“You played football with some freshwater college, didn’t you?”

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Our subject this week is heroic naval aviator, ex-cheerleader and frequent B-Western hero Wayne Morris, and two non-Western, non-military mostly-comedy films from when he was young and boyish and tall.

* * *

Men Are Such Fools [Busby Berkeley, 1938] presents us with characters who simultaneously subscribe to one Hollywood-created ethos and another, wholly incompatible ethos which is at least Hollywood-promulgated if not fully -created.

Good old Wayne, Priscilla, and Ronald Reagan in the VMI comedy BROTHER RAT (1938)

First we must understand the milieu. The world of advertising was long a good setting for drama, combining the high stakes of big business with potentially sensational elements of the creative subculture [writers, artists]. Just as Sterling Cooper allows its artistic types to do suspicious things like date black women and read Frank O’Hara poems, the otherwise stuffy agency in Men Are Such Fools depends on the copy-writing talents of Bea Harris, a sardonic Dorothy Parker type played by Mona Barrie in a style that combines Maude Lebowski and the Marquise de Merteuil.

Our heroine, Linda [Priscilla Lane], knows nothing about Bea’s private life but professionally idolizes her and asks for advice on her own copy.

  • Please. I’m dying to read it. I hope it’s terrible.
  • Oh, you don’t, really.
  • Don’t I? Linda, you’re having a unique experience. You’re probably facing, for the first time, a perfectly honest woman. When I die I’m to be stuffed and set up in the Smithsonian Institute. [scans the pages Linda gave her] … Nothing wrong with this copy. It’s perfect, I’m sorry to say. How old are you?
  • Twenty-two.
  • Twenty-two, eh? When I was 22, I’d been married, deserted, divorced, beaten up, back again earning my own living. And do you know what all that taught me, my dear?
  • No, what?
  • Nothing. Absolutely nothing. Have you got a boy friend?
  • Yes.
  • Oh, goody goody, she’s got a boy friend. What’s his name? Well, it doesn’t matter, it’s quite unimportant. Now let me see. Copy okay, she’s got a boy friend, she says … okay too … just what exactly did you come in here for?

Yeah ... the actress and the character should both be a little older.

Linda and the boy friend [Jimmy Hall [Wayne Morris]] get invited to Bea’s lake house for a weekend of frivolity. Linda becomes the subject of romantic rivalry between Jimmy and Bea’s old friend and colleague Harry Galleon (Humphrey Bogart). Harry is a tragic figure here, even more than the screenwriter intended. What’s in his sordid past? We never get any details, but apparently it disqualifies him from ending up with a nice girl in a respectable, feather-light picture like this one.

Wanda is a woman of his past, who seems to be a full-time part of the nebulous demi-monde, going about with heavy-lidded contempt that invites playful jibes. At one point Bea calls her a “beautiful piece of chilled steel”, which seems a bit much.

"Well darling, they're the crookedest dice I could buy. If I could only remember what they're supposed to do, I could make fabulous sums."

  • Wanda: Playing around again, I see.
  • Harry: My taste’s improved, though, don’t you think?
  • Wanda: No, some of your preferences are the same. Her name’s Linda, mine’s Wanda.
  • Harry: Hers has an I in it. Yours never had.

What’s that supposed to mean?

Men Are Such Fools may be best known for this exchange, Harry trying to seduce Linda, using an unusual line of conversation paired with an avuncular smile.

  • Oh, I’m definitely not an angel.
  • What are you then?
  • Probably a cad.
  • I don’t think so.
  • Well, give me an opportunity and I’ll prove it. Are you by any chance a weak woman?
  • [shakes head]
  • Oh, that’s too bad. Then I’ll have to be a very *strong* cad. Mind if I begin?
  • Couldn’t we postpone it?

