying out all existing prints of the movie (to the tune of over ten million). He refused to let it be seen for years, and watched it repeatedly, nude, in a darkened room as he made frantic calls to politicians, trying desperately to exert his influence and stop the practice of atomic testing.

Wayne, already a cancer risk from heavy smoking, had a lung removed in 1964, but was one of the later Conqueror casualties, coming down with stomach cancer in 1978[1].

Still from The Conqueror (1956)Wayne initially (and incomprehensibly) defended what was clearly a casting disaster by claiming that the story of Genghis Kahn was merely transplanted western. Of course, as good an actor as Wayne was (and he was a damned fine actor, ungenerously underrated by far too many critics), that is the problem with his performance here: playing Genghis Kahn as a cowboy renders the character laughable. Casting aside, the barbarian dialogue (delivered in Wayne’s home-on-the-range drawl) is made more execrable with Wayne lusting after Hayward’s (redheaded) Bortai: “This Tartar woman is for me. My blood says take her,” he announces anemically, followed by “you’re beautiful in your wrath” after she tries to stab her would-be rapist. The sight of the western icon adorned in a furry wife beater, Asiatic eye makeup, and sporting a Fu Manchu mustache is only surpassed by hearing lines like “I regret that I’m without sufficient spittle to salute you,” “you didn’t suckle me to be slain by Tartars,” “she is much woman,” and “you will love me of your own will before the sun rises.”

Hayward, equally miscast, seems to imagine herself as Salome, in a cleavage-bearing veiled dance that conjures up chintzy Vegas acts as opposed to the Orient or Bible. Wayne, rarely comfortable as a sex symbol (the only two leading ladies he seemed natural with in that department were Maureen O’Hara and Gail Russell) disastrously fails to convince as an Asian . Later in life, Wayne admitted his humiliation and wrote making an ass of himself in a role not suited for him off as a professional lesson.

Powell was as ill-fitting in his directing assignment as the actors were in their roles, and the result is a dull epic (not even campy enough to be entertaining) and a box office failure, credited for being the final nail in the coffin of its studio as well as its cast and crew.

  1. Contrary to popular belief, the actor did not have cancer when making The Shootist in 1976, although he was in poor health. []

GOLD DIGGERS OF 1933

Gold Diggers Of 1933 is ‘s masterwork, assisted in no small way by the astute direction of , who had previously directed a number of stark, socially conscious films, such as Little Caesar (1931) and I Am A Fugitive From A Chain Gang (1932). Like Berkeley, Leroy’s best work was at Warner Bothers and, like Berkeley, MGM would buy his contract and essentially neuter him.

This is the second of the Warners/Berkeley backstage 1933 musicals, beginning with 42nd Street and concluding with Footlight Parade. Gold Diggers is a mix of harsh realism and opulent fantasy, more so than any other musical from the Great Depression.  It jump starts in high gear fantasy mode with , dressed only in a skimpy outfit made of silver dollars (with one coin strategically placed over her crotch), singing “We’re in the money.” Rogers’ handling of the lyrics morphs into a glossolalia-styled Pig Latin aria that seems like it would be more at home in a Buñuel movie than a Hollywood musical. Behind her, a chorus of babes holding up undulating coins sings “let’s spend it, send it rolling along.” This is Berkeley’s phantasmagoric “F_ you!” to the Depression. And how would you climax such an opening? With a crash, as debt collectors break up the number, taking with them every prop, every stitch of clothing and everything, leaving only a crumb, a crumb even too small for a mouse.

Gold Diggers of 1933 (1933)Next we meet up with a foursome of Depression-era women. And these are determined women, bonding together to make it through a man’s world in hard times.  is at her innocent best.  is the wide awake, street-smart wisecracker. Aline MacMahon is the shrewd, conniving skeptic, and Rogers (who is a supporting character here) personifies the word “gold digger.” Although Rogers part is brief, she commands attention, especially in the opening scene, so much so that it is abundantly clear how and why she rose above her co-stars. Rogers could do Continue reading GOLD DIGGERS OF 1933

DAMES (1934)

 co-directed Dames (1934) with ho-hum stock director Ray Enright, and that may be one reason why it is among the most uneven of Berkeley’s films. The plot is threadbare. Oddball moral majority-type millionaire Hugh Herbert is planning on bequeathing ten million dollars to his cousin Zazu Pitts (of 1924’s  infamous Greed) and her husband . That is, on one condition—that he finds them to be “morally acceptable” (i.e., no smoking, drinking, or mixing up with show-biz types, especially those that do shows with those immoral dames!)

Of course, there has to be a fly in the ointment, and here it is . Powell’s tenor persona wears thin quickly. He is such an all-smiles poster boy that one wonders what in the world that constipated Herbert might have found objectionable in him. A little background info here on Powell: the actor realized the limits of the screen persona that he had been thrust into. He waited out his youth and when he was too old to be prancing  on-screen he shrewdly reinvented himself as a hard-boiled forty something private eye in film noir. Here, he is the fellar of , daughter of Zazu and Guy. Dick wants to put on a show and gets help from the eternally underrated (who became Mrs. Powell two years later).

