Wednesday, July 30, 2014

MOVIE OF THE DAY: "MURDER IS MY BEAT" (1955)

A cop is questioning a woman about a murder. He searches her bureau and closet as if he lived there.

WOMAN: You're pretty free with my apartment, aren't you?
COP: Do I have to buy a ticket?

I might not have ever heard of Murder is My Beat if it hadn't been for the beautiful three-sheet poster I bought a couple or three decades ago. Unfortunately, someone -- a nervous theatre-owner, perhaps? -- covered "MURDER" with "DANGER." Still, I could tell it was a movie that was certainly my beat, especially with the Wim Wenders of Poverty Row, Edgar G. Ulmer, directing.

Make no mistake, Murder is My Beat follows the usual film noir recipe by the teaspoon. Plainclothes flatfoot Ray Patrick is on the prowl for Eden Lane, a blonde floozie wanted for murder. First putting his life in jeopardy by tracking her 7,000 feet up a mountain in a blizzard, he finds himself putting his job on the line when he falls for hard for her. Doing a belly-flop off a prison-bound train, Ray and Eden go rogue in order to find the mysterious man whom Eden claims is the real killer.

The Abominable Detective
Nothing new here, unless you count the blizzard, which probably counts as a first for a film noir (film blanc?). But nobody watches these things for breakthroughs in storytelling. Cops, saps, blondes, twists and double-crosses -- that's all we ask for. And Murder is My Beat delivers. No, the dialogue doesn't give Double Indemnity for a run for its money. The story might be a little convoluted for its own good. It suffers from an unwelcome happy ending. Nor are there what might be called high-wattage stars. This was, after all, an Allied Artists (formerly Monogram) B-picture.

"No problem, this is the way
I always look."
But you know what it does have? A cast of real-looking (rather than Hollywood-looking) actors you wouldn't have been able to pick out of a police line-up. The sad-eyed Paul Langton (Det. Patrick) spends a good deal of the movie beat up worse than a banker at a May Day Parade. Occasionally lapsing into Bogart patois, Langton is more sympathetic than the average film noir hero, seeing that he's a decent cop who doesn't know if he believes Eden or is merely falling in love -- make that in sexual heat -- with her. Langton's the kind of actor who may not have made a major impact in his 100+ movie and TV roles, but was always real.


"C'mon, baby, you can spare a little of that
make-up to cover my hematoma."
Barbara Payton (Eden) drips with sex, yet there isn't really anything that sexy about her, at least from my perspective. Tight sweaters, close-cropped hair, make-up that's been applied with pancake spatula -- the '50s were apparently a time when drag queens were what women aspired to be. Or, more likely, what men aspired women to be. And yet she and Langton look perfect together, as do the equally-plain Hugh Beaumont and Ann Savage in the previously-discussed Apology for Murder. Sex appeal comes in strange packages. (Feel free to google Barbara Payton's sorry life -- alcoholism and prostitution just scratching the surface -- to see just how her biopic could rival any classic film noir... and without a happy ending.)


"Careful with those things, lady, or you'll hurt
somebody with 'em!"
The budget restrictions of Murder is My Beat (great name for an album of dance music, by the way) heighten its realism. You can see a real downward trajectory from 1930s movies in terms of fashions, decor, even cars. The cop's Nash Rambler is a sorry ride compared to the flashy coupes of 20 years earlier, while there are enough dangerous-looking bullet bras for an ammunition depot. The plentiful location shots, too, show that even Los Angeles was starting to look seedy. In fact, there isn't anything particularly attractive about Murder is My Beat, and that's a good thing. 

Edgar G. Ulmer does a good job here, concentrating on close-ups to heighten the emotional drama. His occasional cutting from location to studio to process shot in the same scene can be whiplash-inducing, but again, that's more due to budget than talent. One chance where he gets to show what he's capable of -- cutting back and forth from Langton's emotional third-degree of Eden to the relentless drive of the train's steel wheels -- screams of sexual arousal. All aboard! 

All things considered, Murder is My Beat might not be the Acela, but it gets where it's supposed to in a timely, efficient manner.

                                                            *****************
To read about the B-movie mentioned in this piece, Apology for Murder, click here.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

AN OPEN LETTER TO MAYOR BILL DE BLASIO

Dear Mayor de Blasio:

First of all, I'm glad I didn't do a simple copy and paste from the Emily Post advice site. Otherwise, I would have written "Dear Mayor Last Name." 

A neighbor informed me that you and your family left your Brooklyn townhouse behind, and officially moved into Gracie Mansion last Sunday. Please accept a hearty Upper East Side "Welcome to the neighborhood!" It's always a pleasure to have anybody who brings extra security to the area. If you could spare a few cops to patrol my block when my daughter comes home from wherever she's been all night, I'd appreciate it.

Speaking of you moving in, I noticed that city workers finally started repairing that big hole on the East River boardwalk today. I wish we non-mayors had that kind of clout, but I'll take my improvements where I can find them.

Living on the Upper East Side might come as a culture shock to a former Brooklynite like yourself, especially when it comes to the all-important concept of diversity, which rivals only "superintendent on premises" as many New Yorkers' number one priority. On the Upper East Side, diversity means a choice between different cuts of prosciutto, or seeing a Ford Fiesta next to a Mazda CX9 in the parking garage. Our idea of culture is frozen margaritas.