This is less Harry warning Linda that he’s trouble, and more Harry trying to convince the audience that he’s trouble. But he exudes no menace, puts forth little glamour, and shows no sign of being duplicitous. Two adjectives that come to mind are “friendly” and “rueful”. When he says “Oh, I know you think you love him, but what’s that half-baked fullback got to offer?” it seems like homely wisdom. This man can assess his fellow men based on hard-won experience.

The Harry Galleon character is presented too beautifully for us not to wish him well. He’s basically the best possible man who still qualifies as too dangerous for the female lead to marry. Meanwhile, Jimmy Hall is one of the least appealing men to technically qualify as the dream man. Here’s a few of his objectionable behavioral episodes.

  1. Scornful attitude toward “that mob of wild tom-cats at that Bea Harris dame’s house”.
  2. While driving Linda to the lake house, extorting a marital commitment by parking his car on railroad tracks with a train approaching.
  3. Extorting the marital commitment again by holding Linda underwater in Bea’s swimming pool, distracting from what had been a fun beach ball game.
  4. Hearing Bea say “Oh, Jimmy’s mad. Oh, Jimmy, do knock someone’s block off. Just anyone’s will do. Mine, if you like,” and not realizing she’s joking.
  5. Punching anyone in his way and throwing people out of an elevator so he can race through an office building.
  6. The following quote, spoken to Linda: “Don’t you know that weekends were invented to get drunk, have fights, and make love to your girl?”

R. Emmet Sweeney:

A fraternity dolt with too much time on his hands, Morris browbeats Lane into marriage with a charming combination of physical intimidation and boyish whining. There was not much appealing to the character as written, but Morris’ plasticine features and gangly athlete’s body emphasize its most retrograde aspects, as he looms over her with goofy intimidation tactics that come damn near spousal abuse. But Lane convincingly grins her way through it – as if she was enduring it for a secret plan of her own.

And her plan is to move up in the advertising company, *without* using feminine wiles on her boss. There’s one scene where he invites her to dinner and they have a nicely professional conversation – Linda seems to have been correct that “Batesy is a lamb doll”, and not the wolf her roommate says he is. She creates great juice campaign after great juice campaign, but there’s another problem with Jimmy: he can’t even conceive of a situation in which his wife would have a job. This issue leads them to separate, and Harry to start taking her to the Seahorse Club.

To be clear, they are fully separated, if perhaps not divorced. They don’t see each other in the average week, and the agency is badgering her to come back. Nobody in her life is baffled or even surprised at the separation. And yet, it can’t last. Something needs to restore the sanctity of matrimony. And it’s Bea Harris, that defiant cynic, who engineers their reunion through a false assignation that lures Harry onto a Paris-bound liner while Linda and Jimmy watch from the docks. Their final exchange:

  • L: I was never taking it. Do you mind?
  • J: Mind? Oh, darling, I’m so happy I could break your silly head in.
  • L: Oh, that’s what I hoped. That’s why I had to be sure you still loved me.

Frankly, I suspect Bea of jealously sabotaging Linda’s career and happiness so she can remain the top spinster copywriter around. Any other explanation requires her to follow two incompatible moral philosophies while always being the most cool and rational one in the room.

* * *

What does Wayne Morris have to offer when he isn’t failing to bring charm to a thankless Neanderthal role in a trifle designed to synergize with his studio-engineered IRL romance with a former child star?

Brenda Marshall -- she's a two-face.

He seems more at ease in The Smiling Ghost [Lewis Seiler, 1941] as Lucky Downing, a cheerful but unlucky hayseed who gets caught up in a ludicrous high-society ghost / murder story. In fact he throws himself into the role too much, such that the audience will never believe either heiress Alexis Smith or cynical newshound Brenda Marshall could fall in love with him at first sight. Even cynical newshound Winona Ryder in Mr. Deeds needed to spend a few weeks soaking up old-fashioned Mandrake Falls values before she realized how wonderful Adam Sandler’s Deeds was.

