Friday, January 28, 2022


Disney's animated masterpieces get rapturous acclaim; the studio's live-action movies get less love, and far less critical attention. While this is no doubt appropriate, Disney's live action flicks shouldn't be completely neglected. A few of them, like Old Yeller and Swiss Family Robinson and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and Darby O'Gill and the Little People, qualify as classics, but even apart from these, Disney's adventures and slapstick comedies of the mid-20th Century, corny and sentimental and formulaic as many of them were, formed an important part of the early moviegoing experience for kids of the '50s, '60s and '70s. Including me.

But recently I caught up with a live-action Disney I managed to miss when it came out in 1967, and again when it was re-released in the '70s: The Gnome-Mobile. It was among the last productions worked on by Walt himself, who died before its release. It's pretty hokey and syrupy, with a bouncy, cringe-inducing theme song by the Sherman Brothers that can get stuck in your head. But it has a great roster of character actors, and an environmentalist message, and it raises some startling questions that left me, for a few weeks, with an interest in the film out of scale to its triviality.

The Gnome-Mobile is about a logging tycoon (Walter Brennan) who is driving his grandkids Elizabeth and Rodney (played by Karen Dotrice and Matthew Garber, the kids from 1964's Mary Poppins) through a redwood forest in Northern California in his opulent 1930 Rolls Royce Phantom II Sedanca De Ville. They stop to have a picnic, and Elizabeth wanders off and meets a friendly young gnome named Jasper (Tom Lowell). She convinces Rodney and Gramps of Jasper's existence, and then they meet his crotchety 900-something-year-old gnome grandfather, Knobby (also played by Walter Brennan).

Jasper and Knobby are apparently the last of their kind, at least in that forest, and old Knobby has given up on life and is prepared to slip into the gnome Great Beyond. But Gramps and the kids whisk them off in the backseat of the Rolls, now designated "The Gnome-Mobile," in search of a forest with a gnome population, and in particular with some fetching and eligible young lady gnomes for Jasper to meet. Trouble arises in the form of the lumberman's conniving corporate crony (Richard Deacon), who questions the sanity of his boss, and also of a rotten showman (Sean McClory) who gnome-gnaps, and plans to exploit, the diminutive forest folk.

So it's a '60s-era Disney product; sometimes cute, sometimes treacly, maybe a little more eccentric than usual but more or less routine. Three time Oscar winner Brennan, most remembered for playing lovable cantankerous galoots in Westerns like Red River and Rio Bravo, is said to have asked, when offered any part, "With or without?" by which he meant would he play it with or without his dentures. With his dual role in The Gnome-Mobile, probably for the only time in his career, he had one of each kind in the same movie.

It was great to see the other vets in the cast, too, including Charles Lane, Jerome Cowan, Maudie Prickett, Byron Foulger, Ellen Corby, Frank Cady and the great Ed Wynn, whose final film this was.

Not long before I saw the movie, I had turned up the Gold Key comic tie-in...

...and my friend, who showed me the film, also showed me the toy Gnome-Mobile he got as a premium from Clover Club Potato Chips when he saw the movie back in the day...

...and still had in his collection. But even with all these connections, the movie probably wouldn't have rated more than a passing mention, if it hadn't been for its source.

Upton Sinclair.

That's right, The Gnome-Mobile is based on a 1936 book called The Gnomobile by Upton Sinclair, prolific muckraking socialist author remembered for his 1906 novel The Jungle, which blew the lid off conditions in the Chicago meatpacking industry, and for dozens of other vigorously leftist works, both fiction and nonfiction (Paul Thomas Anderson's There Will Be Blood was very loosely based on Sinclair's 1926 novel Oil!). In the 1920s he was a Socialist candidate for Congress from California, and three times a candidate for Governor of that state, twice as a Socialist and then, in 1934, as a Democrat (all of these campaigns were unsuccessful).