Now that you're a resident of the UES, allow me to give you a few tips to make your life easier. 
  • If you hear a bicycle bell behind you while you're walking along the river, please move to the right. Just because you're a pedestrian doesn't mean you're better than everyone else. In fact, just because you're the mayor doesn't mean you're better, either, despite that fence around Gracie Mansion.
  • I don't know if you're going to take the subway to work like your predecessor Mike Bloomberg did.  If you do, avoid walking on 86th to get to the #4 train. Between the commuters and guys selling socks, cheap perfume and "collectible" comic books off of trays, it's kind of like navigating downtown Calcutta at rush hour. In fact, if you could do something about those peddlers, you're guaranteed to get the neighborhood vote.
  • Don't plan on sleeping past 7:30 a.m. on Saturdays. That's when New York's Strongest (i.e., garbagemen) swing by.  By the way, that's something else you might want to take care of. We've been putting up with what sounds Jurassic Park every weekend for over 20 years.
  • Look both ways before crossing the street. We want our bike-riding food delivery guys to bring our pad thai fast fast fast. (Remember what I said about bicycle bells?)
  • If you plan on keeping the July 4th fireworks all the way down on 14th Street -- an idea I wholeheartedly endorse -- please let it be known that it will be impossible to see them from the Upper East Side. Otherwise, the boardwalk will be crawling with thousands of disappointed people trying to watch the show. Or, better yet, put the fireworks back on the West Side. Let them handle the overflow.
  • The patch of Carl Schurz Park to the immediate south of Gracie Mansion is a swell place for an evening picnic. But that's where my wife and I go on Fridays, so please save your family outing for Saturdays. Nothing personal, mind you -- we'd just find it more relaxing without a couple of scowling bodyguards searching our moo shu for concealed weapons.
  • Since you're supposed to be a man of the people, why not hold a monthly lottery for a special "Brunch with Bill" for your neighbors? Have Bagel Bob's on 86th & York cater. Their Bacon & Egg on an Everything can't be beat.
  • Just to warn you, tours of the Second Avenue Subway construction are limited to those whose lives or businesses are directly affected by the mess. However, they might make an exception for you, but only if you can prove hardship.
In closing, let me again welcome you to the neighborhood. I often saw Mayor Giuliani during his tenure, and once shook hands with Mayor Bloomberg, so don't be a stranger. In fact, I hope I can greet you with a friendly "Morning, Mayor!" some day soon. Just don't assume I voted for you.

                                                        ************
 Visiting New York soon? Be sure to read my advice for tourists by clicking here.

Monday, July 28, 2014

GIVE ME A BREAK

I moved to New York in 1981 -- over half a lifetime ago. Life isn't always easy here, nor is it cheap. I discovered the latter the day I unpacked my bags, when the subway fare jumped from 60 to 75 cents. Seeing that it's now $2.50, I should have enjoyed it while I could. 

Forbes recently listed Manhattan as one of the most expensive US cities, driving many people to the relatively inexpensive wilds of, for instance, Indianapolis. But there are times when City Hall acts like a nervous Upper East Side parent who wants to make sure Junior gets everything he wants, even when Junior doesn't ask for it.  From the New York Post:

Recently, CBS announced that when David Letterman retires and funnyman Colbert succeeds him as host of “The Late Show,” the program will stay in New York. For a price, that is.
That price turns out to be similar to the Jimmy Fallon tax credit the state paid to get “The Tonight Show” to film here.
In that deal, NBC got more than $20 million in tax credits, along with another several million for studio construction.
Under this new deal, CBS will get $11 million from taxpayers over the next five years — plus another $5 million in grants to renovate the fabled Ed Sullivan Theatre.  

Toscanini can barely concentrate while
conducting the NBC Symphony, knowing that
he's not getting no damn tax break.
Let me tell you, I am soooooo happy that we New Yorkers are forking over that kind of dough to make sure Jimmy Fallon can continue to do his Neil Young impressions from 30 Rock -- where producer Lorne Michaels said the show was going to broadcast from all along anyway. The boys at the Peacock Network must have learned from their former owners, GE, which, as we know, paid $0,000,000,000 in federal taxes last year (that's "zero" with a z). Remember, something's gotta offset Fallon's $12-million salary. 

Ed Sullivan had to trap
the rodents himself.
Stephen Colbert's salary at CBS is unknown at this time, but you can figure it'll be plenty more than his current $6-million payday at Comedy Central. And while the $11-million thank-you from New York taxpayers is chump change compared to what NBC gets, that extra fiver for new drapes and Butcher's Wax for the fabled Ed Sullivan stage must take the sting out of it. (Don't slip when you come out from behind the curtain, Stephen!) Just so you don't think we're not getting anything out of these deals, tickets to both programs are free. 

I used to take offense at City Hall's largesse, but have decided to look at things differently. In fact, I'm putting our fine elected leaders on warning. If I don't get a jumbo tax break, I'm leaving New York.  
Now before you go and say I'm not a business so I don't keep anyone employed, let me correct you. Or at least half-correct you. While it's true I'm not a business (although as far as the IRS is concerned, I am when I make over a certain amount for freelancing), I certainly do keep people employed.

Every time I shop at a store or dine at a restaurant, I see a butt-load of workers whose jobs depend on people like me. Whenever I slap my $2.50 down to ride the subway, I know there are drivers, cleaners, engineers, and rat-killers who would be out of a job if it not for me. If I need to tank up a rented car, it's not like I can pray that it fills itself. I have to go somewhere... and pump the thing myself. But I didn't install that gas pump!

Now the only place you can open a door to get a piece
of pie is your kitchen.
And let's not leave out my wife. Ann Klein wouldn't be where she is today without the little lady. The Bronx Botanical Garden would wilt. And don't get me started on her barber, or barberess, or whatever you call women who cut hair. My wife and I are singlehandedly... no, double-handedly...well, if you want to get technical, quadruple-handedly keeping New York's economy from going the way of Howard Johnson's, the Automat, and A-Rod.