The Smiling Ghost‘s half-baked “mystery” would fit better in a Brady Bunch Halloween special, but the scary parts (the relentless ghostly attacker, the scenes in the graveyard and crypt) are well-paced and suspenseful. From the 21st-century vantage point, a mediocre 1941 movie’s scary moments are improved if they are being squeezed in between mad-scientist slapstick and romantic drivel — they can’t drag on and on and on and on like a mediocre movie with nothing BUT scary parts. The Old Dark House [James Whale, 1932] is more effectively scary than The Ghoul [T. Hayes Hunter, 1933] even though it’s a semi-comedy. The suspense in The Ghoul is drawn out so much that it’s flat. The Old Dark House jumps along with craziness after craziness.

The mad scientist [Charles Halton] is stereotypical to a degree I didn’t know was possible 70 years ago. All the attributes are there, the beakers, the curio cabinet, the sparks, the wild hair and glasses, the obsessive mannerisms, and they’re presented as the obligatory things that have to be alluded to because the audience has seen a million mad scientists before and needs to recognize this guy as being just like Dr. Frankenstein, Dr. Caligari, Dr. Mirakle, Dr. Kravaal, Dr. Savaard, Dr. Meirschultz, Dr. Laurence, Dr. Carruthers, Dr. Thorkel, Dr. Adrian, Dr. Xavier, Zolok, and Dr. Moreau. The loony-lab subplot [Crazy Uncle Ames is on the hunt for an ethnic menagerie of skull-models for his shrunken-head gallery] is pretty tedious, and Willie Best seems embarrassed by his role in it.

However, Best’s rapport with Wayne Morris is strong. Neither of their characters is quick-witted, but neither is a moron, and they need each other and joke with each other. The script requires Best to do a lot of his goggle-eyed mugging and fearful glances, but I don’t think any character treats him any differently than they would a white chauffeur / valet / office secretary. [Except Professor Uncle Ames, of course, from the phrenology angle] The rich old biddy looks askance at Lucky when he says he’ll employ his office-boy Clarence as a manservant instead of getting a professional valet, but nobody treats Clarence badly. He might have the most dialogue of any actor here, since he’s in just about every scene.

Finally, Alexis Smith must be a foot taller than Priscilla Lane. Together with a regal hairdo, monogrammed gowns and other heiress accessories, she reduces Morris from the scowling he-man of Men Are Such Fools to a simpering man-child.

L-R: Willie Best (Clarence), Alexis Smith (Elinor), Wayne Morris (Lucky), Alan Hale Sr. (world's least dignified butler), Helen Westley (Grandmother Bentley)

On the left is Richard Ainley as the wealthy drunk cousin. He returned to England in 1943 and became a distinguished stage actor and instructor.

Ringerblogging 3: What next, a newfound appreciation for the subway?

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Episode Three: “If You Ever Want A French Lesson…”

Episode Four: “It’s Gonna Kill Me, But I’ll Do It”

*Every week* there’s a new episode of this show? Even at its peak this blog only had six posts a month. We’ll have to compromise.

Episode Three starts with more of the violent, tormented life of Professor Malcolm Ward in the Rock Springs (WY) Community College parking facility, one of those gritty multi-level garages forced underground by the densely packed skyscrapers and sky-high real estate prices. One of the interesting elements of Ringer is Bodaway Macawi, the ruthless Native American crime lord, played by TV veteran Zahn McClarnon [other Native American roles on Medium, Saving Grace, The Shield, Into the West, Walker, Texas Ranger, Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman, and Baywatch]. When he starts coming up in Bridget’s flashbacks, I’ll be interested.

