Friday, August 31, 2018

Announcements :: We're Headin' Up, and Movin' Out.

Well, it's that time of year again, Boils and Ghouls, as the Annual September Sabbatical has once more sprung as we leave the Satan's Halitosis of Summer behind and barrel toward the cooler environs of Fall, which means I will once more be unplugging the old keyboard to let my typing knuckles scab over for a whole calendar month -- and then panic and scramble as we will return with Round 6 of Hubrisween, meaning 26 more films, 26 more reviews, in 26 days due in October. 


Until then, I will be hanging out with Gil and Rowdy and the boys. In the meantime, stay cool, and keep movin', movin', movin'...

Video courtesy of  TheVintageTVArchive.

Wednesday, August 22, 2018

The Lovely Lee Grant Blogathon :: Crazy or Not Crazy? That is the Question in Ted Post's Made for TV Movie, Night Slaves (1970)

Our film opens with a man in crisis preamble: He's just quit his job as a corporate attorney; his marriage is currently breaking up on the rocks of ennui and the resulting infidelity (-- the wife is having an affair with his ex-business partner); and his brakes have just failed, resulting in a catastrophic car accident, whose sustained injuries require part of his fractured skull to be replaced with a steel plate.

While he recovers, the wife, in a noble but perhaps misguided gesture of loyalty and doing the right thing, postpones the inevitable break up, not wanting to pile on any more misery until the husband is solidly back on his feet. Thus, our film proper picks up several months later, with our fraying couple out on the road, looking for a quiet spot to recuperate as per doctor's orders. Finding what appears to be the ideal town, everything is so laid back most of the locals appear to be asleep on their feet. (Odd, since it's well past noon.) Here, our cast is thickened up a bit with the introduction of Henshaw, the town sheriff (Nielsen), Beany, the town idiot (Prine), Fletcher, the restauranteur (Kellogg), and Mrs. Crawford, the dowdy owner of the local B 'n' B (Vincent). It almost seems too bucolic to be true, but things take a sinister turn when our couple crawls into bed for the night.

Waking up with a start from an obviously reoccurring nightmare about the accident, our haunted hero, Clay Howard (Franciscus), is drawn to the window by some activity outside. Seems the whole town has turned out, like ants fleeing a colony, silently loading-up onto the back of several trucks. Puzzled by this, he turns to alert the wife, Marjorie (Grant) only to discover she's not in bed -- or even in the room. He then spots her outside, waiting to get onto one of those trucks! Taking to the streets, he tries to stop her but the other somnambulant townsfolk prevent this, knocking him aside.

Once the trucks leave, the distraught Clay does a quick search around town, looking for help but finding everyone gone -- save for one girl, who giggles constantly at his plight and escalating agitation. Luring him back to his room, this tormentor disappears and the overwhelmed man collapses on the bed and passes out. Come the dawn, Clay wakes up with his wife sleeping soundly beside him. Worse yet, when he reveals what he saw the night before, Marjorie has no recollection of any of this -- nor will any of the other townsfolk. Told to write it off as just another in a long line of bad dream, despite the mounting circumstantial evidence backing him up, Clay begins to question his sanity in the face of all this denial -- until night falls and, crazy or not, this mass exodus happens again...

Jerry Sohl was a passable science fiction novelist (The Transcendent Man, The Odious Ones), who transitioned to a middling Hollywood screen-writer, staying in the same genre, by penning scripts for The Outer Limits (Counterweight, The Invisible Enemy), Alfred Hitchcock Presents (Dead Weight, A Secret Life), and, most notably, Star Trek (Whom Gods Destroy, This Side of Paradise, The Corbomite Maneuver). He also served as a ghost-writer for Charles Beaumont on a trio of Twilight Zone episodes (Queen of the Nile, Living Doll and The New Exhibit). In between all of that, Sohl published another novel in 1965, Night Slaves.

The tele-film based on the book doesn't stray too far off its source, with the Howards still being on the outs. Marjorie Howard is in love with another man but stays with her husband as a sense of duty while he recovers from that auto accident, which killed the other driver and his passenger. And thus, both physically and emotionally, Clay Howard (Franciscus) is, forgive me, a bit of a wreck. And things only get worse when the couple's getaway vacation is crudely interrupted by some preternatural malfeasance.

Five years after it's publication, producer Everett Chambers tagged Night Slaves for adaptation as a Made for TV Movie. I've touched on the history of this genre before but, for those of you just tuning in, the MFTV Movie really cemented itself when Barry Diller set up a specific time slot for them as part of the ABC network's The Movie of the Week in the fall of 1969; and Night Slaves (1970) would be part of the second wave of productions to find their way into living rooms. Fellow Outer Limits scribe Robert Specht co-wrote the screenplay with Chambers, which, again, stays fairly faithful to the novel with one notable exception that we won't spoil -- yet.