We're not asking for $20-million. Or $11-million. In fact, something in the low six-figures would do nicely. And as for renovation, we could use a new kitchen and re-grouting for the bathroom. Just think of all the people we could hire with that dough. 

Remember, Mayor de Blasio, there are plenty of barberesses in Indianapolis who would love to cut my wife's hair.
                                                 **************

Thursday, July 24, 2014

MOVIE OF THE DAY: "POSTAL INSPECTOR" (1936)

The 1935-1936 movie season marked something of an apex with Hollywood's hagiographies of federal investigators. Warners' G-Men and Grand National's Tough Guy (which chronicled the "adventures" of an Weights-and-Measures inspector), both starred James Cagney. Universal got into the act with Postal Inspector, but settled for Ricardo Cortez in the lead role of Bill Davis.

Probably realizing that there's nothing inherently exciting about a guy who's primary job is listening to saps who've been suckered out of their money by mail-order scams, Postal Inspector's producers padded out the movie's screentime by throwing in three songs (one of which is performed three times), a romantic subplot involving the postal inspector's brother and a nightclub singer, and newsreel footage of a Midwest flood, and endless speeches about how important it is listening to saps who've been suckered out of their money by bogus mail-order scams.  A voice-over impersonation of President Roosevelt gets into the act as well, reminding us how important it is listening to saps who... Well, you know. And the damn thing still runs only 56 minutes!


Ricardo Cortez looks for a loophole in his
contract to get out of this movie.
With everything but postal drama taking charge, the story proper doesn't really kick in until about the 30-minute mark. Bill Davis' brother Charlie, another fed, is in charge of delivering worn-out currency to the Treasury Department for eventual destruction. His girlfriend, nightclub thrush Connie Larrimore, innocently spills the beans to her boss, Gregory Benez, who steals Charlie's $3,000,000 shipment. If the producers had been honest, they'd have called this movie Treasury Guy with the The Big-Mouth Girlfriend. 

To jazz things up further, a flood of Biblical proportions threatens to destroy the city. (That's where the newsreel footage comes in.) Super Inspector Bill Davis risks his life by flying to a neighboring town to help move the contents of a post office to the second floor of another building, just so people can continue receiving junkmail. Thanks, Bill. The flood, however, offers the unique chance to watch a climactic motorboat chase in the middle of downtown, which looks as weird as it sounds.

"So, you re-used a one-cent stamp, hunh?
It's curtains for you!"
Ricardo Cortez, as usual, is better than the material he's given here, probably having choked on lines like "A postage stamp is the best insurance in the world" during the first read-through. He must have suffered some unfortunate deja vu as well, when warning Connie Larrimore, "You're in this, too, up to your neck" -- a line almost identical to one he recited as Sam Spade in the original version of The Maltese Falcon four years earlier. It's quite a comedown from ace private eye to mailman cop.

Lugosi gives the day's special:
blood pudding.
Most fans of obscure movies know Postal Inspector only because of fourth-billed Bela Lugosi as Benez. It's a nothing role for a guy who, five years earlier, was Universal's biggest draw in Dracula. Still, it's a treat to see Bela in a non-horror role for a change, even if he doesn't strike one as a nightclub owner. Never explained, however, is why a guy with a Spanish surname has a Hungarian accent.

Never explained, either, is why the songs featured in Postal Inspector survived the final cut. Connie Larrimore (Patricia Ellis) sings the pseudo-rhumba "Hot Towel" while taking a shower:

When you're through with your shower,
Do you shiver? Do you quiver?
Well, you're wrong.
When you're through with your shower,
You should treat it, you should heat it
With a song!

If only she met her fate before the musical numbers.
What is this, a first-grade glee club? (The best part of the number is the maid -- who else but Hattie McDaniel? -- using bottles of bathbeads as makeshift maracas.) Nothing, however, beats the song with quite possibly the worst title in music history, "Let's Have Bluebirds on All Our Wallpaper":

Let's have bluebirds on all our wallpaper
Decorating our dreams.
Shy little rosebuds on the chinaware,
Murmurs of love from the Frigidaire...

Either someone at Universal thought this was going to be a big hit or he lost a bet, for this song is performed three times -- twice accompanied by an obnoxious kid playing a harmonica. The incompetent hack responsible for such atrocious lyrics? Frank Loesser, who would go onto write Guys and Dolls and the Pulitzer Prize-winning How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. Forget about Robert Johnson; I think Loesser met the devil at the crossroads of 44th and Broadway. There's no other way to explain that kind of improvement.

It's tempting to speculate just what the guys who ran Universal really thought of nonsense like Postal Inspector. They didn't have to make this for financial reasons; unlike Warners, M-G-M and Paramount, they didn't own a chain of movie theatres that needed a constant supply of product. If they wanted to jump on the federal agent bandwagon, why not the Secret Service? Surely there's some real drama involved in protecting the president, rather than... well, listening to saps who've been suckered out of their money by mail-order scams -- or by ridiculous movies like Postal Inspector.

                                                        ******************

For more of Ricardo Cortez, go here for The Maltese Falcon, and here for Rubber Racketeers.


Monday, July 21, 2014

DEMONSTRATION REMONSTRATION

While biking home along 1st Avenue this past Saturday, I pulled over near the United Nations to watch a piece of street theatre play itself out. Standing across the street from each other on the corner of 47th Street were two groups of protestors yelling at each other from behind metal barricades, with only one young policewoman acting as resident zookeeper.