We meet another male character, Tyler Barrett, who gets with Siobhan as soon as we’ve joined her in a gaudy Paris hotel bar. His inability to communicate with the bartender is not charming, and his expectation that he can get a drink with Four Loko in it [or the Ringerverse’s equivalent, “Five Shizzy”] is horrifying. Justin Bruening, star of the Knight Rider remake, perfected his Tom Cruise grin on 161 episodes of All My Children and makes a charmingly stubbled potential Siobhan boy-toy and easily angered youngster. Their meeting is contrived. It seems to be scripted as a random encounter. But he works for Andrew’s company. That cannot possibly be a coincidence. How big is Andrew’s company? It’s named after him and Olivia, and he and Olivia seem to do all the work. Siobhan is obviously scheming on something

As for her scheming, I have to admit, I want to know who she’s talking to on the phone. Could it be Henry? Has he fooled them all with a pretense of being emotionally fragile? And a pretense of wanting to be a writer? And a quarter-assed plan to get back at Andrew for de-alienating Bridget/Siobhan’s affections, by withdrawing his meager pittance from The Hedge Fund? The Hedge Fund, by the way, has “returned almost 20 percent last month”, according to Andrew, who says in the next sentence that “the market’s turning around”.

"Are you kidding me? I have Balthasar on speed dial. I can *always* get us in. Have you *had* their macaroni au gratin? It's to die for."

We learn now that Gemma is the one with all the money, as the heir to the Tim Arbogast fortune. I love the name Arbogast. So yes, Henry is a dilettante. He says he’s considering self-publishing. Do we know if he’s ever published a book before?

There are some good voices in this show. The menacing guy in the leather jacket [Jordan Marder] doesn’t sound exactly as you’d expect, although Marder is a voice actor specializing in menacing guys. There’s some Bubba Sparxxx in his way of speaking. Jaime Murray gets more and more fatale. Tara Summers’s brassy American accent is rock-solid, even saying things like “Hell yeah it is!”. Nestor Carbonell brings a nice coolness to the FBI investigator, always talking to Bridget/Siobhan with an undercurrent of “You know, it doesn’t matter that much to me if you tell me lies, but it should matter to you.” And Darryl Stephens gives an oddly hoarse rendition of Episode Three’s gay-coded bit part, the fashion designer/stylist Gregor.

And the songs continue to be well chosen. Episode Three ends with a tender but tenuous moment over Portishead’s “Glory Box” — a bit obvious, perhaps. This followed some tender moments over Lana Del Rey’s “Video Games”, a quite beautiful song that was new to me. Then in Episode Four during the emotionally fraught backpack-burning sequence we get the striking first verse of “Waves” by Deluka, fading out when it still sounds like it’s going to be a Neko Case song instead of the slick-electrofied-rock song it becomes.

* * *

In Episode Four we know straight away that someone is going to find out Siobhan is Bridget – we’re prepped for it by her nightmare about the Chinese place deception and the animated drowned corpse. I did hope, once she woke up, that she would start acting more like Siobhan. Because she must be tired of having people say “What’s with you, Siobhan? You’re doing that non-snobbish thing you never do!” Start talking like the snob you know Siobhan is! But then we got more scenes of Siobhan in Paris, and I realized that they sound exactly the same. What is there to impersonate? Siobhan looks smug all the time, and Bridget looks hurt all the time. They talk the same way, just about different things. IS this good? I guess so, since otherwise the idea of Bridget pulling off her impersonation would be immediately ridiculous, not just ridiculous once you think about it.

Don't apologize to me - apologize to her. Who? Eek!

Agent Machado continues his methodical pursuit of Bridget through occasional interviews of Bridget-as-Siobhan, and huge pieces of evidence like the coast guard recording. He seems cool and methodical with her, and that’s how he’s going to get results, but back at the FBI office, talking to the other FBI guy with the depressed nasal bridge and huge forehead, he alternates between obsessive and fatalistic.

Now he’s followed her to the Hamptons. In between stealing lobster traps and sampling the Hampton tomatoes, our merry band is celebrating Bridget-as-Siobhan’s birthday. The party includes so many “LOL, Siobhan, you’ve never said that before” moments that you know the tension is building to something. Henry doesn’t have the slightest suspicion that his lover has been replaced by an identical-looking one who’s different in every other way; he pours his heart out to her and says he’ll finally leave her alone if she really feels that way. But wait! Gemma was listening!