To translate that script to screen, Chambers brought in veteran TV director, Ted Post. Starting with Armstrong Circle Theater back in 1952, Post was fairly prolific on the small screen over the next three decades, sliding from genre to genre with ease, but was also no stranger to motion pictures. He directed Clint Eastwood in Hang 'Em High (1968), and would do so again in Magnum Force (1970). And Post had just wrapped Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1970), which also starred Franciscus, before tackling Night Slaves. And like it's source novel, this tele-film uses sci-fi trappings as a framing device to show the death throes of a marriage and one man's existential mid-life crisis and mental breakdown prodded along by extraterrestrial forces.

Yeah, after the second morning produces the same vehement denials, and then a third, Night Slaves quickly ventures into It Came from Outer Space (1953) territory when Clay finally wises up and plays along the next night, obediently following the others onto the trucks, which take them to a nearby factory where they all unload and set to work on ... something. Poking around further, Clay finally gets to the bottom of it all. Seems a gaggle of shipwrecked E.T.'s are using the people -- as benevolently brain-washed as extra-terrestrially possible -- as forced labor to repair their ship.

Turns out Clay was immune to their 'psycho-kinetic' brainwaves due to that steel plate in his head. But now that he knows the truth, it does little to add credibility to his story. Branded a kook by the locals, the film tries to muddy these familiar plot contrivances by throwing in a couple of missing people, namely Fletcher's wife and daughter. And when the former turns up dead along the road and the other turns out to be the giggling girl, who only Clay has seen these past three nights, everyone soon suspects him of a double-homicide.

And if all of that weren't dire enough, things get even a bit more twisted when Clay and the girl (Sterling) fall head over hills in love with each other in perhaps the fastest and stoopidest whirlwind romance ever committed to film. See, the girl has been possessed by a lowly alien technician named Naillil, and they're both ready to tune in and drop out of the rat race and decide to do so together. Alas, insta-soul mates or not, their inter-stellar romance is strictly verboten (-- it'll never work, says I. He's carbon based, she's a non-corporeal blob of neurons). And so, commander Noel (Prine again) orders Clay be placed in 'protective custody' until the repairs are completed in two more days. Will t'woo wuv win out in the end? Or will a daytime lynch mob derail this romance permanently?

Well, the answer to both questions is yes. Well, sort of. But not really. See, as we barrel toward the climax, Night Slaves the TV film finally ditches Night Slaves the novel. In Sohl's version, Clay Howard truly was insane, and this whole scenario was a paranoid delusion -- all part of his cognitive breakdown over the guilt of killing the other two motorists; a father and his daughter. And in this delusion, he concocts this plight where he decides to run away with Naillil to outer space. To accomplish this, he commits suicide by slitting his wrists. Again, this was all in his head and he died for nothing.

A lot of the same elements that proved Clay's insanity leaked into the movie. Naillil and Noel are Lillian and Leon spelled backwards, the names of the other victims in the accident. And so, in a sense, novel Clay has fallen in love with the woman he killed to compensate for his guilt, which leads to his self-destruction. I find this weird and a little disconcerting. And when one considers a lot of the other cynical, downbeat, and straight-up mind-f@ck endings the 1970s spawned on the boob-tube -- Satan's Triangle (1975) and A Cold Night's Death (1973) immediately spring to mind, they really could've had another bona fide head-walloper here. But, no. We get a happy ending. Sort of. But not really. Sensing a pattern here...

Anyhoo, Clay is saved firstly when that lynch mob waits too long as night falls and they are diverted back to the factory. (To wrap up these loose ends, turns out that woman died of a heart attack while in transport and fell of the truck, which, of course, no one remembers.) Left alone in the jail, Naillil lets him out and tells Clay to meet her in the meadow where the ship will launch the next morning. But Clay thinks they should skip trying to smuggle him on board and just jump in his car and skedaddle. This they try, but the zombified town folk swarm the car, blocking their escape. (The film's most effective scene.) 

Come the dawn, Clay smiles and nods and gives everyone the answers they want to hear until he's released from jail. Then, he quickly ditches the wife and leads a merry chase to that meadow, where he is reunited with his alien lover. They run off into the weeds together. When the sheriff and Marjorie arrive, they find them sprawled on the ground. Clay is dead -- well, not dead but 'psycho-kinetically' extracted to join Naillil on the ship (-- you'd think that steel plate would have prevented this, too, but, eh, forget it, the movie's almost over), but the girl, Annie Fletcher, is still alive but remembers nothing, leaving those our protagonist left behind to contemplate on what really happened and whether he was crazy or not.