These kinds of protests happen near the U.N. whenever unfortunate things happen in the international community (except when Islamic terrorists go to town on innocent civilians and historic artifacts. You know, choosing your battles and all that). The controversy du jour was one guaranteed to inflame deeply-held political viewpoints: the current immigration crisis. 

These protests always seem quite dramatic when covered on the 6:00 news. In person, however, it was a different story. The pro-immigration side, led proudly by the Freedom Socialist Party and self-described "Radical Women," numbered no more than 15. (The radicals appeared to be middle-aged housewives who came straight from the summer sale at Target.) They were a dull, resolute bunch, reciting slogans in a rote, robotic fashion, as if they had gotten their marching orders from HAL in 2001: A Space Odyssey.

A reporter from WCBS-TV news was interviewing them. When she left to interview the anti-immigration group ("I wanna make sure I get both sides of the story," she said, as if to be congratulated for doing her job), a camera woman, who had nothing to do with the reporter, stuck around. She spoke to a guy -- let's call him Noam -- who seemed to be in charge of the protestors. Noam then turned to his friends, who by now had turned to face him. With the camerawoman shooting him in mid-close-up, Noam started giving a speech, as if he were addressing a much larger rally, instead of the dullards he showed up with. It seemed to be for the benefit of a like-minded group who would later watch the video in somebody's Upper West Side apartment while sipping a Riesling that they made sure had come from a co-op vineyard.

The anti-immigration crowd easily outnumbered their counterparts by almost 3-1 -- which means there were still only around 40 of them in a city with a population of over eight million. These folks were much livelier, often taking the time to get the occasional "Impeach Obama Now!" chant going before petering out. They were definitely angrier, too, their slogans shouted with passion, compared to their somewhat bloodless opponents. An especially excitable woman wore a placard reading, with a wit rivaling that of S.J. Perleman, MR. OBAMA MY MIDDLE FINGER SALUTES YOU! One Latino anti-immigration fellow jumped the barricade to verbally take on a hermano on the other side. By then, a few burly male cops had shown up and separated the two. Too bad -- it was the most exciting part of the show.

In one of those only-in-the-movies moments that seem to happen every day in New York, an Asian tourist group accidentally entered the fray. Many of them were school kids, and seemed baffled by the commotion. One middle-aged Asian with his family started a discussion with the woman on the left in the accompanying photo. A male protestor, apparently believing that the interloper was a Chinese spy, yelled at him from behind the barricades. "What would happen to me if I tried to sneak into your country? What would you do to me? Would you arrest me and execute me? Or would you give me food stamps?" Thanks for giving a foreign tourist such a fine example of New York hospitality, bub. 

Many of the Asian tourists, though, were just thrilled when the police woman allowed them to pose for pictures with her, as if she was a wax figure of Nicole Kidman outside of Madame Tussaud's in Time Square. If I were her husband, I'd want her to stay on that detail permanently.

As the protestors duked it out, I realized I was watching a perfect metaphor for our current Congress: Two groups of people yelling at each other, with no one trying to solve the problem by working together. Even where they were standing -- the left-wing on the north side of the street, the right wing on the south -- was so obvious, I would have called it out as a cliche if I had seen it in a Rob Reiner movie. 

There are no simple solutions to this problem. But I wish the reporter from WCBS asked each side one question: "How would you feel if Latino immigrants tended to vote Republican instead of Democrat?"

                                                **********************

Friday, July 18, 2014

MOVIE OF THE DAY: "DARK DELUSION" (1947)

It's always fun to watch old medical-based movies. Procedures taken for granted by naive audiences then would be grounds for malpractice today. It's a real hoot, too, when watching these melodramas since my wife's a nurse. They make her gasp, "Oh my God!" more than the investors in Malaysian Airways.  

Dark Delusion ups the entertainment value by exploring the world of mental illness, presumably a ripe topic after the success of Hitchcock's Spellbound two years earlier. But while the latter strove to be a serious, mature take on one man's psychological breakdown, Dark Delusion is Freud by way of M-G-M's Department of Romantic Melodrama.
"She may be crazy, but she's my  kind
of crazy!"
Dr. Tommy Coalt is a headstrong sawbones who's been quite successful at alienating patients and hospital management alike. Sent to the fictional New York suburb of Bayhurst to temporarily replace the town's only doctor, he immediately becomes entangled in the case of Cynthia Grace. Cynthia has a psychological condition that makes her appear to be photographed in semi-shadow even when in direct sunlight, and her every move accompanied by a woozy organ, glockenspiel, and off-key violins. But speaking professionally, she's all kinds of maniac -- depressive, klepto, and pyro topping the list. While her father wants her admitted to the local laughing academy, Coalt ultimately proves that she's no crazier than anyone else in town. That, of course, isn't saying much.


"I now pronounce you man and lung."
Tommy's a nice guy once you get to know him. He even plays cupid when he's not alienating people. One young woman hospitalized for polio wants to break off her engagement, until Tommy convinces her that her fiance has absolutely no problem being married to someone who's living in an iron lung. And thus we are allowed to witness the most bizarre wedding scene in movie history before Chained for Life, starring real-life Siamese twins Violet and Daisy Hilton.

But Tommy is fully aware of his professional standards. When talking to a newly-adoptive mother, Tommy notices she has baggy eyes, so he prescribes her sleeping pills. When Cynthia shows up unexpectedly at his office, he slips tranquilizers in her water. Keeping up with his madcap drug dispensing, Tommy gets to the root of Cynthia's problems via narcosynthesis. Shooting her up with an unidentified drug for about 10 seconds -- "This is an awfully long injection," my wife rightly noted -- Tommy gets her to talk about the root of her problem. It seems Cynthia banged her head after falling off a horse. With absolutely nothing else to go on, Tommy immediately diagnoses her with having a blood clot on the brain, and arranges for surgery the following day. It took my doctors six weeks to diagnose me with renal cancer, followed by seven weeks of waiting before the surgery. Medicine obviously has gone backwards since 1947.