And why shouldn’t she be listening? How big can this beach house be? How is it that she didn’t find out before? Without Siobhan’s inherent sneakiness the affair wouldn’t last a week anyway without being detected. After a couple weeks getting accustomed to this new, compassionate Siobhan, Gemma is even more hurt than she would have been when Siobhan was just the haughty, bitchy one in her friend circle [note: extrapolation from limited evidence]. She’s so mad that when the camera shows us her point of view at the subsequent candle-laden midnight beach dinner, it’s slowed down and blurry.

So she confronts Bridget, of course, and Bridget has to tell her the truth. Check, that’s one person who knows!

* * *

Meanwhile, flashbacks to one year ago, six years ago, and 1988 or so [even then Bridget’s hair was down and Siobhan’s was up, in one of those halo braids] lead us through the saga of the one necklace. Amid all the melodramatic contrivances, here’s another thing I associate with programming for women: the aspirational friendship gimmick. Bridget and Siobhan have exchanged this necklace every birthday, back and forth, since 1988 or so [was it specified?]. Until that turbulent year at Lake Tahoe, when Siobhan didn’t want it back. Five years later, one year ago today, in the throes of passion with Henry, Siobhan got it back, and felt guilty. And now, what does it mean?

We can only hope this plot element, and others, especially the whole subplot about the quit-claim deed, don’t get forgotten. As always, thanks to Pixel 51 for the screencaps.

* * *

* * *

Most favored of the disfavored

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"You're like a flower that grew out of a pot of dirt."

For every terrible band you hate, I bet you at least have a favorite song. For some bands [Journey, Staind] this may still be a song you hate. For the following bands, these are songs I actually like.

  • KISS
    “Heaven’s on Fire”
  • Limp Bizkit
    “Rearranged”
  • Bon Jovi
    “Bad Medicine”
  • Poison
    “Fallen Angel”
  • Creed
    “My Sacrifice”
  • Nickelback
    “Never Again”
  • Matchbox 20
    “Real World”
  • Aerosmith
    “Livin’ on the Edge” / “Rag Doll”
  • Boy bands in general
    “Larger Than Life” / “When the Lights Go Out”
  • REO Speedwagon
    “Time For Me To Fly”
  • Steve Miller Band
    “Fly Like an Eagle”
  • The Doors
    “Riders on the Storm”

Good Blonde

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 Good Girls Go to Paris [Alexander Hall, 1939]

This movie ends way, way afield of where it begins.

I tend to like it when filmmakers put out a lot of work and move on, rather than spending ages fine-tuning their product. But when the art-making process is industrialized, it ends up with projects that don’t make any sense when you think about them, and don’t involve anybody making a real investment of time or creativity, but get completed and released because they can fit a certain niche. Good Girls Go to Paris occupied the role of Columbia Pictures Mid-Summer 1939 Romantic Comedy. When we watch it, what does it seem like it might become?

Academic satire? I can’t overstate how superficial the academic satire is. Much less nuanced than A Chump at Oxford. Interestingly, it’s set at a mediocre college that was founded less than 30 years before the events of the film, and part of the plot involves the college’s founder trying to one-up his business rivals by further endowing Brand University. But the students are the same all-male aristocratic wastrels you’d expect from a movie about Princeton. Melvyn Douglas’s character is a world-ranking expert on Greek mythology, an Oxbridge visitor in residence, but the film’s knowledge consists of a few references to Aesop’s fables, and one mention of “Cytherea, a rather high-spirited wench”.

This poster's suggestion of a Paris setting is très misleading.

Contrast of British and American mores? Douglas’s utter distaste for tea in bag form is interesting. But after the early cafeteria-driven instances of cultural clash, he’s just another bland male adult.