Despite these changes, Sohl was apparently happy with the adaptation. To me, as crazy as I made it out to be, Night Slaves is a little too tepid and way too repetitive in its plot structure to be truly effective. (I was totally with it until it got to the insipid romantic subplot.) It also lacks the true whackadoodlery of George McCowan's The Love War (1970) -- a wild and wacky tale of feuding alien races fighting a clandestine war on earth in the form of Lloyd Bridges and Angie Dickinson, which debuted the same year, and not played straight enough to reach the supernatural contemporaneity alchemy of John Llewellyn Moxey's The Night Stalker (1972) -- where a vampire stalks the streets of Las Vegas. Post does a workmanlike job behind the camera, but aside from that final attack on the car nothing else really sticks out. We've all seen him be better than this. And weirder. (Go see The Baby. Now!) The incidental music is credited to Bernardo Segall, but one could easily mistake it's hiccuping, clavichord heavy muzak for something Vic Mizzy would cook up. Whoever wrote it, it doesn't really fit the surroundings all that well.

Overcompensating for these deficiencies and lack of deliriousness, we have James Franciscus and the lovely Lee Grant adding a lot of gravitas to the proceedings -- and more than it probably deserved. The film just smolders when these two share the screen. Not with hate, but a sense of familiar contempt two people with nothing left to give or say to each other accrue until it finally boils over. The film works so well when these two shred what's left of their marriage, burn the remnants, and salt the ashes. Kudos to Grant especially; it was a genuine pleasure to watch her on such a slow burn, here, when everything else I've seen her in can be easily identified by the teeth marks she left in the majority of the scenery in Airport '77 (1977) and The Swarm (1978). My Bro'Crush on Franciscus has already been well documented, and, omigod, Tisha Sterling is so adorable I can't even even.

Night Slaves debuted on September 29, 1970. I fist saw it many moons ago on TBS, back when the SuperStations didn't suck. It's good, but not THAT good. It's weird, but not quite weird enough. Is it worth seeing? It barely breaks an hour and there are worse things you could waste an hour on. And despite it's short-comings, Night Slaves definitely proves, once again, that the 1970s truly were a glorious time for network TV. An era of Made for TV movies, with amazing casts plugged into plots you wouldn't believe even if I drew you a picture, that we will sadly never see again.

This post was a last second substitution for Reelweegiemidget Reviews and Angleman's Place The Lovely Lee Grant Blogathon. The plan was to get a new review of When You Comin' Back, Red Ryder (1979) posted but that fell apart due to circumstances beyond my control with an untimely death in the family. And so, with the host's blessings, I decided to still participate and sub in this rehashed review. Apologies, Boils and Ghouls. Now please follow the linkage and get to reading all the other great reviews, please and thank you.

Night Slaves (1970) Bing Crosby Productions :: American Broadcasting Company (ABC) / P: Everett Chambers / D: Ted Post / W: Everett Chambers, Robert Specht, Jerry Sohl (novel) / C: Robert B. Hauser / E: Michael Kahn / M: Bernardo Segall / S: James Franciscus, Lee Grant, Andrew Prine, Tisha Sterling, Leslie Nielsen, John Kellogg, Virginia Vincent

Saturday, August 11, 2018

Tales of the AMC Stadium Seven, and the Afternoon Matinee That Almost Wasn't.

Hurry, hurry, hurry, ladies and gents, boils and ghouls, and movie freaks of all ages, gather around and listen to my latest tale of chaos and calamity concerning the Three Ring Circus that is the AMC Stadium Seven, my disaster prone hometown movie theater.

There I was, itching to catch a matinee of Mission Impossible: Fall Out (2018) and, by some miracle, I had awoken from the Odinsleep in time to feed, med-up, and clean-up to catch the 1:10 matinee before reporting for my four to midnight shift at the paper. Arriving at the mall at 1pm on the dot, I get in line for a ticket. About five people deep. Plenty of time, right? Well, Bert the Turtle was taking tickets -- and if you frequent the Stadium Seven, you know EXACTLY who I’m talking about. And when I finally get to the front, some older lady and her gaggle of grandkids decides to cut right in front of me and waves her phone at Bert. Who summarily ignores me to deal with her and her brood and her phone. I’m guessing she bought tickets online, which, apparently, gave her carte blanche to move to the front of the line. (And the next time some old coot tells you millennials are entitled brats…) Whatever. Thankfully, there were no glitches, she got her tickets for Christopher Robin (2018) and moved on. Then, I got my ticket and Bert says my movie will be playing in Theater #7. Still with me? Great. Because this is when things get a little nuts.