"Hey, I know that person!" alert. That adoptive mother I mentioned is played by a pre-game show Jayne Meadows. Her onscreen husband is cured of his fear of heart trouble when his doctor deliberately picks a fistfight with him -- a treatment no longer covered by Cigna. That MDF (Doctor of Fisticuffs) is played by the great Keye Luke, formerly Charlie Chan's #1 son. Confucius say, When co-pay not paid, broken jaw suitable substitute. 

Barrymore is disgusted by playing
third banana to a wanna-be Gable
and a crazy lady.
Dark Delusion, oddly, was the final entry in M-G-M's Kildare/Gillespie series, starring the cantankerous Lionel Barrymore. You wouldn't know it by any of the posters, since Dark Delusion was sold, quite falsely, as a romantic mystery. (The tagline -- "How Much Can A Guilty Girl Hide?" -- seems to have been created to further throw the audience off the scent.) It almost seems like the Gillespie scenes were an afterthought in order to pad the movie's running time to an A-length 90 minutes. Barrymore is off-screen for the bulk of the movie, which is a shame since his playing-to-the-rafters style is sorely missed. There are times, however, when he seems to be channeling his fellow character actor Edward Arnold -- but you'd recognize that, wouldn't you?


"Frankly, my dear, I don't give
a damn that I'm aping a better
actor."
And speaking of channeling, James Craig, as Dr. Coalt, struck me as doing a Clark Gable impersonation for much of the movie. That was no surprise, since he was Gable's replacement at Metro when the latter went off to war. Once Clark returned, Craig had no place else to go except, well, Dark Delusion. He, like his ilk of washed-up actors, retreated to the far more lucrative refuge of real estate. I could name a dozen actors today who should make that career change, but I'd only be wallowing in my own dark delusion.


                                                               *************************

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

BREAKING NEWS: JOHN KERRY EDITION

Secretary of State John Kerry responded to reports that quoted him as saying that he gets "a little uptight when I hear politicians say how exceptional we are."

Talking to reporters during a stop at the Baghdad Holiday Inn Express, Kerry said, "Look, the U.S. isn't the only country with politicians who dump their wives for women who are richer or younger, like Newt Gingrich and I did. And let me be clear," he continued, "nor are we the only public servants to get plastic surgery and overdo the botox in a failed attempt to look more vital. Take a look at former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi of Italy. One more peel and he's going to look like Paul Anka's twin brother."

Licking his lips in lizard-like fashion, Kerry asked, "And by the way, we're not alone when it comes to family dynasties. I know, I know, we fought a war to break away from that kind of thing -- but what else can you do if you're named Clinton, Bush or Kennedy? It's not an easy thing. I mean, how would you like to be Chelsea Clinton, and get well-paying jobs you're totally unqualified for just because of your last name? Just ask Prince Charles."

Kerry even brought up his boss as a good example of American unexceptionalism. "Take President Obama. He was excoriated for refusing to visit the Mexican border because he doesn't do photo-ops, then did photo-ops drinking beer and shooting pool. Vladimir Putin does photo-ops in his underwear! That's the way the game is played."

"And let me tell you, we don't corner the market on political hypocrisy, either, like Republicans not saying a peep about the previous administration racking up massive debt, or Democrats turning a blind eye on NSA overreach under President Obama. Public servants all over the world are doing whatever it takes to please the yahoos in their party while ignoring what's good for their country. Like Harry Reid claiming the border is secure when we've got half of Central America playing dominoes in our Red Cross shelters. He's not delusional, he's just... Well, OK, maybe he is delusional. But he's the exception! The rest of us know what we're doing."

"And speaking of NSA overreach," Kerry said, "I can guarantee you that kind of thing happens all the time in China, North Korea, and Russia. So let's not hold ourselves to a higher standard."

                                            ****************************


Monday, July 14, 2014

MOVIE OF THE DAY: "THE HAT BOX MYSTERY" (1947)

How, you may wonder, can a mystery be created out of a hat box? Easy, if you made Poverty Row nonsense like this.

Two-bit private dick Russ Ashton has been called out of town on a case when his secretary/mistress Susan is arrested for shooting socialite/criminal shill Marie Moreland. But don't blame Susan -- she thought the gun inside her client's hat box was a camera, which was going to take an incriminating photo of his philandering wife. 

Yeah, the cops don't believe it, either. Russ puts on his gumshoes to prove that not only didn't Susan pull the trigger, Moreland was actually shot by one of the members of a criminal gang. If the cops had been doing their damn job, they would have discovered the bullet had fired from a completely different angle. But then the movie would have been a one-reeler.

The cop sees nothing strange about this.
The Hat Box Mystery appears to have been angling to be a little different from the average B-crime movies of the day. For one thing, it clocks in at 42'55" -- even shorter than Hal Roach's "Streamliner" comedies. Another difference is that the Roach movies were supposed to be funny. The only time The Hat Box Mystery isn't funny is during the comedy relief. In fact, the only relief the movie offers is when it ends. 

"Hi, folks. We've put armed guards outside the
theatre, so don't even think of leaving."

Too, in the opening scene, immediately following the title card, Russ Ashton addresses the audience, explaining, in so many words, what a lousy detective he is. He then goes on to introduce Susan and his sidekick Harvard (named,we learn, because he didn't go to Yale. That's as good as the jokes get, folks), and Harvard's idiot girlfriend, Veronica, a burger-flipper who feeds them for free. 

