Category Archives: 1943

Meshes of the Afternoon (1943, Maya Deren and Alexander Hammid)

Meshes of the Afternoon is a dream within a dream within a dream within a dream. But since they’re dreams, it’s really just the one dream, I suppose. A woman–presumably, because directors Deren and Hammid shoot from her point of view during the waking segment–comes up and takes a nap. On her way home, she’s found a flower (the short opens with a hand dropping it down before disappearing… the hand, not the flower) and then dropped her key. Once she picks up the key, which has fallen down the stairs, she finds the home in disarray. She goes up stairs and takes a nap in a chair.

At this point, the actions begin to repeat. Only the woman is revealed (co-director Deren). There are some first person shots, usually reestablishing what’s changed–there’s a moving knife, a phone off the hook–but Deren is in the action shots. She moves through the house, upstairs to find herself, only to enter another dream, and another. Soon she’s chasing a hooded figure, trying to get the flower. Or she’s watching the chase.

And then there’s that house key, which soon becomes a knife and Meshes goes from being ethereally confusing to dangerously ethereal. Sort of dangerous. Because it’s never clear how aware Deren’s dream-self is of her reality. There’s never any confusion as she moves through the house, which sometimes loses gravity or has the wind inside instead of outside. There’s determination, which eventually becomes resigned determination.

Meshes is deliberate and repetitive with its visuals. It’s patient for the viewer, never rushing them along. Hammid also photographs (and costars later on in the fourteen minute short); there’s higher contrast to the exteriors than the interiors–there’s also some fantastic process shots–while the interiors are more… airy. Outside seems hot, inside seems cool. The perceptible breeze plays into it, a relief for the protagonist.

The short encourages reflection if not downright dissection–Meshes entangles itself as it moves along, giving the viewer enough time to catch up but not enough time to unravel before the next iteration.

It’s exhilarating.

3/3Highly Recommended

CREDITS

Directed by Maya Deren and Alexander Hammid; written and edited by Deren; director of photography, Hammid.

Starring Maya Deren (The Woman) and Alexander Hammid (The Man).


RELATED

Advertisements

Power of the Press (1943, Lew Landers)

Power of the Press runs a thin–not slim, but thin–sixty-four minutes. It’s paced better than expected (publicity stills suggest quite a few cut scenes); scenes never seem rushed, scenes never seem truncated. Instead, they’re just deliberate. Otto Kruger is a blue blood New York City newspaper publisher who dabbles in fascism. He couldn’t buy his way into politics, but Daddy already bought him a newspaper. Or some of one.

Guy Kibbee, in the closest thing the film’s got to a protagonist, is the new majority owner. He’s a small-town newspaper man from Nebraska who inherits that majority stake because he still cares about the news. About the freedom of the press. About democracy. About the ninety-nine percent (actual line, 1943–“fake news” gets repeated a whole lot too). Kibbee’s got his ethics and ace assistant Gloria Dickson on his side. But can they save a great metropolitan newspaper? Can they bring some clarity and truth to it?

On his side, Kruger’s got literal hitman Victor Jory and managing editor Lee Tracy. It’s unclear if Jory’s in it for the fascism or the money, but Tracy is definitely in it for the money. Robert Hardy Andrews’s screenplay (from a Sam Fuller story) has some rather decided thoughts on fascists and capitalists–and some, sadly, apt insight into how the two support one another.

The movie sets up Kruger and the paper, then brings in Kibbee. Those events take however long a round-trip train ride is from New York to Nebraska, plus a day. The rest of the movie, featuring Kruger using the newspaper to frame an innocent man, sabotage the Allied Powers a little, murder an immigrant, frame Kibbee, and whatever else, it all takes place in about a week. Maybe less. We don’t even get to see Kibbee’s apartment. It’s all at the newspaper.

Until it’s not in the third act, which is when Press hints at what might have been if it weren’t so short and so perfunctory. It’s a low budget, homefront jingoist newspaper thriller. There are crime aspects, there are conspiracy aspects. It’s a reasonably successful one too. Kibbee’s occasional dictated editorials (delivered as monologues) are definitely rousing. And they’ve got some teeth. The racists are traitors one is particularly awesome (and depressing given the film’s from 1943). Kruger’s a great villain. The way the script paces revelations into his backstory alongside a sort of intensifying villainy… Kruger’s dangerous, even though probably none of the main characters are in danger.

Tracy’s second-billed, but his part’s rather small for most of the film. He’s good. He can bark orders and he can stop and listen. There’s remnants of a romance (or at least hope of one) between him and Dickson. More time would be a subplot though and Power of the Press doesn’t do subplots.

Kibbee’s fine in the “lead.” Sometimes good, like during his monologues, but the movie sets him up as a cute old grandpa, then hints at giving him an actual part, then gives up on it to do the homefront newspaper thriller stuff.