And so, I enter the maze and head for Theater #7. But hanging above the door of the theater is an illuminated placard for The Spy Who Dumped Me (2018), and right next door, above the entrance of Theater #6, is a placard for Fallout. Thinking the wily Bert was trying to trick me, I check my ticket stub, which, indeed, says Theater #7. The door of which is open, with five minutes to showtime, but the theater is already pitch black. (Further deduction deduces that with this being the first screening of the day, no one had bothered to turn the lights on in ANY theater. No safety lights. Nada.) So, a little confused, I head into the dark and empty theater except for two gals sitting way up in the corner, sitting in the warm glow of Maria Menounos shilling for something. What I don’t see are the four to five gents who were in line in front of me, who all bought tickets to see the same movie I was.

And so, I decide to duck back out and check with Bert at the ticket line to make sure I’ve got the right theater. He’s swamped. So never mind on that. Thus, I return to Theater #7, still empty except for the two gals. Begging pardon first, I ask if they’re here to see Mission Impossible. Nope; they’re here to see The Spy Who Dumped Me. One snootily telling me there’s a sign above the door, duh-doi. And what was I, stupid? To which I replied I saw that but my ticket says Theater #7 and the idiot at the box office told me my movie was in Theater #7. So, forgive me if I think my movie will be playing in Theater #7. Then again, this is the AMC Stadium Seven we’re dealing with.

OK, then, so, I abandon Theater #7 and enter Theater #6, which, if you remember, says it's showing my movie, which is also dark, the previews are playing, and I spot two of the guys who also bought tix for Fallout. And so, I take a seat but grow instantly wary due to the animated and juvenile trailers we are being shown. And when they finally wrap up, sure enough, when the movie proper spooled up, I was greeted with the opening scene of the latest Hotel Transylvania movie.

OFFS, said I, and vacated the theater -- along with everyone else who was in there, mind you. And as we reach the lobby, I got to witness a mass exodus from every single theater, all seven, just as one of the assistant managers pops out an employee’s only door, eyes wide as she takes in this nonplussed crowd of instant cinema refugees, and gets an earful from a father and his trailing kinder, who was very upset by the adult R-rated red-band trailers his kids just watched, thinking they were about to see Hotel Transylvania 3 (2018) only he wound up in the theater which, by process of elimination, was actually showing The Spy Who Dumped Me -- which, I will point out, was NOT showing in Theater #7. The signage was wrong on every theater. No one trusted their tickets, or Bert. Obviously, they’d all been here before, explaining why, oh yeah, we were all in the wrong theater.

And so, cackling all the way, I return to Theater #7 along with everyone else who was in Theater #6. Inside, I see those two gals are long gone and take a seat just as the trailers end and the commercial for the snack bar shows up, signaling the movie is about to start. Then, that assistant manager walks in and shouts, asking if we were all in here to see Mission Impossible. And from the darkness, she got her answer: “I sure as hell hope so!?!"

Yeah. That was me. And the moral of this story kids, as the movie ended, which was pretty great, and vacated the auditorium, I stopped to check the sign over the door of Theater #7 one last time, which now read: Now showing Hotel Transylvania 3. Sorry I ever doubted you, Bert. The Stadium Seven, folks. Give it up for the Stadium Seven. 

Friday, August 3, 2018

IT Came From Debuke :: Lost and Found: The True Hollywood Story of Silver Screen Cinema Pictures International (2017)

A highly amusing look at a faux mini-movie mogul in the Al Adamson vein, Lost and Found: The True Hollywood Story of Silver Screen Cinema Pictures International (2017) is a mockumentary framed around the notion that this schlock auteurs' entire catalog of films were consumed in a warehouse fire, and so, were considered to be lost forever. (And whether this fire was an accident or arson is up the viewer.)

Thus, the only evidence of their existence is about a half-dozen recently unearthed trailers for knock-off films like Alien Acid Beach Party, Big Guns, Hell Camino, and Black Thunder -- all based on whatever genre was popular in exploitation at the time of production as this career retrospective for 'Morris Carlisle' plays out from the late 1960s to the mid-1980s. And all films are worse than terrible.

A lot of familiar faces in the online B-Movie scene add their two cents in the doc, propping up Carlisle and his films with a hodge-podge of other real life notorious films, filmmakers, and production stories. And much to my surprise, even I got involved a little bit in the production, albeit indirectly, as several ads I posted over at the Morgue showed up in the film, slightly tweaked, to show the SSCPI product playing at the Conestoga 4 and the old Island Twin Drive-In. 