But then he takes it one step further by introducing himself and the others by their real names -- Tom Neal, Pamela Blake, Allen Jenkins, and Virginia Sale -- before the rest of the credits roll. This is without doubt the most interesting part of the movie, giving it the feel of a very early TV pilot. However, it was more likely the first of a proposed series of movies with these characters -- if there was audience demand. Since there was no sequel titled The Dress Bag Mystery, we should assume the obvious.

"I love you, honey. Now just go out and get a brain."
Unlike, say, classic private eyes like Phillip Marlowe, Russ Ashton's attempt at clever banter doesn't rise above personal insults. (He confides to us that his pal Harvard is "plenty D-U-M-B" right in front of the guy.) His treatment of Susan borders on the psychologically and emotionally abusive, forever reminding her how bad she is at her job and how much she's screwed up in the past. He willingly partakes of Veronica's free food even while complaining about it and borrowing money from her. He even has the nerve to physically threaten a repairman who calls him out for the phoney-baloney that he is. No wonder why he never gets any work.

Ashton puts his lion-taming skills to good use.
The closest Ashton gets to wit -- and by "closest," I mean halfway from here to Jupiter -- is when he's kidnapped by the criminal gang. While tied to a chair, he spins a few yarns to his captor to kill time, winding up at fairy-tales. "Didja ever hear the one about the momma bear, the poppa bear and the baby bear?" he asks in his usual sarcastic delivery. "Momma Bear was a Democrat, Poppa Bear was a Republican. Baby Bear was too young to vote." Make that halfway to Betelgeuse.

Character actor Allen Jenkins is always worth a look, but it's Tom Neal who's the real draw for me here. Not that he's particularly good. If you've read this blog long enough, you'll know he's the star of the greatest of all film noirs, Detour, where his wooden style works for the one time in his career. Tom started at the top as a contract player at MGM, only to bounce down the ranks to Warners, RKO, and finally landing in Poverty Row studios like PRC. (The Hat Box Mystery was released by the even more obscure Screen Guild Productions, whose other epics include the previously-discussed Scared to Death.)

Never more than a competent actor -- he at least follows Spencer Tracy's dictum to know your lines and not trip over the furniture -- Neal seems out of place in his early movies at the major studios. He appears far more at home in his Poverty Row pictures, where his dime-store Gable looks and vaguely uneasy demeanor fit well with the low-rent surroundings. You can almost feel his bad luck vibe -- he was convicted of shooting his wife in the back of the skull in 1965 -- as his career petered out over time. The Hat Box Mystery, not even strictly qualifying as a feature with its brief running time, wouldn't have been worth watching without his doomed presence. Desperate to be a movie star, Neal would probably be happy to know that.

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Sunday, July 13, 2014

NOT IN THE CARDS

Last Friday, I applied for a job at an Upper East Side greeting card store that had a Help Wanted sign in the window. I had prepared by giving my resume a once-over, shaving, and wearing a clean shirt -- all the stuff that the experts capitalizing on other people's misery tell you to do.

The store manager, no older than 32 by my nearsighted eyes, greeted me in a friendly manner. "Hi, can I help you?"

"I saw the sign in your window," I replied, "and I'd like to apply for the job."

Let me backtrack a moment. Growing up, I learned the art of immediately reading people's expressions in order to finesse a situation. It's come in handy over the years, because it's also the only way to get the truth from someone when they think they're being clever. In case you hadn't noticed, people lie. A lot. Or at least try to misdirect you.

Back to the card shop. The woman said nothing for a second, but her eyes and gentle drop of the mouth screamed, Are you fucking kidding? You want me to hire you, a dinosaur who ought to be trimming his yellow toenails somewhere in a Florida retirement home? 

From that point on, she did everything in her power to discourage me from proceeding with the "interview." Questions and statements along the lines of "Have you got retail experience? The job involves knowing the product, helping people on the floor, and working the cash register" were spoken like a kidnap victim trying to appease her captors, while her eyes registered pure, animal fear. Please, go away!

When I assured her that, yes, I did have experience (although I didn't mention that it was in the 20th-century) and that I was willing to learn the herculean task of punching numbers into a cash register, she pulled her trump card. "This is only a part-time position," she emphasized with the concern of a tour guide operating a poisonous jellyfish farm. That the sign in the window offered full-time positions as well went unspoken by either of us.

"Part-time is fine," I said with a sunny smile.

She didn't quite get the message. "So... do you want to fill out an application?" 

It would have been hilarious if this had been an episode of, say, Louie. In fact, I had to stop myself from chuckling because it was so transparent, so damn unsubtle. I should have given her a fatherly touch on the shoulder and sighed, "This is obviously very uncomfortable for you. You want someone younger, like the other people I've seen working here. That's fine. Frankly, I didn't expect to get a job here, anyway. I just wanted to be able to tell the world, 'Yes, I'm looking for even part-time work with no benefits or vacation days.'" 

Instead, I replied, "Yes, please," and filled out the application. It was a waste of time, but it felt good to momentarily put her on the spot. To let her know that someone unexpected was going to take that little sign in the window seriously, even if that person resembled her uncle in Toledo. I wouldn't be surprised if she immediately dropped the resume and application in the nearest waste basket. And yet, I should drop by next week: Hi! Remember me? I applied for a job. Just wanted to see if I was in the running!

It always surprises me when I look at current photos of myself. Not only because I feel younger than I appear, I don't look that old to myself when I look in the mirror. Apparently the one face I've never been able to read is my own.