The Gnomobile is Sinclair in a lighter vein, obviously; it was written for his granddaughter Elizabeth, and he subtitles it "A Gnice Gnew Gnarrative With Gnonsense, but Gnothing Gnaughty." Still, I had to wonder how the two Walts--Disney, a staunch Republican, and Brennan, who is said to have been such a rabidly reactionary John Birch-style right-winger that he was gleeful when he heard of the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., and thought that the Watts riots should have been handled with a machine gun--felt about bringing lefty environmentalist propaganda to the screen.

So I read Sinclair's Gnomobile. It's available on Kindle, but I also obtained a 1966 paperback reprint from Tempo Books, a tie-in to the Disney movie...

This edition seems to have been slightly revised (maybe by Sinclair himself?), to avoid datedness, from the 1936 text on which the Kindle edition appears to be based; some references to "Shirley Temple" are replaced with "Jacqueline Kennedy," for instance. And the original dedication, to Sinclair's granddaughter, is changed in the reprint to "FOR ALL WHO LOVE AND PROTECT OUR FORESTS."

The story of The Gnomobile is different from that of Disney's The Gnome-Mobile in several respects. The tycoon is a minor background figure in the book; Rodney is here Elizabeth's whimsical, poetry-minded older uncle, not her brother, and it's he who drives her and the gnomes in the title vehicle. And the names of the gnomes are not Jasper and Knobby but "Bobo and Glogo"; in this, at least, the Disney version may have been an improvement.

On the whole, however, the book has a distinctive flavor that is homogenized out of the movie. Sinclair's tone has that self-consciously jocular quality which authors who normally write for adults sometimes adopt when they try their hand at writing for children. But it also has an unpredictability, an endearing sweetness, and moments of effectively deadpan humor. And Sinclair's descriptions of the various forests our heroes explore (they wander much farther than they do in the movie) have a lovely reverence.

It would be interesting to know how much Disney knew about this source material. Probably it's naive of me to imagine that the lefty tendencies of the author would have especially upset the producer; it may be, indeed, that moguls like Disney, if they thought about it at all, regarded this sort of adaptation as the most expeditious method to handle spiky material: Buy it and neutralize it into inoffensive insipidity.

This was, essentially, the process we saw dramatized in Saving Mr. Banks, where Walt and the boys do to Mary Poppins almost exactly what P. L. Travers fears they will. But that movie presented it as a positive, even redemptive experience for Travers. I wondered at the time if Travers really felt that way, and I likewise wonder if Sinclair, who died in 1968 at the age of 90, saw The Gnome-Mobile, and what he thought of it if he did.

One last note: Turns out the Rolls used in the movie now resides in the Gilmore Car Museum in Hickory Bluffs, Michigan, along with the oversized backseat set. Anyone up for a road trip?

Friday, January 21, 2022

Thursday, January 20, 2022


Alas, after more than a decade, FilmBar in Phoenix has announced its closure.

Your Humble Narrator was asked to chat about this sad passing on The Show on KJZZ this morning; you can listen to the segment here.

I'm also proud that my big three-sheet poster for Panther Girl of the Kongo (1955)...

...which I inherited from the late lamented Bill Rocz, was part of the décor at FilmBar for several years. It's currently part of the décor in my garage.

Friday, January 14, 2022


Opening this weekend...

Scream--"Ghostface" is back, skulking around the California town thus haunted periodically since the '90s, murdering youths and the occasional adult. Our heroine (Melissa Barrera), whose estranged sister is the first victim of this new spree, returns to town to probe the case, which eventually involves her with the aging characters from the earlier episodes.

Of all the worthwhile works of the late Wes Craven, his tongue-in-cheek 1996 slasher saga Scream has never been one of my favorites. It's okay, but I've always thought it was a little too pleased with itself and cute in its self-conscious "meta" deconstruction of the "rules" of the slasher genre. Also, the Big Reveal at the end always seemed to me like a slight cheat.

As I watched this fifth film in the series--another sequel; not a remake, despite the title--I also realized that (as a moviegoer, not a critic) I'm pretty well done with slasher flicks. Without here bringing any moral judgements into whether the genre is valid or not, I can say that it isn't enjoyable for me any more. I no longer have that aesthetic callousness that I had in my twenties; I can't laugh with amusement, like the young characters in this film do, while watching the depiction of beautiful young people being butchered. I keep thinking of somebody breaking the news to their parents.