For the record, fake ad first. Real ad second. 

No credit, though. Alas! Anyway. The whole thing is delightfully goofy. And if you're a fan of this kind of stuff, you will probably enjoy it, too. And between you and me, I would love to see the trailer for Hell Camino expanded into a feature film.

Lost and Found: The True Hollywood Story of Silver Screen Cinema Pictures International (2017) Fifth Column Films / P: Jason Bailey, Jeremy Biltz, Mike Hull / D: Jason Bailey, Mike Hull / W: Jason Bailey / C: Mike Hull / E: Mike Hull / M: Michael Carmody / S: Jason Bailey, Michael Gingold, Grady Hendrix, Glenn Kenny, Chris Poggiali

Friday, July 27, 2018

Love and War and the Other Woman :: A Beer-Gut Reaction to Mervyn Leroy's Homecoming (1948)

As a troop transport ship returns from the ETO and nears New York Harbor, a clutch of reporters huddle on the docks, waiting to interview these returning veterans of World War II, which has just wrapped up in Europe. Once aboard, an older, more seasoned reporter zeroes-in on a Colonel Ulysses L. Johnson (Gable), who served in a mobile medical unit as a combat surgeon until a wounded leg got him a permanent limp and a ticket home.

But as Johnson respectfully declines all overtures, and seems less than eager to get off the boat, the reporter encourages him to tell his story, saying it’s important; and not just for him but for the people here at home and those he left behind, who must also come to grips and understand what all these returning soldiers, sailors and Marines went through to help ease them back into civilian life. This logic strikes a nerve with his potential subject but Johnson still refuses an interview. However, he does get to reminiscing about what he’d been through these past four years and reveals all wounds are not visible, and how it’s the emotional scarring that takes longer to heal -- if it ever will.

Now, the Johnson we flashback to in 1941 looks nothing like the worn and weary and nearly burnt-out husk we met on the boat in 1945. No. This life-time-ago Johnson was the chief surgeon of a local mid-western metropolitan hospital, who led quite the carefree, playboy lifestyle. With his doting wife, Penny (Baxter), always by his side, they often threw elegant parties at their palatial mansion when they weren’t at the country club guzzling drinks or playing a round of golf. With no time for children, which would only cut into their fun, the only thing really anchoring these hedonists was an old classmate of Johnson’s, Dr. Robert Sunday (Hodiak), who implores his friend to come help him in the slum area of the town they live in, which is currently being overrun with malaria, malnutrition and hookworm. And while Johnson always promises to help, he never actually gets around to doing anything. His wife needed a new set of clubs after all.

But then, after Pearl Harbor, we have our first seismic shift as Johnson signs up and is commissioned a Lieutenant in a MASH outfit. And on the day before he is to report for basic training, Penny throws him a going away party that gets crashed by Sunday, who accuses Johnson of being a selfish, unsentimental hypocrite, who only sees patients as a paycheck and not people. Johnson fires back, saying Sunday is a coward for not enlisting like he did. But Sunday says he’s already been fighting a war against poverty in their own backyard for years, adding Johnson only joined up because it was the self-serving thing to do. Then, Penny manages to separate these two but it appears their long friendship has come to an end.

After a brief montage of basic training, which was a little tougher than Johnson had anticipated, cut to a troop transport; this time heading to Europe. The deck is jammed packed with doctors, medics and nurses, including Johnson; currently squabbling with one of those nurses over the reasons as to why we’re fighting this war. And, turns out, Lt. Jane “Snapshot” McCall (Turner) has been assigned to Johnson's outfit -- and more specifically, as his head nurse. 

But despite this rocky start, and despite being diametrically opposed to just about everything, a romantic spark between these two has been ignited. And as the war starts closing in on them as casualties mount and bombs drop all around them, this spark soon stokes up into a raging desire for these two exhausted people who are in desperate need of some comfort, and who are both a long, long way from home and those they left behind...

After graduating from Cornell University in 1928, Sidney Kingsley had toyed with the idea of becoming a stage actor before he moved out to Hollywood to be a spec-script reader and scenarist for Columbia. But one foot remained on the stage, however, as Kingsley also wrote several noted plays, including Dead End (-- later adapted as a movie in 1937 starring Humphrey Bogart and featured the first appearance of the Dead End Kids / Bowery Boys) and Detective Story (-- adapted in 1951 as a stellar vehicle for Kirk Douglas, which also inspired Danny Arnold to make the TV series, Barney Miller, for which I will always be eternally grateful).