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(For anyone visiting via PBS or Forbes, thanks for dropping by! I'm not all about unemployment. Check out the labels to the upper right, beneath my photo, and click on whatever topic suits you. Most of the pieces labeled News and Politics are satirical. I try to keep it light around here. Personally, I'm partial to the pieces labeled Movies, Culture, and Idiots.)

Thursday, July 10, 2014

NITWIT

In addition to being one of the most boring people you could ever meet, I also possess a very subtle sense of humor. So subtle, nobody understands it and/or thinks it's all that funny.

The other day, my wife showed me a recipe for a Mediterranean shrimp dish made with, among other things, pearl barley. "Pearl barley?" I inquired. "Wasn't she a singer?"

To say that my wife's reaction consisted of silence would be an exaggeration. It's as though she suddenly disappeared from the couch. My reaction was to say she had no sense of humor. 

That's not true, of course. It's just that she's put up with my kind of witty repartee for about 25 years, and is now like a lifetime dog-owner who no longer notices when Fido craps in the living room -- which she would probably agree is an apt simile. 

My daughter, too, appears to have had her fill of my running commentary. I never knew it was physically possible, in fact, for eyes to roll as much as hers do without them falling out of their sockets. There was a time, however, when she thought anything out of my mouth was a scream. Over a decade ago, she subscribed to some children's magazine which always featured a "cute" photo of animals in some "funny" position. The readers were asked to send in a line of dialogue they thought appropriate. 

Now, my wife and I are often quite opposite when it comes to our approaches to humor, especially when it comes to kids. No matter the photo, her suggested caption tended to be along the lines of "Uh oh!" or "Oops!" I, on the other hand, preferred the sledgehammer approach. For instance, one photo featured a dog lying on his back in front of a table fan. My wife's caption -- along with 99% of the other kiddies and parents -- was probably, "I'm a hot dog!" Being part of the 1%, however, I wrote, in big block letters, I'M DEAD. 

You can probably guess my wife forbade me to submit it, especially under our daughter's name. Our daughter, however, though only seven years old at the time, thought it so funny that she continues to hold on to it to this day. That's a better tribute than any Mark Twain Prize that the Kennedy Center hands out.

This was around the time when my daughter made it a point to carefully examine every Toys R Us flyer that came with the Sunday paper. The Toys R Us spokesmammal, Geoffrey Giraffe, always bothered me, his goofy smile subliminally getting kids to hound their parents for a badly-made, overpriced toy manufactured in some back-alley Beijing sweatshop. Removing my pen from its scabbard, I had Geoffrey saying, "Just between you and me, I hate kids!"  Again, my daughter thought it was a hoot; so much so, I wrote a bunch of equally-rude dialogue for the kids in the same ad. It helped her become the person she is today.

Then there are times that my jokes are too hip for the room -- a nice way of saying that nobody laughs at those, either. Not because they aren't funny, I hasten to add, but because the references are either obscure, obtuse or questionable. For example, one of those aforementioned animal photos featured an elephant trying to enter a phone booth. Quick, how many of you would have understood my suggestion: "Hello, operator? I want to make a trunk call." Or take my years-long frustration of having a title without an article to go along with it: "Paris Wakes Up and Heils." Do you understand them? If so, congratulations -- you're officially part of the Nobody Else Will Have Me as a Member Club.

I take heart in comedian Norm Macdonald, who, 20 years ago, hosted Saturday Night Live's News Update segment. Macdonald, whose sense of humor is drier than the Sahara Desert after a thousand-year drought, never pandered to the audience. He admitted, in fact, that his jokes were aimed at five or six of his friends watching at home. NBC Executive Don Ohlmeyer successfully pressured Lorne Michaels to fire Macdonald because he wasn't funny. 

I should keep that in mind the next time I tell a joke to my wife.

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Wednesday, July 9, 2014

THE CASE OF THE BEARS AND THE BLONDE: CHAPTER THREE

(For Chapter One, click here. For Chapter Two, click here.)

                                                     CHAPTER THREE



Funny how that little piece of evidence was scratching away at my mind like a three-ring flea circus. I showed her the barrette. “I found this at the crime scene. Looks like it could’ve come from your head, doesn’t it?”

Goldie’s voice suddenly turned sharp. “When did you become a fashion expert?”

I leaned in closer. “About the same time you became a furniture tester!”

I thought for sure she was going to rap a newspaper on my nose. “Goldie – give me the truth.” 
 
A long moment passed before she smiled sadly. “You weren’t awarded ‘Best of Breed’ for nothing.” She sighed. “I woke up early this morning; decided to go for a walk before breakfast. I lost track of time. And the next thing I knew, I was out in The Woods.”
 
“Go on.”

“Well, since the Bears and I are friends I figured I’d stop by to say hi, maybe take a load off my feet. But they weren’t home.”

“So you just walked in?”

“I know, I know, it was wrong. But I wasn’t thinking straight; I was tired and hungry… And Joe… there’s something I never told you…” She looked around, making sure no one was listening; her voice dropped to a whisper. “I’m a sucker for hot cereal.”

My jowls dropped.

Goldie leaned back. “It’s true. Every day, it’s the same thing, breakfast, lunch and dinner. Porridge, oatmeal, granola, cream of barley -- If it’s hot and nutritious, I’ve got to have it.”  She grabbed me by the lapels. “Do you know what that makes me, Joe? Do you? Do you?” 

I had to think fast. “A satisfied customer?”

She pulled us together, nose to snout. “Joe, look at me: I am a serial cereal eater!” 