In fairness it should be said that, judging by this new Scream at least, the "rules" of the slasher flick seem to have shifted a little over the last few decades. Most notably, the girls are no longer paralyzed with terror; they fight back, hard and often with success. And this helps, no doubt, but not enough for me to seek these movies out any more for my own entertainment.

All of these disclaimers are to make clear that when I say the new Scream is excellently done, it's not as a fan of either this series in particular or slasher movies in general. But on its own terms, the movie, directed by Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett from a script by James Vanderbilt and Guy Busick, is excellently done, funny and cleverly structured, with strong acting both from the youngsters in the cast and from series veterans like Courteney Cox, Neve Campbell, Heather Matarazzo, Marley Shelton and especially David Arquette, amiably dim as ever.

There's trenchant commentary here on the absurd "fan service" requirements of today's movie franchises, and the petulance of today's almost impossible-to-please fans. Early on I guessed, correctly, the identity of the killer, but that wasn't a deal-breaker for me. Also, like last year's Halloween Kills, this film is, if memory serves, much gorier than the original Scream, but I can't say I found it especially scary. That wasn't a deal-breaker either; as I've gotten older and wimpier, I'm okay with horror pictures that aren't that scary.

Wednesday, January 12, 2022


Available now from "No Festival Required":

Can You Bring It: Bill T. Jones and D-Man in the Waters--You probably shouldn't miss this excellent, absorbing performance documentary from Kino Lorber. The focus is on D-Man in the Waters, choreographed by Bill T. Jones for the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Company in New York in 1989, and regarded as a masterpiece of modern dance. Directed by Rosalynde LeBlanc in collaboration with the veteran documentary cameraman Tom Hurwitz, the film skillfully traces both the original production of the piece--a desperately leaping, strenuous response to the AIDS crisis--and a new production of it at Loyola Marymount. This new mounting is directed by LeBlanc, a former Jones/Zane Company member, with a cast of kids who don't remember the epidemic.

Talking heads, including Jones, from back in the day narrate the evolution of the Jones/Zane Company and of D-Man; at the same time we see LeBlanc struggling to get her young dancers of the social media age to generate some of the sense of anger and urgency that informed the original. Jones visits some rehearsals and gently offers input which LeBlanc and her cast deferentially accept.

The dancing we see, from both productions, is soulful and beautiful, but the people and their stories are probably even more engaging. The tone of the film is quietly joyous; still it's sobering to note that the days of the AIDS plague at its rampaging heights, which seemed so unforgettable at the time, are gradually being forgotten.

Link to it here.

On VOD...

An Exquisite Meal--A trendy Chicago couple invite several of their trendy friends over for dinner. At least two strangers crash the party. One's an electrician whose working-class status makes everybody uncomfortable; the other is an academic with a foreign accent, so he's treated like a rock star. 

Despite the host's elaborate promises of the culinary delights to come, dinner is maddeningly delayed. While they wait, the guests discuss absurdly trendy projects like yoga in war zones and artificial insemination not for fertility reasons but to allow conception with no "connotation" of rape. Before long, violence and sexual treachery are afoot.

Written and directed by Robert Bruce Carter, this indie satire on class has attractive actors and some intriguing ideas, but it doesn't come together satisfyingly. It's only about an hour long, but by the end you may be as impatient for dinner as the guests.

Thursday, January 6, 2022


The January issue of Phoenix Magazine...

...features this year's picks for "The 101 Best Dishes in the Valley." Your Humble Narrator is proud to have been one of the authors; see if you can guess my six contributions.

Below, for anyone who might remotely care, is the list of books I finished over this past year. It's an embarrassingly short list this time--not even a book a month!--and for a rather embarrassing reason: I found that my maturity level, already questionable, regressed this year, and I started devouring old comic books to a degree that cut into more substantive reading (I also lost most of a month due to an illness that left me unable to focus on reading, including a weeklong hospital stay in isolation with no reading material).