  • Professor Brooke: [confused by teabag] What’s this, a surgical dressing?
  • Waitress Jenny: You dunk it in the water.
  • Brooke: You what?
  • Jenny: Dunk. As in doughnut. Haven’t you ever dunked a doughnut?
  • Brooke: Should I have?
  • Jenny: Oh, if you haven’t, you’ve missed a lot of fun.

Movie about Paris? Not so! Paris exists only as a mythical construct representing honeymooning. We learn that you don’t have to trick a man into marrying you to go to Paris. Good girls may go there as well.

Study of Joan Blondell’s adorability? Now there’s something it does well. We’re introduced to a group of waitresses in the college cafeteria, and it looks like it’ll be a Harvey Girls scenario in which each has a little romantic subplot. No, the only one who matters is Blondell’s character Jenny, as becomes clear when they line up in front of the waitress drill instructor and she’s deemed excessively adorable.

  • Did you shorten that skirt?
  • No, ma’am. [bashfully] I starched it.

Top R: Walter Connolly. Middle (L-R): Melvyn Douglas, Joan Blondell, Melvyn Douglas, Joan Blondell, Joan Blondell, Joan Blondell, Melvyn Douglas. Bottom R: Joan Blondell.

Study of gold-digging? The script is pretty self-contradictory on this subject. Jenny Swanson is written as a weird combination of innocence and cynicism, in the tradition that gave us characters like Lolita, Susan Vance, and June Gudmundsdottir. She straightforwardly commits blackmail to get money from a college boy she’s beguiled. But she does it with a blank look on her face, as if baffled by what she’s doing, like she needs us to see her as a dewy-eyed innocent who’s being possessed by the devil. Maybe it was hard to construct a consistent character of this sort in 1939, when the Depression wasn’t raging as it had when the economically disadvantaged plucky gold-digger became a potential heroine.

Blondell doesn’t look her age here [32], but she seems bored with the role of someone who can plausibly be dazzled by 19-year-old college boys, and uninterested in being a femme fatale.

In the final scenes Jenny’s quick thinking and small-town common sense solves everyone’s problems, not in a way compatible at all with the gold-digging ethos. She had a happy family, the only thing she’s trying to escape is boredom. But she seems so wholesome. She gives her conscience a nickname. She wears humongous dewy flowers on her dresses and hats. She orders crackers and milk at El Morocco.

Clockwork-precise farce? In this way the movie is fun, once we leave college and end up in the Brand family’s New York mansion. As more and more men fall for Jenny, the comedy kicks into gear. Isabel Jeans is great as the overbearing society matron. Alexander D’Arcy puts on what I believe is an early example of the horribly attempted Cajun accent, as a driven lothario incongruously named “Paul Kingston”. I loved the scene where he gets hit with a flowerpot.

Descent into madness? Walter Connolly was near the end of his career here. IMDB: “The name may have been forgotten, especially today (seven decades later), but the portly, apoplectic, exasperated figure on the 1930s screen wasn’t.” Those three adjectives are an understatement of his performance here. Introduced as a whining invalid, his character Olaf Brand is quickly revived by Jenny’s kicky updates of folkSwedish nostrums. And the tantrums begin as the farce begins. He literally tears his hair. He literally seizes his chest. He staggers and collapses into armchairs. He literally pounds the table when asking what on earth is going on. Nathan Lane would struggle to do this broad a depiction of the cranky man of sedate habits driven to distraction by escalating wackiness. And I don’t see why the story requires Connolly to transcend their mere 22-year age difference and play Alan Curtis’s grandfather. He could have been his uncle. Or father.

* * *

Blonde Crazy (Roy Del Ruth, 1931)

Good Girls Go To Paris has a pervasive forced air, like the characters aren’t quite convinced of why they should be interacting. Blonde Crazy has none of that. Scene after scene showcase Blondell’s rapport/repartee with frequent co-star James Cagney. Her character Anne Roberts is eager for everything she experiences, though she strictly limits the extent of her indulgence – far nicer to identify with than the ingenuous pseudo-amoral character Blondell tries to hold together in GGGTP.