Now it was my turn to catch my breath. You think you know everything about a person.
Then something like this drops on your lap like a 50-pound bag of dry food – and you start to question your own animal instinct. “But Goldie,” I said, still looking for an answer, “if what you’re saying is true, why did you take only a spoonful of the parents’ breakfast?”
 
Mr. Bear’s porridge, she explained, was too hot, so that was out of the question. 

Mrs. Bear’s, likewise, being too cold. 

“But Baby Bear’s,” she said, dreamily, “Baby Bear’s was just right.”

Having caught a chill during her walk, she went into the living room, intending to rest a moment by the fire. Problem was, Mr. Bear’s chair could have used a little fluffing. 
 
Mrs. Bear’s, on the other hand, had so much goosedown, it could fly south for the winter.

Baby’s was just right. Or so she thought. 
 
When it collapsed under her weight, she should have known it was time to scram. But by that point, though, Goldie couldn’t tell up from down, a bagel from a beagle. She needed to lie down, pronto. 

Mr. Bear’s mattress was as stiff as last week’s T-bone.  And Mrs. Bear’s was like lying in a tub of soggy corn flakes. 
 
You can guess the condition of Baby Bear’s.

“I didn’t steal anything, Joe, honest I didn’t!” Goldie cried between sneezes. “But when I heard them return – I couldn’t face them! Not after what I’d done!” She wiped away a tear.
 
I took a good look at her.

I’ve put the collar on more than a few mutts in my time. But Goldie didn’t deserve the pound. Not for a bowl of mush and a little shuteye. “Goldie… Look, since the Bears are your friends… I think if you tell them the truth, they’ll understand.”
 
She blinked.  “You think so? I’ll be happy to pay for a new chair!”

“Sure. I mean, Baby might need a little while to come around, but the parents – well, they need you arrested like they need a fur coat!”

Goldie laughed. “You know what? I’m going to give them a call right now and explain the whole thing.”  She stood up and started walking to her office.
 
I took her hand to stop her. “Goldie,” I said.

“Yes, Joe?”

“Have a slice of pizza for lunch. With anchovies.”

Goldie smiled. She locked her eyes on mine and ran her soft, delicate hand over my head. “Good boy,” she whispered.

Woof. 

As I put away my notepad, I thought about the day’s events.  It was only lunchtime and I already put one case to bed (and not Baby’s, either). The Bear family would know there wasn’t a hungry prowler on the loose.  Goldie wouldn’t have to keep her little “crime” a secret anymore. And I had the satisfaction of bringing them all together. Why, you’d think it was a fairytale.

Just then the waiter came by with lunch.  “Burger on pumpernickel.”  

I took a bite.

That was my third mistake.

                                              THE END

                                ***************

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

THE CASE OF THE BEARS AND THE BLONDE: CHAPTER TWO

(Click here for Chapter One.)      


                                                CHAPTER TWO


Something next to Baby’s pillow caught my eye. I got to my haunches and carefully picked up a red barrette.
 
A red barrette with one blonde hair.

“Looks like one of your visitors was a woman.” I gestured to the open window near Baby’s bed. “She probably heard you coming in and made a hasty exit. Lucky she was on the ground floor.”

“The bedroom used to be upstairs,” said Mr. Bear, “but that’s another story.”

There was nothing more I could do there – now it was just a matter of pawing the pavement and asking questions. I tried to reassure the Bears that the perps probably weren’t going to return, and that they should go about their normal routine while the investigation continued.
 
“Thank you for all you’ve done,” said Mrs. Bear gratefully. “Please, have some honey cookies. A peanut butter and honey sandwich. How about some tea with honey?”

“No thank you, honey – I mean Mrs. Bear,” I replied, and quickly walked out to my car.
A guy could get cavities just talking to her.

As I drove back to town, I thought about the last time I arrested a woman. It was that Hansel-and-Gretel case: some old witch giving a couple of innocent kids a song and dance about a gingerbread house. The kids made out OK, but not before turning up the heat on the woman.

By the time I got back to town, I was thinking that I should have taken up Mrs. Bear on that honey cake offer. My stomach was growling like my Uncle Oscar when someone gets too close to his dinner bowl. I decided to make my usual lunch stop at Goldie’s Diner.

I took a seat at the counter. A waiter appeared. “What’ll it be?”
 
“Burger on pumpernickel – very rare.”

“It sure is,” he said. “We usually serve ‘em on rolls.” That was a real howl.
 
As I looked over my notes, I felt a woman’s hand on my shoulder.

“Is that your car outside or has the junkyard moved to my block?”

That was Goldie for you, always a wisecrack for the regulars. Goldie Locks, that is, the owner of the diner.
 
“What’re you talking about?” I said, playing along. “My car’s only three years old.”

“In dog years!”  She threw her head back and laughed. 

No one enjoyed a joke as much as Goldie. Her real name was Irene, but when your hair is the color of the sun on the 4th of July, there are only so many appropriate nicknames. And we were already calling the Mayor’s wife “Lemon Head.”

Suddenly, her laughter gave way to several sneezes. 

“You feeling OK?” I asked.

“Caught a little cold. Ought to be gone in a day or two.” She yawned. “Sorry. Working on a case?”

“Mm-hm. Some joker out in The Woods decided to use an empty house as a bed-and-breakfast…” 

Goldie took a breath and looked away.

That was when I noticed a red barrette on one side of her hair.

It was identical to the one I found at the Bears’ house!

You could’ve knocked me over with a rubber bone. I had known Goldie a long time – and if she was a criminal, then I was a Mexican hairless.
 
That was my second mistake.

                                     (Tomorrow: Chapter Three)

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