Tuesday, September 27, 2022

Howard Hughes, Melvin Dummar, and the American (Dollar) Dream

Jonathan Demme’s Melvin and Howard is a small movie about small people, unless you count reclusive zillionaire Howard Hughes, whose massive shadow hangs over the whole enterprise. Dennis Bingham's Whose Lives Are They Anyway? The Biopic as Contemporary Film Genre cites Melvin and Howard as the first film in the subgenre "biopic of someone undeserving.” The undeserving someone in this case is Melvin Dummar, the Utah man who, after Hughes’ death in 1976, popped up as a major beneficiary of Hughes’ vast estate by way of a mysterious handwritten will unearthed at the headquarters of the Mormon Church in Salt Lake City. The so-called Mormon Will was eventually judged a blatant forgery. But through a number of court hearings Dummar continued to insist that he’d rescued Hughes in the Nevada desert in 1967, giving a needy old man a friendly lift to Las Vegas.

 Melvin and Howard is a fanciful riff on that slice of history, taking Dummar’s story at face value. (Hollywood veteran Bo Goldman won an original screenplay Oscar for his lively telling of the tale.) It begins with a scruffy and  maniacal Howard Hughes (played with his usual panache by Jason Robards) gleefully racing his chopper through the desert, before the fun ends with a spectacular crash. Hours later, garage mechanic Dummar happens along in his truck, stops to take a leak, and discovers the fallen tycoon. Throughout their ride, Hughes remains taciturn and cranky, until the chatty Dummar gets him to singing a favorite old song, “Bye Bye, Blackbird.” At journey’s end, after Hughes reveals his identity (and borrows some cash), they go their separate ways.

 The bulk of the film is a portrait of Dummar (well played by Paul Le Mat) as a perennial dreamer, someone who can’t hold down a job but is convinced that happy days are just around the corner. He loves wife Lynda (the adorably ditsy Mary Steenburgen in her Oscar-winning role), but can’t quite seem to provide a stable life. The centerpiece of the film is the on-again off-again marriage of these two: at one point she leaves him and their daughter to work in a topless bar. Their fortunes seem to turn when he gets Lynda onto a talent-and-game show in which (despite her tap-dancing ineptitude) she wins a large sum of money, all of which Melvin quickly squanders. The romantic allure of money, as seen in this segment,  is at this film’s very heart.  The show is called Easy Street, and its smarmy host alternates between sexual innuendo and a worshipful attitude toward big bucks. It seems all too apt that Lynda’s tap routine is performed to the Rolling Stones’ “Satisfaction.”

 If you’re Melvin Dummar—a laid-back guy convinced that life on Easy Street awaits if only you believe hard enough—it’s perfectly likely that Howard Hughes would leave you a fortune. The question of the mysterious will continued to dog the real Dummar’s life, which ended in 2018. Melvin and Howard, though, concludes long before that, returning to the footage of two unlikely buddies, an old man and a young one, joyfully belting out an old musical-hall tune. 

 I worked briefly with Jonathan Demme in 1974, when he’d just returned from directing his first film, Caged Heat, for Roger Corman’s New World Pictures. He moved on to some studio gigs, but Melvin and Howard was his true breakthrough, showing off his skill at capturing American life and moving him toward the big pictures, like 1991’s The Silence of the Lambs. (I’ll mention in passing his sharp ear for musical scoring.) Unfortunately he left us much too soon.  


Friday, September 23, 2022

Two Who Only Live Once

No, You Only Live Once is not one-half of a James Bond movie. (Sorry about that!) Instead it’s an early film noir, dating back to 1937, about an ill-fated couple who hit the road after the husband’s violent escape from prison. There’s a long tradition in Hollywood of movies that focus on lovers who share a passion for fast cars and lives of crime. When I was coming into my own as a film enthusiast, the unforgettable flick was Bonnie and Clyde, which used the story of two actual Depression-era bank robbers to celebrate the audacity and the undying love of  a doomed pair. Admirers of Bonnie and Clyde tend to think back to films like 1950’s Gun Crazy for a similarly enticing blend of love, sex, and violence.

 But earlier “lovers on the lam” movies, like 1948’s They Live By Night, treat crime sprees with less exuberance. Their emphasis is on social wrongs that trap basically good-hearted lovers in nightmarish situations from which violence seems the only escape. I was interested to see this hold true in You Only Live Once, the second Hollywood film of the great Austrian director Fritz Lang., whose early credits included Expressionist masterpieces like Metropolis and M. Top-billed in You Only Live Once is Sylvia Sidney, a long-lived star who would be nominated for an Oscar more than thirty years later, as Best Supporting Actress for Summer Wishes, Winter Dreams. In You Only Live Once, she’s Joan, an efficient, ebullient career gal, working for a local public defender who adores her. To his dismay, she’s head-over-heels about a young convict, who’s just won release after his third prison stint. As played by rising star Henry Fonda, Eddie is an earnest young man who’s survived a rough upbringing. Ashamed of his past misdeeds, he’s determined to marry Joan and embark on a life of sober domestic bliss.