Still, there were some rich experiences; I finally got around to Babbitt, for instance, having come across an old Signet Classics copy in the take-a-book-leave-a-book shelf at a Rita's Italian Ice joint. What an extraordinary work, and later I came across a fascinating detail about the book's influence. Apparently J.R.R. Tolkien, of all freaking people, was among its admirers; he claimed that the word "Hobbit" derived from "Babbitt" because "Babbitt has the same bourgeois smugness that hobbits do. His world is the same limited place.

Anyway, here's my limited reading list:

A Journal of the Plague Year by Daniel Defoe

1922 by Stephen King

The Colorado Kid by Stephen King

The Son of Tarzan by Edgar Rice Burroughs

Cat's Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.

The Case Against Satan by Ray Russell

Babbitt by Sinclair Lewis

The Gnomobile by Upton Sinclair

Calendar of Crime by Ellery Queen

Later by Stephen King

Monday, January 3, 2022


There's been a lot of bashing of 2021 leading up to the New Year. I certainly wouldn't deny that it's been a rough 12 months, ending with passing of the great Betty White; still I'm loathe to speak too harshly of a year which has allowed me, my family, and, however precariously, my beloved country to survive, at least to fight another year.

So here's to a superb 2022. And here's my Top Ten list for the rather inauspicious movie year just past:

1. In the Heights--On balance, I don't think that any new movie I saw this year left me feeling as invigorated as this version of Lin-Manuel Miranda's pre-Hamilton musical about life in Washington Heights. Olga Merediz shines as the Abuela.

2. West Side Story--Yeah, I was skeptical too, but it really works.

3. Summer of Soul--Ahmir "Questlove" Thompson's documentary, pieced together from film of the Harlem Cultural Festival in 1969, features thrilling outdoor concert footage of Sly and the Family Stone, The 5th Dimension, Mahalia Jackson, Nina Simone, Stevie Wonder, The Staple Singers and Gladys Knight and the Pips, to name only a very few. Does anything more need to be said?

4. Belfast--Some of the sentiment doesn't register, and it's worth remembering that writer-director Kenneth Branagh's childhood point of view as a Protestant (the only point of view available to him, of course) was a good deal cozier than the Catholic point of view. Still, this is a warm, touching and beautifully-acted memory play, enriched with Van Morrison songs.

5. Nightmare Alley--The first half is livelier than the second half, but this lower-depths carny melodrama packs a final punch that the 1947 original didn't.

6. Kurt Vonnegut: Unstuck in Time--Made over more than 30 years, this documentary chronicle of the author and his friendship with director Robert B. Weide seems uncommonly intimate.

7. Zola--Probably the first movie ever based on a Twitter thread, Janicza Bravo's tale of a young stripper realizing she's been lured into a sex trafficking ring is tense and grimly funny, and it rings disturbingly true.

8. The Mauritanian--This near-Kafka-esque drama about the Gitmo-ing of Mohamedou Ould Salahi and the legal battle to free him is blood-boiling, as it should be.

9. Spider-Man: No Way Home--This all-star line-up of villains--and Spideys!--is a deep dive into the endlessly re-booting Marvel "Metaverse"; really it's an elaborate and pretty amusing joke on the common, obsessive nerd need to make every version of a pop franchise jibe with every other version of a pop franchise.

10. The Amusement Park--Completed in 1973 but not premiered until this year, George Romero's hour-long allegorical drama on the abuses suffered by the aged, produced by the Lutheran Society, has true emotional impact. It's a fine time capsule of a western Pennsylvania amusement park in the early '70s, too.

The Eyes of Tammy Faye and Dear Evan Hansen would both have made the list if they were as good overall as their lead performances. Other flicks that, however uneven or trivial, I'm not sorry I sat through this year: Joel Coen's version of Shakespeare's Scottish Play; A Quiet Place Part II; Godzilla vs. Kong; Cruella; Spencer; Werewolves Within; Flag Day; YouthMin: A Mockumentary; King Richard; Sam & Mattie Make a Zombie Movie; Don't Breathe 2; The Green Knight; The Tender Bar; Old; Blue Bayou and the slightly maligned Cinderella, among others. I should also note that there are movies I haven't caught up with yet, including Licorice Pizza and The French Dispatch, that might well have altered this list.