Kingsley also won a Pulitzer Prize for his play, Men in White, which was also later adapted as a movie in 1934 by MGM. It told the tale of a young intern, also played by Clark Gable, who cares for his patients too much according to his socialite fiancé (Myrna Loy) because he’d rather diagnose patients or perform life-saving surgery than go shopping or attend a never ending string of cocktail parties with her. And as his social life falters, the intern lures an equally compassionate nurse (Elizabeth Allan) into an affair. And as one of the last batch of Pre-Code films, it ends with the nurse on her deathbed after an implied botched abortion to teach the young intern an abject lesson on getting his priorities straight and leave his philandering ways behind him.

Shot in just fifteen days right after Gable had served out his punishment -- his “punishment” being lent out to shoot It Happened One Night (1934) for (then) lowly Columbia, Kingsley’s play was still in its first run in both New York and Los Angeles when the film premiered. (The film was not shown in those markets until the play closed.) And while it did pretty well at the box-office, it took a critical drubbing as it was often unfavorably compared to the stage version. It also didn’t help matters that the Catholic led Legion of Decency cited the film as unfit for public viewing due to the “illicit romance” and “suggested abortion” that moved the plot along.

A lot of elements from Men in White echo in Homecoming (1948) -- in fact, one could almost call it a stealth remake, which Kingsley first wrote back in 1944 as The Homecoming of Ulysses as a short story or an aborted draft of a play, depending on the consulted source. Either way, MGM quickly snatched it up as another vehicle for Gable, their own returning war veteran, who had served in the U.S. Army Air-Corps. Gable had enlisted soon after the tragic death of his wife, Carole Lombard, in 1942 and had hoped to be an aerial gunner on a bomber. But after he completed basic training, after MGM pulled several strings to protect their star investment, strings the star didn’t necessarily wanted pulled, Gable was sent to Officer Candidate School, commissioned as a 2nd Lieutenant, and given a special assignment to make several recruitment films for the burgeoning air force.

And while shooting Combat America (1944), Gable flew five bombing missions in the ETO, including one over Germany in 1943, where his aircraft sustained major damage, losing an engine and part of the tail. One crewman was also killed and a flak burst nearly blew Gable’s foot off and the resulting shrapnel barely missed his head. When MGM got wind of this close call, they arranged for a transfer back to the States and a non-combat position, feeling he now had plenty of footage, so Gable could finish editing his film and return to them in one piece. By the time Gable mustered out in 1944 he had achieved the rank of Major and had been decorated with an Air Medal and the Distinguished Flying Cross for his service.

After the war, Gable, still in a tailspin over the loss of Lombard, participated in several ill-fated affairs with several different actresses as he got back to work, starting with Adventure (1945), co-starring Greer Garson, which bombed badly. He fared better in the advertising satire, The Hucksters (1947), which leads us back to Homecoming, where Gable was reunited with MGM’s other bona fide box-office draw, Lana Turner, who first worked together in Honky Tonk (1941), and then Somewhere I’ll Find You (1942), which was shot right after Lombard’s death and you can tell it affected Gable's performance, who had lost over 20lbs. since the tragedy and was an emotional and physical wreck.

But I think Gable was able to tap into these roiling emotions in Homecoming -- especially in the wraparound segments, where he absolutely shines, bringing some needed poignancy when this whole enterprise threatened to dovetail into pure maudlin. (OK. Fine. It still kinda does. More on this later in the wrap-up.) He doesn’t fare quite as well in the flashback segments, though, simply because I never bought him as a surgeon, which was one of the major critical objections to the earlier film, Men in White. This was not helped by the fact that during the operating scenes, Gable refused to cover his nose, thinking we might lose him in the crowd. (Trust me, buddy. Those ears are a dead giveaway.) With everything else, he’s fine. Better than fine. But those scenes still take me right out of the picture.

Glamour girl Turner, on the other hand, fares better as I easily bought into her earnest and genuine take on the no-nonsense nurse, Snapshot McCall. (I love how she always refers to her romantic nemesis as “Useless.” And, at least she wears her surgical mask correctly.) A widow, whose husband was killed while serving with the Flying Tigers in China before America officially entered the war, Snapshot left behind a six-year old son to serve. In fact, that’s the initial bone of contention between these two because Johnson and his isolationist views feels her husband had no business doing what he did and his chauvinism says she should be at home looking after her son.

Of course, it’s this prickly attitude that keeps these two at arms length at first, keeping things professional as they land in Italy and set up the mobile field hospital. But it is this same unwavering professionalism in the face of dire and deadly circumstances as they are bombed, shelled, strafed, and deal with countless casualties, that eventually breaks the ice between these two as both Johnson and Snapshot soften up considerably and the two become friendly. And then this friendship is cemented in a pretty hilarious scene where the two head to an old Roman ruin to take a much needed bath in a stone cistern. Separately, mind you. Well, until their sanctuary is raided by a whole squad of nurses while Johnson was taking his turn.