Minor Watson is good in a minor (and uncredited) role.

The film’s adequately produced. Director Landers has some good shots, he has some bad ones. Mostly he just has adequate ones. Ditto the photography and editing. Neither impress or disappoint. They both help imply a greater world outside Press, which the budget doesn’t allow shown. Including street scenes. For a New York City-based newspaper thriller… Press didn’t even get the backlot.

It’s still thin, successful or not. Maybe it shouldn’t have gone out on such a fun third act either. From the first scene, Press is focused on being threatening enough to be serious. There’s no fun. Grandpa Kibbee doesn’t have any cute hobbies. But then in the third act, with the right scenes, the actors interact right and it gets fun. Too bad the whole thing isn’t fun. Charm wouldn’t hurt Press. Everyone in the picture’s got charm, they just barely get to employ it.

2

CREDITS

Directed by Lew Landers; screenplay by Robert Hardy Andrews, based on a story by Samuel Fuller; director of photography, John Stumar; edited by Mel Thorsen; music by Paul Sawtell; produced by Leon Barsha; released by Columbia Pictures.

Starring Guy Kibbee (Ulysses Bradford), Gloria Dickson (Edwina Stephens), Otto Kruger (Howard Rankin), Lee Tracy (Griff Thompson), Victor Jory (Oscar Trent), Rex Williams (Barker), Frank Yaconelli (Tony Angelo), and Minor Watson (John Cleveland Carter).


RELATED

Batman (1943, Lambert Hillyer)

For the majority of Batman’s fifteen chapters, the serial has a set formula when it comes to the action. Batman (Lewis Wilson) and Robin (Douglas Croft) get into fist fights with the same five or six thugs. Croft gets beat up early while Wilson takes on at least two of the villain, then two or three of the thugs beat up Wilson. They either put him in danger, triggering the chapter’s cliffhanger, or Croft just wakes up and helps him. Or, in the subsequent chapter’s resolution at the beginning, Croft wakes up and helps him.

Even on the rare occasions it’s something different, elements of the formula remain. Screenwriters Victor McLeod, Leslie Swabacker, and Harry L. Fraser don’t have much plotting ingenuity. Especially not for fifteen chapters. Other variations to the fight and cliffhanger formulas include whether or not Wilson abandons Croft to the thugs or, you know, whether or not Wilson kills someone. Sometimes he means to kill them, sometimes it’s incidental. The only time he ever stops to worry about it is when it’s bad guys–as opposed to when he kills an innocent civilian through his ineptitude–and, in that case, the bad guys turn out to be dead anyway.

Not much of a role model, this Batman, despite being an official government agent. Or, maybe, because of it.

In addition to Wilson’s careless crimefighting, he’s not really good at investigating. Despite fighting the same group of thugs throughout the serial–and even bringing some of them to his “Bat’s Cave” for rather ineffective interrogation–Batman doesn’t even discover his adversary’s identity until the final chapter. He’s dreadfully bad at his job.

The villain of Batman is J. Carrol Naish. He’s playing an evil Japanese scientist, in full yellowface. The serial is exceptionally racist. Even as wartime propaganda, Batman is a lot to take. The first chapter narration makes special mention of the just internment of Japanese Americans. It, and the way the serial’s heroes are, you know, heroic for their stupid ignorance when they meet Naish, is astoundingly gross. The racism does not, however, distract from the serial’s utter stupidity. Sometimes, though not with Naish’s thugs, it manages to be gross and stupid. Usually it’s just stupid, with occasional flakes of racism.

The worst part of it? Naish gives the best performance in the entire thing. Even though he’s a coniving villain, out to use a giant radium gun to wreck havoc (it’s actually entirely unimportant as the serial progresses), Naish gives the role a lot more characterization and personality than anyone else gives theirs’. He even figures out Batman’s secret identity at one point.

Besides Naish, the best performances are from Charles Middleton and William Austin. Middleton is a radium miner, which seems likes it’s going to be important in the middle chapters of the serial. It’s not, but it does at least give Batman a chance to get off the backlot and go on location in the mountains. Director Hillyer does a little better with those exteriors. He never does well, but he does do a little better there.

But Middleton’s not around for long and, even if he were, it’s doubtful the screenwriters would give him anything to do. Middleton as bearded, folksy mountain man brings energy to Batman, something the serial sorely lacks. Hillyer doesn’t direct the actors’ performances–at least, one hopes he doesn’t, because then it’d be even worse–and Wilson and Croft aren’t engaging. Croft even less than Wilson.

The one time Wilson and Croft do get energized is opposite Austin, who plays Alfred the butler. Austin drives Wilson and Croft around town most of the chapters, whether they’re crimefighting or not. Occasionally, he gets roped into helping them in the crimefighting, which is usually at least mildly amusing. Austin’s got fine comic timing. Timing is another thing Batman tends to lack. Editors Dwight Caldwell and Earl Turner are better than anyone else on the crew, but Hillyer’s a lousy director and James S. Brown Jr.’s photography is rarely competent. Lots of bad day for night in Batman. Lots.