 After a joyous homecoming, Eddie’s problems continue to mount. Though he’s been promised a steady job as a truckdriver, his unsympathetic boss finds an easy excuse to fire him. A search for another position turns futile: no one wants to trust a guy with a prison record, no matter how much he’s determined to keep to the straight and narrow. (It’s the Depression, of course, so all jobs are scarce, but the film also seems to condemn a system that offers no constructive support to those who’ve left prison walls behind.)

 For Eddie, desperate to support himself and his wife, a return to crime seems to be the only alternative. But when a local bank robbery results in several deaths he swears he had nothing to do with it. No matter: he’s tried and convicted, ending up on Death Row.

 While loyal Joan struggles to free him, his execution date nears. A last-minute exoneration by the governor ironically results in more tragedy, including the death of one of Eddie’s most selfless supporters. Soon he and Joan are fleeing into the hinterlands, living as best they can. (Somewhere in there, Joan has a baby, without ever seeming to have been pregnant or in labor: the Thirties was a great decade for sweeping physical reality under the rug.)

 You Only Live Once isn’t raw and exciting, like such later lovers-on-the-lam films as Badlands and Thieves Like Us. Instead it’s heart-wrenchingly sad, with the intense Fonda and the vivacious Sidney suggesting to the viewer how human potential is wasted when basically good people are trapped by circumstances beyond their control. All they want is to live and love . . . but you only live once.


Tuesday, September 20, 2022

The Lincoln (Theatre) Log

A hundred years ago, when movie houses were a brand-new phenomenon, many of them became the centerpieces of their communities, places where locals could gather to laugh and cry over what they saw on screen. Via the hard work of the L.A. Conservancy, Los Angeles has managed to preserve some of its onetime movie palaces, particularly on Downtown’s Broadway. The Conservancy’s “Last Remaining Seats” film series, featuring movie classics and related stage presentations, has been around for 35 years. Happily, it has returned, following 2 years of pandemic closures, allowing Angelenos to watch old favorites in such pristine (and hugely historic) venues as the Orpheum, the Los Angeles Theatre, and the elegant United Artists. I was last at the Orpheum, home of a mighty Wurlitzer organ,  several years ago, introducing an excited seven-year-old to Laurel and Hardy (and the pie fight to end all pie fights). It was one of my favorite afternoons of all time.

 Small towns may not have had the wherewithal to support gargantuan movie palaces, complete with elegant lounges and “crying rooms” for babies and their mothers. Still, many towns had their own movie houses, which quickly became the center of local lives. A lot of these are gone now, having fallen victim to real estate booms and urban decay. In some cases, the old marquees (and quaint glassed-in ticket booths) survive, but not the theatres themselves. But I’m always cheered when I come across a classic movie house from the 1920s, one that still fulfills a need within its community.

 I found one such recently in Mount Vernon, Washington, a cozy town at the heart of Skagit County, not far outside of Seattle. This amiable community features on its main street a cooperative health-food market, some artists’ ateliers, artisanal coffee places (of course!), and boutiques. But I was drawn to the Lincoln Theatre, dating back to 1926, and thriving now as the county’s historic performing and cinematic arts center.

 The Lincoln Theatre began life as a vaudeville house that also screened silent movies. (Yes, it too boasts a Wurlitzer organ.) For years it featured first-run films, but in 1987 a community foundation purchased the place and  began using it for local events. The shutdown of the pandemic years allowed for a throughgoing refurbishing, designed to return the Lincoln to its original glory. Now it hosts—in addition to movies—local youth theatre performances, touring musicians, live-opera screenings from the MET, a Voices of the Children festival, and other well-attended gatherings. (And, yes, also the Skagit Drag Show, scheduled to take place not long before Halloween.) On the afternoon I was there, a local volunteer proudly showed me around, while her colleagues bustled to prepare for that evening’s Spoken Word presentation, It was to feature Washington State poet laureate Rena Priest, an Indigenous woman with strong environmental interests. Everyone seemed excited about the audience participation aspect of Priest’s appearance, which would encourage the audience to join in by making their own salmon-related poems.

 The lobby of the Lincoln has been expanded to include the inevitable wine and coffee bar, but you can also go old-school, munching on freshly-made popcorn. Gazing around at the framed copies of “News of Screen and Studio,” I saw big ads for Boris Karloff in Frankenstein and Barbara Stanwyck in  Forbidden at the Lincoln. Today’s presentations aren’t quite so splashy, I suspect, but the Lincoln continues to fulfill its role in both amusing and enlightening audiences who come all the way from Seattle and Vancouver for good hometown entertainment. And you can’t ask for much more than that.