Meantime, Johnson’s entrenched laissez faire attitude starts to crumble when one of his patients, a Sergeant “Monk” Monkevickz (Mitchell), dies of a malarial-induced ruptured spleen. Seems Monkevickz was from his hometown; more specifically the slums; the exact same neighborhood his old friend Dr. Sunday had begged him to help out with. With his condition, Monkevickz should’ve never been allowed in the army. And I’ll give you three guesses as to who gave him a passing grade on his physical? Odds are you’re only gonna need one. Here, Johnson confesses to Snapshot what he did, saying Monkevickz wasn’t the only patient he’d failed to treat like a human being, and then wonders aloud what kind of human being does that make him? And after several more harrowing incidents, these two finally give in to the inevitable.

Meanwhile, back home, Penny has been receiving a constant stream of letters and photos from her husband since he left -- and every single one of them mentions Snapshot. And mentions her a lot. Like, A LOT a lot. At first, he was just bitching about her attitude, but as these letters piled up this bitching slowly morphed into a genuine affection. Now. Penny is no fool, and can easily read between the lines, here. And when the latest letter asks her to look up Monkevickz's father and pay their respects, she runs into Dr. Sunday. And as these two get to talking Penny frets about the letters, admits to being jealous of all the attention being paid to this other woman, and is convinced they’re having an affair. And worst of all, she doesn’t want to lose her husband, wants to fight for him, but there’s nothing she can really do to stop it under the current circumstances.

I’ll admit it was interesting to watch Anne Baxter not play the scheming vamp in one of these love triangles but the wounded party. And to be honest, the script and film doesn’t really play fair with her character as the wife left behind. As her character states: she wants to fight for her husband but doesn’t know how due to the time and distance of their separation. But then, do we really know anything substantial about Penny, or her relationship with Ulysses aside from all the partying they did? Nope. So the film kinda slants unfairly toward Snapshot’s more grounded corner over the flighty socialite.

Apparently, we were actually supposed to see more of Penny and Ulysses’ courtship to help balance these stakes in Homecoming as the wife has her own flashbacks while she reads her husband’s letters. But to film these scenes Gable had to wear some extensive makeup to de-age him, including hemorrhoid cream applied to his face to shrink his eye bags, and his jowls were pulled back with a contraption made of rubber bands. The end results didn’t look so hot, and Gable hated the way it made him look. And so, all but one of these flashbacks wound up on the cutting room floor. So all we get to see is a first time meet-cute that really does neither character any favors. And besides, flashbacks within flashbacks are the highest form of sloppy storytelling and an instant red flag that your script needs a rethink and a massive overhaul.

Anyhoo, once again, the realities of war once more interrupt this melodrama as Penny and Sunday are interrupted by the noisy arrival of a special edition for the local newspaper declaring the Allies have invaded Normandy. And as their unit is transferred to that front and things settle a bit as the winter of 1944 sets in, we find a melancholy Johnson saying goodbye to Snapshot, who has been transferred to another outfit. As for the reason for this, the film does not address it clearly, which I find strange. Were they getting too close? Were they having second thoughts? Did one of them call it off, and so, could no longer work with each other? Or, is this just how the Army works as people are promoted out of certain units? That’s me shrugging right now, but I’m leaning toward that last one.

But their goodbyes are short-lived as these two bump into each other while on leave in Paris. And when word breaks that the Germans have launched a massive surprise attack and their unit is on the verge of being overrun, these two find a jeep and head back to the front-lines to help out -- only to find themselves lost, surrounded, and cut off as the Battle of the Bulge rages all around them. And as these two illicit lovers take shelter in a bombed out barn, as German panzers noisily roll by, they once more embrace and brace for the worst.

Here, we cut back to the troop-ship, where Johnson prematurely wraps up his mental constitutional without revealing, what happened to them -- and more to the point, what happened to Snapshot, but we get a big visual clue when it's revealed he is in the possession of Snapshot's busted cigarette lighter, which used to belong to her dead husband. And as he returns home to Penny, we discover our melodrama has, indeed, taken the cheap and easy way out by removing the other woman from the equation. But, the damage has still been done. And Johnson doesn’t reveal this at first, begging Penny to give him some time. He does seek out Sunday and apologizes for being such an ass, and about how his friend was right and he was wrong, terribly wrong, about everything.