Shirley Patterson plays Wilson’s love interest, who just can’t figure out why Batman is always around once Wilson leaves the room (or vice versa), and she’s got almost nothing to do. The serial treats her like an annoyance or a victim or a damsel in distress. Wilson usually just treats her like a pest, condescending or dismissing her. For a while, those moments are actually Wilson’s best as an actor. Until he puts on a fake nose and pretends to be a thug to get in with the gang. Shockingly enough, Wilson’s engaging during those scenes. It’s a downright treat when he skips the Batman costume for a chapter to (stupidly) investigate in his disguise.

Some of Naish’s thugs actually give decent performances–Robert Fiske the most, but also George J. Lewis and Warren Jackson. Competency helps a lot in Batman. There’s not much of it, so when someone isn’t terrible, it’s a big deal.

Sadly, Charles C. Wilson is atrocious as the moron police chief who occasionally pops up to answer Wilson’s questions about bad guys the Batman has apprehended. Even though Naish spends at least half the chapters assuming Batman has died (in the lame cliffhangers), he’s still too savvy to get taken down by the bumbling “heroes.”

The script has no character development, no character relationship development (it’s not like Wilson treats Patterson any differently as things go along, he always treats her like crap), it does nothing with Naish’s various schemes, just kills time. In the end, only the first two and last two chapters are relevant to the narrative. The rest could be chucked… if only we could be so lucky.

But we aren’t. And Batman trucks along, its best chapters never even registering mediocrity, Austin and Middleton’s contributions for naught, Naish’s relative success a debasement.

Though Lee Zahler does eventually get to some good music, albeit only in the last couple chapters.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Lambert Hillyer; screenplay by Victor McLeod, Leslie Swabacker, and Harry L. Fraser, based on characters created by Bob Kane and Bill Finger; director of photography, James S. Brown Jr.; edited by Dwight Caldwell and Earl Turner; music by Lee Zahler; produced by Rudolph C. Flothow; released by Columbia Pictures.

Starring Lewis Wilson (Batman / Bruce Wayne), Douglas Croft (Robin / Dick Grayson), J. Carrol Naish (Dr. Daka), Shirley Patterson (Linda Page), William Austin (Alfred Pennyworth), Gus Glassmire (Martin Warren), George J. Lewis (Burke), Robert Fiske (Foster), Charles Middleton (Ken Colton), Warren Jackson (Bernie), Dick Curtis (Agent Croft), Ted Oliver (Marshall), and Charles C. Wilson (Police Captain Arnold).


RELATED

Batman (1943, Lambert Hillyer), Chapter 15: The Doom of the Rising Sun

Titling the final chapter, The Doom of the Rising Sun, might give away whether or not J. Carrol Naish succeeds with his awful plan–which Batman never quite defines and sort of forgets about anyway. The screenwriters try to drum up some excitement as Lewis Wilson and Douglas Croft finally face off with Naish. It’s rather lackluster.

Oddly, even though the cliffhanger resolution is fairly predictable–just like the previous chapter forecasted–there’s enough built around the resolution to make the reveal nearly interesting. And it gives Croft and William Austin a decent moment.

Then Doom just turns into a rush for the finish. How fast can Austin get the cops, how fast can Wilson chase Naish, how fast can Wilson tie up the bad guys–the only time Batman and Robin prove competent in a fight and it’s the last chapter in the serial.

The last few minutes tie up plot threads from the first chapter. Nothing in between mattered much, apparently, and it goes out with Wilson being a jackass to Shirley Patterson again. It reminds why it was so nice for him to do something else for a while.

Technically, the finale doesn’t attempt much–all the action takes place on existing sets, using already introduced foils. Though it is maybe the first time Lee Zahler’s score is all right, even if it’s just momentarily.

The biggest letdown, besides Wilson’s Batman being just as much of a bigot as the narrator and the serial itself, is how little anything in between the first chapter and this final one mattered. The rest–almost ninety percent of Batman–was prattle.

CREDITS

Directed by Lambert Hillyer; screenplay by Victor McLeod, Leslie Swabacker, and Harry L. Fraser, based on characters created by Bob Kane and Bill Finger; director of photography, James S. Brown Jr.; edited by Dwight Caldwell and Earl Turner; music by Lee Zahler; produced by Rudolph C. Flothow; released by Columbia Pictures.

Starring Lewis Wilson (Batman / Bruce Wayne), Douglas Croft (Robin / Dick Grayson), Shirley Patterson (Linda Page), William Austin (Alfred Pennyworth), and J. Carrol Naish (Dr. Daka).


RELATED