In direct contrast to the virginal Keeler, Blondell is the much more interesting, wise-cracking working girl who manages to get Guy Kibbee into a compromising situation. She uses that to her advantage and blackmails Guy into financing Dick’s Broadway production. Naturally, it will all work out.

Plot-wise, that’s about all one needs to know. Unfortunately, the film does not spin the plot quite that fast and it takes some time before we get to Berkeley’s numbers, but once we do, most is forgiven.

Blondell is Warren and Dubin’s “Girl At The Ironing Board” and, on the surface, the song seems a bit subdued. But, the discerning eye will notice that not only is she singing to the fellas’ shirts on the clothes line, but the shirts are singing back. This number, set at the the turn of the century, is eyelash batting cynicism that only Blondell could have done justice to (with Keeler, the piece would have fallen flat). Blondell is a good sport even when one of the undie shirts gets a sleeve-full of her tush. Continue reading DAMES (1934)

FOOTLIGHT PARADE (1933)

Footlight Parade (1933) benefits greatly from the presence of actors James Cagney and Joan Blondell. Wisely, the film omits the coy indulgences of  regulars and , relegating them to the sidelines and musical numbers. Directed by  and choreographed by Berkeley, the film echoes Cagney’s rapid-fire delivery. It is often ranked as Berkeley’s best overall film.

The early 1930s were an era in which musicals and westerns pretty much ruled the roost, as far as quantity goes. As far as quality, with so many being produced, the bulk of Hollywood’s musicals, like their westerns, were wretched. MGM had a bigger reputation for musicals, but their Thirties’ output was predominantly tame fluff, and few have withstood the test of time. The grittier Warner Brothers productions, somewhat predictably, did it better, in no small part due to Busby Berkeley.

This is another “puttin’ on the show” extravaganza.  The advent of sound has put an end to silent films in the midst of the Depression. Producer Cagney feels compelled to keep his crew fed and working, so he racks his brain for ideas. He arrives at the concept of “musical prologues” to introduce talkies. Cagney is a Berkeley-like character who has to contend with a scheming ex-wife, a back-stabbing fellow producer (Guy Kibbee), and a planted temptress mole (the quite good Claire Dodd). This cast of characters serve as much needed antagonists for the hyper-intense Cagney to bounce off of.

Still from Footlight Parade (1933)Joan Blondell perfectly parallels Cagney. She is his snappy secretary of substance who secretly loves him. She is no push-over, and, displaying as much energy as her boss, she  exposes his crooked partner, saves him from the gold-digging Dodd, and  serves as his sounding board. Blondell damn near steals the whole film from Cagney, and that’s no easy feat. Her tough, no-nonsense humor gets the better of Dodd, and she sends her rival packing with a swift kick to the daily duties: “as long as there is a sidewalk, you’ll have a job!”  We’re almost as miffed as she is with Cagney for not Continue reading FOOTLIGHT PARADE (1933)

42ND STREET (1933)

42nd Street is the film that really made choreographer Busy Berkeley a star; and that, in itself, is telling. Although directed by Lloyd Bacon (a 1930’s version of a Ron Howard-type assembly line director), it was Berkeley who rightfully grabbed the honors.

The musical, it seemed, had already run its course when Warner Brothers released 42nd Street. Al Jolson’s The Jazz Singer (1927) had been the ground-breaker, ushering in the advent of sound. But, in the six short years between The Jazz Singer and 42nd Street, the genre had already grown stale. Warner, on the verge of bankruptcy, took a huge gamble (studios used to do that) and brought in the innovative Berkeley, teamed him with the competent helmsman Bacon, an unknown (fresh) cast, and the expert songwriting team of Al Dubin and Harry Warren (who make a cameo in the film).

The plot is hackneyed, and would set the pattern for what constitutes a “Berkeley” film. It’s a backstage story about the struggles of a Broadway musical production (who really thought 1980’s Fame had an ounce of originality?) with an overly intense, self-destructive director (Warner Baxter, an archetype later taken to the extreme in Roy Scheider’s portrayal of Joe Gideon in 1979’s All That Jazz) and an understudy (Ruby Keeler) who, at the last moment, fills in for the injured star (Bebe Daniels) and becomes a star herself.

Still from 42nd Street (1933)Of far more interest, plot-wise, is the nuanced filler material. Virginal Keeler and her leading fellar, golly-gee-wiz swell guy Dick Powell have limited charm and register as flat and clunky next to the wisecracking chorus girl  (already projecting star quality) and the dirty old rich lecher Guy Kibbee. This is the Depression era and there is talk aplenty about the desperate struggle for money and success, which gives the film moments of sweaty substance. Star Daniels, no fluff actress, is clearly an occupant of Kibbee’s casting couch, even if she is in love with George Continue reading 42ND STREET (1933)