Penny, meantime, is on eggshells, as she patiently waits for her husband to open up. And when he finally does, he reveals Snapshot died after being wounded as they hid out during the Bulge. Shell fragments. (He was wounded later as the Allies counter-attacked and then pressed on into Germany.) He then fesses up to the affair and his love for Snapshot, and how he is in mourning for her. “It might have been easier if I hadn’t told you,” says Johnson. “And yet, that would have been impossible … Because it isn’t just my problem. It’s our problem together and I couldn’t go on living with this inside of me without your sharing it. Penny, bear with me awhile, can you?” Penny listens, and, fearing she had already lost him for good, but now, with at least a fighting chance to try and win him back, promises to do just that as they try to come to terms with all of this together as we fade to black.

Over his career as a director, Mervyn Leroy has had a total of nine films nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards. Homecoming … was not one of them. In fact, it was named in many film critic circles as one of the ten worst films of 1948. Again, despite the critical pasting, Homecoming was one of MGM’s biggest hits of the year, earning nearly $4 million at the box-office. And so, while critics found the film to be too maudlin and too pat with its climax, audiences ate up the sudsy melodrama and turned out for the two star attractions. And the two star attractions, plus Baxter and her real life husband, John Hodiak, almost make all this soap lather work and elevate it above your standard weeper. Almost.

According to his own legend, Leroy first got the itch to direct while observing Cecil B. DeMille as he worked on the silent version of The Ten Commandments (1923). And he would adopt the legendary director’s technique as he started making his own pictures, starting in 1927 with No Place to Go. From there, Leroy would direct and produce a diverse string of hits ranging from I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1932) to Gold Diggers of 1933 (1933). He also made a star out of Edward G. Robinson with Little Caesar (1931). In 1938 he was hired by MGM to take over as head of production, where he made a big splash green-lighting The Wizard of Oz (1939). Over those early decades Leroy was also often credited for “discovering” the likes of Loretta Young, Robert Mitchum, Lana Turner and Clark Gable.

You can sense that DeMille touch in Homecoming, too -- as if his thumb were pressed down and held there for the duration. I mean, look how great the action and big spectacle set-pieces are in this film -- just like DeMille's were. And then remember how much the melodrama drags it down into an interminable slog -- just like DeMille's did. And, alas, those big set-pieces were too far and too few between the plot. So overwrought. And very predictable. And so, in the end, very shallow. But! At least most of those sets and military gear were most likely recycled and reused a year later in MGM’s far superior war film, Battleground (1949).

As for that melodrama, some would argue Penny is too understanding, too willing to forgive. But I honestly give the character a lot of credit for being diplomatic -- no, compassionate enough to realize she has no real idea what kind of emotional trauma her husband has gone through these past four years, what he’s seen, all the death, destruction, and suffering endured, and what it took to get through it. All she could do was follow his progress on a map and his letters, which we’ve already discussed. And if Snapshot helped him survive? So be it. Does this excuse his extramarital affair then? Perhaps; and at least it goes well beyond a wandering eye and a wagging tongue. In the end, then, who are we to judge? Baxter plays this so well, too. And Gable? Man, he’s really channeling something for Lombard here and I don’t think he’s ever been better. And frankly, Gable had better chemistry with Baxter than he did with Turner. So if anything, the film ended prematurely and these two deserved more time to hash things out and let the memory of Snapshot rest in peace.

When I first encountered the film, I tuned in just as Johnson and Snapshot were trying to get back to the front. The tension was high and the action taut as they go against the grain of the retreat and soon find themselves trapped, alone, behind enemy lines. Kudos to Leroy and cinematographer Harold Rosson, who make this nightmare situation a stark and grim reality. And as a sucker for this kind of melodrama, and as a sucker for any war movie, so entranced was I by this sequence, I made the effort to track down the film so I could watch the whole thing. Do I regret the end result? Eh. It is what it is, and delivers just that.

But that’s also kind of the problem. As I think one of the most frustrating things about Homecoming is how close it came to achieving something far greater and far more compelling than the schmaltz it delivered -- made doubly worse by the expectation based on that cast and those behind the camera. And if Homecoming makes one critical mistake it's that it focuses too much on everything else BUT the actual homecoming, redemption, and reconciliation of Ulysses Johnson, where the real drama lies just waiting to be tapped. Again, those wraparound segments had such great potential, too bad it all got squandered in the middle.

Homecoming (1948) Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) / P: Sidney Franklin / AP: Gottfried Reinhardt / D: Mervyn LeRoy / W: Jan Lustig, Paul Osborn, Sidney Kingsley (play) / C: Harold Rosson / E: John D. Dunning / M: Bronislau Kaper / S: Clark Gable, Lana Turner, Anne Baxter, John Hodiak, Cameron Mitchell
Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...