Though very sweet, without the unashamed premarital sex of Illicit [Archie Mayo] or the disturbing violence of Night Nurse [William A. Wellman] [two other 1931 Blondell movies], this is a pre-Code film with a spirit of cheerful venality compelled by economic necessity (described beautifully here by Imogen Sara Smith), as well as frank depictions of ablution.

  • [Anne is sitting in a bathtub brushing and beribboning her hair]
  • [Bert sticks his head around the door]

    In the actual scene, there's water in the tub.

  • Anne: Hey, what’ya mean, crashin’ in like that? Can’t you see I’m taking a bath?
  • Bert [Cagney]: Yeah? Move over.
  • Anne: [squeals]

Then he suggests a dubious short-term investment.

  • Well, it don’t sound good to me, but if I don’t give you the money you’ll probably steal it. So take it, my friend.
  • All right, where is it?
  • In my brassiere.
  • Where?
  • In my brassiere!
  • You got pockets in that? [rummaging around her clothes]

Cagney dances all around the set, making her crack up with lines like “Little girl likem nice mans?”, making fun of Robert Browning, and turning “Honey” into a catchphrase [I counted eight “ho-o-o-o-o-ney”s]. When Helen (Noel Francis), main squeeze of Bert’s huge-top-hat-wearing criminal role model Dapper Dan Barker, tries to distract him with the old “Dan and I … have an understanding” bit, he doesn’t just blow her off, he flits into a throaty European stage voice to say “How nice for you”. All of this is to show us the effect Anne’s effervescence has on him – because when she settles down with cowardly businessman Ray Milland [not yet in control of the American accent] he loses all his vigor.

"What is it the disappointed suitor always says? Oh yes. Name the first one after me."

Trying to sell good-luck swastika charms to bachelor loners, living on principal from their last glorious Southern colonel horse race car delay con, Bert has even stopped reading Success: The Human Magazine. Out of the blue, Anne pleads with him to help Milland’s character evade sanction for a string of naive embezzlements. Cagney’s most menacing scene in Blonde Crazy is when he’s forcing Milland to appreciate what a worm he [Milland] is, and what a good plan he [Cagney] has and how imperative it is that he [Milland] follow it to the letter, and what a brave risk he [Cagney] is running no matter how good the plan is.

  • “I’m not doing it for you! I’m doing it for Anne, ya smackoff.”

Once Blonde Crazy heads down maudlin street it’s probably wise to no longer have even a pinch of levity, because we’d start resenting minor characters whose success in low-level extortion we once celebrated. His rueful delivery of the concluding folk-song quote is perfect, and so is the gently sprightly reprise of the love theme, Einar Swan‘s “When Your Lover Has Gone”.

The Leading Hotel of a Small Midwestern City

Ringer: Episode 2: BRAVE NEW BACON

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This Kristoffer Polaha is doing SO bad a job in this series. SUCH a bland performance, and the script gives him nothing worth saying. Let’s not say bad actor – in 2008 he played the thrill-seeking, foppish and immortal son of Ringer costar Jaime Murray in the 8 episodes of Valentine, and between then and now he played the jock father of a teenager in Life Unexpected. Clearly he can do a few things. But let’s say SO bad at acting like a temperamental, charismatic writer. Holy beans. His character simply stares at the camera and looks hurt. It’s obvious to ME that writing is his excuse for not keeping promises and not showing up to things. Most of Henry’s role in this episode is to lie to his wife, and it’s always hard for an actor to avoid looking silly when he plays a character who’s a bad actor or bad liar. But he doesn’t even seem like the right kind of bad liar. He’s temperamental but not fiery or brooding or intense in any other way. He’s like a deluded youngster, referring to being about to finish his book like a teenager refers to being about to visit his girlfriend in Montana. Nobody believes you, Henry! At least produce something we can look at.

Kristoffer Polaha as Danny Valentine

Another problem with this guy. Siobhan and Andrew have been married for five years. Only five years! Why is she having an affair with this guy? He’s whiny. He’s the same age as her husband (Polaha is 40 months younger than Ioan Gruffudd). Is there any advantage he offers over a Ioan Gruffudd character, even the smarmiest Ioan Gruffudd character? Of all the flashbacks we’re about to see, the ones I’m most curious about are the Siobhan-Henry ones. What’s the appeal? And what does he see in her? Is it purely sexual? He’s ten years too old to be misinterpreting a fling as something that would make her leave her hard-won rich husband.

Am I getting this dynamic wrong? Is he actually another rich guy who they all know is pretending to be a writer? He seems to know about investing.

* * *

Let’s address some good things about Ringer.

  1. The music. Songs with conventional structures, conventional emotions, but something unconventional about the sound. Nice to hear the Watson Twins and Laura Veirs.
  2. The “Brave New Bacon” food truck.
  3. The heart of the show is the wild-child stepdaughter subplot. “Heart” not meaning the core, but the emotional part. Bridget wants to save someone from falling because she once needed that kind of saving. And she feels especially noble because by doing this she makes Siobhan seem less heartless and bonds Siobhan’s family. This is one place where the layered identities work. Bridget rolls her eyes when emoting to Juliet, conveying a slightly mischievous “Okay, I’m going for this … this situation is so weird” to reduce the pathos. And I appreciate that we don’t get any glimpses of the Rules of Attraction-style parties Juliet is going off to. The monster in our imagination is scarier than any special effects.
  4. John Paul Karliak, the guy who plays the flamboyant party planner. He is enjoying that role and I dearly hope to see him again. His plaid shirt and paisley tie create the illusion of a bow tie in his collar’s negative space. Here he chats about his best moment in LA.
  5. The show has a budget. The parties look cheap. This is good, because decadence is bad.
  6. The moment at Andrew and Olivia’s Martin-Charles party when Bridget realizes that as Siobhan, she can order people around and be officious and unreasonable, and this can be useful. And so she shoos the FBI guy out.
  7. Bridget tries to use Siobhan’s One International Bank card, and can’t guess the PIN. It’s nice when this happens. Like in Karate Cop when John Travis is trying to guess the code that will stop the matter transporter from self-destructing, and he looks hopeless and presses a few buttons and runs away, and it actually blows up and changes his plans a little. And that’s in a post-apocalyptic wasteland, where there are real stakes to not knowing a password, where the person who devised the password is long dead.
  8. The Rope trick of having a trunk/coffin in the middle of a party. I was hoping to see some subtle reminders that it was there, and some tense passages when the ruse might be revealed through simple bad luck. Not so! The box physically draws attention to itself. Two times. Blood drips from it. A phone inside it goes off. This is so unlike the subtlety of Rope that I laughed.

This brings us back to things not to like. There are moments of real suspense. Moments? Isn’t that an bad thing? The show puts us in suspense, whether it’s a bank manager saying “Come with me, please” in a scary law-enforcement way, or Bridget saying “Wait!” before the workmen roll out a carpet she thinks has a corpse in it, or all the “The cocktail party/appointment/lunch. Don’t tell me you forgot the cocktail party/appointment/lunch, Siobhan!” moments. The suspense is resolved immediately, or at least immediately after the commercial break. Is the gradual build of suspense a cinematic thing, too leisurely for episodic entertainment? Then why do so many sitcoms rely on the gradual build of awkwardness?

Hopes for Episode 3: That we get flashbanks conveying some inkling of chemistry between Siobhan and Henry. That Gemma disappears and is replaced by John Paul Karliak as Henry’s longtime companion. That the graying buzz-cut guy who’s been stalking around like Terence Stamp in The Limey finally shoots somebody.